Over the last couple of years, the term Design Fiction (DF) has gained ground and popularity. It has entered design parlance and has become ‘hip with the kids’. As a practice it’s moved out of classrooms and galleries into boardrooms and research labs. I’ve watched the term grow in popularity, been frustrated with the lack of historic contextualisation, and amazed by how little the term has been interrogated.
This Space Is Not For Sale
In this post I’m going to try to articulate some of the concerns I have about the commodification of public space through technology. As networked, augmented, technologically mediated experiences start to dominate our lives, how do we make space for non-consumption based activities, how do we design new forms of common space for reflection and conviviality?
The post has been in draft form since mid November after I went to the service celebrating the life of my favourite Flatlander and good friend, Nic Hughes. In the church was a projection, made by Nic, that sparked a chain of ideas. This post is trying to collect them together. On a side note, I love the fact that Nic continues to challenge and inspire me in his death, I’m sure this will be an ongoing thread in my life, I’m going to continue to blog about Nic’s influence on my thinking in celebration of a great design mind.
Projecting ‘THIS SPACE IS NOT FOR SALE’ and ‘GOD IS FOUND IN THE SHIT’ onto the wall of a church shocked me slightly. My first thought was: surely you’re not allowed to do this, the church wouldn’t stand for it. It’s an act of rebellion and nonconformity, this is bound to be looked down upon by an institution of such conservative values. But I wasn’t quite sure why I thought this, it’s been niggling me ever since.
It maybe due to the medium of projection itself, it seems to be far too flippant for a place of worship – the church is a space for frescos and stained glass; mediums that last, hold ideas in concrete form. A projection is too ephemeral, too ‘light’, to exist in a church. So in a world were screens are being placed everywhere, will the church be one the last places to succumb; a place of digital resistance, where the flow of data is slowed, frozen in an ideological time lock.
I don’t know the context in which Nic produced the work, I think it was during his time involved with Vaux. But as I entered the church, it hit me like a truck, the reconceptualisation of the church as a space away from the dynamics of free market capitalism is both appealing and something I’d never fully considered. Although the writing of George Bataille (in particular Against Architecture) and Henri Lefebvre have long been favourites of mine, I’ve never fully embraced the role of the Church in contemporary spatial politics.
“What is an ideology without a space to which it refers, a space which it describes, whose vocabulary and kinks it makes use of, and whose code it embodies?” Lefebvre demands. “What would remain of the Church if there were no churches?” Lefebvre writes. “The world of commodities would have no ‘reality’ without such [spatial] moorings or points of insertion, or without their existing as an ensemble,” he reminds us. “The same may be said of banks and banking-networks vis-a-vis the capital market and money transfers.” Notbored
In an era of supermodernity, where the non-spaces of ultra-captialism reign supreme, the common space of contemplation away from consumer demands must be one of the main attractions of the church. The physical and mental spaces of worship will always remain other to the forces of contemporary consumption. As every inch of the globe becomes ever increasingly constructed to aid smooth consumption, does the church offer a new role as a sanctity away from consumer pressures?
My obsession with the politics of space have always been focussed on the materialisation/concretisation of certain ideological and philosophical positions. Therefore, my reading of churches and cathedrals has remained at a level where I see them as the embodiment of authoritative and oppressive power. You only need to travel around Italy to fully understand the role of architecture in the meditation and promotion of a higher being. The architecture is literally awe-inspiring, it makes one feel small and humble, in the presence of something greater than oneself.
I also know that worship doesn’t only occur in great temples and cathedrals, it also occurs in humble surroundings, from halls to huts. You only need to travel to the light industrial estates off Old Kent Road on a Sunday to see the vibrancy and popularity of the African Churches. In these ex-spaces of production, warehouses get re-appropriated to gather people together to sing and pray. Although the architecture of faith is important to frame the activity, the programmatic function of the space comes from the community – individuals belief, intention and action.
I think what I’m getting at is something similar (yet less articulate) to my friend Adam Greenfield‘s, The City Is Here For You To Use. We are the city, our patterns of behaviour and actions construct the cultural fabric of our cities, but we are also participating in the digital layer of our urban condition, we need to be proactive in the construction of spatial relations. We need to take the power back. The emergence of new forms of contemplative spaces will emerge through the collective need and desire for them. They can be supported by new technologies, or destroyed by them, but whatever happens, unless we want our spatial experience to be dominated and controlled by the corporate elite, we need to find digital common spaces. We need to find the role of the individual in the construction of our socio-spatial future.
The Fate of Things to Come: Making and Unmaking the Future
In 2007 I started to sketch out a book with the very brilliant Mike Michael, it was a lot of fun, but it got lost in busy times. Some of the ideas I’ve presented in different places (at Nokia Advanced Design in mid-2008 and at Design Transfer in Berlin later in 2008), but I’ve never really written about it. Last week I stumbled upon the proposal and think it still has some merit. I’ve added and edited it to make it more readable for a blog post, I thought I’d put it here to see what you think:
We are supposedly living in an epoch in which time has speeded up, where we are forever looking to the future, indeed, where the future encroaches on the presented to form what Nowotny (2008:2) has called an ‘extended present’. Increasingly scholars have begun to interrogate our relations to the future and there is now an articulation of what it means to ‘study’ the future.
Design’s relationship to ‘the future’ is strange, it is always, to some extent future orientated. No mater what sort of design you do, it always exists in a future yet to be lived. Recent writing and ideas around ‘Design Fiction’ has highlighted the narrative qualities needed in producing engaging and provocative work. But I’d like to sketch out and explore the ways in which the future is – or rather how complex and contradictory futures are – made and unmade in the context of design processes. In particular, the following is a sketch of a ‘typology of futures’ as they at once have shaped, and been mediated by, design.
