Posted by Grit | June 21st, 2010

Raksha: My initial attraction towards Interventions Project was a result of a hobbyist interest in design and modern art. With the project’s focus on initiating and encouraging a dialogue between social science and design practitioners, it seemed like an ideal opportunity to further this interest. I am also concerned with looking at the different ways of visualising and presenting my PhD research. This is not just to make it accessible to a larger variety of audiences but also to learn about the knowledge making exercise at large. My interactions with Grit, a communications designer, have helped me to turn a self-critical eye towards my claims as an interpreter and author in scholarship that is partial to the written word.

Grit: My interest in the Interventions project is rooted in the dialogue with social science. I am very excited about the process of the Interventions. Overall I feel that too much valuable knowledge and understanding is buried in academic drawers.

As a communication designer I am interested in engaging with people in various stages and levels, involving my skills to visualise complexity, making abstract thought tangible, emotionally engage, inform and uplift. I am looking to put greater emphasis on the process and exchange of thought, skills and knowledge.

Meeting and working with Raksha, a social scientist and human geographer, has been eye-opening in many ways. Her insights have been enriching and every meeting inspiring.

For me the value and beauty of combining expertise knowledge and skills – in our case those of social science and design – is to create knowledge and understanding and new experiences.

The dance-sketch (kaleidoscope)

The process

Raksha: We began our project by initiating a dialogue through emails where we exchanged examples of our work. This involved sections of my PhD thesis and Grit’s design portfolio with samples of her work and exhibits. The actual dialogue only began in the three day work shop at Newcastle University where we finally got to meet.

This was marked by some intense discussion ranging in themes from our common interests to our lives as migrants in Britain. It soon became clear that we did have some shared interests however what was more difficult to grapple with was what is it that we wanted to present as part of the project. Defining and sharpening the focus was the most challenging part.

I discovered that I am conditioned and regimented by my disciplinary background to a much larger extent than I had realised.

We drafted some four ideas as potential research projects. They are all united in themes dealing with the dynamism inherent in identity positions. Our focus was more inclined towards exploring this in the case of migrant identities which was also part of my PhD research.

Grit: The initial exchange of work, sections of Raksha’s Phd thesis and samples of my design work, via email formed an interesting starting point before we first met in person for a three day workshop. I was very intrigued. My initial worry about a conflict deriving from my clichéd western-eyed view on the problematic involved in arranged marriages turned into a fascinating dialogue on the active nature and dynamics of traditions and identities, focusing on South-Asians in Britain.

The overlaps of interests we’ve discovered along both of our previous work were very exciting and I enjoyed our conversations. I was fascinated by the beauty of the words Raksha was using to build her arguments. Amongst very complicated terminology Raksha uses beautiful visual words with great poesy, ‘lens’ being one of them.

Even though our approaches are quite different the parallels we found asking the question: How do we create knowledge together? are fascinating. We looked at our methodologies – Raksha, as social scientist and myself as communication designer, bringing up the following basic steps of our general process:

1. All starts with something capturing our interest or imagination, followed by a question: what is the impact?

2. How do we translate this interest into a research – design project? What are the questions rising up around this interest subject? We are looking to find out more and to define the aim and objectives for this project.

3. How do we find answers?

We define: the framework – the medium and style. In Raksha’s words we are defining the lens to focus or magnify. The lens is picked by the assumptions we have, by our knowledge and how we gained our knowledge & our believe systems. We are borrowing existing theories – designs to understand and than explain. From there we can go further to explore and tap into new territory and to create new theories – designs.

4. We collect data:

In the form of interviews, observations, diaries, drawing, by being in their everyday life (= ethnographic research), by visiting according places, observing habits, patterns, colours, movements, materials, (visual references) – the methods are united by the idea that we learn more about the subject.

5. What translates the raw data: into a thesis – into a design?

What is the organizing device that helps us to create a story that speaks back? We are coding the raw data – putting TAGS, Memos, highlighting words; grouping elements to their features, filtering layers of materiality, structure, pattern, symbolics, colour, defining the visual key that opens the doors, leading us to the hook that pulls all details and holds the red thread

6. What is the output? Here we realize the biggest difference:

For Raksha, a social scientist, the output will ‘always’ be something to read. Her visualization will be in the form of words with the expectation for people to make an effort to read. Her construction of knowledge is geared towards something written.

For me, as a designer, the output can manifest itself in a number of forms and medias, Always choosing the media that best supports the purpose, brings the best experience and be most engaging. It will always be something visual and to experience.

The aim and objective might change in the process.

Great excitement turned into great struggle defining our focus in what we wanted to present as part of this project. This was by far the most challenging part. We were looking to create something that stands and lives in the exhibition context, and also forms a potential base for further explorations. It’s been exciting to explore and find ‘common ground’ together.

