Dash MacDonald: “ I’m continually surprised at how great Goldsmiths Design students are”

Dash’n’Dem project: “Bedford Voices”

Dash MacDonald is one half of Dash’n’Dem, a design partnership whose work challenges conventions, emphasising creative collaboration and critical engagement with politics and society. Dash has been an associate lecturer at Goldsmiths Design for the past two years, and he recently joined the permanent teaching staff of our department as a third year studio tutor; he will also be involved in the Politics and Participation studio of our new, post-disciplinary MA programme. We’ve interviewed Dash to find out more about his approach to teaching at Goldsmiths:

How did you decide you wanted to join our department?

I started here as a second year studio tutor, and I think that was what really cemented me wanting to get a permanent post. The second year of the Design BA at Goldsmiths is really exciting in terms of connecting Design to the world and thinking about different scales of social, political, economic engagement. Working through that as a studio tutor, and seeing how smart the students were, and how exciting the work they were producing was, made me want to be part of that culture. That year, we worked on a live project with the Centre for Investigative Journalism, looking at public finance initiatives, and how design intervenes in the public understanding of public finance initiatives. I was managing that live brief with Liam Healy and the CIJ, and that showed me the potential of working in Goldsmiths, and the fact that there are so many other interesting research centres and areas here makes it really exciting in terms of what can happen in the future.

Dash’n’Dem project: “By the People, for the People”

Why do you think it is important to include public engagement in design education?

For me, it looks at the limits of traditional forms of critical or speculative design practice. How do you engage other audiences, that don’t have the privilege of coming to somewhere like Goldsmiths, with a similar level of Design as pedagogy? So a lot of my projects look at co-creation as a form of design activism, empowering people to think about how the world affects them, and reimagining that through design. If we’re ever going to have any kind of meaningful impact on changing what’s happening in the world, and on the neoliberal monopoly of current reality, design has to go beyond the comfortable, well-educated middle class audience and find new ways of engaging other people. I think that’s really important, it’s something that we’re continually grasping with as staff, really questioning, how can design affect positive change? What does that mean in such a rapidly changing world? What does it mean to design in the post-truth era, post-consensus?

What can students expect from you as a teacher? How would you describe the kind of relationship that you’re trying to establish with students?

Another thing that I really liked at Goldsmiths, coming in as an associate lecturer, is that teaching here is trying to break down the hierarchal staff-student relationship as much as possible, and enables you to work on a more level field, alongside the students, rather than being just kind of a knowledge bank where you’re imparting knowledge to the students sit there and listen. I’m really excited about how I can bring the collaborative nature of my practice into my teaching here, and be able to work with the students, rather than just purely teach at them. A good example would be a brief we started a couple of years ago, where we got students to design their own –isms, using game methodology and coding instead of the usual manifesto, and think about the relationship between ideology and the output of design in a more playful manner. I brought reality games designer Pekko Koskinen, who I’d been working with before, to co-write the project based on how that would disrupt the way we normally teach, in a design environment, and turn the studio into a kind of expanded game board, with the students building their –isms through seed-growth mechanisms and playful coding. For me, that was an experiment, and it was really exciting that I could do that here at Goldsmiths, there is an openness to not having to conform to restrictive model structures, and to be able to really challenge the way content is delivered.

“-Isms” project

Is there anything you’ve found surprising or unexpected since you’ve started working here permanently?

I’m continually surprised at how great the students are, how ambitious and brave a lot of their projects are, God, I wish I was as smart and as sophisticated in my approach to design when I was that age! The culture of the course produces really creative and inquisitive students, and it’s a real privilege to be able to be in that environment where everything is questioned, and to be having exciting and wide-ranging conversations.

What’s the profile of the student that the course is looking for?

I’m always looking at students that are engaging critically and creatively with the world around them, not just accepting their current education and realities as given, but are questioning things, and challenging the institution and environment that they’re based within. We’re also really interested in students that are open-minded and not coming with a fixed idea of what design is, but an openness and an enquiring nature, to learn and expand their thinking.

What is design to you?

Design is how we form our reality (or post-reality) and culture. How we create the systems that structure our interaction with each other, the scope of our behaviour and desire. When you call a course “Design”, you’re opening it up to include all kind of different fields and potentials. What’s exciting about the design course here is that it’s moved away from thinking solely about design products, to a much larger view of the systems surrounding design and the designer, and really trying to engage with the complexities of how that influences and shapes the way we behave and think. I’m interested in the notion of emancipatory design, or design of the oppressed, building on other forms of radical education, like ‘theatre of the oppressed’, or ‘pedagogy of the oppressed’. How does engaging people in the act of design enable them to gain new insights, in terms of how they’re controlled and shaped by their surrounding systems and environments? I think it’s increasingly important to look at how design can create new forms of political organisation and networks, the kind of bottom-up organisations that have some sort of meaningful impact in the world today, where we’ve got mass disenchantment from mainstream party politics and the rise of populism exploiting ant-establishment sentiments.

Listen to Dash’s recent Design Means talk at Goldsmiths to hear him speak about his work with Dash’n’Dem.