What do artists add – indeed?
I watched the Sunday Arts program on the weekend (because Fergie was interviewed). The program also showed Heat: Art and Climate Change’ exhibition, which is on at the RMIT gallery.
When I saw the program, I was skeptical about what these artists were doing – promoting an issue that was already getting extensive coverage in the media anyway. This doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t have a say – an indeed artists should say what they think they should say – but I am getting a bit bored of well-known issues being put forward in a way that isn’t unique/provocative, for example, about polar ice-caps melting (hence there’s a polar bear in the exhibition), coral are bleaching (hence there’s reference to it too)…
The thing that was most revealing was when the artists were asked how sustainable they are/were in creating their work. They clearly looked uncomfortable in being asked this question, and some had really lame answers, like ‘I used recycled wood’, or ‘I car pooled to the exhibition’. In creating their work, they forgot to interrogate their artistic practices seemed beyond belief, and renders their work hollow.
I guess artists and designers are all in the same boat, guilty of the same ‘crime’ of not examining their own conducts and behaviours. I had naively assumed that artists would be more ‘principled’ and that they had a better chance of changing their practice because they often operate alone and express what they think and feel more easily, rather than designers in a studio who work for clients. Though, I shouldn’t generalise about all artists and designers, of course, artists and designers can be equally compared this way when thinking about the impact and engagement of the work they create with the public.
Come on Rick.
Rick Poynor wrote a review on New Views 2 symposium that we organised. This can be read here:
I have to say… its rather disappointing. Rick, in his critique, is specifically responding to Dick Buchanan’s closing speech of the symposium, which I and many others, found patronising anyway. So this article starts off on the wrong foot for me, that Buchanan didn’t ‘get’ the point and purpose of the symposium, which was then reinforced by Rick’s comment – all in all its barking up the ‘wrong tree’. The part that I find even more frustrating is the fact that these ‘old boys’ can command an audience, due to their prominence and public platform. People still listen to them, and they expect to be listened to….
‘Doom and gloom for graphic designers – the window is closing’
Dick Buchanan’s sermon of the day was how he sees that the window of opportunity was still open so long as designers’ practices was based on conversation. That was the theme of his talk ‘The Truth Begins with Two’ – that it takes two to have a meaningful conversation. Rick interpreted this as designers beginning this conversation with their clients. However, I took Dick’s metaphor of conversation as designers needing to reposition their role in facilitating the conversation with the public – including the client, designers and other stakeholders, where the designed artefacts are tools and mediums that can potentially facilitate such dialogue. It is a role that shifts the designer, who creates and produces the finished product to convey information from A to B, to a role that acknowledges the co-creation of messages by various participants through the design medium. It is a conversation because it is dialogic – not monologic, as many graphic designed outcomes can be perceived to be. By the way, this shift is not a new discussion – a great deal more has been discussed in CSCW and Participatory Design fields for a while now (should graphic designers wish to look beyond their own disciplinary boundaries).The process of design in these fields emphasises the relationship designers create with people they design for and with, which contests the dominance of mass market design and its ends-oriented values with an alternate, ethical, cultural and social modality.
So Rick’s rather traditional way of thinking of graphic design/visual communication was surprising and disappointing to me. I was rather hoping that he would meet Dick’s critique squarely in this article, but instead, Rick seems to have dug his heels in to argue the importance of craft, typography and the ’shaping of graphic form’ – an ‘old hat’ of how graphic design is identified, argued and promoted. Was that the only way he could counter Dick’s offense that its doom and gloom for graphic designers? Is that the only ammunition Rick has? That there is so much ’stuff’ out there that reassures him that what we are doing is ‘okay’, so stop worrying unnecessarily?
I was equally disappointed (actually, at this point of reading, perhaps I expected it) that Rick dismissed the speakers (I assume, Chris Downs from Livework and Terry Irwin) by saying that they didn’t ‘care that much about visual communication’, confirming to me that he wasn’t able to see beyond his own perspective/definition of graphic design. The two talks by Downs and Irwin, even though they were different, addressed a similar social and environmental concern of the role that designers play. They both asked designers to act and think beyond their traditional roles. Downs presented a pilot-project where Livework provided a loan system to a household so that alternative-energy renovations could be made. Repayments for these installations can then be made through the money saved on utility bills, thus alleviating the financial burden off the resident. Irwin, in her forceful speech, addressed how our ‘worldview’ should be questioned in order to re-think and do design in a different way. Some delegates took Irwin’s call to kick start off discussions, for example in the ‘Real World’ cluster, which was the group that I was in (but neither Dick or Rick visited – we were lucky). It had provided our group with an enormous challenge of how we can begin to question our own preconceived ideas of what design is, and our role within it. We only begun to scratch the surface of what this is – but its a good start.