We drafted four ideas as potential research projects. All evolving around the active nature and the dynamics of hyphenated identities and evolving tradition with the focus on South Asians in Britain,  informing and shaping our exhibition piece.

Patterns and directions (Bricklane, London)

Idea 1

Inviting the concept of arranged marriage into the western culture, highlighting that arrangements and practicalities are part of any partnership and so part of love marriages as well as love and romance can be found in arranged marriages – at the same time visualising the complexity, the multi-layered and also problematic nature of this practice.

Idea 2

What are our tools? (to live and to make sense) — the tool of our origin & the tools of the culture we chose to live in? This looked at visualising the significance of context in making meaning when it comes to cultural symbols and ‘tools’. It also ties in with our interest in material cultures and their significance in inventing traditions.

Sketch: Shiva, a major Hindu deity, and the transformer of the Trimurti, the Hindu Trinity of the primary aspects of the divine, holding western style cutlery, knife and fork (instead of trident and drum)

Idea 3

This was focused on how boundaries and barriers within the discourse on multiculturalism in Britain can be re-visualised through the framework of invented traditions and fluid identities. We assembled our conception of barriers into:

a) barriers that we cannot cross

b) barriers that we can cross

c) barriers that we can change.

The idea here was to highlight the point that identity positions are subjective and reflexive. A willingness and open mindedness on our part will define what ‘type’ (a,b or c) a barrier is and to what degree it can be crossed or negotiated.

Tape sketch collage pattern using British and Indian national flag colours

Stencil photograph by akav, Copenhagen

Red-white barrier tape.

Idea 4

Which role does language play?

Looking at the role of language, as coding system, to transmit information and define the way we think of ourselves and the world, the future, the past, the present. Ideas, structures, barriers are inherent in language. We think of developing symbols that brought together features from the Roman and Devanagari script, conveying the idea of cultural hybridity and Homi Bhabha’s conception of ‘the third space’.

Bi-lingual signage

Image 11: shop font signage

The Indian Type Foundry (ITF) attempts to give as much attention to Non-Latin as to Latin fonts. Their first typeface project is Devanagari. Fedra Hindi, a Devanagari companion to Fedra Sans – by Peter Bilak & SN Rajpurohit of The Indian Type Foundry.

Sketch: ambersand, hyphen, Devanāgarī’s distingtive horizontal bar as icon of cultural hybridity.

Exhibition Piece

Finally, all these ideas were feeding into our exhibition piece called Crossing boundaries: Barriers danced. It employs the metaphor of dance in order to highlight the interstitial passage between fixed identity positions.

The exhibition piece focuses on active engagement of the audience in the theme, and the dynamics of migrant hybrid identity. The subject can be experienced with the efforts, tensions, joys and struggles involved in the negotiation and evolution of migrant identities. The dance is an experience and tool rather than a passive observation.

Our dialogue and ping pong in developing the exhibition piece, even though we missed a few balls in between, was very inspiring and interesting. Our final chosen dance-style references the traditional bamboo dance “Cheraw”, from Mizoram, India.

(you tube)

Bamboo dancers, Philipines

Discussed cultural symbols from Britain und India forming the patterns in the footprint, examples: fish’n’chips.

Rangoli* photograph in Hampi India by Paul Prudence

*A rangoli is a traditional Indian chalk drawn geometric pattern. These complex symmetrical patterns are constructed by connecting a matrix of dots in a systematic way. They are usually drawn on the front veranda of Indian households.

After watching several clips of the traditional “Cheraw”, we were ready to sketch out and test the dance steps.

Posted by Joe | June 17th, 2010

Cate: My interest in participating in Interventions is two fold. As a social anthropologist, I have sought in my work to explore ways in which everyday expertise can be celebrated and also to find ways in which to explain why and how social science matters. Ethnography, my research method, is arguably a way of seeing and perceiving the world. It is a way of recalibrating one’s own perspective and orientating instead via the worldviews of the people that the ethnographer is working with. I am an ethnographer, a social anthropologist, and most recently I have been working with British gardeners.

Plot with flowers and vegetables growing

Gardening is not simply a neutral set of practices or a past-time – it is a set of practices and form of knowledge that is also embedded in highly significant social, cultural and historical parameters. Celebrating the supposedly mundane, such as gardening, for the rich cultural set of practices that it is is one way of bringing my two objectives of celebrating everyday expertise and finding ways to explain why social science matters together. Interventions struck me as a unique opportunity to collaborate with colleagues who are also interested in horizontal thinking, interested in shifting perspectives, and in engaging with other disciplinary traditions.

