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Yesterday I participated in a 9 to 5 Art-Hack as part of the annual Thinking Digital conference in Gateshead. The event was hosted in Newcastle by the Maker-Space and the New-Bridge project. Around 20 artists and designers were invited to take part - each one having their own unique combination of skills and experience - coding, making, music, performance, spoken word, graphics, physical computing.

The event was organised around the theme of ‘Decentralisation’. The 20 participants divided into groups in order to create works that explored this theme. I ended up in a group with a live-coder/musician, a graphic designer/interaction designer, and an artist who works in communities. As somebody who’s creative abilities were formed in academic and commercial settings I was a little unsure about what I might being to the group, but once we started I think we all contributed equally.

Our group actually started with 6 people, but two artists broke away almost immediately and started making with the materials provided for the day. In my experience this is a trait that differentiates artists from designers - the designer will plan what they are going to do - the artist will work with the material available to create their work. The four remaining group members discussed what decentralisation meant to them, going around in circles weighting up positive and negative aspects of what it could mean. We brought examples to the table. Interestingly, people started sketching diagrams of decentralised structures almost immediately. I was maybe too quick to Deleuze…

We created a board game. We felt that this represented the discussions that we had about decentralisation. They had been inconclusive - interpretation of decentralisation was context dependent: it could be productive or destructive. in the time given to discuss the topic we never reached consensus. The board game was to be presented without rules. You are presented with the infrastructure: counters, a die, a playing environment. The game required that you decide what to do with them.

For my main contribution to the making process I set about creating a series of playing counters which were to be 3D printed and, if time permitted, painted. The idea was that they would all be clearly recognisable as deriving from a seed object, but each would be transformed - twisted, inflated, squeezed, cinched - offering the plays the option to pick a counter that best represented them, or that they felt was the most pleasing. The process of creating the counters was relatively quick (TopMod > ODO), but the 3D printing proved problematic. Printing the counters at the desired scale was going to take 4 hours - way past the deadline by which the works were to be displayed to the public. In order to meet this deadline we scaled the pieces down, but the 3D printers available could no longer resolve the detail in the models. The resulting prints were unusable. I ended up quickly improvising game counters made from ball bearings and computer keys plucked from waste keyboards.

The day was fun and the mornings meditations on decentralisation were really interesting, particularly the level of criticality that was brought to the topic. I’d do it again.

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There is a discourse around the role of meaning in design with which I am largely unfamiliar. It draws on some concepts common to philosophy, a subject I am more familiar with, but it is still difficult to grasp on the first or second reading. I find myself wanting to map out the theory - the actors, processes and terminology - which is reassuring since what I am reading likens all designs to diagrams or mental maps of ‘individuals or collective cultures’. Meaning seems like such a simple concept, and it may turn out to be so, but right now it is slippery.

Instead of designing for certain users, focus is shifted to the cognitive processes that underlie the reception of the design. I wonder what affect internalising this idea (as will surely happen shortly) will have, existentially, and on my practice. I can already see new mode of creating opening up - this is the excitement of concepts.

Much of my research into design processes and the constituent activities (be they explicit or tacit) describe trajectories from beginning to an end point - the finished article. My gut feeling is that this will not be much use. More interesting is the creation of something open-ended, unfinished, which leaves a space for the receiver⌃ to bring meaning to whatever it is being created.

⌃ The discourse around meaning uses the term receiver rather than user or participant. I like this so will stick with it for the time being.

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Last night I saw George and Sarah talk about the Poundshop project; their attempt to bring examples of well designed products - normally only seen in expensive (literally) Designer shops - to a different, wider audience. To do this they set a brief asking artist, designers and makers to create small products that could retail for £1. These items were to be sold in pop-up shops in areas where capital ‘D’ Design isn’t usually available.

Those taking part were encouraged to design products that would cost them no more that 50p to make. This allowed Sarah and George to give the makers 40p out of the £1 sale - a greater return than they could usually expect from a retailer. George and Sarah took 10p from any sale to cover their costs, but I don’t think it ever did. Since the original Poundshop in 2008, new price ranges of £3, £5 and £10 have created to allow for the sale of great designs that just could not be made for £1.

In order to turn the empty shops used for Poundshop into creative retail spaces, Sarah and George invited designs from interior designers and architects. I found the design of these spaces at least as interesting as the products on sale - maybe more so. Fantastic results were created cheaply. One space was fitted out for £150!

