Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary

Essentially, strategic design, the focus of this essay, is focused on the systemic redesign of cultures of decision-making at the individual and institutional levels, and particularly as applied to what we can think of as the primary problems of the 21st century — healthcare, education, social services, the broader notion of the welfare state, climate change, sustainability and resilience, steady state economic development, fiscal policy, income equality and poverty, social mobility and equality, immigration and diversity, democratic representation and so on.

Dan Hill

Having an interest in design, especially design of learning as an educator, I as blown away by this book. As the subtitle suggest, it provides a vocabulary of strategic design to build on top of the vocabulary already existing in the wider design sphere. I was also suprised to see the interconnectedness between strategic design and systems thinking, which makes a lot of sense after reading the book and other works of Dan Hill, such as the Slowdown Papers.

A systems-oriented view of problems challenges the idea that healthcare, say, is the responsibility of a Department of Health. Health is directly affected by urban planning, transportation and other infrastructure, patterns of employment, food, education, industrial policy, retail policy and so on, most of which will sit outside of the neatly defined boundaries of one department.

Back in 2017, I considered to make design one of the core skills of my career, allowing me to work on a wide range of issues in many contexts. I successfully applied to study Service Design at the Royal College of Arts (RCA) in London, but declined the offer after some consideration. I didn't know what it was then, but my gut kept telling me it wasn't the right fit. When visiting student exhibitions at the RCA, most projects were financial services, educational services, a community project in a municipality and such. It felt like doing the same thing as usual, but doing it better. In this book, Dan Hill helped me put words to that gut feeling. The design I find most interesting is that which helps us take a step back and ask new questions, take new perspectives and enter new spaces of possibilities.

In terms of practice, design’s core value is in rapidly synthesising disparate bodies of knowledge in order to articulate, prototype and develop alternative trajectories. But if these are simply deployed to apply lipstick to pigs, it’s a waste of time. So much of architecture and design is wasteful. Strategic design is also, then, an attempt to reorient design to the more meaningful problems outlined in the introduction. A force should have a direction and a magnitude, after all.

The book adapts various vocabulary from other contexts or subject areas, and here are a few of my favorites.

The MacGuffin

The MacGuffin comes with a particular provenance. The phrase is attributed to Alfred Hitchcock, and has become associated with him ever since. The dictionary defines it as “an object, event, or character in a film or story that serves to set and keep the plot in motion despite usually lacking intrinsic importance.”

In the book, Hill gives the a building project in Helsinki as the core example. The building being the MacGuffin driving changes in policies, building codes and organisational culture. These changes wouldn't happen unless there was a MacGuffin project requiring these things to be considered.

The Trojan Horse

The MacGuffin is a simple artefact that provides motivation; the Trojan Horse is an artefact that carries “hidden” strategic elements.

I enjoy the idea, expressed by Dark Matter Labs, a mission-driven strategic design agency, to build trojan horses from a new paradigm. When deployed in the present time, they begin to take over, creating an expanding portal that can't stop growing as this new paradigm is more attractive in that particular context.

Dark Matter

The difference between traditional design practice and strategic design is that strategic design recognises that this “dark matter” is part of the design challenge.

Hill writes that just as 83% of the universe is made up of dark matter, the concepts can also be applied to consider all the intangible aspects involved when making more radical changes in the fabric of society.

Jonathan Nylander © 2020