Fictional Functions and Functional Fictions
TROIKA: How are artists and designers in this book pioneering a new approach to how technology is thought about, its function and its role in our society.
D&R: At the time of writing, a design trend is emerging: design exhibitions of big shapes; expensive shapes; impressive shapes. Some people like them, some people don?t. Sometimes they look like chairs or tables, but not always. They are extensions of designers? egos. Often labelled 'Design Art', they are art without the art. It feels like the end of something, the slow motion implosion of a formalist approach to design that has dominated furniture design for the last part of the 20th century.
These mute, autistic objects radiate ignorance of the world around us, they're apolitical and content free.
But design/art doesn't have to be like this.
This book contains designs for the 21st century: embryonic, complex, challenging, fresh. They move beyond obsessions with shape, form and material to embrace behaviour, interactivity and our internal worlds on individual and mass-scales. They are both art AND design and full of content.
Products are the currency of today's consumer society, they surround us, shaping and mediating our experiences, dreams, fantasies and desires. Five to ten years ago many of the product ideas expressed in this book would have been fake products connected by cables to a boxes of electronics sitting behind a nearby wall. Making installations was the main option open to artists and designers exploring technology's functional and aesthetic potential. Now, at last, designers and artists can prototype actual products even if only as one-offs, narrowing the gap between experimental design thinking and everyday life. This has become possible due to recent technological developments that make prototyping more accessible and affordable -- the availability of new prototyping systems like Arduino, coding languages like processing, advances in wirelessness, 3D rapid prototyping and the possibility of fabricating low cost PCBs in China.
But the most important thing about the projects in this book is that they are fully engaged with the world around us -- socially, politically, culturally, and technologically. They are deeply human, challenging, meaningful and reflective. They are issue-based rather than purely formalistic. And they offer a refreshing alternative to narrow corporate visions of the role technology could play in our lives.
TROIKA: It seems to us that most of the designers and artists in this book follow an experimental, subjective design process. How does this transpire in the end result?
D&R: Each project is a testament to the impossibility of the possible. They offer up richer experiences and embody values far broader than those available in existing mass-market products. Yet although nearly everything in this book could be mass-manufactured, they are unlikely to be. They remind us that the reason many experimental designs are not taken up for mass-production is less to do with technical and economic feasibility and more to do with difficult content that challenges the status quo.
TROIKA: Do you think they participate in creating richer, more complex products?
TROIKA: What do you believe is their relevance?
D&R: They provide a space where new ideas about how we interact with each other, technology and culture can be tested, presented, and communicated -- a parallel design chanel or genre dedicated to ideas. In them, we catch glimpses of how things could be if industry was a bit more imaginative and in tune with how people actually are.
TROIKA: Designer as Author: How does it work?
D&R: Every product is authored. Without design authorship product development is driven purely by economic and market forces. By assuming authorship designers can subvert this process. Subjectivity is commonly understood as a bad thing in design, understandably so when it so often results in self-expression and egomania. But being an author is not about ego, that?s an old fashioned view of authorship, it?s about a designer being involved in the definition of values that are embedded in an object. Questioning the implications of ideas and ideologies locked into the operation of a product. With electronics we are not simply talking about form and visual aesthetics, but the function of the product, and what it allows us to do and what it prevents us from doing.
Just like literature, authoring does not have to mean the reader assumes a passive and uncreative role. As many of the projects in this book demonstrate, there are lots of ways of designing that allow for interpretation and creative misuse: abuser-friendliness rather than user-friendliness.
TROIKA: What is the benefit of it?
D&R: Humanisation. Authoring ensures human content. The designer as author is an advocate for all that is human, messy, contradictory, and irrational. Without it we get pure technology, marketing and economics.
TROIKA: What is Critical Design?
D&R: Critical Design uses speculative design proposals to challenge narrow assumptions, preconceptions and givens about the role products play in everyday life. It is more of an attitude than anything else, a position rather than a method. There are many people doing this who have never heard of the term critical design and who have their own way of describing what they do. Naming it Critical Design is simply a useful way of making this activity more visible and subject to discussion and debate. Its opposite is affirmative design: design that reinforces the status quo.
Design as critique has existed before under several guises. Italian Radical Design of the 1970s for instance, was highly critical of prevailing social values and design ideologies, critical design builds on this attitude and extends it into today?s world. Some relatives are:
TROIKA: What questions does it raise?
D&R: It's not just about asking questions. It's main purpose is to make us think. But also to raise awareness, expose assumptions, provoke action, spark debate, and even entertain in an intellectual sort of way, like literature or film.
