This week, designers and researchers from as far flung as Sydney and Melbourne congregated in the
desolate North East beautiful Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art for the Praxis and Poetics conferences.
The overall conference was in fact two under one umbrella: the 10th Designing Pleasurable Products and Interfaces and the inaugural Research Through Design Conference. I was student volunteer for the RtD (anyone else have other associations with those initials?) conference, so saw these talks as well as the combined keynotes. (For a more general discussion and more pictures, check out the Storify of the event made by closing plenary speakers Jon Rogers and Justin Marshall, or the #praxisandpoetics twitter stream—along with the #rtd13 one I accidentally used for day two).
The conference was highly design orientated, and this went right down to the related schwag. Including origami badges for the two conferences (DPPI were wise owls, RTD soaring butterflies. Take from that what you will).
A note on the Research through Design conference: though it’s not obvious from this post (due mainly to my only having shoddy iPhone pictures), there was a related exhibition with the conference, and in the cases where presented papers had physical objects (most of them), the objects were brought through to the conference room and often passed around the audience. This gave a level of designerly awareness arguably absent from a lot of similar conference. (In the case of Jacob Sebastian Bang’s work, he was literally giving them away at the end of the event!)
Keynote: Patrick Jordan
The conference kicked off on Tuesday night with Patrick Jordan on positive psychology and design (“an academic version of self-help”) with a calmly measured talk packed to the hilt with examples.
change behaviours, not attitudes
- Take Responsibility: it’s too easy to ascribe issues such as bad health choices to not having any any opportunity to change. This is most obvious when it comes to giving up smoking or health related lifestyle changes. However, this also applies in work situations where employees (be they bus drivers sacrificing picking up mobility challenged passengers to call centre workers attempting to collect community debts) have no licence to deviate from the script. Allowing means of discretion (e.g. changing the bus tracking system to note when mobility challenged are picked up, or just making rules not hard and fast) allows workers to be a lot happier and therefore less likely candidates for absenteeism.
- Set Goals: it’s hard to motivate yourself to just go to the gym… which is why people often have something of an epic journey (running from one end of the British Isles to the other end) with a similarly meaningful story. Good Gym capitalises on this need for
- Be Positive: been to Disneyland? You loved it right? Yet there were lots of lines, weren’t there… this is a careful implementation of the peak experience rule where you can have neutral to negative experiences but effectively forget about them as long as your final experience is really good.
- Persevere Intelligently: there are apps such as In Flow that help you track your happiness and see what your happiness or unhappiness triggers are. Of course, that doesn’t help you figure out exactly how to avoid that toxic friend….
- Connect with Others: apparently the so called creative rooms of Google don’t actually make people more creative… but they attract the best creative people. The Men’s Sheds initiative also attempts to reconnect older men feeling isolated with other men through the act of making things (while women are happy to meet up for the sake of meeting up, men need a goal).
There were a few other interesting facts worth taking note of:
- The most trusted figure for advice is a young woman (perhaps because when we were babies our mothers were young?). Notice that all avatars at present are women?
- Names, language and even colour matters (as anyone who’s read 1984 will know). Euphemisms can attempt to forgive brutality (waterboarding rather than torture?). If you’re named Jordan, you’re least likely in the UK to be trusted (perhaps both due to the Middle East and Katie Price). And in a wresting match, if you’re wearing red, you have a 2 in 3 chance of winning as opposed to blue.
Finally, if all that is too much to parse, there are sketchnotes available:
Keynote: Rachel Wingfield
The keynote by Rachel Wingfield explored her (and her partner Mathias Gmachal’s) practice over the last decade through their research consultancy Loop.ph.
Their projects push the limits of both materials (they have done a number of works using the principles of lacing in more technological and architectural settings) and making connections (they worked with Nobel winning scientists who initially “thought we were going to do their curtains and ties” before finding a common interest through structures).
(Also do check out the blog summary by Richard Banks of the talk).
‘Viewing’: Ian Gwilt, Aysar Ghassan,Patrick Macklin, Mark Blythe/Jo Briggs/Jason Wilsher-Mills
The first session on Viewing investigated different ways of looking at design research or even the means of understanding art.
