The Reconfiguring Artefacts Design Process

We understand design as relational. Design emphasizes the relationality between things, such as their existence between possibility and reality. Things are neither always this or that, they are constituted through the relations in between.

Thus, describing our design process as a relational framework to change and making futures, the single elements of the design process (Experience, Imagine, Integrate, Make, Probe, Iterate) are to be seen as theoretical handholds, rather than naturally different activities.

There is not an ‘experience’ that can be disconnected from ‘making’ a difference in the world. ‘Experiencing’ has a passive connotation, while ‘making’ something seems active. However, in our relational view, while we make a thing, the thing makes us back (Fry, 2009, p. 22). Experiencing and doing something are tied up with each other.

We might focus on the creation of our own objects and realities during the phases of Experience and Imagine, and emphasise the negotiating of these objects and realities with others during the phases Make and Probe.

Also ‘to imagine’ and ‘to probe’ (inquiring) something seems opposed to each other, while it is not naturally this way. Imagining has the connotation of ‘coming into existence’ while probing implies that the matter to be probed is already in existence. These are temporarily frozen moments, when it might seem that the states of existence are different (existing and not-yet-existing). But our design approach assumes that the activities of imagining and inquiring images are closely related, to the extent that they cannot exist without the other.

In our design research framework ‘configuring artefacts’ (Neubauer and Bohemia, unpublished), the rather ephemeral concept of ‘ideas’ and the concrete ‘material’ reality, are not different in nature; they are conceptual handholds making it possible to understand the relation that they build – the agency of design, which makes change and transforms worlds.

Ideas and Materials – Things Oscillating Between Possibility and Reality

When designing, we transform worlds by realising imaginations. One of the big questions of this project is how our ideas and imaginations turn into material realities.

The theoretical framework that supports our work, treats the material conditions of the world around us simultaneously as concrete objects and things, and as landscapes of possibility that are in the making. The potential of design is in the simultaneous ‘being’ and ‘becoming’ of objects, as it opens possible transformations in different directions.

The design process is often seen as a linear process, where one person makes a thing, and another person uses and experiences it. We avoid this split and superimpose both – seeming opposites – in the same space. Experiencing an object and making an object do not need to be seen as different things. Objects are also made as objects in the recognition of someone’s experience. The being of an object may be understood as continually renewed and reaffirmed in the view of the viewer. To see a thing, is to recognise it as such and such thing, and to help make it exactly this thing. Objects and their ontologies may be understood as simultaneously existing and coming into existence.

We describe objects and their characteristics as stable things, and we simultaneously remember the fluidity of these objects – that they are this because they are continuously performed and experienced in this way (see Butler, 2011). The characteristics of a thing can also be seen as activities, experiences and practices that continually perform a thing and stabilise it in this continual sustainment. Imagine a plate spinner in the circus, stabilising the plate in the air through spinning it incessantly on a stick. The plate is a stable object, because it keeps on moving. We view objects simultaneously as stable and as moving; as being and as coming into being. Our potential in designing worlds is in this simultaneous stability and movement.

By things we mean the topics  and aims of the design process that we hope to bring into being; we mean the products, services and processes we hope to design. As designers, through our understanding of things as simultaneous being and becoming, we keep things in suspense between possibility and reality.

Experience

Experience is often the source of the desire to change something. We may experience dissatisfaction. We might think ‘Why does this need to be this way – shouldn’t it be a different way?’. We might even experience frustration or pain, and gather our increasing will to make things different. Experiences are unique, and depending on contexts, life situations, and practices, things will be different for every one of us. Therefore, in experience-oriented design, the attention to the experience of persons using designs is of central importance. However, because we use a relational understanding of design (Neubauer and Bohemia, unpublished), we emphasise that the experience of ‘users’ and the experience of ‘designers’ cannot be separated, and that both need to be taken in to account. What a designer experiences, is as fundamental to the outcomes of design, as that of the person using the design. When gathering our experiences and other people’s experiences, we use tools that allow visibility on the “pluriverse” of experiences (Escobar, 2018) that constitute the interactions that make up our worlds (Battarbee & Koskinen, 2005).

Go to EXPERIENCE

Imagine

Imagination is a key concept in design. Only through the ability to imagine new things, we are able to work towards them. Designers have cultivated the technique of imagining. Designers create images of possible futures. If you are skilled in designing, you do it routinely with everything that is around you – this may be your furniture, your room, your house, your neighbourhood, your outfit, or your career. You imagine how things were, if they were different. An in this imagining is the first step to change.

However, usually we do not live as isolated cells, and therefore we need to create shared images of our shared futures. This can be tricky and it is a well-known problem in design, that creating shared visions, working in teams towards futures, can be a hard negotiation. Even though we call it a negotiation – we do not believe in having ideas compete, and the winner takes it all. We believe in participation in design. While everyone takes as a source their subjective experience, in collaborative imagining we co-create a vision.

