Designing Economic Cultures

Facing precarity
A theoretical and practical research project, which identifies the relationship between economic precarity in design practice and the inability to do good progressive work, prototying and developing tools for redesigning forms of practice


Architectural practice is firmly tied into the service economy: too often financially beholden to flows of global capital and with it the addictions to extraction and growth that contribute to climate breakdown. This financial dependency restricts architects’ ability to engage critically and realistically with issues of climate through their work, beyond the limited mitigations of sustainable design. How can designers do socially-minded and climate-oriented work when they need to make a living, potentially outside of the standard service model? How do architects get paid if they are opposed to the kinds of work that those holding the money want them to do? Any such new forms of practice need to be considered within the context of new economic models of professional delivery. 


“Designing Economic Cultures”, a project conducted by Bianca Elzenbaumer as part of the design practice Brave New Alps, is one example of practitioners turning their attention to more systemic issues in relation to the conditions in which they produce work. The project is grounded in feminist critiques of narrow economic measures, which exclude all kinds of reproductive work by only recognising commercial relations and those forms of practice that are financially-valued. It asks “how can designers, who have a critically engaged practice, keep on developing this practice without selling themselves off or being crushed by the market?”1‘About’, Designing Economic Cultures <> [accessed 8 July 2022].

The research combines theoretical review with conversations, student workshops, and experiments in establishing and inhabiting micro-economies—mostly in the form of residencies. Based on this research, Elzenbaumer speculates on how design practices can be deployed in relation to the production of resources, spaces, and systems that “undo procedures of precarisation”: how artists and designers can design new forms of economy.2Bianca Elzenbaumer, ‘Designing Economic Cultures: Cultivating Socially and Politically Engaged Design Practices against Procedures of Precarisation’ (Doctoral Thesis, Goldsmiths College, 2013) <> [accessed 14 December 2022], p. 9. The project suggests that “designers are trained to accept and reproduce the conditions that precarise them, [and that] this training inserts itself in the wider logic of a capitalist economy”. The team argues that, by developing tools that can be used to counter this trend, designers can create “economic cultures that defy precarisation within and beyond the field of the profession”.3Ibid.

The aim of this work, therefore, is not to “stabilis[e] precarious design practices as they are”, but rather to “creat[e] conditions in which it is possible for designers to imagine and actuate what they could become when not pressured by precariousness to conform to the needs of the market”.4Precarity Pilot <> [accessed 8 July 2022]. The project delivered two gallery-based collective residencies in 2011 as a means to explore new working conditions: “My castle is your castle” in Warsaw; and “Construction site for non-affirmative practice” in Milan. In both, Elzenbaumer invited practitioners as co-residents for both research and prefigurative practice. In the second workshop in particular, the space was designed as an “economy of support” that highlighted the importance of such structures in a traditionally competition-based industry.5Elzenbaumer, Designing Economic Cultures, pp. 127-165.

The follow-up “Precarity Pilot” by Brave New Alps and artist Caterina Giuliani further develops this idea into a set of tools for designers, at different stages in their careers, to redesign their working lives. Resources provided online include guidance on career stages, employment, and progression; quotidian tips on time management, fee calculation, and financial tracking; as well as more expansive prompts around network-building, revaluing, and hybridised work.6Precarity Pilot.

Though anchored around Brave New Alps, this work on new forms of practice is the product of a number of individual researchers and organisations working collaboratively, internationally, and intra-actively, such that it is almost impossible to distinguish one element entirely from another. This is intentional: the ideas behind community economies suggest that the reproduction of livelihoods is not only an individual task—as in the competitive economics relations of capitalist economies—but a shared one. If designers are to work in innovative ways to face climate breakdown, it can only happen alongside new economic cultures. 


External links

Overlapping and interrelated projects include “feral business coaching—part of the The Feral Business Research Network (with artist Kate Rich), as well as the Centre for Plausible Economies which includes Company Drinks (Kathrin Böhm), Brave New Alps, FoAM, UWE, and others. Many are also linked to or part of the Community Economies Institute 

Radical HR and the Radmin Festival of Administration—celebrating the creative and progressive potential of these maligned sides of business