Initially, I wasn’t sure what to expect but I do remember wondering before I met her how Michiko and I would be able to talk about our interests across disciplinary divides – what would our shared language be? Would we find one? Michiko then sent me the link to her web portfolio and I was intrigued by how similar our interests were and also by how beautiful her design and art is.

Michiko Nitta:

I aspire to achieve beauty in my writing, but it felt much more tangible in her design work. When we had our first meeting, we spent an initial block of time walking and describing our respective research interests and research methodologies. I brought some examples of material culture from my gardening research (one, a beautiful gift that had been made for me; others were historical photos; and some of my writing) and we looked at some of Michiko’s portfolio of previous design work (especially her Extreme Green Guerrillas). This exchange of stories and sharing of artefacts really set fire to both our imaginations.

Some of the ‘material culture’ of Cate’s fieldwork

We then began brainstorming different possible design collaboration scenarios by trying to identify a shared problem that we wanted to address, and settled on troubling expert knowledge and on beginner gardeners. Getting to design ideas was easier than I had imagined because ultimately it wasn’t an object per se that Michiko wanted to build but rather a process of opening up opportunities to question and challenge that were more important.

Throughout, I have been astonished and delighted by how similar our perspectives and understandings are. We may work in different ways, but we are both deeply motivated by similar fascinations with the social and cultural worlds in which we live. One of the biggest differences I’ve noticed is how we organise our thoughts. I must write and take notes; Michiko needs to draw along with writing short words:

Michiko on left, Cate on right

More of Cate’s organising scribbles

Michiko: My initial purpose in joining Interventions was to widen my range of experience in my design portfolio. I also wanted to move away from mundane ways of working and normal methods in design by collaborating instead with social scientists. By doing so, I wanted to challenge myself to develop meaningful design outcomes, rather than just a visualisation of data.

During the first brainstorm session on the first day of our work together on Interventions, I was impressed that we both are interested in creating poetic stories to engage with the public, even though the method or outcome might be different. Every time we have met, I have been inspired and excited by Cate’s stories and thinking methods. This in turn has helped me come up with proposals for research design outcomes. I was also astonished with the emotional experience Cate goes though with participants as an anthropologist, and found out how “real” her research outcomes are. As a designer, this resonates very much with me because I believe that designers should be designing for real publics, not for some idealised (but perhaps non-existent) persona.

As an outcome, I originally wanted to design some sort of concrete object. However I realised that neither of us wanted to just produce something for the sake of it and end up with a shallow concept. Instead, we both seek to extend our collaboration relationship beyond Interventions. This made me think instead about how we could develop an exhibition piece which inspires the audience to join our project, rather than just produce something as a passive installation. Gradually, I started to feel more comfortable ending up with research design outcome rather than concrete design solution.

Browne, J. 1996 “Botany in the boudoir and garden: the Banksian context”. In: D. Miller and P. Reill (eds) Visions of empire: Voyages, botany and representations of nature. Cambridge: CUP.

We talked a lot during that first day about gardening in Britain: the social relationships expressed through gardening, the relationships gardeners have with plants that express more than a simple metaphorical connection between humans and non-humans, the ways in which plants are described and explained in everyday gardening practice, and the historical context of flower and vegetable gardening in Britain. This interconnectedness between human and non-human realms gave us a lot of food for thought…an example of this is the 18th century illustration (above) that Cate brought in to share.

In all the ferment of excitement over exchanging ideas about our research (and discovering all their points in common), we were also working during that first day to a strict time schedule. We needed by the end of the day to begin articulating concrete directions to our work together, and to present these to the rest of the group. One way of finding a shared language was to pull key themes out of our discussion and to map them. Some of the results of this are shown below in the figure with all the post-it notes…Working in this way (reviewing ideas by talking together whilst simultaneously drawing them down in icons and then sticking them to a larger sheet) was Michiko’s suggestion and forte, and not something Cate had done before (nor something she was sure she could do!). However, from Cate’s perspective, drawing rather than writing ended up being extremely liberating. It made a potentially difficult situation of figuring out what we were going to do much more enjoyable, and helped us both find a way to represent our delight at the great potential our collaboration promised. The project ideas were only just germinating at this point, and over the next few weeks we kept exchanging revised and polished versions of how to bring them to life, such as in the final image below.

Posted by Joe | June 6th, 2010

Alison: My motivation for getting involved in this project stems from my research on the geographies of UK military airspaces. Firstly, I am increasingly drawn to the idea of using visual representations to illustrate the complexities of the airspaces that I am researching. Having a tangible image or object would enable my work to be more approachable and easy to engage with for people without the knowledge-base otherwise required to understand the complexities of the spaces which I talk about. I am excited by the prospect of developing a project that would enable me to materialise these imagined spaces. Secondly, and related to this, I want to be able to provide a means by which my students can engage with the complexities of the airspaces that I teach them about. Finding different media with which to enthuse my students is central to my teaching rationale. I am hoping the project enables me to achieve some of these goals. I also hope that through discussing my work with a designer and developing a joint project on these invisible spaces my perceptions of how these hidden spaces can be articulated, represented and enacted will be challenged.

