Hi I’m Nina. As a postcapitalist designer* I design for the societal transition beyond capitalism
* In recent years, a growing anti-capitalist sentiment amongst designers has sparked a ‘postcapitalist design’ movement. See for example the recent University of Amsterdam doctoral thesis ‘postcapitalist design’ and the freshly published book ‘Design after Capitalism’. I too share the view that if designers want to tackle complex social problems, they must attack them at their capitalist roots. However, I disagree with the postcapitalist design movement’s vision of what postcapitalist design is.
The movement is heavily focused on de-industrialization in favor of a DIY ‘auto-industrial’ craftmanship. Enzo Mari’s Autoprogettazione is presented as an example of one of the first projects which fits this view of a post-capitalist design. Their interpretation of Mari’s work is indicative of the flaws in their analysis of design and capitalism: Mari’s intention for Autoprogettazione was not to provide a manual for building usable furniture. The intention was not practical but pedagogical; Autoprogettazione educated people about how furniture was made, to counter worker’s alienation and thereby free people from their bourgeois tastes. Ultimately, Mari wanted to provide people with mass-produced, affordable, beautiful and functional objects, but these could only be understood through an anti-capitalist education.
Mari was a self-described communist whose anti-capitalist design practice was based on a Marxist critique of capitalism. Today’s postcapitalist designer’s mistake is that they critique the aesthetics of capitalism (wasteful mass- over- and industrially produced commodities) and conclude that by designing for the opposite aesthetic (bespoke, zero-waste, crafted commodities) they must be opposing capitalism itself. This causes two main problems:
Firstly, cooptation. When rich home-owners started hiring workers to build Autoprogettazione furniture for its rustic aesthetic, the project was coopted into the bourgeois tastes which it intended to attack. Similar thing happens with post-capitalist projects, whose de-industrial production processes cause great scarcity, causing their designs to become extremely expensive (for example: the “fully grown” chairs which are grown by trees over the course of a few years are exclusively available to elite art collectors). Widespread de-industrialization runs the risk of majorly dropping the living standards for the working class, making chairs into luxuries for the wealthy - all while the systemic workings of capitalism are ignored in favor for an anti-aesthetic of capitalism.
Secondly, the movement takes a consumerist approach. Post-capitalist design ignores that DIY production methods cannot suffice for products which require long production chains. Take for example internet connections, solar panels or vaccines. Large chunks of the supply chain cannot be done DIY, postcapitalist design accepts that the most environmentally destructive and oppressive industries will continue their ways. Thus, the focus on DIY-able consumer goods with a short supply chain ensures that the movement will have little success in countering environmental destruction and worker exploitation.
These forms of “auto-industrial design” could have a place within a post-capitalist society; not being alienated from the production process of one’s consumption is a good thing, and making the production chain of consumer products less environmentally destructive is key to tackling the climate crisis. But without addressing the fundamental flaws within the capitalist mode of production, the post-capitalist design movement is about as revolutionary as a knitting-club. Therefore I see it as my role within this design movement to connect design to more fundamental critiques of capitalism. For this I draw inspiration from various Marxist designers. Like SuperStudio, Mari, Alma and Neurath showed with SuperSurface, Autoprogettazione and ISOTYPE I believe that design for post capitalism has an educational role to play - on the one hand in raising class consciousness, and on the other hand to show that a different world is possible through speculative design. Furthermore, like Bonsiepe and Neurath showed with Cybersyn and the proposals for a planned economy, I believe that design’s role is to create the systems and interfaces to post-capitalist economies.
I intentionally opened my professional identity with six paragraphs criticizing post-capitalist design, because critique forms the start my design processes: I first formulate a criticism of a certain design, which reveals the design’s ideological underpinnings. I then use this ideological criticism as a creative material to approach the subject from a fundamentally alternative ideological standpoint. At the start of a project my first urge is to provoke, but throughout my Master’s I learned to channel that energy into something more constructive: design which stand for rather than against something; post-capitalist rather than anti-capitalist design.
I gravitate towards speculative design, particularly design fiction and critical design projects, and share my PDP’s opening sentences with that of Speculative Everything: “today, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” While I see a transformative potential in speculative postcapitalist design, I am somewhat disappointed by the projects in the book. Like those highlighted for “design after capitalism” these projects lack a fundamental critique of capitalism, and instead focus on small alternatives within the status quo. As a designer I try to avoid this pitfall by grounding my speculative postcapitalist projects in a thorough critique of the material base and the ideological superstructure of capitalism.
In my projects I considered the connections between design and capitalism as my main research subject. In team projects, my role is that of the searcher: I commit to doing thorough background research, because I believe that it’s impossible to design something new without fully understanding its background.
Throughout my studies I dabbled in hacker communities and I was a dedicated activist for digital rights. This interest culminated in organizing a national referendum on a mass-surveillance law which we won. Because the intersection of the social and the digital has always been a core part of my identity, it has shaped my practices as a designer: on principle, I only work with free and open source software and I aim to publish my finished work open source. I decided to code this website from scratch, firstly to prevent including a shady 3rd party’s trackers on it, and secondly because I aim to reclaim the internet from the corporate giants who’s templates have made it sterile. Information and the internet wants to be free, but today’s internet is devoid of experimentation, courage and sense of style. I absolutely despise digital design standards such as Material design, or tools like Figma and every digital thing I create is a counterreaction to this design ethos. Outside of the digital, I strive for an aesthetic of playfulness, provocation and demystification.
In this section I have described my personal approach to post-capitalist design. In the near future I plan to organize fellow post-capitalist designers.Then, I might propose this vision for generalized post-capitalist design principles as our manifesto’s first draft: