“The moment just past is extinguished forever,” wrote the art historian George Kubler in his 1962 book, The Shape of Time, “save for the things made during it.” This is the power of graphic design. It is not simply artifacts that live in isolation but markers in time, telling us stories about the people and cultures who made it. The best design exhibitions don’t merely present us a series of objects, isolated from context in a white cube, but tell a larger story, whether that’s cultural, political, economic, or geographic.
Designs for Different Futures, an exhibition jointly produced by Walker Art Center, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago, is interested in how these objects, systems, and structures exist not only as markers of the past, but also as pointers into the future. The show — which closed in Philadelphia at the beginning of the year and is set to reopen at the Walker in September before moving to Chicago next year — interrogates the relationship between design and future-making. (I was unable to see the exhibition in person, but the accompanying publication, published by Yale University Press, is packed with images, interviews, and critical essays.) While the exhibition presents a veneer of futuristic imagery, sometimes feeling as if it was pulled from an episode of Black Mirror or Spike Jonze’s Her, the curators are ultimately less interested in design that make sci-fi predictions about how the future will look, as they are in how the designs of today raise questions about the futures we want.
These questions complicate both our perceptions of what design is and how it lives in the world. In between the stereotypical futuristic projects — the spore-encouraging concrete or the apparel made from bodily fluids — are more banal inclusions: a nondescript seed vault on the Norwegian countryside, a typeface unable to be read by computers, a line of makeup products. By including projects like these, those rooted in and responding to present circumstances, the curators make the argument that today’s design becomes the seeds for tomorrow. The subliminal message underlying the entire exhibition is that the designer, through the creative process, in making something that wasn’t there before, continually creates new futures. Every design decision, every piece of design that is put into the world, opens up new worlds, creating new timelines into the future. Every act of design is an act of future-making.
Sang Mun’s 2012 ZXX typeface, for example, is a digital font designed to be unreadable by artificial intelligence or text-scanning software. While a typeface designed nearly a decade ago might not seem a natural inclusion in an exhibition about the future, the very existence of ZXX starts to create a future where privacy is at the hands of the citizen, subverting a future of mass surveillance. This typeface demonstrates that any type of design that is responding to the present — not just speculative projects — has the potential to reimagine what the future could be. Think about branding: in designing a brand for a company, the designer is also projecting into the future, imagining how that company could represent itself to its customers. In concepting a building or space, the designer speculates how its inhabitants will one day use it. When that brand and that building are put into the world, the futures the designers conceptualized are made real, and the future becomes the present.
“Design attempts to script the future by projecting its desires (and those of others) forward in time.”
“In the process of illustrating ideas, fabricating models, drafting plans, or prototyping solutions, designers shape what does not yet exist,” writes Andrew Blauvelt in his essay “Defuturing the Image of the Future,” included in the exhibition’s publication. “In this way, design is both propositional and prospective — it offers renderings and mock-ups, schematics and drawings, and instructions and code in the hope of instantiating a future. Design attempts to script the future by projecting its desires (and those of others) forward in time.” Consider the array of skin tones available from Rhianna’s makeup line FENTY, also included in the exhibition, and how it begins to dismantle the Euro-centric ideas of beauty by opening up options to a range of skin colors. Or Floriane Misslin’s On Displaying Fashion Beyond Gender, a critical poster series that examines the politics of fashion photography and exposes the biases embedded in this work. Along with the accompanying manifesto, Misslin creates a framework for making gender-fluid imagery more visible in contemporary publishing and advertising.
“The field of design is about projecting forward, imagining new possibilities that can transform the present and help create new potential futures,” writes co-curator Zoe Ryan in her accompanying essay. “From our buildings, streets, education, food, and health care to our political, economic, and communication systems, the range of projects that designers are engaged with has grown exponentially, especially in recent years, as centuries of experience are being rethought in response to digitalization.” Design today is more than styling or aesthetic or even the ever-dreaded ‘problem solving.’ Here, design can be seen simply as ideology made artifact — the process of turning ideas into reality, the move from speculation to actualization.
Ideologies are always rooted in assumptions, biases, and points of view, and indeed these shape design. There are business decisions and short-term solutions, quick fixes and present-day needs. No design is neutral, and with the ability to create new futures also comes the ability to close off other futures. “To take away the future is not simply a matter of active suppression; it can also be the consequence of design itself,” writes Blauvelt. “Just as acts of design make the future, they can also unmake other futures.” Blauvelt uses the automobile as an example, showing how the design of the car shaped ideas around driving that then shaped the evolution of landscapes and cities, spun up whole industries like ride sharing, and led to consequences like air pollution and climate change.
To talk about how design shapes the future, you must always ask: who’s future?
We are living today in a specific future that was in many ways designed a century ago. (As the novelist William Gibson’s oft-quoted maxim goes: “The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed.”) When ideologies become artifact, it’s harder to break away or to change course. Even when the ideologies evolve — when the policies or the laws are changed — their artifacts remain. This knowledge should encourage designers to take the long view, to zoom out, to see the ripple effects of their work. “Design’s propensity to defuture,” Blauvelt writes, “is rooted in its capacity to fulfill present wants with little attention to future needs.” Design can be used by the powerful for short-term gains, for quick answers, and superficial changes. Who’s affected today, and who’s affected tomorrow? To talk about how design shapes the future, you must always ask: who’s future?
In the months between when the show closed in Philadelphia and will open again in Minneapolis, COVID-19 turned the entire globe upside down. It’s stunning to think how quickly the world, in the midst of a pandemic, is being completely redesigned — social distancing orders, mask requirements, and self-quarantining are profoundly altering our reality, not to mention our relationships to the designed environment. As hard as it is to imagine what comes after this, thinking about a future, any future, must begin with the present. The designs of today, perhaps now more than ever, can show us what kind of futures we are looking towards.