Transmission in Motion

Seminar Blogs

“Just sit down and talk!” – Daniël Everts

During the most recent Transmission in Motion (TiM)-session, Pauline van Dongen and Lianne Toussaint presented their academic and non-academic endeavors in – to put it very succinctly – the field of clothing design. During this session, somewhat of a moral discussion came up, as one of the attendees asked how he could best go about designing things that were ‘relevant to society’. Toussaint was quick to respond: one should be very careful to design something relevant, just for the sake of designing something relevant, since one quickly runs the risk of designing something that is not at all relevant and might potentially even be harmful.

As Toussaint elaborated, in her line of work, she had found that the actual everyday reality of ‘minorities’ – she took people with disabilities as her example, but later broadened this to a more general understanding of ‘minority’ as we use the term colloquially – is often not really considered before the design process begins. As such, as her critique unfolded, in some ways, we might even speak of a colonial strand within clothing design, in which those capable of producing, designing and researching in essence decide that they can help other people.

While, of course, those trying to help others should be lauded, I do believe there to be wisdom in Toussaint’s words. While I have precisely zero experience in clothing design (beyond the occasional ‘design your own clothing online by putting logos on prefabricated t-shirts’-endeavors), I feel the lesson does extend to other fields. Take, for instance, the problem within algorithm design where software developers try to solve problems, only to find that, while their product does indeed solve problems for one group, it does not do so for others – the example of facial recognition software developed by (mostly) white people and trained on photographs of white people being unable to recognize (primarily female) black faces (Najibi 2020). Indeed, a clear (and classic) example of those trying to help not considering the everyday reality of a particular minority having dark skin.

So, how does one go about solving such problems inherent to the design process, which, if one really thinks about it, occur throughout numerous design fields and can have serious impact on individuals? A few Transmission in Motion-sessions ago, Jon McKenzie of Cornell University presented his Design Thinking (DT) pedagogy. To offer a quick reminder of what this entails: DT demands of its academically trained practitioners, in the process of research and design, to ‘interface’ with the world around them (McKenzie 2019, 110). This means that researchers should take the world outside of academia into account in such a way that those implicated are treated as stakeholders or even as partners within the design process (Ibid., 127). Those engaging in DT do not engage merely in research projects, but rather in comprehensive design processes that also include, for instance, ethnographic work in which the practical field is gauged and through which problems within that field naturally emerge (Ibid., 127–130).

To speak as an academic to other academics: clearly – and the reader can probably think of his or her own examples – despite all good intentions, research and design processes can have serious bearing on the everyday lives of those around us, whether we design clothes, develop algorithms, or perhaps even (as I am occupied with lately) explore the relations between human consciousness, memory and technology. It is one thing to be critical of our surroundings and find solutions to the problems we encounter, but it is another thing altogether to find solutions to problems others encounter – problems that we might be blind to for whatever reason. Perhaps, following the (I think) shared perspectives of Toussaint and McKenzie, the solution to this – what I would in the context of this short blog-post call – meta-problem is quite simple: just sit down and talk.


*Image credits: Free-Photos via Pixabay