Carsten Friberg: Over the years, we have met at various events about aesthetics, and we have discussed our shared frustration that both the theory and the general perception of aesthetics often ultimately treat design as an object that is praised for its artistic qualities and beauty. Of course, we both like to talk about the sensory aspects, which are not just about sensuous enjoyment but also about what happens, for example, when we touch or handle an object. There is nothing wrong with an object having artistic qualities, but perhaps we should focus more on how sensory aspects perform and act as a medium of experiences? How they give rise to fascination and thus have the capacity to seduce and persuade, for example, to inspire more sustainable choices.
Vibeke Riisberg: That is an excellent starting point; I think of aesthetic effects as ‘tools’ that can be used in all sorts of ways, in combination with in-depth knowledge of materials and their physical and tactile properties. As I see it, the designer’s core competence is the ability to choose what it takes to produce sensuous expressions that have the capacity to evoke associations, emotions and reactions in users across different contexts. While each person has their own experiences and interpretations, we also have a shared perception qua our bodily senses, and I consider the theory that that has developed in this field as a common condition for all human beings. The key, then, is that we learn to sense; that we learn to notice the many different sensuous qualities of things. That has to come from examining forms and working with materials, with their textural qualities and colours, with composition – with all the elements we combine in order to arouse the senses and which feed our imagination and give rise to memorable experiences. We all have the ability to sense and see, but we are not necessarily equipped to sense and see differences. Learning to do that is absolutely essential; that is what I would call basic aesthetic training. At Design School Kolding we use the concept ‘aesthetics in practice’, and to the best of my recollection, it arose in a study group I was in together with Anne Katrine Gelting, Anne Louise Bang and Tine Ebdrup in 2012.
CF: In that light, the current focus on the experience economy, for example, is not a sign that aesthetics have taken on a more prominent role?
VR: In my opinion, the experience economy is more about commodification, it is a way to capitalize on the human sensory system. Perhaps, it shifts the focus from our common associations with the term ‘aesthetics’ as something ‘snobbish’ or intellectual, but when economy is linked to experiences in this way, it is, above all, about seduction into mindlessness, stimulation to carefree consumption. Aesthetics should help spark user reactions related to the circumstances surrounding a product; it should help arouse our conscious awareness.
CF: So the problem is not economics, but the way we approach economics; the fact that the figure we know as Homo economicus is autistic, lacking in human qualities such as empathy and sensitivity. That is the figure we base our growth economy on, so even if we speak increasingly about sustainability, it seems we can’t move away from having continued growth as the basic driver. Next year is the 50th anniversary of the publication of the book ‘Limits to Growth’, and we are seeing some progress; for example, the EU has put circular economy on the agenda, and several cities are pursuing a doughnut economy, including Copenhagen.
VR: Yes, the question is how to move away from a notion of ‘growth’ that is tied exclusively to economic growth. How to develop new economies that respect the earth’s resources and ecosystems, so that we preserve the conditions for human life into the future. These are complex challenges, which requires designers to be able to cooperate, adopt a holistic mindset and understand human beings, the usage phase and the systems their products or services are a part of. That means we need to be able to understand new, alternative business models, so that we can help drive change. We have to consider the value base of what we do and what we contribute to. The same applies to aesthetics, because the awareness that aesthetics generates is really an awareness of ourselves and what we are doing. Aesthetics is also about our value base.
CF: So we need to talk about ethics too?
VR: We cannot talk about aesthetics without also addressing ethics! If we stick to the notion that it’s only about beauty or fascinating experiences, we will be stuck in the place we want to move away from. It is crucial that we become aware of the value set we embrace and convey in order to, also, inspire consumers to make sustainable choices. Of course, it’s fine to create nice things that people care for, which are top-quality and so forth. But it takes more than that. We need to ask questions that go deeper than that. It’s not just about providing a good experience, it’s also about what is worth experiencing. Should we involve the user in the process as a co-creator, making that the key experience, rather than the buying experience? Should we buy and own things at all, or should we rent instead? Is it about products or, rather, about the good life?
CF: These are the sorts of questions that originally triggered my interest in design, because I encountered designers who offered a different narrative than the one that is, sadly, I have to say, the prevailing one in the general public, which is all about products that stand out from the rest by virtue of certain artistic qualities. Sadly, I say, because even though there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s a problem when it steals the picture from all the other aspects – the notion that it’s also about designing perception, behaviour, values. But that really raises the stakes for design – as you point out, it means designers have to be knowledgeable about economics, business, society and so forth. It also raises the level of expectation. This seems to go beyond what design can handle on its own.
VR: Yes, and that is also why we focus on training designers who are able to collaborate across disciplinary boundaries and work with external partners to promote a sustainable transition. The effort to change value sets and consumption is inextricably linked with, among other things, political initiatives, including EU directives and Danish Parliament’s decision to reduce greenhouse gases by 70 per cent by 2030. Other important initiatives are driven by the fashion and textile industry itself and by critical NGOs such as Fashion Revolution and the Union of Concerned Researchers in Fashion. And generally, most industries are working on transitioning; however, the question is whether they are moving too slowly, and whether their approach is radical enough.
Culture definitely has a role to play as well, so it’s very positive that the Danish Arts Foundation is focusing on sustainability in 2021 across the arts.
CF: So you are seeing positive developments, but far from enough?
VR: We need to see much more action, but my greatest source of hope for the future is meeting the students. The students want to move in a new direction, and they are actively doing it. That is also why current developments within education and research are so important, including DSKD Design School Kolding’s new interdisciplinary MA, Design for Planet and its involvement in the three-year Erasmus+ project FashionSEEDS (Fashion Societal, Economic & Environmental Design-led Sustainability), which is developing teaching materials for a digital platform with the goal of promoting education in sustainable design.
CF: So education is a crucial link in the chain that is to lead to altered perceptions and more sustainable ways of living?
CF: That brings us back to aesthetics. You said earlier that we need to learn to sense, and as I understand it, this is related to the designer’s sense of both the creation of the design and of what the design creates – that is, what I, as a user, can have my senses sharpened by and thus also become more attentive to.
VR: It relates precisely to aesthetics as the designer’s core competence, which is the ability to create sensuous expressions and thus inspire new perceptions. In our effort to create a more sustainable future, the issue of aesthetics cannot be isolated, we have to dare to look complexity in the eye and adopt a holistic mindset. Such a systemic mindset, which places the planet above all else, is what Fletcher & Tham advocate in their highly current Earth Logic Fashion Action Research Plan. Attention to the sensuous aspects of aesthetics has the potential to change us, because it enables us to shift away from habits and ingrained ways of thinking. However, that requires that we have room for experimentation and that our basic aesthetic training prepares us to master the sensuous possibilities and translate them into new solutions. It is at this intersection that the experiences that are passed on in education meet the students’ desire and courage to seek new paths – and if we are to have any hope of developing truly sustainable solutions, they will play a crucial role.
Om Vibeke Riisberg
Vibeke Riisberg, textile designer, PhD, associate professor at the Design School Kolding. Her work in practice, teaching and research includes collaborations and exhibitions both nationally and abroad with a special focus on digital processes and sustainability. Among other things, she has contributed to the development of teaching in design, so that sustainability is broadly included in processes and value creation.