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Monthly Archives: March 2006

From Peterme’s closing plenary at the IASummit:

“…I think that web 2.0 puts the “architecture” in information architecture. Think of an architect. They design the space. People flow through it, meet in it, contribute to it.! With that model, the bulk of information architecture currently on the web isn’t really architecture — it’s some form of hyperdimensional document organizing. We’re not creating a space that people move through, and engage with. We’re classifying material to be retrieved. But with web 2.0, we are providing an architecture — a space, a platform through which and upon which people move, contribute, and change…

…If information is a substrate running through an increasing amount of our “real-world” lives, and we believe that these web 2.0 principles are important for the future of information architecture, how do we merge the two?”

And

“as digital networked media pervades more and more of our lives, the idea of a discreet region called “cyberspace” starts to feel like an anachronism. Who here has a mobile phone on them? One that can send photos by email, for example? Well, you’re all carrying “cyberspace” in your pocket. And once that happens, distinguishing that from the “real world” becomes impossible.”

Last Monday I was invited to participate in a debate as part of the Design Museum’s ‘Script’ series, alongside Tom Barker of the RCA and the Design Museum’s new head, Deyan Sudjic.

Dejan Sudjic at Script, Design Museum

What I was doing in such illustrious company I do not know, and I’m not sure I acquited myself that well having got off a 22hr flight from Australia the day before (that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it) but I had a lot of fun – thanks to the gracious hosts, the thoughtful and funny speeches of my fellow panelists, the intelligent questions and apres-debate pub conversation from the attendees.

Tom Barker at Script, Design Museum

What follows is my recollection of what I said, based on my notes I’d made before hand, and re-written a little to make some kind of sense.

There will apparently be an audio recording of the debate available online shortly so if you’re really bored you could listen to that and come back here to point out I said nothing of the sort at a later date.

Script: Design Museum, Monday 2oth March 2006

The question put to us is ‘are designers slaves to industry?’

It was put to me on holiday by Kyla (thanks for that!) and I must admit I wrangled with it quite a bit. My first instinct was to take apart the question, but my wife (who was a college debating champion!) told me that’s dull and no-one likes it when you do that, so I thought I would just try and connect together some dots that have been on my radar lately as they relate to what I think is the spirit of the question and hope they are good grist for our mill tonight.

Of course, the everyday reality of working in design for industry is far more multilateral and intertwingled than suggested by the question which I guess is designed to make us take some interesting stances.

Kyla told me I wasn’t to bring any slides, but I could bring some artifacts. So I brought a diagram (the walls of our flat are covered in diagrams…) by Charles and Ray Eames. [pass round diagram - Deyan Sudjic points out that it's by Charles Eames...]

Eames office digram of design (c) Office of Charles and Ray Eames

The diagram features:

  • a shape that represents the concerns of society of a whole
  • a shape that represents the concerns of the client
  • a shape that represents the concerns of the design office

The intersection of those shapes represents the area that the designer might work with ‘enthusiasm and conviction’

Right now, I”d say nearly all of these representative shapes – of the vectors or influences on the work of shaping things – are in flux.

“Shaping Things” is the title of a book by Bruce Sterling which introduces the concept of ‘spimes‘: a neologism for a class of artifact or object which is data first and always, and a material object now and again.

I’d like to read a short passage from it now that describes our transition from an industrial technoculture of mass-produced ‘products‘, through the current age of software-enhanced ‘gizmos‘ towards the age of the ‘spime‘. [read 'Shaping Things' page 10-11]

An anecdote that might illustrate that we at the dawn of the spime age. The Tesco CEO – interviewed in a business periodical (I forget the reference for now) was asked what he would say was most important to the continuing success of the business. His answer might be suprising to some: not the properties or the stock on the shelves of those properties – but the database of the Tesco Clubcard loyalty scheme. From that dna of data, of relationships and preferences he could reboot the store.

Spimes could be seen as genes, recipes, songlines – digital incantations for ‘things’. Things that are gaining the ability through the ‘fabbing‘ technology of mass personalisation to sing themselves into existence.

If ‘things’ become transient – haeccities of need, context and available resource, then what does that mean for design?

Sterling suggests that we designers are wranglers, protocrats – choreographing and guiding constant, contigent, bespoke microsolutions rather than mass-producing products in response to general needs.

Moreover, he suggests that ‘citizen designers’ – the people formerly known as consumers in the industrial age – will take over the means of design and production from the elite class of designer put there by the needs and machinery of industry.

