(Re)Introducing the Viridian Design Movement

If you’d never heard of Viridian Design, this guide is where you should start

One of the perils of organizing a retrospective about a somewhat narrowly-focused design movement is that not everyone knows what you’re talking about. One of the perils of being a design movement is that eventually your reign comes to an end and you become an object of study. In the spirit of both these perils, we’ve put together this brief syllabus for a course studying Viridian Design.

Module 1: The Background

We begin with an overview of Viridian Design, an avant-garde bright green design movement, focused on addressing climate change, that ran 1998-2008. Starting with Sterling’s self-definition, we consider the shape of the project.

We’re an art movement that looks like a mailing list, an ad campaign, a design team, an oppo research organization, a laboratory, and, perhaps most of all, we resemble a small feudal theocracy ruled with an iron hand by a Pope-Emperor.

Activities

  1. Write a short reflection. What kind of art movement is this, anyway?
  2. Pick another art movement (see instructor for a list). Construct a Venn diagram comparing the movement to Viridian.
  3. Re-enact Sterling’s launch speech in public, adjusting the examples and topics for today (is this possible? why/why not?).

Module 2: Viridian Design Principles

We read Sterling’s 3rd note which details the Viridian Design principles, listed and summarized below. This is the longest module as we get into the details that drive Viridian designs.

Futurist Principles

  1. Eat what you kill. Before superseding or obsoleting some old practice, it is important to fully understand what you are destroying. Compare to: Move fast and break things.
  2. Avoid the Timeless, Embrace Decay. Nothing lasts, so it is important to design for the end of an object’s lifecycle. When your thing breaks, what will happen to the parts? Harness and even aestheticize rot, rust, and decay. Compare to: Cradle to cradle design.
  3. Planned Evanescence. When an object ends its inevitable usefulness or is replaced by something better, it should disappear without a trace. Compare to: Planned obsolescence.
  4. The Future is History — Be When You Are. Viridian design understands that one can only act upon the present and warns against dangerous romanticism for the past or future. Compare to: Futurists, golden age nostalgia, Steampunk.
  5. History Accumulates. Every generation has more history than the one previous. This constitutes a resource, a ‘compost heap’ to be managed. We need better tools for this. Compare to: Radical breaks with the past, archives and archivists.

Moral Principles

  1. Look at the Underside. The number of people paid to promote a product’s finest features far exceeds those tracking down the bugs and problems. So designers should work to correct this imbalance. Compare to: Tech press, customer rants on social media.
  2. Design For Evil. There are a lot of dangerous people out there. Some have access to their own police state and army. A designer who does not plan for this is naive. Compare to: Internet utopias, street finding its own use, dual-use tech.
  3. Design for the Old. The average age in most of the world is climbing steadily. To ignore this demographic trend is to ignore a significant slice of your users. Compare to: Youth culture, the coveted 18-35 demographic, demographics in non-Western countries.
  4. Superstition Isn’t Inspiration. Warns against seeking substitutions for experimental verification and reproducible results. Warns against mistaking the promptings of the unconscious for creative insight. Compare to: Oblique Strategies, user testing.

Political Principles

  1. Viridian Inactivism. Activism is an attention hog. It is often more efficient to just stop doing the things that are intensifying problems.Compare to: Occupy, the Tea Party, Arab Spring, the limits of individual action to address systemic problems, globe-trotting environmentalists.
  2. Do Less With Less. Alternative sources of energy may help, but it’s easier to just use less energy. What exactly are we doing at the moment that is worth ruining the climate for? Relax.” Compare to: Sterling’s ‘hairshirt green’, monastic living.
  3. There’s No One So Green As the Dead. By the very act of breathing, every human contributes to CO2 emissions. Any attempt at sustainability must grapple with this. Compare to: Voluntary simplicity.

