An A to Z of contemporary design

Rodgers, Paul Anthony and Bremner, Craig (2016) An A to Z of contemporary design. Design Journal, 19 (1). pp. 5-23. ISSN 1756-3062 (

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In 2001, Hal Foster wrote his paper “The ABCs of Contemporary Design*” (Foster, 2002a) as a supplement (part glossary, part guide) to his book Design and Crime (and Other Diatribes) (Foster, 2002b). Foster’s ABCs paper paints design as being a near‐perfect circuit of production and consumption. Foster claims that critical reflection is outdated, which means design is a consumption‐based system and as such design’s role is largely to feed capitalism, let it flourish, and meet the demands of the masses. Over a decade on from Foster’s critical analysis of design, however, it appears that design is in the middle of yet another series of crises (Bremner and Rodgers, 2013) ranging from disciplinary challenges where the profession of design appears to be struggling with its identity, to epistemological and conceptual challenges where the zeitgeist of design thinking and the widespread democratization of the discipline would have us believe that “we are all designers”, and where the remit of design is expanding into ever more far flung areas that cover communications, services, interactions and strategies. It seems timely and fitting, therefore, that we need a new examination of the contemporary world of design. This assessment of contemporary design is apposite given that we currently inhabit a world that we have all combined to create that is seriously unprepared to deal with the mounting crises we face. Collectively, we are destroying some of the most important features of society that we claim to hold most dear (i.e. our planet, our society, and our spirit). Our ecological crisis, wherein we continue to deplete and degrade our natural capital on a massive scale, using up the equivalent of 1.5 planets to meet our current consumption has resulted in one third of our agricultural land disappearing over the last 40 years, which will inevitably lead to food supply crises and an anticipated doubling of food prices by 2030 (Emmott, 2013). Our present social crisis sees nearly 2.5 billion people on our planet living in abject poverty (UNHDR, 2007). There have been many successes at lifting people out of poverty, but this figure has not changed much over the past few decades (Therborn, 2012). Furthermore, the world is currently in a spiritual crisis where, according to World Health Organization (WHO) statistics, 3 times as many people die from suicide as die from homicide or in wars. These global dimensions are collectively creating results that nobody wants and may well constitute the most significant failure of our time. Building on Foster’s ABC template, the authors present a new critical insight from A to Z into the current design situation where issues of professionalism in design, the global financial meltdown, and the rapid adoption of digital technologies have all modified the models of design thought and action. We suggest readers see this paper as a development of Foster’s original supplement.