Global Issues: Design and Culture (PLAD 3500)

These meetings follow lectures given in Global Issues in Design and Visuality in the 21st Century: Culture, given by Associate Professor Susan Yelavich at Parsons, The New School for Design. As Yelavich provides, “design and art mirror the state of contemporary culture and the ways in which they critique and change  culture”.
This blog traces our conversations regarding globalization theories, their voice in design practice, and vice versa. Contributors include students from a range of Parsons schools, including a section from the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum masters program in the Decorative Arts and Design History.

Our cross-disciplinary engagement with globalization and culture incorporates the perspectives of designers, artists, architects, social scientists and philosophers. How is the concept of culture important to the design professions? How do our creations influence social norms – class, gender, and ethnicity? In turn, how do cultural ascriptions reveal themselves in the things we make? Particularly, how do the streets of New York reveal aspects of cosmopolianism today?

In The Idea of Culture we encounter what literary theorist Terry Eagleton describes as a crisis in culture. Due, he says, to the increased fragmentation and multiplication of subcultures, we have lost our ability to relate to each other except through capital. In distinguishing between “c”ulture (smaller groups affiliated through shared, voluntary interests, ie. vegetarian cultures, punk cultures, or professional cultures) and “C”ulture (larger, top-down social constructions, often associated with national, religious, or ethnic — in-born characteristics).

In his introduction Eagleton explores the idea of culture by asking “is it still possible to see culture as at once an ideal criticism and a real social force” (2000, p8)?

What is the ideal expressed in this design by Dutch fashion designers Victor & Rolf, now on view at the Barbican Gallery? How does design have psychological and real effects in how we go about living our everyday? For example, in objects as well as processes we’re seeing a redefinition of humanity’s relationship with nature. Many agree that sustainability, both ecological and humanitarian, can no longer linger in the periphery of any discourse. See William McDonough’s Cradle to Cradle, and the architectural experiments cultivated annually in the Nevada desert Burning Man festival.

Throughout the course we’ll inquire into a range of theories. As a culture, are we becoming as fragmented as Terry Eagleton suggests? Or, (perhaps thanks to this fragmentation,) are we coming to realize that despite all the differences, we’re all human. Psycho Buildings, an exhibition at London’s Hayward Gallery interrogates our very human experience/perception of space, seen here are projects of, Atelier Bow Wow and Paul Discoe —

Finally, and from a reading we’ll get to later in the term:

“That which is impossible to force, is impossible to hinder.

It is even more of a miracle that the act of forcing the impossible is, in the history of political revolution, often catalyzed by something as flimsy as a poster plastered on a wall – the perfect poster of the perfect wall at the perfect moment. What’s miraculous is not that great graphic design, employing shock, wit, and clarity borne of urgency, can move people to action, to acts of courage and sacrifice, overcoming habit and fear. Art can do that; art is always having those sorts of effects. Art can’t change anything except people, and people can make everything change.”

Kushner, Tony, The Design of Dissent. Gloucester, Massachusetts: Rockport Publishers Inc., 2005.

Course Objectives
  • To understand culture as a variable set of social dynamics.
  • To see design and art as both expressions of culture and instruments for changing culture.
  • To gain an understanding of the larger social, economic, political, ethical and extra-disciplinary contexts within which design and visual culture function in the current state of globalization.
  • To be aware of the consequences of design and art.
  • To gain exposure to a variety of modes of thought, disciplinary approaches to solving and setting problems.
  • To think critically about design and visual culture.
  • To encourage students to view their future professional paths, not in terms of discrete disciplines, but rather as a series of intersections with knowledge and practices parallel to their own.
posted by: Sarah Butler
course administrator


  1. cosmopos

    Hi, I read an interesting article in the WSJ Weekend Journal that offers another look at Culture/culture but through the lens of politics:

    Unfortunately, the print version of the article has a great montage of images of Democrat’s Culture vs Republican’s Culture (i.e. values), but I hope you enjoy the article.


  2. cosmopos

    Lauren Altman’s Post on Olympic Culture: National and Postnational Identities

    In response to this week’s lecture on cultural identity in the Olympic games and design of Olympic structures, we focused specifically on how the global community as well as the host nation’s community responds to how the Olympics portray the social, political, and economic stance of the host country in relation to the rest of the world. The lecture tuned into the Olympic games hosted in Athens, Greece, as well as in Nagamo, and Tokyo, Japan. In the lecture as well as the reading, National and Post-National Dynamics in the Olympic Design: The case of the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, the author discusses the responses of the local community as being disappointed with the depiction of the nation from architect Calatrava’s overpriced design of the roof of the Olympic structure, to the closing ceremony including gypsies as part of the nation’s historical culture. The lecturer also discussed how designers who agreed to work on the Athens Olympic game as well as the two in Japan didn’t always depict the host country in the best light. Although this may be true, the designers who created the graphics, the structure, as well as the ceremonies at each events, wanted to show how these cities have become modernized, and a part of the global community. Hosting the Olympics is a great opportunity to debut a city for its advances socially, politically, and economically, but it is also important to inform the global community about the host nation’s history and the nation’s local community.

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