Future Vision

The Design Problems of Brexit

The UK Government paper titled: The future relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union, otherwise known as ‘The Chequers agreement’, after the Buckinghamshire country manor house where the agreement was first made, is as much a work of design as of policy.

The UK Prime Minister, Teresa May, delivers a speech on Brexit to the EU. Photo credit: Associated Press

The UK Prime Minister, Teresa May, delivers a speech on Brexit to the EU. Photograph: Associated Press

The foreword is by the UK Prime Minister, Teresa May, who begins:

“In the referendum on 23 June 2016 – the largest ever democratic exercise in the United Kingdom – the British people voted to leave the European Union.” [1]

She goes on resolutely:

“And that is what we will do – leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union, ending free movement and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in this country, leaving the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy, and ending the days of sending vast sums of money to the EU every year. We will take back control of our money, laws, and borders. And…”

And after ripping it all up:

“… begin a new exciting chapter in our nation’s history.”

Who is the author of that chapter?

Teresa goes on:

“It now falls to us all to write that chapter.”

Ah! This must be a huge exercise in democratic and participative design, where we can all pitch in our ideas and a solution seamlessly emerges, as if shaped by an invisible hand.

Well, not quite. The ‘us’, of course, is really ‘not us’. The authors of the chapter will be the lawmakers: politicians and others who will codify our future. The ‘us’ may get to say yes or no, but this isn’t an exercise in participative design.

The front page of the UK HM Government's Brexit Proposal

The front page of the UK HM Government’s Brexit Proposal.

The Chequers agreement is a 98 page document, presented in 4 chapters, laying out (in order) the economics, security, cooperation, and institutions of Brexit. The document mentions the word design (or its variants) thirteen times, but they are significant mentions about significant things.

Designing, in Brexit terms, means designing new relationships and partnerships, new proposals, new arrangements, new institutional arrangements, new rules, new policies and policy tools, new systems, and new committees.

That is an awful lot of ‘new’, and an awful lot of designing. What kind of designing is it exactly though? and who will do it? Or more pertinently, does the ‘not us’ have the necessary experience to come up with good designs? (And how will we know they are good designs?)

Taking out each mention of design in the Chequers agreement, and turning it around, makes Brexit read like the curriculum for a new kind of design school [2]:

Design an institutional framework that facilitates dialogue [i]
Design a new trading relationship that ensures frictionless access to each other’s goods [ii]
Design a proposal based on principles of reciprocal commitments [iii]
Design a facilitated customs arrangement [iv]
Design a common rulebook [v]
Design an agricultural policy that delivers market relevant outcomes [vi]
Design a migration system that works for all parts of the UK [vii]
Design a system to promote domestic production and preserve cultural identity [viii]
Design ‘horizontal’ rules that ensure open and fair markets [ix]
Design a global rule for new and disruptive technologies [x]
Design a partnership that makes tracking crime across borders efficient and reliable [xi]
Design an effective sanction [xii]
Design a Joint Committee to prevent disputes arising [xiii]

Or perhaps this a very old kind of design school, because agriculture, trade, and disruptive technologies have been around for at least 5000 years.

The problems above are reducible to designing two other kinds of thing that are mentioned in the Chequers agreement: systems (62 mentions), and rules (110 mentions).

But perhaps most of all Brexit will be about designing systems of rules.

The design of these rule-based systems will take imagination, to think out the particularities and the consequences that might develop. So does the ‘not us’ include people with this kind of imagination? People that can exercise a sophisticated design intelligence in meeting practical, political, ethical, and aesthetic [3] constraints?

I’m not sure that the UK has these kinds of people, or at least doesn’t provide systematic (that word again) ways of training and educating them. We are good at producing political analysts, policy advisors, economists, journalists and philosophers. And they are all good at talking a good game.

But changing the rules of the game requires systematic imagination and creative integrity that should be open to question. It shouldn’t be ‘ta da – here’s a solution’, it should be ‘here is the design process we went through to arrive at this proposal’. The people are not trained in how to make design decisions and consider the possible consequences of those decisions (though they may consider consequences from previous decisions of others). Rather than learning from failure during their education, they learn by very real failure in practice [4].

Perhaps the design of Brexit needs first to include the design of curriculum that can deliver this kind of knowledge and develop the missing designers of today. Game Design 101 might not be a bad place to start.

 

Notes

[1] To be precise 17.4 million people voted to leave, out of an estimated population of 65.6 million (and a population of those eligible to vote of 46.5 million – 19.1 million people being under the voting age of 18).

