Friday, June 27, 2014

Book note: "Stuff Matters -- exploring the marvelous materials that shape our man-made world" by Mark Miodownik

I found a really interesting book today at the book store. It is called "Stuff Matters -- exploring the marvelous materials that shape our man-made world" and it is written by Mark Miodownik. Miodownik is a professor of materials and society.

Materials make up our designed world. Most everything that humans have designed are manifested through the shaping of materials. This is true even when we talk about service design or other forms of process designs. In order to make services  or processes possible there is usually some materials involved (sometimes simple materials as texts on paper).

Miodownik has a fascination and passion about materials. In the book he discusses ten different
materials that have been crucial in the forming of our society, such as steel, paper, glass, etc.

It is exciting to see how most of the materials we are surrounded by has been part of our history and been useful for a long time while we only recently have started to understand why different materials have their unique qualities.

Since design and materials go together in an intimate way, I think this book would be of interest to most designers. The book does not necessarily make design easier or better, but it resonates with the sense of wonder that a lot of designers feel when it comes to materials. The book explain in a simple and sometimes deeper way why certain qualities of materials are extremely complex and has consequences on so many levels (for instance, why stainless steel does not taste and therefore is excellent as silverware).  It becomes evident that any choice of materials is a core activity in design that influences everything else.

Miodownik has written a book that is very easy to read, no technical knowledge is needed. He tells stories about materials that are fascinating and informative, and not to forget, it is a fun book to read.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Design is not a profession or a discipline

At a recent design research conference I heard many statements beginning with "we designers..." or "the profession of design...". Almost all these statements are based on the idea that there are certain people that are designers and then others who are not. In many cases participants talked about the design profession  (in most cases meaning "those of us who are educated in design schools"). It is as being a designer is a stamp and when you have the stamp then you are a designer.

The way design has developed over the last three decades has made it almost impossible to argue that design is a profession and/or a discipline, but still it seems to be a prevalent belief even among those who know more about design than most everyone else.

I like to make the comparison with other human approaches, for instance, science. Very few would state that being a scientist is a profession or even a discipline. Science is a way to approach the world with the purpose of creating knowledge. The scientific approach can be "used" in any profession and discipline. People engage in science. People engage in design. [Of course, there is the same issue in science, people who believe they are scientists and that science is a profession.]

Architecture has nothing to do with design unless people in architecture engage in design. Architecture can be exercised in a fashion that employs no designerly thinking or activities. Architecture can be performed as a scientific activity or as a process of art, or as a process of randomness and chance. Architecture is not in itself a design profession. Neither is graphic design, interaction design, or any other field. These words however do denote professions, that is, areas where professionals have the task of developing certain types of artifacts or services. They are in many cases also academic disciplines, but that does not make them into design disciplines.

Designing is an human approach for inquiry and action well suited for bringing change into the world. But it is not a profession or a discipline. A person is not a designer, but a person may use a designerly approach to fulfill their goals.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The DRS 2014 Conference--some thoughts

Last week I spent in Umeå, Sweden (my old home town) not only to meet family and friends or to work at the Institute of Design, but also to participate in the DRS 2014 Conference. I have been involved in the planning of the conference but from a distance. I have been to a number of these conferences over the years. I am happy to say that this years conference was by far the best one yet (and it is not only because I was involved :-)

The conference had somewhere around 370 participants! The introduction of "Debates" and "Conversations" (organized by Jamer Hunt and Carl DiSalvo) was a great success of bring new formats into the conference. The quality of the papers were also, in my view, better than before, which was a consequence of an improved review process (handled by Youn Lim and Kristina Niederer). Overall, the conference was a success. I only heard good things from happy participants.

The idea we had in the planning was to keep developing the DRS conference into the design conference that is not about a particular field of design or a particular aspect of design, instead it is the conference for the "big debates", the issues, questions, and challenges that all design areas are facing.

The overall design of the conference also worked really well with all aspects taken care off by Johan Redström, Anna Valtonen and Heather Wiltse.

I hope that the next conference in 2016 will continue to develop this conference in this way, then the DRS conference will become the most important design research conference.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Where is the right place for the interface?

The notion of wearable technology is creating design challenges. Is is a gimmick or is there a real potential for useful technology? And is that a question of technology or design? It is fascinating to see how the placement of the interface is posing so many questions, and opinions. Should the interface be traditionally placed on a designated surface, such as the laptop or smartphone, or should the interface be on our arms (smartwatches) or in our glasses (Google glass) or maybe we do not need a surface at all?

Hartmund Esslinger argues that "smartwatches are stupid" in a recent article.  As an internationally recognized interaction designer, he should know.   In the same article, several questions are raised around wearable technology, its recent quick but sometimes short successes and failures. The question is discussed if it is a question of technology or of design. I find this discussion interesting, especially in relation to a forthcoming article that I have written with Lars-Erik Janlert called "Faceless Interaction".

Friday, June 13, 2014

Book note: "The Circle" by Dave Eggers

There are many of us who daily reflect on what it means that we are using Google, Facebook and other internet based companies with so many aspects of our daily lives. Some refuse to "sell their soul" to Google while others take the position that it does not matter or that it is too late anyway. The issue that is at the core of these positions is the relationship or balance between usefulness (as in functionality) and privacy. It is obvious that many useful functions have consequences when it comes to privacy, for instance, to accept and use apps that know my location can be useful but it also means I share that information with others.

Dave Eggers' book "The Circle" is a novel that takes on this question in an intriguing and entertaining way. The book is about the company "The Circle" that has swallowed Google and Facebook and many others to become the biggest internet company in history. The story follows a young new employee, Mae, through her introduction to the company and how she becomes one of the core people in it.

