Towards Prefigurative Design

[Hear an in-depth discussion on this article and its topics in this episode of The Enragés]

The word prefigurative has been used in a radical political context for around half a century, but I’ve been encountering it more and more recently. As a sometime design professional it occurred to me that if prefigurative design is not a thing it certainly ought to be. To that end I Googled “prefigurative design,” hoping to find instances of the term being used as I’d expect it to be used, or no instances at all.

A bit of background, however: socialist theorist Carl Boggs coined the term prefigurative politics in 1977. The term is represented in the old Wobbly principle of “building a new society within the shell of the old,” and encapsulates such strategies as counterinstitutions and dual-power, in which the aim is to render the dominant order redundant by duplicating its functions in ways appropriate to the desired new society. The principles of prefigurative politics have featured in many protest movements, being particularly elaborated in the anti-globalization movement at the turn of the century, in the Occupy movement, and in Black Lives Matter. All of these managed temporarily to expel state authority from some small space of territory, and to demonstrate within that space some shadow of the egalitarian, non-authoritarian, non-hierarchic society they hoped to establish.

The prefigurative principle has thus a lot of appeal for me, but as an inveterate designer of stuff, with an overactive imagination, I can’t keep myself from trying to figure out what the material objects we would use in an anarchist society, and the structures and environments we inhabit, might be like. I quite understand the reluctance to do this, intrinsic especially to “anarchism without adjectives” — a prescriptive anarchism is after all a contradiction in terms — but I nevertheless had the intuition that design right now might be useful after all. The world is filled with stuff whose usefulness presupposes the present order, which therefore reinforces the present order by placing at people’s fingertips the tools by which to perpetuate the present order, almost by accident, in the mere course of negotiating their lives in the circumstances they face. The world likewise lacks stuff with corresponding capabilities with respect to other possible orders which might be desirable — for though we cannot prescribe details there must surely be broad characteristics we might reasonably predicate of our desired society, especially once we understand the extent to which the present situation comprises elements which exist only to perpetuate the dominant order. Thus when we understand that the vast bulk of current automobile traffic, to take one of myriad examples, arises not out of adventitious random needs nor out of anything like “wanderlust,” nor yet out of a spontaneous popular preference for remoteness, but out of imposed structures serving to perpetuate industrial capitalism, we should not expect to find such traffic persisting in our desired society. Surely it is then safe to assume that human settlements are likely to feature some more or less ample walkability? How do we design for walkability which isn’t there yet? How, indeed, do we prefigure walkability? — especially as it could be argued that our present dependence on automobiles is the result of contrary and nefarious prefigurative design on the part of capital, imposed thoroughly in advance of popular demand.

If our world was thus messed up through one putative kind of prefigurative design, could it not be fixed at least in small part through a wholly different kind? Hence my internet search.

The most promising hit was the 2021 paper, Prefigurative Politics and Design, by New York design researcher Alix Gerber. I had hoped that the adjective prefigurative in the title would refer to both politics and design, but in this I was disappointed. The paper is nevertheless an excellent potted introduction to the issue, which lists a range of possible roles which a designer could play in prefigurative politics. I particularly appreciate Gerber’s recognition of the way the formal language of industrial centralism and mass production has come to pollute the thinking of designers, as that is a criticism I myself have often tried to articulate. I moreover wholeheartedly embrace the principle that the validity of the creativity of non-professionals should be taken as axiomatic, and that as many people as possible doing design is something desirable in itself and, indeed, likely a prominent feature of the society we’d like to see. But I was disappointed to find not so much as a single reference to the study of vernacular architecture in the paper, as it is in this rich field that we might find the seeds of true prefigurative design.

I had years ago read a study of 19th-century American barns— I struggle in vain to retrieve the source now — in which it was shown how a set of design heuristics existing as cultural commons in a regional community produced a very wide variety of unique individual barns, each adapted to its own circumstances but all following the same very broad pattern. I find the same idea represented in Stewart Brand’s excellent How Buildings Learn (1994). In a chapter on vernacular architecture he quotes the architectural historian Dell Upton:

“[Thomas] Hubka carefully distinguishes the vernacular builder’s process of design, in which existing models are conceptually taken apart and then reassembled in new buildings, from the professional designer’s manner of working, in which elements from disparate sources are combined to solve design problems anew. He characterizes the vernacular architect’s process as ‘preconstrained’; by choosing to limit architectural ideas to what is available in the local context, the vernacular architect reduces the design task to manageable proportions. Although this mode of composition seems superficially to generate monotonously similar structures, it allows in fact for considerable individuality within its boundaries, permitting the designer to focus on skillful solution of particular problems rather than on reinventing whole forms.”