Go to IMAGINE

Integrate

Having a shared vision is great, but now it is about spelling it out in detail. There is likely to be a lot of areas where you have a rough idea, but when thinking it through, it requires a lot of small decisions. Before delving into the making of your design, it is necessary to discuss these details, to arrive at shared decisions, and to make agreements about the implementation. Through this map we capture the interdisciplinary knowledges required to contribute to successful designs. The map acts as a shared imaginary for the implementation of the design. In traditional design studios, these might be detailed plans and many, many written pages of technical requirements. We use this map as a representation of our interdisciplinary thinking, as the integration of our individual experiences, ideas, and knowledges. It is only a plan at this stage, and most definitely changing as you go about making your design – it is an alive artefact – but it is good to have a drawing board that you keep updating as you move forward. Whenever conflicts arise or decisions need to be made, this is the place to return to and figure out how to rearrange things. It keeps the visibility for everyone involved, as it spells out the details of your design in real time. Things always change, and it is good to keep this map as an aid in shared decision making.

Make

Making in design is the working with materials. While we generally see ‘materials’ as wider than things you can touch with your hands – such as for example narratives or digital bits – we focus here on the shaping of ideas in material form through our hands and bodies. We try out our ideas – or aspects of our ideas – in visual and haptic form. We see how it looks, feels, smells, tastes, and sounds (Pink, 2009). We call this ‘moves’ as we shape clay, make traces on paper, stick matches on cardboard, etc (Goldschmidt, 1996). Every time we make a move, a new situation presents itself to us – for example it looks good, or it didn’t work, or it gives us a new idea – in any case, the material talks back to us (Schön, 1983). We work with the materials towards artefacts that embody our idea.

Probe

Once we are happy with the embodiment of our idea, we try it out. An artefact is by no means a complete design, as it integrates in a whole landscape of artefacts. It becomes part of something else. If we make a boat, it becomes part of someone’s holiday, or a means in someone shipping goods, someone’s escape into a better life, or part of a sports competition. Our boat becomes part of a drama …, or it becomes part of a mellow existence …. We do not know. And therefore, it is better to treat our design as something that is a thing for us, but that may be part of a different thing for someone else. Bill Gaver and team developed ‘cultural probes’ as a design tool to be used as a way to send a designerly message and evoke new design ideas in return. Design probes are artefacts that are made with a particular idea in mind, but open to trigger responses and incorporating these as well. And with this view, we are going to send our designs out there in the world, to see what they become. We probe the world through our designs. What stories are out there awaiting us and our designs?

Iterate

This is the moment when we have to accept that designs are never finished. Our idea may have materialised, in a weak or in a strong form, or it may have evaporated. We can have another go at improving the implementation of our idea. Through that our idea might become stronger, weaker, or something else will turn up. Remember the spinning plates. If our idea is stable, it is so because we (and others) keep it spinning. This can change any moment. At this point, if we are satisfied, we can strengthen our idea as it is, or we can try again, or we can do something altogether different. We can iterate our idea, and restart the design process.

The design process itself is part of this iterative cycle – it is also an object of design. As the things we design oscillate between possibility and reality, we need to find forms of managing this process. Our design process is the means to manage this process. It requires iteration too, as it needs to work for everyone involved. In science, methods constitute their objects of study, in design, the process influences the design. The design process is therefore part of the design work and its recursive nature.

Like a windmill, the design process is in constant movement, revolving around the topic/object to be designed, and – together with its object of design – it redesigns itself, the designers, their ideas, possibilities, and the material realities of design. The design process is a method to be applied to topic of design, and the method is redesigned simultaneously. By using this method, the designers themselves, their ideas, the method, the material conditions and its possibilities are redesigned.

This design of the design process is not complete, and it won’t be. It is the object of reconfiguration through which new worlds are created. Through its ongoing changing nature, in the new conditions it will still be usable as a method to configure new worlds.

References

Battarbee, K., & Koskinen, I. (2005). Co-experience: user experience as interaction. CoDesign, 1(1), 5–18.

Butler, Judith. Bodies that matter: On the discursive limits of sex. Taylor & Francis, 2011.

Escobar, A. (2018). Designs for the pluriverse: Radical interdependence, autonomy, and the making of worlds: Duke University Press.

Fry, T. (2009). Design futuring: Sustainability, ethics and new practice. London: Bloomsbury.

Gaver, W., Dunne, A., & Pacenti, E. (1999). Cultural Probes. Interactions.

Goldschmidt, G. (1996). The Designer as a Team of One. In N. Cross, H. Christiaans, & K. Dorst (Eds.), Analysing design activity (pp. 65–91). England: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

Neubauer, R. and Bohemia, E. (unpublished). Design Imaginaries: Tracing Ideas in the Design Process.

Pink, S. (2009). Doing sensory ethnography. London: SAGE.

Schön, D. A. (1983). The reflective practitioner how professionals think in action. New York: Basic Books.