It is too easy to overlook the outcomes of New Views 2 – especially when Dick and Rick (two prominent, white, western middle-aged men – there seems to be a pattern here) can, because of their standing in the design circles, ‘wrap it up’ in their own interpretations and opinions about it and for others to assume that this is it. Indeed, nothing big, bold, shiny and new has come out of New Views 2 – but I question why such expectation should be placed on this event. The underlying intention for New Views 2 was to nurture conversations among a diversity of people engaged in design. It was a unique opportunity where, through each individual’s active participation, generated the content of the conversation and shared outcomes within the group. It was, as Rick says, ‘unorthodox’ in the way it contrasts with the usual conference where the window for conversations and dialogue are limited to tea/lunch breaks and the paper presentations take precedence. New Views was not a forum for pushing content onto one another, but rather, to seek connections and take on board the differences in perspectives in how we each engage in design. This in turn, created common themes and differences in each of the groups. New Views 2 had provided the ’scaffold’ for such meeting to take place – and it is now up to the individual participants and groups to take what has emerged and apply that to their own contexts, teaching, projects, writing or any collaborative initiatives.
I heard that Rick has taken a position at the RCA as a Research Fellow. Being a researcher requires a different relationship to design than being a design critic. As a researcher discovering and exploring alternative avenues of graphic/visua/ communication/design, maybe then, he can contribute and participate in different ways to think, discuss and collaborate on what the future of graphic design might be.
Where is the design in Service Design? An essay by and for insecure designers.
In a keynote speech by Chris Downs from Livework at a recently held conference on the future of graphic design, he presented Liveworks’ projects to an audience of graphic/communication designers. There was a mixture of anxiety and uncomfortableness amongst some of the audience members. Many acknowledged that the projects by Livework represented the way the design industry was evolving in providing ‘services’ for companies to operate and communicate in different ways. However, some felt that they were ill-equipped in making this shift, causing concern that graphic/communication designers may be left behind.
The feeling of being ill-equipped or being left behind is not much about the command of technology, but more about the way graphic/communication designers are defining what they do. Some have pointed out that past/current definitions of graphic/communication design may not be fulfilling the expectation of clients or project briefs, let alone leading the design services industry. What had Livework presented that caused such a response?
One of their projects presented was on tackling the issue of sustainability. They identified that one of the major obstacles in making housing more sustainable was the affordability in retro-fitting alternative energy appliances to existing houses. They argued that the costs in undertaking such renovations were an obstacle for most homeowners. As one of their case-studies, they chose a typical residential house in an inner-city suburb in England. Livework provided a loan system to the resident so that alternative-energy renovations could be made to the house, such as installing insulation, solar-hot water system and energy panels, rain-water tank and grey-water facilities. Repayments for these installations can then be made through the money saved on utility bills, thus alleviating the financial burden off the resident.
Livework are not alone in examples of designers being involved on large-scale sustainable service design projects. In another presentation at the Design Research Society Conference by Clare Brass from SEED Foundation, she presented a project for a system of composting biodegradable waste from a high-rise commission building in urban suburbs of London. The stakeholders involved were the community who lived in the high-rises and didn’t have the garden space to compost; the council who currently pay a large sum to dispose waste; and an agency that provides employment for unemployed people. SEED Foundation’s proposal was to design a service that will mutually benefit all three stakeholders. In their solution, they proposed how employment will be provided for the unemployed through their collection of biodegradable waste from the housing community. This collection would be composted off-site using a technologically advanced composting machine (its use/purchase will be funded by the council), and the resulting compost will be used to create a community vegetable garden, thereby benefiting the community. The proposed outcome addressed not only the environmental concerns but aids the process of community building, empowerment and well-being.
