This story is part of our Weekend Reads series, where we highlight a story we love from the archives. It was originally published on March 10, 2021.
Forest Young’s career has spanned an impressive range of disciplines and contexts. He was recently named Wolff Olins’s first Global Chief Creative Officer, has received the industry’s highest design accolades (Gold Design Lion at Cannes, the Art Directors Club Black Cube) and is an MFA Senior Critic in graphic design at the Yale School of Art. In 2018, California College of the Arts (CCA) invited him to create and teach the inaugural MFA course in Future Design. The course was approached from diverse sources, combining theoretical texts from people Walter Benjamin, Yuval Noah Harari, Umberto Eco, John Berger, and Marshall McLuhan with cultural artifacts, images, and films including Blade Runner, Gattaca, Her, and Hyper-Reality. The students were then asked to explore and discuss world-building within the context of the students’ contemporary practice.
The last time we talked, we were at Bemelmans Bar in Manhattan where we discussed, among other things, gold palaces appearing like mirages in the night. This time, the tone was more somber and the topics closer to home. Talking on his birthday, as he was gearing up to celebrate another cycle around the sun, I invited him to interrogate the fault-lines of our industry and what was needed for a radical rethinking of design futures.
How have you experienced this past year?
There’s this point where moments of extreme turbulence and societal unraveling feel transformational. It becomes so clarifying. Had I not experienced 2020, I would still be living in Harlem, recovering from crisscrossing the country the last few years, operating in auto-pilot. I would be looking for a kind of life resolution from conventional avenues and channels. I would not have been given this near-blank canvas to reimagine what a life could be.
There’s something about seeing so much collapsing around us and then making big rash decisions on top of all that instability.
Added collision. It’s like Fauci with the surge on top of the surge. It was the collision on top of the collision. Self-colliding.
I feel like the narrative structure has to change after this year. The standard narrative that gets used in storytelling — a structure of one climax, or one challenge, to be resolved — no longer suffices.
I feel like deus ex machina will become an advisable plot device. No longer an embarrassing way for a writer to resolve a perilous moment in a story, it will be legitimized by this year’s 25th hour heroics. Like the vaccine that we’re collectively anticipating — bracing for the deliverance of a country from a pandemic that was surely going to wipe us out and then on to save our fragile democracy currently hanging in the balance. And then the matter of our nation’s enduring existential crisis relative to race. Everyone will be like, you know, this deus ex machina is verifiable. Giant eagles can come in and swoop you away to safety. That’s legit. Dragons can be felled by a single arrow seconds before an apocalyptic end. The year has played out like a B-Movie. Gil Scott-Heron was right after all.
As we’re talking about the shifts — unprecedented shifts — the world can take, you’ve dealt with that in thinking about possible futures. Can you talk about that?
It’s interesting, right? There was a class that I used to teach at CCA. It was a wonderful opening that Jon Sueda gave me to imagine a class called “Future Design.” At the time, I was working almost exclusively with tech clients, envisioning what their experiences were going to be 5-, 10-, 15- years out. I felt inspired to share some of the frameworks and design considerations with my graduate students: the Voros Cone, PESTEL analysis, and other tools that futurists use to try to anticipate, visualize, and ultimately realize the yet-to-be.
One of the things that was incredibly apparent then, and became even more apparent in 2020, is that most future design tools (such as the Voros Cone) are designed as if you are firmly holding a flashlight. First, there’s a bright beam of light. It starts from a single point in time (the present), and expands out like a cone. The point where the beam is the brightest is the “inevitable outcome” as linear momentum carries you forward. Then, the wider and wider you get, it gets darker and darker. Those are the areas of plausibility or possibility. The full-darkness represents things that are just simply impossible: you don’t have the means to achieve those. But a flashlight only illuminates a single direction; it always privileges what is in front of you.
There is an urgent need for guardrails to ensure that future design, or any kind of design pedagogy, isn’t framed by a privileged perspective, or overly focused on either the historical or the future. Design must defy the constraints of the past, while simultaneously not succumbing to a glamorized novelty of something that has yet to be created. Like history, the future is not apolitical. It can be trapped inside of a settler-colonial mindset: it can be a space to plant a flag.
There is an urgent need for guardrails to ensure that future design, or any kind of design pedagogy, isn’t framed by a privileged perspective, or overly focused on either the historical or the future.
So now, whenever I talk about future design, I refer to it as both an imaginative way to think about what is yet-to-be and as a critical act of looking backwards. It is an attempt to shine a light in both directions. This rear-view mirror allows us to see who was left out of certain conversations. That was a fundamental shift for me — this imperative for futures to be truly plural. I think that’s a new kind of urgency: to see the damage of 2020 as a result of not imagining plural futures and to realize how much future design had been focusing on a rarefied group of benefactors.
I hit this wall with design a couple of years ago: that the more I unraveled, the more I came to the conclusion that design, at its core, is arrogant. By definition it is telling others what is best for them.
There’s a CCA student who did a project called “The Peril of Human Centered Design,” and it was incredible. At the time, everybody was using — and overusing — the term “Human Centered Design.” It was the “it phrase” happening throughout the interaction design program and this student said “actually, Human Centered Design might be the problem.” He was looking at the designer’s brief from a Buckminster Fuller perspective of Spaceship Earth. If we are catering to our (self-possessed) needs of vanity, hedonism, or even survival, it’s simply not sustainable for the planet or advisable as a species. We’ll end up like those Wall-E human blobs on the spaceship drinking Slurpees. It was really fascinating that all these discussions of empathy and Human Centered Design were, much to your point, either privileging human considerations over those of the larger ecosystems in which we belong, or being empathetic only towards privileged humans. It’s this kind of tunnel-vision is something that unscrupulous business leads you to do. The project was incredibly eye opening because HCD at that point was inviolable. It was the thing; but it had no guardrails. And this year we are witnessing so much brokenness, much of it by design.