TROIKA: Why today?
D&R: The world we live in today is incredibly complex, our social relations, desires, fantasies, hopes and fears are very different from those at the beginning of the 20th century. The role technology plays today in shaping our experience of everyday life is unprecedented. Yet many key ideas underpinning contemporary design practice stem form the early 20th century.
TROIKA: Why is critical design interested in technology?
D&R: Society has moved on but design has not, Critical Design is one of many mutations design is undergoing in an effort to remain relevant to the complex technological, political, economic and social changes we are experiencing at the beginning of the 21st century. Rather than speeding up the entry of technology into everyday life, we need to reflect on its impact and ask if we even need it. Critical design is one way of doing this.
TROIKA: Is critical design only an academic exercise or do you think its outcomes could/should enter the mass-market? Is this important at all?
D&R: Although fundamentally academic, there's no reason its outcomes cannot be mass produced, it is not anti-industry nor anti-mass production, it's a strategy that places emphasis on combining content and aesthetics, it can be issue-based, awareness raising, or thought provoking. These can be a product's sole function or they can be combined with other levels of use, purpose and meaning.
TROIKA: Do you think designers have to develop fully functioning prototypes or be limited by available technology?
D&R: Dogma is the problem not prototyping.
If you are designing for now, for today, then it is essential you build your idea and test it. If you are designing for the future, prototyping the future if you like, then probably not, at least not in the way we think of usually, we can simulate and fake experiences instead. It's important to ask what needs to be tested, and why, then think of the best way of achieving it. This could be by making a fully working technical prototype, but not always. Scenarios are prototypes too, for testing a vision. So are videos.
'Demo or Die' is a dogma. The belief that technical prototyping is the only way of developing an idea quickly becomes a problem when it prevents designers from engaging with technologies beyond their level of ability, budget or means. The result of this dogma for people without the luxury of a lab will always be small scale, craft-like objects: a form of digital craft. There's nothing wrong with this, but sometimes we need to turn our attention to problems and ideas that are bigger and more complex than we can handle individually or make ourselves, these skills are important too.
Designers shouldn't let the fact we can't build working prototypes prevent us from engaging with emerging technologies like bio- and nanotech. Just because we can't get our hands on these technologies (yet) doesn't mean we shouldn't get involved with them.
TROIKA: Why do you think technology companies do not produce designer items, or hire individual designers as much as furniture companies do?
D&R: Although there seemed to be a moment in the 60s when electronic products -- radios and TVs mainly -- were embraced by the furniture world and briefly became vehicles for aesthetic experimentation, today, electronics are not really viewed as cultural artefacts in the way furniture and clothing are for instance, but as disposable objects doomed to rapid obsolescence. This book is full of examples that show this does not have to be the case.
TROIKA: In a world saturated by functional objects, and gadgets pretending functionality, do you think that creating objects that address more psychological needs, being intricate ones or mere entertainment, is the only way forward to sustain production and ensure market leadership? In this case, could we witness a systematic exploitation of psychological weaknesses of the consumers?
D&R: Addressing new or neglected psychological needs is definitely one way forward. Gadgets already do this and that's why they are so amusing and interesting. A look through any gadget catalogue paints a fascinating portrait of modern life and what it means to be human today. All our fears, anxieties and obsessions are manifest in wonderfully strange products. Now if only they were beautifully designed!
We're very interested in the difference between fictional functions and functional fictions. The former is what we get everyday -- functional products that meet fictional needs. The mobile phone is a perfect example, we don?t need half the functions it offers us, They are pure fictions created to sell more bandwidth. On the other hand, many of the projects in this book we would describe as functional fictions. They do not exist as 'real' products, but as prototypes, semi-real, fictional, but these fictions are highly functional and the needs they address, although often intellectual, are real and genuine.
TROIKA: What challenges do you think face this type of art and design in the near future?
D&R: To not get stuck in a 'digital art/design' ghetto, which could easily happen if designers and artists continue to define their identity in relation to particular technologies: new media design, digital design, computer art, bio art, nano art, interactive art. Designers working in this area have excellent experience of dealing with the trickiness of design for new technology and making it relevant and meaningful to peoples? daily lives. We need to continue to embrace new technologies, apply our learning to them, and learn to feel comfortable moving across different technological platforms. The end of the 20th century was a small- scale rehearsal for more complex challenges facing us in the 21st century. The designers and artists in this book are perfectly positioned to help achieve technological futures that reflect the complex, troubled people we are, rather than the easily satisfied consumers and users we are supposed to be.