Push/Pull: Total Design in the 20th and 21st Centuries

Design and Crime, and Other Diatribes is a 2002 essay collection by the art historian and critic Hal Foster. Although I will consider the entire collection as context, the concentration here will be on the title essay. “Design and Crime” is a reframing of the 1913 essay “Ornament and Crime” by the Austrian modernist architect Alfred Loos, which attacked the indiscriminate ornamentation of objects, particularly in the Art Nouveau designs of the early 20th century. Foster uses Loos’s criticism as an analogy for the problems of contemporary design.

For the reader that knows Foster’s writing or reputation outside of this essay, it is immediately counterintuitive to see him adopting Loos’s dogmatic ideological framework. Often associated with the postmodernist art movement, Foster’s intellectual background is in opposition to what he calls “the ideological baggage of purity and propriety” that Loos and other modernists sought.¹ Despite this counterintuitive ideological forebear, Foster’s criticism of what he calls total design is a trenchant critique of design’s symbiotic relationship with capital and its tendency to diminish and routinize critical cultural practices. At the same time, Foster’s consideration of design is fundamentally incomplete. Even a cursory survey of design today reveals many practitioners that do not fit Foster’s characterization because they are actively cognizant of design’s limits.

In fact, Foster’s willingness to use Loos’s framework likely suggests how little he thinks of the status of contemporary design. This distaste for contemporary design comes across in the polemical style of the essay. Admittedly, this is a point that Foster readily acknowledges in the title and introduction of the book, where he refers to the essays as “diatribes.”

Foster’s critique of contemporary design revolves around the concept of total design, which he singles out from Loos’s essay. The two key characteristics of total design are: (1) a blurring of the boundaries between traditional disciplines and distinguishments; and (2) a tendency to impose the subjectivity of the creator or the consumer onto every object and problem. In the case of the Art Nouveau designs that Loos considered, the blurring of disciplines was quite literal. Art Nouveau architecture and design sought to create a Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art, by applying the creator’s hand to every object, be it architectural, art, furniture, or craft (see fig. 1).[1] Loos and other early modernists lambasted this kind of total design in categorical terms. They claimed that total design had a terrible finality, that it prevented any future development and suffocates the forward motion of human culture. The progress of culture and civilization is the path of distinguishment, argues Loos, not of elevating all objects irrespective of their purpose or meaning.

The second aspect of total design, which has a similarly stifling effect on cultural development, is the projection of the consumer’s subjectivity onto material objects. For the Art Nouveau designer, the total work of art imbued each object, ornament, and form with the individuality of the patron or consumer of the object. For Loos, design that entirely encapsulates a subject precludes again any future development or progress, amounting to a kind of death-in-life. These two elements of total design — a blurring of disciplines and boundaries and a confusion of subject and object — are the scaffolding that Foster then uses to build his critique of contemporary design.

Foster argues that a version of total design is at work today; however, unlike Art Nouveau, contemporary design is also intertwined with, and complicit in, the growth of global capitalism. Foster highlights a few key aspects of this intertwined relationship. The first and perhaps most obvious of these observations is how important design has become for postindustrial technologies and products. Everything is viewed a design problem waiting to be solved, “whether the product in question is your home or your business, your sagging face (designer surgery)…or your historical memory (designer museums).” The second key aspect that explains contemporary design is the rise of brand equity as a source of value for companies. The final factor aiding the inflation of design, is a general level of mediation in the economy. By mediation, Foster means the reorganization of the economy by computing and digitization to the point where “the product is no longer thought of as an object to be produced so much as a datum to be manipulated — that is, to be designed, and redesigned, consumed and reconsumed.” The suggestion here is that what is being sold in the contemporary economy is more an idea than a physical product. Often, the designer’s role is to reflect a consumer’s personality or values into products and brands, and then manipulate those products and brands so that it can be sold again and again. This narcissistic reflection of the subject is similar to how the Art Nouveau interior reflects the owner’s personality in every object, but on a far greater scale. Taken together, these diagnoses are a high-level explanation of how design became inflated and intertwined with the global economy. For readers today, the critique holds up well. At the same time, Foster’s characterization of design proves incomplete.

