Essay: Innovative Nostalgia – Designing the Future by Referring to the Past
A battle is underway between designers and engineers; at stake is the design of our technological future. It rages subtly like a moorland fire. Koert van Mensvoort adds fuel to the flames, but also offers a solution.
The impact of new technology on our lives is hard to overestimate. These days, design begins at the level of bits, atoms, neurons and genes. 3D printing has become common property, it’s the new bamboo. Augmented reality drapes a layer of information over our existence. Social media are reprogramming the fabric of our society. Your bathroom scale communicates with your smart phone. And the first lab-grown hamburger has been served. Researchers are working on a 3D organ tissue printer to tackle the shortage of donors. The ‘made’ and the ‘born’ are fusing. Nano-, bio-, and information technology generate a new kind of aesthetic and provide new construction kits for our living environment. Meanwhile the vanguard of cultural design is boiling Brussels sprouts.
3D printing has become common property, it’s the new bamboo.
In recent years the (so-called progressive and forward-thinking) cultural design vanguard has shown its most conservative side. Furniture made of scrap wood, hand-spun blankets, forgotten vegetables on a menu board written in chalk. The crisis is ongoing and the designers take us back to grandmother’s time when everything was, after all, so much better. Far from the angry world of change. Back in the hand-knotted cocoon of tradition and nostalgia.
Meanwhile the technological revolution marches merrily on wards. In our everyday living environment, technology has now become so ubiquitous, complex and autonomous that we are starting to experience it as a nature in itself. At railway stations the public transport pass chip-scanning poles are shooting up like mushrooms in the most illogical places. The food in the supermarket has become medicinal. Toddlers think that a magazine is a broken tablet PC. Instead of giving shape to these developments, the cultural design vanguard has stuck its head in the sand and retreated to a nostalgic comfort zone – which unfortunately is only accessible to the upper middle class.
Technology has become so ubiquitous that we are starting to experience it as a nature in itself
Designers appeared to have liberated themselves from the age-old preconception of them as merely insubstantial beautifiers, called in right at the end of a process – long after the marketing department had determined the strategy – to provide the end product with an attractive veneer of design. Henceforth design would also relate to processes, services and even rituals. Everything in our constructed environment is subject to design and thus the scope of design had become virtually infinite. Unfortunately the lack of interest or even aversion to new technology indicates that design has reverted to its old reflexes. Designers continue to be the cheerful boys and girls who don’t bake the cake themselves, but only provide it with the icing. More and more frequently that icing tastes of parsnip, but it remains icing.
The design of the technological domain is being left to the engineers. This is a huge mistake. Why? Because that domain is precisely where the designers are sorely needed. While engineers are above all very good at making things that function flawlessly, design is a profession in which sensory perception, intuitive capacity and socio-cultural awareness are basic qualities. And precisely these qualities are of paramount importance in the design of our technological future.
While technology is supposed to serve to us, it does sometimes feel as if we serve technology
Believe me, I should know. Although I myself studied computer science and art, I’ve been teaching for about ten years at the Eindhoven University of Technology. Now, I can tell you that people at a Technical University really know a lot about technology. There are buildings in which they make nanostructures for solar panels, buildings where heart valves are grown from tissue, buildings where inscription algorithms are developed. All of which is wonderful. But let’s be honest, design at a Technical University will always remain an unwanted child. Physicists, chemists and mathematicians have an unjust and persistent tendency to look down on the lack of exactness in the design field. Instead of explaining that good design is so complex that it cannot just be summed up in a simple formula, and that the more exact professions might learn something from this as their own material becomes more complex, the designers on campus – who, incidentally, prefer to call themselves design researchers – display compensatory behavior by talking about their profession in very exact and analytical terms. That translates into a great many analyses and user tests, which are subsequently published in unfathomable articles. Is that useful? Perhaps. Is it design? No.
A thriving design practice at a Technical University remains awkward. The analytical qualities are exceptional, but we are barely able to simply make good designs. And we are totally incapable of actually designing. Virtually everything designed by the students on design courses at the Dutch Technical Universities looks like it came from a Star Wars film. You know, like those 3D printed objects with too many LED lights and exaggerated superfluous forms that mostly appear to scream: ‘Look! I’ve been designed!’, and in which an inadequately developed sense of form is shouted down by naive enthusiasm. Now I don’t want to blame the students, it’s because of the teachers: sensitivity to form is nowhere to be found among the teaching staff. Myself included, because I remember all too well from my time at art college that my purely aesthetic design skills are mediocre at best. But then in the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. And so, it is possible that our technological environment will be designed by a bunch of would-be designers or technical engineers with more good intentions than talent for design. And the rest of the design world just looks on and puts another pan of sprouts on to boil.
Should we slam on the brakes and return to grandmother’s time, or can we embrace technology in the hope that it will solve all our problems?
A moorland fire is raging, an underground battle between designers and engineers, at stake: our future. Should we slam on the brakes and return to grandmother’s time, or can we embrace technology in the hope that it will solve all our problems? Here after I shall propose a ceasefire, but let us first attempt to understand why designers don’t just happily participate in the technologization. You see, good reasons for this are conceivable. Every person on the planet, not only in the western world, has to deal with radical technological changes throughout her or his life. Sometimes these are delightful and liberating, but also often confusing, uncomfortable and alienating. For many of us the pace of change is in fact too rapid. If you nod off for just a moment, it feels as though you’ve been lying in a coma for months. Then suddenly you can no longer buy a roll of film anywhere. Train tickets are nowhere to be found either. So you stand there bleeping with your chip card, which you invariably forget to check out. While technology is supposed to serve to us, it does sometimes feel as if we serve technology. And that is also partly the case. Technology seems to have become an autonomous force that wants to evolve, if possible to the greater glory of humanity, but if necessary, and just as easily, at the cost of our human potency.
