For those who don’t know, I’m currently on sabbatical. To kick off my year, I’ve come to NYC for three months as a visiting scholar at Parsons New School with the wonderful Tony Dunne and Fiona Raby in the Designed Realities Lab . D+R have kindly given me a desk as well as the space and time to reflect on my practice as a designer and educator. During this time, I’ll be doing some research for an upcoming book, whilst meeting and talking to interesting people in one of the greatest cities in the world.
Three weeks into my visit, I tentatively started writing a diary. I set up a separate blog, and began to capture my activities and thoughts as I embark on this new experience. However, I’ve just had a change in mind. I’m going to write here on SB129. I don’t want to get too precious about a blog that isn’t read by many people and is massively neglected by me. So be aware, the forming posts will be more diary like; scrappy, autobiographic and not fully thought threw.
Here we go….
“The spreadsheet’s unreality is dangerously doubled because, while their ordered data and formulae always comfort you that you have authored a controllable certainty, most spreadsheets are mere conjectures, provisional plans, ideas or hopes. Spreadsheets are dreams.” Rod McLaren, Spreadsheets are dreams
When Beeker published the brilliant essay, by Rod McLaren in 2015, I was blown away by the poetry of Rod’s writing. At that point in my career, I had a growing reliance on Excel as a mode of planning and organising of education. Since becoming Head of Department, the creation and interpretation of spreadsheets has become an important part of my daily life. I often joke to colleagues and students about being lost down the spreadsheet mines.
It’s a bit of a cliche to highlight that the ivory towers of academe have been felled by over burdensome educratic bullshit. The common cry of privileged academics protesting that time spent ‘doing admin’, taking them away from ‘important scholarly work’, is not the point of this post. It’s also not a post from a designer, with a dramatic level of autonomy, moaning about the realities of daily work, where management, accounting and funding proposals (bureaucreativity as Silvio Lorusso calls it) takes them away from real creative labor.
What I’d like to explore is the aesthetic, political and educational possibility and problematics of Excel; the narratives we tell through it; the realities we bring into being through the rows and columns of quantified possibility; a place where dreams become educational reality; a tool to distance educators from education…
It was sometime in the early 21st century that it happened. Culture had become so saturated with different versions of the future, something inside our collective imaginations just shut off. We forgot how to imagine the future. The ramifications were broader than we first thought. By 2015 the whole planet had lost the ability to imagine change. It didn’t happen all at once, like Gibson’s future, the loss wasn’t evenly distributed.
This time two years ago I was sat in the Oncology lounge of Watford General Hospital waiting for my Dad to receive his first dose of chemotherapy. It struck me then, a feeling I still can’t shake, that the number of discrete decisions, actions, objects and processes that converged on that moment of time defied understanding: the eternal human endeavour to survive meets the unknowable complexity of a system on the brink of collapse.
I’ve begun to think of this feeling as a form of the infrastructural sublimity; standing on the edge of a complex human and non-human system so in awe of its complexity, that one becomes overwhelmed with both fear and hope.
As we waited there, for a bespoke mix of chemicals to be made, by a highly trained set of people, to be administered by a kind and caring nurse, in a space designed (in all its material complexity) to give comfort and reassurance, with a set of tailored objects designed to give relief of specific diseases, all free on the point of access, through a massive system of taxation, wealth distribution and public health care, to act on the out-of-control cells in my father’s lungs, I was in awe of what humanity had achieved.
I have come away trying to fathom how we (designers) start to navigate, mediate or manipulate these impossibly complex and messy infrastructures. Is this just a form of dark matter, that we need to find the correct instruments to detect, measure and affect change through? How do we model, prototype and predict the consequences of our actions? How do we not lie down in the face of such complexity and give up?
Our first difficulty arises when we try to ‘understand’ the scale and complexity of the systems we face; instead of creating a ‘children’s book version of reality’, we need to map the extent of the network, to chart all the access points and actors in order to make sense of the relationships that are forged within the messy complexities of our socio-technical systems. But even the act of mapping or diagramatising these infrastructures is difficult enough.
This can be broken into two main problems; the issue of representation (or the gap between the map and the territory) and the problem of truncation (or falling off the edge of the map).
Like the 17th Century portolano makers, the difficulty found in the art of cartography has been fully explored. Problems of ‘truth’ within our systems of representation has been interrogated by scholars (see Denis Wood’s The Power of Maps), and the power relations written into cartographic systems have been uncovered. Whether through the issue of selection (what is included or left off the map), language (the codification system used to symbolise reality) or projection system (the ever present problem of converting 3D objects into 2D representations), drawing a map has its own discrete set of politics that are difficult to navigate. We all know that Cartography is an act of colonisation, through the drawing of borders we define identities and write laws. So when we begin to evaluate ‘where’ to act within a system, we must first need to ‘understand’ through drawing out the spaces of agency.
One of the key moments in mapping is knowing when to stop. If we pay heed to a Latourian sense of interconnectedness, then our actions as designers are linked to a growing network of human and non-human actors. Where do we draw the line, when do we turn our heads away from the page and decide to act. With our students, this can be seen in the compulsion to ‘research more’ to make more and more connections, until they have a full picture of the situation. But sadly, this is reminiscent of the Borgesian Map, where the act of cartography becomes so obsessively detailed it is eventually abandoned and lies in useless tatters on the borderlands of efficacy. As designers we need to make the leap into the material unknown.
