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Minimal machines and status differentials

QuicKutz Epic 6 diecutter and embosser with letterpress extension.

QuicKutz Epic 6 diecutter and embosser with (in foreground) letterpress extension.

Recently I was up at the Institute of Cultural Inquiry (of which I am a longtime Associate), where I discovered that the ICI has acquired one of the tabletop die-cutters that have become popular in the last few years. This particular model comes with an insert that turns the die-cutter into a small letterpress printer. As one can tell both from the machines themselves—usually plastic and often cast in ‘feminine’ colors like pink and aqua—and the blogs where one finds information about their use (Not Another Craft Blog, Paper Pile Kitten), they are associated almost entirely with those activities that are currently designated as crafting. That is to say, the unimportant, largely unpaid leisure activities of women; the modern descendants of Victorian flower-pressing and hair jewelry. As Lilly observed in an earlier post on DIY, crafting is often cast as the opposite of design, and it’s also often cast as the opposite of technology and skilled work generally (never mind the facts).

What I wanted to talk about here, though, is not so much the problematic social status of crafting itself, but two specific aspects of the circulation of these kinds of small machines. The first might be thought of as a variation on the network effect. Traditionally, letterpress printing and die-cutting have been highly skilled occupations, and their products—hand-printed wedding invitations, small-run artist’s books, high-end PR materials with elaborate cutouts—have largely been luxuries for the well-to-do. The limited market has, in turn, helped to keep the industry small and operating under an almost guildlike mentality. So what happens when thousands of these machines get into the hands of untrained or semi-skilled individuals? Quality of output will initially go down in many cases—at least until the process of education-by-internet takes off—but public appreciation of letterpress printing and die-cutting goes way, way up. Two niche trades rather suddenly become part of a much larger arsenal of broadly practiced design-and-making techniques such as papermaking, woodworking, photography. And as Julia Lupton pointed out in a dialogue with Lilly, you never know what can come of “having access to tools that will help you shape your outlook in dialogue with other people, in ways that might not be predicted.” As with other downsized or simplified technologies—small cameras, for example—it is easy to view these small machines primarily as technological downgrades. But when I think of all those people out there experimenting with their tabletop presses and diecutters, what I see is a field of cultural potentials.

The second aspect of these machines that strikes me is how clearly they reflect the strict partitioning of the larger internet conversations about ‘new’ technology. The sites most associated with geekery, like boingboing or slashdot (not to mention all those ad-supported geek blogger-reviewers), are quick to parse every tiny iteration of the iPhone operating system or the latest inkjet printers. Many of these changes are really minuscule in their practical effects on users and form part of a larger pattern of hyping anything in the computational sphere. DIY technologies get some mention, but almost exclusively in their male-centric forms (think robots and 3D printing of nerdish objects). The development of small, hand-cranked die-cutter/presses whose early adopters include a lot of scrapbookers? Not interested.



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Viagra and design thinking, technologies of agency?

I can only assume that media planners figure IDEO fans are men. That’s my guess from watching the recent 60 minutes profile of IDEO’s David Kelley (several times…research!). The first time I was presented with a Viagra ad, which I’ll return to in a moment. The second time, an arthritis ad featuring golfer Phil Mickelson. Both ads directed me to Golf Magazine for more information and then let me move on to my Charlie Rose interview.

The interview profiled IDEO co-founder David Kelley and his Palo Alto company IDEO. We learned about the importance of diversity in breakthrough creativity — anthropologists, computer scientists, mechanical engineers, and business people, almost exclusively (it so happens) white, get together and talk across their domains of professionalized knowledge and liberal and technical educations. Not the only definition of diversity out there, but one to watch out for. Diversity doesn’t actually mean people from different class backgrounds or different social positionalities here. Diversity means people educated in different ways, but educated well with the “creative confidence” to meet the toughest challenges.

Kelley then tells a story of working on an early Apple mouse with Steve Jobs at Apple. The two became good friends, Kelley tells Rose.  Kelley on Jobs:

Kelley: “He would call me at 3am!”

Rose: “At 3am.”

Kelley: “We were bachelors so he knew he could call me. Right? So he’d call me at 3 o’clock, ‘hey it’s Steve.’ At 3 o’clock, I knew it was him. He’d just start, ‘you know those screws we’d use to hold those two things on the inside?’ He was deep!”

