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Design as Symptom. Things, Signs and their Effects

Synopsis for the conference Design as Symptom, to take place on 14th and 15th May 2012 at the Faculty for Design and Art of the Free University of Bozen/Bolzano.

There is no doubt that design today is more than ever a symptom of contemporary culture. It seems today that there is no thing or surface that is not the work of a designer. Design covers everything and everyone in a dense network of quite subtle relations, clever allusions and ironic background references. In design, society shows how it is and also how it wants to be; its knowledge, secret desires, cravings and suppressed longings are no less apparent than its neuroses and psychological abysses. 

The question however is: What exactly is it that design shows? And how is it shown? What is communicated and how? Reference is constantly made to the language-like character of architecture and design, i.e. that they function quasi as language. But is this really the case? Does this do justice to things and how they achieve their effect? Contrary to language, signs in architecture and design also have a strong material and spatial presence. This means that we can, with Charles S. Peirce, distinguish three different levels of signs: a material, a singular-situative and a general typological level. 

Today it is however clear that, as a result of the linguistic turn of the 1960s, a highly reductionist concept of signs, rooted in structuralist models, still predominates. The linguistic model of signs was also at that time transferred to the world of material and spatial things. Linguistic semiology (Ferdinand Saussure) became the universal science, the scientific doctrine, that also informed architecture and design, to the extent that it is justifiably possible to speak of a “linguistic imperialism” (Stjernfelt/De Landa). This is because the postmodern or poststructuralist language games in architecture and design were only possible by separating architectural signs from their material substance , i.e. dematerialising them. This permitted them to be removed from their concrete context and thus – in a similar way to linguistic signs – made available for whatever new connotations were desired.

Of course, signs in architecture and design can, in the sense of the linguistic representative model (aliquid stat pro aliquo), refer to something absent: they are however always also the thing itself. They are not purely arbitrary signs like for example most words, but in fact possess a strong material and situative link. As such they resist reduction to purely linguistic signs. The question of reference (N. Goodman) arises in architecture and design. How is reference actually made in design? In very basic terms: How does a thing take on meaning? What does representation in architecture mean? What does design stand for? What role is played by material and situation, or history and society, in the constitution of signs? 

Whether consciously or unconsciously, we are permanently interpreting our environment in our everyday lives and adjusting our behaviour accordingly. Unlike Saussure, Peirce differentiates linguistic from non-linguistic signs, which appears suitable for modelling the characteristics of the uses of signs in architecture and design. As Peirce in particular emphasised, the understanding of signs is always connected with the phenomenal qualities and situative appearance of the signs. This is what constitutes the peculiarity of the understanding of signs in architecture and design: architectural signs do not only refer to the other, the absent, the third-party; they are characterised by their material presence and situative appearance in everyday life. The understanding of signs and the execution of actions are referred to one another. What is more, by understanding signs, things are brought closer to us, they affect us emotionally. How can this be described? What exactly is happening here? How can signs transform into action? What does this mean for the design practice of the architect or the designer?

Architecture and design however always make something visible that also differs from a pure sign reference to the other, the absent or the third-party. This is because it is as a manufactured thing that the being-madeness (i.e. the production process itself) shows itself, in the sense of Aristotle’s hylomorphism, in their form. This is - if only very subtly - always readable, not just in material terms, but also as regards the conceptual, historical and general cultural conditions of the production process. Something shows itself, reflexively, in design. Also here the question is: What exactly shows itself in design? And how does it show itself? 

We could thus say that things are through-connections and crossing-points for quite different sign processes. Design is a symptom. Exactly what then specifically differentiates architecture and design from other cultural practices and their ways of reference? The question relates to the showing and self-showing in objects and the relationship of things, signs and their effects in architecture and design.

The conference Design as Symptom – Things, Signs and their Effects invites notable designers and architects, as well as personalities from the fields of philosophy, linguistics, design and architectural theory to Bozen in order to ask the question of design as a living symptom of present culture. The conference will be supplemented by a three-day design workshop, where an attempt will be made to interrogate the theoretical insights on their relevance to practical design work. 

The conference (14 -15 May 2012) and the workshop (15 -17 May) will be held at the Free University of Bozen/Bolzano. Conception and realisation of the conference is by Professor Dr. Jörg Gleiter and Dipl.-Ing. Jan Bovelet M.A., while the workshop is organized by Professor Antonino Benincasa and Professor Christian Upmeier. Participation is free for members of the university, while for all others there will be a contribution of € 50 towards expenses (conference materials, lunch and coffee).


Bozen, 25. february 2012        
Jörg H. Gleiter
Conference secretariatManuela Degasperi
Room SER F 5.02
Universitätsplatz 1 - piazza Università, 139100 Bozen-BolzanoItaly
T: +39 0471 015003F: +39 0471
Faculty of Design and Art - Secretariat
Universitätsplatz 1 - piazza Università, 139100 Bozen-BolzanoItaly
T: +39 0471 015000F: +39 0471
Opening hours:Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday: 09:00 - 12:00
Wednesday: 10:00 - 12:00
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