The scale in which these two project operates on is indeed impressive. That a design thinking, design-service company proposed this is even awe-inspiring. Though, one thought lingers in the minds of the designers – why is a design company undertaking such projects? Why weren’t other stakeholders who are more traditionally associated with such initiatives, for example, the local council, government, any environmental organisation, energy companies, undertaking this instead? What is the incentive for design companies to undertake such projects (apart from financial incentives and it being a novel and value-driven project)? Won’t any socially-benefiting project fall under this umbrella of ‘service design’, for example, how the movement of goods and produce is undertaken, how the health system is administered or how the military are involved in zones of conflict, etc? Arguably, a myriad of these initiatives and strategies already exists. They are being ‘designed’ by people who will not call themselves designers (or charge on a similar scale). So, when a design company begins to undertake projects like these, what do they call what they do? How different / better are they from ‘normative’ ways of strategising? What are the perceived benefits of involving designers so that they are invited in the first place? Where exactly is the design?
That so many questions tumbles out from the mouth of designers indicates how deep the blow is to them of witnessing such projects, and it is also a tell-tale sign of their deep insecurity. At the core of their concern is the challenge that, in such project context, design is no longer married to the production of artefacts. This immediately robs the designer of their skill, expertise, applied knowledge and experience in the creation of artefacts. Such factors become redundant to the designers’ repertoire. The emphasis in the discourse of sustainability on reducing or removing the processes of the production of ‘things’ also fuels the designers’ insecurity.
Alternatively, many designers claim that their thinking, creative and lateral approaches and applying them to specific contexts is what makes a design process unique. Can this be their last line of defense? Is this solely unique to designers? However, there are others (refs) who argue that design thinking is not a unique skill inherent to designers alone. Potentially ‘everyone’ is a designer, including ‘non-designers’ (ie people who have not ‘professed’ in design, either through working in design or studying design). The troubling nature of the question – what, then does the designer bring to the table? – has been echoed in related fields of participatory design and human-centred design. However, the discourse on this matter in these fields has largely been fuelled by political agendas to ‘punish’ ego-filled designers’ attitude in co-designing with users and to argue for a more egalitarian relationship between them (refs). In this context, creativity, lateral thinking and skills traditionally claimed by designers are willingly shared with other ‘non-designer’ stakeholders.
Service Design, an area of design that Livework and SEED Foundation position their work to be in, is a confusing area to understand for many graphic/communication designers. Service Design, put simply, is a way of designing services (rather than products) that brings value to the user/customer (ref). The emphasis is therefore based on the users’ interaction that occurs through the service and the benefit that this may bring to them. Some may see that Service Design is just a novel way of defining something that graphic/communication designers have been doing all along, for example, the relationship building that is facilitated between a company and their customers through websites, identity, signage, and other forms of communication materials. The only difference is that graphic/communication designers have not articulated their design methodology or given too much weight to the various communication artefacts they use (eg. scenarios, personas etc) that aide them in communicating with the project stakeholders. These facilitative and communicative artefacts are often given greater emphasis in Service Design, that help stakeholders envision the components and interactions within the service, thereby enabling the objective to be realised collectively.
An example of these facilitative and communicative artefacts are the design and use of realistic ‘prototypes’ at the earliest stage of the briefing process. Seeing a realistic representation of a designed outcome can elicit discussion on issues and concerns that surround it, which the client or the designer may not have been able to perceive before. Such visual disclosures can circumvent problems earlier. Design companies like IDEO or Livework, who undertake human-centred design approaches to projects, often design and deploy prototypes in discussion with clients as a way to ‘sketch’ future scenarios. For example, Manzini and Jegou (2004) have created everyday future scenarios to highlight and make real issues surrounding environmental sustainability. The scenarios are illustrated visuals of people in specific urban settings that can tangibly communicate the alternative ways people can work, consume, use transportation, interact with one another, and situate concerns of sustainability at the core of each activity. Such scenarios have a projective quality to enable project stakeholders to evaluate and critique the role and outcome of design products and services, prior to its ‘realisation’.
Manzini and Jegou’s scenario example illustrates how a scenario, as an artefact, can become a catalyst to facilitate dialogue, communication, collaboration, and to manifest and critique values embedded in project contexts. The artefact’s role and deployment early in the design process contrasts with a view of artefacts as end outcomes to be designed. Creation of, and interaction with, artefacts can transform them into an open-ended ‘language’ for project stakeholders to discuss the designed outcome’s potentiality.
