Skip to content


June 14, 2016

Lately I’ve been thinking about Undesign. I know that’s a strange word and perhaps someone has a better one.

One way or another, I’ve spent most of my working life in design. There are a handful of early years that don’t qualify; a couple in the military and a few working as a rural contractor building fences. But mostly it’s been about design. I built a multi-disciplinary design group that reached the top of its game in Australia, took it into Asia and then partnered it with one of the world’s largest experience design companies.

When that phase was over, seeking a break from demanding clients, phone calls, emails and work-related travel, I moved into art practice. And when I realised that art in the public realm was where my interest lay, I found myself back in a designery-type of space. In public art there’s a client and a budget and constraints and you have to illustrate your ideas before you make them – in those ways it’s very much like design.

So, you know, I’ve been all for design.

Making art in the public realm and organising art and cultural projects has brought me bang into the centre of the urban development realm. Lots of design here too.

In this iteration of my professional life I bring art and cultural content into modern urban development. I work for governments and developers with architects and urban designers; educated and creative professionals shaping the environments in which a great many of us live. And this is where my thinking takes a turn toward Undesign. I’m not quite sure how to implement Undesign yet, or even exactly what it is, but the thinking that sits behind it is pretty clear.

In modern urban development everything is designed to within an inch of its life. Yep, even the gardens and places where nature has at least half a chance. And in those contexts, I don’t think design always nurtures our souls.

We need contact with nature and the organic. And we need some of it in its chaotic, natural state, not manicured, designed, maintained and sterile. We learn from the patterns of nature, its simultaneous growth, decay, life and death. As I get older I also have a greater need to feel generations of human endeavour; the slow erosion of nineteenth century stonework, the layering of the built environment that happens across decades and centuries. A hundred year old timber door with forged iron hinges in an anonymous laneway.

So I’m wondering how we make room for Undesign in contemporary Urban Development.

When an entire built environment springs from the ground fully formed, almost overnight, how do we create room for self-expression, feedback, learning and meaningful experience? Modern developments are the crucibles of our future culture. To a large degree they shape the planet and define the way we live. But culture isn’t designed; it resists design, needing space to emerge and flourish – to find its own way. It needs Undesigned space and time.

I think Undesign can be a way of making that allows space for people to respond, participate, interact and express. When environments are fully designed, they can have a dropped-in feel, disconnected from place, leaving space only for reaction rather than participation. An Undesigned approach is asking for processes that are ground-up, experimental and iterative, allowing people to shape parts of their own environment.

Art practice can be Undesign. The process of making art creates feedback. The best thing about making art is often the delight of the unintended consequence. We set out to do something with a particular material but its inherent properties take us to another place. And from that we learn.

Festivals can be Undesign, like parties. Sure, the parameters may be tightly held but what happens within them is less predictable. Maybe that’s why people go.

In urban development, I think that unearthing a deep cultural truth about a place and valuing it; using it as a guiding principle for the development about to take place; one that connects the past to the future through the present is a way to introduce a type of Undesign. I think we need to lay those cultural threads in carefully, thoughtfully, in resonant ways that speak to the urban design and architecture, the creation of public spaces, the art and the streetscapes. And while doing that, simultaneously enable people to experience those cultural markers in meaningful ways; respond to them, learn from them and express about them. In as far as is possible an Undesigned way.

– Mark McClelland