I found the book exciting to read and also unusually well developed when it comes to the ideas. Eggers describes "The Circle" as a company where principles such as "privacy is theft", "caring is sharing", has grown to such an extreme level that people have to share everything in their lives. Activities and information is shared and measured and made public. Eggers makes this extreme reality both believable and terrifying.

I will not write a full review here since there are many good reviews of this book, see for instance Margaret Atwood's excellent review. Atwood's review addresses both the literary aspects of the book and the ideas that Eggers develop.

I must say that the book forced me to think more in detail about what kind of future present technology can lead to. The fact that it is a novel makes it possible for Eggers to take some freedom with what technology can do, but it also makes it possible for him to push some aspects of privacy and big data to the extreme in a way that makes the story technologically believable. At the same time Eggers use this format to reveal many of the underlying assumptions and ideals that govern the development.

I am strongly recommending this book to anyone who is in any way interested in the growth and development of information technology, Big Data, interaction, and the internet and what it means to our future society.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Levi Bryant on the relationship between social constructivism and speculative realism

I have found an excellent talk by Levi Bryant on the topic "Object-Oriented Philosophy & Speculative Realism". In the talk Bryant discusses the relationship between Critical Theory (as a form of social constructivism) and Speculative Realism (as a form of materialism) in a way that I really appreciate. He makes the foundations of both "approaches" visible and understandable and also reveals what is the problems with both of them and what can be done. Excellent.

[Here is also a very good lecture by Graham Harman]

Monday, June 09, 2014

New design school initiative: 30weeks

This is how a new design school initiative, 30weeks, is presented in Fast Company:

"Following Apple's success, many companies are finally starting to recognize the crucial role design plays in building a desirable (and profitable) product. Yet very few companies are actually founded and led by designers. Here to change that is 30Weeks, a new program by a powerhouse team of New York design schools--Parsons, Pratt, School of Visual Arts, and The Cooper Union--in collaboration with the education company Hyper Island and Google."

The initiative itself has a video (same page as above) that quickly presents the idea. Here you can read more about the initiative on its website.

It is fascinating to see so many excited people around the world that believes that design in some fashion is the savior. In most cases of course it is seen as the solution to the problem of not having good enough innovations that can become successful startups or new product lines in slow moving large corporations. I will not here be critical to the 30week initiative since I do not really know much about it, except what the article and video says, which is not much. But just a couple of comments...

First, it is interesting to see that the people who will run this 30week program do not want to use the word "curriculum", instead the program is described as a set of crash courses, plus an ongoing design activity with support and critique from established designers. I would assume that if someone is to push for design then the "product" that is supposed to to this is well designed. A curriculum is a design. If you want to introduce design as an approach in 30 weeks, instead of a few years, it seems as if the need for a careful and detailed design is crucial and should be based on some foundational understanding of what defines design as a unique approach. I am afraid that if this is not the case then a program like this can do more damage than good for the general understanding and dissemination of design.

It is obvious that the program is aimed to "produce" people that will create and innovate and hopefully also develop companies. This is to me just one form of a design process which is much closer related to the process of invention and innovation, while less related to the design process where a designer works for/with a client. This is of course not a problem except that it presents design in a very narrow and specific meaning.

So while I am excited about the push for design and the extreme conviction about the power of design that this initiative shows, it is also a bit unsettling. I am afraid that this is what people will think about when they hear about design and design is reduced to a fairly simplistic process. Design is about changing our reality. Therefore design requires knowledge about society, people, and values, and about structures and processes, about impact and consequences. Any designer should have a broad and well rounded sense and understanding of the power of design, its responsibilities, the danger and evil of design, etc. I hope the 30week program includes some of that in their curriculum.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Paper back version of "The Design Way" coming in September

I am very happy to announce that Harold Nelson's and my book "The Design Way", published by MIT Press, will be out in paperback in September. The price will be ONLY $19.00! It is rewarding to see how this book is still alive and well.

It is about 20 years since we started to work on these ideas. The second edition made it possible for us to update the content. Actually, already when we started to write the book we decided to write it in such a way that it would not feel "old" fast. We were careful with using examples and events that would soon be forgotten. Hopefully this has made the book more stable over time.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Book note: "Onto-cartography -- an ontology of machines and media" by Levi R. Bryant

I just read the introduction chapter of Levi R. Bryant's new book "Onto-cartography -- an ontology of machines and media". Very exciting ideas. Now I am really interested in reading more. 

Bryant is a proponent for materialism and develops a strong argument against what he calls "discursivist orientations" in contemporary scholarly work, primarily in the humanities and social sciences. Instead he proposes an ontology that takes "things" and "stuff" seriously as part of our reality that shapes, like gravity, what is possible and not possible. He calls these entities (things and stuff) machines to "emphasize the manner in which entities dynamically operate on inputs producing outputs" (p6).

Ok, I have only read the introduction but so far it has left me intrigued and quite fascinated. Part of my fascination comes from the realization that the way Bryant defines his concepts resonate in many ways with my own thinking. For instance, he writes about machines and proposes an ecological view in which "a medium is understood as any entity that contributes to the becoming of another entity affording and constraining possibilities of movement and interaction with other entities in the world" (p7). Since when I wrote my PhD dissertation, I have always used the idea that any design creates a "possible space of actions" for any human or other design. Bryant states that "worlds are ecologies of machines" which I find extremely useful. 

Anyway, no more comments only based on the introduction (and an interview of Bryant by Graham Harman). More reading is needed. Maybe this is something that can be related to the ideas of artifact analysis that I have been working with (struggling with) these last few years.

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