Famous Photographer, Evidence Dolls, 2005
EM Sniffer Dog, Spymaker, 2007

Interpretation, Collaboration, and Critique

In the weeks following Anthony Dunne’s Stephen Weiss lecture, Design + Management faculty member Raoul Rickenberg conducted the following interview with Dunne, in which they expand several themes that arose in the lecture itself. Among the topics discussed are the hermeneutical context within which Dunne situates his body of work―which spans domains of art, science, and politics―and the nature of Dunne’s collaboration with Fiona Raby and his colleagues and students at the Design Interactions Department at the Royal College of Art.

RR: When reflecting on commonalities in the work that you presented in your talk, it’s difficult to miss the fact that many of the projects directly address the contextual environment in which design occurs. More specifically, it seems that they challenge the immutability of this context. The resonance of The Compass Table, for example, stems from dynamics in the exogenous electronic environment and the manner in which it obliges one to account for such dynamics. Likewise, The Evidence Dolls are animated by the various and varying social mores of those that use (or view) the dolls. In both cases, engagement with the work inherently extends to the environment(s) in which it is situated, and this forces one to address context as an active force in the design process. Such interaction, it seems to me, extends well beyond the sort of reflection that is typically generated by site-specific art or the forms of inquiry that are embodied in “contextual design.” That said, I’m wondering how you would describe your approach to context and the role of contextual dynamics in the process of design. How do you conceive the role of environment? And how is the designer situated in this formulation?

AD: The things we design are usually not intended for the world as it is today, so context plays a very important and dual role. Firstly, there’s the imagined context where the work could or should exist, and secondly, there’s the context in which the work is actually shown—or sometimes, encountered.

Much of today’s design derives its cultural value and meaning from “narratives of production.” How it was made and how the designer exploited new materials and processes drives everything. The stories told about many objects stop at the point the object actually comes into being. With our work, that’s exactly when the story begins.  We’re far more interested in “narratives of consumption”: how objects enter people’s lives and the meanings that arise from their interactions with those objects. But as we are not interested in designing for how the world is today, that part of our work is highly speculative. And that’s where context enters, imagined contexts of use and interaction.

The context in which our work is shown is also important. When we started out we were absolutely against showing work in white cube galleries and we experimented with all sorts of different settings: shop windows, cafes, streets, abandoned shops, gardens, homes, historical museum collections; but the work started to become about the context itself and this is not what we are interested in. Later we accepted that galleries are more like reporting spaces—places we can show the results of our research and experimentation. So over the last few years we have shown mainly in museums and galleries, and accepted that these places are quite good for presenting work as long as it is clear it is research rather than art objects. In fact, museums are very interesting as they are more public than galleries and in some cases, MoMA for example, many thousands of people get to see the work and it is almost a form of mass media.

Finally, there is another aspect of our work that connects with context, and that is the role we see for design: a questioning and critical process rather than one that solves problems and provides answers. Once you turn your back on mainstream design there are few places to go. We have found academia to be a natural home for what we do. It provides a context where conceptual and critical design can take on a usefulness; it can generate insights and understanding that can be used in teaching, developing new research methods, and possibly influencing commercial practices too. That doesn’t mean it is escapist and turning its back on the real world, simply that the usefulness of our work is in generating knowledge, methods and insights.

As I was writing this I realised that there is also the intellectual context our work sits within, which is quite complex. Part design, part art, part social science. This messy space influences how we work and present our ideas. It helps us develop new working methods and approaches and puts us under a lot of pressure to make sure our ideas are understandable and relevant to other fields beyond design.

RR: With regard to the imagined, encountered, and intellectual contexts in which your work operates: how do you address the differing demands that such contexts place on your work (the plasticity that is necessary to absorb people’s narratives and the rigor that is required of a critical statement, for example, or the ability to engage in individual-level interactions while operating in the realm of mass media)?

AD: We don’t have any systems for this. Once a project is complete we evaluate it, informally, and discuss what we think worked and what didn’t; what went as we anticipated and what didn’t. Over time you develop a sense of what works. That’s not a very satisfying answer, but in operating as we do, in a fuzzy in-between space, there aren’t really any guidelines; you have to improvise, make it up as you go along, and be alert to the peculiarities of each context.

