The usefulness of imperfect design

Rodgers, Paul A. and Bremner, Craig and Galdon, Fernando; Mullagh, Louise and Cooper, Rachel, eds. (2024) The usefulness of imperfect design. In: Design and Covid-19. Bloomsbury, London, pp. 34-49. ISBN 9781350266742

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We, the authors, have been probing the state of the gesture of care for nearly a decade, and we staged our first international symposium to begin a process of re-formulating the conceptual basis of Care from the point of view of design in Copenhagen in 2015. A few years and events later the first "Does Design Care…?" workshop at Imagination Lancaster in 2017 asked participants to respond to what we had identified as 10 problems with care. Since then the concept of 'care' has become very popular with a booming literature very little of which sees any problems associated with care other than the need for more of it. In addition to the ten problems we started with the first workshop produced some problems with the problems. We wondered whether it was worth asking how much care, in particular health and social care, is just opportunistic. It is not enough for me to care – the other must need care. So people appearing to need care are perfect, soft targets for something that we design and call care, i.e. something easily imitating care. We also wonder what is the attraction for design to want to get into bed with health and social care when the invisible gesture of care is so complex - care is always care of the other, care for the other, care to be cared for by the other, care for what the other cares for. And when an emerging platform we could call design and care comes into existence why do all the anecdotes paraded as design solutions appear to validate the design actions, especially when anecdotes never have currency in the disciplines? We could see why it was attractive to equate care with historic misconceptions of utopia because mixing design with care reprises the unfictionable ideals of design. But why does design need the increasingly popular 'fictions' to approach care? Does that make care a fiction? The trickiest issue for us was the carefully circumvented question of how design can avoid getting entangled in care's transactional platform? Was care simply another opportunity for design in its pact with capital? With the maturing of the service economy eventually people just wanted to be served so with the rapid rise and maturing of the caring economy is it probable that people will just want to be cared for? If so, this is perfect for the business of care but what about the design of care? Keep in mind that service design is just transactional affairs sold under the guise of friendship (Rodgers & Bremner 2018). Also, can design distinguish between interactional care and transactional care? The former is a basic gesture most of us engage instinctively while the later is an uncharitable trick of the Capital project. It would appear that at first all the design proceedings pushing the issue of care are confronting basic questions such as what do we mean when we speak care, and what do we mean when we think care? But its now appearing to be easier for conferences and authors to sidestep these basic questions and leap straight to the managerial 'case-study' model. We were still interested in where we locate care (as gesture) or where we locate the idea of care (as value)? Does care initiate a process of production (e.g. via gestures)? Or do our habitual actions produce care (i.e. is care an end product or by-product?)? Perhaps the most troubling question for design is whether design is attempting to give care agency or turn care into an agent, and as such, the relational design/product/service par excellence? What made us even more suspicious was design's sudden predilection to chronicle its actions – its case studies and anecdotes - as acts of empathy, which prompted us to ask – what was design doing before it discovered empathy? But is design aware that empathy makes designers imagine they are people they are not (Solnit 2015) and that "empathy is, in a word, selfish…is biased…is short sighted" (Serpell 2019). Almost all of the above questions were answered in a matter of months – specifically the months from January 1st to May 31st 2020 – the period during which we scooped up design's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As the projects accumulated we assembled them into a book that we published soon after. This chapter tells the story of this book – "A Design History of the COVID-19 Virus". We documented hundreds of projects many of which might have saved lives. All were produced as quickly as possible with designs getting more and more rudimentary – imperfection was irrelevant. Use was king. Life saving designs, absolutely essential and useful but all imperfect. Perfection would have been deathly! But long before we witnessed the absolute utility of imperfection Andrea Branzi wrote in his "Introduction to Italian Design" (2008) that imperfection had already superseded perfection as the archetype of design: "The activity of innovation, which today design is called to respond to, follows strategies completely different from those past, committed to realising definitive products, that is industrial archetypes destined for large numbers to mass markets, and exemplified by great elegance by our masters. It is the opposite today… One must point to individualised models "reversible, provisional, perfectible" that leave large margins for future action, market adjustment, but also the advent of new market spaces. One isn’t dealing only with updating product aesthetics, but to individualise dynamic devices that will never reach a definitive equilibrium. Paradoxically, perfection creates rigidity, fragility and the risk of precocious aging of the brand."