Ian Gwilt introduced the concept of “data-objects”: objects that make data more tangible and understandable. Databronze was made with the simple aim of allowing designers to understand the relationship between age and strength for gripping objects.
The point [with the data object] was to get users to be able to create their own metaphors
They were also interested in whether materiality played a role in how the data was perceived and used both plastic and bronze: as it turned out, bronze was more trusted due to its weight and colour but the (white) plastic seen as potentially more accurate.
He also noted that the preferred objects were either experiential (acted on) or landscape (giving an overview).
One interesting aspect brought up by the audience was the notion of data as an ongoing changing medium: if data is constantly changing, do objects capture it in a way that might seem more fixed than it actually is?
Aysar Ghassan transplanted Bauhaus leader Walter Gropius into the modern day world of design thinking via design fiction or more specifically an open letter. “Dear Sir/Madam: Walter Gropius Petitions the League of Design Thinkers” was presented as a means of unpacking the difference between modernism and design thinking, with Ghassan suggesting that the former is about rules and formula while the latter is about holism.
Some of the audience questioned whether this was too neat a formula (though arguably there are ‘temples’ of modernism and design thinking that are commonly understood, even if they’re exaggerated). I wonder whether Gropius would in fact be welcomed with open arms by the big-data league of designers.
Patrick Macklin explored the concept of “HEIMA” (‘home’) in his case study on soundscapes and his native Glasgow.
In the tsunami of design imagery…we should be harnessing other stimuli such as sound
The city was radically changed in the mid-20th century to have a motorway run *through* rather than around it, and so the project attempts to use archival sounds to allow residents to engage in the area’s history. It was pointed out that there have been a number of similar projects—even in Glasgow—and that the key issue is finding appropriate means for residents to engage with it.
Mark Blythe, Jo Briggs and Jason Wilsher-Mills delved into the world of digital painting in “Blue Jay Weeble: Experiential Approaches to iPad Painting”. When David Hockney makes an image on an iPad, where is the original? How can s[editions] enforce their supposed digital-only art orders?
They note that the one interesting new art form brought in by digital painting is the notion of time and process, and presented the Repentir app, which allows you to scrub through the history of a digital work. (This also reminds me of the Hereafter mirror by United Visual Artists that showed further back in time the more you moved … to the set up which mischievously included a chicken!).
Their main point of interest was investigating flickr iPad brush groups “which are mostly pictures of Wolverine” but introduced them to the work of Jason Wilsher-Mills (aka Blue Jay Weeble). Wilsher-Mills’ story is fascinating in its own right, and his struggle with ongoing illness is combined with his immersion in Scottish art history to create a distinctive style. However, what is of particular interest here is how he experiments with the medium of iPad painting (which was also demoed the day before the keynote). He has noted the way it enables him to make dramatic changes to his work (including resizing and going beyond the canvas). Of course, the issues with such work is the one on every artist’s lips: how do you make money? To this end, the team are doing research into Kickstarter and how successful campaigns work so as to see how they can launch a fundraising project for him. (Someone pointed out that postcard printers and 3D print shops much love Kickstarter due to all the small scale objects used as funding incentives). I actually believe that this research could end up being far more visible than the existing work if it succeeds, given the amount of media attention on Kickstarter and its failures as well as successes.
‘Meaning’: Zoë Sadokierski, Debi Ashenden, Rachele Riley
Zoë Sadokierski from the University of Sydney presented “The Book Spotter’s Guide to Avian Titled Literature”. As a professional graphic designer (specialising in book covers), she’s had to struggle navigating the gap between design practice and research (a wider discussion pointed out that often the designed artefacts in regards to design research are pretty disappointing). A project beginning with temporary graphic treatments for an area being upgraded turned into a full taxonomy, namely types of birds. (As it turns out, Sadokierski is something of an animal fanatic, admitting that she’s done shows on giraffes as well). Later taxonomies included positive and negatively named birds (you know when you’re getting to works like Satan that you’ve hit gold) as well as erotically named birds as referenced against a particular reference book. (There was notable disappointment in the audience when Sadokierski rushed over this section!)
More broadly Zadokierski noted their use of data mining:
She suggested that the difference between the playing around in design and rigor of research comes down to the documenting. To this end, the research was shown in a two-way book: one way showing the process in a designer’s narrative, the other in a more critical research stance.