[2] Actually not unlike the one proposed by Charles and Ray Eames’ India Report that I described in a previous post looking at design education.

[3] The word ‘frictionless’ (11 mentions in the Chequers agreement), for example, suggests something aesthetic. What do you think of when you think of something frictionless? I think of air hockey. It also suggests that clever interaction and service design will be necessary.

[4] Indeed Article 50 of the 2009 Lisbon Treaty, consisting of five paragraphs, and formulated to allow any member state to withdraw from the EU, could well be an example of this failure. In this case the rule designer was John Kerr, a Scottish Member of the UK Parliament.

 

Design references to the UK Government’s document on Brexit

[i] “The institutional framework should prevent disputes arising but in the unlikely event that they did, it should be designed in a way that facilitates dialogue.” (page 92)

[ii] “In designing the new trading relationship, the UK and the EU should therefore focus on ensuring continued frictionless access at the border to each other’s markets for goods.” (page 7)

[iii] “These principles, together with strong reciprocal commitments on open and fair trade, and propositions for a new institutional framework, inform the design of the UK’s proposal.” (page13)

[iv] “The Facilitated Customs Arrangement is designed to ensure that the repayment mechanism is only needed in a limited proportion of UK trade, and to make it as simple as possible to use for those who need to use it.” (page 18)

[v] “The UK would also seek participation – as an active participant, albeit without voting rights – in EU technical committees that have a role in designing and implementing rules that form part of the common rulebook.” (page 20)

[vi] “The UK will be free to design agricultural support policies that deliver the outcomes most relevant to its market, within the confines of WTO rules.” (page 24)

[vii] “The UK will design a system that works for all parts of the UK. The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) report, due in September 2018, will provide important evidence on patterns of EU migration and the role of migration in the wider economy to inform this.” (page 32)

[viii] “European Works is a system designed to promote domestic European production and preserve cultural identity.” (page 37)

[ix] “Some horizontal rules are not primarily designed to ensure open and fair markets. Nonetheless, it is usual to include commitments on these areas in Free Trade Agreements (FTAs).” (page 37)

[x] “The UK will be agile enough to provide thought leadership on the shape and design of new global rules for new and disruptive technologies.” (page 50)

[xi] “As the UK and the EU design a new partnership, maintaining efficient and reliable operational capabilities will be vital, including but not limited to:

  • a. the efficient extradition of criminals and wanted individuals between Member States and the UK;
  • b. cooperation of judicial, police and customs authorities in different states; and
  • c. delivering cross-border criminal investigations and prosecutions.”

(page 59)

[xii] “Sanctions are a key foreign policy tool and are most effective when designed and applied alongside international partners.” (page 65)

[xiii] “Through regular and structured dialogue, the Joint Committee would be designed to prevent disputes from arising, whether related to implementation, enforcement or compliance.” (page 88)

How Can a Designer do Nothing?

Sometimes things might be better off as they are, but how do we know? Two recent podcasts describe examples of where a more minimal approach to design might have resulted in better quality of life and indeed, lives being saved.

The first example comes from the outstanding 99% Invisible podcast [1].

Responding thoughtfully to the recent Californian wildfires, Episode 317 Built to Burn, considers what causes wildfires to spread and how best to stop them destroying property.  It turns out that it is the embers of a wildfire – not the wall of flames – that generally sets property alight. They do this by accumulating in the crevices of wooden structures that exist around many houses – in shingle roofs, for example.

Wildfire

A firefighter battles the Butte wildfire near San Andreas, California. The swiftly spreading flames have destroyed hundreds of homes and forced thousands of residents to flee. Photograph: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

With a few simple interventions around ‘the home ignition’ zone, the episode concludes that homes can easily withstand fire, even in areas that are prone to wildfires.

So why spend hundreds of millions funding infrastructure – planes, helicopters, equipment, not to mention the firefighters themselves – to fight fires when you can just let them burn and instead concentrate on a few simple measures to build and retrofit houses to withstand fire?

The second example comes from Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History [2], which focuses on issues from the past that have been ‘overlooked or misunderstood’. I like this podcast because it often reveals structural injustices through examining particular cases.

Episode 5 from Series 3 General Chapman’s Last Stand is a case in point. The episode looks at the history of two neighbours – Mexico and the US – and particularly the migration of people across the border.