As such, the underlying rationale of the proposal was to raise a series of issues for scholars and practitioners concerned with design (and these include not only designers, but also artists, policy makers, social scientists specialising in technology broadly defined). On the one hand, by looking in detail at ‘past’ and ‘present’ futures of design, the book aimed to engage with what can serve as a ‘viable’ future in design thought and practice. By interrogating this viability, we aimed to disentangle the variegated forms of design. On the other hand, by deploying a less linear, more topological model of temporality, we aimed to un-ravel (or re-ravel) its own historiography, and in the process explore methods and techniques by which design-and-future can be rendered radically ‘open’. The upshot is a contribution to design and design-associated disciplines that charts the changing futures of design, but also offers a range of practical and conceptual resources for the ‘doing’ of a Design Futures, that is the simultaneous making and unmaking of the fate of things to come.
In summary, the proposed volume aimed to do the following:
- Provide an historical account of the ways in which the future has informed design practice and thinking;
- Examine the range of futures that pervade contemporary design;
- Reflect upon the linear temporal accounting of these futures, and develop a topological analytic for ‘design futures’;
- Elaborate the implications of this topological futuring for the ways in which designers (and design-associated scholars and practitioners);
- Develop and set out a series of practical and conceptual sensibilities and ‘techniques’ for doing ‘topological futuring’ in design.
Towards a typology of ‘designs-and-futures’
The following is an attempt to characterise the various configurations of ‘designs-and-futures’. The aim is to start to formulate an understanding of the different forms the future in relation to design theory and practice. As such, we tried to develop a heuristic typology of designs-and-futures:
Tight curl futures
Tight curl futures are those that are created around little leaps of delimited imagination. Projects linked to proximal futures that confirm and concretise predominant visions of markets, users and technological progression (similar to Dunne + Raby‘s Affirmative Design). These futures have tight briefs and base their predictions on pre-existing and otherwise un-interrogated versions of ‘needs’ or ‘desires’ or ‘identities’. Tight curl futures are an intrinsic part of widespread social and material discourse and practice.
Design for the long now
In contrast to tight curl futures, and with reference to the writings of Stuart Brand, the definition of ‘design for the long now’ aims to negate obsolescence and drive the desire to create a more ‘sustainable’ future. As such we consider how some designers strive to demarcate and project futures that contrast from, but are nevertheless indebted to, the present and its tight curl futures. As such these futures can be described in terms of a ‘long now’ which is fundamentally shaped by the present. This analysis will be particularly informed by recent work on the complex role of expectations in generating not only futures, but the ‘users’ of, and investors in, those futures.
Explicit utopianism is contentful, directed and political design that addresses matters of ends and not just means. Here design formulates and projects idealised needs, wants and uses, but also opens itself up to the potentiality of humans. As such design reconfigures around the realization of untapped positive capacities of those users. Here, those capacities are peculiarly accessible to the designer who now takes on the role of designer as architect of the future. Such utopianism is, of course, ‘of its time’, as the specificities of different utopian visions amply demonstrate. Understanding the presence of the present in these utopias allows us to not simply to debunk them, but to begin to rethink the relation of past, present and future in more iterative terms.
Design and the Doing of Crisis
Focusing on dystopian visions that necessitate design interventions of one sort or another – where Design becomes a long haul ‘problem solving activity’ in which the prediction of a pessimistic future serves in reinvigorating the role the designer and underpinning current actions. However, there is another dimension to this negativity – one that pervades all the preceding chapters: namely that tight curl, long now and utopian design all presuppose a negative future that is inevitable in the absence of the ‘right’ design. We explore these mirror images in terms of their performativity – that is, their enactment of particular futures in the present in order to constitute desired futures – in order to further nuance the iterative relationalities of past, present and future.
Predictions, Predications and Propositions
Through a glass, clearly – Inference, Prospects, Extrapolations and Guesswork
This part of the book aimed to develop a series of conceptual tools through which we aimed to reframe the relationship between design and the future. We began to think through the conditions of emergence for a suitable (or ‘fit for purpose’) design practice. We did this through a contrast with both the predicates and processes of a number of the key techniques through which designers have attempted to construct a speculative space for formulating representations of the future that are seen to have some credibility or validity. In taking a close look at ‘foresight’, ‘trend analysis’ and ‘prediction methods’, we aimed to crystallise our own conceptualizations of designs-and-futures and set out a range of propositions. In particular, we contrast the ‘closedness’ of the futures enacted through these techniques (which vary in valency from ‘hope’ to ‘hype’), with the provision of more ‘open futures’ (with their orientation towards ‘horizon’ – inherently vague and unreachable).
Here we tried to conceptualise a design whose relation to the future is altogether more open. As such we look to examples of design practice characterised by a concern with process, emergence, openness, fluidity, complexity, ambiguity, potential and multiplicity of use, function, relations and so on and so forth. Again, we stress that these qualities are not outside of ‘their time’. However, we also started to explore them in terms of the ways in which the re-stitch past-present-futures, and serve to contort to the linearity of temporality into more ‘topological’ configurations in which past, present and future become more difficult to disentangle, or rather, are collapsed together in the ‘event’ of the design.
Conclusion: Re-Conceptualising and Operationalising Futures-and-Designs
In the final chapter we aimed summarise the key themes of our discussions of futures-and designs: the iterative relation between past, present and future, the role of Design in the evocation of such iteration, the performativity associated with the future, the closed-ness and clarity of futures versus their openness and emergence. Out of these themes we formalised an array of concepts, including: topology, iterativity, perfomativity, openness, emergence. Our end goal was to operationalise these through a series of practical recommendations ranging from the development of particular sensibilities toward design as a discipline through to specific techniques of doing design.