This story caught my ear as a story of creativity, as a story of economic production, and a story of masculinity. Kelley and Jobs are bachelors so they can devote their every moment of consciousness and responsiveness to the possibility of a creative project — here, the mouse. And in a world where collaboration is the key to creativity, there are no family accountabilities (women for Jobs and Kelley, though it need not be heterosexual I suppose) to fetter the creative feedback loops and produced momentum of brainstorms and productive development.

The story reminded me of my time working at Google. I went home for the evening once to find that my 23-year old teammates had made big product decisions while rock climbing together the night before. When I argued we should make big decisions at a more inclusive time and place, the product manager retorted “What? You want us to control when we come up with ideas?”

Romantic creativity and radical inclusivity seem irreconcilable here.

The Viagra commercial running with IDEO feature, viewable on YouTube, was itself a call to masculine confidence and creativity. The ad is called “The Age Where Giving Up Isn’t Who You Are.” The ad shows a grey, dusky solitary beach and an attractive, blue-eyed, aged man trying to start a fire. The wood is collected and piled, waiting for the spark. He pulls out his lighter, the manufactured and engineered tool for the job, and tries to flick it on. A part falls off of the head. The man looks slightly frustrated. “You’re at an age where giving up isn’t who you are. This is the age of knowing how to make things happen. So why let erectile dysfunction get in your way?” The protagonist goes to his toolbox, grabs a wood-paneled and brass pocketknife, and strikes the knife against the rock to spark a flame. His creative confidence meant that he didn’t give up in the face of technological failure. As soon as he lit the fire, a darkened tent 30 feet away lights up revealing the silhouette of a woman spreading out a bed on the ground.

The beneficiary of the fire on many levels?

So what does the masculinity have to do with IDEO? There are lots of women at IDEO, though I’m not sure of the percentages, so this isn’t a population representation problem. Rather, the masculine narratives we hear through these design stories (and the stories of ingenuity that associate themselves with design) often feature men, often feature heroes, and often feature the power of the idea as something that creates broader value absent of the labor or consumption it requires. Hence someone lighting the fire with creativity, and the wood burned is just found on a beach open for the taking and the labor of the knife is irrelevant. Hence a hero story on 60 minutes telling the story of a Steve Jobs and David Kelley as charismatic leaders and gurus with a lesson about thinking and caring creatives as the path to solutions, actual labor of change nowhere to be found.

What kinds of agency are recognizable here? And why are other kinds of agencies suppressed, hidden, or without consequence?

See also: Spacejump is about male enhancement for another cut through the question of technological progress and human agency

where Talk is not just talk

index of Harlan Ellison Talk page on Wikipedia, June 17, 2013

I’ve been thinking about an emergent aspect of my Wikipedia use that almost inverts the software’s intended design. That is: I’ve started to use Wikipedia’s Talk pages as if they were extensions of the articles themselves, especially for pages with controversial content. In some cases, I’m even finding the material on the Talk pages more informative and reliable than what ends up on the official page. The reason for this is that the public pages tend to carry only what a group of self-selected and often partisan editors can agree on; in addition, pages must meet Wikipedia’s own standards of neutrality and verifiability. Thus a lot of pages slowly morph towards the kind of pablum that public relations flacks generate. Since value judgments are frowned on, contextual analyses tend to get squeezed out in favor of a laundry list approach to any given subject: X did this, and then she did that, and then she did this other thing. What this means is that if you really want to get any kind of handle on a subject, you have to delve into the page history and the inter-editor discussions of the Talk page.

I first noticed that this had become a reflexive habit a while ago when I followed a series of links on sexual harassment, computer games, and science fiction and ended up on science fiction author Harlan Ellison’s Wikipedia page. There is a subsection on that page about controversies Ellison has been involved in, including an incident in which he groped a fellow science fiction author, Connie Willis, during the 2006 Nebula awards. (There is a YouTube video of this.) I immediately turned to the Talk page, knowing there would likely be a discussion about whether that incident should be included in his page and how it should be handled, and maybe also some indication of the larger context in which it took place. With luck, I would find out more about both the incident and Ellison himself, since he’s not a writer whose work I know well—and his Wikipedia page is an excellent example of the laundry list phenomenon mentioned above. Talk is where Wikipedia wants content discussions to happen, and the result is that Talk is where a good deal of information ends up that is not yet sourced and where the arguments over meaning and context occur.  As it happened, there wasn’t much more about the Willis incident, though there was a good deal more in support of the general view that Ellison is a petty and vindictive person with sociopathic tendencies—some of which has since been excised from the Talk page through a neutering process that parallels that of the main page. (The page on Ellison currently frames him as “abrasive and argumentative,” a phrase that hardly covers groping a colleague.)

