Material Trajectories

Designing with Care

Design is deeply engaged with materials. Yet the attempt to make sense of the properties, composition and behaviour of matter, artefacts and built infrastructures is accompanied by a pressing question: “who is in fact designing?” As highly elaborated and engineered materials in fields like medicine, biotechnology or aerospace develop further, the possibilities as well as challenges in designing (with) materials and their activity become apparent. Simultaneously, matters of existential urgency such as anthropogenic climate change, extractive capitalism, environmental injustice and the quest for resilience call for a response (Tsing/Bubandt 2017): They demand a grounding in the material itself as a practice of care in order to identify means, develop modes and foster motives for a sustainable future. In recent years, discourse in the humanities, natural sciences, the arts and design alike has witnessed a renewed devotion to matter and material cultures as well as an engagement with the legacy of old and new materialisms and their respective ontologies (e.g. Barad 2007; Bennett 2010; Fratzl et al. 2021; Grote 2019, Deacon 2011; Stakemeyer/Witzgall 2014).

Design as a practice and knowledge culture seems to be at the hinge of this highly entangled dynamic as it not only addresses and analyzes these questions but contextualizes and synthesizes them through the open-ended processes of making. The fundamental role of materials in design, whether fabricated or organic, from nanoscale to the planetary signals towards the significance and scope of design research in the Anthropocene. By shedding light on the modes of production in their scientific and cultural evolvement, the various practices of speculating, informing, dismantling and reassembling also allow for a critical portfolio of contemporary environment-human-relationships. Cycles and sites of extraction, production, consumption, obsolescence, disposal and/or recycling have to be conceived as the scaffolding of mass material culture and therefore are crucial for every design process.

In the face of system failures and states of emergency on a global level it seems worthwhile to ask once again if the designated task of design is just problem solving, innovating, or optimizing. Yet if we take alternative modes of engagement and co-creation into account, in particular the operations of complicating, scrutinizing and queering materials, they urge us to “stay with the trouble” (Haraway 2016) of the planetary condition. Consequently, ideas of constructability and the “how-to” logic of design remain in an ongoing process of negotiation and interpretation towards matters of care. Caring as a material engagement and non-normative form of ethical obligation (Puig de la Bellacasa 2017) can be understood as a situated practice of interweaving in a complex life-sustaining web (Tronto 1993). It entails acknowledging our complicity in the status quo but also the possibility to embrace unruliness, vulnerabilities and impurities as forms of aspirational solidarity in a more-than-human world (Shotwell 2016). Thus, designing with care requires a critical self-examination and an ongoing attempt at problematizing  the predominant systems of reference, styles, working methods, forms of knowledge and object cultures in their circulation. Nurturing these commitments is of particular importance for design research and the differentiation of design as a scientific discipline.

The annual conference of the German Society for Design Theory and Research intends to make these questions graspable and to discuss the contribution of design through four interlaced strands: Sympoiesis of Making, Performative Surfaces, Living Matter, Designing Resilience.


Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the Universe Halfway. Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham: Duke Univ. Press. Bennett, J. (2010). Vibrant Matter. A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke Univ. Press.

Deacon, T. (2011). Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Fratzl, P., Friedman, M., Krauthausen, K., & Schäffner, W. (Eds.). (2021). Active Materials. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter.

Grote, M. (2019). Membranes to Molecular Machines: Active Matter and the Remaking of Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Puig de la Bellacasa, M. (2017). Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Shotwell, Alexis (2016). Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

Stakemeier, K./Witzgall, S. (Eds.). (2014). Power of Material/Politics of Materiality. Zürich: Diaphanes.

Tronto, J. (1993). Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for an Ethic of Care. London: Routledge.

Tsing, A./Bubandt, N. (Eds.). (2017). Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet. Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene. Minneapolis/London: Univ. of Minnesota Press.