Forms

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)

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.

Delirious and Asymmetrical in Rotterdam

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Travelling smoothly and swiftly on high speed rail last week, first on the Eurostar from London to Brussels and then on the Thalys from Brussels to Rotterdam. I arrived at Rotterdam in the middle of the opening ceremony for the new train station (left in the photo above).  The Dutch King, Willem Alexander, had been earlier in the day to cut the ribbon and as I walked out to the main concourse the Dutch version of Arethra Franklin was belting out R&B.

I lived in Holland from 1999 to 2005 and was a regular visitor to Rotterdam (and its train station) which became one of my favourite cities.  You get a kind of cold, wind-blown, exhilaration as you walk around what, to all outward appearances, looks like a modern architect’s playground.  The sculptural form of the new station perfectly fits the Rotterdam cityscape which is fast becoming an essay in something much larger in scale than the humble human.

Rotterdam Station

One could blame Rem Koolhaas, whose Kunsthal was an early example of his disorienting approach to architecture, and who still has his office in the city, flogging Harvard architecture graduates to within an inch of their usefulness.  Or perhaps one could blame the Germans for leveling the city in 1940, and providing a canvas for a new city plan and buildings of steadily increasing modernity and out-there architectural experimentation (witness the cube houses by Piet Blom for example, or take a trip to the Netherlands Architectuur Institute).

But really, what is there to blame for? The city is a magnificent realisation of the future, where one feels properly alienated; cowed by the buildings that shift and change as the light of the day passes overhead, shafted by the cold wind that never seems to stop, and entertained by video screens as large as basketball courts.  Standing in the middle of the Schouwburgplein (theatre plaza), watching people interact with the large hydraulic street lamps slowly bending over like mechanical giraffes, one feels in the grip of someone else’s dream.

Back in 2005 the Kop van Zuid, on the south bank of the Maas, was just reaching completion where the Erasmus bridge, nicknamed ‘the swan’ for it’s white, hi-tech, asymmetrical, harp-stringed beauty, brought a formal coherence to the whole scheme.  Similarly, the new station, with another asymmetrical curve, and another nickname (‘the kapsalon’, a late night food dish presented in an aluminium tray package and invented by a hair dresser) feels like it properly integrates both the city space north of the Maas and all the transport systems that arrive and link together at the station – trains of course, but also trams, buses, cars, bicycles, and pedestrians.

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A recent punctuation point on the way from train station to river, from North to South, is the new Paulus Kerk, a copper-clad, future-take on the old church, which sold it’s land for some funky high-rise developments and got a mega-sized piece of Will Alsop jewelry in return.  “when I first saw it I wondered if it was really copper”, my Rotterdam-based friend Dirk said, “but then I saw the green oxidization near the pavement where people had pissed on the building, so I knew it was.”  The buildings of Rotterdam may create a thrilling skyline, but they still have to meet the ground somewhere.  And as long as they continue to do so, there will always be an opportunity to piss on architects’ dreams.