Nelly: I am a designer, interested in how we can use design and science in our everyday lives to make them more thrilling, creative and passionate. My work is about forming collaborations with experts, scientists and amateurs; it aims to ‘adapt science to our creative needs’. I enjoy pushing the boundaries of design and science through performances and installations. My practice involves visiting scientific sites (laboratories, Cern, offices, etc) to inspire me to build artefacts and experiences to facilitate and encourage surreal interactions between audiences and scientists. However, in the Interventions project, this interaction with the key subjects of the research (military aviators) was unachievable, which created new challenges. I was very intrigued by the challenge of making invisible spaces visible to a broad audience, to make the pilot expert knowledge more widely accessible to non-experts and illustrating the performances that enact airspace.

We began our collaboration by Alison sharing her research with Nelly, sending her written work and transcripts of interviews with military pilots and navigators. From this Nelly identified several key phrases that could inspire a design proposal. We discussed them and over the course of two days developed three ideas to take forward;

Brief 1 – Activating airspace
Context – this idea focuses upon the relationship between an airspace expert and amateurs in order to illustrate a ‘second nature use of airspace’ manifesto. The project will ask questions about the choices about access to airspace, and questions whether it only exists when aircraft are in it. This proposes an activism/activating of the airspace – a mechanical imperialism and develops a focus upon an augmented reality which is enacted through the aircraft. This work seeks to consider hybrid aircraft, redefining aircraft through considering the mechanical and the body.
Methodology – this project will use toy aeroplanes to illustrate the questions of where airspace is, how airspace is enacted by aircraft, and how we might affect choices about the production of airspace.
References/notes: Thomas Hirshorn, use of windfarms, Bermuda triangle, white noise, Panamarenko, Maywa Denki, Film Survive style 5+ …

Brief 2 – The Theatre in the Air
Context – this project thinks about how airspace is a performance, how the movement of aircraft physically enacts airspace. It uses both natural and mechanical theatre to explore the performance and performative aspects of airspace. It will be poetic in nature.
Methodology – this project will use actors and a theatre set, with curtain, as a stage for the performance. Some people will take the role of directing aircraft from the ground. The stage curtain will also play an important role in illustrating the vertical dimension of airspace. This project may take the form of a film.
Reference – Girl in the House film, Miyazaki-The castle in the sky.

Brief 3 – Crafting Airspace -“that’s a great piece of air!”
Context – The idea behind this brief is to produce a piece of work that illustrates the ways in which invisible airspace can be rendered visible through an illustration of the way it is crafted as such. It considers whether we can tailor airspace to our own needs, thinking about how specialised airspaces are invoked for certain activities. It will consider the value of airspaces, incorporating what might be termed a ‘vertical economics’.
This approach brings notions of lived spatiality to the fore and uses a variety of materials to creatively challenge airspace and its use. What if we could colour clouds? It also focuses upon the idea that you could book (or buy) pieces of airspace, perhaps the airspace above your house or favourite landmark?
Methodology – this uses materials, such as wooden planks, to illustrate the borders of airspaces. Other ideas include illustrating airspace through the use of coloured clouds to visualise the invisible. This project could take the form of some sort of physical representation of the different uses airspace can be put to. It might be a board game or map.
This project will use ‘vox pops’ interviews to generate a list of different uses that pieces of airspace could be used for. Ideas might include ‘setting off fireworks’ or ‘sky-painting your name’.
References: 9 red arrows, wood models….
Nelly conducted some experiments with these ideas, using a ‘messy process’ approach to develop them and to discover their potential. We discussed these and decided on a final project.

Final Brief – Airspace activism

This project seeks to bring together two seemingly disparate aspects of airspace knowledge and usage to disrupt our traditional understandings and un-awareness of airspace and to promote questioning of how airspace is controlled and used by the military and how we as individuals might take back that control.
During the early years of aviation aircraft flew at a relatively low altitude, over houses and other buildings en route from place to place. However, especially in the US, laws existed that gave land-owners ownership of the entirety of the vertical space above the footprint of their house and land, including the air. Stuart Banner’s excellent book describes the problems that unfolded for aviators and owners who became locked in battle over access to these spaces and whether payment for their use was due.
More recently, wind farms have become contentious within the UK over recent years. Environmentalists either protest their construction in areas of natural beauty, or cry out for their erection to reduce our dependence of fossil and nuclear power. However, the military has another reason to dislike wind farms; they create no-go zones in the sky through their production of radar white noise, preventing pilots seeing where they are going and so requiring them to divert their planned routes.

