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What is a contradiction and why it is relevant to design research?

Design research is increasingly concerned with being part of change processes in everyday life, in communities, in organizations, and in large-scale sociotechnical systems. Despite the growing interest, the field is not prepared to deal with this topic.

Ceschin and Gaziulusoy (2016)

The predominant theories in design research were crafted to understand individuals interacting with products, or groups of people interacting with each other while using services and systems. These theories provide a narrow view of change, associated with the positivist value of progress.

The conflictual and collective nature of social change associated with debate, disruption, revolution, and subversion is underplayed — or sometimes averted — by these theories. The implication for design research is relying on a watered-down version of change that does little to challenge the status quo, the state apparatus, the sociotechnical regimes, the enterprise, and other institutions that relentlessly keep things as they are.

My PhD thesis has developed the notion of contradiction to account for change in the relationship between activity and space.

Contradiction is […] used to grasp the process of becoming, i.e. the incessant transformation of reality (Engeström, 2015; Lefebvre, 2009). Any contradiction exists in reality, even if no one is aware of it. However, when brought to consciousness and shared with society, the impact of contradiction becomes tenser. Hence, it is not possible to say that contradiction is an entirely objective or subjective phenomenon; it is both.

For that matter, contradiction is both cause and effect of a social situation. It is described in formal terms as a dynamic unity of opposites. It is dynamic because the opposites are constantly struggling for predominance; at one moment, one is predominant; and at another moment, the other is predominant (Lefebvre, 2009). Their interaction may give birth to a third element, which overcomes the struggle and transforms one contradiction into another contradiction.

(Van Amstel, 2015, p.2)

In this materialistic-dialectical perspective, contradiction is a dynamic tension between opposing forces. It is a source of struggle, conflict, and debate, which will require change to overcome. However, it is also a seed of future change, since overcoming contradictions does not mean eliminating it. Overcoming contradictions means, at maximum, changing the opposing forces while keeping the tension. As a principle of change, contradiction is what makes change always possible, as long as human history unfolds.

The classic contradiction identified by Marx in the capitalist society of the XIX century is between capital and labor, and the consequent struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. This contradiction is still tense today, going through some changes that eventually favored workers and almost always favored employers. The latest major change in the relationship is platformisation, which prevent workers even from seeing themselves as waged workers. This change enabled capitalists a fine-grained exploration of workers, yet also enabled them to organize in alternative cooperative platforms.

Capital versus labor is not the single contradiction experienced in our society. There are many others, which were not noticeable at Marx’s time. Marxist thinkers and researchers continued the materialistic-dialectical analysis of society and found many other contradictions.

Baudrillard, for example, found a contradiction that is closely related to the phenomenon of design. In modern society, images are copied and repeated in so many different contexts, that at some point, they lose ground and start representing themselves in an abstract world of images. Then, images become a powerful means to conceal reality and lure consumers into brands, ideologies, and systems. Consumers cannot see what is really going on because the reference to reality is lost in the simulacra.

My favorite example of this contradiction is the painting Treachery of Images (1929) by René Magritte. It is not a pipe because it is an image of a pipe. With the intense reproduction of this artwork, the critical message expressed by the title was lost and the image is now used to illustrate linguistic and semiotic choices. Now the image became a pipe.

Design runs the risk of doing something similar to change. If change is reduced to a watered-down, smooth process of technical problem-solving, then change will become an image that can be consumed by individuals as well as by organizations. This simulation will never deliver real change since this would undermine “future sales”. It is change for change’s sake, a meaningless thing that just looks like a meaningful thing.

Dialectical materialism is a solid (and fluid) theory of change that can prevent design from doing that. Instead of approaching change as an outcome of design, it considers design as part of change, without ever falling to a deterministic or linear discourse. In the case of my thesis, design is implicated in the parallel development of human activity and human space.

The premise is that, even when activities and spaces develop in parallel, they still maintain a design relationship with each other. The origins and deeds of this relationship are related to the human effort to overcome contradictions in the conditions for living, i.e. to transform activities and spaces such that they provide life sustenance. Contradictions accumulate within activities and spaces due to unfair, unbalanced, and awkward relationships in life sustenance. Design is the attempt to establish new relationships from the existing relationships. Through design, what is a contradiction in activity may become a contradiction of space, whilst what is a contradiction in space may become a contradiction of activity. Therefore, design reproduces contradictions as much as it changes them.

(Van Amstel, 2015, p.1)

In this definition of design, the phenomenon is not restricted to the general activity that plans the execution of something by somebody else. These are specific, professionalized design activities that, due to the division of labor claimed their authority over the phenomenon. However, the phenomenon also happens when there are no professionals involved. Any individual or collective of humans frequently engages with rethinking and changing their activities and their spaces. Design emerges when change in one side is articulated with the other side. It is an emergent dynamic relationship.

It seems confusing, but it is not; it is dialectical. Dialectics, in this case, profit from the ambiguity of the “design” word.

Design is both a verb — to design something — and a noun — the design of something. This ambivalence makes the design word suitable to connote the unstable effort of dealing with contradictions and also to denote the production of tangible products. Architectural design, for example, aims to produce space for certain activities (Lefebvre, 1983; Lerup, 1977; McGuire & Schiffer, 1983; Till, 2009). Service design, in contrast, aims to produce activities that cut across multiple spaces (Holmlid, 2007; Meroni & Sangiorgi, 2011; Stickdorn, Schneider, & Andrews, 2011). Both face contradictions of activity, as well as contradictions of space and, therefore, must create possibilities to overcome the contradictions.

(Van Amstel, 2015, p.1)

The design relationship between activity and space achieves a concrete dimension in the challenge of designing a hospital. The hospital cannot be designed solely on activity concerns and neither based only on spatial concerns. Hospitals are based on a range of typologies that support specific patterns of activity that are never fully standardized across different healthcare systems and organizations. The human health contradictions that pushed society to build hospitals for the massive treatment of human illness are manifold. Therefore, activity and space must be articulated for each situation to effectively overcome these contradictions.

Expansive Hospital (2014), a game designed to experience the typical contradictions of a multidisciplinary project.

Design overcomes and, at the same time, reproduces contradictions because it is, at the same time, a space and an activity. Design is a specialized activity that develops innovative projects — what is referred here as design activity — but also the range of possibilities considered for each project — the design space. The activity includes not only the professionally organized design activities, but also the less professional efforts of people involved in other activities. If people are changing space to accommodate activity or changing activity to accommodate a certain space, there is design.

(Van Amstel, 2015, p.2)

Again, the ambiguity of the word enables seeing design from such a broad perspective. This perspective is essential to see design as part of change since most changes in society have not been carried out by design professionals and must remain like that. The opposite of that is a conservative division of labor in which society depends on designers to change even a small thing in their lives. In a free democratic society, this is indeed undesirable. Democracy requires the existence of multiple views on what needs to change and how.

To approach change as democratic, open, and material, design research need to move away from positivistic concepts of change such as progress, improvement, and solving. Also, it needs to go deeper than cognitive concepts of change such as problem, issue, and decision. Contradiction is a materialistic, dialectic, and relational concept that affords design research to be part of change in ways that have not been previously considered.

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