Zygmunt Bauman on Managerialism and Design

There’s a film excerpt here of Zygmunt Bauman discussing the rise of managerialism and it’s associated effects on design, systems, and humanity. He goes on to discuss how this has since changed, and his ideas about ‘Liquid Modernity’.

It’s from An Interview with Zygmunt Bauman, part of the forthcoming documentary ‘The Trouble with Being Human These Days’, directed by Bartek Dziadosz and produced by Grzegorz Lepiarz


At thurdays Inter_Multi_Trans_Action symposium at Napier University, a great line up of speakers demonstrated how good a design event can be. While the number of design conferences expands exponentially, the chance to go to an event like this which a) retained some focus b) didn’t cost the earth and c) neatly avoided the design navel-gazing which can consume some of these events, came as a welcome opportunity to think and reflect without feeling like you were being preached to, or being asked to come up with the definitive answer of what design is.

The neat thing too was the title, and though the conference organisers suggested it was a flippant joke of sorts, it actually cuts to the heart of the “what discipline are we/what is our discipline becoming/is it art, is it design?” machinations which seem to frequently paralyse these events. By placing the focus on actions rather than the person or the body of work, the conversations were much freer, and liberating rather than constraining. And from now on, if anyone asks me what I do, I’m going to tell them that I’m an undisciplined designer.

So see-through it’s invisible…

Radical transparency anyone? Interesting implications for the notions of ‘truth’ and ‘honesty’ in relation to brands and branding.

Shaping Things

Have just finished reading Shaping Things by Bruce Sterling and it was ‘fucking brilliant’. (Bruce: you can use that quote on the back of your next re-print). Every page as catalytic and thought provoking as the next, some choice ideas about a future world of SPIMES include:

“wave a spime wand at the package, and a spime management dashboard pops up on the handheld wand screen, linked to global databases like a mobile phone. Brand that fella

“WE wranglers would like to have some coherent ideas about the demographics of everyone who interacts with spimes in any way whatsoever. We’re not that interested in pigeonholing people in demographics – what interests us most is when people transit across demographics…”

The future of the Web:
“The web is [currently] a layer of veneer over 20th century industrialism. It’s still a thin crispy layer, like landlord paint. It’s a varnish on barbarism…”

Dispatches from the Wonderful World of Work

Two books have crossed our path recently which raise some pressing and pertinent questions about the evolving world of work.

The first, â??Why Work is Weirdâ?? by Jerry Connor and Lee Sears, question the cost of on-message cultures for the individual, and looks at how many organisations develop immune systems which expel or isolate those who don’t fit the OnBrand template. But does this immune system always work in the best interests of the organisation trying to make headway in the knowledge based creative economy? They note that “for many successful people, the very thing that ensured they rose through the ranks are now undermining their levels of happiness and limiting their effectiveness.” By forcing employees to conform to corporate culture, (either through deliberate manipulation and incentives, or system led natural selection), organisations are effectively closing down a major asset of their human capability – to think beyond ‘how we do things here’ and imagine new, better ways of doing things. This needn’t be an ‘either – or’ situation, but organisations need to start thinking about how they can maintain focus and direction without oppressing the creative capacity of the individual. Making a commitment to ‘thinking OffBrand’ and a culture where ‘off-message’ is o.k, is a small step in that direction.

Also addressing this idea of ‘usefulness’ in the workplace is â??The Culture of the New Capitalismâ?? by Richard Sennett. He notes that as capitalism continues on its path to maximum profit, we are now starting to do more with less, (factor in automation, export of labour, and increasingly light transient industries), which raises important question about how the increasing workforce can remain ‘useful’. I would argue that it is in this context that the independent ‘OffBrand’ worker will flourish – the person able to think beyond or outside the organisation in which they work and see new potential and possibilities – and the corporate automatons will increasingly struggle.

It also raises important questions about why we work and how long we want to work for. With an ageing population, which will have to be financially self-sustaining for much longer than the current 65yrs, we might want to think about how the workplace can become a more pleasant place for the individual (creative autonomy anyone?) and also how we can create a better, more sustainable relation between our work and social lives. To that end, the â??Weekend Reform Partyâ?? may offer some solutions – a self proclaimed panacea for all ills.

Escape the Silo

This link: Forumblog.org – The World Economic Forum Weblog: Any ideas for Bruce? must surely be a wake up call for designers to stop their navel-gazing and play a pro-active role in shaping these emerging uses of design, (before the administrators and politicians completely arse it up).

New Brand Year Resolutions

It would be remiss of us to let the new year commence without suggesting some resolutions/predictions for all working with brands in 2006.

#1/The Benefit Test.
When designing for brands, ask who is benefiting from the work you do. Does it benefit the end consumer or user, or society in general? If not then scrap it and start again.

#2/Less is More.
2006 will be the year of the loose/flexible brand. Simplicity rules. Look at what you’ve done and take out as much as you can. Lead by inspiration rather than instruction. Trust other people who will be working with the brand to bring their own interpretations and ideas to the table.

