Design Futures

AT the very end of 2010, Melbourne-based architect and researcher Rory Hyde brilliantly outlined various emerging models of design practice. Drawing on a proud legacy of design thinkers including Buckminster Fuller, Bruce Mau and John Thackara, he sketched out a range of strategies that architects might employ to expand their practices. After setting the stage, Hyde surveyed several new roles that he could see active within contemporary design: the community enabler, the visionary pragmatist, the transdisciplinary integrator, the social entrepreneur, the practicing researcher, the long-term strategist and the management thinker. These models clearly resonated: his post received dozens of sprawling and nuanced comments that considered its implications. 

Instead of writing a personal response to Hyde’s article, I thought it would be interesting to act as a community pollster and see how other multidisciplinary creative professionals would respond to some related lines of questioning. Hyde’s article was primarily focused on architecture; what happens when we expand the conversation to other fields of inquiry?  David Bausola (CEO of Philter Phactory), Iman Moradi  (creative director of Running in the Halls), Marius Watz (current MakerBot artist-in-residence) and Mason White (architect/resource logistics researcher at Lateral Office and InfraNet Lab) were kind enough to weigh in. Read on…

Current Intelligence: Of the several models Hyde identified as emerging modes of design practice, the category that seemed particularly applicable to the practices being consulted here was the 'Trans-Disciplinary Integrator'. This type of practice calls for the assembly of diverse teams of multidisciplinary practitioners who are then charged with developing new strategies for problem solving. Can you describe how this model relates to your practice?

Mason White: Having read Rory's piece, I was excited to see so many of the modes of practice he outlined hint at practices that are repositioning their relationship to the market. Architecture, my disciplinary grounding, has too often been a slave to markets, briefs, and the client. I think what we are trying to do at InfraNet Lab, through research, and Lateral Office, through design projects, is to pursue opportunities that reposition architecture's relationship to markets. If you excuse the generalization, Architecture, as a discipline, has swung between positions of autonomy and transdisciplinary modes wildly within the last 20 years, but there is considerable momentum now with the transdisciplinary. (And I think this is in part because of the proliferation of new formats of architectural theory and practice as facilitated and celebrated by the internet.)

I am sympathetic to Rory's "practicing researcher" and "unsolicited architect" as these are modes we have tended to employ, though often unconsciously. Part of what drives my work, is a deep anxiety that underneath architecture's dependence on brief and client, there lies a treasure trove of typologies, programs, and formats for spatial experiences that remain suppressed.

Iman Moradi: We have a framed screenprint  in our studio bearing the slogan "stay open to everything, you don’t have to specialise."  I think it epitomises what it means to be working in the creative industry  today, especially in small start-ups. There are design problems that have solutions, usually coupled with budgetary and timescale restrictions. Naturally, the course of production on these projects is peppered with seemingly insurmountable challenges that only a varied skill-set can bear.

To be successful, you need to continuously adapt studio skill-sets and be open to assimilating new techniques - remixing and adapting your existing know-how to fulfill project requirements. Bearing in mind, these project requirements may or may not shift as you’re doing the work, with content that may vary every step of the way.

Consequently, I think what all this means is that if you’ve invested too heavily in one area and are precious about methods, the ability to quickly adapt to the new requirements suffers.

There was this art-school dilemma we felt when we embarked on our journey: whether to specialise or generalise. But on the whole I think to be open to (and to excel at) interesting projects, you need generalists working alongside specialists, and you need to be able to effectively balance the challenges involved with unleashing flow; it's in moments of dilemma and tension that you arrive at really optimised solutions.

Marius Watz: In my practice as an educator I focus on helping designers to appropriate technology away from the engineers and computer scientists. Typically the aim is enable the creation of new forms and experiences, but inevitably it becomes a strategy to produce change. The students often end up repurposing tools that were developed for completely different applications, sometimes retro-fitting them with Open Source hacks. In the age of Google it makes more sense to teach strategies for information gathering and knowledge building, rather than "downloading" a single body of knowledge to the students.

I'm excited by the rise of DIY digital fabrication, which threatens to do to industrial design what desktop publishing did to graphic design, democratizing the field and making the means of production widely (and cheaply ) available. The reality is that anyone can now design and fabricate small to large scale objects and interiors using cheap computers and distributed fabbing services like Ponoko or Shapeways. This further challenges the role of the designer as an elite practitioner, a role that is already under significant threat.

