Design Museum Script Debate: Are Designers Slaves to Industry?

Last Monday I was invited to participate in a debate as part of the Design Museum’s ‘Script’ series, alongside Tom Barker of the RCA and the Design Museum’s new head, Deyan Sudjic.

Dejan Sudjic at Script, Design Museum

What I was doing in such illustrious company I do not know, and I’m not sure I acquited myself that well having got off a 22hr flight from Australia the day before (that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it) but I had a lot of fun – thanks to the gracious hosts, the thoughtful and funny speeches of my fellow panelists, the intelligent questions and apres-debate pub conversation from the attendees.

Tom Barker at Script, Design Museum

What follows is my recollection of what I said, based on my notes I’d made before hand, and re-written a little to make some kind of sense.

There will apparently be an audio recording of the debate available online shortly so if you’re really bored you could listen to that and come back here to point out I said nothing of the sort at a later date.

Script: Design Museum, Monday 2oth March 2006

The question put to us is ‘are designers slaves to industry?’

It was put to me on holiday by Kyla (thanks for that!) and I must admit I wrangled with it quite a bit. My first instinct was to take apart the question, but my wife (who was a college debating champion!) told me that’s dull and no-one likes it when you do that, so I thought I would just try and connect together some dots that have been on my radar lately as they relate to what I think is the spirit of the question and hope they are good grist for our mill tonight.

Of course, the everyday reality of working in design for industry is far more multilateral and intertwingled than suggested by the question which I guess is designed to make us take some interesting stances.

Kyla told me I wasn’t to bring any slides, but I could bring some artifacts. So I brought a diagram (the walls of our flat are covered in diagrams…) by Charles and Ray Eames. [pass round diagram – Deyan Sudjic points out that it’s by Charles Eames…]

Eames office digram of design (c) Office of Charles and Ray Eames

The diagram features:

  • a shape that represents the concerns of society of a whole
  • a shape that represents the concerns of the client
  • a shape that represents the concerns of the design office

The intersection of those shapes represents the area that the designer might work with ‘enthusiasm and conviction’

Right now, I”d say nearly all of these representative shapes – of the vectors or influences on the work of shaping things – are in flux.

“Shaping Things” is the title of a book by Bruce Sterling which introduces the concept of ‘spimes‘: a neologism for a class of artifact or object which is data first and always, and a material object now and again.

I’d like to read a short passage from it now that describes our transition from an industrial technoculture of mass-produced ‘products‘, through the current age of software-enhanced ‘gizmos‘ towards the age of the ‘spime‘. [read ‘Shaping Things’ page 10-11]

An anecdote that might illustrate that we at the dawn of the spime age. The Tesco CEO – interviewed in a business periodical (I forget the reference for now) was asked what he would say was most important to the continuing success of the business. His answer might be suprising to some: not the properties or the stock on the shelves of those properties – but the database of the Tesco Clubcard loyalty scheme. From that dna of data, of relationships and preferences he could reboot the store.

Spimes could be seen as genes, recipes, songlines – digital incantations for ‘things’. Things that are gaining the ability through the ‘fabbing‘ technology of mass personalisation to sing themselves into existence.

If ‘things’ become transient – haeccities of need, context and available resource, then what does that mean for design?

Sterling suggests that we designers are wranglers, protocrats – choreographing and guiding constant, contigent, bespoke microsolutions rather than mass-producing products in response to general needs.

Moreover, he suggests that ‘citizen designers’ – the people formerly known as consumers in the industrial age – will take over the means of design and production from the elite class of designer put there by the needs and machinery of industry.

Another book that’s fired my imagination recently is John Thackara’s “In the bubble” He echoes this last point of Sterling and points to design as social fiction to deal with this science fictional situation. Service design is growing in importance right now, as we slouch up the slopes of Sterling’s spimeworld.

Thackara also points to growing need for co-creation: end-user community involvement in the design of solutions offered to them. He sees designers are facilitators in this situation – shapers of possibility spaces*, rather than things.

Thackara would suggest that we have nothing to lose but our chains but adopting these practices and becoming sherpas not slaves.

In conclusion: should this flux of multiateral forces: services not things, cocreation not lone auteurship, possibility data not material objects – be seen as slavery to industry, or would indeed it seem that unfamiliar to the Eames?

Perhaps not – they might be even tempted to paraphrase themselves: ‘design is doing the best with the most for the least’ – which to me seems a noble duty, rather than base slavery.

Thank you.

* some things that pop into my mind now which I wish I’d brought up if there was time at the event – Martin Pawley’s “Terminal architecture” and Neil Spiller’s discussion of the ‘architecture of the second aesthetic’ [pdf], perhaps even a mention of what games designers are thinking about auto-generating content and gameplay i.e. Will Wright’s numerous talks esp. about Spore.

BONUS LINK #1: Hot Thackara-on-Sterling spime-laden macroscopic action

BONUS LINK #2: Anne Galloway’s pulsing, growing, bibliography /ongoing police-action of the ‘internet of things’.

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