Does Design Care…? [3] – Design for the Unthinkable-World


The first Does Design Care…? workshop was held in 2017 at Imagination, Lancaster University and Does Design Care…? [2] in Chiba University, Japan in 2019. During this time, conferences about care and design have grown in number and all tackle similar issues – design’s working relationship to health and social care. But as we have approached this, it is clear that care is problematic. When design gets involved in care the ethics of what it does with care are questionable and as always when design borrows a term its new turn to empathy is literal and naïve. How we understand and enact the gesture of empathy is the subject of much critical scholarship about which design seems unaware.

In this context we decided to approach our response to our own ongoing question – does design care….? with a challenge. Does Design Care….? [3] won’t gather academics to discuss and disseminate another charter or protocol. This time we will set a project for a small group of design researchers to work on. When we commence Does Design Care…? [3], we want the design researchers to respond to a brief we have written – Design for the Unthinkable World: Strange Ecology and Unwelcome Change. This picks up where Victor Panpanek left off in 1972, when we maintain design probably never entered the real world, what was still then the world-for-us, and now fifty years later we are left with contemplating a world-without-us – an Unthinkable-World. This does not mean a world devoid of humans but a world in which we are no longer the centre and a world about which we must care for in ways we are yet to think of and enact.

Design for the Unthinkable World: Strange Ecology and Unwelcome Change

Despite Victor Papanek’s rebuke to design for its absence from what in his book of 1971 he dubbed the “Real World” (Papanek, 1971), and ignoring the evidence that design might have never entered in the real world, time has come for design and its attraction to change to exit its habitual world-for-us and face the more realistic unthinkable-world (Thacker, 2011). And there is no point in recounting the escalating body of evidence that the carrying capacity of the planet has been well and truly exceeded due to the Capital project and that design for the real-world has been eclipsed by a strange ecology inevitably spawning what we tender as design for the unthinkable-world. Having circumvented the real-world, design also hasn’t addressed the two programmes in Papanek’s subtitle – “Human Ecology and Social Change”. Human ecology is a self-defined discipline marshalled into existence from environmental science and instead of committing itself to social change, design has recently contracted itself to facilitating transactional exchange in infinitely complex forms of social commerce.

This project, through a series of critical contributions from leading researchers, will contest that if design’s raison d’être is to make things better, then the object of design has always been, remains and can only be a changed world and our relationship to it – the world-for-us. While once upon a time this might have been seen to be a worthy objective, now the role of designing must cease to service design for change in the manner in which it has been doing. Now it is designing itself that must change to explore what possibilities there might be for the design of what-might-not-become in an unthinkable-world – what Eugene Thacker calls a world-without-us. A world-without-us does not mean a world devoid of humans, but a world we project that continues to revolve around the sun but no longer revolves around us.


This project will include critical contributions that explore the following Design for the Unthinkable-World issues:

  • What is design seeking to change and why?
  • What needs to change?
  • What possibilities might there be for the design of what-might-not-become in an unthinkable-world?
  • Understanding how the so-called-actual and the so-called-possible—what design does and what design only dreams of doing—finally can become indistinguishable.
  • What is left for design (including design research) to do in the unthinkable-world of what-might-not-becomee. a world-without-us?
  • Can design help us understand what we do not know we do not know in an unthinkable-world?

If you are interested in participating in this critical project, please contact

Does Design Care…? is supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK) under the AHRC’s Design Priority Area Leadership Fellowship scheme (Award Ref: AH/P013619/1).