A Year of Seminars by Dr. Nelly Ben Hayoun

This year I ran a series of talks and debates on the future of human needs with A/D/O. Each month, around four speakers from different creative and academic disciplines were invited to unravel Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs one step at the time. Following a one hour panel discussion, our attendees were invited to the stage to reimagine Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

In 1943, American psychologist Abraham Harold Maslow interrogated human nature from the perspective of our needs, establishing a hierarchy from the most basic (ie: eating, breathing) to the most elevated (ie: self-actualization). While this model is very much still in use in design education - where students are still being told to design following this linear approach - it is missing a lot of the key values of contemporary thinking (ie: sustainability, feminism etc….). Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is not new indeed, and he is a man too, which I normally try to avoid when I choose reference points; following instead the work of feminist academics like Professor Donna Haraway for example. 


“What makes us human. What defines us as a species?”

However, this model allows us to question fundamental questions such as: “What makes us human. What defines us as a species?.” It brings a temporality to the debate too: “Are we the same people as before? What will we be in the upcoming 100 years to 100,000 years?” So with our non-linear, plurality-focused programming we hoped to perhaps burst the pyramid and turn this into a multiverse and nebula for designers and creators to reinvestigate their practice away from purely egocentric terms. 

But…. Did we succeed? Our monthly conversations with magicians, instrument makers, puppet performers, thriller and horror movie directors, political theorists, designers, architects, curators, cyborgs, firefighters, social workers and so many more gave us a lot to think about. Together we explored whether the modern practice of design addresses our essential needs - from the most critical functions (eating, sleeping, breathing, safety and fear) to the more fulfilling (friendship, curiosity, work, superpowers, tourism and the sublime). And while I am not going to propose here any form of conclusion or finalized new models, I would like for us to look at three key concerns that our conversations have investigated. Thinking ahead, and to our near futures, creatives’ and designers’ curiosity will need to be fueled by histories, plurality and the recognition of myths; and to render these as designers’ and creatives' toolkit is, I believe, most urgent.

We Need Histories

Relatively speaking, it is important to note that design, as a creative field, is a relatively young practice compared to other creative disciplines, such as the arts and architecture. Indeed, in Britain, pupils were taught about design as a creative discipline only in the 1960s, according to the National Advisory Council on Art Education (Raein, 2005, p.163–174). As such, design took ‘a while to experience the patterns of politics and humanities into the discourse’ (Cross, 2001, p.52). Prior to this, it was established and taught at “Combined Arts” in the Bauhaus. This perhaps explains why Design has been blooming in defining new practices. Indeed, Design has increasingly opened its doors to the various fields of humanities. Designers have merged sociology and problem-solving approaches in Social Design, graphics and immersive experiences in Interactive Design and narration and storytelling in Design Fiction.

“Mainly what is fascinating about the discipline is its capacity to react to history and to acknowledge histories as a result.”

Meanwhile, designers have also brought together critical thinking and speculative scenarios to the realms of Critical Design (Foster, 2006). Designers, in the contemporary fields of design, think in terms of systems, social scenarios, ethnography, artifacts and critical theories (Moggridge, and Atkinson, 2007; Lawson, 2006; Malpass, 2016). In these modern developments of design as a discipline, a shift can be observed: design is not only seen and appreciated through aesthetic and practical criteria; but also through its discourse, its contextualization, its performance and critical reflections. In this new design culture, designers propose their own language and set of vocabularies, much like philosophers or other thinkers, and they participate in making sense of things. The discipline has seen this development take place since the 1980s (Lawson, 2006).

Mainly what is fascinating about the discipline is its capacity to react to history and to acknowledge histories as a result. What our research seminar series did in setting a rhizome with multiple creatives, philosophers, economics and so forth was consider our present but also unravel the histories we did not want to see; such as colonialism for example. We discussed colonialist practices of tourism. We discussed collective fears. We discussed the meanings of religion and by bringing it into the design discourse. Thinking about our futures, we allow for a debate on what we, the creative types, could use curiosity for.  

One outcome was to say that in order to best think and make the future, we need to better understand our past but also recognize it. Now if I preferred the word Histories to History, it is also because I believe - and what the seminars have explored - that we also have to think about the design discipline and culture as linked to a plurality of thinking and actions.

