Design Knowledge Intermediary
John Thackara
(By Merve Titiz, Creative Entrepreneur for Sustainability, www.linkedin.com/in/mervetitiz)

A conversation with John Thackara on design and its relation with life, experience, ethic, Earth, etc.

John Thackara finally came to İstanbul for Alldesign Conference where he made his opening speech. He succeeded to squeeze into his speech, issues related to sustainability challenges and the mindset and projects that can help to overcome them. He also emphasized the importance of directing our focus to the regeneration of life on earth in order to deal with complex problems we are facing on macro and micro levels. Currently, ecological values are seen as limitless and permanent resources, though while extracting these resources, we are not adding as costs to our product service value accounting, this is one of the main causes of resource scarcity and economic instability. In this frame, John Thackara mentioned that our consumption is exceeding the Earth regeneration capacity and told about inspiring actions and endeavours that can be a leverage towards a sustainable future. 

So what are the actions and endeavours of John Thackara? He defines himself as symposiarch (The master or director of a symposium, especially one in ancient Greece) who designs events, projects, and organizations. Besides having a loaded program as keynote speaker, he has also organized project-clinic workshops, festivals, doors of Perception conferences and network so that people, designers, grassroot innovators can meet and discuss about solutions so that design and innovation can progress on a human scale and in a collaborative and sustainable way. Some of the events he organized until now are: Explorers clubs, Design clinics, Dott07 in England, City Eco Lab that took place in St Etienne Design Biennal, Doors of Perception conference founded in Amsterdam in 1993. Besides being writer of various articles, blogs, guides, he directed reviews an researchs and also published his book called “in the bubble” which is translated to five different language in between 2009-2010.

After his speech, we had a conversation on new ways of thinking, new models of economics and on user behaviours that are coming up with the new paradigm and how these will affect the role of the designer. 

In your writings and speeches, you argue the importance of focusing on life instead of people...
Precautionary principles are clearly missing in the development processes of  science, medicine, design and technology. Even the simpliest level of ethical check is lacking. If there was a possibility of thinking bigger, people would choose to think about life instead of only people wants. Furthermore, if  design and technology world directs its focus more on people/human rather than system then we can overcome complex problems. Therefore not just designers, everybody in modern life- alienated from natural things- need to gain broader perspective. This way, preconceptions can be overcome and be replaced by empathy.
My new buzzword is turnery thinking: designer need to be in an empathetic situation. This is more realistic than expecting designers to be everything.

Is it idealistic to expect that these conditions will actualise?
It is more idealistic to expect that designer will be empathetic, provocative and everything. Why they have to be perfect while other people are not?
The problem is that designers think they need to learn how to be in collaborative situations so that they can experience empathy. However these situations can be possible only if other stakeholders (employer, customer etc.) are also willing to collaborate and be open to empathy.

Which kind of skills a designer will need in the future?
This question can raise an interminable discussion. As in every country the basic starting point in order to answer this question is to ask design companies and employers what they want from a designer. Then, the desired qualities of designers are listed and shared with Universities in order that education programs are shaped accordingly. However, those that are requesting a design (it can be a shopping mall, a building, website, an object) know exatly what they want, what is missing is the critical view. There is no questioning, nobody ask if we need another shopping center.
What most designers say is that their job has to be more independent and seperate from the client than it is now a days. The older people, architects were more indepent people.

How about grant programs and projects developed for European Union fundings. Could they provide a more equal work platform for a designer?
I stopped developing EU projects in 1999 because of the load of paperwork and buraucracy. If they allow looser arrangements then EU projects can be alternatives for equal work environment. From my own experience, my conclusion is that the best thing to do is to start with small projects that will help to stenghten connection with reality and put together alliance, to bring confidence to do bigger next time. And this will keep out designer from critical abstraction.

What do you think about trends in mobility and ecologic/green tourism?
I am observing that wwoolf, helpex have fantastic potential in the context of sustainable development and interaction inbetween local people and visitors. While these new forms of travels will increase, mass tourism will become more expensive with the external costs of flights (carbon emissions), waste, etc. The old notion of traveler gets popular again and it will replace the present state of the tourist. The traveler knows how to move lightly, well and mindfully, at the same time have close connection with nature, and can reflect on it. Instead of the tourist, the traveler can have more time and critical mind. Meanwhile, in order to travel lightly, you need to use effectively present capacities. So couchsurfing and AirBnb are very good examples of organizations that connect you to the local flat owners that want share their space. These are absolutaly necessary experiments.

Until which point can we extend collaborative and sharing practices?
Every service every platform should be sensitive to people using it. The big question is which of its elements can be shared across space and time. Every service should be true to its context, but just by the law of cicles, this will raise the question in some point where can we regain the efficiencies of sharing and economies of scale so that some thins can be common across platforms.
Sharing concept can stay as a matter of opinion until it becomes measurable. When you design sharing platforms that aim to be user centered and flexible platforms (web, space for living, working, etc.) you create a permanently evolving situation. For this kind of platforms, you need to balance the needs and respect the differences between groups in different places in one hand and on the other hand provide tools so that people share things (experience, information). In certain moments you can have automated things, but as soon as you do something sharable, some situations will not work for you, so you will need to make changes in the template. This process lead to continous adjustments. So you have to bear in mind that there is no perfect machine.

How could we integrate sustainability vision to experience design approach?
Experience design is a terminology grown out of interaction design, it then met an offshoot of a book called experience economy from Harward Business School. Then the business world adopted very quickly the approach to the point that a perception settled in as “If you are good in designing the experience than you are good in everything you do”. The question we should ask is: Could the social activities we all think are good ideas be improved from the perspective of experience design? As an example we can ask how organic farming can be a satisfying experience design, we already have an answer such as community supported agriculture that is satisfying its users, producers, supporters. Zip car can be another successful example for it. Experience design is neither good nor bad, what matters is where it is applied to.

Could you please tell us briefly how your interest in design started?
I began as a journalist writing about technology and cities and, later on,  environmental issues. I came to realize that design is the one process that crosses disciplines, and also has the capacity to make ideas and possible alternative futures both visual and evocative.

What does design mean for you? Is it a profession; is it a lifestyle, or both?
Neither of those! It’s a way of looking at the world and asking: how might we do things differently?

What should the priorities of design education be?
Re-connection with the biosphere, which is the life support system for all life on  earth. Design needs to stand for explicit values: an unconditional respect for life, and for the conditions that support life. Design has spent too long pretending that the state of the biosphere, our only home, is somebody else’s problem. For me, those pretending days are over. What we all have to do - not just designers - is learn to meet our daily life needs in ways
that do no damage, at all, to our life support system - the biosphere. For those of us in the
industrialised north, this is a huge challenge, of course. But that is what we have to do.

What are your advices for novice designers?

Don’t spend too much time talking to other designers! Get out of the tent more. Go and look for projects, out there in the world, where they may never heven have heard of the word design, and find out how you miught help them do their work getter


...culture that inspires you?
street food culture

...country that you want to live?
France, where I live now. And India. And Norway. And and and – it’s very confusing.

...cuisine that you like most?
Lebanese (and therefore some if Turkish)

...drink that you prefer?
Languedoc red wine

...painter that had influence on you most?

Francis Bacon

...writer that you like most?
John Berger

...kind of book that you prefer?
Essays that help me look at and experience the world in new ways

...movie you like most?

...director you like most?

Lars von Trier. Wim Wenders

...style of music you listen to?
West African

...your own design you like most?
the event design of Doors of Perception in India

...design you like most?
Routemaster Bus (which I drove when I was 25]

This interview was made in 2011. Designophy ©