Ron Wakkary is a professor of design at Simon Fraser University’s School of Interactive Arts and Technology in Canada. He is also a professor, holding the Chair of Design for More Than Human-Centered Worlds, in the industrial design department at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands.
Ron is the founder of the design research studio Everyday Design Studio (EDS). At EDS, he works with Will Odom and an evolving cast of students to produce multi-disciplinary design research that is highly engaged with the practice and craft of design. For UX designers and industrial designers looking for ideas and inspiration from social sciences, humanities, and philosophy, executed in design artifacts, the work from EDS is a fantastic resource.
Ron recently published the book Things We Could Design: For More Than Human-Centered Worlds via MIT Press. The book packages his research focused on “post-humanist design” rather than human-centered design, bringing non-human stakeholders like nature, climate, and biological diversity into the focus of design methodology.
Links and Resources from the Conversation
- ArkDes (the Swedish national centre for architecture and design)
- Artist Char Davies
- Artist Eduardo Kac
- Artist Gerhard Richter
- Article: Design-oriented human-computer interaction by Fallman (2003)
- Article: Research through design as a method for interaction design research in HCI by Zimmerman et al. (2007)
- Book: Design Research through Practice by Koskinen et al.
- Book: Discipline & Punish by Michel Foucault
- Book: In Praise of Shadows by Junichiro Tanizaki
- Book: Staying with the Trouble by Donna Haraway
- Book: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff
- Book: The Overstory by Richard Powers
- Book: The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram
- Book: Things We Could Design by Ron Wakkary
- Book: Vibrant Matter by Jane Bennett
- Book: What Things Do by Peter-Paul Verbeek
- Everyday Design Studio
- Film: Helvetica by Gary Hustwit
- Film: Objectified by Gary Hustwit
- Film: Rams by Gary Hustwit
- Book: Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux
- Moderna Museet in Stockholm
- Planetary Collegium, formerly CAiiA-STAR
- Researcher Thecla Schiphorst
I want to ask about your personal story.
This is not something you talk about in your academic papers and books.
I actually don't think I've ever seen you talk about your background in a recorded interview – since I've seen a bunch of your presentations and things... But I know that there are some interesting stepping stones that you've had until you got to this point in your career.
So how did your life, education, and your work transpire, to end up as a design professor? How how did your relationship with design evolve in the process? Have you been a designer?
I think you're right. I haven't really talked about it. So maybe you tell me when the story gets too long because it's not a straight line...
I have one thing that I think goes through it, it's this idea of being creative, and making things... And then it became technologies, and then being critical about the things that I make.
I started out... I wanted to be a painter.
And even that's not a straight-line story. The particular kind of painting I really became interested in was actually sort of conceptual art and painting. And this goes back when to when I was an undergraduate student...
Where was this?
This was in Nova Scotia. It was at an art school called the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, which was actually quite famous for conceptual art.
I went, and while there I studied with a German artist. His name is Gerhard Richter. He's actually quite known for this idea of combining conceptual art and painting, and doing, sort of, paintings about paintings. At the same time, he would paint realist paintings, kind of like photographs, or slightly blurred... At the same time, painting large or very painterly kinds of abstract paintings. He had this sort of distancing and conceptual understanding of what it meant to be a painter.
At the same time, these paintings were incredibly... Well, to just craft them... They were just aesthetic. They were very material. They had actually an emotional quality to them. So there was a kind of duality to them. That really struck me as something quite wonderful about painting, that you could open up a kind of space to think about not just what the painting showed, but the act of painting and what the painting was about.
From there, I moved to New York to become an artist. I set out, that's what I was going to do.
That's like a stereotype, people moving to New York, moving to LA, to these places, to become an artist, an actor... You've actually done it!
I actually did it.
How did it go?
As a young person, you commit yourself to it. And you see a whole community of people where it's taken more seriously, committed to what it means to make art and what it means to make contemporary art.
The value of being in New York is that there are so many artists, and of course, that's also the challenge. But you get involved in the communities very quickly. And you get to learn the difference between what you learned in school, and what the contemporary reality is. And that's the practice, and the profession, and the community of making art.
But at the same time, there are other things going on. Namely, new technologies were coming out. Internet technologies. Now, this was the time when literally, when I first moved to New York, this was before there was such a thing as the Web. I mean, we had ARPANET. We had bulletin boards...
What is the year that we're talking about here?
This would have been in the early 90s. The late 80s or early 90s.
This idea of technology, it became an issue in terms of art. And I actually became quite interested in media art and technology. And also shifted... I was, in some sense, also kind of disillusioned with the art world. It really shifted to an interest, much more of an interest, in collaborative work, rather than in the individual work of being an artist. Working with people on technologies, and working on how this, you know, how to make art, perhaps, through media.
We formed a media art collective. But at the same time, it was also my real first encounter with design, that you actually had to shape things to support other people. This was kind of a way of collaborating. To help artists by making tools and creating software and so on.
Then I opened up a design consultancy. So I had two [jobs]: running a design consultancy, and a media art collective. And I began working.
We had a number of different clients, but we had a lot of clients that were museums. They were really interested in how these technologies were shaping art, and also shaping how to exhibit art, and how it's shaping the institutions themselves, like museums, you know... What does it mean now when you can have this kind of connected, distributed way of viewing an experience like art, and you don't necessarily need to have that analog going-to-the-museum kind of experience...
Of course, things have changed. But there, in the chaos of it all, the uncertainty of it all, was a lot of opportunity and a lot of excitement. So that actually pushed me, really, to a different kind of practice, which was really more of a design practice.
I also then took on a position at Parsons School of Design, to really help develop the start of a digital design department.
And then I moved back to Canada, because I'm originally Canadian, to help start up a new technical university. And I really had no idea about academia. I literally hadn't, like... I mean, I obviously went to school, but the idea of being an academic in the university sense was not something I ever really entertained.
But I then learned. I looked at it like research was a creative, critical platform, like the media art collective I had, like an art studio. To me, it was almost the same thing, but it was of a different scale.
I think the thing that struck me about design, unlike art, was the immediate impact it had on people. Really, the everydayness of it, and how it shapes... I was talking about how it shapes institutions like museums... In my experience, it was so obvious, and immediate, and particularly incredible with the technologies..
But design really had this fundamental impact on the world. Art seemed more latent. It just took more, you know, it was more complicated.
Then, the idea that I could perhaps, as an academic, create this platform through research, was how I saw it.