In whatever we do, though, there are four key elements that we try to keep balanced: rigour, imagination, tangibility, and relevance. There has to be a rigour behind the work; this usually emerges through a constant questioning and doubting of what we are doing, searching for holes, contradictions, weaknesses, etc. We address this as we develop the project, through discussion. It’s a bit painful, as you are always questioning the validity of your own work, and obviously, there are times when all you can see are the weaknesses. Imagination is tricky too. For us, it means trying to find ideas and ways of thinking that will lead to unusual and surprising outcomes—not for novelty’s sake, but because it’s important to appeal to people’s imaginations as well as engaging their intellects. To charm and seduce through imaginative combinations of theory, methods, interactions, forms, and so on. Tangibility is quite obvious I guess, especially for designers. It is essential that our ideas make their way into the material world in some way; it’s not enough that they end up as pure thoughts. They must be embodied in object typologies that we understand: furniture, products, clothing, buildings ... . And finally, relevance. This is the one we struggle with most: how to ensure our work has relevance and value beyond itself. It could be that it introduces new methods for other people working in this area, or it could get people to think about relationships between technology and everyday life they may not have considered before, or it might just simply inspire.

RR: Is your work instantiated in all of these contexts (or discourses) at the same time? Or does the work undergo transformative processes across time, as it is consumed and/or mediated?

AD: Across time. But it always carries traces of the original context it was conceived for.

RR: How as researchers/designers/artists do you exert control over the ways in which your work is contextualized?

AD: Well, we can’t always do that, and we don’t always want to. Once the work leaves the studio it is out of our control. Unless we are working very closely with a curator or publisher, we accept that our work will often be contextualised in relation to their own agenda. As long as we agree with the agenda then we are happy to let go.

RR: How do you situate your work in such a way that it can serve as a meaningful provocation without being over-determined?

AD: Ambiguity and openness are the keys. We don’t view the object as a transmitter of meaning to be decoded by a viewer, but as a prompt, a thing to be engaged with. We think about the experience of physically encountering the work: its size, scale, materiality, degrees of perfection, mass, relationship to the body, etc., and how these might make a person feel and what associations they might trigger. Then we spend quite a lot of time seeking out wrongness. Things have to be not-quite-right; this awkwardness is a way into the object, an invitation to explain why it is the way it is, why it’s not quite right. If it was too correct and as expected, they would glance once and move on. If the object is too open-ended in terms of meaning, then it can seem empty. One thing that we have noticed over time is that compared to artworks, our idea of provocation is pretty mild. I think this is because if we make things too wild they alienate and end up being categorised as whacky and irrelevant. We hope that people believe our pieces could be part of this world, and that their subtle strangeness intrigues rather than repels.

RR: Does such subtle intrigue occur when the work is exhibited in the context of a gallery or when it is discussed in an editorial context?

AD: Both ideally, and sometimes in lectures.

RR: If so, how do you address the shift from intrigue to polemic? At what point does the work become an over-determined history?

AD: As soon as it leaves the studio, even in the form of a digital image for a magazine. From that point on it is history and open to use, misuse and abuse by others. Lectures are very important for us; they allow us to present our work in relation to its intended context. Making our own publications is something we don’t do as much as we’d like to, but they too ensure that the original intellectual context for the work is clear.

RR: With respect to the specific relationship(s) of your work to social science: while many artists and designers attempt to position their work in the realm of the sciences, such efforts rarely extend beyond simplistic appropriations of scientific methodology (as in the context of “ethnographic” approaches to market segmentation and product testing). Perhaps this fact reflects a fundamental difference between the practice of science and those of art and design: to paraphrase [Richard] Buchanan, the sciences concern ways of revealing existing structure while design concerns the construction of that which does not yet exist—but if this is true, it is a fundamental difference that you have navigated successfully nonetheless. How do you reconcile the practice of design (or art) with that of social science? In what ways does your work address the differences between these practices?

AD: I’m glad you think we are successfully navigating this fundamental difference! This is something we are wrestling with right now. You might want to ask Fiona about this. She is currently a visiting scholar at Lancaster University, where she is working with a small group of our recent graduates and the Institute for Advanced Studies on a project called New Sciences of Protection: Designing Safe Living. They’ve been using the graduate projects as platforms to explore how designers, political and social scientists can work together. And the issue that causes most confusion and misunderstanding is the difference pointed out by Buchanan in your question. The Institute for Advanced Studies approached us over a year ago and are very interested in what, if anything, can be learnt from critical design in relation to designing social policy. And we’re interested in speculative politics and how to develop design-driven future scenarios that embrace political and economic complexity, how design might connect with social scientists, and who the audience for such scenarios might be. The project consists of several workshops leading to a conference in July; there’s a blog as well. It’s a very exciting project and full of interesting challenges.

We are absolutely committed to speculative design. But we are painfully aware of the pitfalls: on the one hand, escapist utopias that may or may not be entertainingly satirical and on the other, design thinking being hijacked for social engineering projects.

