Possible lessons from the Slow Movement

One of the likely responses by designers, as well as design students and faculty, when presented with the challenge of incorporating critical approaches to their design process is that it would take too much time. In the real-world, ‘time is money’, and in design school, most students are in a hurry to graduate. To top it off, there is a pervasive belief that design is best done quickly and as soon as possible, without wasting valuable time on research or reflection. But if time in this sense represents collective social values and the prioritization of certain values over others, then ‘fast design’ places a premium on production over other qualities. Viewed in this light, the desire to build momentum for a Critical Design movement turns us toward the Slow Movement, the most well known faction of which is the Slow Food movement.

Whether or not most people have heard of the Slow (Food) Movement, there is little question that, in general, Americans’ views toward food have changed over the past decade. This can be attributed to a campaign by many organized activists, as well as authors, politicians, etc. to consciously effect cultural and systemic change. Perhaps not all of them would claim to be part of the Slow Food movement itself, but it remains the standard bearer of a societal shift. Our current zeitgeist is one that demands that the interrelated acts of growing, shopping, eating, and disposing of food as a cycle that should not be done as efficiently or as quickly as possible. There is a sense that if, as a society, ‘we are what we eat’, then we’d better take a hard look in the mirror. Although the term ‘slow food’ makes sense as a play on ‘fast food’, I think it can also be considered a ‘Critical Food’ movement. And in this way, there is probably much to learn from the Slow Food movement, in particular, if we hope to build popular demand for a shift in values regarding design.  An important lesson from the recent increase in interest around food justice is the need to reflect on class and socio-economic issues, which are tied to food as much as they are to design (both food and design systems constantly intersect with our everyday lives and often reproduce injustice). Unfortunately, especially for an issue like food, calls for ‘slow food’ can easily descend into appearing like liberal elitism or social engineering, and often get attacked as such. So the message itself cannot be the only focus, but the medium, the dissemination process, and all the other possible ways that equity and democracy can get undermined must be taken into account. In other words, the idea is not to merge our ideas or find some common denominator but merely to repeat the gains and avoid the mistakes of a preceding, parallel movement.

A cursory Google search reveals that “Slow Design” is indeed already a functioning term, as part of the encompassing Slow Movement. One non-profit design firm in the Netherlands, slowLAB, has incorporated their Slow Design principles into multiple projects (they also list other projects that meet their criteria). While this particular conception of Slow Design is more focused on results (with specific emphasis on environmental issues) than Critical Design, which currently is more focused on approach, there is clearly significant overlap between the two formulations. Most importantly, we share a desire to shift the conversation beyond the walls of academia and fundamentally alter the value system that dictates questions of time and energy during (and after) the design process.

This post was inspired by an “aha!” moment and based on next to no research or prior knowledge. But the beauty of a blog post, even one as short and superficial as this, is that it might just flip a switch, touch a nerve, or [insert some other cliché here] and inspire more research by those interested in the relationship and translation between food movements and design movements. And if there’s one thing I do know: there are more than a few of you out there!


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