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Design for the Dark Side at SXSW 2010

The annual South by Southwest (SXSW) Conferences and Festivals, held in Austin, Texas, offer a unique convergence of original music, independent films and emerging technologies. Every year there is opportunity to attend workshops and debates where new ideas are considered and deliberated. This year saw a conference panel discussing, Design for the Dark Side.


Chart credit: Jason Nunes

I find the above light and dark diagram fascinating; I have many interests that fall into the ‘dark side’ (excluding hip hop!) and am skeptical of many things on the ‘light side’. Chaired by IDEO’s Ben Fullerton, Design for the Dark Side looked at the practicalities and challenges of designing for a catastrophic or dystopian future. The panel included screenwriter, author, and playwright Jason Nunes, Rachel Abrams, who is Creative Director of Turnstone Consulting, and independent designer, architect and critic, Liam Young. Liam is also the founder (along with Darryl Chen) of Tomorrows Thoughts Today, a group whose projects explore the consequences of fantastic, perverse and underrated urbanisms, and was recently tipped by Blueprint magazine as one of the 25 people who will change architecture and design in 2010.

The premise of Design for the Dark Side was that design usually focuses on improving the world around us, and often from an optimistic viewpoint. Yet, we know life is not always a walk in the park; it can be seedy, grimy, down and dirty just as much as it can be sun-spattered and sweet-smelling. So, is it not just as important to consider the dark side of human experience in design?

The SXSW panel contemplated a variety of dystopian eventualities and how they could be catered for, while considering questions put to them. These included: “Can designers think negatively as well as positively?”, “What kinds of worst case scenarios might be the most interesting to design for?”, and “How do you stay productive in the face of certain doom?”

It became obvious that the idea of designing for the dark side as a futuristic concept is not something that will happen; it’s happening now – there’s no need to imagine it. Death, destruction, war; they’re things that seldom disappear. However, these are the most obvious traits of the dark-side; it is the hidden fall-out from chaos that is often overlooked, but just as present. The global financial meltdown has produced some of the darkest times people have had to experience for a long time. Unemployment is soaring; homelessness is increasing at a drastic rate and natural disasters seem to be happening more frequently – these in turn result in rising poverty; depression, oppression and despair.

Dystopian societies are ever-present, yet consistently and conveniently ignored. Designers and architects, in their efforts to push boundaries, often look to the future, perhaps too much, and as a consequence neglect the areas desperate for change now. Designing for the dark side is more of a reality than anyone envisaged.

Listen to the “Design for the Dark Side” discussion here, and check out the SXSW website for details on next year’s conferences and festivals.

Now that you have been introduced into the dark side, what would you ultimate project be?

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