Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Object Practices in Design: CRESC conference, Manchester

With Nina Wakeford (Goldsmiths, London) and Laurene Vaughan (RMIT, Melbourne), I organised a panel for the annual conference (1-4 September) of the ESRC Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change, in Manchester. The conference title - "Objects - What Matters? Technology, Value and Social Change" - offered, we thought, an opportunity to consider the transition in design theory and practice away from objects at a time when social science is increasingly paying attention to them.

Panel: Object Practices in Design

This panel addresses two moves: the shift within design from attending almost exclusively to objects, towards users and stakeholders in their engagements with objects; and the shift within social theory away from societies and people towards objects. Attending to objects, in particular their form, has been central to design theory and practice since the emergence of a modern discipline of design. For Alexander (1962), designers were makers of form. Designers were concerned with how to create the right form balancing form and function and his contribution was to propose a systematic rational method to get to the right form. Then, discourse about design moved from a focus on the outputs of design to a generalisable "design thinking" (Buchanan 1992) which could be applied to nearly anything. For Buchanan, designers' problems were ill-structured or "wicked" (Rittel and Webber 1973) and their solutions could take form as signs, objects, environments or systems. The emergence of design problems at the intersection of humans and digital technologies spawned new ways of thinking about design especially an increasing focus on "users". User-centred design, interaction design and experience design all decentred the object in design with ethnographic and participatory practices entering design discourse - even if activities in many design studios and design schools looked and sounded remarkably stuck on the forms of the new digital objects. Krippendorff's (2006) recasting of design as human-centred formalized a theory of design as being about stakeholders and the meanings they create through interacting with objects, even as social theories were paying increasing attention to objects and less to meaning.


Beyond design thinking: Design-as-practice and Designs-in-practice
Lucy Kimbell, Said Business School, University of Oxford

Recent publications by scholars, practitioners and government bodies claim that design, or rather design thinking, has the power to stimulate or drive innovation and transform organizations and even societies. But the term “design thinking” is confused and the literature on which it is based is contradictory. This paper contributes to understanding design activity and its effects by reviewing literature and identifying problems with the concept drawing on theories of practice in sociology, science and technology studies and organization studies. It proposes an alternative way of conceiving of design activity, without privileging the work done by designers, by attending to the practices of others involved in constituting design outcomes. Introducing a pair of concepts – design-as-practice and designs-in-practice – to replace design thinking solves a number of problems facing researchers in design and management. The paper’s contribution is to make an explicit link between design and social science in order to advance understanding about designers’ work and value creation.

Design and Affect
Laurene Vaughan, RMIT University, Melbourne

This paper will discuss the relationship between design, the object and affect. Typically, but not always, objects are designed to exist in the world of human habitation. Objects are designed, modified, adapted and adopted by people as part of the everyday experience of living; and just as objects are “designed” by people, it can also be said that people are designed by the objects of their world. Through a particular discussion of the phenomenon of dress the intimate relationship between people and material culture will be explored.

The Model and the Object
Nina Wakeford, Goldsmiths, University of London

Based on research amongst experience designers, this paper discusses the origins and use of the ‘experience model’ in design practice. Often a graphical representation, the experience model is understood as a way by which knowledge can be passed between user-centred researchers and the designers. Drawing on theories of the work of visual representations in Science and Technology Studies (e.g. Henderson’s On Line and On Paper, 1998) this paper discusses the way in which the model might be said to constitute an object within design practice, rather than an intermediary stage in reaching the object. Looking back at the history of one design consultancy which pioneered such models, the paper also reflects on the ways in which models work as aesthetic objects, and the challenges this poses to STS thinking about visual representations.

Discussant: Guy Julier (Leeds Metropolitan University)

When I have the other papers, I'll post them here.

About the image: A photo of architectural models taken with permission at the marvellous 4-d modelshop in London E1

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