Of course, I realized, I needed to do a Ph.D., to really kind of fully credentialize. And also, I learned to get the skills to do research, the competencies to do research. It goes beyond credibility – to ask questions slightly differently, to pursue them slightly differently. But they were still the same kind of questions. I think this speaks to me learning what it meant to do research.
My Ph.D. program was a really interesting, very chaotic kind of experience. It was called CAiiA-STAR. It was led by a person named Roy Ascott, who was actually quite known in the early days of media art. He did art at a distance, what was known as telematic media. And this was pre-Internet. So, how do you view this art at a distance, and work through network technologies...
He had this idea... At the time, there were not many opportunities for designers or for artists to do PhDs. But as the technologies were getting more complex, there was a need to dig more deeply into this kind of research, to do things, I suppose, at a level of depth that would require a Ph.D.
So he created a Ph.D. program for media. For artists, for designers, that were typically quite well known, mid-career. So for example – and of course, this speaks to the period – Eduardo Kac was an artist who actually worked with a biotechnology firm in France to create a fluorescent rabbit, to show this combination between technology and nature. He was exploring the relationships.
Char Davies was another sort of artist-designer. She actually was a founder of Softimage 3D animation software. But she also did, her work was in VR. And to this day – I mean, this would have been in maybe late nineties – to this day I think, I mean to me, maybe some of the best VR work that I had ever seen, which was very simple... Of course, the technologies weren't as advanced then.
And also a colleague that I work with now, Thecla Schiphorst, who was one of the first to do work in somaesthetics, which is now something that people, at least in academic research on design and HCI are very interested in.
Yeah, but we would... Roy would organize... We didn't have a place, but he would organize these mini-conferences. We were almost like a traveling caravan. It was almost a little bit like Mission Impossible: You would get a message, an email saying in two, in four weeks, we are going to meet in this place in Brazil, and you had to find money and ways to get there. And we would do these ten-day residencies, three times a year.
So just re-situate ourselves, this is the late 90s, I presume?
So this is the late 90s, early 2000s.
What is the institution that you're in? Which university were you working at?
It was called CaiiA-STAR. That was the Ph.D. program. It was based at the University of Wales and Plymouth University in the UK. So that's where my actual degree is from: It's from Plymouth.
But you were located, residing in Canada during this time?
I was residing in Canada. Many people, all the people in the program were from all over the world. And we would get together three times a year, ten days at a time. And try to figure out what this whole Ph.D. research was about.
That's such a difference. Very different from most Ph.D. programs now. Now it's much easier to do a Ph.D. in design, in fine art.
Still one of the more obscure PhDs, though. Like, it's not chemistry or something which people have... It's like more common. A PhD in design is more rare. And what I've observed is that a good PhD in design, which really contributes to you in many dimensions, is rare.
It's not in every place in the world, it's not even in every country in the world that you can find one. So you really have to chase these things and go to where they are done properly if you really want to advance in this field.
So you can imagine then, the late 90s and early 2000s, where, you know, there are even fewer opportunities. And also, institutions were not necessarily ready to accept the idea that there would be this kind of PhD-level of a discipline like design. So hence, you had someone like Roy Ascott to create the kind of program that he did at that time.
I made an episode about research through design, and how it became an idea in interaction design research, in our academic communities.
It was a thing that became prominent in the 2000s or 2010s, I guess. Before that it was much harder, I guess, to do design work and have that accepted as academic research. But that idea of research through design laid the foundations for that.
Was that your observation as well? Was that an idea that you were taking up at the time, or were there other ideas, other foundations, or other theories that allowed you to integrate yourself in the academic establishment?
In terms of research through design... That, actually, as an articulation, came quite late. You know, for me, I was, at that point, already quite involved in academic research. And that spoke to some of [those in human-computer interaction].
I ended up doing a lot of research in the field of human-computer interaction, which intersected with computer science, and became home for a lot of people that did design research, and could piggyback off of computer science, so to speak, [since] it was an established discipline.
But within that, in human-computer interaction, the role of design was always fairly an ambivalent relationship to, say, the science of psychology, or the science of cognitive science. Where did design fit in terms of its methodologies, and how could it make valid claims to knowledge?
So research through design... I think that would have been, like, research as articulated as we commonly see it now. I guess it would be like 2000. This period between 2000... I'm losing my dates now, 2005, 2006...
2007, I think, there is the famous paper by Zimmermann, Forlizzi, and Evenson...
There was a workshop at CHI, which is the Conference for Human-Computer Interaction, in Vienna. I believe that was in 2005, or 2006... Around the time that paper was, or might have been the year before that.
There was also a paper published by Daniel Fallman, which was really important within human-computer interaction, which also spoke about design-oriented research vs. research-oriented design.
Like many theories, the practice was already there. But it became a way of articulating and conceptualizing, and in some sense rationalizing, a practice that was for many people already well-established. It was also a form, a way to communicate this to other people.
And of course, then, I think in research through design, there was also the constructive design research, by Ilpo and others, which I think also popularized the idea.
When I was doing the work, there were other people, very interested in practice-based research. So there were other models, that came out of the performance. There are other models of doing research, that were related to creative practices. They came out of music, they came out of dance, and they came out of the performing arts. And this kind of "practice-based research" was really the sort of term before research through design. That is, you gain knowledge through practice. And that's what I would draw on.
My initial PhD research was exactly that. It was really looking at my own practice of designing things and how that could be, how knowledge could be generated through the very practice of doing design or being creative. This was prior to the terminology of research to design.
And then you finished the PhD. Did you then immediately find the post at SFU, that you have right now, and then proceed there, or were there intermediate steps?
No, I actually finished my PhD while I already had my post at SFU, and then I finished my PhD. But you know, you do have this, where you have sort of professors of practice, or many of those professors who focus on teaching.
I strongly believe in the ability to do research through making things, and through practice. So I think that's under-valued. And that's a good argument for why people are doing a high level of research. But like I said before, I did it because I knew that, you know, there's the idea of having credibility among peers. I mean, to be in among those who you're competing with in a sense...
You are competing intellectually at least, trying to share ideas. And having a PhD puts you on a more level playing field. But like I said before, there also I did learn. There are real competencies and skills in doing research that are different than the research I was doing before my PhD.
When you say practice, what does that involve?
Do you spend time at the laser cutter, or is it interviewing people and collecting UX design insights?
What are the actual tactics and the physical things that you're doing when you talk about your practice? What kinds of objects or things have you designed, for example?
