Monday, July 12, 2010

Book review: "Designing Things" by Prasad Boradkar

It is always nice to find a new book with an intriguing title that resonates with ones own interests. That happened when I recently found the book "Designing Things - A critical introduction to the culture of objects" by Prasad Boradkar.

This is one book in a growing stream of writings focused on 'things', objects, and artifacts. There seems to be an increasing interest in the material world and especially in the world that consists of designed objects. There exists of course a long history of  research and studies with the 'thing' in focus, but never with the same intensity and richness as right now.

Boradkar has written a book that takes this growing interest in material things as a starting point. The book is presented as providing a 'map of the rapidly changing field of design studies'. Boradkar does indeed present a 'map'.  Even though there is an underlying theoretical perspective that the author favors, most of the book, with its different chapters, presents a large number of perspectives of 'things' and existing theories and approaches common within each of these.

Boradkar sets out to give an overview of how 'things' have been theorized over time. For instance, he presents a section called 'A brief history of the philosophy of things'. In about twelve pages he goes through the history from 'Thales to Verbeek'. I find the selection of thinkers to be appropriate and relevant and also in line with my own thinking, however the section is so short that it becomes more a brief abstract. I think that it will be quite difficult to understand and to get something out of this overview for those who are not already knowledgeable of this literature.

After this first chapter, 'Theorizing Things' which is a nice overview, Boradkar continues with eight chapters each devoted to one particular aspect of things. These aspects are: values, labor, production, aesthetics, needs, consumption and sustainability, objects as signs, and obsession of possession. In each of these chapters the author presents the most common theories, ideas, and work that have been done over time when it comes to that particular aspect of 'things'.

Even though I was quite excited to find the book, I have to admit that I am a bit disappointed. I was expecting some kind of critical analysis, a developed philosophical perspective, but the book does not provide any of that. It is instead a 'map' as it is presented as. Even though the author in the introduction does take a stand and positions himslef in a broader philosophical landscape (as a thinker within the general philosophy of Latour, Harman, and Verbeek) the the rest of the book is more a textbook that presents a large number of theories, models, frameworks, and ideas in a way that is quite introductory and without any serious critical analysis.

It is obvious that the author has not intended to present any emerging larger argument concerning the nature of philosophy of 'things' that would find a place in any existing discourse. When reading the book the author becomes more and more invisible the longer I read. In the introduction and first chapter there are attemtps at making a case, at pursuing and developing an argument, but this gets lost in the rest of the book and a textbook language takes over.

Anyhow, apart from not being a philosophical contribution,  the book can probably be quite valuable for anyone who is interested in how to think and analyze 'things' and do not know where to begin. The different chapters might help in finding out what aspect of 'thing'-studies might be of personal interest. The chapters also give the reader a good starting point when it comes to what to read. It is obvious that the author has a good knowledge of a large landscape of ideas and theories related to the 'culture of objects'.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The DRS 2010 Conference

Back home after the DRS 2010 conference in Montreal. I had a good time these and the conference went well, except for the really hot weather. I had the opportunity to listen to some really interesting papers, participate in some great discussions, and also meet old and new friends.

I found the quality of the papers to be  better than ever before in the DRS conference history. This is a good development and I hope it will continue. However, there were some interesting discussions on the future of the conference and what its purpose is in relation to all the new design conferences that are within different disciplines. What can a general design conference deliver that the more focused ones can't. I think there is a possibility to make the conference into the top general design conference that is not connected to any particular design discipline. But this also makes it important that the conference and the papers takes on the challenge to be non-disciplinary and general in a sense that makes them interesting to anyone in any design field. I hope this is what will happen, but I am not sure it will....

Saturday, July 03, 2010

New writings...

Lately two articles that I (together with some colleagues) have been working on for quite some time have been published. Here are the references and the abstracts:

Janlert, L. and Stolterman, E. 2010. Complex interaction. ACM Trans. Comput.-Hum. Interact. 17, 2 (May. 2010), 1-32. DOI=  (

An almost explosive growth of complexity puts pressure on people in their everyday doings. Digital artifacts and systems are at the core of this development. How should we handle complexity aspects when designing new interactive devices and systems? In this article we begin an analysis of interaction complexity. We portray different views of complexity; we explore not only negative aspects of complexity, but also positive, making a case for the existence of benign complexity. We argue that complex interaction is not necessarily bad, but designers need a deeper understanding of interaction complexity and need to treat it in a more intentional and thoughtful way. We examine interaction complexity as it relates to different loci of complexity: internal, external, and mediated complexity. Our purpose with these analytical exercises is to pave the way for design that is informed by a more focused and precise understanding of interaction complexity.

Stolterman, E. & Wiberg, M. (2010). Concept-Driven Interaction Design Research. Human Computer Interaction, 25(2), 95-118. doi:10.1080/07370020903586696

In this article, we explore a concept-driven approach to interaction design research with a specific focus on theoretical advancements. We introduce this approach as a complementary approach to more traditional, and well-known, user-centered interaction design approaches. A concept-driven approach aims at manifesting theoretical concepts in concrete designs. A good concept design is both conceptually and historically grounded, bearing signs of the intended theoretical considerations. In the area of humanñcomputer interaction and interaction design research, this approach has been quite popular but not necessarily explicitly recognized and developed as a proper research methodology. In this article, we demonstrate how a concept-driven approach can coexist, and be integrated with, common user-centered approaches to interaction design through the development of a model that makes explicit the existing cycle of prototyping, theory development, and user studies. We also present a set of basic principles that could constitute a foundation for concept driven interaction research, and we have considered and described the methodological implications given these principles. For the field of interaction design research we find this as an important point of departure for taking the next step toward the construction and verification of theoretical constructs that can help inform and guide future design research projects on novel interaction technologies.
If you are interested in these articles and can't get them, you can email me.