Adam, B. (2006) Has the Future Already Happened
Adam, B. (2006) Futures Told
Baccolini, R. & Moylan T. (ed.) (2003) Dark Horizons; Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination.
Bijker, W. & Law, J. Shaping Technology / Building Society
Brand, S. (2000) The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility
Eno, B & Thackera, J. (2005) Eternally Yours: Time in Design. 010 Publishers
Fry, T. (2008) Design Futuring: sustainability, ethics and new practice. New York: Berg
Fukuyama, F. Our Posthuman Future : consequences of the biotechnology revolution
Guallart, V. (2006) Sociopolis: project for a city of the future. Actar/Architectektur Zentrum Wien
Greenfield, A. (2006) Everyware: The dawning age of ubiquitous computing
Hakken D. Cyborgs@Cyberspace?: an ethnographer looks to the future
Jameson, F. (2005) Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. London Verso.
de Jouvenel, B. (1967) The Art of Conjecture
Kirkby, D. A. (2003) Science Advisors, Representation and Hollywood Films. Molecular Interventions 3:54-60
Loveridge, D. (2009) Foresight: The Art and Science of Anticipating the Future. New York: Routledge
Moylan, T. (2000) Scraps of the Untainted Sky: Science Fiction, Utopia, Dystopia. Oxford: Westview publishing.
Nowotny, H. (2008) Insatiable Curiosity: innovation in a fragile future. Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press
Parrinder, P. (ed.)(2000) Learning from Other Worlds, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press
Reflections on a transdisciplinary education
As an educator and a designer, I’ve spent most of the last decade thinking about and doing design education – but I’ve been in the thick of it, on the front line; giving lectures, writing briefs, managing curriculums, directing courses and giving tutorials. So I talk and think about design A LOT – the content and quality of ideas, how to progress ideas into realities, how to construct convincing narratives and engaging stories about speculations, how to best detail the material results of a designers imagination. But I rarely get the chance to try and put my thoughts together about ‘design education’ as a holistic overview. My personal research – with DWFE and before – has been as a practitioner and theorist(ish), without a focus on design education, however, over the last couple of years I’ve realised I’ve accumulated a lot of knowledge and experience that maybe worth sharing. Last week I was invited to Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar to discuss the future of design education. I used the opportunity to reflect on my practice as an educator, but also to set out a trajectory or strategy for the future of design education.
During my teaching career, my aim has been to enable students to develop a thoughtful, critical, creative and sustainable design practice. But beyond these well-meaning educational aims, the role of educators and academics is also to push the boundaries of their discipline. My drive is based not only on the transformation of my students, but also the transformation of design itself. This is by no means a small task, but for me, the role of higher education is to find new directions for the industries it feeds. Our graduates will, one day, be leaders – shaping our material culture in new ways. I hope their education will set them (and design) up on a new trajectory.
Design as a discipline is as varied and as large as any I know. In fact, one of the biggest challenges is to define actually what design is. Throughout the history of design, we’ve seen many different modes, names and conditions for designing. Here lies possibly the biggest challenge to design education, during design’s short and chequered history, designers, academics and to some extent markets have tried to delineate and define ‘this design from that’. Boundaries and borders are drawn to distinguish where one type of design starts and another one finishes. Walls are built to defend territories, markets and practices. Design is increasingly chopped into decreasing small bits. It is in these silos where the discipline gets stuck, frozen in a battle of nomenclature and method, arguing the fine differences between UX and IA, ultimately no one moves forward. But this becomes truly destructive is when it moves into education.
This is no big surprise; academics in their desire, by very definition, to be experts in a particular field, fragment the bigger picture. This limits growth and the possibility for change, but also jeopardises the education of their students. Why does this sit so uncomfortably with Design as against say History or English, Economics or Engineering? I would argue that this is due to the very nature of design as a practice, it is one for the generalist, design demands the negotiation of a multitude of different disciplines, skills and knowledge sets. In its practice it draws inspiration from subjects as diverse as philosophy and material science, in its implementation it uses both practical, material and conceptual skills. In our drive to give a closer definition of our discipline, we have limited the view of the world which we need to design for.
Seeing design beyond its disciplinary boundaries and beyond its definition as a ‘problem solving activity’ opens up new opportunities for it as a practice and profession. ‘Big business’ has begun to understand the value of design in the generation of new ideas and the role of designers as the instigators of invention. Business has also started to recognise that design has a strategic value in the predication and creation of new markets. Beyond its close relationship with free market capitalism, designers have begun to play a small role in public sector activity – from social care and health care, designers offer a new perspective on service innovation.
But these opportunities offer new challenges in the education of our students. The craft and manufacturing skills of the last century have little to do with the knowledge economy of this century. The social, environmental and political problems of today will not be solved by the tools and approaches educators have been teaching designers over the last 100 years. It was with this in mind that Goldsmiths – in particular John Wood – started the BA Design 20 years ago. He recognised the need to provide a interdisciplinary education to equip students with the tools to participate in social and environmental change.
In the last 20 years, the context and profession of design has changed dramatically. However, the ethos and ambition of the BA Design programme has become even more ‘contemporary’, in my opinion it has moved from being radical to sensible. Our curriculum has evolved and refined, our staff and students continue to challenge and experiment, but the original ambition has remained the same – a testament to John’s insight.