We need Plurality

When I am not curating the research seminars at A/D/O, I am running a free university in the basement of nightclubs in Amsterdam and London called the University of the Underground - which is soon to open in NYC too. Here we spend a lot of time thinking about what needs requires change. This exploration applies to institutions and how experiential design practices can play a role in that. We are concerned with plurality and future thinking with classes in linguistics, political philosophy, music, design, theatre, film, technology and science. 

Students are tasked to develop experiences in the context of the institutions of their choice, public and/or private, to seed change and modify power structures within them.

A lot of what we teach at the University of the Underground is informed by the philosophy of political theorist Hannah Arendt, who passed in 1975, and used to teach in NYC in the New School. Arendt predicted the ‘alienation of humanity’ due to the tendency of the engineer to be sublimed by its technological tools and often our incapacity to think critically. Born a jew in Germany, she escaped Nazism during the second world war and as a very prolific author she predicted that while authoritarian regimes such as Nazism might disappear, the temptation for such regimes will remain.

“While plurality is needed to the ways we consider curiosity and human needs in creative practices, we also need mythologists to reveal the power structures of our world.”

Architecture and design played a key role in the affirmation of ideological and authoritarian regimes were one style ruled it all.  What Hannah Arendt was advocating for was the plurality of thinking. To oppose to the ‘one idea rules it all’ of ideology, she thinks in term of plurality. Other philosophers like Guattari or Deleuze, talk about ‘the rhizome’ and a more schizophrenic approach to linear thinking as a means to engage with multiplicity of thoughts. One of the ways we curated the series was by allowing for multiple voices to examine one topic at a time. For example, we looked at the future of 'sleeping' from the perspective of economics, hypnotherapy or creativity and filmmaking. So while plurality is needed to the ways we consider curiosity and human needs in creative practices, we also need mythologists to reveal the power structures of our world.

We need designer-mythologists

In 1957, French linguist and philosopher Roland Barthes published a series of “mythologies” that he extracted from the news between 1954 to 1956. With titles ranging from ‘The roast beef and the chips’ to the ‘Martians’ or the ‘Red wine’, these short notes on ‘collective representations’ were studied as systems of signs. He explored common ‘mythologies’, and the relationship between language, aspiration and power.    

Barthes says that myths - which are a bit part of the production of our culture - are not communicated officially. They are not visible at first. They have no politics and they seem to belong to all of us. The difficulty to study and to report or to do a critical study of myths relies on a skilled mythologist. According to Barthes, the mythologist is the ‘liaising with the world in sarcastic terms’ in which he has the ability to maintain a critical distance from mass culture.


“Indeed the mythologist has a key role to play in the way we think of our needs as truth.”

Indeed the mythologist has a key role to play in the way we think of our needs as truth and facts are now the subject of intense questioning. The opacity that rules the decision making processes means that whoever can reveal these systems and render them visible to audiences (the public) has both a clear power to lead organized groups, but also action change within our existing structures. In Homo Sapiens, I Hear You, we engaged members of the audience with questioning these myths each month through an activity. For example, audience members were tasked to rethink our dining experience, our curiosity and so forth. So to reveal Histories, to support Plurality and to train the next mythologists, this will be our call for action at the end of this seminar series.  Let's plan for more platforms in which the geographer, the philosopher, the historian, the scientist and the creative can meet, discuss with passion and perhaps exchange body parts.


Thank you for joining us each month, and please do listen to the podcasts of the series. I hope to see you all very soon. 


Warmest,

Dr. Nelly Ben Hayoun

“HOWEVER THIS MODEL ALLOWS US TO QUESTION FUNDAMENTAL QUESTIONS SUCH AS: WHAT MAKES US HUMAN. WHAT DEFINES US AS A SPECIES?”

“LET'S PLAN FOR MORE PLATFORMS IN WHICH THE GEOGRAPHER, THE PHILOSOPHER, THE HISTORIAN, THE SCIENTIST AND THE CREATIVE CAN MEET, DISCUSS WITH PASSION AND PERHAPS EXCHANGE BODY PARTS.”

Text by Nelly Ben Hayoun. 

Photography by Justin Ryan Kim.

The year long research program Homo Sapiens, I Hear You is a collaboration with Nelly Ben Hayoun.