Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Counting creativity

Guy Julier (Leeds Met) and Liz Moor (Middlesex) have convened a research project called Counting Creativity, whose first workshop was held at the Design Council's offices in London last week, bringing together academics and practitioners. The project investigates the growth in practices of accounting, routine organization, systematization and measuring in design studios and companies.

In their introduction to the event, they wrote:
"In recent years, design and, by extension, branding, advertising and design in the built environment, have been increasingly subject to these effects, both internally in their working practices and externally in their evaluation. No doubt this reflects many wider trends in society, but it’s particularly interesting where creativity and systemization actually meet head-on in the design industry. Everyone in creative fields has a view on this. However, we are interested in finding out why this has come about, analyzing what are its effects and considering what can be done to improve design processes."

Hearing first hand from people working in commercial studios (such as an ad agency) or in public sector museums (such as the V&A) brought to life these questions. If designers now have to account for their time in six minute chunks (but actually create a week's worth of data on Monday mornings), how does this make us think about which bits of their work are "creative" and which are not?

In my presentation, I talked about projects in which I undertook unauthorized versions of such practices of evaluation and measurement, for example my book Audit and collaborative project Personal Political Indices (Pindices) with sociologist Andrew Barry. I used these to raise issues such as: being attentive to how these practices are embedded in networks of relations; how data is produced, not gathered; and how data production is tied up with data representation.

I argued that design companies do not have to take an uncritical approach to evaluation and simply reproduce established (and now challenged) practices and procedures drawn from management. Designers might even see the drive to account for their creativity as an opportunity to (re)design such artefacts, building into them the ambiguity and not-knowing which are essential parts of the design process.

Monday, January 15, 2007

New contexts for design

A few days ago I participated in the International Design Principles and Practices Conference, organized by Common Ground (Australia) and held at Imperial College London. In contrast to other academic juggernauts I've attended, this one was pleasingly small and intimate, with an international mix of people from different backgrounds including interior design, engineering, interaction design, design theory and quite a few people from business schools.

I particularly enjoyed two papers, both giving design a refreshing and welcome critical social science treatment: one by Guy Julier from Leeds Met and one by Monika Buscher from Lancaster University. Guy's paper drew on practice theory (such as Harvey Molotch's Where Stuff Comes From) to explore end user motivations enacted through their practices - a perspective which does not often appear in design research or education, as far as I know.

Monika described some work from a larger (100 person) interdisciplinary research project in palpable computing in which she is undertaking ethnographic field studies of how landscape architects work. Informed by Science and Technology Studies, Monika's work is drawing attention to how "the design is negotiated with all the human and non-human agencies" (my notes) in the way these architects go about their work.

Both of these contributions for me raise questions about the intentions of designers, the design process and how it should and can be undertaken and managed. Both provide ways to move away from the historical preoccupation with objects and to pay closer critical attention to the ways people engage with objects and the contexts in which they do so.

The keynote by Ken Friedman, whose teaching and research bridges design (at Denmark's Design School), management (at the Norwegian School of Management) and the arts (artist and founder of Fluxus), shared the fruits of his interdisciplinarity. His articulation of ten challenges for designers was also a statement of the challenges facing entrepreneurs and people in organizations whether in the non-profit, or for profit sectors, given contemporary questions such as climate change, AIDS and poverty.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Reviewing design in 2006

The last few weeks have, as usual, seen the British newspapers I read conduct their reviews of the year and previews of the year ahead with lists and rankings, recommendations and tips. As usual, there were no informed discussions of design practices and outcomes. Indeed design was mostly invisible, although discussed in some papers within distinct categories such as fashion, architecture and consumer electronics/gadgets. Entangled with consumption, design artefacts are the only things you get to read about in these newspapers - as long as you can buy them and put them in your home, on your desk, or on your body. Within the arts pages, in contrast, film, books, visual art, theatre, dance, opera and music each have their critics and commentators discussing not just outcomes but also the contexts of production.

The problem is of course that everything has been through some kind of design process, so a review of design for 2006 might end up being a meta-list. But even if we limited ourselves to the kinds of things taught and researched at design schools and looked for a national discussion of these in the broadsheets, we still find the major UK media outlets keeping silent about design.

I wonder if - hope that - this might change over the next few years. The UK University and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) has just published its figures for acceptances onto undergraduate programmes. The BBC's report on this is worth a read: in second place for 2006 is "design studies" (below law in first place and above management studies at four). Part of the reason, the BBC reports, is a desire for degree-level studies that relate to vocations and professions. But perhaps it's also possible to read into this a desire on the part of these new undergraduates to develop their knowledge and understanding of how the world is designed and how they might into a reflective, informed discussion about their own designing practices. Or it could be that all the DIY makeover programmes on TV have given them visions of future success as future interior designers...