If journalism is the first draft of history, then Talk is clearly intended as notes towards a first draft of Wikipedia. But like journalism vis-a-vis history, it has the unfiltered—or at most semi-filtered—quality of all primary sources, making it equally valuable and suspect. Andrew Leonard has an interesting recent post on the editors who use Wikpedia to pursue private vendettas, and Talk is one of the places where that kind of social engineering is most visible, because Talk is as much a contest over desire and between competing agendas as it is over content. Wikipedia—unlike its predecessors such as Encyclopedia Britannica—wants to pretend that knowledge equals facts minus interpretation. The shadow encyclopedia that is Wikipedia Talk shows up the naivete of that approach.

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With Boobies

I originally thought I would title this post: “Does Anyone at the New Yorker Actually Know How to Read?” but decided that was slightly too inflammatory. But I’m still baffled at this 2009 post, which I recently stumbled on over there:


It’s not the article itself that’s the problem—that at least is a readable and informed look back at the British physician Alex Comfort and his landmark 1972 book The Joy of Sex. The pretext for this article is the release of a new edition of The Joy of Sex, and there’s a good deal of ‘then and now’ stuff in it, leading up to the predictable conclusion that The Joy of Sex has been largely supplanted both by its own success as an educational manual (“What was revolutionary in 1972 seems obvious now”) and by the internet, our collective library of erotica and porn past and present.

Along the way, author Ariel Levy rightly criticizes The Joy of Sex for its—how do I put this without using words like heteronormative or phallocentric?—well, for what she flags as “the feel of a penis propaganda pamphlet.” She goes on to mention the “feminist alternative” to Joy of Sex, the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective’s Our Bodies, Ourselves, which was published a year before The Joy of Sex. Together and separately, these two books changed the terms of debate about sexuality in America by directly attacking the culture of misinformation surrounding it.

And this is why I’m still scratching my head. Here is an article written at a moment when women in America are having to refight many of the very same issues of the 1970s that prompted these two books—control over one’s own body, right to abortion, freedom from reflexive victim-blaming in rape cases, normalization of plastic surgery, to name just a few. And even as the author clearly respects The Joy of Sex as a mass education project, she also calls out Comfort for his various blind spots (homosexuality, for one). So what is the thumbnail image that accompanies this essay? In case you skipped right over it as one so often does with this kind of graphical window dressing:

Yep. In close-up. You might almost say, objectified.

I recognize the style: it’s either a Tom Wesselmann painting or a pastiche of one. I’d guess it’s the latter since reverse-image look-up doesn’t lead to any other versions of this image on the web other than those leading back to the New Yorker. And even more because the image itself is both uncredited and unlinked.

Wesselmann made his name as a Pop artist in the 1960s with a series called “The Great American Nude.” Here is a Wesselmann painting from that era that give a sense of his signature style:

Tom Wesselmann, “Bedroom Painting 2”, 1968

Feminists have long had a problem with Wesselmann’s work—the eyeless, supine naked women, the fixation on erogenous zones and detached body parts. At the very least this thumbnail is a puzzling choice to accompany an article about two books whose goals included, among other things, helping women to stop seeing themselves as a bunch of body parts intended solely for male pleasure. Way to undercut your own essay, guys. (Unless I’m missing some kind of twee irony here, which I certainly hope is not the case.)

So this is how I found myself wondering about the reading comprehension of the website’s art designer—or perhaps, this being the New Yorker, there is actually an entire Department of Thumbnail Iconography that makes these decisions at weekly closed-door meetings. Whoever it was, I suspect they may have leapt on this one sentence as the key to picking an accompanying image:

The Joy of Sex redux becomes generic—Cook’s Illustrated with boobies.”

With boobies, indeed.