My practice now ranges quite a bit, and that's partly through collaboration that I engage in. I work, you know, through the studio, and we have different skill sets within the studio.
But it is based on, in some sense, some fairly traditional work around form-giving that you would do in design. We've done this through different materials, through ceramics, for example, through AI, through textiles. We've also done that through software, through sensing technologies, and creating sensing environments.
I like to be fairly fluid about that. It's really the question I want to ask. And at the heart of this, of course, are some really prototyping with electronics, where we are prototyping in Arduino, for example. We do a lot of physical prototyping through 3D printing. But also, in the textile work, you do it in samples.
So the practice is at the heart of it. I think the process is very much a kind of design process of making. Going through the ideas of what it is you want to do, the ideations. Who are you doing it for? Why are you doing it? What do you need to gather in terms of materials and techniques?
I'm certainly working within the confines of doing technology, or digital technology-based design. So there's almost always a computational part. That includes machine learning, network connectivity, to the basic, you know, programming that you might have to do to manage the processing. We design a lot of tangible artifacts.
So it is quite the range. I think it's somewhere between tangible computing, product design, and software engineering.
But at the same time, and I really want to push this... We actually restrict ourselves in terms of what we want to work with, and what we think the outcomes of design are, and then open it up. So to me, sometimes, to look back to prior materials, or what [we] call technology – ceramics as a technology, in the broad sense, or a lot of digital technologies, which are really indebted to early work that was done within weaving, in textiles, on the Jacquard loom.
And again, it just kind of broadens the remit, the kind of understanding of what can come out of the act of designing.
Things We Could Design: For More Than Human-Centered Worlds
by Ron Wakkary
Speaking of things that you've been designing, you have a book... I have it here, actually signed by you. So thank you for that. And it's called Things That We "Could" Design.
And the subtitle is, "For More Than Human-Centered Worlds."
What is the core message of your book?
I've actually read this book, so I have some idea of what you're saying, but I think you are more practiced in articulating what this book is about. So I'll let you describe what you're trying to say here.
What I'm trying to say is: What happens if we think beyond human-centered design, or user-centered design? And why might we do that?
I see this through discussions with design students and young designers... The questions around design, the kind of urgency.... It's a question for everybody, it certainly impacts design... Questions around the climate crisis, the questions around the inequities in the world, the questions about what more can we design, and what is the good in design...
I think, in some ways, perhaps we've explored [these questions] within the model of human-centered design. In a way we've hit certain limits. Also it has been at a cost. We know it's been at a cost in terms sustainability. We know it's been at a cost of who can use the technologies that are designed, and the inequities that that creates. We know it comes at a cost in terms of, say, replicating certain values and not others. And that creates some of the issues we have faced around racism or decolonization, etc.
When you kind of probe deeper, you see behind human-centered design is a broader concept: the broader concept of human exceptionalism. We philosophically have called it humanism, since it's grounded a lot in philosophy.
Humanism is that kind of Western-European Enlightenment notion. As an idea, it was moving away from religion, and trying to see the power of human reason as a way to progress and make a better world.
So humans were above everything else, in this kind of human exceptionalism. And that human exceptionalism contributes to ideas like human-centered design and some of the cost.
So the question I ask is, can we think past that? Can have more-than-human-centered? What does that mean?
That means thinking differently about the fact that we are not the only ones who control things. There are other agencies. Technologies seems to be out of control, because they actually shape us, as much as we shake them. What we design doesn't just impact human experience, or human productivity, or human use. It has consequences on other living beings and other species. We cohabit the world. In that way, design is very relational, and relational beyond humans. And that's something I think human-centered design does not account for.
So coming back and thinking through, this belief I have is that design is always asking the question: What is the good in design? And, how to design well? In the book, I take this notion that the good in design is to design so that we can cohabit the world.
This is a way that we can cohabit world now, and cohabit with the world on an ongoing basis in the future. And that means, I think, a much more deeply understood relational understanding of how we connect to things beyond us.
But if we accept that... So then, this is the kind of, "OK, great idea, but what do we do with it?" The book then tries to tackle new concepts, new ways, in which I think we have to change the way we design. To not just think about designing for sustainability, using the same ways we design, replicating all kinds of issues that have not been sustainable, and suddenly saying, "we're going to use those same means to design for sustainability..."
I think we have to rethink the assumptions. And if we're going to forgo some of the humanist notions, what are some other philosophies that can guide us? This is the kind of pursuit that I take on: more-than-human thinking, or posthumanism.
I think it opens up in a very expansive way. There are many, for example, indigenous epistemologies, indigenous ways of thinking, that are very relational. There are non-European ways of thinking...
I would like to put forward a narrative that can hopefully get some traction in what's the current, dominant narrative of design. Being able to see possibilities of designing in different ways, that address the issues that I talked about.
These are very sophisticated ideas... There are many ideas that you're talking about here. Hence, the book, and not an article, or not just a presentation or whatever. It's a whole book, which is a lot of work to do. There are a lot of ideas in there.
The way I think about these kinds of things is that, we have these ideas that might end up changing the world. They might end up being put into practice at some point. But they always need refinement along the way.
You know, a common perception, the sort of popular conception of academia and scientific research, is that what is written down in the academic literature, in the scientific papers, is final. But it's actually not like that at all. The way that I conceptualize it – the way that academics themselves conceptualize it – is that it's a conversation.
The form of our ideas or results, which appear in papers – especially in design research... Research is always a conversation that's always developing. And there is a certain path that we need to walk and clear, before these ideas that you're talking about in this book, and in your papers, can be actually impactful in the world.
How far along the way do you think we are? Like, what percentage of the way does this book represent – is this like 30% of the way until these ideas are put into practice, and more work needs to be done? Or is it like 80% there, and all someone needs to do is just pick up this book, and read it, and then go at it as a designer?
How do you see the road ahead for implementing these post-humanist ideas towards a better future?
What is the remaining path that we need to take?
The simple answer is, I don't know. It's kind of a self-assessment, is what you're asking. It's like, come up, write the book, and then do the self-assessment of, "how far along are we?" And that's a hard thing to do.
But what I will say is, I'm actually fairly optimistic. I think we are more along than we recognize. For me, this book didn't come out of nowhere. It came out of discussions. Not just with students, but recent graduates of design, that ask me, "What is it we're doing? Is it always good? In what way is it contributing to the world? And what is my role in that? What should I be thinking about?"
We have certain ways... We have certain paths and concepts. I mentioned sustainability, and sustainable design, for example. And we tend to sometimes get cynical about those ideas. But I think that there's this notion that people are searching for, and looking for... There's a kind of urgency around it.
