Design: temporal questions

Mike Anusas

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstract


We are accustomed to thinking of the future, as a phenomena presented before our eyes, laid out in front of us, in progressive stages. This is a common notion of time worked with in modern life, commerce, and design. However, for the Aymara people of South America, the reverse is the case - it is the past that is laid out in front of them, with the future, an unknown phenomena, to their backs. In this guise, future planning and designing are better understood as acts of imagination, rather than of estimation. Ethnographic insights, market research and statistical forecasts are therefore all imaginings of the present, melded with our ongoing, and often less-than-concrete, recollections of the past.

In order to create things, design imagines, and then gathers material for projection. It is difficult to project materials in a raw and amorphous form. One must bind materials together, wrap them up, weave them with knowledge and technics, give them targets. That is, one must in-form them, make them objectives. In-formed and solid, materials can then be projected into an imaginary future. Next season’s design of a new lamp for IKEA. The next decade’s innovative sustainable housing scheme. The next half-century’s energy infrastructure. As we then progress with our backs into an unknown future, we are likely to find the way in which our projections unfold in the world, are in some disaccord with prediction. Perhaps the colour red for that lamp, turned out to not be the trend predicted. Here, unexpected political shifts retracted housing scheme funding. And the new energy infrastructure, has ended-up causing more intractable grand-scale ecological complications than the previous one.

This is not an uncommon experience of how things unfold over time. People do unpredictable things with things. Ecologies are more sensitive and chaotic than previously assumed. Use becomes used-up. Forms becomes de-formed. What remains are materials, disentangled and entropic, which in itself might not be problematic, was in not for the effects on this sort of disentanglement on various forms of life. How then, might considering temporality in a different way, change how we think and work with materials and design? Design is concerned with the unfolding of material futures, but it could have it’s face, it’s critical attention, more attuned to an extra-temporal past - one that retraces extensively, well before the Bauhaus or Industrial Revolution, perhaps to the origins of aesthetic artefacts, now estimated to be 135,000 years ago. From this position, we might observe objects and innovations as fleeting moments amongst more expansive material transformations - where things are continually formed, used, interpreted, reinterpreted and reformed. Material transformations transcend discrete objects. Improvisations transcend objectives, to keep life going, amidst failing plans.

Such a practice, where we: perhaps accept our backs are to the future; potentially turn our attention to a nuanced and rich understanding of an extended past; and attend to design not as the projection of objects but as an enlightened improvisation with materials, may have the potential to afford us, with what we can only really have with our backs to the future; a little more peripheral vision.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 29 May 2014
EventTemporal Design: An Interdisciplinary Workshop - University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh College of Art, Edinburgh, United Kingdom
Duration: 28 May 201429 May 2014


ConferenceTemporal Design: An Interdisciplinary Workshop
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


  • design
  • anthropology
  • temporality
  • time
  • planning
  • perception


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