Designing in the Face of Defeat

Jan Chipchase’s ‘Red Mat’ design experiment is brilliant by itself, but is goes much further than being just a design experiment.

The opening of the essay that sets the contextual framework for the project is for me the most interesting part:

By now there are very few people left on the planet that aren’t in some way impacted by globalisation – as producers and consumers – those few who make a decision to opt-out must do so consciously. Yet our touch points to this interconnected system that churns out ever more, ever faster inherently limits our understanding of the whole. We can talk about globalisation, buy into it, buy from it, demonstrate against it, but for most of us its scale and complexity defies comprehension. Part of the machine is dedicated to designing, prototyping, testing and pushing to market connected products and services that know more about us, than we ever will about them.

It’s as if we were standing on the top of a hill and are now running at full pelt into the fog below – not quite knowing what lies ahead, letting gravity and momentum carry us, and doing our best to avoid the silhouettes of objects as they loom into view, chased by the fear of stopping.

We are living in an increasingly interconnected, and increasingly automated world. The consequences of our actions may be road-mapped, extrapolated, scenarioed, but ultimately, at best it is smart guesswork.

Chipchase posits products and services as withdrawn objects that are unknowable to us by their scale and complexity but both of those are just symptoms of the unknowability of objects in general. This is in line with most of the current thinking on objects in speculative realism.

For us designers, makers the question then is: given such a bleak view of knowability in the world at large and of objects in particular, what are successful strategies for creating these products and services. More succinctly: How do we design in the face of defeat?

The writing about the new aesthetic that has reached a tipping point in the last week is one way of dealing with —or at least cataloging— the algorithmic complexity in the world around us, but as Chipchase’s welcome mat shows, all objects carry with them so much weight that even the simplest ones become unfathomably complex.

I’m mulling over how to proceed. One preliminary idea: we should do away with all strategic design and business theory and just make things. But then again, we were already doing that.

4 thoughts on “Designing in the Face of Defeat”

  1. I agree that we need a pragmatic approach to deal with complexity in design and other applied process centered crafts. But most of all we have to be cautious not to prohibit progress in assuming that an idealized theoretical model will hold the solution to your question. Intolerance towards any form of expression which seems useful in design or other any other specialized fields is rather unproductive. In the end the actual work results and not irrational prejudice derived from a metaphysical debate will defeat those forms which are ineffective and accelerate development of valid applicable solutions.

  2. If option 1 is business hype, and option 2 is geeky ‘build it and they will come’, then I propose we take option 3: critical thinking based on pragmatic humanities/academics.

    Concretely I think things like Seamfull Design (Chalmers) are important. If you make a smart product, make sure there are certain ‘breakpoints’ where users can step in. Like always having a real ‘connect to the web’ on-off switch on these things. Like the toggles in iPhone apps, only real.

    And don’t make things work automagically (even though Mark Weiser says so), because then all you do is build black boxes. Instead, build legosets for your users, help them learn and build too. Then they can laern to handle the complexity, and your job as a designer becomes a lot easier. For example, I love Program or be programmed.

    (By the way, I recommend reading the classic book “de voorspellers” by professor Rein de Wilde. He explains the power of hype and myths, how futurusts latch onto fundamental human drives and longings. At the forefront of tech being hype-resistant will save you time and money. For me the book is a great example of pragmatic academics. Two chapters that have been translated to English are available for free here:

  3. @Alexander: I think we’re on the same page. Makers make.

    @Tijmen: If you know any pragmatic humanities, please point them out. I think most of them are too busy conforming to the structures of academia and the publishing overlords to spend too much time making things.

    I applaud academics with a deep understanding of the subject matter and accompanying making things. I believe Ian Bogost writes in his latest book that making things is in fact the only way to gain a deep understanding of things (see carpentry).

    Any object is a black box for a certain type of person but then again every black box can be opened and its assemblage examined.

    I put the book on the list, but unfortunately docs are impossible to instapaper and I think the market for futurists has completely dried up since that book has been written. We are all living in a perpetually weird smear of network realism and that is weird enough.

  4. Well, Ian Bogost is definately a good example. Richard Rogers’ Digital methods Initiative comes to mind too.

    Your post asks the question how to reconcile the (post-modern) view that the world is absurdly complex and idiosyncratic, with the (modernist) dream to remodel it as we humans see fit. A question that becomes very real for people who try to create ubicomp systems.

    In the ‘pervasive design’ course I taught at the HvA this was the main question that I tried to point my students towards. For ubicomp systems to work you need a predictable world with predictable people. For example, if my users aren’t predictable in how much milk they want to have in the smart fridge (that old chestnut), then I can’t automate ordering milk for them.

    The problem is: the world isn’t as predictable as we think.

    This article by Genevieve Bell (chief antropologist at Intel) and Paul Dourish (hey, another pragmatic academic) tells it well:

    And grandmother of all of this is Lucy Suchman, an anthropologist who worked at Xerox Parc with grandfather Mark Weiser. She talks about ‘situated actions’.

    All of this is a great example of how the humanities can inform nerdyness. By understanding the bigger pictures we avoid making the same mistakes over and over again, blinded by our own cognitive biases and geeky utopianism.

    Which brings me back to the solution: don’t create over-designed absurdly smart things in the first place. Instead, build flexible tools which users can adopt to their own situations. Chipchase would say: design for appropriation. Make objects with seams. Make Legobricks.

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