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De-Designing Design

Not Another Design Manifesto! Our constant need to satiate our creative urges urges our constant betrayal of the Old as Obsolete, and our unquestioned certainty that the New is always Better.

Brian Lau


Design is the art of technological cultures. Design is the conception and planning of the artificial. Design is the creation of artefacts and the configuring of systems. From tables and chairs to sites and cities, Design shapes and structures Our World, and those who live in It. Design is the eros and the ethos that conjugates Creativity and Innovation birthing Emancipation and Empowerment.


We are implicated in our Designing as the Consequents of Design are increasingly the key constituents of the Detritus damming the lows of the World. We honestly/hubristically/naively/delusionally, see ourselves as benign/vengeful gods, as always Designing A Solution, to alleviate from, for the betterment of... But we remain, perhaps willfully, stubbornly, ignorant of our simultaneously Design- ing A Problem. We assiduously, asinine-ly, assertively, create/re-create a World that conforms to Our Wants and Our Desires, but we simultaneously disrupt, dismay and destroy what is and what was for the sake of what can never be. Our constant need to satiate our creative urges urges our constant betrayal of the Old as Obsolete, and our unquestioned certainty that the New is always Better.

And this Addiction to the New, has been exploited and capitalized on as our Appetites are time and again whetted by the wiles of Capital.

We had once thought that to ally with Capital, that hand-in-hand in our common desires, we could make real a dream of a better World; Capital, would build a more equitable society, facilitating social mobility and building a middle class, and we, to democratize Beauty, to make Beauty available to one and all. But such honeyed dreams and sweet delusions were quickly dispelled as collaborators became conspirators and an alliance became a tryst.

And now, Design is but one of Capital's many consorts, a concubine forever beholden to, and constantly betrayed by, his many infidelities.

Under the spell of Capital, the lure of the Free Market, and the premise of Economic Efficiency, we have been seduced into designing the myriad mechanizations and digitizations that incessantly shift and shape our never still World, our always on always now always new World, our non-stop sped up time warped mind bending World, a world where Buddha is made breathless and Shiva dances in double, triple, quadruple, quintuple time, allegrissimo aggressivo... A World where the cycles of creation and destruction are made ever smaller all in the name of appeasing our economic gods, the GDP, the PPI, the CPI, the PMI et cetera. Growth, Progress, Wealth, Prosperity et al. But it seems that no matter how much or how fast we feed them, we cannot temper their voraciousness or assuage their appetites.

And paradoxically, just as Technology has subdued Space by enslaving Time, creating the illusion of a smaller planet, our World is simultaneously growing bigger, as our population has yet to attain the eleven billion anticipated by the middle of this century. In such a smaller-bigger / bigger-smaller world, can we satisfy the multiplying millions of masticating mouths, each demanding their pound of lesh to be washed down with pints of pinot noir or a cuppa fair trade single-origin French-pressed Ethiopian Yirgacheffe? Can we placate the millions and millions of mall minions who horde/herd/hurl themselves into the Temples of Consumption to swipe their credit cards to leave behind an offering and a prayer?


Amplification and Acceleration. More! Faster! Faster More! These seem to be the only injunctions Our gods are willing to issuing, admonishing us from our dull and sullen lives with simulacra and stimula- tion. Mass becomes Meaning. Speed becomes Sense. Buy! Buy more! Buy more faster! We/They always want More. We/They always want Faster. The faster we go, the more mass we gain. The more mass we gain, the faster we go! Infinite speed will give us infinite mass! Infinite mass will give us the Infinite Economy! CONSUMERS OF THE WORLD UNITE! Together, we can create the Infinite Economy!


There is only so much Matter on our planet. Even if we were able to smash every atom of our planet into energy, there are only 133,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 of them. This may seem like a lot. But a lot, is not Infinite.

As always, Capital will adamantly assert, But Technology will enable us to make stuff more Efficiently! We can make More with Less! Consumers of the World Unite! Buy More as you are buying Less!

However even if we could make More with Less and Consumers could be nudged into buying More and More of Less and Less, there will still be a limit to how much Less can be produced. If we were to pursue Capital's ambition of the Infinite Economy, we would still be producing an Infinite amount of Less.

Then Capital will inveigh in indignation, But we can Recycle! Consumers of the World Recycle! We just have to Recycle more! Throw away Your stuff and buy more of Our stuff so that it can become Old stuff for us to make more New stuff!

But even atoms become exhausted. Atoms can only become stuff for a limited number of times before they are worn out. We can beat them, bend them, burn them only a finite number of times before we break them. For a while, perhaps Technology can force our atoms to give up more of their energy (like water-boarding humans with coffee) but if without end, then someday no matter how caffeinated we are, we will never be able to get it up.

And eventually, atoms die. After we have extracted, exacted and exhausted them into an atomic mush, where will we put one hundred and thirty three trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion dead atoms? 19

Everything becomes waste. Everything is Design. Design becomes Waste. Design is Waste. And with the increasing yearnings of More and the unstopping exhortations for Faster, we might as well circumvent the Consumer and just design Waste.


Design prides herself in being able to solve problems. Design prides herself as the provider of novel solutions to the problems of Our World in Our Time. But these solutions are also the cause of the problems plaguing Our Word in Our Time.

The solution has become the problem. Design is the problem. Then how do we solve the problem of Design? How do we re-solve this dilemna of the solution as the problem?


