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.

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