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adventures with a scrap artist

Illustration of Louise Brigham's box furniture for "Ladie's Home Journal", 1910.

Recently, in the course of preparing an exhibition in Los Angeles, I stumbled across an early 20th century designer and teacher named Louise Brigham. I’d never heard of her, and I’ll bet you haven’t either. She turned up in a hundred-year-old copy of the Ladies’ Home Journal, which probably isn’t high on anyone’s reading list. In it was an article by Brigham entitled “How I Furnished My Entire Flat from Boxes.” The accompanying illustrations showed rooms filled with early-modernist furniture, strikingly more austere than either the conventional furniture designs of the day or the then-avant-garde Mission and Prairie styles being popularized by Gustav Stickley, Frank Lloyd Wright, and others. Brigham was inspired in part by the rectilinear designs of the Austrian architect Josef Hoffmann, but her work has a raw simplicity that won’t surface again until the 1930s, in the ‘crate furniture’ of Gerrit Rietveld.

A living room ca. 1900.

But what really startled me was that all of the furniture was built out of recycled packing crates—the soap boxes, canned-corn boxes, and gelatin boxes that would otherwise have been tossed on a scrap heap. Brigham had, in fact, designed an entire program of such furniture and published a book about it the prior year, entitled Box Furniture. In this book, she gives not only plans for a hundred different pieces of furniture, but also instructions in basic carpentry and color schemes for entire rooms.

Gustav Stickley plant stand, 1900.

Unlike most design in any period, Brigham’s book is aimed squarely at working people of very limited means; her intention was to bring both practical skills and advanced design to those who might otherwise not be able to afford either. She wrote Box Furnitureat a time when the average American worker earned less than $400 a year and a single piece of new furniture could cost a week’s wages. Brigham went on to furnish her own New York apartment almost entirely from box furniture, as a kind of model and advertisement for her system, at a total cost of $4.20.

Gerrit Rietveld crate stool, ca. 1934.

She also proselytized for her system widely in Europe and the United States, and she built a number of pieces into settlement houses, as she was an active champion of the settlement movement. She founded a workshop for teaching basic box-furniture carpentry to boys (and later girls), the Home Thrift Association; it had its first headquarters in New York’s Gracie Mansion. I was intrigued by what seemed an early appearance in the United States of an ethos of sustainability in design and wondered why I hadn’t heard of Brigham. Perhaps I had come across her and just forgotten? But when I went to google her, I discovered that very little has been written about her since her heyday, apart from a tiny handful of recent articles that argue for her as a pioneer of sustainable and affordable design. She did not even have a Wikipedia page. She does now, because I wrote one for her.

Louise Brigham's design for a quadruple desk.

I got so interested in Brigham that I dug out the contemporary newspaper articles on her, and I got a copy of her book (it’s also available as a PDF download from several websites, including Google Scholar). Working from these sources and two fine articles by Larry Weinberg and Jessica M. Pigza, I’ve reconstructed as much of her life as I was able to in a little over a week of digging, but huge gaps remain. I’m working on filling in some of the gaps, because the questions that occurred to me when I first saw Brigham’s work are still unanswered: What kind of person was she? What was her family background? What kind of art education did she get? Why did she not become a professional designer to the well-to-do like her friend Hoffmann? Did her ideas directly influence the De Stijl designers, and if so, how? How did she get involved in the settlement house movement? And most of all: how is it that this visionary spirit has all but disappeared from the historical record?

Louise Brigham, Wikipedia entry

Louise Brigham's Wikipedia page

Box Furniture received a good deal of initial exposure; it went through several editions and was translated into a number of foreign languages. It is one of the earliest design projects to incorporate the idea of modular or sectional units and to organize an entire program around both social and aesthetic objectives. It is a direct precursor of today’s do-it-yourself and sustainable design movements, as well as of consumer-assembled kit furniture such as Ikea produces. Yet none of Brigham’s work is known to have survived, and her box furniture project is all but unknown today, barely rating a footnote in the canonical story of 20th century furniture design.