This project takes this concern with wind farms forward, proposing an activism approach the focuses upon the idea of being able to activate your own airspace though the deployment of a personalised wind farm, which would prevent aircraft flying over it. This creates a form of mechanical imperialism, through the enablement of the control of individual air spaces. The project involves the creation of both the wind farm and an audio locator that amplifies the sound of an aircraft engine, thus developing a focus upon an augmented reality which is enacted through the enabling of the wind farm owner to hear an aircraft at distance and erect the wind farm in time to prevent the aircraft flying overhead.

The process of creating the ‘airspace activism’ project has been incredibly intense and challenging in many ways. Firstly, it was fascinating to talk about ideas about making airspaces visible and how we could blend academic ideas with design practice. Our final project is a joint effect, honed from ongoing conversations, practical experiments, and sharing information at every step. The project aims to question one aspect of the research is a clear, yet innovative way, to inform and hopefully stimulate discussions on the hidden geographies of UK military airspaces.

Posted by Joe | June 6th, 2010

After months of orchestration, of filtering through fantastic applications, of passionate conversations and lengthy peregrinations, the Interventions project is now in full flow.

As attention now turns to what the outcome might be, this article swims against the tide, so to speak, by covering the opening workshops that ran from the 28th April to the first day of May.

In the run up to the project, participants were encouraged to openly communicate with their teams online. Designers sent portfolios and described the design philosophy and methodology that underpins their work. In return the social scientists supplied their research material for discussion; papers, interviews, notes, photos and video were extended.

This process prompted lively interchanges of thoughts, insights, ideas and references and seemed to fuel anticipation for the project. Conversations sparked online fluently translated into face-to-face dialogue when the participants met in person for the first time during an informal ‘meet and greet’ inauguration on the 28th April. The room soon filled with the hum of convivial conversation and pencils scribbling in sketchbooks.

Formalities commenced soon after as the group moved downstairs to attend a seminar session, hosted by Monica, that saw Nina Wakeford and myself present the interconnections between social science and design within our respective disciplines. The details of these talks can be found in the previous post, here.
The social gathering that followed saw designers and academics describing impressions of the experience so far, speculating on what role design might play within the context of their research, sharing knowledge, stories and personal histories. As many of the designers had travelled from outside Newcastle, the opportunity was seized to walk through the city to a restaurant where the conversation could continue. Wonderful food was consumed and we ran through the schedule of the events planned for the forthcoming days before people made their way home and the designers found their way to the hotel.
For the workshops themselves we booked a room high in the university named the Penthouse. It has a fantastic view across the city and felt like an appropriate place to hold workshops for projects that are intended to engage the public.

With the knowledge that the project participants would have very little ‘face time’ after these workshops we shaped the program around direct dialogue. This would be punctuated with sessions in which groups presented their progress to the group for feedback. Our guidance was restrained to how the conversations that have unfolded would be presented in those meetings.

We began by suggesting that people present the work of the people with whom they are collaborating rather than their own. The intention of this exchange was to avoid assumptions of knowledge being made and to encourage people to communicate in very clear language that crosses disciplinary divides. Also, at the point of delivery we hoped that people would mutually interrogate interpretation.

As time was short, summaries of information were the currency of the morning and the exercise appeared to bear fruit. The designers were delighted with the succinct presentations of their method and work, while the researchers appreciated having their research viewed through a very different lens. Each of the teams will write a blog post about their experience of the Interventions project, which will shed more light on the specifics of the individual projects, and experiences.

Following this we recommended each team focuses their afternoon discussions on creating a set of objectives for their projects. This could take the format of a design brief that identifies an area within the topic of research that the team feel would present an opportunity for design and set out criteria that will provide direction. Teams returned the following day to present the outcome of these discussions, which we documented through these films.

The principle underlying the workshop was to provide a reflexive format that adapted to the requirements of the teams while maintaining a structure that centred upon facilitating discussion. Interventions is about allowing projects to shape their own course rather than influencing outcome in anyway to suit an overarching agenda.

Rather than comment or describe the specifics of each project we have given all the teams access to this blog to contribute the story of their own experience and process. It promises to be interesting reading.

Posted by Joe | May 21st, 2010

The Interventions workshops opened on the 28th April with a seminar given by Nina Wakeford and myself. It is now online.

In this talk, I illustrate why social science has become an integral part of the design process and how it influences the way that some designers work. This is followed by brief examples of the ways in which some designers are turning creative attention in the pursuit of research itself.

