Photo credit- Aleksandra Kostadinovska-Brainster
Text by Klelija Zhivkovikj – Press to exit
I decided to study design after visiting shows at the Museum of Contemporary Arts in Skopje and Press to Exit project space, where I saw real everyday objects created from unconventional materials, allowed to take unconventional shapes and instruct unconventional use. To me this was a display of unique skill: the ability to work with potential. I immediately knew that this is what design is – the ability to see potential in a material, an object, a space, and create tools and methods to work with it.
However, when I started studying design, my experience was quite different. Yes, people agreed with me that at the core of design is imagination and craftsmanship, yet the focus of the study was never on developing either. We were instead expected to be creative, innovative, and productive, and design products that can be described using those same words, whatever that meant. And while creativity is definitely something that we can safely assume is familiar to a person who decides to study design, it is definitely not something which comes easy or without effort. Innovation is a whole other story, as it far surpasses one’s capacity to be creative.
After a few attempts at innovation, I began to feel so frustrated: everything already existed. All the ideas have been had, all the products have been made. My frustration began to grow when I realized that the trend of innovation wasn’t in solving problems or answering users’ needs, but rather creating new ones, creating new demand which can then be answered with new products.
Over time I began to jokingly refer to this trend as The Avocado Problem. Maybe you have noticed that in the last two decades there has been an endless line of (mostly) plastic products designed to facilitate avocado consumption; a fruit which can literally be consumed using our bodies alone. Some of these products are knives, slicers, peelers, scoopers, mashers, storage containers etc. These products were everywhere, and existed at all price levels.
When I began working as a designer I kept hearing creativity, innovation, and productivity repeated to me everywhere in the creative industries, slowly oozing into the culture sector too. After some time I realized that creativity, innovation, and productivity were three words which the industry uses to measure and value our labor, with little to no regard about the circumstances within which we are to fulfil these expectations.
And then The Avocado Problem got an entirely new dimension. An Australian millionaire, and few other people, began blaming millennials that eating too much avocado toast is why they aren’t likely to ever be able to afford a home. This in turn, prompted the BBC to develop the Avocado Toast Index, calculating how much avocado toast should millennials be deprived of to be able to afford a deposit toward buying their first home.
This is not to say that people don’t make poor spending choices, I know I do, nor do I intend to fight for everyone’s right to brunch. However, the problem is not in the avocado toast price point, but rather in its selling point. Avocado is delicious and versatile, but until it was dubbed a superfood, I don’t think it was even close to being this widely available. And thus, the wellness industry was born. (This might not be historically accurate, but let’s say it is, for dramatic effect).
An industry currently valued at 4.4 trillion US dollars, and expected to increase and surpass 6 trillion by the year 2025. And given how much of the commercial work in design is in service of selling a lifestyle, I began to feel really frustrated. We were putting our labour, our creativity, innovation and productivity towards industries by which we ourselves are preyed upon, hired to facilitate their growth, and then blamed that their effect on us is why we won’t be able to own our homes. I wasn’t happy with my work options, I wasn’t happy with where my profession was heading and I wasn’t happy with how little my environment was aware of the wide application of the design methodology. So I turned to the classroom.
Since I graduated, I really missed the classroom – a place to speak openly, share unformed ideas, be critical and supportive of each other, a place which didn’t feel like just a space meant for education, but as a mental space too: a space of inquiry, a space where it is safe to doubt, to be uncomfortable, or to be frustrated. I created a module called Design Studio, which I am currently teaching at Brainster as my intention was to create precisely this space of open inquiry, where design didn’t have to answer to clients or fit into formats, but rather simply exist as a form of expression and research.
I set three goals for myself when developing this module. I wanted to have parameters to come back to when I get confused, and to also be able to track how my method changes over time as the module is offered to several groups annually. They are:
- Create a space where incomplete ideas are welcome and discomfort is safe;
- Avoid slideshows. Rely on conversation instead;
- Apply design as a worldview and a job.
I also created three principles for the studio because, particularly after we digitally transformed our classrooms to accommodate the quarantine orders, it became difficult to occupy the space of a studio on Zoom. These principles are:
- I trust my curiosity.
- Everything is an experiment.
- I respect the other’s experiences, and never assume to know what they are going through.
The response from the students has generally been mixed. In the beginning, they are all excited to discover this new space to learn design in. They are all invited to speak openly about themselves, their motivation, their wishes and fear, and almost all of them speak about being creative as children, abandoning that creativity when they enter the adults’ world, and looking at a job in the creative industry, particularly as designers, as a way to reclaim that. I always rejoice when I hear that as I have been through it myself. As the module goes on, one by one they start to express their frustration at the tasks I give them: dancing together (with our cameras off) for fifteen minutes, making interviews with people who belong to their target audience, not with their clients, and more than anything I ask them to identify with their users, to remember a time when they were in a similar situation or to recognize on which basis have other designers created work which targets them. I try to get them to engage with the kinks of the design profession which have nothing to do with software. I am always amazed at how much courage is required to not abandon creativity, but I think most of us in that classroom, virtual or otherwise, enjoy finding it. When the first quarantine was announced, I was in the middle of teaching Design studio for the first time ever, and in the middle of it we had to take a break until we knew whether we would be able to return to the classroom for the foreseeable future, or if we simply should transfer online. Eventually, we resumed classes on Zoom, and I interrupted my planned programme to accommodate this new world we are in. I created activities specifically aimed at fostering the studio environment online, and I focused the classes on questions regarding our new reality: What is our experience of the city, a product of design itself, now that touch is unavailable? Can we imagine what kind of data we would be asked to volunteer to once again be afforded the right to move somewhat freely through the world, and through public space? We must be able to reflect on these questions in our work, not just in our free time outside of our jobs, but as a part of them too.
I believe that as designers part of our work is to make space for new applications of design, and discover new spaces where this application can happen, and I strongly believe that companies, institutions and organizations must play a key role in driving this change forward. Design studio is more than just something I teach. It is my research and testing ground for my ideas, but more than anything for my questions. I always say that I teach what I most need to learn, and this is not just my offering to these students in return for their attention, collaboration, and – let’s face it – money; it is also my intervention into the design profession. These are future designers, my future colleagues who I hope I can make feel like they are not alone in their creative pursuits, that camaraderie is available to them, if they are available to it.
Klelija Zhivkovikj is a transdisciplinary designer based in Skopje, North Macedonia. She is wildly curious about how design work shapes and is shaped by social realities and passionate about eliminating phrases such as “human-centered design”. After graduating from the University of Applied Arts Vienna, she has co-founded DGTL12, a collaborative, design-based inquiry into the digital transformation through pedagogy, performance and technology, and Sociopatch, a platform for civic engagement through artistic and cultural practices. As a freelance, serial collaborator she has a multiyear collaboration with Press to Exit project space, teaches at the Graphic design academy at Brainster, and is a member of the team running the Stella Network. She is currently working on a few projects: Some Call Us Balkans – a cultural cooperation project research myths and misconceptions about The Balkans, Creature Comforts – an ongoing transdisciplinary insight into developing a design practice toward interdependence, resurgence and kinship, Matrix of Interdependence – an investigation into the conceptual framework of a “netizen”, as opposed to a “consumer” or a “user” in the digitally transformed world, and Pillow Talks – an interdisciplinary design studio and friendship.