Key insights from the evening:

  • Despite Poundshop’s attempt to democratise good design, the bulk of the customers who came to the shops (8 pop up shops so far with 9 and 10 planned this year) were other creatives. As such, products that look homemade, like you could make yourself, typically didn’t sell. Spray-painted food cans and origami products were used as examples.

  • Functionality is important - What does it do? is a key question for Sarah and George. In a curatorial role they favour items with a strong design theme over purely decorative products.

  • Their customers are becoming increasingly discerning. Level of finish and detail has become more important. Laser-cut products achieve this easily and are labour efficient. Some of the best products shown on the evening as examples of good designs that sold well were laser cut.

  • Wood sells.

  • Items that take hours to make are of no use - your time is precious. In the post-talk discussion (in the bar afterwards) we explored this further. It seems that some of the best designs come from creatives (architects, designers, print makers, etc.) using knowledge that they gained through their practice. The example of a concrete tea light was used to illustrate this. The item was designed by an architect who apparently had never designed a product before. In response to encouragement from Sarah and George he drew on knowledge of materials, in this case concrete, to create a simple product that he could make at home. The product turned out to be very popular, which meant that the designer had to quickly come up with a way of making more. By making a 50 cavity mould that allowed the tea lights to set over night, he was able to deliver to the Poundshop the next day (where again, they would quickly sell out).

  • No 3D printed products have made it into the Poundshop yet…

I hope this is a fair interpretation of the Poundshop story as told lat night. Poundshop is off to Tokyo shortly, at the invitation of a premium retailer, and they are taking a whole bunch of British design with them. Inspirational stuff.

Oh, and lastly, last nights talk was hosted by the Near Now Project at the Broadway Cinema in Nottingham. They seem to have lots of interesting events and opportunities for aspiring designers, artist and small businesses coming up over the next months or two.

Sorry I haven’t linked to all of the items discussed in this text - too busy - just wanted to get it down and out whilst it was still fresh.

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Really lovely talk about 'Food Phreaking' by Zack Denfeld & Cat Kramer in Nottingham this evening. Their work aims to develop a critical language around innovation, and in particular, the practices that lead to the food on our tables. There are too many great projects to describe here, so check out their web site: Genomic Gastronomy. My take away (pun intended) from the evening was their gentle satirisation of the food industry. The set about this in a ‘small and safe way’ rather than a ‘large and scary way’. This in part seemed to be driven by their character as people, but also by a desire to be as inclusive as possible. Their work is undoubtedly political, but in a way that it is hard not to be charmed by. I find this an inspiration.

Oh, and one last thought. Zack and Cat offered a word of advice for advocate of progressive food practices:

Take Better Photos!

They described how the press will go for the best looking story rather than the most interesting piece of work. spending a little time to make what you do look great will generate more interest. The design profession knows this - food activist shouldn’t just rely on their work speaking for itself.

You can download issue #00 of Food Phreaking. Or you can buy a copy. They intend to produce the book biannually.

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What follows are some reflections on research, behaviour change, and domestic energy use. Enjoy!

For my masters degree I researched domestic energy use, and in particular, how feedback of information about your energy use might affect your consumption. I went into this research expecting to design a physical artefact so engaging - it would hit all the buttons - that any user would be seduced by the thing into behaving more sustainable. This was an Ma after all - any lesser outcome was unthinkable. The arrogance and naiveté astounds me now - in fact it did by the end of the research, so I guess the Ma was a worthwhile endeavour, if only for the fact that it resulted in a slightly less arrogant designer in the world.

What actually occurred during the Ma was that I started to think a lot more about people, their motivations and values, how these are formed, and the structures that influence them. By extension, I also learnt a lot about myself. Once immersed in the research I realised that this was what I had come to do, and had always intended to do, although I probably couldn’t of articulated it at the beginning. The Ma gave me space and permission to explore.

These progressive perceptual and conceptual advances on my behalf were not entirely self-initiated; the contextual studies element of the Ma helped great. The lecture (Adrian) was never less than engaging and covered some really interesting topics. This was where I first came across the notion of habitus and theories about class structures and their formation. All this helped inform the direction my research took, and initiated a desire to learn more.