Design and the articles of change
Once we have mapped our territory and unpacked the web of human and non-human relationships, we then need to identify our place to act. In service design these are often called ‘touch points’, but I don’t really like this term, it bases it too neatly in the material domain of ‘the user’ or (more sinisterly) ‘the consumer’. I want to identify the sites of concentrated agency, the material and non-material actors that can affect change. It’s here that we find our place of design intervention. This is were a post-disciplinary design practice comes into its own; instead of trying to affect change through the medium of your training (web / product / graphic / interior etc), you move to place of action / the site that is pregnant with possibility and choose the tools necessary to be most affective.
I’m currently struggling with a book chapter titled; rapid prototyping politics. It’s for a Birkhauser publication on ‘Transformation Design’. In the piece I’m trying to highlight the necessary changes needed in design education to prepare students for this new type of design. The article explores the idea that through design we can prototype normally slow, large scale problems – such a policy implementation – in a rapid and agile fashion. I think there are many ways to ‘try out’ and prototype new forms of political and material engagement. Here, policy is transformed into the ‘object’ of design and experience design into the ‘randomised control trial’ to understand impact of your strategy.
As design expands beyond a purely material or functional role within society, we need to come to terms with the boundaries of our reach. How we re-conceptualise and build tools for change needs to be considered within an ethical framework. How to ‘reduce harm’ when we are trying to change the lives of people. How is ‘behaviour change’ (although I’m very sceptical about this whole field, but that’s for another post) understood within a positive, humanist approach to our discipline that doesn’t tie people to systems of consumption? How do we resist the feeling of uselessness when faced with the infrastructural sublime?
I was asked to run a drawing workshop at Röda Sten Konsthall in Gothenburg by the lovely people at ADA. The workshop was in conjunction with the current exhibition of Ylva Ogland‘s work. In the workshop I aimed to collectively explore the ideas found in Foucault‘s Of Other Spaces. In his essay, a piece of work that sits slightly outside of his opus, Foucault identifies a type of space that is diverse in nature, but strange in character. A space that operates under different rules to normal space, a space of social, cultural and political otherness.
The concept of heterotopia can be mobilised to examine many different spatial dynamics found within historic, present and future spaces. The work of Ogland’s in the exhibition takes the heterotopia of the mirror to unearth spaces of identity. For my workshop I focussed on a geo-political space, something I hadn’t done before.
I chose a contemporary heterotopia of crisis, where space, boundaries and borders are created, policies written and futures are condemned. For an hour and a half we be investigated the heterotopic space of global health epidemics (and other geopolitical issues); we used drawing as a tool to map the issues concerning the Ebola crisis, calling into question the objects, politics and articles of controversy. In someway, this was a hybrid workshop, bringing together ideational drawing with a Latourian approach to issue mapping. I’m not sure how successful it was, but I think it’s something I’m going to develop further.
This was the introduction text from this year’s BA Design degree show catalogue at Goldsmiths. The basis of this text was a conversation between myself and Laura Potter. The intro is authored by both of us.
MATTER – the title of this year’s degree show – may be read in different ways. Depending on what you put with it, the word can be moulded and manipulated towards different meanings. It spans the ideological and material, the conceptual and the practical, the idea and the thing. It acts to join these often (falsely) disjointed entities; highlighting how materials act in the world. Within the humanities there has recently been a ‘material turn’: an acknowledgement that MATTER is not inert, not waiting for humans to activate and act upon it: it has agency. As Jane Bennett describes in her book of the same title, it is Vibrant Matter. This year’s show is full of vibrant MATTER, ready to move out into the world and change it.
What these students have experienced, and what we do here at Goldsmiths, MATTERS. This interpretation, which places importance on the process and ultimate aim of education, is especially significant. As a teaching team we are aware that there has been a gradual ‘dematerialisation’ of design across the programme. For years we have been trying to understand how to dematerialise, how to de-emphasise the ‘shiny product’ at the end of the process, in order to grant the designer a different kind of power. Initially, we prioritised the abstract. We did a lot of thinking, a lot of talking and the making came at the end as a synthesis of what we were trying to understand. It was an attempt to make the ‘shiny things’ more thoughtful. However, what staff and students have come to understand is that the value of design happens in the stuff – in the MATTER – and that it must be part of the process. We believe that ‘design thinking’ should not exist without ‘design making’.
In the early years of the course we had students who suffered moral crises. We encouraged a ruthless questioning of what design should be, and some came to the conclusion that designers are responsible for perpetuating levels and patterns of consumption. These students decided they did not want to be designers, because they did not want to make MORE MATTER. What we now know is that the material investigation does not need to come at the end: it is not necessary to move towards a ‘product’. The making of stuff, the realising of ideas in three dimensions, can be part of a process that helps us understand, change and eventually take action. A design outcome might be immaterial, but you can still be a designer in the way you approach the world. Of central importance here is the idea of ‘thinking through doing’ or ‘thinking through making’.
These students have attempted to investigate and articulate the complex significance of contemporary MATTER. What they hope to demonstrate is that when design ventures deep into abstract territories, when designers move beyond the goal of the ‘shiny object’, they can generate valuable insights by engaging with all manner of MATTER(S). We are not limited to post-it notes.