Describing Service Design from the perspective of designing artefacts and the social role it performs can enable graphic/communication designers to see familiar, therefore less confronting avenues into this field. Legitimising the role of artefacts this way can alleviate the anxiety that many feel in losing the skill, therefore the possibility to earn their crust through offering the ‘design service’ of making and creating artefacts. Yet, simply framing Service Design through artefacts is not an adequate, nor a desirable way of defining what design is, or could be.
The question, ‘what is the design?’ still remains unanswered. In an attempt to discover how other practitioners of Service Design might respond, this question was put to Clare Brass from SEED Foundation after her presentation. Her answer was firstly related to ‘collaborating with stakeholders’, then she reinforced this with ‘designing the uniform and mobile collection device used by the workers.’ Clearly, her definition of design in Service Design is skimming over the traditional definition of process and artefact. However, it was also clear that a deeper, conceptual definition remain illusive.
It is not an easy one to answer for Chris Downs either, who being a design practitioner, has little time to spend on documenting, observing and reflecting on such a question in relation to the housing-loan project. This has been one of the on-going problems with design research and academic language – so few successfully straddle all fields of design practice and design research, that knowledge generated and explored through practice is critically and articulately researched and disseminated. Even though the keynote speech by Chris Downs was clear and inspiring, there was little evidence of criticality or the pursuit and documentation of knowledge in the projects that he presented. Clare Brass’s presentation can also be similarly critiqued this way, even though she is more active participant in the design research community. Furthermore, the project is still a theoretical model, and opens the question of whether the project is driven more on an ideological, hypothetical and propositional level. Could such project be actualised and benefit the community in the way that it is hoped?
To be continued…
Where is our diversity
Cast your mind over listing the top ten graphic designers, either in Australia or overseas. Think of the various monographs and self-promotional books that have been published in this field. How many of them are female, or non-western graphic designers?
This was a troubling question for the organisers of a graphic design forum/event in Melbourne. In order to seek diversity of ‘voices’ for this event, a number of practicing graphic designers as well as academics in various graphic design educational institutions were asked to suggest any prominent female or indigenous graphic designers that can be invited to participate in this event. Their response was that they were able to list a number of male graphic designers, but not many others.
The realisation that our profession had lacked this visibility of women, non-western or indigenous designers was a wake-up call to the organisers of the event. Or more accurately, perhaps it had confirmed what the have been observing for a while. Why does graphic design lack this representation? What does this say about Australian graphic design industry, or more broadly, the industry world-wide?
In response to the theme of the special issue of Visual:Design:Scholarship, the authors critically examined whether a profession that lacks diverse representation are in a position to address complex social contexts of our time. As the call by the editor questions, ‘how can graphic design become a visible part of the ongoing living narrative of culture?’, this paper also questions the visibility of the diversity of practitioners in graphic design. It specifically critiques how this may not reflect the culture and society in which it designs for, and within, especially in the context of Australia with its growing diversity of peoples and cultures.
The critique raised by this paper is not new. Debate on the lack of diversity of representation had been an issue for the profession for decades. Back in 1994, Laurie Haycock Makela and Ellen Lupton published an article in the Eye magazine about the ‘Underground Matriarchy in Graphic Design.’ In this article, they discuss various works and collaborative projects by female graphic designer canons to readdress the imbalance of the ‘Old Boy’s Network, which for so long has excluded women, younger designers, an people working at the margins of the professional mainstream’ (para 3). The article discusses an impressive array of female canons and the diversity of work they were involved with. For example, names such as April Grieman, Sheila de Brettville, Lorraine Wild, Katherine McCoy are now familiar to us through their prominence during the 90s, encountered thorough published works in Eye or Emigre magazines, or if one was lucky enough, hearing them talk powerfully and articulately at international symposiums. Coupled with the projects by WD+RU (Women’s Design Research Unit) by Teal Triggs, Sian Cook and Liz McQuiston that also gained exposure during this time, it had seemed that the imbalance was slowly but surely being readdressed. However,15 years on since Haycock Makela and Lupton’s article was published, the authors are puzzled to find that there is still a lack of equivalent calibre and cannon of prominent female graphic designers in Australia.
