Monday, December 15, 2008

"Designs of the year" that ignore over 50% of the economy

This is a posting about categorisation. It concerns the seven categories created for the Designs of the Year award which are: Architecture, Fashion, Furniture, Graphics, Interactive, Product and Transport. There is no category for services, which constitute a significant part of developed and developing economies. "Services" is of course a problematic term, an artefact of economic categorization that is perhaps too big to be useful. And it can be tricky to distinguish between where a product ends and service begins when you look at something like a car or a plane, where the servicing of the object and financing of the purchase may turn out to be more significant economically or in the mind of the consumer. As some management academics have suggested, the services category is everything services are not and that doesn't get us far.

But despite the problems with the "services" category, I could not help wishing there was one when I looked at the designs proposed for awards. It's great to see the Design Museum shifting its awards from individuals to projects, bringing to public attention many interesting projects in diverse fields of activity. The list of nominees is now public. But the choice of categories, I would argue, matters because it shapes the conversation about how and where design matters. As Bowker and Star (1999) showed in "Sorting Things Out: Classification and its Consequences", classification has important consequences for individuals and for society.

In Designs of the Year, service design consultancy Engine's work with Kent County Council on the Social Innovation Lab comes under graphic design, for example. Within the transport category, there are excellent, possibly world changing projects which include services wrapped around objects such as the San Francisco charge spot for electric cars. One of the entries (which I found in the booklet I picked up at the museum, but not on the website) - Streetcar - which was designed by consultancy live|work, does not mention them as its designers.

My objection to these categories is that they serve to privilege and continue the object-centred way of thinking about design. Yes, you could say it's still the way of thinking of design that dominates design education. But Richard Buchanan's ideas of design thinking (1992), Victor Margolin's product milieu, Elizabeth Shove et al's Practice-Oriented Product Design and Guy Julier's Design Culture all point to different ways to think about design.

Image from Designs of the Year website project by Engine (used without permission)

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