Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary

A playbook for strategic designers (Strelka Press, 2012)

Q. What connects Bryan Ferry and Cedric Price, dark matter and Hitchcock’s “Macguffin”, Trojan Horses and iPhones, 21st century social contracts and street food, the Brisbane floods and the UK riots, Occupy Everywhere and institutional redesign, whilst making bold claims about a relevant future for design and finding time for a quick pop at the “design thinking” movement?

A. My book for Strelka Press about strategic design! (Note: available print-on-demand and e-book, as well as in all good—well, some — bookshops.)

A couple of weeks ago Russell Davies sent me a review of a talk by writer Neal Stephenson. Russell was aware of my interest in appropriating the concept of dark matter after I floated the idea at Arkwright’s Mill last summer, for our Laptops and Looms event.

In fact, said Stephenson, we already have much of the fundamental technology we need to fulfil such science fiction ambitions as large scale solar power production, or routine space flight. Instead, he said, we need to start looking at the non-technological obstacles to these advances, citing insurance as a key example. The development of alternative space launch systems has been curtailed by the unwillingness of the insurance industry to underwrite satellite launches on systems for which there is no good model of the risk involved. Turning to the audience of mostly MIT students, Stephenson said “maybe some of you people need to go into the insurance industry instead of writing code.” The response was nervous laughter.

“Nervous laughter”. That’s often a sign that an edge has been detected, that we’re in uncharted waters, that we’re beyond precedent or habit, outside our comfort zone.

Funnily enough, that kind of response is partly why we pursue strategic design at Sitra, as Stephenson is describing a kind of practice with includes redesigning contexts — in this case, organisations, insurance and legislation — rather than solely addressing “technology”. And few people are genuinely trying to connect these things together; to understand, clarify and address complex opportunities holistically. Stephenson understands that the problem is rarely technology — or “the idea” — but it is the surrounding context, the thing that makes something happen. Or not. And we need to design that context if we want, say, large scale solar production to happen.

So I’ve written a short book, called Dark Matter & Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary, to begin to sketch this emerging area for design. It would be lovely if you found the time to read and assess, critique or discuss, and ideally, appropriate.

Here’s the synopsis of the essay from the Strelka Press website:

We live in an age of wicked problems, whether it’s climate change or the decline of the welfare state. With conventional solutions failing, a new culture of decision-making is called for. Strategic design is about applying the principles of traditional design to “big picture” systemic challenges such as healthcare, education and climate change. It redefines how problems are approached and aims to deliver more resilient solutions. In this short book, Dan Hill outlines a new vocabulary of design, one that needs to be smuggled into the upper echelons of power. He asserts that, increasingly, effective design means engaging with the messy politics — the “dark matter” — taking place above the designer’s head. And that may mean redesigning the organisation that hires you.

Those are not my words, but in my essay I’d argue this is a good place for design to be. In fact, it might be the best place for design, if not the only place that design can genuinely make a difference.

I also argue that we desperately need to make a difference, given last year’s “Peak News” events, from the focused and organised incursions of Occupy Everywhere to the unprecedented, emergent and chaotic UK riots, from the rapid sweeps of the Arab Spring to the numbing stasis of the Eurozone Crisis, from the party-political-posturing stand-off over budget ceilings in Washington DC to the very real stand-offs in the streets of Moscow. When I wrote the essay (November-December 2011) Italy and Greece, both cornerstones of European civilisation, where being run by unelected technocrats, an implicit challenge to the very idea of democracy itself.

What on earth does design have to do with all this? Well, read the essay … but given that we are approaching these new kinds of issues — these deep stress fractures in our established cultures of decision-making — in exactly the same way we approached older, simpler problems, we should not be surprised that they are no longer working. Should we not be exploring different responses, developing frameworks more attuned to thinking holistically, to collaboration, to prototyping and iteration, deploying synthesis rather than simple analysis?

Equally, the essay suggests we have to make a more meaningful case for design — without which we are largely left “sticking lipstick on the pig”, as we charmingly say in Britain. Architecture, for example, is horribly, almost fatally constrained by its current positioning and practice. Its inability to reinvent its context, its industry, its practice and its purpose means it continues to fall far, far short of the claims it makes for itself, and indeed its true potential. (With some very honorable exceptions.) And much the same could be said for much of the rest of design. So design has problems of its own to solve too.

Lest this all sound a little turgid, note that all of the characters mentioned in the first line above are in there, along with others. And yes, it makes the time for a little critique of the ‘design thinking’ movement, and to some extent questions the efficacy of the design consultancy model.

Where the first book from SDU concentrated on the idea of using the studio concept to open up the right questions, this essay is a bridge, concentrating more on “what next?” How do you get things done, in this kind of different context for design?

We call this facet of design ‘stewardship’ in the team, and the essay is framed as a sort of tentative playbook of tactics, strategies and other approaches that might trigger useful thoughts, adaptations or discussions (Note it is not the kind of playbook that is to be simply enacted, but one to be interpreted.)

So, for instance, such plays include basic tactics for addressing ‘dark matter’, such as appropriating the ideas of the Trojan Horse or Alfred Hitchcock’s MacGuffin for the Low2No sustainable development competition. And yes, there’s an anecdote in there about how Bryan Ferry gave me some of the best — well, most succinct anyway — design advice I ever received.

For more of a flavour, I’ll shortly post a couple of off-cuts which didn’t make the final e-book.

The essay is published as part of the splendid new e-books series on Strelka Press. Strelka is one of the sharpest new(ish) design schools in Europe, and the series is edited by the excellent Justin McGuirk. I was happy to be in good company, with other texts by some of my favourite writers, including Keller Easterling, Owen Hatherley, Sam Jacob, Alexandra Lange, Julia Lovell, and Justin himself.

As with much of Strelka’s activities, the format of the series is also an experiment. I haven’t had much to do with the model, but it’s pitched at a price-point accessible to students whilst, through Amazon, making the discourse widely available outside of the school, which opens up the possibility of further readers for the Bryan Ferry anecdote I’ve shoehorned in there.

The series also looks great on e-book apps, by the way—credit to OK/RM for their graphic design; it hints at what one might be able to do with cover design in this format:

Thanks to Strelka Press for publishing the series. And many, many thanks to Justin for asking me to write it in the first place, and to both him and Chris Hall for their patient, careful and insightful editing. And thanks to Sitra, and particularly my colleagues Bryan Boyer, Justin Cook and Marco Steinberg.

And finally, thanks also to Bryan Ferry, of course. Now for the product placement, in Amazon.co.uk (Kindle or paperback) or Amazon.com (Kindle or paperback.

If you valued this piece, please recommend it — in other words, press below, so that others may find it too. This article was originally published at cityofsound.com on August 8, 2012.