The reasons for this erasure deserve closer examination, as part of the larger story of women’s role in the history of art, design, and technology. Right now, there are too many gaps in the story of her life to draw secure conclusions. So I invite anyone who knows something of Brigham to contact me, or to add to her Wikipedia page. And everyone in the Los Angeles area is invited to visit a small exhibition about her work that I’ve created—in tandem with another writer, Ruth Coppens—at the Institute of Cultural Inquiry. Entitled Evidence of Evidence,  it will be up until March 30th. (I’ve written a bit about how that exhibition came about here.)

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What we don’t talk about when we talk about design

Objectifying from Lilly Irani on Vimeo.

I made a version of this video for a Delhi public photography exhibit called Blow Up. It is based on ideas that Kavita and I have been talking about for a while. I will avoid captioning too much, but I’ll say that I’m reminded of Donna Haraway’s reminder in When Species Meet that we are all in “differential relations of dying.” This is my first foray into video production so I’d love discussion — constructive feedback, tips, and thoughts on film as a medium for critical academic output.

Cartoon We

In an idle moment the other day (yeah, I really shouldn’t admit to having those in academia), I loaded into my Firefox an add-on I found on Facebook called MyWebFace that promised to let me make a cartoon image of myself.

An aside: I might add that I found this app only because I was searching the Facebook ad board looking for an ad that I would be willing to  ‘thumbs up’ to appear alongside my page. Not only did I find no such thing, I discovered that Facebook now does not allow users to ‘thumbs down’ an ad. Possibly this is my fault, since I relentlessly thumbs-downed (down-thumbed?) dozens of ads in my first weeks on Facebook, hoping to help skew the ad pool toward public service ads and away from shopaholic ads (the bulk). It always gives you a good feeling as an adult citizen of a republic when your options are: you may approve of this, or you may approve of this.

cartoon-meBack to MyWebFace. It’s set up as a kind of simple Identi-Kit, allowing you to construct your face from mostly predictable parts: noses, eyebrows, lips, etc., all of various shapes. Size, color, and placement of most objects can be adjusted. After I was finished, I ended up with what you see here. Anyone who knows me will see that this is not a good cartoon of me; the reason for this lies in the kinds of choices the software gives—and just as importantly, withholds. Eyebrows, eyes, and mouths come in a fair range of shapes (not enough noses, though). Skin color is wide open– a matter of picking from a palette of millions of shades.

For face shape, however, you appear to be stuck with a default upper half of the face and a modifiable chin. Result for me: entirely wrong face shape. (Oddly, you can choose various kinds of ‘blush’ for your cheeks, as if that is more important than basic face shape.) In addition, the general body type is  too skinny for me and not modifiable (this head shot is a detail of a full-length image). Hair style: no options match my admittedly idiosyncratic style. Accessories: no glasses frames match the ones I wear. Hair accessories and hats: nothing matches what I wear; the earphones were the best option because I use them when playing online games. Clothing: nothing really matched in the limited choices, largely because almost all the clothing styles skewed at least a decade younger than I am. In general, registering aging was not an option. You can make your hair all blond/red/brown/black, or all gray, and nothing in between—no one in MyWebFace’s world is grizzled. There is one pane for wrinkles, but they’re so lightly drawn and weirdly thought out that they don’t make the face look older so much as scribbled on. Basically, you can’t make yourself look older than about 25 with this software (or to be fair, much younger either; no kids need apply). Can you say target demographics?

Filippa HamiltonCoincidentally, as I was halfway through writing this, I stumbled on the image below over on boingboing.net, in a post rejoicing in the wonderful  title “Ralph Lauren opens new outlet store in the Uncanny Valley.” They credited a favorite site of mine, Photoshop Disasters, where the image has since been made to disappear by a DMCA-wielding Ralph Lauren; see this Huffington Post entry for a similar threat against boingboing. Ralph Lauren has admitted to their “poor imaging and retouching that resulted in a very distorted image of a woman’s body.” Yet model Filippa Hamilton was fired by Ralph Lauren last April; she says they told her she was overweight. So fashion logic has finally created the inevitable impasse for itself, in which the cartoonized emaciation of this image is “very distorted” but a 5’10” model weighing 120 lbs is “overweight” (although one might want to take models’ claims about their height-to-weight ratio with a grain of salt; given the constraints of their job, they have every incentive to modify this figure to gain professional advantage.) In other words, at ground zero of the American female body image, the concept of “just right” has at last shrunk to a complete null set.