RR: I’d like to learn more about Fiona’s thoughts on the intersection(s) of design and the sciences; the fact that she is working on the New Sciences of Protection project raises a number of questions pertaining to cross-disciplinary collaboration, and the role that you would like to play in such efforts. But before addressing this, I’d like to focus on the nature of your collaboration with Fiona. You have been responding to most of my questions in the first-person plural; I’m wondering how interaction with Fiona informs your work. Do the two of you approach your work from substantively different perspectives? In what ways do your interests, knowledges, and competencies differ? Is the degree of difference decreasing as your collaboration matures and, if so, how is this affecting your work?

AD: We do have different skills and interests. Fiona’s background is in architecture, mine is in industrial design, and both of us drifted into interaction design later via CRD (Computer Related Design) at the RCA where we both did research degrees (Fiona an MPhil and me, a Ph.D.), and then worked as Senior Research Fellows. I would say that Fiona is more interested in the big picture: narrative, systems, networks and scenarios. Although I’m interested in these too, my main focus is on objects, things, products. I’m probably more interested in theory while Fiona keeps her eye on what’s happening in the real world via TV and newspapers. I’d say she is more of a collaborator than I am; I like to hide away in the studio (when I can!) while she loves getting out and about and meeting people. We both love ideas and teaching, find the narrowness of mainstream design practice and thinking oppressive and frustrating, and we are both non-technical and very idealistic.

Every project we do is a collaboration between us; this doesn’t mean we both design everything, however. We spend a lot of time talking and discussing ideas, and the tangible outcome can be just the tip of the iceberg. But we have found that one of us always has to be the boss of a project—manage it, have the final say, liaise with the client, and so on.  This usually happens once the project is underway and in the practical phase. The other person acts as a sort of consultant.

I would say the degree of difference is increasing. I think as we get better at working together, we free each other up to do the bits we enjoy.

RR: How do the roles that the two of you play differ over the course of a project?

AD: I think I answered that above.

RR: And how does this impact your ability to reflect on work in process (as distinct from the post hoc evaluations that you have already mentioned)?

AD: Well, as we constantly discuss everything this happens fairly naturally. And the fact that one of us will always be leading a project means the other can provide a slightly more objective viewpoint, or sometimes even take on the role of devil’s advocate.

RR: How does this change when you bring additional collaborators, even students, into the fold?

AD: Usually when we collaborate with others they have very different and quite specific skills that we don’t: programming, electronics, graphics, photography, music, video. Our roles are quite clearly defined from the start. The amount of creative input varies, and we try to ensure that we are clear about the edges of our authorship in relation to what others bring to the mix. Fiona and I usually have the idea and know what we want in terms of main concept before we start working with others; but once others are on board we’re fairly open to how that idea manifests itself in other media. We always brief the people we work with. The exception is with Michael Anastassiades, who is also a designer, where all three of us come up with the idea together and even most of the objects. It takes a lot of trust, as we don’t define precise roles for one another. It can get messy at times, but ultimately, it is more satisfying to just be yourself and do what you enjoy doing. I don’t think any of us could pinpoint exactly which bit of what idea is whose, or who had the idea for a particular form or material. We sit around talking and passing each other sketches that we all work on and modify.

Recently, as I mentioned before, we have started to collaborate with people from other academic disciplines like social science. The biggest hurdles here seem to concern language, terminology and methodology. I think it is much harder to collaborate across academic disciplines; the aim is to create strangely beautiful chimeras, but it can so easily result in grotesque monsters. In art and design, collaboration is all about authorship; in academia it seems to be about territories.

With students it is different. In that case I guess we are more like curators or editors: we set out a general space, establish loose criteria, and then step back.

RR: In addition to satisfying my curiosity about the particular dynamics of the collaboration that you’ve forged with Fiona, I’m asking these questions in the hope that they will provide further insight into broader issues of cross-disciplinary collaboration. You’ve mentioned that you operate “in a fuzzy in-between space” where “you have to improvise” and, while I would assume that the form of such improvisation has much to do with the character of that which you are between, I’m wondering how you define and maintain the space for such investigation.

AD: We don’t define it at all. It’s not by choice that we find ourselves operating in this space, but because of the role for design that we are interested in pursuing. We believe design can be used as a reflective and critical medium, which is at odds with the current understanding of design as a way of making things sexy and consumeable, at least in relation to new technology. Once you decouple design from the marketplace it has nowhere to go. A lot of our career so far has been about finding a home, or context, for this kind of design, on every level: economic, intellectual, physical, cultural, academic, commercial ... .

RR: How do you know when you are escaping into the realm of utopia? How do you avoid being “hijacked” by social engineers? How do you maintain your critical sensibility when your workspace is defined by the dynamics of collaborative improvisation?