Principles of the Avant-technogarde

  1. The Biological Isn’t Logical. Design aesthetics tend to follow the dominant tech of the period; “in an age of aviation, even pencil-sharpeners are streamlined.” Accordingly, Viridian design should be biologically-inspired which means strange offshoots pruned back from time to time. Compare to: Modernism, minimalism, arts and crafts, bio-mimicry.
  2. Augment Reality: Aestheticize All Sensors. As more and more things get sensors, we are going to be faced with increasingly unmanageable data streams. The presentation of this info will be of utmost aesthetic concern. Compare to: Smart cities, ubi-comp, Edward Tufte.
  3. Make the Invisible Visible. We have more access to visual tools that our forebears. This should be exploited to Viridian ends. If carbon dioxide were blood-red, our skies would look ominous indeed.” Compare to: Persuasive design, feedback mechanisms.
  4. Less Mass, More Data. As much as possible, physical resources should be replaced with information. This is not just digitizing everything, it’s also using information to care for things. “If you always know where something is, you don’t have to chain it up…If it pops up and vanishes repeatedly on signal, it doesn’t have to take
    abuse.” Compare to: brick and mortar stores, matter battles.
  5. Tangible Cyberspace. On the other hand, Viridian seeks a closer relationship between the digital and physical, introducing computation into the physical structure of the world. “We seek to make the screen permeable, and to turn ‘computers’ into worldly, sensual entities.” Compare to: Mobile phones, Arduino and similar, wearables, geo-textiles.
  6. Seek the Biomorphic and the Transorganic. Nature is over. There is no part of the planet that has not felt humanity’s touch. Accept and extend this. “We want to know what a flower means when a flower has onboard processing, amped-up genetics, and its own agenda.” Compare to: Next Nature, preservation efforts, Superfund clean-up sites.
  7. Datamine Nature. Return to nature for inspiration but at a deep level. “There is a wealth of aesthetic novelty to be found in previously invisible aspects of nature, such as cellular metabolism, noninvasive medical imaging, hybridomas and chimeras, artificial life entities, and chemosynthetic life forms” Compare to: bioluminescent rabbits, bio-mimic jewellery.
  8. Grow Complexity. It is easy to generate artworks of great complication. Viridians seek to push this to its limits, tastefully. Compare to: Brian Eno, street art.

Research Principles

  1. Walk Through the Walls of Knowledge Guilds. The socially constructed lines that divide disciplines sometimes entrench power. Viridians seek to serenely ignore these walls. “You can take photographs, plant listening devices and leave. If you choose, you can step outside the boundaries history makes for you.” Compare to: Expertise, professional associations, holding multiple careers.

Activities

  1. Sterling says he’s looking for additional principles and addenda. Propose some of your own.
  2. Design an object or service that adheres to at least three of these principles. The more, the better. Do these principles make it easier or harder to design for a particular group?

Module 3: Viridian Context

Having examined the design principles, we step back and consider the context in which the movement arose.

Readings (TBD) will cover Y2K fears, millennial cultism, the lead up to September 11th 2001, previous environmental movements, late 90s direct action environmentalism and eco-terrorism, the Whole Earth Catalog, Wired magazine, the dotcom boom and crash, the Global Climate Coalition, the Enron scandal, previous design movements,the first Earth Day, the fight against acid rain and ozone layer depletion, cyberpunk science fiction.

Activities

  1. Prepare a short summary of one of these readings.
  2. Create a concept map detailing Viridian’s allies and enemies. Where are they now?

Module 4: Designing a Design Movement

Beyond the specific content as an environmentalist art movement, we consider the meta-aspects of the project; the idea that an art movement is something that can be designed. We begin with the outline presented in the launch speech and then move to consider the documentary evidence in the collected Viridian notes. Your instructor will work with you to divide up these readings.

Activities

  1. Compare the Viridian features with the features of another art or design movement.
  2. Was the Viridian movement successful? What do you mean by successful?
  3. Examine the design of the Viridian movement in terms of the Viridian design principles covered in Module 2. To what extent does it adhere to or deviate from these principles?

Module 5: Endings

All things come to an end. We consider the timing and manner in which Sterling brought the project to a close with The Last Viridian Note and some of the lessons learned.

Activities

  1. Write a short piece arguing for or against Sterling’s decision to close the project down four years ahead of schedule.
  2. Your instructor will offer you a list of people representative of different demographics. Does the approach towards object ownership that Sterling advocates work for them?
  3. Catalog and purge your possessions in the manner advocated by Sterling. Submit a photo essay about this experience.

Module 6: Final project (pick one)

  1. Design your own design movement.
  2. Create a month-long multi-author retrospective that attempts to understand, catalog, and respond to Viridian in its multitudes.

This post is part of 5 Viridian Years, a month-long re-examination of science-fiction author and design critic Bruce Sterling’s attempt to engineer an avant-garde bright green design movement in the dying days of the 20th century. Five years after the project ended, we are revisiting its goals, methods, impacts, and offshoots. Want to take part? Contact tim@quietbabylon.com.

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