Using examples drawn from the work of the designers participating in the Interventions project, with particular reference to their methodologies, I go on to suggest that there are new opportunities for syntheses between design and the social sciences. I use the beads project demonstrates an interdisciplinary collaborative process and describe how that experience fuelled discussions that lead to ‘Interventions’ today. I conclude the session by outlining the intentions of the Interventions project and what type of outcomes we might see.

Nina’s talk is currently being edited and will follow online soon. This is the abstract:

From Intel Research to Studio Sociology
In this talk I will outline the collaborative work with industrial partners that my research group INCITE has been developing since 2001. Beginning with a project which used the route of the number 73 bus in London as a way to understand technology and urban experiences, we have sought not only to question the way designers and engineers understand the social scientific study of new technologies, but also to challenge sociological ways of knowing and collaborating. One such collaboration, on which the current Newcastle workshop is based, was the pairing of sociologists and designers from the Royal College of Art. I am now developing of the idea of Studio Sociology, which looks to non-representational modes of working and doing such collaborations (e.g. installations, film, performance).

Posted by Joe | May 21st, 2010

Thanks to Alex Wilkie for the photo

In recent months, I’ve had the good fortune of meeting a number of people who have provided fantastic insight and advice on various aspects of the Interventions project. This post is just a quick nod to some of these people who gave up their time to help out.

Early in the research process I visited Nina Wakeford and Kat Jungnickel at Studio INCITE based in the Sociology Department at Goldsmiths College, University of London. The Interventions project reflects and builds upon ideas that were initiated during their INCITE/RCA workshops, so we discussed the possibilities presented by providing an open space for designers and social scientists to collaborate and how proceeding could be structured.

Lucy Kimbell and Nina Pope were instrumental in bringing the designers into the original workshops, so it was great to get their perspective on the makings of a successful collaboration and what we might expect from a project like this. Lucy also pointed me to some interesting work undertaken by Andrew Barry on the different permutations of collaborative process.

On a cold afternoon in south London I had a great conversation with Matt Pattison, Human Factors specialist, and John Curran, cultural anthropologist, at Matt and John, about the interwoven histories of design and social science and the distinct appreciations of acceptable ways for projects to conclude.

An evening interlude with Jack Schulze at BERG was spent discussing the ingredients that constitute a good design brief. And the following evening I managed to grab some time with Jess Charlesworth to chat about the role of social science in the future of design. Jess also described her experience bringing social scientist and designers together at Lancaster University.

Tobie Kerridge asked me to speak at The Objects of Design and Social Science, Design and Social Science Seminar Series at Goldsmiths. This provided a good opportunity to open the project up to an audience and the feedback was incredibly useful here too. Thanks.

Posted by Joe | April 21st, 2010

The Interventions project opens next week and we are delighted to be able to announce the designers and researchers who have been selected to participate. The lineup includes six members of staff from Newcastle University with backgrounds in social geography, sociology and social anthropology, each bringing a fascinating body of research to the project. They will be collaborating with design practitioners specialising in product design, communication design, interaction design, service design and architecture. Thank you so much to everyone who applied and showed an interest in the project, the standard has been fantastically high.

Research topic : Power and Cultural Heritage in the Andes

Ximena Cordova – PhD researcher in Latin American Studies
Ximena is completing a PhD in Latin American Studies at Newcastle University. Her thesis is focusing on the study of festive practices in the Andes, particularly looking at the case of Carnival celebrations in Oruro. Some of the key themes in her work are the performative, religion, hybridity, and different interpretations of heritage, particularly as a site of identity-making meaning. She is interested in how ‘the past’ is sometimes re-imagined as a means to forge political-symbolical capital in the present. In her research, she has used audiovisual means to convey her results and in this project she is hoping to explore further creative means for communicating her findings more widely, particularly, to the subjects of her research, the Carnival dancers of Oruro.
will be working with …

Rob Phillips – Product Design
Robert is currently a design consultant at the Goldsmiths Research Interaction Studio, a lecturer at the University of Sussex and visiting lecturer at Ravensbourne College of Art and Design. He has won a string of design awards and undertaken design projects for international clients and institutions such as Nokia, BBC, The British Council and Unilever and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Robert has exhibited and given talks internationally. He graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2006 with MA Design Products.

Research topic : Gardening knowledge and genetic modification

Dr. Cathrine Degnen – Lecturer in Social Anthropology
Catherine is an ethnographer, a social anthropologist, and most recently she has been working with British gardeners. In particular, she is interested in learning about gardening knowledge and practice as a way to navigate through the choppy waters of British debates over genetically modified food. Rather than consult the usual official and ‘expert’ figures (scientists, activists, people in the food industry, policy makers), she wished to ask instead about grounded knowledge: how do people with everyday knowledge about plants and about growing food make sense of genetic modification. Catherine will be working with …

Michiko Nitta – Interaction Design
Michiko is an award winning interaction designer who graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2007 with an MA RCA in Design Interactions. She has subsequently exhibited her work in the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York, the Academy Gallery in Utrecht and has lead projects at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. Michiko has a number of publications to her name, spoken at conferences in the UK, US and China and worked in close collaboration with a social scientist on a number of commercial projects. Michiko has expressed an interest in working with environmental issues, a key theme that has travelled through her work.