Let me put it this way: I think when people say, students in particular... There's a lot of excitement about taking on and committing to a practice like design. There's this notion that it will be self-fulfilling, but it will also address things in the world, issues in the world. That's what motivates most people to do this. And when you move along down that path, you might realize that, yes, of course, on some levels, you are contributing in the way you thought, but in other ways not.
The issue is, design is very powerful. Design is very fundamental. It shapes who we are. And so, what more can we ask of design?
I think people are asking that question. I think you're asking that question. And then, other people are asking that question, along similar lines. They're concerned about it, you know... And I cite many of the people in the book. I try to bring in other people's practices, the work that they do, to show that there is this kind of emerging set of concerns and emerging research, but also different kinds of practices. People moving into kind of like a social enterprise practice, to collective ways of doing design. Or I'm finding, more and more students are asking, "how can I do work for nonprofits or NGOs?" They're not necessarily trying to go down the corporate path, or design consultancy path. They see other ways in which they can contribute as designers.
And then, of course, there's all the other research that people [are doing]. I'm not alone in thinking about more than human-centered design... I'm not going to go through it, but I cite the people who are doing the academic research, and asking similar kinds of questions. I think there's enough of a basis now.
The other thing about the book... I was actually listening to a podcast, with Salman Rushdie, he was talking about writing fiction... It was actually about interviews. He was asked about interviews, and how he talks about... He actually has a book now, coming out. It's all about truth – truth, and fiction. And he said, in interviews, he lies. And so the interviewer asked, "What do you mean?" He said, "Well, you know, I've said, in one interview, that all my fiction comes from my real life. Where does it come from? You know, real life, real experiences, people I know." And then in another interview, someone asked the same question. He goes, "Oh, I make it all up. It's all imagination." But then he says, "But you know what? Actually, both are true." In the sense that, you start triggered by things that are happening in the world that he's in, to initiate a process of fiction writing, that at the end becomes a piece of imagination. And he sees that whole process of discovery. Sense-making, perhaps.
You know, I see it that way. I didn't know where the book was going to end up. I knew the first part of it. And I knew why I wanted to do it. I knew what questions I asked. I knew what I was experiencing as a design researcher. I knew what my students were experiencing. I knew what young designers were experiencing. I knew they had questions, but we didn't have the concepts. So I wanted, and tried, to get the book ahead of myself.
So in terms of, "how far along are we in the implementation..." I take this in a real... Again, I like to design things, so I can also think very concretely and materially: What does this mean for my own practice? How do I bring these ideas into my own design research, and the way we make things? So I'm going through an implementation process of what I wrote in the book, in my own way, where I'm making things and doing research.
My favorite part of the book was actually this collection of terms or ideas in one of the later chapters:
Designer as biography, designer as force, designer as speaking subject, designer as intensities and origins...
From that, it follows, there's the idea of the "constituency of the designer" – almost like the constituency of a politician.
Can you talk a little bit more about these ideas? I found them very powerful, because these questions really help us as designers to explain, to articulate who we are, where we come from, what we're actually trying to do in the world, what we're trying to create more of, what positions, beliefs, visions we're giving a voice to, who our community is...
These are actually things that are massively important, according to very successful designers out there who have made their mark. If you listen to interviews with Virgil Abloh, with Dieter Rams, with Bjarke Ingels, and these other famous designers, the superstars... They talk about these exact questions.
I know that you're not talking about this, let's call it the capitalist view or the commercial view. You're not talking about commercial success or fame here. But you're saying the same questions also apply to this more-than-human thinking – this thinking that will get us to this harmonious future with our planet.
Can you talk a little bit about these ideas, what they mean, and how designers can put them into practice?
Let me, first of all, thank you. I'm really glad that that section of the book resonated with you, because that's where, when I was talking about... That's the part that I didn't know that I was going to write. That's the part where you arrive, and you go, "OK, this is great..." To think about more-than-human, to articulate and describe some of the relationships the way I wanted to describe...
When I talk about the designer, I talk about a designer that's not just human. I talk about a designer's work as an assemblage of technologies, and materials, and other things that have a form of agency. So designers also are more than human, they're relational. And to me, that's where I kind of write that.
But I was like, "OK, great, that's a good description, but then what? What do you do with it?" Or in a sense, how can research help? And I think it conceptualizes things. As you point out, is these are difficult concepts.
I do want to say, I don't know if it leads us to a harmonious place. But what I want to get us to think about is, a place where we the main value in thinking about designing is how easy it is to cohabit well – to cohabit, to live with others, and to live with others in a more-than-human sense. There are still tensions, there are still disagreements. There's not a clear path. But we have that as our main concern, not to just live for ourselves, but to live with others and design with others. So cohabiting is really where I want this to go.
Now, to back up some of this. It's interesting that you connected to other designers and other forms of design. And I also have this through my own practice of design. Going back to my Salman Rushdie reference, it's about my own experience, and then, what can I imagine wholly new from that?
So this idea of the designer's biography is not new to any designer... When someone says they're a designer, and someone wants to know what you are, who you are, what kind of designer you are, they ask for your portfolio. They want to attach you to a set of things that you've made. They want to construct a biography between you and the things that you have made. What I wanted to point out with designer as biography – and again, not just designer in the solely human sense – is that we're always attached to the things that we make.
But I also wanted to bring it in, so that resonates with us, and to a practical sense, the way in which we design. But then, to think through that, well, but what does that really mean? If we're attached to things that we make, they have a lifetime to them. In fact, in many ways, they live beyond our own lifetimes.
I think about Dieter Rams, and think about his real critique of Apple, I think, in the Hustwit movie... He's really lamenting the idea that Apple is producing... You know, he's critiquing Jony Ive, for producing something new every 18 months, when of course, you know, Ram and Braun, had the idea that when he made, it was a product that would last, at least a lifetime. But even the products that last, like Braun, they were also known for the kind of plastics that they use...
A Braun juicer... Its full biography is probably connected to Dieter Rams, it's connected to all the things that it inscribes in the world. You know, a lot of people can now juice oranges... But other things... Of course, there's a life beyond its use: it becomes waste, it's plastic...
That's a great movie, by the way. Before we move away from the subject, for the benefit of our audience, I just wanted to recommend Rams by Gary Hustwit, who also made Helvetica and Objectified, and these other great design documentaries.