From effectively no border at all in the early seventies – free movement of people – the border between the two countries has become less and less porous. Checkpoints, surveillance, fences, and latterly, walls, have slowly made the ease and cost of migration prohibitive.

Mexico Border.jpg

A family stands next to the border wall between Mexico and the United States, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico on 23 May 2017. Photograph: Herika Martinez/AFP/Getty Images

But this has also changed the nature of migration from a circular migration – where workers would cross the border when seasonal work was available and return back over the border to their home and family in Mexico when it wasn’t – to a permanent migration – where workers were ‘locked in’ to the US so also brought their families with them and in effect relocated.

With an open border, migration is dynamic and impermanent. Crucially, net migration stays low. Closing and policing the borders paradoxically raises net migration because it is too hazardous for workers to return home and then attempt to cross to the US again at a later date. So hundreds of millions is spent on keeping people out, when nothing at all achieved approximately the same result!

The two examples follow a similar pattern. First, they are both based on insightful research being carried out, with solid data, revealing an alternative understanding of the problem. Second, that understanding of the problem implies a simpler solution than current practice. And third, the State is invested in maintaining that current practice.

Logically, to achieve better results (on the measures that the current practices themselves use to measure their effectiveness) designers doing nothing, or close to nothing, would result in better solutions. But how can a designer do next to nothing?

The key point above is that the State is invested in maintaining a current practice. In the case of fire, to actively confront the wall of flames. In the case of migration, to directly prevent certain people from entering the country. The State is invested in these practices because of the way it believes people think about these issues (as bad things) and fears the political consequences of not intervening.

The interventions, of course, are designed interventions. A hi-tech wall, an infrared detection drone, a device to drop large amounts of water, a system to dynamically map the spread of fire. These interventions feed the narrative and human drama of both stories: the brave and heroic firefighter, the devastated couple who have lost everything, the family caught trying to cross the border. There is politics, but there is also 24-hour news and expectation.

We have come to believe that fire and economic migrants are bad things, things that will threaten our property and the goods we enjoy. We have also come to believe that they are problems that need be solved in particular ways – through fighting and containment – so the designed interventions are aligned with these ways of framing the problem, and designers will respond to the briefs that fit these problem frames [3].

The problem for a designer wanting to do next to nothing, then, is more than showing that we already have (cost) effective ways to achieve the defined goals. The problem is to create a frame that convinces people and politicians that less interventionist solutions can sometimes be better.

In other words, a designer wanting to do nothing has a lot of work on their hands.


 

References

[1] The 99% Invisible podcast celebrates the unnoticed designed world around us: https://99percentinvisible.org/ Episode 317 looks at how solutions to fighting wildfires might be simpler: https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/built-to-burn/

[2] Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent Revisionist History podcast is available at: http://revisionisthistory.com  Episode 5, Series 3 considers how overly efficient bureaucracy has led to the current US-Mexico border arrangements: http://revisionisthistory.com/episodes/25-general-chapman’s-last-stand

[3] See for example, ‘US-Mexico border wall tender calls for 30-foot-tall concrete barriers’ at https://www.dezeen.com/2017/03/09/us-mexico-border-wall-tender-30-foot-tall-concrete-barriers/

A Dialogue with the Future: Design Thinking and the 21st Century Imagination

I gave my inaugural lecture at Brighton University in December 2015. It draws on a few of the blog posts I’ve written in this blog* and sums up my current thinking about the idea of  Design.

Here is the blurb:

Design, the ‘D’ in TED*, has well and truly broken out of the Design School. In fact it made its escape some decades ago but still retains its potential to develop our collective imagination and enrich inter-disciplinary dialogue.

In this lecture Professor Lloyd will draw on over 20 years of research and teaching to trace a journey from the cognitive activity of the brain to the architecture and politics of democracy, and from Bitcoin to football to education. The linking thread is design thinking and he will argue that understanding design as a process of dialogue is not only fundamental to an ethical engagement with the world, but vital to securing an equitable future for all.

*Technology Entertainment Design: Ideas Worth Spreading When one considers the sheer range of talks that fit under these three words, you realise how important the idea of design has become.

Here is the Video (42 minutes):

Here is the Transcript (opens in a new window):

A Dialogue with the Future: Design Thinking and the 21st Century Imagination (pdf)

*And here are some references:

1. The story of Aaron Swartz is a compelling one. You can see the documentary about his life here: How to Kill a Designer

2. The mystery surrounding the inventer/designer of Bitcoin has been going for some years. I talk about it in Nakamoto’s Last Theorem. However, in the past six months the story has developed considerably. The Australian computer scientist and cryptographer Craig Wright has claimed convincingly to be the originator of Bitcoin and his ‘coming out’ tale is excellently told in an extended piece in the London Review of Books by Andrew O’Hagen.

