Sketching Ideas 2018/2019

At the start of the academic year, I presented with my colleague Clara Zarza ‘Sketching Ideas‘: an annual journal with a selection of essays, written by our students. I am very proud of their work and it is really nice to have a physical reminder of last year’s classes. Find below the introduction I wrote with Clara.

The Ethics and Politics of Design

Clara Zarza and Carmen van Bruggen

Design. The word evokes an object, a space, an image, the materialization of an idea;
a process that is not merely abstract but requires skill, technical control over hand or
machine, and matter. In opposition, the word ‘theory’ or ‘criticism’ brings to mind
abstract concepts and intangible thoughts. For something to exist ‘in theory’ means that
it is not yet realised; that it does not have a physical shape.

This division, however – between thought and action or the abstract and the physical –
should merely be regarded as a construct. As sociologist and philosopher Richard
Sennett famously argued in his book The Craftsman, the western division between
epistêmê and technê, knowledge and skill, theory and practice, can be dismantled by the
inevitable interconnection between head and hand found in the skilled craftsman at
work. Sennett’s claim is echoed in the IE School of Architecture and Design’s motto:
‘Learning by doing’. At our school, this learning method takes form in studio based
education where thought is tested, experimented and rethought; where ideas are
conceptualised and materialised only to be questioned, reconceptualised and
materialised again.

Sketching Ideas, the Bachelor in Design’s annual journal, is a celebration of our
students’ theoretical and critical work. The title of the publication emphasizes this
experimental and procedural quality of texts, rather than focussing on the monolithic
and absolute value traditionally assigned to academic writings. The publication is the
result of hours of reading, debating, writing and rewriting.

Designs from the Design Festivals in Milan and Madrid were carefully studied and discussed. Moreover, it involved the practice of design in many ways: the booklet itself is graphically designed
by the students, their own designs are critically reflected upon in various essays and
writing itself is in the end part of designing. The present collection of essays, selected
among the ones written during the first and second year courses ‘History of Design’ and
Design and Criticism’, are thus presented here as sketches, preparatory drawings that
proof the impossibility of thinking without reading and writing. It shows the importance
of mastering the skills of structuring and articulation for deep thought and full
perception to take place. Yet, even in its final shape, it is not static. It invites readers to
think along and to agree or disagree with the positions taken.

In all of the essays, the ethics and politics of design play an important role. User impact,
societal influence or social functions of particular designs are critically analysed. This
socio-political lens is the backbone of our courses where we understand historical and
contemporary designs not as a series of movements, tendencies, canons and landmarks
but as mechanisms that frame and condition social expectations and interactions. If, as
anthropologist Daniel Miller has argued, the material world is what guides our
experiences, expectations and behaviours, design inevitably plays a key role in the
perpetuation of systems or the effecting of change. Through studying design history and
criticism, one learns that aesthetic decisions are never purely aesthetic and that technical
changes are never purely technical. Understanding societal implications of seemingly
neutral designs is crucial for the cultivation of a responsible attitude. The reflections
sketched in these essays can therefore be looked at as a fruitful source for the practice of
ethical design.

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