Prototyping a Useless Design Practice: What, Why & How?

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Søren Rosenbak


This essay sets out to rectify the false dichotomy between the notions of uselessness and usefulness in relation to design, in order to argue for a useless design practice. The argument is structured into three main parts.

Part I opens with an introduction and goes on to frame design as a hybrid discipline that has been characterized by usefulness since it was born of the Industrial Revolution. The notion of useful design and its continuingly intimate relationship with the neoliberalist growth economy is subsequently unpacked through scrutinizing the basic demands for quantification & acceleration, conflicting use and temporality with special attention paid to the Anthropocene.

Part II elucidates the ambiguous relationship between the useless and the useful through the related critical/conformist dichotomy present in Dunne & Raby’s A/B Manifesto as well as through useless and useful design fictions. From here the unuseless chindōgu by Kawakeni and the unfindable objects by Carelman together frame the useless as a “useful overdrive.” Additionally they illustrate the constant risk of assimilation, festishization and spectacle that disruptive useless design artifacts face within the neoliberalist growth economy. In the digital realm The Useless Web accentuate the post-ironic and absurd qualities in useless design.

Part III asks: what is useless design, why do we need useless design and how could useless design exist? From five opening propositions, useless design is positioned among related concepts such as Redström’s “design after design” (2011), Hunt’s “tactical formlessness” (2003), Tonkinwise’s “designing things that are not finished” (2005), and Jones’ “pure design” (1984). Useless design is finally argued to find its value from its ability to valuate and actively traverse the growing chasm between the industrial and the post-industrial design paradigm.

In essence useless design is an invitation to make useful, here “useful” understood in reappropriated terms, beyond its currently one dimensional, confined state. On that note, the essay concludes by shifting its gaze from the abstract insights gathered throughout the essay towards the concrete urgent task of prototyping a useless design practice.


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