There is a tacit language held within every designed object we encounter. As consumers of physical products we understand – often consciously – that objects embody all sorts of references and qualities, such as safe, clean, reliable, futuristic, fashionable, hi-tech, manufactured, bespoke, corporate, ethnic, male or female. These messages are delivered through design, a common language that everyone understands.
Self-described ’technology idealists’ Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby are seeking to harness this design literacy to pose questions about how our use of technology might affect our lives in the future.
Design is seldom used to ask hypothetical questions about wider social issues or the moral conundrums arising from changes in science and technology. But since forming Dunne & Raby in the mid-1990s, the pair have used their grounding in design to create physical objects that propose difficult questions about the impact, use, control and distribution of new technologies.
’For us, product design is a medium to explore ideas,’ says Dunne. ’We use the language of popular design and industrial processes, which people can relate to, to reflect back the types of questions they might normally expect to find in art.’
Both Dunne and Raby lecture at the Royal College of Art in London, where Dunne has led the Design Interactions course since 2005. Many of the same lines of investigation are to be found on this course, which blurs the boundaries between design, art, science and academic investigation.
As a consultancy, Dunne & Raby works with industry, usually with companies that see value in a freer, more questioning approach to the future use of technology in society. It is clear the pair feel most engaged when dealing with thoughtful, discursive ideas, free from commercial objectives. Although this is partly because, as Raby notes, much of their work undertaken for industry is restricted by non-disclosure agreements and so cannot be openly discussed.
In an exhibition of new work, created for the 2010 Saint Etienne International Design Bienniale, Dunne & Raby will present a series of ’possible futures’ built around subjects as broad as synthetic biology, ethics and multiculturalism, neurotechnology and euthanasia. Four scenarios portray fictional futures where certain technological applications, all feasible, have caused society to change in some way. The exhibits ask: Is this good or bad? Do we want this? How and why might we end up here?
Writer Alex Burrett and photographer Jason Evans collaborated with Dunne & Raby to visualise these futures, introducing outline characters and mildly unsettling narratives. The scenarios are clearly fictional and not intended as predictions of, or designs for, the future. So in what way is the work a design project, as opposed to a science fiction vignette?
’The objects we create are a fiction, and often we’re sliding towards science fiction, but they are designed to look realistic and mundane. If we move too far away from that it becomes more like sculpture or art,’ says Dunne. Raby elaborates, saying, ’Design can show the ordinariness and banality of objects, so the scenes are plausible enough to contain their own questions and contradictions.’
For Dunne, this work uses design to access our ’consumer side’ – our understanding of the language of designed products – and to engage our ’citizen side’ to think about their impact. ’In society, it’s not until we buy things that they become real. And, in terms of changing and questioning things, I think we may be more powerful as consumers than as citizens, so we are using design to bring these two together.’
It may not be design as we know it, but Dunne & Raby’s ’critical design’ could offer a philosophy to a new generation of multidisciplinary designers wishing to work within a wider social dimension. Or perhaps it is an approach for the growing number of designers jaded by the unfettered market forces that regularly drive their work.