Archive for the ‘design’ Category

Bridges between Design & Philosophy


Short Position Paper for the International Exploratory Workshop on “Design Philosophy Dialogue”

"I Ain't Lying" by Dead Air on flickr
I Ain’t Lying by Dead Air on flickr

Gilbert Cockton, Annamaria Carusi, and John Mullarkey  organised a one day workshop on the Design Philosophy Dialogue at Northumbria University’s School of Design, and each participant was invited to write a brief position paper. This is mine. It is more a reflection of my current concerns, questions, and confusions about the intersection of design and philosophy than a position.

Before starting the word ‘design’ needs clarifying. I had trouble categorising the type of design I wanted to talk about until Nathan Crilly suggested the term ‘art school design’, i.e. the various design disciplines taught as design in art schools (graphic design, product design, interaction design, etc).

The Lure of Other’s Disciplines

"The bridge" by quasarsglow on flickr
The bridge by quasarsglow on flickr

Bridges create possibilities. The rickety old bridge across a forest river pictured represents a temptation, a temptation to cross to an unknown world. But it also suggests danger in the crossing.

My own discipline, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), started life as an amalgam of two disciplines, computer science and psychology, and ever since has periodically renewed itself by alighting on new fields. Philosophy has been repeatedly visited for inspiration and for guidance, from before Winnograd & Flores’s 1986 book “Understanding Computers and Cognition” (which, amongst many other things, applies Heidegger, Gadamer, and Dreyfus’ ideas to the design of computer based office management systems) through to recent work including, for example, my colleague Alex Taylor’s project on everyday understandings of (machine) intelligence.

Design and philosophy are far older disciplines than HCI; what might be the appeal in each for each? For designers, philosophical theories and ideas may serve as inspirations, either in general methodological terms, or specifically project brief by project brief. And philosophy also serves to provide designers with the tools they need to discuss their foundational work. Both of these are problematic, as I’ll argue, which will bring us to what design may offer philosophers.

Building Bridges

"First Tanks Across Bridge" from historian505th on flickr
First Tanks Across Bridge from historian505th on flickr

When people from different disciplines collaborate, each has a different specialist language. In their paper “Languages of InnovationAlan Blackwell and David Good talk about this coming together of differing languages and show how successful long term collaborations move through misunderstanding, through pidgin use of each other’s language, to a full Creole – a new language forged by the two disciplines involved.

Design is not a textual discipline. The language of design is the designed objects and their precedents, their form and their embodiment in the world, and though we use the term “the language of design” I am not sure it is a language.

Philosophy is textual, fundamentally so. When design turns to philosophy for inspiration, the depth and texture of the philosophical arguments plundered appear lacking from the design renderings. There’s little fidelity in the transfer. When philosophy is used to explain the underpinnings of design other problems ensue.

What Counts as Knowledge? What Counts as Inspiration?

"Gateshead Millenium Bridge, Newcastle-upon-Tyne" by Xavier de Jauréguiberry on flickr
Gateshead Millenium Bridge, Newcastle-upon-Tyne by Xavier de Jauréguiberry on flickr

Last year a scarecrow was awarded a Nobel Prize. Why? Because he was out standing in his field.

Joking aside, each discipline has its own ways of establishing excellence, of deciding which work is considered seminal, which work is worthy of study, etc. For design these things are measured from a craft or a commercial perspective, or other perspectives that include the context of use, the engagement with the consumer of the design. But academic research in design has to stop and think deep thought to justify the term “research”, and thus turns to philosophy. And it is here where I fret that the obtuse nature of some continental schools veils a simpler and more direct practise based research.

Negative Capability

"Golden Gate Bridge x9" by Area Bridges on flickr
Golden Gate Bridge x9 by Area Bridges on flickr

This is the second workshop on philosophy I’ve attended recently. The first was at the OII about Internet Ethics. In it, one philosopher, troubled by my stance on knowledge, said “we don’t want to talk shit”. I feel I almost do.

Designers, especially in the early phases of a design, seem perfectly happy to maintain contradictory standpoints, to adopt profligate beliefs in order to produce a wealth of overlapping and contradictory design ideas, to fill out the design space with as many creative possibilities as they can. Keats’ “negative capability” stands against “irritable reaching after fact & reason”. It is overly simplistic to characterise design and philosophy as either side of Keats’ analysis, but can a philosopher’s notion of rigour work alongside a designer’s view of possibility?

Perhaps we could approach this from the other perspective. If philosophy adopted the experimental approach based in objects in the world, what would the implications be? Am I wrong in perceiving philosophy as descriptive?