So designers are actually quite right to not unquestioningly way to the technological might of the Googles, Microsofts and Media Markts. There is an urgent need for a reflective counter movement and designers could play a leading role therein. Unfortunately the cultural design vanguard demonstrates little appetite for taking up arms and joining the fray.The nostalgic designers are like an eighteen-year-old girl who has closed her Facebook account and hung up a tablecloth at school with the title ‘Facedoek’, onto which she’s pasted all her photos. An extremely sympathetic act of resistance. Hip too. Art perhaps. But at the end of the day it remains a marginal gesture.
Technology seems to have become an autonomous force that wants to evolve, at the cost of our human potency
An obvious example of a sector in which the battle between designers and engineers is occurring is in food, or food design. Though we hardly realize it, absolutely every aspect of our food is designed. Not just the packaging, but the color of the salmon and the sound of the frankfurter are also the result of human decisions. Whereas the culturally conscious design vanguard concentrates on biological and, if possible, locally produced ‘real’ food, it is the engineers who, by order of the Unilevers and Albert Heijns of this world, design the medicinal milk, microwave meals and genetically modified tasteless tomatoes. While the vanguard of design serves the upper middle class with incredibly delicious but also expensive forgotten vegetables, the rest of the population eats microwave meals.
Don’t get me wrong, the nostalgic attachment to tradition, familiarity and reliability is not only understandable, but also justified. The only problem is that the expression of that longing is all too often purely conservative and uninformed. That is incompatible with a group of people who regard themselves as progressive, forward-thinking or even avant-garde. There seems to be a certain amount of schizophrenia among the professional group: on the one hand designers are keen to be associated with a fresh, open view of the future, but simultaneously they quench their thirst mainly with a naivenostalgia for the past. That has got to stop. Grandmother’s time was not better, dear designer. Emerge from your melancholic cocoon and help us to advance.
Now, enough criticism. Let me try to be constructive and attempt to come up with a solution. I wish to propose that the inconsistency between the desired progressiveness and nostalgia should not be removed, but actually made into a force, or more than that, a design method. We’ll christen this method: innovative nostalgia. Though you might think that nostalgia is conservative by definition, I believe it is also possible to be progressively nostalgic.How then? By not simply deploying the nostalgic longing reactively, but indeed proactively: nostalgia as a strategy by which to make the strangeness of new technology understandable.
Innovative nostalgia combines an understanding of the future with proven qualities of the past
Innovative nostalgia combines an understanding of the future with proven qualities of the past. Designers could very consciously seek ways to translate existing values, traditions and intuitions into a contemporary form. It is not the intention hereto straight out copy the historical element, but to transform it into a modern-day incarnation.Because the innovative nostalgia design approach was only introduced a few sentences ago, it is not yet littered with examples. Still, we do see that the method, whether consciously or not, is already being applied. An obvious example is the walnut bookcase in the iBooks app on your iPad, which has made digital books accessible for a large public by referring to the trusty bookcase.Other examples are the analogue recreation of a digital clock by Maarten Baas, the Wifi Dowsing Rod by Mike Thompson, which helps people locate Wifi networks with the aid of a digital dowsing rod, the Dune installation by Daan Roosegaarde, who transforms a stroll through the reeds into a hi-tech experience, or the celebrated Bone Chair by Joris Laarman, who subtly reminds us that a chair is actually an extension of the human skeleton. A beautiful pavilion was recently created at the MIT in Boston, ‘3D printed by silkworms’. Looking back, the architecture of Gaudi could be regarded as innovative nostalgic before the term existed, because he understood like no other architect that people are genetically accustomed to living in caves, and he put that into his architecture. And there are also possibilities for innovative nostalgia looking to the future. Imagine earthenware from the 3D printer. Hand-knitted cultured meat. An electric vintage car. Genetically revived extinct vegetables. Perfume that can be swallowed which mixes with your own body odour. Carrier pigeons that bring round memory cards with sensitive information.Organic farming with no pesticides or seasonal labour, but with agricultural robots that sow, tend and harvest the plants – naturally powered by solar energy and entirely CO2-neutral.
Though it is still an art to find the right balance and avoid the pitfall of kitsch, innovative nostalgia can be employed to provide new phenomena with a historical context. We humans simply feel more comfortable with technological change when it comes in a familiar form that refers to an existing and accepted object, habit, value, tradition or intuition. The idea of nostalgia can be interpreted broadly. It might refer to a phenomenon from your childhood, grandmother’s time, or even to the ancient history of humanity –for example, imagine the ‘nostalgic’ grilling of meat over a fire, which can be interpreted more as a genetic memory than a reminiscence of childhood.
By designing with innovative nostalgia, designers can not only position themselves in a high-speed technological world, but also actively contribute to making that world more humane, familiar, enjoyable and richer. Instead of fighting a rearguard action, the present and past are linked together. Grandmother’s time is still relevant as a source of inspiration, but it does need to be transformed. The future has already started. So come on, let’s get that nostalgia going forward now!
This essay was originally published in Dutch Design Yearbook 2013.
Top image: Casa Milá by Gaudi.