Tom Ainsworth and Sally Sutherland – Wicked possibilities

Post-rational approaches to design.

Tom Ainsworth and Sally Sutherland presented a conversation about moving towards post-rational approaches to design at the Wicked possibilities webinar. This is work in progress, and in many ways a provocation for discourse.

Ainsworth and Sutherland argue that shifting towards and recognising post-rational modes of design could open up possibilities when working with wicked challenges. They believe that this will help push new insights and new practices that benefit economic, ecological, political and social systems. Post-rational design embraces plurality, multiple relationalities, multi-sensoriality as fundamental components of relational practice.

Uncertainty is not novel to our current time, and neither is the desire to forecast into the future. However, Ainsworth and Sutherland argue that practices of design, both in education and in professional practice, are becoming increasingly conservative and risk-averse. They are perpetuating ‘normative’ and ‘affirmative’ practices that prioritise functionality and economic viability over higher values of ‘responsibility’, ‘ethical practice’, and the broader concepts of ‘prosperity’.

The proposal of ‘post-rational design’ is a purposeful realignment of design research practices towards more contestational expressions of possibility as a counterpoint to normative practices of a given design situation. Below is a one-minute film which was presented at the webinar and is a visual expression of the proposed concept. The film acts as a way of developing, illustrating and articulating this argument through design.

Design is never neutral (Papanek, 1974). Instead, it is a social, cultural, and material force (Adams, Keshavarz, & Traganou 2019) that embodies entangled assemblages of ideas, customs and social behaviour. Design is fundamental to culture(s), politics and the socio-material practices of everyday life.

Ainsworth and Sutherland’s argument situate the value of design within its ability to mediate multi-sensory materiality and the everyday. It is presented as a distinct form of knowing and understanding the world. While this definition may be familiar to many design practitioners, the full scope of design practices remain restrained and restricted; sidelined by unhelpful outdated models of problem-solving and constrained research protocols.

The film demonstrates both thinking in action; and the addition of something new in the world. The arguments are a purposeful shift away from the banal predictability of reductive, problem limited, concepts of design. Instead, they seek to prioritise agonism as a purposeful process of productive negotiation and expression.

Reference list

Adams, B., Keshavarz, M. & Traganou, J. (2019). Introduction from the New Editorial Team. Design and Culture, 11 (2), 153-155. doi: 10.1080/17547075.2019.1620013

Papanek, V. (1974). Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change. St Albans: Paladin.

To cite this presentation:

Ainsworth, T., and Sutherland, S. “Post-rational approaches to design.” Presentation at Wicked Possibilities: Designing in and with systemic complexity [webinar], University of Brighton, UK, July 15, 2020.


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