It is important to clarify that this paper is not about the battle of the sexes. Rather, its core argument is motivated by a concern about the imbalance of values that are adopted and promoted across the graphic design industry, and how this may represent or give identity to its profession. We argue that an industry that lacks diversity of representation reflects a lack of diversity of values. The fact that there are few prominent female, ethnic or indigenous graphic designers in Australia calls to question of how their values, opinions and perspectives remain hidden and invisible to those outside of the industry. There is a strong case to argue that the lack of plurality and inclusivity in this representation can undermine how the industry can potentially address the humanitarian and environmental concerns of Australian society, which includes many ethnic nationality groups and indigenous peoples as part of its diverse culture.
The critique of the lack of plurality and inclusivity also applies to bodies that represent graphic design to the public, other industries and government, such as Australian Graphic Design Association (AGDA). AGDA suffered perception of being as an ‘Old Boys Club’ with white, middle-aged men making up the presidents of national and state-level council members until a few years ago. Since then, changes in its national and state level council members have brought in younger, female designers to the group who are undertaking prominent roles within the organisation. This shift also coincides with an event that occurred during a graphic design forum called Character in 2005, held in Melbourne. The past Character series had continually hosted a panel of up-coming and prominent male graphic designers. However, a concern was raised from the audience on, ‘where are the women designers?’, to which the panel members or the organisers were unable to respond to. Michaela Webb, who is the co-president of Victoria’s AGDA council, attributes this event as being catalytic in raising the concern of the lack of female representation. As a result, this concern had led to her appointment as the vice-president this year.
AGDA is not alone in being questioned on its representation of diversity. Adbusters have recently been criticised in only selecting white-male jurors for their ‘One Flag’ design competition. The critique raised by Drenttel (2008) in the Design Observer website, is pronounced even more due to the nature of the competition being on the issue of global citizenship. Furthermore, an organisation like Adbusters is well-known for campaigning against monopoly of white, masculine-culture corporations. That they failed to notice a bias towards their selection of jurors until Drenttel had raised the alarm was indeed a concern for the community to discuss.
More interestingly is the discussion on the Design Observer forum that ensued. Opinions were exchanged ranging from criticising the debate as holding up a ‘politically correct’ straw man; those who questioned whether this was a ‘racism’, ‘leftism’ or ‘reverse sexism’ issue; those who argued that the juror selection criteria should be on ‘qualification’, ‘merit’ and other qualities irrespective of their ethnicity, and the counter to this argument that such ‘qualification’ often strongly correlates with social position and can result in a selection of homogenous jury anyway. That this debate had sparked so much interest, unearthing a broader and deeper issue from the diversity and polarity of viewpoints expressed is a healthy sign of the field. This paper follows in the wave of this debate. It seeks to initiate a discussion on diversity of representation in Australian graphic design industry in the same intention that Drenttel had in starting the debate on the Design Observer. The authors are not attempting to raise this issue motivated by politically correct agendas, or to suggest that a tokenistic pick-and-mix of ethnicity and gender is a necessarily a good representation of diversity. It seeks not to provide definition of what diversity is, of what a model of it should look like. A complexity of issues surrounds and provides subtext on what ‘diversity’ means. It is time that we began to discuss this as a central issue to design, alongside the broader issue of design practice and the role it plays in society. They are intrinsically linked.
Where do our graduates go? Who are our role models?
The puzzlement and questioning had led the authors to re-look at where the graduates go once leaving their educational institutions. Both authors teach at prominent graphic design educational institutions in Melbourne where the cohort of students represents a healthy diversity of gender, ethnicity and international backgrounds. For example, in the communication design undergraduate program at RMIT University, the number of international students and those who have parents born overseas, constitute nearly half of the entire year level student cohort. In the classrooms, there are 70% of the female at the commencement of the course. However, during the past 8 years, there has been no indigenous student enrolled in the communication design department at RMIT University.
In a recent survey of graduates from the communication design program at RMIT University, 80% have found employment after graduating. Among these percentages, most of the international students have returned to their home countries due to visa-related obstacles. However, there is a few each year who have successfully secured work-sponsored visas or permanent residency to remain and work in Australia. Though there is a lack of concrete data on these cohorts, upon following up on some of our graduate networks on what roles and they have undertaken, many of them are working as freelancers, or middle- to large-sized graphic design studios and companies, ranging from junior to mid-level positions.
