By Ingrid Halland
But where danger is, grows the saving power also.1
In the evening of 17 June 1970, the neo-avant-garde architecture group Ant Farm arrived at the week-long International Design Conference in Aspen in their Media Van and erected a transparent inflatable plastic object, Spare Tire Inflatable, which the conference participants could enter and move through. The theme of the conference, ‘Environment and Design’, had brought together American designers, architects, corporate representatives, business leaders, and a French delegation of designers and sociologists for discussions about the new powerful watchword “the environment.” Ant Farm’s soft plastic room functioned as the conference recreation area – or playground – as the delegates moved and played inside the bubble in between keynote presentations, roundtable discussions, and paper sessions. The inflatable room was an object of soft plastic with no other tangible supporting structure. As air filled up the flatpacked room, it transformed the object and it became very close to nothing. Spare Tire Inflatable was an unstable object, a structureless structure almost entirely of air – more interested in becoming than in being.
The inflatable structure explicated an expansion of the understanding of what an object could be, both regarding its formal qualities and the epistemological categories objects usually are ascribed to. First, in both these terms the inflatable room challenged stability. It evoked an unstable temporality, as the room would never stay the same. Ant Farm’s room was always moving, always becoming. As air was blown into the structure and gave it form, the room also became physically and conceptually governed by the environment. Second, Inflatable materialised a presence of intangibility. The material which gave the room its form (air) was the same, inside and outside the object, and the continuum was separated by a layer of soft plastic. The softness of the material and its transparency epitomised that the boundary between the object and the environment softened. The inflatable structure embodies virtues of freedom and flexibility; it was a room not confined to a private, interior space; rather, a movable, transparent form that resisted rigidity, confronted conformity, and rejected history. Third, Inflatable was governed by the notion of play. With its soft structure that never really stabilised, the room opened up a play of endless possibilities.
Ant Farm’s experimental assembly of inflatable plastic objects and performance art partakes in a broader critical and aesthetic practice in counterculture post-war art and architecture discourse.2 Such inflatable art objects exemplify and participates in a major issue and theme in both art and theory in the early 1970s, namely the relationship between inside/outside, interior/exterior, or, object/context. Aesthetic explorations of this relationship converged on a common critical position, in so far that this practice was deeply immersed in conceptual terms such as connectedness, networks, interactions, semiology, co-operation, feedback loops, and infrastructures. Operational terms such as these were assumed to induce a new conceptual model of the world governed by notions of liberty, free from rigid structures of stable hierarchies.
Ant Farm’s Inflatable played with the limits of what an object could be; it blurred the boundaries between the atmosphere and the object’s internal atmosphere, thus Inflatable, in a sense, became pure context.
II. Design Thinking
Throughout the 20th Century, the notion of flexibility has been widely celebrated by radical artists, systems theorists, architects and interior designers, business managers, and yoga teachers. While radical architecture collectives, such as Ant Farm, operationalized the notion of flexibility as a mode of capitalist critique, interior architects started to design open-space offices that could fit into a more drifting – or nomadic – working lifestyle. Flexibility was an antidote to rigid modernist hierarches, but as with all antidotes, overuse can cause reduction in the effectiveness so that the antidote becomes absorbed by the condition it attacks. Originating in 1970s counter-culture projects of participatory design (for instance Ant Farm’s inflatables), 3 design thinking is a design methodology that understands the designer not as an individual agent, but as operating in a dynamic and participatory manner together with the product or service, expertise from other disciplines, and the end-user. Design thinking offers a holistic approach to the process of design by the means of, for instance, multi-disciplinary
teamwork, user-centered services, innovative management models, and solution-focused thinking.4 Within design thinking, “design” is not understood as giving form to something, but as an abstract process where no individual governs the design process. The design strategy decenters the notion of the individual mind as the cradle of thoughts and imagery.
Since design thinking first emerged as a term in Peter Rowe’s book Design Thinking from 1987, the strategy has developed into a managerial model for global corporations. As we can read in numerous articles and blogs about business management: “Flexibility is the key to success.” Today, business managers employ design thinking as a management strategy in order to maximize efficiency.
Amazon Prime, The Apple iPhone, Netflix, Tesla, and Airbnb all claim to use design thinking for innovation of products and services. “It’s no longer just for products” the Harvard Business Review wrote on their cover in 2015 (above a black turtleneck sweater – Steve Job’s renowned trademark), “executives are using this approach to device strategy and manage change.”5 Airbnb repeatedly tells the story of how design thinking helped them revolutionize global tourism.6 Their approach was to think creatively, and to utilize a “human-centered user strategy” where design not only consisted of giving form to something, but instead became a holistic never-ending process where the user experience was feeding into the process.
In the article “Rethinking Design Thinking,” Lucy Kimbell relates the development of design thinking with the new creative class in which the professional life and personal life blurs, where flexibility and creativity “move across national borders without being anchored to industrial modes of production and consumption.”7 Concerning the relation between design thinking to capitalism, Kimbell references the more recent critique on the “new spirit” of capitalism (as proposed by Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello8 ) that “captures some of the energy in the shift from hierarchies to networks and from bureaucratic discipline to team-work and multi-skilling, as capitalism absorbed its critiques.”9
1. Friedrich Hölderlin's "Patmos" quoted in Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays (New York: HarperCollins, 2013), 42.
2. Other neo-avant-garde architecture collectives working with inflatables in the 1960s and 1970s include Utopie, Archigram, Haus-Rucker-Co, and Coop Himmelblau. See Felicity D. Scott, Ant Farm: Living Archive 7 (Barcelona: Actar, Columbia GSAPP, 2008) and Marc Dessauce, ed. The Inflatable Moment: Pnuematics and Protest in '68 (Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999).
3. For a historical account of the affiliation between participatory design and counter-culture see Ida Kamilla Lie, "‘Make Us More Useful to Society!’: The Scandinavian Design Students’ Organization (Sdo) and Socially Responsible Design, 1967–1973," Design and Culture 8, no. 3 (2016).
4. Conceptual roots of the concept of design thinking can be located in Christopher Alexander’s book Notes on the Synthesis of Form from 1964 and Herbert Simon’s book The Sciences of the Artificial from 1969.
5. The cover of the September 2015 issue of the Harvard Business Review (Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2015). The entire issue is dedicated to exploring various aspects of design thinking.
6. See for instance “How AirBnB uses Design Thinking in Projects – An Example.” Available from: https://thisisdesignthinking.net/2015/05/airbnb-design-thinking-example/. (Accessed 4 October, 2019)
7. Lucy Kimbell, "Rethinking Design Thinking: Part I," Design and Culture 3, no. 3 (2011): 288.
8. See Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello: The New Spirit of Capitalism (London: Verso, 2005).
9. Kimbell, "Rethinking Design Thinking: Part I," 288