Critically debating the future of design, architecture, and the creative sector

About us

We are a network of independent designers, architects, planners, writers and researchers who challenge orthodox thinking, encourage much-needed critical debate, underpinned by a limitless sense of what is possible.

We came together because we felt there is not much of this spirit around at present — especially in the creative sector — and with many who feel isolated as a result.

Acting alone can be difficult; hence, our network provides an intellectual space to meet other like-minded creatives, exchange ideas and promote tolerant-yet-questioning debate about the future of the creative sector.

Contact us if you want to know more, or want us to speak at your event.

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November feature

"The creative industries are misreading the public"

Originally published in Dezeen.

With Brexit the British people have shown a greater appetite for risk than the creative sector, which needs to take the public more seriously or risk becoming irrelevant, says Martyn Perks of the Dissenters Design Network.

A general election has been called.No one knows exactly what the UK public will do, but they will likely, again, take a huge risk and vote for the unknown.

The 2016 EU referendum was a turning point. The UK public, in the face of ‘expert’ advice and exhortations, voted to leave. In the 2017 general election and again in this year’s European elections, they voted for leave-supporting ideas while questioning the old party allegiances. This represents the germ of a new, unarticulated radicalism against the old political order.

We are witnessing a momentous shift in public sentiment, and in political attitudes too. Arguably, many people who have been politically marginalised have voted radically because they want change – one that makes them feel represented and listened to.

What is striking about recent events is that the old categories of “left” and “right” in British politics, no longer apply to the same degree. New political lines are being drawn – leave or remain, uphold the vote or demand a new one. What tacitly underlies such broad sentiment is a recognition that the old forms of representation seem deeply inadequate.

Why should this matter for the creative industries? Because we need to take the public – our audience and fellow citizens – much more seriously.

The public expression of disaffection and dissatisfaction points to a potential for big ideas, something new that can capture the collective imagination. Millions of people have shown, over the past few years, that they are prepared to take risks. We are witnessing an incredibly disruptive moment.

We are witnessing a momentous shift in public sentiment, and in political attitudes too

At the same time, the institutions and representatives of the creative sector have, for the most part, been silent, or have defended the status quo. There are understandable, pragmatic reasons for this. It is reasonable to worry about continued access to the EU market and workforce. The prospect of a long-standing relationship being torn up is scary. The uncertainty that comes with change can be frightening.

That said, creatives are in the business of change. Yet in this context, the creative sector has become conservative in outlook and scope.

Take housing as an example – an urgent issue for many. An estimated 8.4 million people are living in unaffordable, insecure or unsuitable homes , with a massive shortfall of new homes needed under the charge of successive governments.

Housing has become a political football, especially now during a general election. Every political party will continue to make promises while saying very little that is new or innovative. For example, take the Labour Party’s housing reforms.

Its pledge to build 150,000 affordable homes in five years should be welcomed. But any such plans are based on constraints, such as finding much-needed space to build on. An earlier policy paper edited by leading environmentalist George Monbiot, found that the Green Belt where it exists, specifically near railway hubs is only suitable for “allotment provision and land for community food growing projects” . Not new homes.

This reluctance to unlock potential space and, pertinently, to challenge green orthodoxy is shared by many in the creative sector. Take the Architects’ Journal, with its campaign preferring retrofitting over tearing down old stock . Again, no new homes. Indeed, other architects push accepted limits much further, openly rejecting growth (even concrete) altogether .

Yet where innovation is occurring, it’s happening at a snail’s pace. Only recently, the government appointed a new industry tsar for modern methods of construction – a welcome move. But this remains at a small scale, with a paltry 7.5 per cent of all 200,000 new homes currently being built use modular methods.

The creative industries’ response to the housing crisis is symptomatic of the sector’s inability to take the lead

Others think the answer lies in more consultation. Sounds good, unless it’s a vehicle to perpetuate limits, like the Design Council’s new project to ask the public what a Home of 2030 should be like.

