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  • Writer's pictureJessie G Taft

DL Seminar | Is Unmaking Design?

Updated: Apr 25, 2021

By Hajer Tamimi

Cornell Tech

Unmaking vs. Design, or is it so? a topic of research for Samar Sabie, the speaker who joined the Digital Life Seminar on November 18th, 2020. Samar Sabie is a fourth-year Information Science Ph.D. student at Cornell Tech. She has a depth of interest in design and its intersection with society, culture, and politics. The seminar provided valuable insights into design, transformations, and gentrification. Although these topics might not seem related at first, Sabie eloquently ties them all together.

What is unmaking?

With the lecture topic revolving around unmaking and design, Sabie started by leveling out the playing field by providing different meanings for the word unmaking. Design is a word used more often, and people do have a better grasp of its meaning. Design usually is thought of as making or creating, while when one thinks of unmaking, the first idea that comes to mind is usually related to destruction or change. Design is innovative, transformative, while unmaking is cruel and dismissive. Unmaking is intertwined with history, politics, and growth. It can have both positive and negative dimensions. Sabie sought to research and share insights behind manmade unmaking.

Is unmaking design?

Everyone looks toward what is new and shiny and forgets about the old and what once was. Sabie explained that unmaking is a form of design and art itself when looked at from a different angle. She also added that unmaking and design go hand in hand. In order to build something new, something old must be deposed of. It is a replacement process; behind every 'making' there is an 'unmaking'. Some acts of unmaking are planned, such as site demolitions and deforestation, while other acts of unmaking are not, such as natural disasters.

Perceptions of unmaking

Unmaking can be negative. Sabie shared her personal story as an Iraqi who witnessed the destruction of her home and country due to war. Unmaking can be positive also. When sharing some of her research projects on Roosevelt Island, she spoke about Civic DIY, where middle school-aged kids participated in designs across the island to improve social cohesion. The kids proposed demolishing a luxurious apartment complex that housed island residents and helped support senior citizens. Sabie was surprised by the group's suggestion and wondered why they would want to destroy homes for the sake of design and cohesion. The kids explained how since the apartment complex was built, it gentrified the island, and the kids' parents started feeling more burdened towards being able to afford rent. Unmaking was the kids' way of restoring harmony on Roosevelt Island and help their families.

Sabie's seminar opened our eyes to see beyond what is in front of us. It challenged us to think beyond what is expected and always ask 'Why?' to better understand our realities and make an impact. She left us with more questions that we would want to look into and seek answers to. So, for the original question, is unmaking design? The answer is unmaking and design run in parallel; they are a continuous cycle of destruction and invention.


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