Wednesday, June 8, 2005

Designing neither services nor products

On technology as material in design
Johan Redström

"Although hopes have been raised that new flexible technologies would support more adaptive and open designs, it seems there is more to the fixation of functions than deliberate intentions. A certain focus on the practical functions of technical objects seem to come not only from our basic understanding of these kind of things, but also from the situation we find ourselves in as we try to design them...

[W]hile we can determine the design of a thing, we can only predict its use. And this is where we risk fixating its functions and to some extent also ways of using it – confusing the two different tasks, that of designing the object with that of predicting its use, we try to determine its use the way we determine its design...

With respect to design, as in part being a clear statement of intended use that the user can understand and immediately relate to, this reduction in the space available for expression and explanation forces us to make decisions about what to bring forth and what to hide away. As we deal with the question of what to explain and express, we base our decisions on the notions of use that guide the design process. The surface, then, becomes a kind of interface supporting predetermined modes of communication. But we soon approach a situation where we seem to be trying to achieve the impossible, namely, to properly express the inner workings of the object while at the same time hiding its complexity...

[W]hen the user leaves the domain of intended use, or when something does not work the way they expected, the surface the device presents to the user makes little sense. To be able re-appropriate and re-interpret such things, the ‘user’ would have to create a ‘new’ surface that better suits her needs and intentions – at least this could be one way of looking at what it means to be ‘hacking’ technical objects...

What is at issue is not whether designers are capable of designing nothings rather than things, that is to say, services rather than products, but rather whether designers are capable of designing things that are not finished. It is less a matter of designing a different sort of thing than a matter of a thoroughly different form of designing, one that is perhaps better described as form of ‘continuous design’ or ‘redesigning’."

Redström's dissertation work is really interesting and I've cited it in past papers - but now it is becoming less clear to me how technology is a "material" in design. The content I excerpted above then tends to focus on the design process rather than materiality per se. The introduction from Tony Fry & Anne-Marie Willis' forthcoming book Ecologies of Steel does a better job, I think, of tackling the question of materiality by using an ecological approach somewhat similar to my own use of multiplicities and assemblages.

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