Experts are currently holding meetings across the country to ask the local community what they think, asking people to “think innovatively” about the kinds of homes they need. But, as the Design Council website states, “innovation” will be explicitly steered around themes of affordability, green issues, and health themes. So much for asking people what they think, never mind radical, disruptive thinking?

The creative industries’ response to the housing crisis is symptomatic of the sector’s inability to take the lead, ask tough questions and break the mould. But this isn’t because of a shortage of innovative technology or building techniques. Instead, there’s a prevailing sense of caution and pragmatism, especially among the design establishment.

This sentiment needs challenging, especially by a few dedicated and bold individuals who are willing to question everything and break the deadlock. And consequently, show our flailing political establishment some real ambition.

This is the crux of the matter: instead of seizing upon a moment of potential change, leading creatives have pretty much sought to batten down the hatches and wish the world was back to where it was a few years ago. This is a problem in two ways.

Leading creatives have pretty much sought to batten down the hatches and wish the world was back to where it was a few years ago

Firstly, there is a palpable sense that the creative industries are misreading the public, or not fully understanding what motivates them. This is a serious issue for the sector. In principle, it prides itself for its objectivity and an ability to get inside the minds of people to understand and interpret their needs and desires.

The sense of distance from ordinary people – in some cases outright disdain for those who voted leave – is symptomatic of a refusal to engage with our audience in straightforward terms. Independent critical thinking – a good understanding of the wider cultural and political forces that shape and are shaped by people – should surely be central to everything we do.

Secondly, the creative industries institutions and commentariat have created a toxic environment around the 17.2 million people who voted leave. To be in favour of leaving the EU, critical of it, or even in favour of merely upholding the 2016 referendum on democratic grounds, is for many, beyond the pale. Many creatives feel it impossible to even discuss these views for fear of being ‘outed’ and professionally and personally slandered.

It is irrelevant that the sector overwhelmingly voted Remain in 2016. More important is the fact that the Creative Industries Federation felt compelled to publicly call for a second referendum . This is an ideological imposition masquerading as a business decision.

The sense of distance from ordinary people and outright disdain for those who voted leave is symptomatic of a refusal to engage with our audience in straightforward terms

Tolerance of differing opinion and the core value of creatives – listening, investigation, ruminating and debating – has been hard to detect throughout the past three and half years. The unfortunate consequence has been the closing down of necessary discussion and debate. This is the very antithesis of what the creative sector should be.

We have a proud history of challenging orthodoxies, encouraging diverse views and creating something better from well-informed opinion. Indeed, we should resist the urge to take sides politically, and instead, be steadfastly independently and critically minded.

The Dissenters Design Network is a network of independent designers, architects, planners, writers and researchers who challenge orthodox thinking, encourage much-needed critical debate, underpinned by a limitless sense of what is possible.

We came together because we felt there is not much of this spirit around at present — especially in the creative sector – and with many who feel isolated as a result. Acting alone can be difficult; hence, our network provides an intellectual space to meet other like-minded creatives, exchange ideas and promote tolerant-yet-questioning debate about the future of the creative sector.

Let’s remember that good design is about thinking about and solving problems in new ways – including challenges no one even thought were problems. Design innovates. It draws on new ideas to build new things.

Just as with the housing crisis, new ideas are in short supply. To develop new ideas, creatives need to be able to question everything without fear and say things without the fear of censure. No assumption should go unchallenged. The current atmosphere stifles discussion and too many orthodoxies are accepted without question.

For three elections in a row, and maybe soon a fourth, the public have shown an openness to and an appetite for new ideas. The genie is out of the bottle. Whether we like it or not, there is no going back to how things were.

Simply put, the public are asking for bold alternatives. As creatives, we have a duty to meet that need.

September feature

Seven questions we should all be asking

The Creative Industries Federation’s Open letter to the New Prime Minister calls on the Government for its continued support.

Here we offer The Dissenters Design Network’s responses, for much-needed debate about the future value of the creative industries.

Read more...

News and comment

Our views of what's going on and how to make sense of it.

If something catches your eye, do tell us and we'll include it in our next round-up.