The work of Upton, Hubka, Howard Davis, and especially Christopher Alexander are all worth studying to this end, as are more polemical 19th-century thinkers like A. W. N. Pugin, John Ruskin, and William Morris. It will be seen how Pugin’s dictum, “Decorate construction; never construct decoration” might be useful to our present purpose, once it is divorced from Victorian aesthetic morality. The point is that this is the way people tend to design anyway when they are left to their own devices, when they are trying to meet their own needs rather than, say, to signal in-group belonging within a closed professional culture. People will tend to take what they know and adapt it to their individual needs, using the fairly easy process of adaptation, which they need to do anyway, as an opportunity for creative expression at no extra cost if they feel moved to do so.

I have seen this in action in the world of hot-rodding and modified automobiles. Many prefer to follow rules-of-thumb despite the underlying theoretical principles being known and freely circulated. Thus a probable majority will set out a triangulated 4-link rear axle location with “the bottom links should be horizontal at ride height,” rather than plotting the resulting imaginary instant centre against the imaginary 100% anti-squat line. And while it is possible to misapply such a heuristic quite badly, in the vast majority of cases this works admirably. When it doesn’t, there is an entire message board’s community on hand to point out why, and argue about it for days.

I’m not sure that the invaluable short-cut inherent in vernacular design, i.e. design from existing typology, pattern, and heuristic is enough to account for this prevalence. The ability to design from first principles, and moreover to derive joy from the process, really does seem to be quite scarce in society: and if it is spread thinly I should say that it is equally spread evenly. It seems to be tied up with a knack for complex counterfactual thinking. I should not wish to speculate if it is innate talent or a teachable skill, though I hope for the latter. It could simply be that we have fallen out of the habit of design because modernist industrial capitalism arrogates that role to a professional elite, often violently prohibiting design by non-professionals, so that the ability is perpetuated only by those who have had privileged exposure to elite design education and those whose passion to shape things, even for the sheer redundant fun of it, is able to transcend the strictures.

The role I see for design is neither to “amplify,” advocate, promulgate, promote the efforts of grassroots designers, with the danger of co-option Gerber points out, nor simply to act as a service provider in the immediate circumstances, which she prefers but which tends to result in a palliative forklift-pallet-and-duct-tape idiom which is to me unsatisfactory in any long term. Desmond Tutu said, “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.” I should like to go one further and redesign the place where people are falling in so that they wouldn’t fall in unless they deliberately dive in, having a real practical option not to: for surely that is the entire purpose of the course of action Fr. Desmond proposes?

The role I see for design is to develop a surfeit of typologies, patterns, and heuristics to fast-track the replacement, which would ordinarily have been a slow process, of those extinguished by the suppression of vernacular design due to mass production and design professional elitism under industrial capitalism. We do not now have ready methods for the construction of Utopia. We need enough ready methods for the construction of several Utopias, ample redundancy, so that people have enough to compose whatever Utopia they want as they go along.

In some way, these typologies, patterns, and heuristics need to be present to people, available but not imposed, free for anyone to copy, or not, in whole or in part, in the landscapes people inhabit. It is not necessary that these typologies, patterns, and heuristics should come from any specific group or type of people, so they might as well come from any and all people who are for whatever reason good at thinking them, and moreover really enjoy it. They should belong to nobody and hence to anybody.

I believe that such typologies, patterns, and heuristics would be most understandable, most easily adopted and internalized, if they are embodied in physical examples. Of these examples is required firstly a didactic quality, so that a reasonable amount of easy study should reveal how to make them; that is, they should be fascinating and fun, so as to create interest in them, but not “magical” in the sense of appearing to defy physics, and nothing in them should be hidden which could be exposed without compromising their most straightforward functionality. Secondly, they should exist in sufficient numbers and vary enough to emphasize that each is a mere example of a very flexible type, thus inviting people to imagine other possible iterations, i.e. actually to start designing. Thirdly, they should be immediately useful while simultaneously showing their possibly wholly different usefulness in the desired future context, thus inviting use patterns approaching those anticipated in the future context. This last places an additional programmatic burden on the designer, requiring feats of cleverness the point of which others might not see, and a time-oriented way of thinking about functionality.

The typologies, patterns, and heuristics themselves need to be flexible and adaptable to different situations and different kinds of aesthetic expression. They need to embody an approach to modularity to which we might not be accustomed, i.e. not that of standardized components from central sources designed to snap together physically, but that of each component or assembly being conceptually severable from the whole and independently reapplicable in a variety of contexts. That is, designs should comprise assemblies of modular ideas. They should presuppose the maximum possible capital decentralization and the broadest distribution of technological power, and favour technological innovations of kinds which promote this. They should have an inbuilt capacity to be changed over time: for once people adopt the typologies, patterns, and heuristics, they will adapt them. They will come up with new ideas and improvements, and once that starts happening, the designer will have succeeded.

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