#3/Offbrand Friday.
Set aside a day a week for free un-constrained creative thought. Thinking ‘outside the box’ is so 2005. Thinking ‘Offbrand’ is the new black.

Other predictions for ’06:

Someone, (like me), will proclaim the end of advertising/death of marketing.

Posh Spice will set fire to herself in public in order to generate publicity for her next ‘final’ album.

We won’t see the end of advertising. Most things will be more or less the same.

Please add your own predictions or resolutions in the comments section.

Happy 2006!

Working on Water Pt2

As part of the conversation around the future of work, we were discussing whether there was any truth in the idea that we will all become full-time freelancers working in networked communities solely for ME Inc. In their book â??Karaoke Capitalismâ?? Jonas RidderstrÃ¥le and Kjell A Nordström talk about the importance of developing your own brand in order to stand out in the marketplace (saturated, we presume, with other freelancers touting for business, projects, sub-commissions etc). They don’t really discuss what this brand might be and how you would go about using it, which suggests that really what they mean by ‘your brand’ is actually ‘you’, ‘your personality, abilities and reputation’.

I suppose this could be considered a step forward from the OnBrand world of institutional work where the brand you live by isn’t your brand – it’s the organisations. Internal brand management is big business and has evolved into something more pervasive than a company handbook or a set of publication guidelines, (you know the script, “Our brand is our biggest asset – Misplacement of our logo devalues our relationship with our customers, and will result in mistrust, pestilence, apocalypse” etc). The brand is now incorporated into internal progress reviews, (“like how ‘Microsoft’ are you?”), and is communicated as pervasively to employees as it is to the potential customer. It also exists in much more subtle ways amongst the “we don’t do that kind of thing here” mentality which can sometimes exist in peer groups, and the fear/risk factor associated with any OffBrand thinking. In organisations with a strong OnBrand control culture, this control exists at the expense of the creative freedom of the individual and therefore the creative ability of the organisation to innovate and develop. There still exists a big gap between knowing that creativity is a powerful force for good in business, and actually creating the work structures where creativity can genuinely flourish.

Perhaps the future of work will lie somewhere in between these two possible futures, if organisations can loosen up and move away from a ‘control through consistency’ mentality. From the anecdotal evidence of big employers, it would appear that money is no longer the biggest priority amongst many employees, and both a better work/life balance and creative autonomy are creeping up the agenda. This would indicate that the motivating factors for working for ‘the man’ are no longer just financial, no questions asked, but tied into whether the job has any meaning and how that job fits in with the rest of their life. Whether this leads to a world where we are all empowered freelancers, or a different approach to structure and process at work, remains to be seen.

Working on Water

Yesterday I spent a very pleasant afternoon in the company of â??Demosâ?? and some very nice people who are running a project called â??Glasgow2020â??.

Glasgow 2020 is looking at the future of Glasgow (or, as the name suggests, how Glasgow will be in 2020) and this particular event was asking us to consider the future of the workplace by taking us out of the office and on a boat ride down the Clyde. The event finished with a presentation by â??Robb Mitchellâ?? of the Chateau and New Media Scotland, and Pat Kane, formerly (and currently I think) of â??Hue and Cryâ??, and now a thinker on the future of work and creativity and the author of â??The Play Ethicâ??

This unlikely double act made some nice, if slightly incoherant, observations about social space and the blurring line between work and the rest of the world. Pat did seem to get a little carried away by his own rhetoric around the democratisation of technology, and the need for us all to have access to the technology which will (apparently) free us all to be independent networked workers in this brave new world. His point about access to emerging technology is an important one in that the ‘city’ should strive towards equality of access, but there was a general consensus that society needs to also encourage non-technical social innovations if we’re going to head towards a nicer city to live in, and away from a world of techno-haves and techno-have not’s, (or away from a world where that matters).

Anyway, as we docked at the end of the day one certainty was foremost in my mind. In Glasgow in the year 2020 it will probably, more likely than not, be raining.

We’re all designers now

If you have ever done anything, (I realise I’m casting the net quite wide here…), you have already experienced what it is to be a designer. How good a designer you are depends on the success of that action and it’s knock on effects. While reluctant to get dragged into the (endless) ‘what is good design’ debate, if your action solved a problem, reacted to a situation, or created something new, and did it with style, wit, generosity and creativity, then I think we’re somewhere towards an understanding of good design. The skills which enable us to do this are increasingly valuable in work and life, and can’t be taught from text books or management manuals. We are moving (we’re told) towards more flexible workplace’s with increasingly fluid flows of knowledge and information in and out of organisations. The question I’m really asking is will this mean a change in our understanding of ‘planning’ and ‘process’ – and how will the increasing importance placed on the creativity of the individual be balanced against the structural need of the ‘organisation’ to retain control? If we move from a task or project orintated workplace to a pro-active creative workplace, design skills will be essential for any worker who needs to work constructively and flexibly in a changing environment, not just the ‘creatives’.

In an organisation of designers, positive outcomes for the organisation cannot be achieved by direct command, they can only come about by making sure the designers are nurtured and encouraged to make their own design decisions responsibly, and to constantly think about ‘what is good design’?