• Logo Doors of Perception (print)

    Logo alleen voor print

The relationship of my texts to a dead fish

The following is a conversation with John Wood, professor at Goldsmiths, University of London, and joint editor (with Julia Lockheart) of the Journal of Writing in Creative Practice. Please cite: Thackara, John (2021), ‘The relationship of texts to dead fish’, Journal of Writing in Creative Practice, 14:1, pp. 5–11, doi: doi.org

Keywords: relational ecology; theory of change; stories; embodied experience; biodiversity; ecosystem; civic ecology; bioregion; design; social fermentation


Abstract John Thackara’s theory of change is borrowed from Ilya Prigogene: ‘when a system is far from equilibrium, small islands of coherence have the capacity to shift the entire system’. As a writer, he explains, his work therefore involves a search for small islands of coherence – that he can later describe – in which social and ecological relationships thrive together. His aim as a curator is similar: he strives to enable embodied encounters with situations (or ‘islands’) in which we feel ourselves to be part of nature, rather than separate from it. This work is therefore not symbolic, like ‘systems thinking’. It is more field work than head work. ‘I want people to experience relational ecologies, not just think about them’, Thackara states. He cites the artist Eva Bakkeslett as describing this process – the cultivation of ecological and social connectivity – as social fermentation.

John Wood (JW): It’s kind of you to spare us some time.You are probably best known in creative circles as a notable editor of Design Magazine and for your informative and highly readable design publications, books like In the Bubble (2006), How to Thrive in the Next Economy (2015) and, of course, your trailblazing ‘Doors of Perception’ conferences. I note that, before dedicating yourself to supporting the design cause, you studied philosophy and journalism. I should explain why I mention this. Although the Journal’s name includes the word ‘writing’, some of us still feel strangely nervous about having to ‘do’ reading or writing. Arguably, quite a lot of artists, designers or craftspeople feel more comfortable hanging around the studio or workshop than they do in the library. So, although the Journal sometimes touches on the use of writing for creative discovery, or as a way to develop theory, I guess it is best at promoting writing that helps artists, craftspeople or designers to clarify their purpose, or to become better practitioners.

John Thackara (JT): Good! I’m not good at talking about abstruse design theory – even though I did study philosophy before starting my first job. In that first job, which was with an architecture publisher, my task was to seek out developments at the edge of the design world and get people to write books about them. Later, when I evolved from being a commissioning editor to being a design critic, and when I was editor of Design, I still didn’t see it as my job to tell designers what to do. Rather, I tried to introduce new conversations that might enrich the practices with which they were engaged. But others saw my work differently. In the early 1980s, one of the founders of Pentagram (the celebrated graphic design company) accused me of stealing the word designer. In retrospect, I’m not unsympathetic to his complaint. These days, the word design has expanded almost to infinity.

JW: That’s a clear explanation of how you navigated what we tend to see as the gaps between practices of writing and design. Did any philosophies, or philosophers, have a strong influence on what you did?

JT: Well, a training in philosophy encourages you to ask why things are as they are, and that habit has persisted. But I don’t want to exaggerate the amount of philosophy I use in my work. The other day I found one of my old university textbooks in a box. Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind. Every second or third line has a heavy notation, made by me as a student. Today, I can barely understand any of it. In my case, philosophy is more of an attitude than a method. I probably owe an apology to professional philosophers, as well as to professional designers – but I just can’t stop asking ‘why?’

This entry was posted in [no topic]. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
  • Only shown in print

    Contactinformation John

  • All Blog Posts