"The 'old' bridge" by The_lucas on flickr
The "old" bridge by The_lucas on flickr

I work in a fundamentally multi-disciplinary team, but unlike many multi-disciplinary teams embedded in technology companies ours is run by social scientists. As one of the few technologists in the group my role is shifted from being the intellectual focus to being a service skill: the intellectual critical mass of our work is not technological. This exposure to new ways of thinking is exciting, and so I understand the lure of new disciplinary perspectives. What troubles me, and what I hope I’ve laid out in this position paper, is that what I enjoy about design, and what I enjoy about philosophy, may be mutually exclusive.

Brief quote from John Heskett’s “Design: A Very Short Introduction”


Design: A Very Short Introduction

John Heskett’s “Design: A Very Short Introduction” was published by the OUP eight years ago in 2002. Here’s a quote from Chapter 7 on Identities:

A new visual identity can also be a signal of a major change of intent in corporate strategy. In the year 2000, British Petroleum (BP) unveiled a new identity programme that featured a dramatic image of a stylized sun-symbol in the long-standing corporate colour scheme of yellow and green, again by Landor. Accompanying advertising signalled a move to a wider pattern of activities, under the slogan Beyond Petroleum. This brought down on BP the wrath of environmentalists, who pointed out that the corporation’s business remained overwhelmingly petroleum based. Whether the new image will be sustainable depends in great measure on the behaviour of BP in the future and the extent to which it can be judged against its claims for itself.

My homage to Unhappy Hipsters


The Florey Building

Whenever Harry indulged his passion for modernist interiors he was careful to wear his invisibility cloak.

(My homage to Unhappy Hipsters, photo by Steve Cadman on flickr.)

Where’s the place to be, if you are a young designer?


A couple of weeks ago I joined Richard Banks for the second of Jon Rogers’ Ideas Days at Dundee’s Duncan of Jordanstone school of design. The format is simple. In their third of four years students on the Innovative Product Design course that Jon leads work up 100 ideas for their final year project and then present 25 of them to a visiting group of experts. Then all the students come together to quiz the experts in a panel session. Last year I joined Anab Jain, Bill Gaver, NCR’s Charlie Rohan, Nic Villar, and Richard Banks.

This year brought Andrew Shoben, Bill Gaver, Daljit Singh, Richard Banks and I together for the panel (the NCR folk couldn’t stay after the ‘100 Ideas’).

I love watching panels where the panellists disagree – especially where they respect each others work. Last year Anab and Bill hade a heated debate about the similarities and differences between commercial and university based design (especially product, interaction, and service design). This year I think the most passionate disagreement came in response to a question asked by Eilidh Marshall. Eilidh asked “Where’s the ‘place to be’ for designers now?”

The answers were, well, odd. Andrew answered “On the web”. Indeed the web can be thought of as a place but that is a curiously 1990’s idea. Now, the community-like tools on the internet can be taken for granted and used as just that – tools. It is true that a web presence is important for designers, but it’s not really what I’d class as ‘the place to be’.

Next up Daljit talked about the lure of London. At the time I thought Daljit had missed the point, but reflecting back now after discussions with Pete Thomas I think Daljit may have been on-the-money. Some (or all!) of the current third year are thinking of setting up a design collective in Dundee when they finish, so Eilidh’s question may indeed have been “do we need to move to the capital?” If it was, then I’m glad I didn’t take Eilidh’s question that way as my answer may have brought me under fire! Regional (and national) pride leads to some truly amazing high-energy developments, but I always think that it is most rewarding to try to work where the best in your profession are. Even if you don’t think you’ll ever be one of them it sure ups your game to be surrounded by them. Try this. Ask yourself which composers lived in Paris at the dawn of the twentieth century? You might answer Ravel, Fauré, Debussy, Satie, etc. Now ask yourself which composers lived in Lille at the dawn of the twentieth century?

As I mentioned I love watching panels where the panellists disagree. Friend and colleague Richard and I provided that. Richard answered that it didn’t really matter where you were, and talked about his experience working with us in Microsoft’s Cambridge lab while still living in Egham. He gets around this commuting nightmare by coming in two days a week and working from home the others. Because of Richard’s diligence and our working style (most visitors and team meetings are on Monday and Wednesdays) it works. But I think, especially for a design role, more face time would be better. Design is not just about prettier pixels (though Richard’s designs are elegant), it’s about a way of thinking about a problem, a way of solving it, and a way of documenting one’s solutions. I think we’d benefit if more of the design way of work bled into the other disciplines represented on Richard and my team. And that requires more face time.

But to wrap up I wanted to give Eilidh a straightforward place based answer. Bill suggested his institution (Goldsmiths) so I went for ITP in the Tisch School of Arts in New York. It’s an amazing place and combines inventive insights, creativity, and remarkably little ego politics. Inspirational.

(N.B. On the plane home, I wondered why Berlin hadn’t sprung to mind for any of us. When the wall came down there was a sense that Berlin would take over as a design or cultural capital for Europe, which doesn’t seem to have happened; or has it? There was a series on BBC Radio 3 recently to mark the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall looking at exactly that – the cultural legacy. We also had Pat visit (he’s now Hasso Plattner Institute in Berlin/Potsdam) so perhaps there’s more to think through about Berlin’s changing role. I’ll save that for another post.)

