What is Geo-Design
Geo-design is a research-based design discipline that acknowledges the planetary impact of all design gestures. Formafantasma who head a dedicated Master’s program at DAE explain
In 2020, a new Master’s program was started at Design Academy Eindhoven on Geo-design, run by Formafantasma.
The word is not new, and it’s used (often without the hyphen) to mean many things: from considering the geographic contexts in urban and architectural planning to facilitating the re-use of buildings or whole abandoned areas in cities.
At the Design Academy Eindhoven (DAE), the word taps previous theorizations: by architect Stefano Boeri in a 2006 article on Domus and by Joseph Grima, now Creative Director of the Design Academy Eindhoven, who defined it as
a discipline focused on acknowledging the planetary impact of the design profession, both in a good and in a negative sense.
Ever since the opening of their studio, Simone Farresin and Andrea Trimarchi aka Formafantasma, have been working towards this direction, with research-based projects featuring how materials are worked throughout their life span (Cambio) or waste production in electronics (Ore Streams).
Almost naturally, Joseph Grima appointed the duo as Head of the new Master’s degree program that churned out its first results at the 2022 graduation show.
Convinced of the great value that a thorough understanding of the global impact of design can bring, we asked Formafantasma to explain the essence of Geo-design.
What is Geo-design?
“Geo-design, in the way we approach it at DAE, is a research-based discipline that helps designers understand the complex systems in which their creative activity occurs (throughout its whole life cycle) and the impact it has on the planet.
Geo-design looks at design not only in relation to the needs of the individual but considers other groups: animals, plants, and communities at large. All those who are somehow (whether they like it or not) involved in the extraction, production and distribution of goods.
Geodesign basically deals with the infrastructure in which design usually performs”.
What’s the difference with Life Cycle Assessment?
“Life Cycle Assessment is a method, a tool to help businesses or government figure out where – within their whole production – lies the highest level of environmental impact.
Geo-design is an educational approach that values what it looks at from a cultural perspective.
So it’s not a tool but an attitude.
Where Life Cycle Assessment works with data and is rigorous about its findings, Geo-design is research and data-fueled but it’s a creative discipline, that welcomes intuition”.
What are the skills of the geo-designer?
“Investigative skills. Which is why a lot of students come from non-design-related disciplines such as the human and social sciences.
It is a design course, though, so it is important that students understand the transformative power of design, and its traditional problem-solving approaches.
Last, but not least, they have to use information design skills to provide a suitable narrative to convey their findings”.
Being a geo-designer. What does it mean?
“Studying Geo-design today means being a researcher. But our aim is to turn it into a design profession. The idea is to evolve the findings into actual workable projects.
Since it’s a mentality and a cultural issue, plus it involves not only designers but the whole system in which they move, it will take a while to get there.
It took 20 or more years for sustainable design to be perceived as a profession. Due to the urgency of climate and socially related issues we may not have to wait that long”.
When do you think Geo-design will become a workable discipline?
“We work for the long term and we are dealing with something new. So, naturally,
we are trying one direction, but we are open to adjustments, built on trials and errors.
Dealing with the students and listening to their input on the themes that matter to them is key to figure out what’s good in the methods and also its limits.
Sharing information and gathering interest outside academia is also key to make the practice more solid and understood.
We would say it will take anything between 6 to 10 years”.
Is Geo-design a political issue?
“There is a political side to it, for sure.
While in most schools students are taught that design can change the world for the better, it is rare to consider the negative impact that our profession has had and still has on the planet.
Underlining the issues but also the potential equals to taking a political standing”.
When you started the Master’s degree you said you were going to build an open data base with the findings. How is that coming along?
“We wanted to, but for the moment the students only created an internal one. Making available to everyone outside DAE would require an editing work that we have no means at present to implement.
Yet the database exists, and it allows all students to tap into the work of their colleagues. The idea is to create a continuum”.
Why is knowledge sharing so important in your Geo-design vision?
“Because ground-breaking work occurs when scholars pick up from one another.
In design schools, though, research is often author-driven and presented in a condensed version, featuring only what’s relevant to the author’s project.
A database, functioning through a system of keywords searches and containing all information that students gather can be extremely useful for those who will, after them, pursue a similar line of work.
Ultimately, we would like to assign projects that live through a longer time span and are carried out by different groups.
We believe that we will get more insightful results, but it requires also a change in students’ mentality: moving from an individual to a group and even a community perspective”.
Talking about results, what student projects illustrate Geo-design so far?
“We will mention two who selected the means of the installation and the performance, backed up by written works (respectively a collection of short stories and the re-writing of legal European documents).
The first one is by Yassim Ben Abdallah, from la Réunion, who worked on the de-colonisation of a local museum on the island. Placed in the middle of a former sugar cane plantation, previously run by slaves, the Musée Historique de la Villèle currently features only items related to the lifestyle of the colonists.
With an installation and a book of short stories, Yassim’s work provided insights into the local history and ways to narrate it with the museum’s premises, illustrating the social, anthropological and cultural impact of plantations and colonization on people and landscape, even of today.
The second project is by Lebanese Ayla Kekhia who has developed a project on Frontex, culminating in the form of a multimedia performance.
Her project was centered on the violent (and illegal) pushback operations conducted by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency Frontex.
Kekhia reviewed the way the 2019 EU regulations on Frontex were written and, comparing the wording with the one used in a classified Frontex database registering the pushback, she was able to unveil how legal language is used to allow violations to take place.
It’s an interesting reality check exercise that could serve activists and investigative journalists”.
How do you evaluate the quality of projects such as these?
“We look at the methodology. We do not necessarily ask for scalability and to get actual solutions out of projects.
We are not here to create professionals within an existing market but people with a critical outlook and independent thinking”.
What space will there be for geo-designers, once they start looking for work?
“This is the usual debate between professional education or classics. In such an unstable world, where situations change relentlessly, we believe that being able to read the world around us and adapt accordingly, is an extremely valuable asset”.