“Under the spreading chestnut tree
I sold you and you sold me:
There lie they, and here lie we
Under the spreading chestnut tree”
Parts of this essay have been reconstructed using email threads;
Parts of this essay are the results of ten hours of interviews;
Parts of this essay have been grafted from a Google docs discussion;
Parts of this essay are cut and past from Linkedin gurus;
The whole of this text will be used to approach an idea, softly.
Like a mouse tiptoeing towards cheese.
Escaping the Chestnut Tree Cafe
They sat there, all of them, around a table. Not looking each other in the eyes but at the objects instead, the unstable matter vibrating between them. The same stuff that was once promised to them. It was theirs for the taking they were told: to manipulate, to speculate on, to propose, to critique and to build with. But there they were, all of them, sat around a table.
It felt as if they were the last ones left from the school of 2020. They were the last ones to have not left the creative industries, the ones who’d resisted the lure of going into content production. The others churned out countless VR and AR worlds, shaped not by the passing of time but by Search Engine Optimisation. It turned out that design graduates were perfect for a life in CT, writers too, since machine intelligence still wasn’t inventive enough to come up with new ways of extracting more capital and attention from humanity. That still had to be done by something that could smile.
The singularity hadn’t been achieved yet, either. Theirs was a messy world. One that many design graduates predicted and tried to change, but had happened anyway. The onward march of capital went straight past the well meaning research PDFs, interactive installations, visceral yet critical banquets, Instagram filters, symposiums and news-featured-plastic recycling-circular economy-projects. Thousands of graduates strained to build a better world as the one they lived in coughed and burned. Hopes, expectations, and neoliberal promises of individual action and planetary salvation were sold to them by a caste of earnest pedagogues and desperate universities drained of funding.
So there they were, sitting around a table.
Each morning the five of them would meet at the Chestnut Tree Cafe, nurse a coffee, smoke, post, and curse those who left the profession. Once on the inside, they’d check how their work or research papers were doing on academia.edu and Instagram as their serotonin was drained from them like bile from a moon bear. Glances were stolen as each sought to project a different reality to the one they were living.
Inside a head, facing down:
“To be honest, I really don’t like Instagram. I feel the pressure as all the posts are under my name. So people judge me, and everything else through that post. I can’t make a mistake. I’m so nervous to post new things.” *Tap
One of them had just got some funding from the Welsh Council for a material research project into alternative uses for the millions of Unions Jacks that were produced shortly before the Union fell apart. Their social media accounts and the website were updated, gleaming photos of pastel smiles and neon backgrounds of red, white and blue shot through the ether. The others filtered green.
The name D.Smith is mentioned in an influential and high-impact design research paper uploaded to Academia.
Click here to view your mentions…
Sat on their smartphones around that table they looked as anachronistic as automata at the annual Elon Musk Memorial Riot. He, like the designers themselves, never delivered salvation. But why?
Culture takes time to catch up with technological innovations. This ‘cultural lag’ postpones rapid advancement of societies. This is where design comes into play, reducing the lags by developing contexts for adaption and cultural uptake…
Design thinking is NOT about processes, efficiencies or product version changes. It’s about having a deep and committed instinct to reduce this ‘cultural lag.’ Because technology is going through near autonomous advancement, many times leaving us behind to just catch up.
“Were we an industry always just playing catch up? Even our futures couldn’t keep pace… Weren’t we, the avant-garde, supposed to change all this?”, M said under their breath as they looked up from their screen. The others shuffled slightly as flashbacks of awards, grant writing and promise darted behind their retinas.
It had all looked so alluring, the promise of fame in a closed world, the respect and envy of those who only knew their pixels. This loop of affirmation, palatable criticality, and platform reliance pushed design further and further away from the shared and lived reality.
There is no being avant-garde on a dying planet, the whole idea was a hangover from the previous century away. Because if there is no future, and there wasn’t, then being avant-garde just meant trying to stay relevant to survive. Because of this design had become toxic, leaching out its desire for newness into the world like chemicals from a consumer e-waste dump.
It was the five of them that paid the price for the manufactured desire of always wanting to be at the cutting, sexy edge. Too many of their contemporaries were looking at the horizon instead of the gaping fissure at their feet. They were the children of university PR departments, ossified or precarious pedagogues, social media channels and a professional field rife with uncertainty and devoid of solidarity. It was a generation that confused the critical with the constructive.
Their depression sat heavy on them. As the world slipped further and further away, so too did their mental health. To think about it actually, their mental health was what was at the centre of this. Twenty years into the new millennium and everything came to a point: environmental destruction and pollution; precarious working conditions; nationalism, xenophobia and hatred permeated almost all aspects of social and political life. All facilitated by technology’s ability to coalesce all of this despair in a single device, while still managing to divide. Every narrative, every human story, every non-human story of woe was suffused with hope. A hope that was being sold by educational institutes. Because if education was no longer about the pursuit of knowledge, then it was about the manufacturing of hope. If we can hope, then we can pay the fees.
We achieve this by making you reflect in more abstract ways on the meaning of your designs and the social roles you perform as a designer. Because we want to encourage you to link your personal story with the issues, problems and questions that arise in the world around you.
“Why do I feel so sad?” mumbled S as they turned round to get the sensor’s attention. A simple nod and the coffee was paid for, so too were the 5 minutes 46 seconds they’d not spent looking at an Instagram feed. The familiar high pitched growls of the phone let them know they’d been DM’d the receipt.
“Thanks for choosing us to get your caffeine boost. Remember, if you want to level-up your retina training and reduce your bill: keep your eyes down and at the screen! Have a lovely day xx”
“How did we end up here?”, slumping back into the chair “we were all working so tirelessly to build a better world. Thousands of us, all creative, all willing, our research was supposed to be the catalyst for change!”, their voice rising to such a pitch that the others couldn’t respectfully ignore it. “We really had a brilliant idea, you know. We really knew how to change the system but the system just didn’t want to be changed.”
Still, the group’s recognition was anything but empathetic. It was part of the routine. One of them gets up, mournfully scolds their situation and then sits back down. Each of the five then carried on their individual silence, only ever interrupted by the ever-present adverts for Fluoxetine and more online design courses:
To you, designing should be anything but a duty; it is an urgency. Your life depends on it. How could you live without it? Oddly enough, this sense of urgency often goes hand in hand with diffidence.