The research I carried out into domestic energy took the form of workshops and interviews. They revealed the complex relations and interactions taking place in domestic environments. Looking back it feels like I entered into this research with the view that we are all rational actors - the economics fallacy. I sort of knew that we aren’t, but by the end of the workshops and interviews, I really understood that rationality played only a small part in our decision making. At first I was exasperated at some of the participants descriptions of their actions, but I started to realise that it was my ideological eco worldview that made it a problem. ‘Letting go’ became easy and inevitable shortly afterwards. I’ll write more about what I mean by this in the future.

The workshops were such good fun, and really made explicit peoples actions and interactions, so much so that they became the main focus and output from my Ma. Instructions were laid down about how to run a workshop and presented in print and online. Some of the outcomes from the workshops were described and presented in a separate little pamphlet. One of them is the reason I am writing this piece.

My research illustrated the potential for making non-obvious links between different aspects of life and how value (we are seeing a lot of this now with Big Data) can transfer from one interaction to another. Specifically, I was interested in the obligation on behalf of energy providers to spend a portion of their profits on measures that can be shown to reduce co2 emissions. At the time this typically manifested in the mass hand out of energy efficient CF light bulbs. More recently, the same thing has happened with energy meters (the original focus of my Ma). I started to think about how behaviour change is incentivised, and how the incentives might not need to be directly connected with energy or eco iconography.

During one of the workshops somebody described how they would probably rather receive a cake rather than some worthy or monetary reward for their energy saving behaviour. An idea was sketched out for a company whose remit was to identify great experiences that could be offered as rewards for behaviours deemed of value (to organisations). It was to work as a kind of lottery - the reward might be disproportionate to the action undertake by the individual - the element of surprise and delight, was to be the main driver. People would be able to opt in or out depending upon their likelihood to be delighted by such things. An example might be in order here:

  • Person reduces her gas use by 5% compared with the same period in the previous year ——> She receives tickets to sold out show of Swan Lake at local theatre.

  • Person reduces overall energy consumption ——> small theatre company shows up during their lunch hour and performs a mini impromptu version of the taming of the shrew at their place of work. Or gets sent flowers. Or receives a tray of elaborate cup-cakes. Or has their car valeted. Or is whisked off in a taxi to seaside having been given the day off - prearranged with boss.

The ideas above are ridiculously unimaginative and middle class. nevertheless, the idea was that filling a room with creative event manager/experience designer types would yield the identification and creation of delightful experience that people would talk about (social media naturally) for weeks. The participant good behaviour would be made explicit for all to see (locally and social media).

Some of the new connections that can be made within IFTTT got me thinking about this again. IFTTT started out enabling actions based on connections between different online platforms - e.g., if I tweet something with the #facebook tag, then the tweet would be included on my Facebook timeline. Now, with the creation of web enabled physical computing devices (the internet of things), connections can be made between physical real world actions and the virtual. Another example - if I am still at work ofter 7pm, my lights will turn on in my home (Philips lighting IFTTT integration and GPS location). Jawbone Up functionality can connect your physical activity to any other action.

If a company that specialised in creating creative rewards was set up, funded by bodies with an obligation to fund behaviour change initiatives, much of the infrastructure is in place to monitor the metrics used to identify progressive behaviours. Maybe we’ll see something like this in the future - non-explicit rewards for behaviour change. I’d certainly like to explore it further from an ethical POV, and research its potential effectiveness: who would be swayed by it? are the changes sustainable? are there rebound effects?

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Note: I just came across this reflective journal entry from early 2012. It reminded me how much I write and how it has become so engrained into my life. The thoughts expressed below are pretty coherent - I can kind of remember writing the piece in a bit of a rush upon returning home from an aborted wild camp (too much snow/was spotted).

I am currently applying for a PhD studentship exploring the personalisation of objects using additive manufacture. The piece below reminds me that this is something I have been thinking about on and off for years. It’ll be nice to re-immerse myself in it all again if I am lucky enough to be asked to enrol.

I have been reading Stuart Walker’s book, The Spirit of Design. So far, two chapters in, there have been some interesting points, although perhaps nothing too surprising for someone who has been thinking about the issues raised for quite some time now. Perhaps the most interesting point, and probably the most useful for my design career is the futility of designing for the market as a way of carrying out design research that could lead to genuinely sustainable (sustaining) outcomes. Stuart is coming to speak at the university in a month or so, it will be interesting to discuss these points with him in person.

