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Rebecca Sutton Koeser

Lead Developer at Princeton University Center for Digital Humanities, PhD in English Literature.

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Notes from Johanna Drucker’s keynote at AIGA Converge Design Educators Conference on June 2, 2017.


Knowledge Design. A whole set of practices: production of intellectual assets for academic publication and research. What skills do students need for this work? The structure of libraries, finding aids, catalogs, taxonomies, inventories are all kinds of knowledge design. (Drucker showed an example of an online edition interface of Die Fackel designed by Anne Burdick.) Any environment (platform, framework) with an organizational schema and intellectual content.

Traditional areas of design (advertising, communication) don’t necessarily have a meta structure like this.

Knowledge Design requires integrating and understanding how the back-end functions in order to create the front-end. How do you get designers to understand the shift from graphic design, signage to integration design like this? You’re designing functionalities. You have to know what the assets are, how they are structured, etc.

Knowledge design is the combination of systems + interface + infrastructure. But that only tells part of the story.

A different set of concerns that are more cultural and theoretical: any environment for communication creates a model of agency. It communicates to the user something about how they can do or make something in this environment. In most cases, this is an illusion or delusion of agency. Might be simple: make a purchase, search for something; or more complicated: data mining, analysis.

Agency is linked to assumptions about efficiency and efficacy for the system to serve the user. The User needs to be invoked as a Subject.

In enunciation theory, there is a speaking subject and spoken subject; in knowledge design, subjectivity is not marked.

“The interface hails you.”

We need to think of human communication as an enunciative act, so knowledge design is a special case of this. Someone is speaking to someone else for a particular purpose, involved in an asymmetrical relationship of power.

Agency is never simple, instrumental, mechanical; constructed from within the design of the environment. Agency is always performative.

Technical issues: platform/engineering/interface

Cultural issues: agency as a performance within the system.

Drucker then provided an overview of modern graphic design history as a study in models of agency and subjectivity. (This was a whirlwind tour intended for an audience of designers who are already familiar with this history and these designers, so I inevitably missed some aspects of it.)

  • N. W. Ayer & Son design agency: transactional relationship for consumers; designed subject, discriminatory agency to consume
  • Joseph Moxon, 1683 - design education is not yet a separate discipline
  • 19th century typographic manuals - no meta language of design.
  • End of 19th century - self conscious articulation of design; Walter Crane, Line & Form. Agency for designer: capacity to think. (Flat screen surfaces provide an “omniscient view” that makes you think you’re not being viewed or looking at.)
  • Designer as produced subject has agency for radical transformation (maybe utopian)
  • Bernays: propaganda machine, creating a public mine. Created a campaign to identify suffragettes and popular women with cigarettes. Engineering social environment to enact a fascist subject - alignments, allegiance, coercion. The produced subject comes to see themselves as making a choice.
  • Modernist aesthetic: designer as self-aware, fully conscious; autonomous manipulation of form. Speaking subject as neutral; the language of form. Perceiving subject reacts to form. Not even a sense of psychology. Fully formal, totally heroic; agency is control over power systems. Corporate system, monolothic. No place for individuality or subjectivity.
  • 50s and 60s push back against this; reconceive agency as activism. Capacity to speak, identify a position, garner opposition & be critical. Agency of designer: constructed, contingent, but stylish and hip - in the know. Network of shared values and exchanges, not just an object. agency + activism: cultural politics; who is allowed to speak and say what? Every model of subjectivity (who we think we are) contains agency (what we think we can do).
  • 80s and 90s - Designing the digital interface. “Interpassivity” (as opposed to interactivity). Notion of user: consumer whose needs must be met immediately and efficiently. Not a subject in a transactional relationships. Sense of omnipotence that begins to set in on the screen.

We stop seeing the screen as calling to us, hailing us when we think we are omnipotent and in control.

“We’re most deluded when we believe in our capacity for agency.”

How does this work in activist and participatory sites?

The problem with the system is that it doesn’t see its own illusions and delusions.

All instances of communication contain constructions of subjectivity and models of agency.

Sentient agency (e.g. a human driver running into your car) vs. mechanical agency (e.g. landslide crushing your car) vs. “performative” agency - transactional communication.

References Miriam Posner’s work on Seeing like a Supply Chain and sas.com. SAS provides a “cockpit” that tells you what’s going on in your supply chain at any given time. This interface is pernicious in the way that it conceals human and ecological problems in the production. Who is speaking here? It’s a human-designed system, but so complex (AI, algorithms, etc).

What is the constraint? Not just capacity for agency but understanding of the self as subject.

Where are we complicit in the supply chain of intellectual work? How do we design an awareness?

How do we show the construction of data processing? What’s shown and not shown? Working to make things “consumable” - what are we suppressing to support that?

How do you intervene in systems, phantasmatic thinking? If whole categories of information disappear from view, what do wo do? Our news feeds are also just as much about what isn’t shown. Knowledge design as consensual narratives of understanding.

User-centered design is all about ease of use, efficiency - which is concealment. How can we teach uncomfortable skepticism?

Anything that presents a single view is a problem - it says, “this is what is”. Contrasting perspectives makes it clear that the interface is a knowledge construction.

What about AI? Complex systems’ only loyalty is to themselves.

Performative agency diminishes us, gives us no capacity for intervention. Subject of a system rather than in a human exchange.