During my visit to Doha, I was excited to witness a city and country at a point of massive change. Qatar is like a petree dish for social and environmental transformation, everyday comes a new ambition and opportunity for growth and development. The material environment is being built at such a rapid pace, the social and cultural infrastructure has little time to catch up. It felt like I was observing a giant country-wide experiment, a top down push to move the country in a new direction. The ambition of the Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, and his second wife to move the country from a carbon-based economy to a knowledge-based economy is both smart and necessary. The investment and building of an infrastructure to support an future economy reminds me of Rem Koolhaus’ analysis of the development of Manhattan’s grid in 1807:
The Grid is, above all, a conceptual speculation. In spite of its apparent neutrality, it implies an intellectual program for the island: in its indifference to topography, to what exists, it claims the superiority of mental construction over reality…the land it divides, unoccupied; the population it describes, conjectural; the buildings it locates, phantoms; the activities it frames, nonexistent.
R. Koolhaas, Delirious New York, 1994
Doha feels empty, a place in waiting, preparing to be filled with a ‘phantom’ population, culture, economy and future. Maybe this is how Manhattan felt 200 hundred years ago. The heritage and identity of the Qatari way of life is being radically changed overnight, like a construction site that is demolished and rebuilt, forgetting key materials may cause long lasting damage. However, there is enormous potential there. The emerging design culture has far less baggage, the culture can reshape itself for the 21st century without decades of preconceptions and prejudices. It will hopefully aid Qatar in the leapfrogging necessary to allow for its economic transformation.
My favourite Flatlander: remembering Nic Hughes
On Sunday 7th October my friend Nic Hughes lost his fight against cancer. He leaves a big hole in the lives of those he knew. He was one of the kindest, smartest and most talented men I’ve had the pleasure to meet. The World without Nic is smaller – diminished and less bright – and without him design will take longer to reach maturity.
I don’t want to write this post about how broken I feel. I want to celebrate my relationship with Nic and speak of the legacy he leaves through my memories and ideas: most importantly how he influenced the way I think and feel about Graphic design.
We met in 2005 when he joined the MA Critical Practice at Goldsmiths. At the time I was Programme Leader, fumbling my way through my first year as a full-time academic. The degree was new and I was new. It was uncharted territory. Nic was my student. This statement alone makes a mockery of the hierarchies of education, whilst simultaneously highlighting one of the most fruitful aspects of working in such an environment. Our relationship was one of shared exploration – talking about and prodding design – in an attempt to figure out if it had a future. I learnt a great deal from Nic, and it felt like a true partnership. During a year when I was unsure of my capacity to lead a new Masters degree, my discussions with Nic made my efforts worthwhile. He saw every lecture and every project brief, as potentially fruitful and exciting. He absorbed everything. His hunger for knowledge was contagious and he infected his peers with a desire to learn. This in turn made my job a lot easier, and more enjoyable.
Nic arrived at Goldsmiths with years of experience as a graphic designer and his level of craftsmanship was incredible. He had that rare skill of being able to combine image and text in a way that ‘just works’. He had an amazing eye for composition. But he was frustrated with his practice, and wanted to push his work conceptually and critically. He was steeped in the Swiss tradition, but in a way he was truly post-modern: first he mastered the rules, and then he set about breaking and rewriting them.
The development of a critical and conceptual voice in graphic design became the foundation for many of our conversations over the years. Understanding its role in the transformation of society, beyond being simply the framework for legible communication, was something that fascinated Nic. Mediators of social relations are always easier to identify and prototype in three-dimensions: ‘Flatland’ offers up a different set of concerns. Nic argued that typography was an object in itself, and he went so far as to place it under an electron microscope to convince me of its three dimensionality.
In its close relationship with advertising, Nic saw the opportunity for Graphic design to play a revolutionary role in effecting social change. But he knew there was a fight to be had, and that designers had to move away from self-satisfied ‘smiles in the mind’ or the obsession with type as fetishised object. Or, as Nic once put it to me so eloquently:
“The world is fucked… We’re not going to kern our way out of this one.”
Our friendship grew through a love of theory. Nic’s work represents the best use of complex philosophy I’ve seen; he didn’t espouse theory as a justification or proof and he also didn’t fall in to the trap of illustration. He allowed complexity to infuse and inspire his ideas, with philosophy acting as a springboard for a material practice.
At the start of 2011 DWFE (myself and two colleagues) asked Nic to generate a visual identity for our collaborative practice. He produced a ‘sketchbook’ that immediately influenced how we talked about ourselves and our work. By the end of February we had invited him to become a full-time member and, because he was (geographically) distant from us, he became Our Man in Havana: the rebel Flatlander. He relished the challenge, and manipulated our graphic reality by fabricating a new space and time for us within design history. He produced a counter-factual history for us and our ideas. Nic referred to himself as the Bez of DWFE, but we like to think of him more as the Borges.
I will always miss Nic and his beautiful big mind, but his ideas, generosity and heightened sense of ethical practice will forever be a part of me.
‘The Matt Ward Manoeuvre’ (part 1)
Over the last six or seven years I’ve developed a series of drawing activities and processes that I’ve taught to my undergraduate students. The course emerged out of a need to teach our students a diverse range of ideational processes; activities to adopt and adapt to aid their design practice. Over the years I’ve also run the exercises with creative professionals, I’ve started to see that they have value outside of a design education. They aid the thinking process, allowing people to think previously unthought of ideas. They also act as a space of thinking, a slow space where ideas grow, mutate and propagate.
A few years back I had the pleasure of doing some drawing with the lovely Jack Schulze, from BERG (then Schulze & Webb), were we explored ideas during the early stages of Olinda. Since then Jack and Matt Jones have taught some great projects employing some of the techniques, naming them ‘The Matt Ward Manoeuvre’. By giving the excercises a name they’ve elevated them to point that I now feel a little embarrassed that I’ve never written about it. I’ve always felt there is a book in this, but for now, a blog post or two will have to do.