Some of the points Stuart raises in the first couple of chapters of the book would seem could be explored productively through the lens of certain philosophical thinkers. Deleuze obviously springs to mind, but there are probably more. Coffeen’s formulation of the rhetor could also be an interesting approach. Some the this thinking could have interesting consequences for material interaction design. For instance…

…If, when you purchased a new mobile phone, you opted into to program of research whereby you would be asked a series of questions about your phone, and your relationship with it, what you felt about it, how it made you feel, frustrations, maturing interactions, what you could no longer live without, what could be left out… You would be asked to answer these questions every X months (3?).

Q. Would this scheduled period of reflection improve your ‘relationship/connection’ to your mobile device? Would this increase product attachment? Could this be turned into some kind of service? At the 3 month interval, you could be given ideas for new and interesting ways of using your phone; interesting apps, interesting things that other users are doing with them. The older the phone, the more mature the ‘hacks’ could be until eventually, when the manufacturer no longer supports the phone (i.e., no warranty to invalidate), instructions could be issued on how to install a new OS, opening up all manner of other new features/uses. This content would probably mostly be generated by expert users, and the service touch points could be shorter than every 3 months if the user signed up to more frequent updates. The interesting thing here is the structured reflection. Could this work in the same way that feedback works: drawing attention to an issue that is easy to simply ignore?*

Idea from yesterday on train back from Battersby: Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities - as far as I remember - uses short story format to describe cities that conform to different personality types… (and if it doesn’t, it should!). I would like to attempt a similar approach but for the design of mobile devices, but perhaps broaden this out to personalities that have been influenced by a philosophical idea:

What would a phone be like for somebody who believes that the ‘self’ does not exist? (real ‘Death of the Author' stuff!) If we simply exist in and through our connections with others, how could this be reflected in the interactions one has with their phone, the nature of the 'apps', and how information might be presented differently to the user?

One would need to be careful not to lurch into cliché when carrying out these explorations. This would be down to the skill of the writer. Oh dear…

Quote IconDesign is the process required in order to create anything above a basic level of complexity.
I like this definition, it posits design as both inclusive (everybody does it) and wide-ranging.
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Second Draft: Soren sat and watched the sun going down through the West wall of his childhood home. Most of the lime render that once coated the inside walls lay in pieces on the floor, caustic dust catching the back of the throat with each breath. The insulation that once filled the wall now forms a powdery black mat in the bottom of each brick, having long since decayed into flakes of dead plant matter. The setting sun filled the empty room with an amber glow, and despite its poor state of repair, Soren though it was quite beautiful. He could imagine that if his mother could see this, she would have forgone the lime render and insulative properties of the foamed algae that used to fill the walls. The cold would have been a small price to pay for such beauty.

Soren watched as points of light bled across the swooping lines that formed the walls of the house. On the far wall he can see the book shelves which his parent hand carved when he was a child. He remembers with great clarity the day his mother danced the house into existence. They had left their costal home and took the EV to the site of their new home. When they arrived, the designer, Elise maybe, had already set up MoCap equipment - three tripods as well as two speakers, all positioned at the edge of the plot of land. Soren’s father had spent every evening the previous week at the clearing removing leaves and twigs, levelling small mounds and filling in troughs.

Soren had known that the day was going to be special as soon as he saw his mother wearing one of her dancing dresses. This was the only time he ever saw her wear a dress when she wasn’t on the way to, or coming back from the dance class that she taught at weekends. As well as the dress she had also taken her hand made Argentinian dancing shoes, but had not been able to wear them on the day. Despite his fathers hard work, the ground was just too soft and uneven for high heels.

In the weeks preceding, Soren’s mother had spent many hours practicing the moves that would become their home. Soren’s father had watched the piece and studied the subsequent forms, and together they created a space that they felt they could inhabit. At the time, fabbing was still relatively new - the possibilities seemed endless. Many people started creating site specific dwellings, some with little thought, simply pacing out a floor plan and letting expert systems create the rest. Others took their time, working out how to imbue their home with as much of their character as possible. For Soren’s family, the means of creation were obvious.