I mean, of course, many people know Rams, but I think you can attach it to this idea of biography. He had a sense of that. We really lost that sense. I think we're so involved in newness, and innovation, and bringing new things to the world. And then, not thinking through exactly how they exist, in ways that we don't even necessarily determine. We're getting a sense of that AI, and with unintended consequences of AI.
But that is the life of the things that we are connected to, that we bring into the world. And in fact, we as designers are always creating a world where we and others are going to cohabit. So how do we pull, temporally speaking, to understand the biographies that we create, and all the forces at work, through this longer lifespan?
Maybe that would make us think, about biographies, instead of focusing on newness and novelty, maybe we'll think about something that's made, and think about how it's going to end. You want to think about a cohabiting world, in the way in which things exist in this world, and they grow, and then they die. They become resources again. How do we understand that?
In design, we don't even have a concept of end. That concept of end is waste. It just doesn't... We don't use it anymore. But in fact, there's a whole other biography to it. So I like to bring that. That's one reason for that term.
And then to think about "designer as force" is that we know we're not always in full control... We have effects beyond our intention... If you think about the thing that you make, it's this ongoing set of consequences. It appears and re-appears in the world. It has different intensities, and continues to shape the world.
How do we think that through, if I want to cohabit the world? This is something we've lost... I've mentioned indigenous ways of thinking – and it's quite commonly known now – there's the idea of seven-generation thinking: How are your acts going to play out over seven generations?
Talking about how we don't think about the end while we're designing... I was at an architecture museum recently. I went to Stockholm. I went to Moderna, the modern art museum. And attached to that, there's an architecture section, or an architecture museum. And inside of that, there is this little materials library on the wall.
What is a materials library? This is something you might see in various design schools or design museums. It's basically like a wall with little pieces of materials, maybe embedded in a card, with some information about the material.
And I've seen these things before, but the one I saw most recently was in Stockholm. There are these little material samples of Corian, this kind of wood, this kind of metal, this kind of plastic, different kinds of paint, and whatnot. And come with specs about how durable it is, water resistance, how you apply it, how expensive is it, all kinds of data – but nothing about what happens at the end of it!
So, it says that it has, maybe, a ten-year lifespan. But what happens at the end of the ten years? You never hear about this. The books don't mention these things. You don't study this in engineering school. It's so interesting that we never incorporate this into our knowledge base. Well, maybe not never, but it's very rare.
And it's not just that the materials determine their end. As designers we can shape the ending, is what I'm saying. We need to account for that... And it goes beyond sustainability.
I use, in the book, the example of designing a weather app, and the idea of location services, and how we're designing something that's convenient, and has good UX. But of course, what it does – the full biography of this [...] – is to create the surveillance state that we're in. The idea of surveillance capitalism, as Zuboff calls it. Is this the world we want to cohabit, in which our location is tracked, every 30 seconds or so, through our phones with all the apps?
The question I want to ask designers is, how does what it is that you design... What is its full biography in terms of its life? But also after it's done, what it leaves behind? How does it construct the world that you're going to cohabit? Or how does it contribute to that world that you're going to cohabit? And is that the world you want to cohabit?
This goes back to, I think you mentioned, the notion of constituency. Because the problem, you know... You can ask an individual designer that question, and the problem is, a lot of these questions of ethics, and what's the good of design, comes back to the individual designer. It's as you mentioned, kind of capitalist ways of doing design, this kind of neo-liberal notion. And we have a lot of that in design. this idea of the, kind of like, disrupt everything, innovation, everything is new. It's all about, you know, individual experiences. But then the ethics of it comes down to the individual designer.
This is just really untenable [for] an individual designer – the scale of choice, the scale of implications that one cannot deal with individually. This is why I raised the question of constituencies, which is the collective structures that we design with. How do we choose... And people do this, you choose to make your own studio, you create your own consultancy, you create the values and ethics around that consultancy. The question of how committed are you to those, I think is an ethical question that needs to be brought up. But we do this collectively, and I happen to argue there are other collective structures that we should be looking at in design. And if we want to achieve what we believe is the good in design, and design in ways that are more than human, we might need new collective structures. aAnd that's a power of designers.
And it's is possible to do that. We've done that over and over. We construct our collective ways of making thing. And we've gotten to a point where we think that those things are unchangeable. We can't change them. You have to design for a corporation, or you have to design through consultancies... I'm not saying that those are necessarily like that, but we can think more expansively. There are alternatives to this.
I have this book called Reinventing Organizations. It's exactly about what you're saying.... I don't know if you've read this one or heard about it, but it's exactly what you're talking about. I would actually love to have the author of this book on the show – Frederic Laloux.
He has a very interesting theory about organizations. He says that the way that organizations evolve through human history is analogous to how humans develop in their early years. So we're children at some point, and then we develop various faculties as we age... And organizations, apparently, in his telling of the history, are developing in a similar way.
Right now we are at a particular stage... He calls it the teal organization. So it's color-coded... But anyway, I'll let you finish the thought.
Certainly this question of how we organize, to think about design, to think about how we would support the designing we want to do, is a question. But a lot of the literature, even within design – if you think about collective pursuits in design, like the participatory design – are human-centered. We're talking mostly about social organization.
So I wanted to add to this idea that collective structures are also about what you gather, and this could go to the materials that you're talking about. Like, if you're going to take up certain material, make that part of your practice, and you know that it only lasts for ten years... But then what? That's a question to ask. And then to decide whether should be part of the constituency or not.
And of course, also, some forces that you work with – not just materials, but other non-human things, that have their own agency. The scale, the software we work with... You want to have that as part of your constituency. Like, Facebook is a particular constituency that works at a scale of 2.4 billion users, which is a scale that creates, you know, harm. Whether it's unintended or intended, is really beside the point. It's just very challenging to work at that scale. And that's a choice.
And this gets to the last part... Here we are, talking about design, and we're talking about things that can't talk themselves. So this is the idea of, what is the role of the human designer? And this is the speaking subject. And that language is very powerful. Of course, it's what it is to be human, and how to act in this world, but also powerful in the sense that it is a way to negotiate politics and power. And it has a big role in design...
I wrote in the book about how I wanted to bring a lot of things and examples in the book, but, partly as a witness to the language I was using... Because language can also be deceptive, and speaking on behalf of a constituency, there's lot of negotiation, there's a lot of politics. Even thinking about what material is, or what it should do... How do you speak on behalf of non-human things that can't speak for themselves – animals, or plants or whatever?