Research topic : Urban Memory and Nostalgia

Prof. Alastair Bonnett – Professor of Social Geography
Alastair is professor of social geography at Newcastle University. The research he brings to this project focuses on the large-scale movement of people away from the city and the necessity to connect memory, place and migration. This research will address issues of memory and myths of place amongst those who have left the city. It brings together a new body of work on nostalgia and memory with the study of counter-urbanisation and the use of city space. In this project he will be working with …

Dr. Catherine Alexander
Cat’s own research is centrally concerned with social justice through the development of radical empirical and theoretical approaches to youth, crime and the city. Feminist and participatory theory and practice inform much of her research on fear, violence and community safety; emotions and geopolitics; gender, youth, old age and intergenerational relations; and participatory geographies. Catherine recently completed her PhD at Durham University entitled “Assembling Fear, Practicing Hope: Geographies of Gender and Generation in Newcastle upon Tyne”.

Dane Whitehurst – Product Design
Dane Whitehurst is a product designer who has lectured on the BA Three Dimensional Design course at the University of Portsmouth, worked with a host of international clients such as Sony, Vodafone, Motorola and Bayer and had designs featured in a wide variety of publications.
Dane graduated from Central Saint Martins School of Art and Design in 2005 with a Masters degree in Industrial Design. Through his personal work, he sets out to creates simple objects that explore the potential of material form to question, and prompt discussion around, aspects of society and culture.

Research topic : Arranged marriage among the South Asian population of Britain

Dr. Raksha Pande – Geography
Raksha has recently completed a PhD at Newcastle University. Her thesis examined the motivations, performances and discourses of arranged marriage among the South Asian population of Britain. Her core interest is in the field of migration and ethnicity. She is also interested in the link between material cultures and expressions of belonging and identity. She will be looking to explore, through future research, the various ways in which material cultures, rituals and customs get interlinked in the project of ‘inventing’ traditions. She also maintain an interest in researching the different ways in which modernity and its discontents play out in the lives of people who have migrated from the South Asian subcontinent to the UK. Raksha will be working with …

Grit Hartung – Communication Design
Grit Hartung is a London-based communication designer who makes graphics and designs to emotionally engage, inform and uplift. She has previously shared a position with Alan Outten at the Social Computing Group at Imperial College London, contributed to several design publications and exhibited her work in the UK and in Germany. Grit divides her time between commercial work, for organisations, such as Troika, Design London and InnovationRCA, and more independently orientated work that explores themes of ‘form and transformation’. She graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2006 with MA RCA Communication Design.

Research topic : Illustrating the complexities of airspace

Dr. Alison J Williams – ESRC Academic Research Fellow
Alison Williams is working on a three-year programme of research entitled ‘The Geographies of Military Airspaces’. Alison’s main interests are in the areas of political geography and geopolitics. Specifically, she is interested in what might be called ‘vertical geopolitics’; analysing the role of aviation and aircraft in the projection of power across space. This interest has both historical and contemporary foci and, to date, includes work on the popular geopolitics of Pan American Airways’ trans-Pacific air route, the enforcement of Iraq’s international boundaries, and the use of UAV’s to secure the US-Mexico border. Alison will be working with …

Nelly Ben Hayoun – Experience / Interaction design.
Nelly is a visiting lecturer at Kingston University and the Dundalk Institute of Technology who has excellent experience of interdisciplinary collaboration, most recently with Imperial College London High Energy Physics Department as part of a project that took her to the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva. She has a graduated with an MA RCA in Design Interaction at the Royal College of Art in London and has exhibited her work at the Science Gallery in Dublin, Design Festa, Tokyo, International Design Biennal St-Etienne and many more.

Research topic : Educated subjects-objects. Promoting social inclusion in higher education

Dr. Yvette Taylor – Lecturer in Sociology
Yvette is interested in educational diversity, exploring the relationship between new equality regimes and continued educational inequalities: this interest combines her research and administrative responsibilities, extending to widening participation in the local community. In the Interventions project she hopes to create a wider public visibility in educational provisioning (i.e. ‘outreach’) to local communities, many of whom have a low ‘put-through’ to university. Yvette will be working with …

Ben Singleton – Service design website
Stuart Munro – Architecture website
Stuart Munro’s professional work combines architecture, sculpture and photography. He also teaches architectural design postgraduates in the AVATAR unit at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL. Benedict Singleton works as an independent design and branding research consultant with major public- and private-sector clients; he is also currently writing up a PhD on critical approaches to service design at Northumbria University. The pair’s design work has been presented in the UK, US, Canada, Japan, Korea and throughout Europe, and published in a wide range of academic and non-academic venues. Ben’s recent work includes an ongoing collaboration with Jon Ardern, ARK-INC.