Another book that’s fired my imagination recently is John Thackara’s “In the bubble” He echoes this last point of Sterling and points to design as social fiction to deal with this science fictional situation. Service design is growing in importance right now, as we slouch up the slopes of Sterling’s spimeworld.

Thackara also points to growing need for co-creation: end-user community involvement in the design of solutions offered to them. He sees designers are facilitators in this situation – shapers of possibility spaces*, rather than things.

Thackara would suggest that we have nothing to lose but our chains but adopting these practices and becoming sherpas not slaves.

In conclusion: should this flux of multiateral forces: services not things, cocreation not lone auteurship, possibility data not material objects – be seen as slavery to industry, or would indeed it seem that unfamiliar to the Eames?

Perhaps not – they might be even tempted to paraphrase themselves: ‘design is doing the best with the most for the least’ - which to me seems a noble duty, rather than base slavery.

Thank you.

* some things that pop into my mind now which I wish I’d brought up if there was time at the event – Martin Pawley’s “Terminal architecture” and Neil Spiller’s discussion of the ‘architecture of the second aesthetic’ [pdf], perhaps even a mention of what games designers are thinking about auto-generating content and gameplay i.e. Will Wright’s numerous talks esp. about Spore.

BONUS LINK #1: Hot Thackara-on-Sterling spime-laden macroscopic action

BONUS LINK #2: Anne Galloway’s pulsing, growing, bibliography /ongoing police-action of the ‘internet of things’.

Jim Rossignol on millennium people:

“I’m more concerned by the way all this stuff (from the bright shiny geek theory to the starving refugee story) slides off the suburbs and backwaters of the developed world. I can’t help thinking the strongest aphorisms of the 21st century aren’t to be found in Sterling’s ‘nation borders are like speedbumps’ and ‘I’m living out of my laptop’, or any of the grim analysis about disease and prejudicial madness in the poorest regions. Instead I find myself catching the occasional observations made about a rather more mundane future faced by millions – the Ballardian future of local boredom and widespread repetition. It’s The New Quiet Desperation, these masses. They’re working in the offices and commuting home to a hillside development near Canterbury. It’s a small suburban home. Hermitic and yet engulfed. Fish out the mobile phone and order three types of vegetarian pizza (illusion of comparative health value judgement in junkfood) to eat while watching Lost, or Invasion or some other sophisticated entertainment. And these middling classes need to be distracted, so they’re all getting good at filter feeding: we’re bottom dwellers, down in the cultural silt – rapidly getting sensitive enough to root out the most nutritious, the most interesting sediment, the most worthwhile jetsam that floats down from the higher strata. And it doesn’t have to have a jot of intellectual bulk, we can live on spectacle alone. As long as the flow is steady.”

I’m reminded of Molly Wright Steenson and Anne Galloway‘s thoughts on suburbia and exurbia from a couple of years ago – that’s the real place needing attention and study, and perhaps design intervention, not groovy hipster city districts or grimly fascinating favellas.

To get going again, some words from our new sponsors.

John Thackara, “In the Bubble” (if you haven’t read it yet, why not?):

“…switch attention from science-[fiction] dominated futures to social fictions in which imagined new contexts enrich and otherwise familiar world. Design scenarios are powerful… because they make a possible future familiar and enable the participation of potential users in conceiving and shaping what they want”

H.G Wells, in an 1891 essay “The rediscovery of the unique”:

“Science is a match that man has just got alight. He thought he was in a room – in moments of devotion, a temple – and that his light would be reflected from and display walls inscribed with wonderful secrets and pillars carved with philosophical systems wrought into harmony. It is a curious sensation, now that the preliminary splutter is over and the flame burns up clear, to see his hands and just aglimpse of himself and the patch he stands on visible, and around him, in place of all that human comfort and beauty he anticipated – darkness still.”

T.S Eliot (in his 1940 commentary on H.G. Well’s ‘The first men in the moon’):

“We can have very little hope of contributing to any immediate social change; and we are more disposed to see our hope in modest and local beginnings, than in transforming the whole world at once. On the other hand , though the immediate aims are less glittering, they may prove less deceptive: for Mr. Wells, putting all his money on the near future, is walking very near the edge of despair; while we must keep alive aspirations which can remain valid throughout the longest and darkest period of universal calamity and degradation”

Last word to Mr. Wells:

“If the world does not please you, you can change it.”

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