3. I talk about how Design relates to football here: Dolphin or Shark? Designing the Beautiful Game

4. Design Education in the Wired Weird World starts with architectural education but moves on to talk about the possibilities of Design Education more generally, it also discusses The India Report by Charles and Ray Eames which I touch on briefly in the lecture.

 

Plato, the first User-Centred Design Theorist

Last week I was an external opponent for the PhD thesis defence of Sigrun Lurås at Oslo’s increasingly impressive School of Architecture and Design. Sigrun’s thesis was part of the Ulstein Bridge Vision, Ulstein being one of the more innovative ship makers and based in Norway, the Bridge being that bit of the ship where the captain and others guide operations, and the Vision being a rethinking of the way that the interior and interactions of the bridge take place. The project, now finished, has proved a great success for Ulstein in a conservative industry, triggering a new organizational ‘design-driven approach’ to ship design.

Have a look and see for yourself what a 21st Century Ship’s Bridge looks like – more the celestial ocean around Alpha Centuri than the North Sea off the coast of Norway:

Sigrun’s research consisted of days of fieldwork spent on board offshore vessels documenting the behavior on the bridge and studying the ‘users’ of the ship’s bridge. The knowledge gleaned there formed the basis for the new design of the ship’s bridge and as an Opponent in the PhD exam, I was interested in exploring how ‘what is’ – the existing practices on board the old ship’s bridge – turned into ‘what is to come’ – the future design of the ship’s bridge.

It’s not a new question, of course. As designers have increasingly turned to the methods of ethnography to elicit the needs of users, the question of just how that translation is made has become more pressing. Is the new design about supporting the practices of existing users or getting rid of existing users and practices? Is it about saving or selling?

While ethnographers might reveal the subtle use and structures of artefacts, communication, ritual, and power – leaving the reader to work out their own meanings – the design researcher looks for those things that might form the meaningful basis of a new solution – observations as the seeds of future form. One might argue that this is method maligned; theory bent out of shape in order to neaten and change. The context for a pretext to impose a political sub-text. The designers, with the financial muscle, have the upper hand; the knowledge that wins. The users are the losers. The beast that is a design ethnographer, some might say, is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

It was not always this way.

In 360BC – 2376 years ago – Plato was writing the dialogues that would form The Republic [1], a book featuring Socrates and a cast of other characters, to discuss the ideal state. The Republic covers education, justice, the position of women, philosophy, the immortality of the soul, and… art.

Plato, in the voice of Socrates, was suspicious of artists (and we might include the modern day designer as a kind of artist in the Platonic sense). He thought they were people that could represent the truth without knowing the truth, and that made them dangerous.

He also wrote about the design of vehicle guidance systems and just who one should turn to to know what the suitable form and function should be. In the following excerpt Socrates discusses with Glaucon the bridle and bit of a horse’s harness. Think of the painter in the discussion that follows as a designer.

Socrates: The painter may paint a picture of bridle and bit
Glaucon: Yes
Socrates: But aren’t they made by the harness-maker and smith?
Glaucon: Yes
Socrates: Then does the painter know what the bridle and bit ought to be like? Isn’t this something that even the makers – the harness-maker and the smith – don’t know, but only the horseman who knows how to use them?
Glaucon: True.
Socrates: Isn’t the same thing always true?
Glaucon: Your meaning?
Socrates: You always have the three techniques – use, manufacture, and representation.
Glaucon: Yes.
Socrates: And isn’t the quality, beauty and fitness of any implement or creature or action judged by reference to the use for which man or nature produced it?
Glaucon: Yes.
Socrates: It must follow, then, that the user of a thing has the widest experience of it and must tell the maker how well it has performed its function in the use to which he puts it.

It is use that determines quality, beauty, and fitness for purpose, and only users are properly positioned to judge and communicate those things, Socrates argues.

If Plato were to watch the film of the Ulstein Bridge Vision, as well as other design visualisations I have written about previously [2], he would be sceptical. The high production values, filmic details, and the surging music are all techniques the artist uses to represent, manipulate, and persuade, but not to really know. That knowledge is left out at sea on all the existing Ship’s bridges.