So it's rife with these kinds of questions. But these are the questions we need to tackle. We need to understand not only, how do we use human reason to seize upon and act, just by things that we as humans find valuable. And how do we utilize this idea of human reason and language in a world that's more than human – I think that's an important question for designers.
This comes, again, back to the concrete experience of design. In the practice of design, you get very intimate with the non-human, the parts of what you're designing. If you're doing code, you're very intimate with that code. You almost can get that code to speak. You're very intimate with the materials. You can shape things... It's almost this kind of vernacular ways – how you made something talk, you made something sing... We have methods by which we do this. We try to understand the non-human things in that work. In that sense, design has a really inherent capacity to address a lot of these more-than-human issues that I raised. We can build on our existing practices in some respects, but with a broader sense of understanding that goes beyond the human-centric.
Speaking of this broadening, I notice that some of these issues you're mentioning, some of these challenges we talked about... For example, you mentioned the weather app, which might be collecting data about its users and contributing to this construct of surveillance capitalism... Some of these, are really within the scope of what designers do? Should they be in there?
Because if you look at what designers do, in a company like Apple, for example, in the weather app... They might be doing the user interface. So they decide the typography, colors, layouts, and whatnot.
But the decision to collect data from users, or not to collect the data, is not necessarily one that falls on the designer in these communities or organizations. It's the management that decides that. And if you, as a designer, object to that, then they will just find another designer.
Is it necessarily productive to try to expand the purview of designers toward covering these kinds of decisions? Or is it maybe the case that...
If we really care about this particular issue, then perhaps what we should be doing is not design, but some other kind of discipline, in order to solve this challenge?
It's a great question. I tried to tackle that in the book in different ways...
Right now... These issues that you're talking about... Should we let other disciplines tackle these issues? That's the current default. The current default is to allow legislative bodies, legal systems, and government to regulate and adjudicate on those issues, like controlling Facebook, for example, and deal with data and surveillance. We rely on other disciplines and research... Whether it's sociology or whatever else... That's their concern. How do we protect people's privacy? And again, law, and political science, and so on... And philosophy.
So in response to that, I would, say... Why is that, we – we meaning those who design – not part of this investigation? The legal system, the the policymaking... Not any one of these on their own is going to tackle the issue. It kind of needs all hands. And I think design has always given that up. It abdicated. They've reduced their scope of concerns, to the point that it's not even their concern.
And then, to the point about the individual designer, is it fair... I think, no, it's not fair. But I think it's so problematic that we think about designers as an individual designer, and we educate that way... We create kind of neoliberal fantasy of what it is to be a great designer, which is to be that hero individual that makes all the great designs. And now, of course, we're going to ask that same hero individual, "Why aren't you going to solve surveillance capitalism?" Because they're the hero individual. But we know those don't exist.
This goes back to my point about, you know, you can ask this other question: Who thinks they're a designer? And you're never going to get a straight answer to that... So it goes back to this idea, that designers actually act collectively. Apple, or Facebook, or any others... They are constituencies.
They are not the kind of constituencies that I think we want, to cohabit the world better. But they are a constituency. They are a collective structure. They create biographies. They are, what I call in the book, anti-biographies. Because they don't think through to the end of these things, they don't think through the impact. They let other people deal with issues around surveillance and privacy.
To their credit, I suppose Apple is trying to make privacy a central feature of their identity as a corporation. But it is the corporation. That is the collective structure. That is the constituency of that design. And it's not even, on one level, we opt-in, we opt out... And there's plenty of – for example, within Google, and within Facebook – corporate activism amongst employees, trying to push... With Amazon... They're trying to say, "we don't want to have this contract with the Pentagon... So there is resistance, so to speak, from within, to try to change the collective structure. That's what that's about, to try to change the constituency.
I would like us to push this into education, where we're not pushing that you're just an individual... Already, over the years, we've made a big thing about how we do design as teams. So we already know, at least, that the smallest unit of the designer is a team. And we even accept interdisciplinarity within a team. So it's not even just someone who's skilled in particular types or different ways of designing. Someone may not even contact – they come in, and their hands may not even touch the thing that's being designed. But yet they're still part of the design team.
But we need more than that... That collective, an acknowledgment of the politics, the acknowledgment of the goal... To have this better world, and what is at stake. So to shift this attention... I like to say, to shift the creativity toward the collective structure, the constituencies by which we unite. But also to those constituencies, to go back to my point, in the choices around the nonhuman things, the technologies that you choose, the material that you use. Who are the stakeholders – which go beyond human stakeholders – that are involved in this? Who gets to say, when Apple decides that they're going to use a particular kind of polycarbonate? With a material choice that they make for, you know, 100 million iPhones... Which stakeholders get to have a say in this, or get to argue, get to negotiate?
The pushback is that, yes, I think this needs to be in the broader understanding of what we think about the collective structures by which we design. These need to be concerns. Yes, and we need to be partly accountable. We can't just let other people be accountable. We need to go beyond the design problem, as we like to think of a design process.
And then, of course, it's fair to say, but how do we do it? That's what I'm trying to do: conceptualize ways that we can think about this, and put this into practice.
Another central idea in your book was the "nomadic practice."
When I heard this, I was actually thinking about being a digital nomad, remote work and everything. But in fact, it's not about that at all. Instead, if I get it right, what you're saying is that the different disciplines of design, the different pockets of design practice – such as, let's say, graphic design, illustration, interaction design, product design, architecture, etc. – do not share a common foundation.
You're saying, as I understand – and you can correct me if I'm wrong, of course – that there is no unifying, underlying "design thinking" or design process that instantiates each of these in a common fashion. And that there's no commonality between how designers, studios, agencies do their work. So every designer, and every design, every artifact, every process is unique. I guess that's how we can summarize it. So there's no singular understanding of design
And your book, in a way, following from this, is about un-building design. So that's what the nomadic practice kind of ends up in.
It feels postmodern to me, if I may take the risk of using the term inaccurately. And again, this is something that you might correct.
But how exactly does this take us beyond human-centricity, to achieve more than what we've been able to achieve so far? Because if you unbuild our way of doing things, and essentially start from scratch, aren't we just going to end up reinventing the same things? How do you know that the un-building and the subsequent rebuilding is going to take us to a better place?
First of all, I don't think we'll go to the same place. Because, like I was saying, if we we want to pursue different goals, but we do them the same way, we will likely arrive at the same place.
So in some sense, if we want to find a different way to design, we literally have to take it apart. That what I mean by unbuilding.
If we replicate the discipline of design to try to tackle things that are more than human, won't do it well. So that's my argument.
