Design as Activism: Research streams act as a form of politics

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Design is always political. Designing is inherently a political act. Design methodologies are a manifesto.

Producing and consuming design often involves decisions that illuminate something about our own ideologies; it poses questions and constructs moments where something as deeply engrained as one’s beliefs can be discovered and interrogated.

In the following interview, Design Principal Andrew King unpacks this and how FLDWRK’s engagement in a full-spectrum approach, centered on a series of five lenses, becomes a form of activism aimed at making a sustained impact on societal transitions that require urgent attention now.

How do you believe a design practice moves beyond the limits of traditional and normative design?

By responding, in a fundamental way, to big questions linked to the societal issues that we face: How do we address the representation of culture and identity in design? Scarcity of resources? Sustainability in the face of growing digitality? Inequitable futures? Normative practice is ill-equipped to deal with those collectively by comparison, as it typically silos itself off within urban design or architecture or product design or policy design, and so forth.

By comparison, at FLDWRK, we’re more interested in how we can address these questions through our five research streams, each of which are fundamentally linked to those big questions. We’re creating methodologies that you can apply to all those things, no matter the discipline; design tools that are fundamentally framed by the issues, by the problem, by the challenge, by the fundamental interest of becoming a catalyst to find solutions, regardless of where it lands within what would be considered normative practice.

Where does design become a form of activism under FLDWRK’s purview?

Design is a form of activism in all projects FLDWRK has engaged in, in varying degrees.

Sometimes it is muted or buried, such as with our Sensory Fragments project with the Yvon Lamarre Foundation. The activism there is embedded in how the project is responding to a gap in policy; there’s no policy for what happens to adults with autism, and neither is there a funding stream.

There are projects that are much more radical and overt; the Fire, Soil, Seed: Climate Haven Cities project with the University of Calgary and the City of Calgary is activist in the sense in that it asks the city to look at itself in a different way. Functioning as a demonstration project, it asks a city to radically reassess its own landscape, design practices and use of carbon-based resources.

Then there’s Place des Montréalaises, which exists somewhere midway on this spectrum: Reflecting users’ ideologies back to them, Angela Silver’s embedded artwork intentionally channels perception, asking us to look at the names of women on its sculpture’s mirrored surface, to look at our own reflections, or both. You’re not forced into a kind of contorted political position, but you’re asked to make a choice of perception almost unwillingly and I think that’s why it’s such a powerful piece.

As with any design project, you can decide how deeply you want to ponder it as somebody who’s engaging it, either meandering through or actually pondering it. It’s like a good film in how it can entertain you or push you through a kind of narrative that’s compelling and pushing you to dig a little bit more deeply.

What does it mean to have a shared vision with collaborators and partners? Is that shared vision what the world is meant to be, or what the world should be right now?

It’s always about what the world should be, but different people have different ideas about what the world should be. What we’re asking for are collaborators who have a shared concern and the energy, commitment, and preoccupation with that concern; to spend time trying to unpack it.

While in some cases design can deepen those complexities—such as when addressing ESG and EDI issues or climate change, for example—but other times, in order for architecture to be applied, we need to reduce those complexities. Sensory Fragments is interesting in that way; there’s so much complexity to the research surrounding autism and sensory perception that design, by necessity, has to reduce its complexities.

And what about the methodologies you mentioned, how do they occupy the space between the research and the physical design?

It’s a liminal, in-between space because that’s exactly what we’re inhabiting, right? That space where disciplines coverge, such as how architecture, landscape architecture and Angela Silver’s art exists simultaneously in Place des Montréalaises, for example. We’re seeing that rather than being compartmentalized, we’re take the interstitials where those disciplines overlap—that middle of the Venn diagram—and we expand that to act as our laboratory.

We don’t even talk about collaboration anymore. It’s completely implicit. Instead, what we’re interested in doing is making change, and collaboration is a given within that. One thing we’ve managed to do quickly because of this is accelerate past a preoccupation with what we do and move on to how we do it in as many as nine distinct projects.

They create intellectual spaces, completely shared environments existing almost simultaneously.

If FLDWRK is borderless, what do you hope to see the collective tackle in the future?

Our initial work was around borders and the idea of identity, moving in and out of belonging in the city. I think this notion of borderlessness, even in terms of working methodologies, is really powerful.

By starting every FLDWRK project questioning the parameters of projects and what we’re trying to do, we can ask where we think we need to push the most against preconceived notions. We can respond to issues through the filters of the lenses, and that’s the flexibility. That’s what we did do with the Yvon Lamarre Foundation, expanding the notion of how a physical context can respond to a sensory spectrum and it became key.

If I was to be extremely ambitious, I would suggest that somebody could look at FLDWRK in time and say this is a threshold in which the normative understanding of design practices, and their limitations, was unraveled in ways which people could then put back together however they wanted.

This is design as activism; helping shift perspectives to solve problems.