design pessimism

Design has become an empty shell, Silvio Lorusso argues, and he does so with a lot of humor and serious theoretical and practical observations.

Lorusso refers to the word design and the entire discipline. This creates a difficult situation: many designers feel responsible for improving the world, while they have to do so with resources arising from the status quo. These inevitably lead to the strengthening of the status quo. This contradiction receives far too little attention; Lurosso wants to say with ‘What Design Can’t Do’ – a title that seems to reference the design conference What Design Can Do, which advocates great importance to design improving the world.

Lurosso previously wrote ‘Entreprecariat’ (2019) about entrepreneurship in the cultural sector, published by Onomatopee. ‘What Design Can’t Do’ was published by that other Eindhoven publisher, Set Margins’. Lorusso studied industrial and product design in Bari, obtained his PhD in Venice, and currently lives and works in Lisbon. There, he is an assistant professor and co-director of the Center for Other Worlds at Lusófona University. He also teaches at the Information Design department of the Design Academy in Eindhoven and is active as a designer, artist, writer, and curator.

This book is a testament to Lorusso’s deep understanding of the design world. Theoretical essays are interspersed with images, memes, and critical reflections, all delivered with a tone that is never negative. Lorusso’s unique perspective as a critical observer and a part of the design world is evident, making this book a pleasant and insightful read. His sharp and humorous observations often bring a smile to the reader’s face, further emphasizing his understanding of the design culture.

These observations also give the necessary air to this important and difficult subject. After all, design has become an integral part of our capitalist system in which effectiveness and efficiency are the most important core values. To calibrate this with the designer’s drive to change the status quo, the system has devised several mechanisms that burden the designer with the feeling that improving the world is the main priority. This creates a design culture that is continuously repeated and reinforced. Design schools play an important role in this, Lorusso believes. They give young aspiring designers an unrealistic image of design’s impact on the world.

He delivers this important message light-heartedly and humorously, perhaps making it more impactful. The book is peppered with images Lorusso uses to expose contemporary design culture. This approach sometimes makes it seem as if Lorusso enjoys filleting the world of which he is integral. He offers no alternative. That is a conscious choice, he writes in the last chapter. Lorusso emphasizes that there are no texts in design literature that emphatically place themselves outside design optimism. He has undoubtedly succeeded in this. Despite that pessimism, ‘What Design Can’t Do’ is recommended for every designer.

What Design Can’t Do: Essays on Design and Disillusion (2023) by Silvio Lorusso is published by Set Margins’.

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