Plato’s account of user-centred design suggests creativity in a tight coupling of maker and user – the maker proposing, the user assessing. Innovation happens organically, incrementally, as a tree slowly bows in a constant wind or a cliff is shaped by an angry sea; as a careful dialogue between what is and what might be. But what if we consider designers as users too? What is it that designers use?

Designers use tools and methods of course, and computers and cardboard, pens and PVA; prototypes, negotiotypes, and just plain old type as they steer the process of design from idea to thing. They know what designing is, so it is the design methodologist that becomes the villain of this piece; the person who represents but doesn’t know. The person that takes something like the slow digestive process of ethnography and packages it up like fast food.

Perhaps in this context it is the designers who are the real losers though, the real pretext for a political or organisational sub-text. Plato mistrusted the artists because he knew that they could foment opinion and upset the balance his ideal State. The aim of design, he might have said, is always political, whether designers know it or not. As Plato’s philosopher successor Aristotle aphoristically puts it: “man is, by nature, a political animal” [3].

References

[1] Plato, The Republic, Penguin Classics (1987)

[2] HS2 and the Dutch Golden Age

[3] Aristotle, The Politics, Penguin Classics (1981)

Dolphin or Shark? Designing the Beautiful Game

Arsene Wenger, manager of Arsenal Football Club, thinks one of his star signings of 2013, Mesut Özil, is now ready to perform at the highest level. Here’s what a recent article said of him:

“Wenger thinks the player he bought for a club record £42.5m from Real Madrid two summers ago is readier than he has ever been to excel, to design the game, consistently and decisively.” [1]

It is time for Mesut Ozil to 'design the game' according to his Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger.

It is time for Mesut Özil to ‘design the game’ according to his Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger.

That’s a funny phrase there, right at the end: ‘to design the game’. I’ve come across players as ‘architects’ of a football match, or ‘play makers’, but not heard of a footballer described as a designer before.

It sort of makes sense. Football has long been a source of good metaphors about the process of design – there is teamwork, strategy, star individuals, a manager with a plan, and people that perform to that plan, as the game is crafted and made. Below is a 1975 photo of my colleague and design methods guru Nigel Cross, explaining the design process with football props for an early Open University television programme.

TV_football[1]

Nigel Cross illustrates concepts of design using a football model for a 1975 Open University programme.

Ozil might be a designer in the classic sense – an individual, intuitively shaping the form of something; someone exploring, trying things out and, in being consistent and decisive, retaining (more-or-less) overall control.

That might be where Wenger is wrong, though, because nowadays there are other candidates for the designer of a game of football; indeed many other types of sporting contest too.

The way that performance data can now be captured and used in real-time is changing the nature of sport into a battle of data acquisition and interpretation. The team car following Chris Frome up L’Alpe Duez in the Tour de France is doing more than just waiting for him to puncture. It is acting as his brain, processing his ‘numbers’ on a laptop. Data about his heart rate, effort, and power tell the team just how much energy he has left to give, which means they can communicate to him exactly what he has the capacity to do. They can tell him to raise the pace because his numbers are looking good, they can tell him to slow down because he’s touching the red zone; they can tell him he needs some food, or something to drink. He is, in effect, their machine. They know what his body can do in extremis better than he does.

Knowing your numbers is not just something for elite sportspeople.  The proliferation of the smartphone and associated devices has heralded what philosopher Julian Baggini has termed ‘the quantified self’.  The Apple iWatch, with it’s ability to constantly monitor our physiological makeup has the potential to change how we understand what our lives are about:

“The Apple Watch will make mainstream the hitherto minority obsession with the “quantified self”. This is an approach to living which encourages the relentless gathering of data about everything related to our wellbeing, from health and fitness indicators like heart rate and cholesterol levels, to time spent on social media or learning new skills. All this data is supposedly used to make us leaner, fitter, happier, more efficient.” [2]

To design our lives, in other words. Anyone that has ever used Sleepcycle (see pic below), which monitors sleeping patterns and wakes us when we are ready to be awoken, will understand this design intervention in our lives. The ‘quantified self’ means that we become the agents of a faraway designer, not the designers of our own lives, free to learn from our mistakes (freewill notwithstanding).

Sleepcycle

Three nights of sleep monitoring by the Sleepcycle iPhone App.

That makes the freedom that Arsene Wenger implies that Mesut Özil has, in designing the game, sound both attractive and old fashioned; like a craftsman from a bygone era.