AD: We spend quite a bit of time discussing fiction, utopias, and futurology. But I think what we are interested in more is the idea of thought experiments—imaginative exercises that help us understand something, expose assumptions, and challenge us to think differently about what is possible. As long as we use projects as tools for exploring an idea and not as ends in themselves, we feel happy that we are not proposing utopias. The critical sensibility, at its most basic, is simply about not taking things for granted, to question and look beneath the surface. This is not new and is common in other fields; what is new is trying to use design as a tool for doing this.

When I mentioned social engineering earlier, it was not in relation to our own work; I don’t think anyone is interested in hijacking us! What I meant was that “design thinking” seems to be drifting that way, at least in the UK. There’s a lot of talk about how design can be used to engage with and re-design existing organisations as opposed to thinking up new but possibly utopian ones. I think it has been called Transformation Design. When people talk about applying it to government institutions like the National Health Service or Prison Service, I wonder if design isn’t being used to make social engineering more user-friendly and acceptable.

RR: I’m interested in your use of the term “user-friendly” in the context of social engineering. This term is often used to describe designs that require little but common sense in order to be of use and, by extension, it connotes an association between the agency of design and egalitarian values. Rarely are questions asked about the ways in which user-friendly design may impact common sense itself or perspectives that deviate from this norm. Clearly, your work poses such questions. But in doing so, does it impugn the alignment of user-friendly design with an egalitarian agenda per se?

AD: I think user-friendliness is a valid goal for design, but mainly in highly functional situations. Clearly, if you are designing controls they should be user-friendly, or an everyday product where we just need to be able to use it. In reality, very few digital products are user-friendly so there is lots of work to be done there; mobile phones are a classic example. For all the rhetoric and hype, most people still struggle to use technology. I don’t think this is a design issue: the knowledge is there—all good designers are taught how to make things user-friendly—[the problem] is that their power is so minimal in reality that their role is limited to designing appearances.

I think user-centered design is different, and may be what you are referring to in your question. This I have problems with, especially when it concerns content. Cinema has long gone that way; we get user-centered films these days, often tweaked and changed in response to focus group testing. The problem I have with it is that we simply see ourselves reflected back. When it becomes a doctrine, which I believe it has, it encourages an extremely narrow view of the possibilities for new experiences. It is related to the cult of the amateur. I compare it to cooking: just because we can cook a nice meal at home for our friends does not mean we no longer need highly skilled chefs who can produce a truly special meal that surprises and thrills us. Somehow, people who support the cult of the amateur argue as though all specialists and experts will no longer be required. In my opinion, this is a highly functional and sad view of life and culture, where we want to do everything ourselves and dismiss the efforts of highly trained specialists, whether journalists, film-makers, designers or artists. I am not interested in user-centeredness at all. Resonance and relevance are far more interesting: how do you design something that isn’t just an expression of your own interests and ego, but resonates with others, and has relevance to their lives?

Just the existence of terms like “user-centered” or “user-friendly” tells us a lot about our view of people. If people are reduced to being “users,” then we definitely need to remind ourselves that things should be friendly and people should be at the center; maybe these terms are for engineers. Designers, who view “users” as people, do not need to be reminded. Apple is a good example of this. They are not user-centered, but they do understand people.

RR: Or is it the tacit manner in which social relations are engineered by design that is of concern? And, if the latter, are there attributes of this dynamic that you find particularly intriguing or difficult to unpack when using design as your tool?

AD: When I did my BA in Industrial Design in the 80s ergonomics was big. We had to do endless exercises exploring how the body physically fitted the environment; it was all about physiology. During the 90s user-friendliness emerged, and everyone was more concerned with cognitive models and the fit between the mind and the designed environment. These days I think we are more concerned with the sense of what it means to be human and how these ideas manifest themselves, or don’t, in large systems. I think this is closer to ethics. I can see a development from ergonomics through user-friendliness to ethics, especially in relation to design for technology. The mechanical age gave rise to ergonomics, the information age to user-friendliness, and emerging technologies like bio- and nanotech, to ethics. Good design today ensures that products embody an ethic, a view of what it means to be human. It’s all about values. On a slightly banal level, iTunes does this well. It isn’t just about user-friendliness, but embodying a specific idea of human nature—a recognition of how we like to live, what we like to do, how we really are.

I think that today, designers are more aware that products can be political, and can shape and influence our behaviour. But we are only beginning to explore new methods and conceptual tools that allow us to address these complexities. Critical Design is one way of doing this, but I am sure there are other ways. We’re moving from designing a better fit between body and technology, and mind and technology, to a better fit between humanity and technology. We’re zooming out.