December news

Eye Magazine — Typographic hints for the next generation

‘The New Art School Rules!’ is an exhibition of 121 type-based images designed by current design practitioners. Our very own Dissenter Alex Cameron explains why it stands apart from other exhibitions. It elevates design (and of the designer), as Cameron writes, without any ‘infantilising ideological parameters’. Each piece is meant to inspire and inform, using a maxim taken from each designers’ own experience. What you get is a collective visual manifesto ‘for the next generation’. The exhibition is free of ideological constraints and engages its audience in an essentialist discussion about design. It deserves and 'needs a life beyond Design Manchester 19 Festival'.

Dezeen — Savannah design studio reimagines cardboard box as chair

‘After more than a year of prototyping…’, design studio Donttakethisthewrongway recently showed off the fruits of their labour: a cardboard box that is a chair. Without irony, one of its designers said: “I think a cardboard box has the potential of being a chair without trying to…” But unlike early-years children, who get to creativity explore the multiplicity of an objects’ many uses for the first time. Is this an example of cynical 'anti-design' and sustainable virtue signalling? Perhaps a better use might be to use the box to hide away such inexcusable ideas?

Dezeen — “Our dependency on growth, like on concrete, must be abolished”

According to Phineas Harper, one of the co-curators of the Oslo Architecture Triennale, the pursuit of infinite economic growth is driving climate breakdown and producing ecologically toxic architecture. But surely, being so against growth and architecture is itself a rejection of the very essence of what design is: to consciously transform the world around us — as we see fit — for the better. If you reject that, then how can we even begin to solve issues like climate change?

Time — The 100 Best Inventions of 2019

A talking hearing aid, a revolutionary face wash, inventive bike navigation, a pair of listening sunglasses, a simple-to-use shower caddy, plant-based burgers, elderly care robots and a hands-free vibrator, are some of the many examples of human inventiveness and creativity from 2019. Each one was selected because they demonstrate ‘originality, creativity, influence, ambition and effectiveness’. We get 100 brilliant ideas, each illustrating what can be achieved when the designer is free to explore many different creative possibilities without any overarching moralising constraint.

South China Morning Post — Designer of Shanghai’s 1000 Trees development, Google’s new London HQ, Coal Drops Yard and Singapore’s The Hive on connecting to the human scale

The Future Cities Project’s Austin Williams speaks to renowned architect Thomas Heatherwick about his latest 1000 Trees development in Shanghai, and of his broader philosophy to “integrate our buildings with the human experience.” From China to his Coal Drops Yard project in London, show his design ethos of finding ways to reassure people, considering the grand scale of his architecture. Such as even designing the lift buttons in order “to make the place memorable, enjoyable and human”. Heatherwick’s architecture always seems to find a way to give a human perspective, even in the most demanding of places.

 

November news

Bawaba — Anti-Manspreading Chair Was Supposed to Be a Genius Solution. Instead People Are Rebelling Against It Al

What was lauded as an award-winning feminist design to keep men’s legs closed when seated (and another seat that pushes women’s legs apart) has become ridiculed online. Designer Laila Laurel said she was motivated because men were “infringing on [her] space in public”. But others commented the seats unfairly shame how anyone chooses to sit. Apart from stigmatising men, it makes children of us all, of how we negotiate our pubic spaces.

Nesta — How evidence should guide manifesto promises on the Creative Industries

With the General Election looming large, Creative Industry researchers NESTA argue that the UK Parliament risks ignoring the sector’s well-established economic potential moving forward. Citing concerns that businesses are contracting, the majority of whom are in London and the South-East, with skilled vacancies unfilled. Where evidence is needed of how to integrate the creative industries into the broader economy, rather than arguing for its uniqueness. Up until now, that has often been the focus of any ‘evidence’ used to justify the sector.

Architects’ Journal — Modular design should be on architects’ syllabus, says government tsar

With continued severe UK housing shortage, more needs to be done to invent innovative building methods. Mark Farmer, the new government tsar for modern methods of construction (MMC) rightly argues that architects should welcome this as an opportunity, liberating them from monotonous work, with ‘more time to work on the more creative aspects of design’. With more manufacturing options to explore, creativity will be in short supply to keep up. But more importantly, why has it taken so long to even get to this point, with dwindling housing stock being a decades-old problem?

