Lingua Franca: The 2014 D-Crit Conference

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Humans By Design: How Design Reconsiders the Human Body as a Material, a Medium, and a Site for Critical Interventions

Caterina Francisca

“As we move deeper into the twenty-first century, it becomes ever clearer that the ultimate, most intimate territory for design is not electronics, or interiors, or furniture, or the web. It is us—our own living, breathing, biological selves,” the British design critic Rick Poynor points out.1 While the topic of human body modification has been regularly discussed in fields like anthropology, technology, and science, the design field is only now starting to pay more attention to the potential of the human body as a material, a medium, and a site for designed intervention.

The exhibitions “Biodesign” in Rotterdam by the design critic William Myers, “Grow Your Own” in Dublin by the British designer, writer, and artist Daisy Ginsberg, and “Out of Hand: Materializing the Post Digital,” by curator Ron Labaco at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, all include the work of designers who engage with genomic modifications, human organ bioprinting, and the design of synthetic organisms in the biosphere. Additionally, both the Wellcome Collection in London and the Waag Society in Amsterdam show design and art projects where the work relates to the human body in the context of technology and science.

When the British design commentator Alice Rawsthorn reviewed the Wellcome Collection’s “Superhuman” exhibition, she observed that, “design has played an important part in translating past scientific breakthroughs into practical forms of human enhancement, including prosthetic limbs, and cosmetic ones, like high-heeled shoes;” and that, “it will prove equally decisive in determining the evolution of future developments in response to innovations in robotics, nanotechnology, and other fields.”2 Indeed, tissue engineering, biomedical engineering, bioprinting, and the design technology of 3D printing are widely used today to add, modify, or replace missing limbs or organs or to update preexisting parts.

Graduate design programs like Design Interactions at the Royal College of Art in London and Contextual Design at the Design Academy of Eindhoven encourage collaborations between design and medical institutions and have classes in bio-laboratories as part of their curricula. Beyond these educational settings, there are laboratories open to the public, such as Genspace in New York, and The Kitchen and the Biohacker laboratory in London, where people can work and become familiar with the biological field.

In the last decade, designers have participated in scientific conferences and competitions, and their work has appeared in both design and scientific publications. For example, the German designer Veronica Ranner’s work about organ crafting, “Biophilia,” was presented to both scientific and design audiences at the Milan Design Week in 2013, the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Foundation in 2012, Department for Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge, UK, and Fraunhofer Institute IGB, Stuttgart in 2011.

All of these initiatives are encouraging, but a robust discussion of the ethical issues around the topic is still lacking. And when such projects get discussed in the press, the differences between science fiction and reality are often confused, and readers are thus misinformed. In its design section, Wired magazine has reported on the 3D printing of ears and noses, and the concept of shrinking humans “to save the earth.”3 One of the most influential and popular architecture and design blogs, Dezeen, has featured stories on designers who design new human species such as “I Wanna Deliver a Dolphin”4 by Ai Hasegawa, or designers who bioprint human organs such as Agatha Haines’ “Frankestein-esque Hybrid Organs.”5 Such headlines, as well as the articles and posts they herald, do not help to explain these projects; instead they contribute to the reader’s confusion.

Designers have been complicit in creating and selling the fantasy of a mutable body through speculative, fictional, and critical design projects—prototypes, which imaginatively represent research evolutions and their impact on society and culture. Now they have a new realm in which to work—the design of actual body parts using synthetic biology, bioengineering, and nanotechnologies. In this territory the line between embodiment and disembodiment gets more and more blurred, and the definition of prosthesis is challenged.

In a time where designers are inspired by the medical research and propose to genetically modify children and bioprinting transhuman body parts, it is necessary to start a substantial discourse on the role and the meaning of designers when collaborating and consulting with scientists.

  1. Rick Poynor, “Upgrade Yourself,” The Design Observer, June 20 2013, accessed November 20, 2013, http://observatory.designobserver.com/feature/from-the-archive-upgrade-yourself/37943/.
  2. Alice Rawsthorn, “Messing with Mother Nature,” The New York Times, July 8, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/09/arts/design/messing-with-mother-nature.html?_r=0, accessed February 10, 2014.
  3. Kyle Vanhemert, “A Foolproof Solution for Saving the Earth: Shrink All Humans,” Wired, November 13, 2013, http://www.wired.com/design/2013/11/a-foolproof-solution-for-saving-the-world-shrink-all-humans/, accessed February 10, 2014.
  4. Dezeen, http://www.dezeen.com/2013/11/18/i-wanna-deliver-a-dolphin-synthetic-biology-concept-humans-giving-birth-to-food-by-ai-hasegawa/, accessed February 10, 2014.
  5. Dezeen, http://www.dezeen.com/2013/11/14/circumventive-organs-by-agatha-haines/, accessed February 10, 2014

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