My reason for making this post, though, has less to do with the general problem of body image than with the propagation of this cartoonization through software—through Photoshop, which allows it (but does not require it; you can just as easily make yourself fatter and older in Photoshop), and MyWebFace, which actually requires it. What has previously been reinforced through consumption of media created by others, we are now made complicit in reinforcing through the software we ourselves use and the objects we ourselves make.

Tweaking Technocapitalism: Turkopticon

I’ve posted about Turkopticon here before. Well, it’s up, it has undergone a rev, and it has some users we don’t know who seem to like us. I wanted to talk a little bit about what is at stake in it.

For a long time, I’ve been thining about infrastructure and technology design and, in particular, how certain designs (in certain contexts) end up giving certain people the crap end of the stick. As of late, my friend Six and I have been spending our spare nerd cycles on a particular case of this: Amazon Mechanical Turk, which lets workers do cognitive piecework usually averaging a dollar or two an hour. The low wages, the lack of health protections in a “work environment” (the computer) that has caused my arms and wrists much pain over the years, and the exuberant excitement many have for getting the faceless “crowd” to do work so cheaply were my initial cause for concern. As I started to survey Turk workers about their experiences, workers reported little protection from employers who don’t pay and low wages as big problems. I heard from workers who did Turk after their main jobs to make food and rent when gas prices were high. While I don’t have the power to regulate AMT or radically shift market dynamics at the moment, Six and I put our heads to the first problem of employers who take people’s work and then don’t pay.

So we made Turkopticon, a Firefox extension workers can use to access ratings and commentary of employers/requesters as they browse for HITs (“human intelligence tasks” and an unfortunate acronym). Turkopticon isn’t revolution — it’s not going to fix the fact that jobs are increasingly contingent, that health care costs are insane, and people have fewer good choices about how to make their livelihoods. But it’s a start at drawing attention to an information imbalance that has been letting some requesters abuse people. It’s something that can make us ask why Amazon didn’t design these informational safeguards in to begin with. And lest we think the traditional lines of employer v worker are simply drawn, Dolores Labs provided critical support and feedback. We started off as an empty database asking workers to install our extension, but there wasn’t much for workers to see. Dolores Labs put up a survey for us and got a hundred or so reviews of requesters that formed the seed of the database, motivated in part by their desire to resist Turk being spoiled by crappy employers. (I’ll probably post most about this in future posts.)

Is it just about Mechanical Turk for me? Not really. I see AMT as an dystopian extreme case of a the increasingly contingent, low paid labor I’ve been seeing creeping up for years.

Jobs aren’t a great way to make a living these days. A few trends that disturb me. The practice of hiring temp workers on a mostly permanent basis so that they can be denied health benefits and other perks took Microsoft to court and even got its own neologism: permatemps. The largest employer in 2/3 of US states, Walmart, pays barely enough for a full-timer to make ends meet, claiming to only provide “supplemental income.” About half of a those filing for bankruptcy in a 2005 study cited medical debts as a main cause [pdf source]. Livelihoods are precarious for a lot of hard working people.

People frequently argue that those working for these low wages have a choice. As one person I corresponded with explained, “I realize I have a choice to work or not work on AMT, but that means I would also not need to make the choice to eat or not eat, pay bills or not pay bills, etc.” The thing we need to worry about is not only what choices people make, but what choices people have. Not all jobs are available everywhere. Not all people are equally able to move. Not everyone can afford a solid educational foundation. Not everyone even gets their knowledge and wisdom equally recognized and respected. People do have choices, but some have more choices than others.

Turkopticon is just a little Firefox extension, but for Six and I, it’s also forcing us to think about a lot of issues in labor and politics that we just don’t know enough about, but which have consequences around us every day.

Thanks to Dolores Labs, the 67 turkers who shared their experiences, and those who have been using Turkopticon and reviewing already.

Politics and Practice of Designing it Yourself

The most recent issue of Ambidextrous is themed “Getting It On.” As part of a issue largely themed around desire, sexuality, taboo, intimacy, and kick starting things — Ambidextrous chooses intentionally ambiguous themes — I wrote about what’s at stake in DIY design. The article is written in conversation with Julia Lupton, co-author of Design it Yourself: Kids, design-your-life blogger, and Shakespearian expert extraordinaire.