Eye Magazine — Blog | (Typographic) Noted #95

Throughout November, the Centro Cultural Recoleta, Buenos Aires will drape a huge banner, covering its façade, with the words ‘SOY YO’ (‘It’s me’). Using the colours of the ‘Pride’ flag, designer Guille Vizzari says ‘I am what I choose to be today. It’s me. Soy yo.’ This is now standard practice. The ever-expanding and elastic question of gender is every national and international institution and corporation’s favourite brand extension. It is an ideological imposition dressed as a moral good. Once radical, now mainstream elitism.

Dezeen — Patrik Schumacher and Harriet Harriss clash over long-hours culture at Dezeen Day

In a heated debate, Schumacher argued capping hours worked will cause a slow-down, stagnate creativity, and reduce competitiveness. Whereas Harriss said, the widespread toxic-hours culture is causing a decline in productivity and mental health. Yet, is top-down employment regulation the answer? Will it remove any basis for both employers and staff to argue for flexible working conditions, along with higher wages? Can that work in what continues to be an ever-changing dynamic sector?

 

October news

Design Week — Hostile design is still a problem in our public spaces - here’s why

Spikes, bars on seats and other tactics that stop people, homeless or otherwise, from freely using public spaces are illiberal and strike a blow at our humanity. Designers see this for what it is, but are less critical of other initiatives that also try to nudge us, such as schemes intended to promote the use of stairs over lifts and escalators. Is design for behaviour change wrong only when it is obviously cruel?

dezeen — Design Museum saved by £3m loan as finances deemed “not sustainable”

Why can’t the museum get the public through its doors? Design, as we are constantly reminded, is apparently pivotal to economic prosperity, the survival of the planet, and our well-being. What’s going on? Could it be that design is over-hyped, misplaced or misused?

CBI — UK creative industries crown must gleam brightly Post-Brexit

On one hand, we are stellar performers with the creative sector being held up as an example of worldwide British economic success. Yet in the same breath, we told to adopt a pro-European, protectionist outlook. Which is it to be? The sectors’ success is because of its worldwide global outlook, not in spite of it.

aeon — How smartphones silence what the urban landscape tries to say

How do we interact with the built environment? Why should we care about “how the built environment can be designed so that people are ‘nudged’ to act in ways that are safe, sustainable and socially desirable”? Why are “safe, sustainable and socially desirable” the best qualities to aim for? More and more democratic protest, from the Gilets Jaunes, to Hong Kong, to Spain, is coming out on to the streets and in to cities. Is this socially desirable?

Design Week — Protest by design: the creatives performing acts of political sedition

Right-on Led By Donkeys, the anti-Brexit campaign, has just been shortlisted as one of the Design Museum’s Beazley Designs of the Year. Perhaps no surprises that a remain campaign is short-listed? But when is design design, and when is it straightforward politics? Designers agonise over working for business – shouldn’t they agonise over working for other causes too?

 

September news

dezeen — Architects should give up concrete say experts at Architecture of Emergency climate summit

Apparently architects will no longer use concrete floors or plastic pipes. Next to go: energy-intensive glazing, steel and brick? Is this a progressive, or a reactionary idea?

Design China Beijing — Nature’s Way of Telling Us…

DesignBeijing's theme is "Nature’s Way of Telling Us…" Is this simply a shorthand for Chinese restraint? Does this represent a new and exciting sense of "innovation and invention" or is it the same ol' same ol'.

Politics Home — Tom Watson MP: Investing in arts and culture will create jobs and regenerate communities

Labour's Tom Watson says: "we’re looking at a model for a tax relief for literature." He adds: "Creativity and imagination empower us." Are we all Situationists now?

Design Week — Nicolas Roope: “A different design language is taking over”

Since leaving Poke, Roope says he's focussed on behaviour change arguing 'design needs to be a part of fixing it together.' Just why are so many designers fixated on behaviour? Wasn't design about opening up more possibilities over how we choose to live?

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