These anecdotal evidence suggests that the graphic design community in Australia is indeed diverse in terms of gender balance and ethnicity. From this observation, one can assume that the collective of various studios, companies, individuals are all operating, designing and constructing outcomes that contribute to our socio-cultural landscape of Australia. However, their work, voice, opinion and values are difficult to locate and identify in comparison of the prominence of white, male designers, who are more visible and vocal. Though this can be assumed to be ‘unintentional’, this is a critical concern especially when negotiating the identity for the individual practitioner. It contradicts the complexity and plurality of the context of practice. When the perception of the Australian graphic design industry is predominantly white-male designers, how and where do we seek other role models who we can identify with and relate to?
Surprisingly, academia is a place where a diversity of role-models can be found. Thankfully, students’ daily exposure to a diversity of perspectives and identities can be sought here through their lecturers and supervisors in graphic design programs. Many females and people of ethnic origins have prominent roles and positions in academia, providing a strong voice in addressing the concerns and future of the graphic design industry. This phenomenon in academia was also noted in Haycock Makela and Lupton’s (1994) article. They state that the exemplary ‘matriarchs’ they have discussed in the article have also come from the academic world where it is ‘… a place where women have found visible and influential places over the past twenty years’ (para 20). They offer reasons of institutional support and clear structures for advancement that schools offer, to be a strong attribute for this phenomenon. Haycock Makela and Lupton describes how this is a paradoxical position that combines influential and peripheral avenues in providing critique and observation of graphic design practice. Influential, in that it holds the responsibility in guiding the student’s learning and affecting their future pathways; peripheral, because it is outside of commercial practice where critique can be safely expressed and often sought.
What does this say about the culture of graphic design industry?
Observation suggests that discourse in organisational management is beginning to move towards adopting models of inclusiveness, collaboration and plurality. Attention to these values has been growing in the organisational literature, propelled by changes in workforce demographics, globalisation and greater interconnectedness or cultures and societies facilitated by technology (Glynn, Barr and Dacin 2000). A McKinsey research article published in 2006 identifies best practices of more than 230 global businesses. In their findings, they report that the development of a culture within the organisation that has ‘an environment that encourages openness, trust and challenge’ (p. 3) produce dramatic result and makes the organisation more effective. Furthermore, they have also identified that the ‘carrots and sticks of incentives’ is least effective in motivating and encouraging employees to perform well and stay with a company. Command-and-control leadership is stated as being ‘the still popular art of telling people what to do and then checking up on them to see that they did it, is among the least effective ways to direct the efforts of an organisation’s people’ (p. 3). These values are linked with masculine cultures and qualities associated with the world of men. On the contrary, values to nurture, to support and to enable have been traditionally associated with the world of women (Lupton 1994). ‘Matriarchy invokes the values associated with feminine culture – gathering instead of hunting, cultivating instead of conquering, nurturing instead of self-promotion’ (para 4). Irrespective of the lack of female representation in the identity of Australian graphic design industry, it is encouraging to witness that these values are gaining stronghold in considering how to manage how people work in organisations.
It is therefore not surprising that the pluralistic, collaborative and inclusive models of design is being discussed in fields of architecture, industrial design and interaction design through the theory and methods of participatory design, human-centred design and co-design. The process of design, in these fields, emphasises the relationship designers create with the people they design for and with. In particular, Nelson and Stolterman (Wolford-Ulrich 2004) state the importance of creating and maintaining a symbiotic relationship among designers and their constituents through empathy. In these models, hierarchy is de-emphasised in favour of an egalitarian relationship.
… this is a first draft of an on-going paper I am writing with Carolyn Barnes … obviously there is more to write + articulate!
Academics who are unwilling to be critical and reflective
It is surprising to run into people who are unable to be critical and reflective of their practice and research. Why am I surprised? Maybe its because I am in an environment of postgraduates and colleagues where we do this openly and frequently. It highlights how lucky I am to be among this culture at RMIT. During a discussion with a colleague who share the same perspectives that I do on my critique of Design Anthropology, he asked me ‘what are you benefiting from commenting on Dori’s blog?” … and I was troubled in answering this question. I am not sure anymore – that Dori and I can have an engaged, deep discussion, therefore we can further understand design and its social role may have been driven by my naivety and optimism. This colleague had said ‘well, really, all she seems to be interested in is promoting herself and Design Anthropology – she is legitimising it and commodifying this so it can ’sell’ it to the clients’, might be a case in point. Sigh.