I’m currently at AHO in Oslo running a workshop about non-linear, disruptive creative processes. Re-presenting the activities to a new audience has forced me to reconsider how to explain and contextualise them.
My starting point is this drawing, by me in 1997. The drawing was for a college project, it was the drawing that changed everything. At the time I really didn’t like drawing, I continually fell back to a position of comfort where I’d write and read in order to generate ideas. I was aware that to become a ‘good designer’ drawing was necessary, so I set out to practice. It took months of painful failure, until one morning something snapped, I didn’t care anymore. I drew and what the result looked like didn’t matter, with this came an immense sense of relief and with relief came a relaxed calm, where ideas flowed freely and drawing started to work for me.
Over self-awareness and the weight of a poor school education are the main factors that stop people making the most of their drawing. We are constantly told what a ‘good’ and ‘correct’ drawing is, with these preconceptions we miss the true power of drawing; the intimate link between mind, eye and hand and its effervescent ability to stimulate invention. Striping back preoccupations of ‘reality’ representation and the need to build confidence in order to allow the mind and hand to meander are two of the main challenges in drawing education.
Ideational drawing is always ‘in action’, it happens in real time and therefore the focus needs to be on the moments it provokes not the product that results. Ideational drawing sets up a thinking space, where ideas can be spatialised, connected and tested. By locating ideas in a visual form on the space of a page, you can see new relationships and opportunities.
Although the drawing I advocate provokes a state of mind in which ideas grow and develop, the value of the drawing doesn’t stop generating meaning after the act. The drawings I complete, act as a resource for future action, ideas are held in latent form, ready to emerge at a different time in a different context.
Drawing is one of many possible ideational strategies, it works best in combination with other techniques: Draw, scan, print, model, make, draw, photograph, film, model, draw… repeat. When drawing is placed against other techniques, it changes and adapts, this allows for a layering of textual complexity.
Once you have developed a fruitful drawing practice, it is a deeply personal process, you can start to build a language of cross-referencing. Drawings start to connect with each other, shortcuts are used and a form of drawn intertextuality allows for a conceptual shorthand. It’s here that practice (your 10000 hours) is needed, it takes an extraordinary effort to reach a form of zen enlightenment with drawing, but once you get there, you can unlock a fantastic resource.
Next post: Techniques and tips… exercises in drawing
The digitally divided self
It’s a common observation that social media channels allow us to compartmentalise our lives. In a recent performance/lecture by Rebekka Kill at Improving Reality she looked at the political and social differences between Facebook and Twitter. Rebekka compared the platforms to punk and disco (twitter being punk and Facebook being disco), tracking and comparing their use and content she concluded that she no longer wanted to divide herself… She wanted to be ‘herself’ on all channels, she wanted to be both Punk and Disco.
This got me thinking about my use of social media. For about 4 years I’ve delivered a lecture, Schizophrenic Identities and the Networked Society, where I discuss the fragmentary nature of identity through the technologies we use. In it I look at the different naming schemas as ways to differentiate behaviour and identity.
For example, I don’t really use Facebook, but when I do, it’s all about my private life and old friends. I never really talk about work, ideas or interests, it’s truly social, but in a strange, awkward, historic way… it’s like looking at a life I once lived or a path I didn’t take. For people I went to school with, it must be impossible to workout what I’m like now. In this way, I’m socially closed off… distant… standing in the corner, not talking to anyone, during a school reunion .
Twitter is more about ideas and interests, it’s my true place… (although I do go through moments of panic because I realise I’m a bit sweary and negative) – it represents me more as a professional. I think it gives a truer representation of how/who I am.
And then there’s Flickr. Flickr is a heady mix of the personal and professional, it’s a hobby (or more an obsession), a set of ideas and visual thoughts, a prosthetic memory, a window into my eyes, an archive of my observations as a designer. But it’s all about the socially mediated visual – I favourite images for their aesthetic and creative qualities, not their emotional and personal (although there is a case to be made for an emotional aesthetic). It will always be about photography and visual culture.
Instagram (@mwardy), on the other hand, is all about the flow… about friends, observations and ‘liking’. It’s more social, but far more disposable. I don’t want to store or archive my instagram feed, it’s in constant temporal flux and I like it that way. On each channel I have a different code of ‘favoriting’ or ‘liking’ . These are linked to both usage and personal drive. Each one is nuanced and changes over time.
Recently, I’ve had a few friends who massively crosspost (instagram to flickr, twitter to facebook), at times it irritates me, because it collapses my worlds, it’s a flagrant disregard of my internalised rules. But I can live with it.
I guess the question I’d like to ask is: do we have to make the decision about the fragmentation of personality in the design of these systems – i.e. do we identity the ‘part’ of the person we want to cater for? Or are we living in a period of change where the walls between these worlds are slowly collapsing – my crossposting friends are just early adopters. Are we moving towards a social Borgesian aleph, where the complexity of our personalities are compressed into a singular, unified, publicly mediated self?
Or is this a complete and contiguous mirror of our real life social interactions. We adapt, change, pick and choose how we act depending on context and company. Social Media maybe expanding to the point where simple delineations of identity are no longer possible. All we’re left with is the compelling complexity of the modern human condition.
The importance of not knowing: reflections of a design tutor
Every year I give a talk to PhD students, new members of academic staff and visiting tutors who are embarking on a PG Certificate in the Management of Learning and Teaching in High Education. I’m asked to talk about ‘Academic Practice’ and the importance of being a reflective practitioner. To put it more simply, I give practical tips and hints about teaching. Nothing mind-blowing, but a set of principles to apply to University teaching.
