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The 36th National Conference on Beginning Design Students

Conference Theme

Is the idea of form a suitable beginning for the education of a designer? Or, beyond the educational context, was David Summers correct when he argued that form has failed to meet our cultural ambitions? “The idea of form,” writes Summers, “[which] arose together with Western modernism, and for all its admirable reach, has proved to be an unreliable means of engaging… cultures outside the European tradition and tributaries. This failure has become all the more unfortunate as the ever-increasing contact and interaction of cultures has made the need for their sympathetic mutual engagement more urgent.”[1]

The 36th National Conference on Beginning Design Students will be dedicated to a critical inquiry of the idea of form. The title—After Form—intends a meaning of the term “after” in at least three senses:

In the sense of pursuit, when indicating a target, as in the claim that we are after something significant (i.e., formalism)

 In the historical sense, as in the question, "What will happen after this?" (i.e., post-formalism); which . . .

 . . . may be seen also as a kind of critical negation (i.e., the informe). In beginning design education, form has long been the object of a believing game and a confirmation bias. We call for presentations of papers and projects that subject the idea of form to a rigorous doubting game and to the possibility of refutation.[2]

 

This conference intends three outcomes: First, it intends to clarify the role and evolution of form and formalism in beginning design pedagogy. Second, it intends to prompt debate about how we have or may in the future establish design curricula after the formalism tradition; in other words, how do subsequent courses coordinate with beginning design courses that are invested heavily in formalism? Third, it intends to collect critical defenses of—or alternative approaches to—the idea of form and formalism in beginning design education.

The conference will be organized according to several major sub-themes. Presenters are invited to identify and respond to, or place their work within, one of the following sub-themes:

 

Geneaologies of Form

“There is in ‘form’ an inherent ambiguity, between its meaning ‘shape’ on the one hand, and on the other ‘idea’ or ‘essence’: one describes the property of things as they are known to the senses, the other as they are known to the mind. In its appropriation of ‘form’, architecture has, according to one’s point of view, either fallen victim to, or taken mischievous advantage of this inherent confusion.” —Adrian Forty, 2004[3]

What is the contribution of our present work to the tradition of form and formalism in beginning design education? Furthermore, is there one or are there many traditions? This sub-theme is interested in the various kinds of argumentation and affirmation that introduce and support the idea of form and formalism in beginning design education. Adrian Forty has argued that “the real significance of ‘form’ has been its use as an oppositional category to define other values” (150), such as “meaning,” “content,” “function,” etc. Is this also the case in beginning design education? What different schools or lineages do we engage when we take up an idea of form? How do we advance these schools or lineages as one advances a body of knowledge? This sub-theme seeks papers and projects that critically recount or operationalize particular genealogies of the idea of form in beginning design education.

 

The Informe

“A dictionary begins when it no longer gives the meaning of words, but their tasks. Thus formless is not only an adjective having a given meaning, but a term that serves to bring things down in the world, generally requiring that each thing have its form. What it designates has no rights in any sense and gets itself squashed everywhere, like a spider or an earthworm.” —Georges Bataille, 1929[4]

George Bataille’s notion of l’informe (the formless) is perhaps the earliest and most vivid 20th century example of the suspicion of the idea of form. Just as there are genealogies of form in beginning design education, so too there are traditions of the formless; traditions that resonate with the philosophies of post-structuralism, deconstruction, weak thought, etc. Against affirmation, there is negation. Against construction, there is demolition. Imagine that Bataille's dictionary were illustrated: What is the designer’s analogy to his spiders and earthworms? How have drawing and modeling practices limited or enabled the exploration of the informe? How has or may the informe affect beginning design education?

 

Forms of Conduct

“‘Proper,’ ‘seeming,’ and ‘rightly’ in this principle are not mathematical terms . . ., nor are they aesthetic; instead, these terms intend ethical considerations because they ‘measure’ conduct and common sense, not as practiced in everyday experience, but as imagined or envisaged.” —David Leatherbarrow, 1993[5]

In contrast to the art of arranging ideal or typical shapes, and to the science of distributing concrete habits or functions, one might construe design as an ethic of striving after ideal or typical forms of human action or conduct; forms of action or conduct “not as practiced… but as imagined or envisioned.” In such a supposition, ethics is intrinsic to the discipline of design (i.e., it is not something “applied”), which raises questions about how ethics is engaged (or not) at the beginning of a designer’s education. More than a concern for demonstrating social conscience, this sub-theme calls for papers and projects that challenge and condition ethical or meta-ethical knowledge in beginning design education.

 

Formats

“An oil painting presupposes a canvas, the canvas is of a certain shape and size, meant for a more or less definite location and a more or less definite use. Theses locations and uses, these immediate contexts, are always culturally specific. The word ‘format’ is from the Latin meaning ‘formed’, and, although some artists might invent new formats, this happens very rarely.” —David Summers, 2003[6]

This sub-theme is dedicated to an inquiry into the idea of format. How are formats different from media? What formats do we presuppose in contemporary beginning design teaching and researching? Where did they come from and to whom do we owe credit for their invention? Just as we ascribe histories to various movements in design, can we imagine the critical history of a format? How does an awareness of format impact students and teachers who are concerned with the projective nature of the beginning design studio?

 


[1] Summers, David. Real Spaces (2003), p. 28.

[2] Peter Elbow describes the “believing game” in contrast to the “doubting game” in “The Believing Game—Methodological Believing,” The Journal of the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives in Learning, 5 (2008). The notion of a “confirmation bias” refers to Karl Popper’s thesis that theoretical knowledge can be considered so only if it can be questioned in such a way that it can be refuted. A confirmation bias is our tendency to seek out and privilege information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs or ideas. See: Popper, Karl. Conjectures and Refutations (2002).

[3] Forty, Adrian. Words and Buildings (Thames and Hudson: 2004), p. 149.

[4] Bataille, Georges. “Formless,” in Georges Bataille. Vision of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939, translated by Allan Stoekl with Carl R. Lovitt and Donald M. Leslie Jr. (1985), p. 31.

[5] Leatherbarrow, David. The Roots of Architectural Invention (1993), p. 98.

[6] Summers, David. Real Spaces (2003), p. 53.

 

NCBDS36 will be hosted at Texas A&M University in Spring 2020.


Abstracts Due

Oct 1, 2019


Notification of Acceptance

Nov 15, 2019


Full Paper Due

Feb 3, 2020


Conference

Apr 2—4, 2020