[EDIT: I came across a similar article relating to the power of taxonomies and the curated artifact on Design Observer]
Debi Ashenden presented “‘IT Fauna’ and ‘Crime Pays’: Using Critical Design to Envision Cyber Security Futures”. As the client in the research team, her being able to explain it was a good acid test of the work! As part of a wider initiative investigating how the cloud could be used in cyber security, they created ‘IT fauna representing various cyber security concepts as a means of counteracting how non-specialists are unable to participate in discussions due to the specialised language.
Rachele Riley went beyond whether the truth is out there to the history we forget in “The Evolution of Silence”. Her work is investigating the decades of nuclear testing that went on in the Nevada desert, and through it the changing opinions of nuclear testing (from people writing in asking to be volunteers for testing to the later reports of radiation related illness). As she isn’t allowed to make recordings on the actual site, she has to use a combination of human documentation (sketching) and collecting others (asking for freedom of information from the government and finding ephemera).
Right now it’s just her research but she’s hoping to get stories from others given that time may be running out for them.
‘Being’: Sarah Morehead, Eunjeong Jeon, Anne-Marie Kirkbride
This session (which I chaired, hope people enjoyed it!) questioned common understandings of the body and the ‘standard’ body.
Sarah Morehead talked about reinterpreting wool for evening wear in Poetics of Play; Touch and Movement in Garment Design with Sheepskin, Silk and Lace. She is interested in how materials can influence and engage the wearer. After investigating the role of material and posture in physiotherapy situations, she started exploring how she could use wool both for a sense of reassuring self-touch (sleeves etc) and to change posture (necklines and covering). I was interested in how she was also attempting to find ways to communicate what she does as a kinesthetic learner.
Eunjeong Jeon’s “Touch Me, Feel Me, Play with Me” similarly played with materiality and its bodily effect on the wearer. She investigated how a felt fabric could be manipulated into a form so as to give back support.
Ann Marie Kirkbride investigated fashion illustration beyond the catwalk in “Illustrating Fashion’s Invisible Woman”.
Cognisant both of the spoken and unspoken standards in fashion (her students are more shocked by a picture of Julia Roberts’ armpit hair than Japanese footbinding practices) and the gap between the ideals and actual buyers of fashion, she sought to investigate how depicting an older female (the fashion buyer with more discretional income, but all but ignored by the fashion world) would differ in terms of being depicted from the standard teen woman. In her search for an older female muse, she found that she was more successful with a fashion confident female muse than an ‘elegant’ one. While she did have to be aware of some age-related considerations (the model’s stamina for standing and not making them look tired) her muses weren’t concerned about looking young or wrinkled (as one stated “I’ve worked hard for these wrinkles”).
Intermission: as this day went straight into talks, I think this is good point to make a note of the food. Newcastle is renowned for the bacon buttie (the pasty franchise Greggs originated here!) and the Baltic served up a sophisticated version of this “traditional” dish.
‘Doing’: Sofie Beier, Jacob Sebastian Bang, David O’Leary
While the work in this section ranged from typography to architecture to industrial design, they all investigated notions of creativity through mastery and slowness.
Sofie Beier’s “Legibility Investigation: Towards Controlling Typeface Variables” pointed at how psychologists investigating typefaces often miss the nuances of type design and make comparisons without understanding underlying context (e.g. there’s no point in saying Georgia is more legible than Helvetica without being able to say why).
Inspired by Frutiger’s letterform matrix, she combined together a number of typefaces for a ‘generic’ shape, then used her professional judgement to make this typeface work as a proper letter set.
Jacob Sebastian Bang’s “Work in Progress” is about exercises in repetition and replication. He and his students make hundreds and even thousands of prototypes in plaster and then transform them either physically (cutting up and reconfiguring) or through representations (drawing on x-rays).
David O’Leary’s “The Tao of SolidWorks” is a work in progress which he described during the talk as an investigating of how mastery of Solidworks can make designers more creative, but was challenged by the audience as potentially being part of a wider narrative about digital craftsmanship.