So is design arrogant? Is design the most complicit because it is pretending to be empathetic? And is it pretending to be under this umbrella of the considered value that it’s providing to someone while actually creating the damage?
So is design arrogant? Is design the most complicit because it is pretending to be empathetic?
The lit candle is always casting a shadow. Thus, we should always ask some foundational questions. What is it illuminating? Who is it casting a shadow on? And who can wield the candle? So yes, in many ways, it’s paralyzing, because you have to accept your own complicity in that larger consideration of “what is design?” What is the brief? What’s incurred in the brief? Is it the needs of shareholders? Is it the need of an actual human being? Who were the people that we’re choosing to listen to? And those that don’t actually have any means of amplification, how do we seek them out and provide ways to get their input? And then there is the courage required to make something after acknowledging the complexities of the context.
When discussing those that have been under the shadow, in what ways are you seeing this show up in the design lexicon?
One of the things I was just talking to a colleague about is what do we mean by decolonize? The inquiry of decolonizing pierces the largely superficial notion of design — considerations of function and form, implications of taste, and the illustration of quality. It questions the very motivations of why we are designing in the first place. Can we design in a way that doesn’t compel us to plant a flag?
The status quo and its dominant design patterns are mighty forces to contend with. There’s the very difficult reality of certain things that feel, so ultimately entrenched in terms of what we think something is or can be, even if clearly imperfect. Specifically if we are looking at tangible dominant design examples — like the less-than-optimal QWERTY keyboard, we see a design pattern carried forward almost 150 years from the Remington II.
Dominant designs can also embody subtler and more damaging effects than mere inefficiency. For decades, Kodak’s famous Shirley Cards defined photography’s skin-tone standards and gave film a racial bias. Today, machine-learning algorithms are observed to incorporate race and gender prejudices, concealed within language patterns and image preferences. Or consider a Chinese takeout restaurant using the typeface Chop Suey. Are they going to stop using Chop Suey — which is this horrible stereotype perpetuated by graphic design— yet makes them instantaneously recognizable as a Chinese takeout place, even when seen from a highway at 50 miles per hour? When perusing an African-American literature section of a bookstore, we’re bound to encounter the typeface Neuland, which was ingrained by tobacco marketing targeted to African-Americans, and is now used to represent all things Black. They’ve become typefaces of the “exotic other.” Both are both semiotically flawed, but functionally sound.
So how do we think about decolonizing—a process of acknowledging and dismantling, if there’s going to be a tremendous trade off of efficiency and affordance? Affordance is based on familiarity, but what if this familiarity is harmful or based on some type of nefarious origin? How do we decide in such a trade-off? And who gets to decide? These are the questions we must arm our students with.
We’re at a fork in the road that reminds me of a Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor moment in stand-up, where they start to use racial expletives as a way to de-stigmatize them. And it becomes a charged and controversial way of owning these things that were incredibly harmful or damaging. Would we ever use Neuland or Chop Suey with a degree of intentionality? Are they redeemable in capable hands via cultural stewards, or should we eliminate them altogether from contention?
There is a psychological theorist named Daryl Bem who has a theory called “Exotic Becomes Erotic” that I think is one of the more fascinating psychological theories. He basically posits that there’s a threshold at which if something is exotic to you — unfamiliar, but not too unfamiliar that you are afraid of it — you become incredibly curious and maybe even develop some form of arousal towards it. But if it goes too far beyond the threshold of the familiar, you become terrified of it. It’s very similar to the “uncanny valley” referenced by roboticists. I always found it really interesting that there’s an aspect of exoticism that we have in our design canon. We’re continually choosing ways to abbreviate, and to create links. This book pertains to this, or this poster is representing that. That’s another harmful aspect of traditional design, in that it functions most often as a shorthand.
Right. And a shorthand is a distilling. It’s a stereotype. A ‘perfect’ map would have a 1:1 relationship to what it is mapping.
A lot of designers don’t know this, but stereotype is originally a letterpress term. It is a single plate — a stereotype, capable of printing the recto and verso at the same time, rather than type setting individual metal movable glyphs. It’s inherently tied to a trade-off between speed and individual expression. A stereotype, as an abbreviated expression, then disallows for all the idiosyncrasies of how you position the letter forms, adjust the leading, or observe the subtle variations in different additions of printing. All of a sudden you have this kind of genericized, but extremely expedient, method of producing books but with the downfall of locking out further expression. Over time, the abbreviation becomes permanent and with momentum becomes oppressive. It does not permit alteration by marginalized hands.
To me, it’s astounding that a design term becomes shorthand for cultural abbreviation. Maybe this sets up for an interesting circular solution. If stereotype was invented for the purposes of expedient printing, then maybe we can resolve the expression of cultural idiosyncrasy through an intentional lens. Through a slowing down, we can create openings for marginalized voices, and build new linkages to a broader spectrum of people.
This means that designers are going to have to come up with something more seductive than the de facto dominant designs, which I think is an incredibly difficult task. It requires both bravery and brilliance. That’s truly scaling Mount Everest because you’re trying to overcome something that has maybe a century or more of inertia while also making it desirable, something people will want to embrace.