Soren’s mother had looked odd in her flowing dress and trail shoes. Anticipating the inappropriateness of her Argentinean heels, she had practiced the piece in her running shoes until she felt sure that she could preform the movements as effortlessly as on the dance floor. Soren and his father sat on a log in the lightly wooded space beside the river, and watched his mother talking to the designer. The designer then left and walked over to one of the tripods. Music began to fill the clearing, and after a few moments making sure she was in the right spot, Soren’s mother lifted her arms into the air and began the pieces. She flowed anti-clockwise around the clearing, ducking, swooping and pirouetting. It was clear that their new home would not to have ‘sides’ as such. Their new dwelling would be a curved space without end.

As the music reached a crescendo and Soren’s mother neared full circle, a startled wood pigeon tool flight through the clearing. The shape it created as it punched through the still imaginary North wall was chosen as one of the bathroom window. When she had finished, Soren’s mother and father spent the next hour moving around the space with the designer, pointing and pulling at invisible objects. Despite his young age, Soren knew they were working together in virtual space. Whenever he saw adults making silly hand gestures, reaching for things that weren’t there and mumbling to themselves, they where usually wearing glass. Virtual space was always the explanation.

After what seemed like an age Soren’s mother called for him to join them. The designer had moved over to one of the tripods, and Soren was asked to stand with his mother and father in different places in the clearing. He had felt like he was having his photograph taken by an elderly relative. And now, thirty years later, he sat watching shadows trace the inset form of his mother and father and his eight year old self in the West wall of his family home.

Soren had seen the house grow brick by glass brick over the months since the woodland dance. Sometimes he and his father rode out to the fabbing farm on the coast to pick up bricks when they were ready. The farm took sand from the beach and fused the bricks into shape with sunlight - ‘Smoke and mirrors and bloody big lenses’ as his father used to say. If it had been sunny there could be as many as ten bricks to collect, each one individually numbered, each one a different shape. They would ride to the clearing with the bricks and his farther would collect water from the river and make lime cement. Together they would lay them in the sequence in which they were created, week after week until the house looked like the virtual version his mother had shown him on the day of the dance.

The house had been empty for five years. Soren’s mother had passed away in her early fifties. His father had eventually remarried and now lived in France. Soren had a family of his own back down at the coast. They had used the house from time to time but it reminded him so intensely of his mother he couldn’t bare it. He missed her so much.

The plot had been sold to two young teachers from a nearby village. And so the cycle started again. The couple wanted to create their own dwelling, and would use the silica of Soren’s family home to achieve this. Soren knew this was the right thing to do. And anyway, few families wanted to live in a spaces so saturated with the character of the previous owners.

The fashion for danced houses passed relatively quickly, a phenomena of the novelty fabbing offered. Dwelling quite quickly drifted back to being boxlike, albeit with incredible material and energy efficiencies. Soren’s current house needed no heating for all but the coldest days of the year, and all of the plumbing was created as the same time the house was printed. They were also much easier to sell.

The house was due to be recycled tomorrow. A water powered grinder had been set up by the river; each brick would be taken and ground back into sand ready for re-fabrication. Soren sat and watching the sun go down and wondered what the young couple would create to in place of the house the house he grew up in. But as the light faded, he knew he would never return to see it. He didn’t want anything to replace the memory of the danced house.

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Today I spent an hour or so tweaking, and adding too, a story about somebody building a house using additive manufacturing technology, solar energy, and sand. Interspersed with the writing, I kept feeling the need to sketch out some of my ideas. I hate using labels but I probably am a ‘visual thinker’ and so it would seem that act of sketching has become an indispensable part of the creative process for me.

Through this combination of writing and sketching I arrived at a ‘design’ for the house that I doubt I would have reached had the two processes not informed each other. The writing process, and especially the ‘revisiting’ of the story over a couple of days, did allow the ‘design’ ideas embedded within the story to grow in richness and detail. Whilst the sketching process allowed for a validation of these ideas that, to my mind, could only taken shape in the visual realm. I have long thought, and not uniquely, that sketching could be considered as the designer having a conversation with herself in a familiar solution space; that of A5 pad and pen (inset preferred media here).

Anyway, this is a rambling way of explaining that I will not be posting the original story, which was rather technology and information heavy, but will instead be posting the much more inspirational and ‘story lead’ version which resulted from the combined approach explained above. As a side note, if I wasn’t shortly leaving the employment of Northumbria University, I would have liked to carry out some research with the students in order to analyse outcomes resulting from different concept generation approaches; fiction, sketching, and a mixture of both.