We try to explore some of the boundaries that get reiterated and defended distinguishing “real” design from what people do in everyday practice. I’ve heard some designer colleagues half-joke that the role of a designer is to save people from themselves — a need evidenced by flashy MySpace pages that are the modernist designer’s equivalent of eye cancer. One interaction designer expresses some of these anxieties in a post about participatory design techniques. Prominent design critic Steven Heller does the same in an interview with Ellen Lupton. At stake are the professionalism of designers, the individual as a innovative author, and the specialness of creativity. After all, if everyone is creative or capital-d-designers aren’t the only ones crafting elegant, clever solutions to everyday needs, what then is the role of the Designer? If designs are recognized as emerging through participatory practices and reappropriation in context by mere “users” (“artful integrations” and “articulation work” as Lucy Suchman might call them), then who should really deserves credit for those big design awards?

Often cast as the opposite of design, I suspect, are crafting, decoration, tinkering, and collective wandering. Design by committee is held up as the mediocre opposite of Jobsian master vision (though historian David Turnbull counters this idea when he argues that Europe’s great cathedrals had no single master planner or vision). This debate has gendered dimensions as well. Crafting, engineering’s opposite figure, is often gendered feminine: take Make: magazine’s sister magazine Craft: as evidence.

Julia and I explore these issues in greater depth in “The Practice and Politics of Designing it Yourself” »

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Geospatial Information Design or Journalism?

I’m at a Microsoft Research event called Social Computing Symposium that brings together researchers, designers, writers, and strategist types for what amounts to a two day mutual teaching session. One of the focuses of today was locative media and the mood among the audience was optimistic and excited about all the things that can be possible in social computing if we show the right data and don’t violate people’s privacy.

O’Reilly’s Brady Forrest gave a presentation on the future of locative media. In general, the talks were optimistic and inspirational, but there was this strong sense that the brainstorming was coming from very specific locations — tech-enthusiast, Western professionals.

The location struck me at two points during the presentation. The first was when Brady claimed that we’d be doing less of looking up profiles on the web and more of seeing World of Warcraft and military video game-style overlays of information over people. We’d see information about the places we’re occupying on our mobile device. Throughout the talk, the information focused on focused on the consumption and peer sociality. All good, well, and fun for people like me.

But it did get me wondering what kinds of blind spots recur in our imaginings of locative media. When a mobile device tells me about the place I’m occupying, why can’t it show me labor complaints and relations in the area? Pollution in the air above? Traces of pedestrians at different times of day? Voter participation rates?

We ended up having a discussion of critical geography at lunch where designers and researchers hashed out some of what’s at stake in curating particular kinds of “data” and placing them in an information display. Designer Matt Webb had worked on several London maps projects, including crime maps and consumer map startups, and faced these sorts of decisions first hand — what kinds of information about a crime ought to be accessible off of a map? Anthropologist Thomas Malaby pointed out how in the 1970s, London police had created a category of “street crime” to encompass both muggings and protests, effectively cordoning off particular parts of the city as dangerous and improper for the average Londoner, giving a compelling example of categories can be intensely consequential for and shaped by social interests. Ubicomp designer Mike Kuniavsky asked what might happen if certain geospatial information is only visible to those who occupy the “represented” space with their bodies, pointing to an experience of map reading that hadn’t occured to me and that seems to force contextualization.

One of my big takeaways from the breakout was the importance of language in shaping our design imaginations in this space. When discussants talked about information and data, they talked about it as if it was out there, in the environment, as a matter of fact, and that people generally had a right to have it available to them. Here, the rhetoric is of information design and visualization — putting it out there for indeterminate uses. In reflecting on his experiences in mapmaking, Matt reframed the work as journalism, describing the work of designing data maps as one of telling a story with data. Describing the work as journalism and storytelling invokes a reader, framing, and a professional code of ethics that, while imperfect, is more than engineers and information designers have.

What happens if we reframe design as storytelling and choreography? What happens if data is described as a story, with values and messages encouraged and discouraged, if not determined? (Interestingly, James Clifford describes how anthropologists have done much to separate their practices from those of journalists.) While professionalism certainly has connotations of classed and, in some cases, gendered behavior, it certainly seems a step ahead of a free-market “vote with your dollars” mechanism of design that might end up having the effect of narrative or policy.