Statistical Clock, 2007
Risk watch, 2007
S.O.C.D., 2007

Interview with Anthony Dunne

Christian Brändle: Together with Michael Anastassiades you developed the series ?Design for Fragile Personalities in Anxious Times?. How important is the performative aspect in this work?

Anthony Dunne: Not that important. With all of our work, it's the ideas that count. And of course the stories the objects prompt in peoples' imaginations. I guess the idea of using the device is important, a viewer can imagine what it might be like to use it and in that sense are imagining a performance in their mind -- a virtual one prompted by the object.

CB: Michael is an Industrial Designer while Anthony Dunne is teaching 'Design Interactions' at the RCA. What differentiates your approaches to design?

AD: Well, my background is in Industrial Design as well. Fiona's is in Architecture. Fiona and I both did research degrees in Interaction Design too. We all have different orientations. Michael is keen to design and develop products in reasonable numbers that people can actually buy in shops, where as Fiona and I are probably more interested in the theoretical side of design, and teaching and writing as well as designing.

CB: Could you describe the process of your drafts: how do you determine your topics and how do you create alliances?

AD: Lot's of discussion! We've known each other for a long time now and we?re always talking about ideas for potential collaborations. Funding is always an issue though, and the lack of it prevents us from doing more work together. Fragile Personalities was funded through sales of earlier projects and the new electronic objects are funded through a small Arts Council grant and our own funds, again, generated through sales of previous projects.

When we're working together it is a very fluid process. We meet, talk, sketch, visit people (experts), read, and slowly, very slowly, ideas begin to emerge. Usually they exist as verbal descriptions before they have a physical form. Then we meet to sketch and show each other material samples and at some point we stop designing and begin the fabrication process. Again, during this process the designs continue to evolve in relation to technical constraints and new opportunities.

For this project we made a private blog for posting our research: Examples of work by others, strange devices we like, essays, articles, etc, etc. When we met we talked each other through the things we had posted individually.

Luckily we have a shared idea of what's interesting and settle on topics fairly easily. All three of us are interested in the psychological and reflective role objects can play in our lives, and in exploring new possibilities for everyday products.

CB: In several of your projects one can see by all means a wink and a slightly ironic remark. Where do you position these projects in context to your work?

AD: Well humour is very important. I think our work is slightly satirical. It's not our intention to entertain, or to mock, but to use humour to engage people both intellectually and imaginatively.

CB: What do you think of the approach of the exhibition, to show contemporary positions in art and design, side by side and free of categorisation?

AD: I've always disliked the separation between art and design. Any attempt to blur boundaries between them, or at least question the existence of boundaries, is a good thing.

CB: Do you think these distinctions are useful / necessary?

AD: I'm not sure trying to distinguish between art and design is that useful. Especially these days when there are so many crossovers. Sometimes I think the very fact art exists is due to design?s failure. One way of thinking about it that design applies art to everyday life, and so far, design has done a very bad job at this, limiting itself to visual languages rather than content. I suppose some of our work could be seen as applied conceptual art. We are interested in ideas from art, but we'd like to apply them to 'everyday life' and as this is still not possible, our projects end up in a hypothetical space, testament to what could be, and ironically, sometimes being labelled art.

Another way of seeing the relationship is like science and engineering, science is often pure research and engineering is applied research. Maybe art is pure research and design applies it. Although a lot of our work is pure research, the market is too conservative for it to ever be applied. Or at least, the perception is it is too conservative.

CB: Your work can be seen as a critical view of the current international situation. Where do you see your role as a designer in society?

AD: To make prototypes that show how things could be, today, if prevailing values were different.

CB: Do you believe in democratic design?

AD: I believe that everyone can design just like everyone can cook. But often, democratic design means non-designer or amateur design. I think there will always be a place for specialist designers who eat, breath, sleep design and are passionate about what they do. We can all cook for ourselves but it is still nice to go out for a really nice meal prepared by a specialist. I think a more useful idea than democratic design is the 'citizen designer', a designer who acts on behalf of society rather than clients and institutions. At the end of the day, I think the best design is driven by a strong vision, often this is through one person, but if that vision will benefit others then I don?t have a problem with that. I think problems start when egotistical designers impose their mediocre visions on the rest of us and I fully understand why this creates an anti-design backlash and encourages people to seriously question the role of design and who benefits from it.

CB: What are the main duties of a designer for the coming centuries?

