As described by Dan Hill in his book Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary, strategic design involves the necessary acknowledgement and understanding of “dark matter”, which surrounds and influences any form of designed material you can imagine. The concept of dark matter, in regards to design, refers to the organizational and cultural contexts in which matter is produced, and how it ultimate has a direct outcome on the material outcome, even if it is undetectable to the user’s eye. A successful strategic designer cannot simply design for the future if they are not prepared to reimagine or reinvent the system (the dark matter contexts) in which their design will take form.
The example used by Hill, of dark matter’s organizational impact on material design, is of conceptual motor vehicle prototype, which is all well and good, and can elicit grand visions of the future, but it is highly unlike to ever come to fruition without taking into consideration the meta that surrounds its production. Hill suggests that just some of those structural considerations include “…the supply chains that might enable their construction and maintenance, the various traffic and planning regulations that must absorb a new vehicle, the refueling infrastructure, and so on.”
A recent proposal put forth in my hometown of Westerville, Ohio provided a chance for me to think about strategic design, or lack thereof, on a personal level. The area of interest is a small, historic section of shops and studios referred to as the Uptown District, and is mainly situated on one road, for probably less than a two-mile stretch. The proposition hopes to revitalize the area, which suffers heavily from business quickly moving in and out of the area, by undertaking a large-scale construction project to widen sidewalks up to seven feet in width in hopes of increasing foot traffic, but as a result remove virtually all space for street parking and create even narrower traffic lanes. Unfortunately, the plan seems to be disconnected from its context within a higher system, and I for one can see it leading to failure. Just some of the structural, systematic dark matter that they have seemingly failed to recognize includes: decreased parking space for businesses in a suburban setting where cars are the main mode of transportation, taxpayers who have been subjected to major construction projects consistently for the past decade, rent increases for small organizations, etc.
I found that this method of deeper level design thinking relates back heavily to the core ideology of speculative design; the idea using design not just as a means of creating products and services for the future, but designing, or re-designing, the actual future itself. Towards the end of the excerpt, Hill discusses how strategic design is inherently exploratory, and rarely has a clear vision for where an idea may end up, as well as the experiences and learnings that ultimately determine how it is achieved (or fails). Strategic design and conceptual design both function under the notion of not necessarily producing the “right” answers, but creating open ended spaces in which we can explore, discuss, and experiment with all possible answers.