==================== EDIT ====================

Richard pointed out another write-up of the same event by some of the Dundee students present:

Why can’t we take photos in galleries?


I don’t understand copyright laws at the best of times but I can understand why content owners are nervous about piracy. In the old days when I taped a new album from a mate onto a C90, or sat by the radio so I could record my favourite track,  the quality of the reproduction was pretty terrible. Now electronic copies of music or movies are often identical to the original media. But let’s put music and video to one side. What about art? What about textiles? What about ceramics? What about jewellery? Clearly if I take a photo of a piece of artwork at an exhibition, or a piece of jewellery at a degree show no one is ever going to mistake my photo for the original. Let’s try an experiment. Is this a photo of a Patrick Heron stained glass window or is it the real thing?

There, that was easy. So why ban photography?

I can see why one would ban flash photography – that would be very annoying for those reflecting on the pieces on display. I can also imagine that cash strapped galleries might want to charge for a photography permit – I’d pay.

I’m not saying that galleries should be forced to allow photography (though if the artwork was acquired with public money I would be tempted to force them). Clearly in a private space one has the right to prevent photos being taken. But why do it? It is frustrating for those of us who enjoy capturing things we enjoy either to help us remember them or to try and see them from some new and creative angle.

Some galleries are great – friends in New York have said that most galleries allow photography, and the V&A seems to have a wonderfully enlightened policy. But then on the other end I was amazed that several of the recent degree shows I visited banned photography. For example I loved the Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design show, and put together a trip report for colleagues at work and used the report as a blog post here. I focused on the Communications Design Masters. In truth this was because I love their work, but it helped that you were allowed to take pictures. It made explaining what was hot, what was the zeitgeist, etc much much easier. I also visited the jewellery section as a colleague was interested to know what CSM students were producing (he’d enjoyed the jewellery RCA students had produced last year). So can I show him my favourite piece? Yes, here it is:


Well the less said about my sketching skills the better. But photographing it was a no-no:

(N.B. The jeweller, Clio Alphas, has some wonderful photos of this piece on her flickr stream if you do want to see why I liked the necklace she’d designed so much:

I had the same problem at the RCA show. Some designers let you take photos despite the sinage but others didn’t. This was especially frustrating in the fabrics section where I saw some great things that I’d have loved to have shared. One designer had made a fabulous fabric that combined geometric patterned thick felt with fluorescent plastic squares  matching the pattern, but slightly offset. Inevitably I’m struggling to describe the piece without a picture. The designer felt that allowing photos would enable people to steal her ideas; but I feel the buzz created by people discussing your work online far outweighs the potential for espionage.

New Designers 2008


This year I cannot make it to New Designers 😦

In a way it’s a good thing since I keep promising myself I’ll learn to focus, and working with Linda on our book visualization project is so exciting that I am certainly getting some of that. But the build up to New Designers has been really fun this year so I was excited. In previous years Richard, Alex, and I have been really excited about the product design work coming out from Polly Duplock, Jon Rogers, Sean Kingsley (whose sexy legs are pictured above), Andy Law, and Pete Thomas’ students on the Innovative Product Design course at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design in Dundee. The student’s degree show site is still up, so you can check that out to see just how cool their work is this year. It would be hard to pick a favourite I was most looking forward to seeing again, but Andy Ross’ “Bone Project” may be the one.

Interestingly last time Richard and I were up at Dundee (for the degree show) we had a chance to see lots of the first and second year’s work so we know that the next few years will be interesting too. For example here’s a book of cut out folding picnic crockery from Jacqueline Frary.


Another stand I was really looking forward to seeing was the work from Brunel‘s Multimedia Technology and Design course. It’s been my final year this year as their external examiner so I had the chance to see some of the work from the students there. Again there were several I was really looking forward to seeing again. Jason Peacock‘s video to Josh Pyke’s “Fill You In” is superb, and I couldn’t wait to see how Chris Wilmot had reduced his immersive VR positioning system to fit in their stand at New Designers! But the project I was most looking forward to getting into again was Rukaya Johaadien‘s “Impressionism

Rukaya riffs off impressionism, looking in particular at their fascination with water and with how a scene changes with the passage of time, the changing of the seasons. Rukaya hacked the Wii remote and built a digital brush that paint through a video of her local canal so that future frames are revealed as the brush strokes. Beautiful work, reminiscent of Hiroshi Isii‘s I/O Brush. If you are at New Designers do hunt this project out.

There’s lots and lots more that I’d have loved to have caught up with. Anglia Ruskin’s book illustration work is always fantastic. But I started this post talking about my new found focus, so I should stop blogging and get back to visualizing books 🙂