Football has, for quite a while, collected increasingly more detailed information on what happens during a game. It started, like baseball before it, by counting tackles made, passes completed, distance run, etc. but that was only ever half the story:

“Until recently, it was very much about collecting data on what had happened, without looking at why it had happened,” says Paul Power, a data scientist at Prozone. Power cites the great Italian defender Paolo Maldini as an example of a player who might be marked down by a system that values tackling and intercepting; because his positional play was so good he had less need to do these things.” [3]

As sensors and electronics have shrunk, and with physiological and other data being added to the data mix, the analysis of data has got more sophisticated and can now be used during a game. That means the game can be designed from the touchline using a dashboard of indicators and drawing in theories about complexity to model emergent forms of play and plan how interventions might work:

“Power used a video clip of a shoal of sardines reacting to the presence of sharks to illustrate the more sophisticated approach rapidly gaining ground in football. ‘We’re reconceptualising football as a complex dynamic system’ [he says]”. [3]

The implication is that our plans and intuition aren’t working, or aren’t working well enough. That’s not to say, though, that we won’t at some point be able to monitor cognition and thought process, and by implication look at the quality of design thinking that someone like Özil is demonstrating. The intelligence that someone like Paolo Maldini uses, to do more with less, could then be factored into dynamic performance data.

Until that day Wenger’s touchline impotence means he has to rely on someone on the pitch to design the game on his behalf, someone with intelligence and vision and swiftness of thought and foot. Someone like Mesut Özil, in fact. But Mesut is an unpredictable and sometimes fragile soul. So on his off days, Wenger might do well to swap his dolphin for a shark.

References

[1] Amy Lawrence (2nd August, 2015) Mesut Özil becomes central to Arsène Wenger’s way of thinking at Arsenal, The Observer

[2] Julian Baggini (11th March, 2015) Apple Watch: Are you feeling the terror? The Guardian

[3] Nic Fleming (2nd August, 2015) How science is fine-tuning our elite footballers, The Observer

Gasoline Stations: Signifiers of Future’s Past

The artist Ed Ruscha loves a Gas Station. From Arizona to Oklahoma to Texas to LA, Ed recorded twenty six of them in his book Twenty Six Gasoline Stations (to go with Thirty Four Parking Lots). These roadside pavilions stand with their reassuring brand out front, beckoning to the long distance motorist – modern forms in the face of wild nature – we’re here to keep you going, they say, why don’t you stop by?

Ruscha explains why he is interested in the gas station as a form:

“I would look at a building and disregard the purpose of that building (in this case a commercial outlet to sell gasoline).  I was really more interested in this crazy little design that was repeated by all the gas companies to make stations with an overhang to create shade for their customers.  It seemed to me a very beautiful statement.”[1]

Gas in the tank keeps the world economy going too and Standard Oil, shown in one of Ruscha’s Gasoline Station photos below, was once the world’s largest corporation.

Ed Ruscha Gas Station Photo

Ruscha takes this image and stylises it in the drawing below (and subsequent painting), simplifying the form and accentuating the perspective so the viewer feels smaller and the building more dynamic; maybe even hubristic.

Ed Ruscha Gas Station Drawing

Ruscha likens the image he produced to railroad tracks, the camera down low:

“So [the train] appeared as though it was coming from nowhere, from a little point in the distance, to suddenly filling your total range of vision.  In a sense, that’s what the Standard gas station is doing.  It’s super drama.”

The gas station becomes abstract and generic too – the shop is blanked out to foreground the four pumps and the ‘Standard’ sign. We could be anywhere in America now, but it is a vision, or reflection, of modernity – in architecture, in service, and in the victory of the automobile and mobility. The artistic statement, of course, is ambiguous; the celebration, if it is there at all, carries undercurrents; of Hopper-like loneliness and alienation, of urban fragility, of corporate dominance, of Hollywood glamour.

Perhaps inspired by Ruscha’s inspiration (or the Hollywood glamour) I too have become a connoisseur of gas stations – the US and the UK variety – particularly gas stations that have closed down, leaving Ruscha-like abstractions of themselves; frozen at a time when the petroleum ran out (at least for the locality).

I came across a good example recently in West Sussex, an ex-Esso petrol station with the pumps still intact. Esso, coincidently, were one of the off-shoots of Standard Oil when it was broken up for being a monopoly – the S and O of Standard Oil forming the phonetic Esso.

Esso Garage

This time though, rather than a sense of modern design’s triumph over nature, there was a sense of nature beginning to re-take control. The spiders’ webs on the pump handles and weeds beginning to push through the concrete a testament to the first signs of ruin.