DIY hackers are constructing lo-fi knock-offs of standard lab equipment using MakerBots and power tools, using them to set up their own basement biotech labs. Trans-disciplinary enough?

David Bausola: Rory’s article explores the idea of the Trans-Disicplinary Integrator (TDi) as a practitioner of design in a complex ecosystem of related concerns. As within the disciplines of media and software design, the role of the generalist consultant raises concern about how a team operates. Moreover, why does a team needs a generalist on board? Why do team players lack the swagger of the generalist? Are specialist driven teams avoiding peripheral vision for a reason?

I think the concerns and attractions of the “maven maker” divided, for the better, the role of the studio and of the agency. A common problem is the word “agency” – the agenda, or “agency”, is no longer with the shop but with the studio. A studio comes together to work on an ideology. An agency is formed to work on external ideologies, such as client briefs. An agency may have a house style, but beyond such window dressing, its business as usual. Agency is designed for profit. A studio will always be a cost. Removing the cost of the studio is a lot easier than removing the cost of the agency. Responding to briefs is expensive because it's a gamble. And the bank always wins.

So is the TDi a cost saver or a vital component in the design of a studio? Depends on what you're after – TDi based teams a good for finding questions. Rare questions have the biggest affordance. A studio may fluff it's feathers to resemble an agency so as to fund it's ideology, say Anomaly or BERG, and an agency may soften it's image with design talk, like R/GA or BBH. Both may attract the TDi, but do either hybrids seek the goal of a TDi?

Media and software design have both to date relied upon the concept of an insight to harmonize their productions. The role of the strategic planner has one foot in meaning and one on the factory floor. Such a posture is supposed to deliver conviction to the direction of a briefing and it's solution. After working across software, big old media, new small media, film, design and market research, every time studio and agency models try to collaborate there is always a void in the understanding of service. I think this where the TDi needs to be placed, or at least where it wants to be – the service kernel that can manage the concurrency of design needs from prototype to a living, breathing and, hopefully, emergent service.

Current Intelligence: Across various disciplines there are very standardized models of practice: the boutique architectural studio, the think tank, the technology startup, the all-in-one digital agency, etc. Each has intrinsic workflows, hierarchies and a built-in business model. What other disciplines and methodologies can we look to, to help reconsider how we conceive, execute and monetize creative work?

Mason White: I am not sure where else to look for analogical models of practice. But I think architects that want to operate entrepreneurially should curate what they surround themselves with. For example, I think the two most important publications for an architect are The Economist and Foreign Affairs. Somewhere between these two lies the potential to crystal ball opportunities just as they might begin to appear. 

Iman Moradi: My own experiences are limited to academia and publicly funded arts, and are pretty localised to the United Kingdom. In both cases I’m quite interested in how talent is nurtured and not merely recruited, and what steps are taken to generate internal IP.  

On the IP side, although there are a multitude of digital agencies making significant strides to complement their offerings with their own IP, it's worth bearing in mind that this is not the norm but rather the exception. In contrast this is the norm in academia. It's practice-based, research-driven culture, and the recent resurgence in Intrapreneurship is testament to its enduring value. At least in the UK, where I think universities are struggling to capitalise on their impressive reserve of talent. On the talent nurturing side, it goes without saying that academia takes staff development quite seriously and has had plenty of experience in doing so, as with the arts!

Marius Watz: But you need only look at the fringes of the design world to find the uncategorizable mashups: Design as research, design as activism, design as social Open Source, architecture as fiction etc., all experimental "trans-disciplinary" practices based on the application of core design strategies to topics beyond their intended use. Designers are finding new ways to construct a social narrative around their work, positioning it as something between hobby, ideology and technology. The rise of green tech is a great case of this. 

Of course, getting paid so that one can keep doing great work is key. Listing "design researcher" on your business card looks cool, but it's unlikely to attract government research grants. Interestingly, some designers are looking to the art model of financing projects through exhibitions, thus (hopefully) providing both funding and a venue for publishing. Crowd-sourced funding a la Kickstarter etc. seems to be surviving its initial novelty phase, having successfully funded many semi-obscure projects in a way that seemed inconceivable only a few years ago.