Anyway, this is what I wrote on her blog following a response that she gave afterwards. This can be read here:
In response to what I wrote below, she hand-ball’s this by suggesting that I read her published work. I think my colleague might be spot-on in his observation.
“Thanks for your considered and thorough response. I was a bit taken aback as to how you had ‘elevated’ the visibility of my critique! It is a shame that the points you articulately put forward were not made/present in the talk you gave, which is what I specifically reacted to in my comment.
I am deliberately being polemic because, as I might have said before, I had previously assumed that we occupied the same ‘camp’, so to speak, but the more I read your blog and attend your presentations, the more I notice and question the areas of our differences. So, thanks for putting up with the ‘peer critique’, irrespective of how old we are, I think it is the only way we can really ‘nut out’ the core of what we say.
I still remain unconvinced on your answer to Design Anthropology’s difference with market research. I agree, that the question one sets off may be indeed different, but does this necessarily equate to a different outcome? How are these ‘questions about being human’, then woven into the design process? How does that inform the design outcome? A cynical view would be to say that, irrespective of whether you had tried to understand the humanness of ‘male grooming’, you are still designing products in a way that will appeal (sell well) to the consumers. This part had not been made clear in your presentation, or in your post. I would see the critical issue is how you argue what had been discovered through Design Anthropology that can then transform what will be designed, and how this transformation will create a different kind of engagement that people want, overall.
A case in point is an example that you gave in response to a question (after your presentation), of a US military website. If I remember correctly, one can argue that, indeed, Design Anthro had identified a ‘need’ that the prospective soldiers wanted to know how they would live in the locations that they are posted out to.This seemed to have influenced the way the US military would display this information on their website, so that it will appease the mothers and lessen their worries of how their boys and girls were living. However, a question that occurred to me was, weren’t there other concerns that they raised too, like, issues surrounding risk and danger in combat zones; questions of how decisions are made about the way the military are involved in certain countries… the list can potentially endless. I am not clear how these issues might have been dealt with, when fed back to the US military, especially if they were ones that were critical, condemning or questioning their activities.
This leads me to a point where I think Design Anthropology, or you, side-step or not illuminate – the murky, complex issue of politics and agenda (politics with a lower-case p). When you involve various stakeholders in a design process, as in the example you give with the Design for Democracy, who do you advocate on behalf and how are difficult and complex issues dealt with? Whose values do you satisfy in the end through the designed outcome? The one who shouts the loudest, the one who pays or the those in the majority? Everyone all equally?- well, we know that is never the case.
I think this is the crux of the issue with the whole field of designing with people. Whether we call it Design Anthropology, User-centred design, Participatory design, Co-design, they all sound wonderful. On the surface, it appears to be such a egalitarian, democratic and nicey-nicey way of designing. However, underneath it all really boils down to whose decision makes it in the final cut. Design is political, it is never neutral, neither is a design-anthropologist or an ethnographer. Each stakeholder brings their worldview to the table in how they would like the world to be. Whatever the designed outcome, it will inevitably have values embedded within it, which are often invisible yet pervasively inscribed in the design process. These designed outcomes then shape the world we live in, shape the way we think and act. So many reported case-studies omit the critical question of how and which values are deemed ‘better’ to be expressed and inscribed through the design process, and why.
So, I am troubled by your statement ‘how design help define what it means to be human’. Does it really? It is again the language slips and nuances I pick up in your statements that sounds the warning bells in my mind. That designer=design is defining the way humans ’should’ be so that they can make sense of who they are. Maybe I’m being over-sensitive and emphasising something that you had not intended to imply. However, I would be more comfortable with a statement that flips it around to say that people (human) can make/design to express who they are. Through design, humans can discuss what they want their world to be, and of course, designers are one of these humans too. It is about how this dialogue can take place.
I am afraid that I shall remain critical of Design Anthropology until the nitty-gritty, dirty, difficult bits are really opened up, questioned and examined. It is really, only through critique and questioning, can we see our own prejudice, assumption and the way we colour the way we see the world. I hope your students and fans of Design Anthropology can engage in such critique too.”