Petrol Pump

There was an eerie, pre-apocalyptic feel to the place, like the oil had run out not just in the locality, but in the rest of the country too, the pumps stuck at a time when unleaded cost 98.9 pence per litre.  Less super drama, more like the end of the road.

Petrol pump reading

Today it is Apple who are the world’s largest company, with Google not too far behind. Tech companies have overtaken the oil giants but they need energy to function and fossil fuels are falling out of fashion. In 20 years there may be many more gas stations in ruins – signifiers, not of progress and modernity, as in the 1962 of Ruscha, but relics of a past when we took and took and took from the earth until there was no more.

 

[1] Wolf, S. (2004) Ed Ruscha and Photography, Whitney Museum of American Art.

[2] Ibid.

The End of Capitalism or Capitalism by Design?

There was an interesting article [1] in The Observer this weekend by Paul Mason, the Economics editor for Channel 4, and author of a new book called Postcapitalism: A Guide to our Future. The article argues (as I assume the book does) that information can form the productive core of a world beyond capitalism – a freer, networked, more idea-driven world. A world where openness and collaboration will be key.  To get to that world Mason points to both the creative and productive aspects of design thinking. Towards the end of the article he summarises:

“The power of imagination will become critical. In an information society, no thought, debate or dream is wasted – whether conceived in a tent camp, prison cell or the table football space of a startup company.

“As with virtual manufacturing, in the transition to postcapitalism the work done at the design stage can reduce mistakes in the implementation stage. And the design of the postcapitalist world, as with software, can be modular. Different people can work on it in different places, at different speeds, with relative autonomy from each other.”

He ends:

“We need more than just a bunch of utopian dreams and small-scale horizontal projects. We need a project based on reason, evidence and testable designs, that cuts with the grain of history and is sustainable by the planet. And we need to get on with it.”

On a first reading I nodded my head, connecting with what was said – the value of ideas from areas least expected, the need for imagination, the intrinsic relevance of design, and particularly the open-source nature of the postcapitalism project.

But rewind a bit and read about that modular design process again and it all begins to sound a bit, well, 1970s.  Right down to the ‘post’ prefix of the book title.

In previous posts I’ve talked about the economics of intangible goods, about open-source design processes and about how design thinking can be appropriated for good or bad.  Mason’s article does kind of add all those things up in a thought-provoking way, but I’m just wondering, now that governments around the world are on to design in a big way [2], if Postcapitalism might just be Capitalism by Design.

 

[1] Mason, P (2015) The End of Capitalism has Begun, The Observer, Sunday 19th July.

[2] See, for example, a recent gathering of government policy labs which use methods of design to develop policy.

How to Kill a Designer

In a past post I wrote about the mysterious design genius of Bitcoin creator Satoshi Nakamoto and on BBC television recently was a documentary about another internet shaper – Aaron Swartz, who played major parts in developing RSS feed technology, Creative Commons implementation, and the social news website Reddit. The documentary is called The Internet’s Own Boy and is available (courtesy of Creative Commons) through The Documentary Network.

I urge you to watch this to gain an account of how global politics is lumberingly, awkwardly, waking up to the democratic power of the web and how that, paradoxically, is threatening democracy, or at least what passes for democracy in the western world, post Wikileaks and Edward Snowden. It is a hopeful, then utterly heartbreaking, account of how someone with technical genius and political skill, someone devoted to democratic ideals of openness, and with the energy, creativity, and organisation to really achieve change, is slowly and deliberately brought down.

I hadn’t heard of Schwartz before I watched the film but it is clear how much hope was invested in him. What I was struck by was a T-Shirt he wears in a brief scene about half-way through the film (shown below):

Design can Save the World

Aaron Swartz’s T-Shirt: “Design will Save the World”

“Design will save the world”, it says, and it’s easy to see why he might have seen design as a key force in the projects he was involved with: creating forums for knowledge exchange, making ‘private’ research information public, and allowing creative outputs to be used by all. But designing at this level is becoming a dangerous and political business, which probably means it is absolutely vital that we try to protect and support those people who know how to do it.

Unreal Realism: The Stories in Postcards

Two interests collided the other day: continuing photographic experimentation and postcard collecting. I recently bought a mini-magnetic-macro lens for my iPhone (nowadays the only camera I carry with me) and have been rediscovering the worlds revealed by extreme close up. Buying the postcard shown below, of Selfridges department store in Oxford Street, London circa 1970, and taking close up photos with the macro lens, revealed some nice aesthetic effects along with reflections on suddenly examined life.

