Embodied Interaction Workshop

In our project, we research how artefacts help us reconfigure the world and materialise our ideas. As teachers, students and practitioners of design, we begin by investigating our studio environment and the material conditions of design activity.
By inviting Dorothé Smit and Verena Fuchsberger to a Management by Design (MxD) class, we aim to focus for an afternoon on “interaction” – how we interact with the world – and on “embodiment” – how we are related with our body in the environment around us. We aim to find out more about the embodiment of ideas.

The Cartesian split, ascribed to philosopher Descartes, is the assumption that body and mind are separate entities whereby the mind is invisible. This view on human nature has informed much of the theory around how humans interact with their surroundings. This dualism has also caused problems in the illumination of how action is organised and comes to bear on the material conditions of the world (Orlikowski, 2007). It has led to the difficulty of understanding how the digital and the physical stand in relationship (is the digital a mere representation of the physical?), but more importantly how cognition and the execution of action unfold (Hummels, 2015). This same issue applies to the design process, where concept (“analysis”) and implementation (“synthesis”) are usually split (Lawson, 2006, pp. 31–40).

From the enactive point of view, people don’t passively receive environmental information and then translate this into representations of the world in their minds. Rather, people actively participate in the ‘generation of meaning’ (Fuchs & De Jaegher, 2009). ‘Embodied cognition’ offers a theoretical foundation of understanding action and changing conditions as a sensing and knowing in action (Hummels, 2015). Following this idea, we assume that our bodies interact with the things around us in a direct and relational way. Plans or ideas may be understood as organised in a continuous, improvised and iterative manner, rather than the linear execution of a preconceived representation of action (Suchman, 2007). Interaction takes place in a reflective, and dialogical activity between bodies and materials (Schön, 1983), and within interaction, we can view the body as a dynamic and temporally unfolding agent, taking a reflexive stance towards others in social situations and the occuring action (Goodwin, 2000). For the design process, this means that ideas and designs evolve through explorative action.

Design spaces and scripts

Dorothé showed us a design kit she developed in her Master’s project (Smit et al, 2016). The design kit has the purpose to enable multi-stakeholder design processes, in which different people can communicate and create shared meanings about their experiences, problems, understandings and ideas. She showed us photographs of the design kit, and described it to us. For her it was very important to keep the objects in the kit as abstract and open-ended as possible, as to not use fixed prescriptions of concepts. She explained the importance of not prescribing concepts, such as for example “house”. There are so many different types of houses in the world, and to use a particular representation of “house” would exclude other versions of “house”, such as a high-rise flat or a tipi. Furthermore, it helps to have non-descript objects for re-usability: participants are often willing to ascribe new meaning to a previously used object if agreed upon by their group. Previous research on these types of toolkits have shown that “meanings and relations were discussed and changed on-the-fly” (Jaasma et al., 2017, p.10).
Design engages in the creation of “scripts”, inscribing a vision into possible futures (Akrich, 1994). The design kit enables the design space to be kept more open. In design, ambiguity can be used as a resource where meaning is constructed collaboratively between designer and user (Gaver et al, 2003). The design kit utilises ambiguity, and leaves the design space and its scripts as open as possible. Rather than being a tool for scripting designs, the design kit allows to explore the collaborative production of scripts in interaction.

The embodiment of ideas

In an exercise with design students, Dorothé asked the students to create an “embodied prototype” of their thesis. I had warned her that the students might be preoccupied during the workshop with their looming thesis submissions. She took this as an inspiration to come up with the task to use household and kitchen items to represent the core research problem of their thesis. The students very happily engaged in this exercise and some fantastic examples emerged.

Prototype by Victoria Bersch

As Verena and Dorothé commented on the results, and asked questions, an interesting use of metaphors emerged. It became apparent that although the design kit (their household) was as non-figurative as possible (none of the items were dedicated objects for design scripts), and students could choose anything to represent anything, in our conversation fixed meanings emerged – a figure emerged. ‘Government’ is not ‘a toxic bottle of bleach’. But when Victoria used this metaphor and declared this meaning (in her prototype about the problem of food waste), it made sense to us, and we were confronted with a very clear view on the problem. When Kimberly created a relation between the important actor with the large office space, and the less important actors and the small office spaces, we understood her vision of how the problem was ordered. Although the household items left meanings open, the students chose items for particular reasons and declared fixed meanings. However, through the ‘making visible’ of these declarations of meaning in our follow-up conversation, we had a chance to respond and to negotiate these – thus creating potentially shared meanings. In conversation, the meaning of the representation was developed and discovered not by any participant alone, but emerged from the interaction between the participants (cf. Jaasma et al., 2017). Figures were declared, with the help of non-figurative items in an open design space, and these figures had the potential to be negotiated, settled and ‘fixed’ in conversation.

These insights were particularly interesting to Ruth and the MxD students in the research project, because we had toyed with the idea to create a design template, or a design kit, which should be used in the MxD studio. The ‘figure’, and what something ‘is’, as a flexible entity, has been proposed by Donna Haraway in the cyborg manifesto as a way to negotiate futures (Haraway, 1991). The configuration of existences and the reconfiguration of their material relations can be negotiated (Suchman, 2012). Design is a configuration and reconfiguration of shared worlds. In this negotiation around the configuration of our world, ideas are embodied and materialised collaboratively through the moving from one’s own figures and meanings towards shared figures and meanings.


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