The question, is it postmodern... I think the interpretation you bring to nomadic practices is in the sense that it seems like everything is relative. It's atomized. It's like nothing is the same, everything is unique. And no, that's not what I'm trying to say.
What I'm trying to say here is, first of all, "nomadic practices" was a way of arguing that we need to think about design without thinking about disciplines. I'm really after the idea of the discipline of design.
What is discipline? Can you give an example of a discipline?
So this what I think about... Where did you go to school? Did you study design?
At university, I studied mechanical engineering.
Mechanical engineering. So mechanical engineering is a discipline that has a department. You have certain foundations of knowledge. We determine what's important to learn, and what isn't important to learn. We exclude what we think is not important to learn. And we discipline that knowledge by saying, this is what you have to learn. This is all the things you have to learn. And then you understand the discipline.
And then we extend that into research. It's like, these are what the questions are, in terms of research, that relate to the discipline. So disciplines are a way of [doing that]. Michel Foucault, a French philosopher, really argued this in many ways in this book, Discipline & Punish, the ways in which knowledge is a form of disciplining. There's no mistake that it's called discipline: "This is what's right, in what we say is mechanical engineering. And this is not what's right – don't do that."
Now, to me, in all the time I spent doing design research, there's always been this question about, what is the discipline of design?
I've even actually shifted away from thinking about design as a noun. I like to refer to it as "designing," because I think it's a performative act... Because when you say "design" it's as if there's some abstraction of what it is, there's a discipline of design. We all understand what that is. And then, we tend to use disciplinary terms to think about design. There are all these subdisciplines. People try to argue, what's the top of the pyramid, of the discipline, what's the most "design" of all the subdisciplines? For many, you know, that's architecture, for example. Architecture is the model by which we do that.
My goal here is that it's really about knowledge and intellectual practice... I think the most boring question in design research is, "What is design?" Everyone spends their time trying to answer, "What is design?" They're trying to find this common knowledge, this shared thing, among all of these different practices and activities of design. But when they start to answer the question of design, they're trying to understand what the discipline of design is. And my problem with it is that, when you really listen to those arguments, it's really more often about what to exclude, than what to include. So you're narrowing and narrowing and narrowing.
That's how you make it tractable, I guess...
So you make hierarchies. There's two concepts I have in the book, that I keep coming back to. One is expansiveness. We need to be much more expansive about the way we understand design, if we're going to tackle the issues that we need to tackle. Maybe much more generous, about who is designing, and what is designing.
And, the other one, at the same time, seems contradictory, but we need humility. We need humility that maybe, yes, we can have multiple ways of designing. But it's not the only way, to contribute in amongst all these other ways of designing.
So, nomadic practices allows us to, rather than having to knock on the door and say, "is my design, and the way when I'm designing, is this real design, can I get into the discipline?" And having the gatekeepers of the discipline, namely me as the academic saying, "no..." These other structures, nomadic practices structures would say, "go ahead." If you have a claim about designing and you have something that you want to design, do that. And who gathers around this? The question comes down to this point I was making about collectivity.
So, first of all, nomadic practices can intersect. They can share. You think about consultancies, they're different nomadic practices. They're very different. Everyone, every consultancy will say that they're different, that they're not the same as the other consultancy. They intersect a lot, though. They obviously share a lot of things. So you can have both. They're not mutually exclusive. You can have a quality of uniqueness, with a lot of shared collective pursuits.
And when you add it all up together, the collective actions of all of you... First of all, you are much more expansive. You can allow anybody who wants to claim that they're doing some form of designing. They don't need to call it a discipline. They can call it a nomadic practice.
They can also have more humility. They're not claiming this at the best, and the only way to design. And when you allow for all of the above, to try to tackle this issue, how to design, to cohabit the world better, and in the collective, you pull it all together, you're going to have a much greater possibility of doing what you said earlier: making progress.
And also, you know, in a kind of theoretical, philosophical thinking, disciplines are very humanness-based. They come back... Disciplines are Western European, Enlightenment constructs. You know, their ways of parceling out and dividing up knowledge, and delegating pieces knowledge to different people. It's as if the whole picture is controlled in some particular way, that's represents human knowledge.
If I want to do a post-humanist approach that's is not grounded in humanism, I also need different means of doing. And that's why nomadic practices is really important.
But what I hope out of that... I get this all the time... People who do policy, who want to know, are they designing, or they think that they're designing... We have this whole thing now around, you know, design thinking, and the different ways in which everyone is doing design thinking, and on some level, designing...
I'd like to give more oomph to that, more power to that, more political urgency to that. It's not just an abstract way of thinking... But it's actually a unique form of practice. It's a material practice that we have to engage in. Not just think about it, and have an abstract concept of what design is.
This the notion of the nomadic practice, I have to confess, was one of the more arcane, and maybe confusing, aspects or concepts in this book.
It's been a while since you wrote this book. And you've been talking about it for more than a year, I guess. Have you thought about, if you had to rename it, what would you call it instead of "nomadic practice"?
I don't know that I would rename "nomadic practices." I've always thought about where that shows up in the book, and I think it's about thinking about the different audiences that it serves. I mean, on the one hand, the audience for the book is, broadly, designers, and design researchers...
But I wanted to get to a certain depth, a real depth... I don't think it's simple. I think it requires some complicated approaches. And so, yes, you know, it's very theoretical. And I am an academic, and it has to have credibility, you know, as an academic... "Nomadic practices" is part of the argument that allows me to do that.
It comes early in the book. I mean, to me, the more exciting parts are later in the book. My favorite chapter is, I think, the one you mentioned... It's actually part three of the book... Part one of the book is, what is design? And that's where the nomadic practice is.
The boring question.
Yeah. Part two is "things," which is an interesting question but it's also very descriptive. It describes what things are.
And then part three is, I think, where it gets really interesting, which is, "Who are are we?" What does it mean to be a designer?
So my favorite parts of the book are chapter eight, chapter seven, or you know, part three of the book...
That was my favorite as well.
You mentioned before, that research for academics is a discussion. It's not a fait accompli... This book has been a basis. I mean, I put a lot into forming that basis now, but [it's] a basis for discussion.
I've learned so much. I mean, the things I would like to reframe, from perhaps an even more generous way, about more-than-human thinking, that was more inclusive of kind of indigenous and non-European ways of thinking... And I do encourage people... I thought, in the book, about addressing the audience, saying, "Hey, if you don't want to be, or if you're not an academic, you might want to skip this section..."