‘Being’: Hazel White, Matt Coombes, Winnie Ha
Hazel White’s “Fabric Fobs and Family Ties” looked at how craft could be used in ways to engage communities that are disadvantaged in some way regarding technology. They created boxes of ‘smart cushions’ that loaded images, meaning that people in a care home could engage with content from their families without needing to understand how to use a PC.
Similarly, they found techniques to allow children with autism to communicate their feelings.
Matt Coombes‘ “Empathy and the Individual” discussed his “non therapeutic tools of grieving” (he admits that with hindsight they could be called ‘therapeutic’ tools as it doesn’t necessarily mean ‘therapy’, which was what he was trying to avoid). He based the tools on his own experience—such as crying a single tear at a funeral and from that concept creating the Tear Catcher—and crazy examples from the users (“people I know and who trust me”) using (having an emotional phone call and crying), misusing (choosing the most difficult tear catcher bottle) and then questioning (attempting to get the tears in the jar with a pin and then realising how bizarre the entire setup was) the entire concept.
More generally, Coombes is exploring empathy: “when you view people as individuals it’s easier to have empathy with them”. He’s aware of the fine line between empathy and sympathy (it’s easy but not good to lapse into the latter), and is investigating how concepts of improv may help with such things. (He even got the audience to—gasp!—touch each other in a live human demo of co-experience through mirroring.)
Of course, these stories weren’t in the paper. This was picked up on in the discussion: how should we as designers capture these insights and stories (particularly for PhD research) even if they don’t seem valid for papers? Zoë Sadokierski suggested that perhaps blogs are a way to document and make visible these seemingly superficial or anecdotal bits of evidence.
Winnie Ha’s “Writing Practice as Contemporary Practice: Experience, Imagination, Knowledge” work is attempting to bring performativity into fashion, particularly what writing happens when there is no clothes involved. In terms of performativity and clothing, Margaret Attwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” was brought up as a useful analogy. The discussion evolved to a wider one on writing in doctoral research, and how designers sometimes bring naïvity/bravery to their writing through writing various voices, with useful examples brought up by the audience including N. Katherine Hayles’ ‘Writing Machines’ and Queneau’s ‘Exercises in Style”
I also liked the comment from designer (and accomplished playwright!) Louise Taylor in response to Ha’s comment that “I don’t describe myself as a writer as I’m not very good at it and it’s not natural to me!”:
‘Doing’: Hugo Glober, Kerry Walton, Phil Luscombe
The final session of the day I saw questioned various forms of the status quo. Tim Ingold was referenced a lot throughout the presentations!
Hugo Glover’s “The 4th Wall Project: A Creative Exploration of 3D-Stereoscopic Viewing and Animation” was similar to the discussion that he did last year for the Interaction Tyneside meetup which I covered at the time. He’s investigating how to bring the concepts of stereoscoping viewing (i.e. those old Victorian penny machines showing a 3D image) into the world of computers.
In “Exploring the Relationship between Textiles and Drawing”, Kerry Walton attempted to learn how to sketch through weaving. In short: it’s hard! Most of the work is hidden (like drawing on a roll) and sometimes the back is more interesting. Still, taking references from Farthing and Marshall et al, she’s found that sketching in textiles does force creativity and new ideas in a way that she’s keen to fold back into her practice.
Phil Luscombe’s “Moving Target: The Modification of Intent when Making a Pair of Scissors” questions whether Pye’s separation of design (proposes) and workmanship (desposes) and the related 1 to 1 translation of idea to construction. Along with Ingold, Keller and Keller, and Preston, he is attempting to find an account of ‘good workmanship’ that acknowledges the improvisation that happens.
Good workmanship is the skillful navigation of resistance thoughout the creation of a thing.
He identified 8 types of resistance (“as well as the big ones of time and cost”):
- information availability
- material availability
- technological availability
- manual dexterity
- material recalcitrance
- dumb machines
Keynote: Justin Marshall and Jon Rogers
The final keynote by, according to organiser Jayne Wallace “the short messy hairiness of Justin Marshall and Jon Rogers” (I’ll leave you to look on twitter to find the context for that!) brought together themes from the conference. Again, they’re noted in the storify so to avoid a strange sense of online recursion it’s better to see the original. More generally, they discussed the future of technology beyond the happy-clappy news of 3D prototyping.