Posted by Joe | February 20th, 2010

AlterFutures. Photo by Jessica Charlesworth

AlterFultures were kind enough to allow me to speak about the Interventions project at their most recent event. For those brave enough to venture out on a cold Thursday night, The Sense Loft provided a warm and comfortable backdrop for a gathering of scientists, designers and inquisitive forward thinkers.

Hosted by James King and Jessica Charlesworth, the event sets out to air and interrogate ‘design projects that question received expectations of the future and propose compelling alternatives’. A fascinating prospect that lined the Interventions project up alongside Mikael Metthey, who was encouraging us to think about the implications of a virus free future, and Nelly Ben Hayoun, unraveling the mysteries of Super K, an underground neutrino observatory in Japan.

In spite of the future-facing orientation of the AlterFutures events, my presentation opened with a step into the not too distant past. Five years ago, and a collaborative workshop between the RCA Interaction Design course, Goldsmiths and Studio INCITE, providing an opportunity for designers and sociologists to:

- be exposed to and make use of each other’s knowledge, skills, experience

- share their research and their ways of working

- reflect on how they research and what kinds of knowledge they produce from different ways of working

RCA/INCITE. Photo by Michele Chang

Monica and I were drawn to a particular line of inquiry within her research, to which we responded with the Colour Beads project, described here. We continued to push the project forward after the workshops and today the Beads or ‘Cuentas de Colores’ have been used as a campaign and educational tool within Mexico. They are now being produced by a women’s co-op Corazon Verde in Mexico and Monica has worked with social psychologist, Sol González Eguía and her organisation NAIA Centro de Desarrollo Psicosocial, to develop an accompanying workshop on everyday racism. We are now currently developing a manual to disseminate the Beads and the workshop amongst social workers and promoters.

If the intention of the original collaboration were to see what would emerge from an interdisciplinary engagement, it would seem feasible to argue that social scientists and designers can work together to create interventions that have a gentle, yet positive, impact on society. Deep, thoughtful, social insight coupled with creativity can make a potent cocktail. But can this be replicated, or extended further?

Monica and I have discussed the overlaps between social and human sciences and design for some time now. While there are a number of distinctions, our disciplines do share a common interest; we look carefully at ourselves and the world around us in order to understand, interpret and perhaps reshape. Some designers observe people to inspire them to invent products that will be used by vast swathes of the population, others are more interested in using their insight to create objects that encourage us to speculate about what type of future we might like to have (See AlterFutures). By the same measure, some social scientists use observation and interpretation to write papers that influence governmental policy, while others will attempt to remodel our perception of particular attitudes, events or phenomena. So, on the surface they may seem worlds apart but at the heart of all these things lie a union of people and critical thinking.

Around this time, we became keen to further explore the possibilities revealed when designers apply their knowledge and approach to the detailed and nuanced research undertaken by social and human scientists. An evolving synthesis of disciplines with a philosophy of ‘share’, ‘think’ and ‘make’ over a period of eight weeks. So, we submitted a proposal to Newcastle University and were offered the opportunity to move the project forward. Great!

Today, we intend to pair five researchers (Ph.D candidates and staff from the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences) with a selection of talented design professionals from around the UK and further afield. One can only speculate as to what kinds of collaboration will emerge and what the outcomes might be. In his paper, Interdisciplinarity and Society: A critical comparative study, Dr Andrew Barry puts forward three possible types of engagement. The first would be the forging of a ‘synthesis’ between disciplines, in which both parties act together to draw on knowledge and experience to create something new. Second, we could witness one act in the ‘service’ of the other, possibly the designer answering a brief that draws on an aspect of the social scientists research. Finally, an ‘antagonistic’ engagement in which both sides recognise differences in methodology and struggle to make a settlement. It is important to say that something can be captured and learned from each of these processes and we look forward to see what happens. We also hope to see some new ones emerge.

Events will culminate in a public exhibition at the Ex Libris Gallery, Newcastle University, capturing and demonstrating the films, physical objects, systems, services, etc. that have been shaped by the vision, ideas and expertise of the participating teams. It’s possible that these items will confront or support specific issues raised within research. Or maybe they will say something entirely new. Perhaps objects will provide a means of engaging the public with complicated social matters that they wouldn’t typically recognise or discuss.
As I look to the future, the path ahead has many branches. It’s difficult to discern where this journey might lead. But I’m looking forward to the next step.