A true peer-to-peer economy of funding, services and products seems crucial for the survival of distributed experimental design. Etsy might look too much like a craft bazaar for many designers, but as a way of providing a socially networked way of selling niche objects it should not be underestimated. Several attempts have been made at setting up trading networks for the bartering of skill-based labor, none have hit the magic usefulness spot so far but it's bound to happen sooner or later.

David Bausola: The Philter Phactory is the vehicle we use to develop products such as DigiViduals and Weavrs.  These products are the basis of a service designed for exploring how humans behave. We model behaviours and use social media as the expression of these behaviors. They’re conception came from the movie Blade Runner, where the Replicants were informed by other people’s memories. In a sense we’re involved with design fictions, using the future casting of science fiction to inform the design of a product that can only exist today.

The contemporary individual is a producer of tweets, blog posts, and check-ins and a ready over sharer of their actions and emotions. We’ve been focusing on how this pervasive dataflow could be used to create synthetic identities. This design for our synthetic individuals came through our direct making, not through producing a specification document. In fact, Blade Runner was the specification document; a fiction that we wanted to take from a film into a reality that anyone could manipulate directly and which would run as an self-automated web service.

The team producing this work are primarily artists who have chosen engineering as their form of expression. This sets our priority oscillating between perception and technology – which perhaps indicates something about transdisciplinary integration. Hard skills such as engineering will only get the development so far. Hacking perception enables us to review web technologies as tools for exploring behaviors rather than a method of communication.  

DigiViduals has been used for the past year for a variety of questions from brands, who demand not only rich storytelling but quantified data from the synthetic individuals to support the perception of reality. And here resides the TDi opportunity; its not the business requests that drive invention or innovation but the type of answers expected that we use to produce rarer questions that have lead to design and producing behaviours that the DigiViduals and Weavrs need to make them more human than human. The TDi process is hacking the business requirements to invent something that asks a bigger question that only the brands can answer. Traditionally, this business resides in the planning or strategy teams of marketing/advertising agencies or the client.  Our business has evolved out of the failures of this service to brands – clients have begun to realise after 50 years of media strategy that speculation is just as good, if not better, than human evaluations of the state of the world. 

Current Intelligence: Feeling speculative? If you'd like to take a pass at defining a model of design practice – go for it. This can be related to your office/studio, maybe filling in what you perceive to be a blind-spot in Hyde's list, or a prediction for future niches that may open up within design, research and entrepreneurial practices.

Iman Moradi: I think a model of practice that isn’t evolving and adapting is pretty flawed, so whatever the model it will have to have some kind of feedback and refinement loop that’s built into it.

I’ll refrain from making any speculations but I’m eagerly looking to see where the controversially thorny issue of crowdsourcing in design leads to. The idea of drafting and harvesting  ideas from anyone (potentially for free) somewhat devalues the conceptualisation stage and sometimes even production stage. It takes away the potentially charismatic qualities of a work and the sense of ownership and authorship which I think are key to longevity and love of a work.

David Bausola: Culture is a remix, where originality is about the technique not the expression. After a decade of working on “digital” productions my realisation that all projects that attempt digital integration are about converting a person to a user for profit in some form. Maybe no big insight here, but for us in the Phactory the shift of meaning for “User Centricity”, where the User (the synthetic persona) is an algorithm producing media streams, leaving the traditional notion of User as the Designer of the automated synthetic persona, supplanting the role of the system designer as something else – such as a TDi.

Further, all User Experience is based around Joseph Campbell’s “Hero with a Thousand Faces” (aka The Monomyth). This essentially informs a person how dull their life is, issuing them a quest (a series of repeatable actions) and transforming the person into a user so that they can then accomplish something. The Monomyth framework is an insurance policy that assures the stakeholders of the potential minimal success to cover the costs of the production. The real cost is the increasing slag heap of media that we can not reuse (copyright) nor hide (promotion).

If there is a continued need for the TDi then, above the need to design kernels for project operations, their role is to find new affordance for the tools and materials we have available now. Such inventions need to be sought through hacking, but driven by questions not solutions. Within a post-scarcity, peak-attention era, media and research will need to devise new reasons for transactions between actors that straddle, previous considered, incompatible networks.


Greg J. Smith writes Some Assembly Required, his monthly column at Current Intelligence. He is a Toronto-based designer with interests in media theory and digital culture, managing editor of the digital arts publication Vague Terrain, and blogs at Serial Consign.