Eduardo Staszowski, Associate Professor of Design Strategies, Wins Compasso D’Oro Award for “Designing in Dark Times: An Arendtian Lexicon”
As co-founder and director of the Desis Lab at Parsons, Eduardo Staszowski, Associate Professor of Design Strategies, is actively engaged in research and work that aims to create social change through a variety of community-led initiatives. design, including workshops, exhibits, toolkits, and more. During the pandemic, Staszowski and Virginia Tassinari, Visiting Scholar at Parsons and Teacher/Researcher at Politecnico di Milano, co-edited a book of essays titled “Designing in Dark Times: An Arendtian Lexicon,” designed by Andrew LeClair, Assistant Professor of communication design at Parsons.
Recently, the book received a Compasso D’Oro from the Associazione per il Disegno Industriale (ADI). Created in Italy in 1954, the Compasso D’Oro is the highest honor in Italian design. Awarded every two years only, the book was awarded in the section of theoretical, historical, critical and editorial research projects in design.
Below is a conversation with Staszowski and Tassinari.
What inspired you to co-create/edit this collection of essays?
We live in a time that in many ways reminds us of that described by Hannah Arendt more than fifty years ago. In times like this, we have asked ourselves, what does it mean to consider the role of design in times of fear and uncertainty? We decided to consider Arendt as a possible guide in this process and ask ourselves if his definition of “dark times” might be useful in understanding these possibilities. How, we wondered, might Arendtian perspectives inform the work of designers as they attempt to shape the way we act in the world? Could reflections on his thinking provide us with concrete guidance on how to respond to these dark times? And perhaps also help us to understand design not only as a practice but also as a thought, as a reflective practice?
How did you and your co-editor choose the authors who would feature in the book?
As editors, Virginia Tassinari and I decided to bring together a community of designers and scholars of design and related fields (anthropology, architecture, art, civic media, cinema, foresight, management, philosophy, political science and urban law ) to discuss and expand the language we encounter and use every day in our profession and as citizens. Instead of theorizing what Arendt’s philosophy may mean to designers today, we decided to ask our guests to respond to quotes and concepts taken from Arendt and reflect on one of political and philosophical concepts of Arendt in order to explore its implication to understand what it is. for them to conceive in these dark times. The result is a work that sometimes lacks the qualities of a strict philosophical analysis, and yet it had to pay that price to be a real dialogue, which is, as in real life, made up of different registers. This variety of voices is, in our opinion, the strength of this project.
What makes Arendt’s writing still so relevant?
The dark times that Arendt lived through did not prevent her from theorizing a possibility of action. Far from being a naive optimist, she nonetheless says that dark times can also be precious times for developing “thinking activity,” where thought and action are deeply intertwined. This activity of thought is for her an intellectual praxis that individuals can articulate from situations of despair, which has the potential to open up new avenues of action: it has a profoundly transformative, and therefore political, potential. For her, it is in moments that seem most desperate that something like thought activity, and thus also the thought of new forms of acting, also becomes possible. This is why reading the world today through the prism of Arendt’s notion of dark times is not a pessimistic operation. Instead, it brings some hope. Its specific attitude towards action and its skepticism towards the theory/practice dichotomy make it particularly interesting for today’s designers to help them go beyond the paths of an idea of design as pure practice. Arendt’s quotes have not been offered as an authoritative reference to his philosophy – which, as many scholars have pointed out, has blind spots that naturally need criticism – but rather as prompts, ways to shake up the use of words in design thinking and practice. today. Nonetheless, Arendt’s politics help us focus on the concrete ways in which design can be fueled by this courage she envisions for intellectuals in dark times, by entangling the relationship between actions, words, and artifacts. and, in detail, by addressing the importance of action and speech for human artifice. .
What are the main themes/takeaways from the book?
It is often claimed that for designers, actions come before thought. This, in our view, is a misunderstanding of design. The book opens a discussion on the interaction between the word design, concept and action. By reconnecting speech and action to design, old divisions between abstract thought and the practical position of designing, making and shaping the world dissolve. By extension, the dissolution of the artificial borders between thought and action refuses other types of unproductive bifurcations, for example the conventional separation between design and social theory or even more fundamental between subject and object, artifice and nature. It also opens new possibilities to rearticulate the relationship between design and philosophy and thought in general, where design can find in philosophy and thought tools to reshape and strengthen its thinking from within – and through which , conversely, philosophy and thought can be triggered to be real thinking action, to become interventions and affirmations and not just contemplative criticism.
This is what the Italian Association of Designers (ADI) responded to by awarding us the Compasso D’Oro prize. They say in their citation for the award that they viewed the book as “the first in a series aimed at defining design and its potential in response to current systemic, social, economic, political and environmental challenges, opening up new possibilities for contemporary design, and rethinking its political responsibility among others. It interrogates the meaning of the type of thought that develops through design and the words used to conceive the practice of design today. Starting from the reflections of the philosopher Hannah Arendt on the potential of human thought and action to react in times of crisis, it offers designers and design theorists 56 key words (including citizenship, common good, action, democracy, humanity, public violence and totalitarianism).
Why do you think design plays such an important role in solving societal problems?
Much has been made of the growing relevance of design to society and its potential ability to solve complex problems and open up new possibilities. It is something that theorists and practitioners have thought about in different ways and from different motivations. As the influence and agency of design increases, the responsibility of the designer must also increase to confront the inherent political and philosophical questions raised by their work and the world in which they live. This means that a deeper understanding of the meanings and consequences of their actions is crucial. Design must face this potential and be given serious thought. On the other hand, social theorists and political activists interested not only in analyzing but in intervening in the world need to understand the capacities of design as a mode of action that can enable processes of change and enable desired situations, relationships and events. and probable.
How did your work on this book influence your class work? And vice versa?
Virginia Tassinari and I co-taught a course called How to think/act in dark times? Exploration of a critical praxis (UTNS 5123), which intends to challenge the old divide between the theoretical orientation of the social sciences and the practical position inherent in art and design practices and open a space for inquiry into the way of thinking/acting in dark times. A space that gives shape to radically critical discourses and that affirms other possibilities through proposal and aesthetic discovery: a critical praxis that acts as an operative critique. Courses are structured around a series of readings, discussions and exercises addressing key issues in contemporary philosophy, sociology and anthropology, highlighting where these discourses interact with those currently being developed through the practices artistic and design. Learning from these, students organize and examine situations, ways of life, ways of coping with material and social human needs and discuss new potentialities, categories, models and capacities to transform our relationship with social systems. -technical and natural.
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The Arendtian Lexicon was one of the first projects to be designed and initiated in the series Designing in Dark Times published by Bloomsbury in New York and London. But while the book’s contributions are proof that there can be real value in thinking about our time through the prism of some of Hannah Arendt’s ideas, it was an anthology from the modern tradition. While many entries challenged the boundaries of the modern and pushed Arendt’s thoughts further than she could have done herself, nevertheless – as we recognized in the book – both her philosophical training and her position in this world necessarily limited what could be thought. Based on this need to imagine another kind of constellation of categories for practice, we have decided to publish a new Lexicon which is currently in progress. While our first lexicon began with a selection of extended terms and quotes from Arendt and what they might imply for thinking and acting today, no such clean starting point is possible with this new lexicon. The task here is subtly different. The objective is to identify the concrete potentialities of design to think/act outside and beyond the limits of the Modern. This task is not easy. We are after all trying to name what the unilateral and dichotomous thinking of modernity cannot think. The risk is that we try to name what cannot be named using the words of modernity, and yet we have to trust language and its ability to also think outside the Modern so that what is named can point. or be a gesture towards, new beginnings.