As programme leader I have a lot to do with the strategic development of programmes, teaching approaches and the promotion of ‘best practice’. As a design lecturer I participate in a wide variety of teaching delivery modes, from practical workshops in drawing, lectures on critical theory and material culture to brief writing and one-on-one tutorials on design practice.
What I’m trying to do here is be a reflective practitioner – I’ve had to think about what I’ve learnt over the last decade, I hope it may be relevant and interesting to those embarking on their teaching careers. My first point is:
1. Teaching is really difficult
It’s a fine art. I started my career feeling that my job was to create ‘great designers’. I would crit work and deliver lectures to promote a certain way of designing, a certain way of thinking – hopefully engaging students enough to inspire them to do ‘good design’. However, as I progress in my career I realized that this isn’t actually my job. It’s merely a convenient side effect. My main job is promote learning, the fine distinction is that students can produce unsophisticated design work but still have an excellent learning experience.
This is difficult to remember in the current academic climate, where the aim is to produce world-class research in order to build your name as an academic. The ‘outcome’ of your work is judged, but not necessarily the learning experience you have gone through. We currently operate in a target culture, ‘research assessment’ means that our careers grow or die by our output. The focus is on the goal, not the process and leads to my second point…
2. Learning is all about the process, not the product
This doesn’t mean that if a student produces a terrible essay at the end of a course it’s ok, but educators need to continually focus on the learning experience, which can be distinctly different from the outcome. What is rather handy, is that a reflective, enthusiastic learner normally produces good ‘product’. But it is key to think of this as a side effect – don’t loose sight of the process of learning – because that is the mainstay of our jobs.
The experience they go through throughout their time at Goldsmiths should be tranformational, their essays aren’t transferable, their thinking, thirst for knowledge and enthusiasm is.
My third point is trying to unpick what ‘reflection’ actually takes place as a tutor, how and when do you reflect, how can you fit it into your teaching practice, so point three is:
3. Reflection has different temporalities
The reflection process of a lecturer comes in different guises and temporalities:
Real-time reflection: This form of reflection happens in real-time, during the session. It’s essential to how a session plays out. Teaching demands that you are adaptive and open to change. If it’s not working, find a new way to engage the group. Questions to ask yourself: How am doing? Why are they all falling asleep? How do I explain this more clearly? What do I do now to regain their attention?
Postmortem: After every lecture, workshop, briefing, spend a few minutes to reflecting on how it went. Make notes, file them, when you come back to the session the following year, re-write, improve. Questions to ask yourself: Did the students understand? How could I improve? Is the content pitched at the right level? Did the whole group engage, if not, how do I adjust the delivery in order to keep everyone engage – like in war – we don’t leave anyone behind!
Meta-level analysis: At the end of the course, you need to reflect on how your programme of study fits in with the wider curriculum, how do your ideas fit with other courses? Is there a smooth progression between levels and courses?
4. Sparking imagination
The most important reason for us to be here is to spark our students imaginations. It’s important to stand back from the content, the detail, to understand the impact and relevance to our subjects to our students lives.
The good part, is that we live in fascinating world, your job is to show them how wonderful it is. This means that it’s important to remain enthusiastic. The daily, yearly grind of an academic can be tough, but the best way to make your job brilliant is to show your love and excitement for your discipline. Enthusiasm is contagious… be proud to be a cheerleader.
5. Research into teaching
There is swathes of writing on how best to integrate research into teaching, but I’m talking about something slightly different. How does your own intellectual drive become apparent to your students. One clear and easy way to do this, is to bring personal obsessions into the classroom, lead by example. In some ways social media has changed how this is done. No longer do students have to hunt down cutting edge journals to read your thoughts and ideas, they can read your tweets, blog or look at your flickr stream.
This introduces interesting questions around privacy and boundaries between your private and public lives. But I have found over the years, if you embrace it, it can work.
6. Debunking complexity
One of the most important roles we have as educators is to unravel the messy complexities of our subjects. It’s very difficult to remember what starting to study a subject at university is like, our students sometimes miss the ‘most basic’ of skills, language and knowledge. Therefore, breaking down complex language and difficult concepts is essential. Encourage a space of confidence where there aren’t any ‘stupid questions’.
One of the ways I do this, to the annoyance and frustration of some of my students, but to the benefit of others, is to read out quotes, deconstructing them in real time – breaking down each sentence, contextualising the ideas, defining the difficult words. It’s like a lesson in close reading.
…of ideas – make ideas real, use examples that locate ideas in your students lives. One of the great strengths of Goldsmiths (in my mind) is the heady mix of popular culture and complex theory. Agamben and The Incredibles, Foucault and The Game of Thrones (insert long ramble about exceptionalism, biopower and gender politics) by contextualising our subjects, we make them relevent, memorable and enjoyable.
…of their learning – why are they doing this in relationship to their whole study. Now this is particularly difficult for visiting tutors asked to guide students through a seminar series. Understanding the ‘master plan’ of a programme is important. Understand the philosophy, goals and approach of your colleagues. In particular with Design education it’s important to contextualise learning in light of their future careers – this doesn’t mean that you align everything with professional practice, but you discuss the transferability and quality of the experience they are gaining.
8. Humor / Humility
Don’t be superior, people learn best from people they connect with and admire. Academics have the tendency to act superior – they waft in, deliver their words of wisdom, waft out. Most people in the position to lecture are smart, but being clever isn’t enough, be nice.
9. Visual stimulation
If you do presentations (slides), think about the pace and design of the slides. Slide Crimes are not acceptable. This isn’t me being a design snob, but you need to use powerpoint/keynote to it’s full power. It becomes another tool to create memorable and interesting ideas. The power of visuals to stimulate minds is well explored. But it also becomes a place where you can think through ideas. Visualising the abstract enables you to think in new ways.