Design is the conception and planning of the artificial. Design is the creation of artefacts and the config- uring of systems. There is a need for a re-conceptualisation, a re-planning, a re-configuring of Design such that Design is no longer beholden to the one who feeds and capitalises on her appetites and addictions. Design needs to harness her own creativities to re-empower herself, and to seek her own eman- cipation from the crises and conundrums that she has cornered herself into.

As a first step, Design needs to seek new alliances. Alliances with truer, nobler, more steadfast forces, forces that can pull her from her concubinage, that can wean her of her infatuation. Allies who can help her regain the clarity of her original visions, to awaken her forgotten dreams.


Justice would remind her of her once upon a time dreams of removing the hegemonies of those who have and those who have not, of those above and those below.

Through an amalgamation of the arts with technology, Design had once dreamt of dissolving society's differences with Beauty. But in her sharing her dreams with Capital, those dreams were contorted and corrupted, becoming the dreams now rendered into the reality of our reification of the Infinite Economy. Justice needs to re-awaken those long ago dreams and in those dreams, revive her envisionings of a Beautiful equality, of a Beautiful fairness, of a Beautiful unity.

Temperance would counsel her that thinking should precede making, that action should follow thought. Temperance can call her attention to the details not only of the Thing in the Making, but to the connections that that Thing makes and unmakes in its Making and Un-Making. Temperance can caution her, that considerations should be given to both the Old and the possible New, the Now and the Then and of all possible Thens, and only then, should Design affirm a path or a plan. Temperance can coax her into the seeking of connections between Conscience and Creativity and only with such temperance can Design not succumb to the mesmer of Mass and Speed, to not fall again into the maelstrom of Amplification and Acceleration.

The allying with Justice and Temperance however does not imply an unfriending of Capital. Capital for all his faults, his singleminded obsession with economic efficiencies, his fetishistic exploitation of the weak in the attainment of such efficiencies, his unthinking betrayal of those who no longer serve this obsession, nonetheless has the impetus of ambition and the ability to action, attributes that can be harnessed into driving Design towards the taming of Growth, Progress, Wealth and Prosperity.

Design must now mediate this Triumvirate in order to enact an urgent re-shaping and re-structuring of Our World to bring it back from its Precipice.

But most importantly, Justice and Temperance must rekindle in Design her forgotten modesty. It is only with modesty and humility can Design remember that she serves not only her own desires, nor only one other, but the many who are as yet un-empowered and un-emancipated, of those ignored and unacknowledged.

The un-empowered and un-emancipated are many and the unacknowledged even more. Our World in Our Time is a fragmented one, broken into a bricolage of the Haves and the Have-Nots, the Norths and the Souths, the Wests and the Easts; divided between Man and Nature, the Artificial and the Natural, the Human and the Non-Human. How will Design construe, construct and configure all the aspects that are required in the re-Making of Our World, into a World in which all are equal Actors acting-with, acting-on and acting-in?

And her humility in no way absolves her of her culpability in that with each configuring of a Solution, she will always also birth its twin, a Problem. Every new configuration initiates and imposes re-configurings and de-configurings. Every new design causes lines to be erased, new lines to be drawn, old ones to be re-traced (often with a crayon)… Then consideration and empathy should be given in each and every such re-configuring and de-configuring, of how the roles of all the Actors in Our World are re-scripted.

And Design in her most humble, must acknowledge that her envisionings of a perfect world can never be realised while we live in Uncertainty. Perhaps a better World is the best that can be attained, or a good one is all that should be contemplated and made acceptable.


Design is an act of Meaning Making ,Meanings are embodied in designed Things experienced only in the Moment of Consumption. But with Amplification and Acceleration, a Moment of Consumption is a burst of Existentiality, a surge of Meaningfulness, dissipating just as rapidly back into non-existence. Finding Meaning, even for such short Moments, she trembles for More. She seeks another, and her world becomes a succession of Moments, each a vignette, framed and isolated, without a Before or an After, only a Me and never Another. And she Consumes More and More Moments Faster and Faster, trying to merge one Moment with the next, to meld a chain of unbroken Meanings, to link together a Life-Meaning through her serial acts of Consumption...

De-Designing is then the act of Meaning Making such that the Thing in the Making is equally meaningful in the building up as it is in its breaking down; is equally Meaningful in its coming into existence as in its entering of non-existence; is equally Meaningful in a Before and an After. de-Designing opens up the processes of the Making of the Thing, reveals each Moment of Making, traces the connections of these Moments forging Meaning Making as Making Meaning. Then Meaning can be experienced not only in a Moment of Consumption but also in its Moment of Making. Then perhaps we may rely less on Things and equally eagerly seek Meanings in Things in the Making.

And when Meaning is experienced equally in the Making and the de-Making; when moving along the paths of Making is as Meaningful as moving along the paths of de-Making; when the surfaces of these paths have been traversed and torn open and its substrates revealed, when de-Designing is the Making of a World that is Meaningful in its Becoming and in its un-Becoming; when stories traverse narratives that arc over and under, in oblique longitudes and latitudes, making sense backwards as it does forwards; when the melodic contours of music are as beautifully structured in its cancrizantric harmonies as in its contrapunctual symmetries; then perhaps we can unravel the warp and the weft of the World without unravelling the tapestry that is Our World in Time.

Brian Lau is principal designer, mad studios, based in Waterloo, ON and Hong Kong.
This manifesto was delivered at the 11th International Conference on Design Principles & Practices (Toronto, March 2017). For an expanded version, with footnotes and references, please contact the author.
GRAPHICA UNISPHERA by Lilian Chan. Photograph by Brian Lau.

Copyright © Brian Lau. All rights reserved.