Foster’s criticism is not simply that contemporary design partners with enterprise; to the contrary, he acknowledges that design has always had a close relationship with industry. Design becomes problematic when it blurs boundaries and decontextualizes its role, attempting to act, for example, as both a corporate consultant and a cultural critic. The designer Bruce Mau illustrates this point well. Mau made his name as a designer with Zone Books, designing publications that included radical philosophy and architectural theory. Today, Mau consults with global brands such as Coca-Cola, General Electric, and Netflix (see fig. 2). In his monograph, Life Style, Mau draws no distinction between these projects and clients, and even positions himself as an outsider to the capitalist regime. Whether the problem relates to commercial enterprise, radical philosophy, collective historical memory, or environmental futurism, Mau sees a problem in need of design. In fact, he collapses these categories in a particularly problematic fashion: “The only way to build real equity is to add value: to wrap intelligence and culture around a product. The apparent product, the object attached to the transaction, is not the actual product at all. The real product has become culture and intelligence.” This attitude is the contemporary equivalent to the over designed Art Nouveau interior, where the designer imposes their subjectivity onto all things indiscriminately, deconstructing the boundaries between culture, finance, commerce, architecture, information, and so on. Using Mau as an example, Foster’s argument maps well onto the state of design today, and offers his readers a useful way to understand how design can work against critical culture.

Despite his perceptive diagnosis of problems facing contemporary design, Foster’s narrow characterization of design ignores practices that contradict his argument. Most notably, he does not consider the movement toward a transdisciplinary approach in design. The precise terminology for this push toward a transdisciplinary approach is unclear, but I will focus on the term strategic design as defined by the Helsinki Design Lab. Strategic Design argues that the traditional boundaries between disciplines are inadequate for addressing system-level problems. To combat this inadequacy, strategic design envisions a broad coalition from across disciplines working together to address problems and fill in the gaps that have developed between various fields. Instead of deconstructing boundaries, strategic design explicitly acknowledges the “important contributions that have come from intense specialization” but seeks to examine the potential for work across disciplines too. Through this awareness of the push-pull relationship between specialization and horizontal integration between disciplines, strategic design avoids the decontextualization of total design.

To a general audience, Design and Crime could be off putting. It is easy to walk away from the book wondering if Foster’s criticism has more to do with our political and economic regime than the actual work of design. One could also reasonably object to Foster’s use of Loos’s ideological framework, since Loos’s dogmatic modernism was artistically stifling and colonially minded. I was able to enjoy these essays by dispelling any expectation or desire for solutions to the problems and criticisms Foster raised. Rather than offering solutions or ideological purity, the value I found in Design and Crime was as a thoughtful exegesis of some historical and theoretical underpinnings of design.

Figure 1: Josef Hoffmann Palais Stoclet, Brussels, Belgium, Completed 1911
Figure 2: Bruce Mau, General Electric brand work in research and manufacturing facilities, Completed 2012

¹Foster specifically identifies how the mega-corporations that arose under the deregulatory policies of the 1980s as a time when brand equity became a dominant concept and value proposition. The rise of the internet and the rabid speculation of internet domains in the dot com bubble of the early 1990s led to an increasing importance on corporate name-recognition and, by extension, design.

Boyer, Brian, et al. In Studio: Recipes for Systemic Change. Helsinki Design Lab.

Foster, Hal. Design and Crime: And Other Diatribes. Verso, 2002.

Mau, Bruce, et al. Life Style. Phaidon, 2000.Mau, Bruce, et al. Life Style. Phaidon, 2000, 356.

Masters candidate in Interaction Design at Carnegie Mellon University