10. Good timing
This isn’t about comic timing, although this can help, I mean timing in terms of when to introduce certain ideas. Don’t hit students will full theoretical barrels on day one. Easy them into it. This isn’t only about course overview, it’s about individual sessions. How to build up complex – staging I think its called in proper education writing – is important to allow all ability groups to engage in the lecture. If you loose people, at least it’s only for a short section.
Good timing is also important in terms of the pace and length of each session; make some quick and hard hitting, others can be slower and more reflective. Some can last a full day, others only need to be twenty minutes – it takes courage and confidence to do a short lecture, but it can be really effective.
11. Organisation and communication
This is professional life 101, so obvious, but I see this mistake happening over and over again. Be organised, don’t be late. A key to making students feel secure is to (appear) to be organised. The bumbling eccentric lecturer is a romantic image, but it doesn’t garner trust. Always let your students know what they’re doing when and where. Make sure reading is available and rooms are ready. Know what the plan is and communicate it clearly and precisely.
12. Shifting pace, flipping roles, experimenting
See your teaching practice as a practice – you’re researchers / experimenters / thinkers… take the same approach in order to innovate in your teaching. Every lecture you give, every brief you write should be an experiment. Risk. Put yourself on the line, somethings don’t work, it’s okay, as long as you learn from it. Be open and honest about trying out new things, students respond really well to knowing that they are embarking on new ground – they feel important – involve them in your evolution.
13. Let them lead way
This is one of the hardest things to achieve in teaching, but it’s essential that students own and control of their learning process. Your challenge is to build student confidence so they choose to take control. Make sure you don’t just focus on the few vocal students, find ways to give everyone a voice.
14. Never patronise, never underestimate
There’s a institutional tendency for academics to try and avoid undergraduate teaching, implicit in this is an assumption that the most challenging, ground breaking work happens at the higher levels (with PhD being the zenith). I disagree with this, undergraduate students, particularly in design are where the action is. Their ideas are fresh and their energy and ambition impressive. The lack of prior knowledge enables them to boldly fumble into knotty and difficult areas.
15. If you’re not learning from your students, you’re probably doing something wrong
University education is, very much, a two way process. Learning from your students is essential to continued success and the avoidance of ossification. Be open to change your understanding and boundaries of your discipline. Use your students to bounce and develops ideas. Allow them to push you as much as you push them.
16. It’s all about mediating/encouraging curiosity
Academics as gate keepers of knowledge is a long gone role. Access, curation and generation of knowledge is no longer the primary role of the lecturer, therefore what is? How do we adapt to the 21st Century? How do continuously engage and excite our students, whilst remaining at the top of our game?
17. It’s all about questions, not answers
Never pretend to know everything, ask more questions that you give answers. See teaching as a continual process of experimentation and discovery.
Over the last few years at Goldsmiths, I’ve seen and encouraged a fascinating trend towards an engagement with performance. Within other disciplines (and in design theory) this has been called the ‘performative turn‘, but I’ll leave it to others, far more rigorous than I, to explain the theoretical genesis.
What I’d like to do is show a few projects and talk about their implications on design practice. I’ll also try to make initial steps in trying to connect design to contemporary art practice.
Performance has always played an important role in design (I’m not talking about performance in terms of functional efficiency). The communication of a project – be it in front of a client, a peer group, conference audience or general public, requires a level of performance. How the story behind a project is constructed and told makes an enormous difference to its reception. I’ve always encouraged my students to embrace the performative nature of project crits and presentations. If you design, direct, practice and perform your presentations you’ll go far. It’s a skill, that if mastered, will make you invaluable to a design consultancy.
Last year, with our second year students, I developed a brief with Nelly Ben Hayoun (you can read Nelly’s write up of it here) to push the performative/experiential part of our student’s design practice. It was a called The Forbidden Tourist:
In William Burroughs’ text The Invisible Generation he describes hidden operators, agents of change and design that sit behind the scenes forumulating and curating new events, experiences and interactions. Acting as the “Invisible Generation”, this week you are tasked to create ‘domesticated events’ in which tourists will be invited to experience new forms of landscape / sports activity / warmth / environment / diet / language / beach / sound / inhabitants etc…
The final presentations had to be ‘live and real’, performed, experienced and directed. The project was a great success with some fantastic ideas. One of the most important things I learnt throughout the process was that through ‘performing’ ideas – including getting members of the audience involved – it was evident whether or not the experience/idea/design would be valuable, exciting or intriguing. During the presentations, you could instantly tell if the project was a success. In some ways this combines presentation with a form of fictional user testing, they were performing to know. Here, prototyping is taken to another level, where ideas are exposed to an audience, events are ‘acted out’ and success is evaluated. Performance as a prototyping medium.
In this example, performance is placed at the end of the design process, where an object, service or experience is performed to convince an audience of it’s validity.
In the act of designing we set up certain behavioural trajectories, these have been described as ‘scripts’ by Madeline Akrich. Implicit in every ‘technical object’ is a set of assumptions (or predictions) of how a ‘user’ will behave and what ‘specific tastes, competencies, motives, aspirations, political prejudices’ an actor has through their agency in the world. What we need to be aware of is how this ‘inscribing’ takes place and the extent of influence a designer has over the inscription process. So by performing and prototyping the behavioural and social relations intended in a design, the designer can start to gain insight on the process.