Oxford Street

The postcard is of Oxford Street I’m guessing circa 1970 and shows a classic red bus / black cab shot of London outside the famous Selfridges department store.

IMG_4301

The first macro photo is from the bottom left of the Postcard.

IMG_4300

The second macro photo is from the bottom right of the Postcard.

The image samples remind me of a sophisticated computer-generated model for a new piece of urban design (see past posts on representation); not quite real, not quite not-real; unreal realism you might call it.

The narrow depth of field of the lens introduces a realistic motion that isn’t there in the postcard, while the people caught in focus move centre-stage. What is that old man thinking as he crosses the road? He looks so… sad, reflective and calm amongst the bustle of traffic and people. Perhaps he has just lost his job, or wife? or maybe he is just walking to work. Perhaps he knows the women in the second image, just about to cross the road, with her bags?  Perhaps she is his wife, or daughter, or the women next door that he often catches himself thinking about.

How to Grip the World: The Artist and the Designer

Two quotes caught my eye recently, both about the nature of ideas in the creative process. One is from an international artist and the other is from an international designer, see if you can tell which is which:

Here is the first, from Person 1:

“Between an idea and doing something, there’s a bridge. First you make a sketch, it’s a small doodle but it’s amazing, at that moment you have changed the world! Then you might do another drawing, a cardboard model, add colour, put it into a computer, maybe a scientist assists. The assumption in our society is that creativity lies within these choices, between cardboard and wood, red and blue, floor or ceiling, but it doesn’t. It is in the quality of the way it grips the world.”

And here is the second, from Person 2:

“I don’t know anybody who has just had an idea and then will stand up in front of a group of people and try to explain this vague thought. So it tends to be exclusive and fragile. When you make the very first physical manifestation of what the idea [is], everything changes. It’s the most profound shift because it’s not exclusive any more, it’s not so open to interpretation, it’s there, and it includes a lot of people. The ideas aren’t the most difficult bit, it’s the actually making them real. Giving an idea body is very hard.”

So ideas, according to the two people above, are neither in the thought or the thing, but in ‘the quality of the way an idea grips the world’, in the case of the first quote, or ‘making [the idea] real’, in the case of the second quote. It’s in how the embodied idea forces its way into the world.

Two more clues:

Person 1 has a studio that employs ninety people: architects, engineers, technicians, and two cooks. Person 2 works for a global computer corporation. Getting warm yet?

The fact that it is difficult to tell who is who in the above quotes reveals a similarity between art and design that is often overlooked; roughly speaking, the emergent quality of things. Both are iterative processes of making, to find out what is or might be. And this is a delicate process, easy to disrupt by too much exposure, too soon. An artist or designer must be able to handle fragility and uncertainty, nourishing and nurturing an idea whenever the opportunity arises – in making, in testing, in conversation, in thought.

That’s why a supportive environment is so vital to creative processes; to help both the nourishing and nurturing and in determining the degree to which an idea grips the world. The studio is the traditional environment that supports the growth and exploration of ideas – in music recording, across the arts, and design – but ideas of what a studio can be are opening up and going online. In the words of Person 1: “The studio is not a closed unit, it’s an instrumental part of society; creativity is about interdependence”.

That says something about the way we should value creativity in society, I think, as something that both generates growth and connects expertise around a common discourse. That might be a design discourse or an artistic discourse, but the effects are the same: compelling ideas that show us how we should live, and help us to live better.

So I’ll leave the last word to Person 2:

“[The creative process] is the most extraordinary process. The way that it comes from nothing. When you step back and you think about it, it’s bizarre, that it’s Wednesday afternoon at 3 and there’s nothing. There is nothing at all. And then at 5, there’s an idea…”

And who are the people?

Well, Person 1 is Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, famous for the 2006 ‘Weather Project’ setting sun in the Turbine Hall at London’s Tate Modern, and Person 2 is the British head of Design at Apple Computers, Jonathan Ive.

Not so different, really.

References

Design Education is Tragic says Jonathan Ive, Dezeen, November 2014, http://tinyurl.com/mju3pkf

His Place in the Sun, Olafur Eliasson tells Jackie Wullschlager about the challenge of staging an immersive spectacle at the museum of France’s richest man, Financial Times Weekend, 6-7th September, 2014.
http://tinyurl.com/pddxnp3