AD: I can't think in terms of centuries! But in the coming years, it surely has to be to help us think our way out of the mess we are creating. One way of doing this is to make different futures tangible so that we can debate them and hopefully, make sure that the most desirable ones happen and the least desirable ones can be avoided. Then once we have identified which ones we desire, design can help us get there. Not just working for corporations but for society as well. I think the first step is to decouple itself from purely commercial motivations and reposition itself within a larger societal context. Commerce is still part of this, but not the end all and be all. Ideas need to come from people first and the corporation's place is to put them into production. This isn't anti-commercial, it's just asking that we make room for other kinds of design. The profession could do a lot more than it currently does for the benefit of society. I'm not talking about worthy or boring stuff, it can still be imaginative and creative.

CB: In the 50s, Reyner Banham creates the term 'First Machine Age' containing engines, industry and cars, followed by a 'Second Machine Age' characterised by domesticated machines as refrigerator, hoover and so on. Today we live in the 'Third Machine Age' featured by computers, GPS and others. What is the next step? What characterises the ?Fourth Machine Age??

AD: Well I think we will soon reach a non-machine age where more of our environment is alive and based on biological systems. We will probably exploit them and make them take on the jobs of machines, but they will be living or semi-living. This will raise all sorts of interesting issues about the status of our artificial environment and our responsibilities towards it. Already, several of our students are doing projects that explore symbiosis between people and biological systems, particularly in the Healthcare area. Susanna Soares for example, recently did a project based on military research for training bees to sniff out explosives. She discovered that they could be trained to smell illnesses as well and designed a number of diagnostic tools that use bees to indicate the presence of certain illnesses in our breath.

CB: In the field of researches as nanotechnology, what kind of tasks will challenge the designers on a long-term perspective?

AD: Long term, we have no idea how technologies like nanotech will impact on our daily lives. Short term, we can begin to imagine applications that are meaningful and relevant to everyday life.

CB: What kind of products will the future deliver?

AD: Who knows?! There is no way of saying!

CB: In your opinion, do you think that the relation man-machine will merge gradually? Are products as Tamagochi, super-real videogames or 'Second Life' precursors of a new era?

AD: Some people will merge while others won't. There will be many different and simultaneous technological futures catering to different value systems (I hope). Today we are living in a one-dimensional world where a very limited range of values and ways of living are possible.

CB: In 'Design Noir' you describe that electronic products dream; isn't that far fetched? How can this be understood?

AD: Our intention was to challenge the emphasis on thinking of electronic products as 'smart'. Dreaminess was an alternative -- more open, poetic, fluid, ambiguous. Electronic products can be these things too. It is not so far fetched. When information is exchanged between machines using cables, storage media and standard protocols it is like a conversation where everything is rational and in order. But computers and other electronic devices leak information in the form of electromagnetic radiation, for me, these are like dreams? half formed, irrational, strange. I believe computers can dream.

CB: You forecast, that 'herzian space' will influence architecture in medium-term. How should this be understood?

AD: As a neglected medium. Since the 12 years or so when we first wrote about it, Hertzian space is still viewed as a way of linking things, of sending information and content, etc. But it is an environment that can be inhabited, enjoyed, and explored. On another level, architecture might need to respond to it anyway as we discover more about the effects of different frequencies of electromagnetic radiation on the delicate electrical and chemical systems that make up our bodies.

CB: With 'critical design' or '(un)popular design' your positioning projects beyond the praised free market economy. Why is this necessary?

AD: If every thing is determined by the market, we will live in an impoverished, flattened world meeting only the lowest level of culture, need and desire. Banality will reign. Everything will be determined by popularity, instant impact, economics, accessibility. Design will be little more than a sugar coating helping us consume more things more easily. I think design has more potential than that, it can ensure that our experiences of everyday life are rich, intriguing and engaging. For now though, this kind of design needs to happen outside the existing market system which forces a very narrow role on design.

CB: Your work as Designer goes beyond those of your colleagues who are involved with 'form and function'. What are the tasks of a designer besides classical product development? In your opinion, what must design accomplish?

AD: The integration of poetry and everyday life. A hybrid of politics an poetry.

It is still about form and function. Just that the form might no longer be physical or tangible, and functions might not be so pragmatic but instead, more metaphysical. Design can only follow our needs and desires, it can't create them. If our desires remain unimaginative and practical, then that is what design will be. I guess in our projects we are hoping for a time when we will have more complex and subtle everyday needs than we do today. Our objects are designed in anticipation of that time. Patiently waiting. Maybe they are utopian.