If we abstract the ‘script’ from the object and focus purely on the social interaction, we have something close to the work of Tino Sehgal. His dematerialised approach to his art practice means that he makes ‘constructed situations’ – live events where ‘interpretors’ are given oral instructions by Sehgal and the event unfolds beyond his direct control. The work lives only in the memory of those that witnessed the event and in the media reaction to it. His current piece, in the Tate’s turbine hall, These associations, is well worth a visit. The work consists of a group of 70 volunteers walking, running, singing and playing. They move around the space as if they follow an untold set of rules and instructions, every now and again one of the participants breaks off to tell a member of the public a story. During my two visits I had a man tell me about the time he lived in a house boat on the Thames, a really close community, where once he fell into the river and nearly drowned. The other story was from an American woman who told me about her recent experience at the Olympics, and how hearing the national anthem uncovered a lost sense of national pride.
I love the work, it feels awkward and strange, familiar and uplifting. When listening to the stories, I was genuinely interested, when watching the movements of the crowd I was confused and amused. I like the fact that I’m currently participating in the work right now: my text is part of a network of appraisal that constructs the media memory of a fleeting work of art. In terms of its relationship to design, I feel it fits perfectly. As designers we set up frameworks of action, then the messy reality of people shift and change our intensions – this is akin to Sehgal giving instructions, the allowing the work to evolve throughout its life.
It reminds me of a piece of work by Matt House and Martin Turner, for their final presentation, in response to a live brief set by Imagination, they designed a ‘rain dance’. In this project, the performance is both outcome and communication, it’s a way to express the essence of their idea, but it is also a proposal for a possible solution – a physical jingle to promote the appreciation of the British weather. Like a meme it’s released into the world to change and effect peoples attitude. It is through performance that we see the world change.
I’m also interested in how designers use performance as both a critical and generative tool. This year we had two great third year projects exploring ‘performance as method’. Larissa Seilern investigated how the ‘performative act’ could be used to ‘interrogate specific social phenomena and potentially instigate social change.’. In the video she tried to normalise the media view of beauty in the context of the streets of south east London. The activity calls into question the representations of women within advertising, but beyond that it allowed for Larissa to evolve her ideas and understanding of a space and topic.
The other project, Micro-rituals by Tom Marriot, elevates everyday action through video recording into a performance to be used as a resource for design. Here, performance is integral to the design process. By isolating, editing and remixing banal activities into the beautiful and ridiculous, Tom unearths a rich seam of material to work with. His method looks to deconstruct the everyday in order to reveal the extraordinary. The performance is less in the ‘acting up’, but more in the editing of action.
This reminds me of George Perec’s idea of the Infra-ordinary:
The daily papers talk about everything except the daily. The papers annoy me, they teach me nothing. What they recount doesn’t concern me, doesn’t ask me questions and doesn’t answer the questions I ask or would like to ask.
What’s really going on, what we’re experiencing, the rest, all the rest, where is it? How should we take account of, question, describe what happens every day and recurs every day: the banal, the quotidian, the obvious, the common, the ordinary, the infra-ordinary, the background noise, the habitual?
Georges Perec, Approaches to What? 1973
This is where performance comes into it’s own, it acts like a mirror to the actions, relationships and events that make up our daily lives. It gives us the necessary distance to examine, reflect and understand what we do and why… surely a useful activity for design and designers.
Maps of our lives
Since writing my post about the architecture of dementia and reading the wonderful Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon, I’ve been thinking a lot about how spatial scales change throughout our lives – from childhood to old age.
Having a toddler has heightened my awareness of the boundaries and thresholds of exploration – the limits of safety and adventure. Every blindspot within the urban landscape becomes a possible escape route – life becomes a real-time replay of The Great Escape, but with no tunnels or Nazis. Then, as your child gets older, you become aware that they should be exploring and pushing boundaries. That their spatial freedom in some way equals mental freedom – the unseen, unsupervised allows for growth and development.
As Chabon wonderfully describes, in adolesence it is the ‘wilderness’, those part of the landscape – either rural, suburban or urban – that are derelict, abandoned and free from adult management, that allow for a space of the imagination. A landscape of performance and play, where scenes of adventure and misbehavior are acted out, where new worlds are constructed and occupied, where rules are made by kids and the adults are the enemy. It is in these spaces where we grow and foster our creative imaginations.
As we enter young adulthood our spatial boundaries dramatically increase, we move away from home, travel on our own and explore the places of our future lives. In fact, I would go as far as saying you’re identity becomes defined by the scope of your spatial experiences – how many students have maps on their wall proudly displaying pins of their travelling conquests. During this period, the desire to travel is high, the atlas becomes a manual of possibility. In the UK it’s become a middle class, western walkabout.
Into our middle age, the cartography starts to shrink, we ‘settle’ and ‘put down roots’. As we move towards old age – our personal cartographies shrink, sometimes to an impossibly small scale. My dad is currently occupying two rooms and a corridor (although in his mind he travels frequently by boat, train and plane), it is this limited map that he traces with his feet, caught in an ever-changing, always constant, space of frustration.
As we start to develop new technologies that augment our spatial existence – how we move, navigate and experience space – we need to be cognisant of the physiological and political ramifications their effects. This reminds me of Tom Loois’ project Blank Ways (via Adam), here Tom looks for the unexplored in our environments as spaces of mental calm. Our desire to explore is supported by the systems of telecommunications and geospatial surveillance.
[image: Tom Loois, Blank Ways]
This poetic project opens up the undiscovered within our environments, it supports a move towards a fully-lived spatial practice. However, my continuing concern about locative media, is still present. How do we build systems of serendipity and openness on the structures of profit, capital and control? Will our spatial experience be neatly packaged and sold back to us, with adwords included, to commodify the space of our imaginations? How do we build technological systems to trace the networks of our personal cartographies without closing down the creative potency of the unknown?