But let me tell you something else, though. To you, nomadic practices are the part that's maybe challenging and more arcane. To other people, that's one of their favorite parts. So I don't know how you account for... I guess that's it's an interpretive text so.
It might be because I am transitioning, at this point in my life, from more academically-oriented work to more practically-oriented work. I'm trying to move toward more commercial projects, more cultural projects, rather than scientific. And more actual design practice, rather than writing about design, or talking about design.
At this point in my life, I'm always thinking about, "How do I construct my discipline? How do I construct my practice, around the limits of things that I do not do?"
Because if I start doing everything, then I will be spread too thin. And my projects are going to be limited in terms of how deep they can go. And I will have a hard time articulating what I do to potential clients, to potential collaborators, in the commercial space.
My whole thinking at this time in my life is directed towards, "How do I limit myself as a designer? How do I define myself?" Rather than, "How do I expand myself, and how do we engage with these broader questions?"
That's what's always front-of-mind for me these days. And it just coincided that this was the time in my life that I read this book. Maybe that's why that idea of the nomadic practice, which, as you said, expands what design is, got into dissonance with that part of my brain, which was working on limiting myself. I guess that's the explanation for why it was challenging for me.
I think that's great. That's the way we can be most effective: the idea of focus, and commitment... What I like to think is that, within your focus and commitment, you could perhaps see a role... This discussion doesn't mean giving up your focus and commitment, but to see a relationship to it.
But I will also say that, yes, that chapter, which is chapter two, in some sense is the hardest for those non-academic, because it is definitely the most academic chapter. It's the one that cites the most... You know, and in academic literature, in order to make a claim about an area, you have to show you know the literature of the area.
In many ways, nomadic practice was a way to slip in the "related literature" section that's expected. To say, "OK, you're going to talk about, you know, human-computer interaction, you know all the citations..." So I totally see, in that sense... I think that is in fact the most challenging part for a lot of people, when it comes to academic texts... It's managing all the citations, and people that you don't know, and how that really references... The feeling you're not part of this discussion.
In the world of academia, you need to show that you know this work, and that your ideas are grounded or based on other people's ideas. and not just wholly your own, in terms of purely imagining.
That's the whole point of why I started this channel, in a way. Some of the things that I do on this publication are, exactly, trying to take those discussions, and those ideas, and condense them, and articulate them to an audience of practitioners, and more junior students. Because I know that it takes maybe five or ten years to properly understand the academic literature, and what the discussions are all about. And for a master's student, or an early PhD student, or someone who's maybe never been to graduate school, but is interested in broadening their intellectual base as a designer, they're not really penetrable at first.
So one of the things we're trying to do here is to appeal to those people, and to communicate with those people, uh, what all of these things are about.
I'm seeing that we are approaching the end of our time. I have also come to the end of my long-form questions. But I have a few quick-fire questions that I like to ask all of my guests. May I proceed with those before we hang up?
Just one quick thing... I think about your podcast, and I hope... And that's what I like about having written a book, and doing podcasts, and having to talk shop on YouTube...
I hope it's like a gateway drug toward engaging some of the other literature. I know it's hard, but maybe getting it explained and mediated a little bit makes it more accessible. I think that's a great role that it sits in.
I mean, it's a discussion, it's a conversation. But sometimes, these conversations that are happening in the academic literature, they're basically happening between professors. They're happening between people who have spent 10 or 15 years inside of that ecosystem. Even inside of the ecosystem, to some of the more junior members of the community, they're not always accessible.
So I think there's a place for this kind of publication, for this kind of discussion, in addition to the papers and the books, and all of the other things that we have.
And trust me, from someone who's spent a lot of time in the university, I'm thinking about professors from other disciplines, other fields... The department design as a practice is totally inaccessible to them. They don't understand it. They don't understand what's being said... They have no idea what's going on. There are always questions of languages across different [disciplines].
But we also don't understand what they say. Think about two surgeons talking about their technical things. We're going to have no idea...
Speaking of design, and things being clear to each other...
What is a thing about design that is clear to you, but that you have to explain to people around you all the time?
To me, it's how fundamental designing is.
If you think about the common, dominant notion of design, of being this commercial practice, and making things that we need, to hopefully convince people that they need to them... But in fact, we wouldn't be here if it wasn't for design.
I like this phrase that comes out of a posthuman theorist, he says that "humans are prosthetic creatures." We have all kinds of things, design things, that are attached to us. It seems kind of obvious, but I don't think people understand the full importance of it.
I think that changes things. And then therefore, I think it leads to a really important kind of philosophical question, of who we are. So design is that important: Design is a way to understand who we are. But then, also political questions of what we want to be.
So that's what I mean. That's what I would say is something that I.. I don't know if I always have to explain, but I think I find that whenever, often talking about designing with people, it's talked about in a very narrow, very constrained sense. It's discussed in a way that makes it out to be far less important than it is.
I mean, there is design as we think about it, you know, as educators, at the universities. And that's very broad, because when students come to us to learn design, it's not at all certain that they will go into a career in design. So we want to give them the knowledge that stems from design maybe, but might be useful in other areas of life or professional practice.
But when looking at what designers do in the job market, in the commercial arena... The actual things that are being done by people whose job titles are related to design... It is significantly narrower than what we think about in academia. That was my observation.
I think you're right, but I do think it goes beyond academia, and professional practice. And I think that there's this kind of, other question: I don't think professional practice is the final arbiter of what is designing... You can design outside the professional practice of design.
Even the idea of, as we know it now, the idea that it's an academic discipline, is incredibly new. We can go back to architecture as a practice, maybe go back to the Renaissance, and pre-Renaissance. This notion that design is something that is solely represented by how we described it in the last 30, 40 years strikes me as very odd.
So the point is, I think it's even broader than that. I don't think it's just academics... I'm giving a talk, two weeks from now, at a conference for cultural geographers, who see some relation to what they do in terms of designing, and in terms of more-than-human designing. The practice of shaping, and constructing, and contributing to the construction of our worlds is just so basic that way.
Cultural geographers... I've never heard of that...
I think it's about the idea that... I mean, anyway, that's a whole other discussion...
In another phase of my research, I had a concept that I was talking about with "everyday design" – that everyone is a designer, in the way in which they shape and reshape their whole environments. And they appropriate the things that are designed, to use them in other ways. And they happen as creative acts, which we, for all intents and purposes, could call designing. They're not trained designers.
That's the name of your research group, right? Everyday Design Studio. That's where it comes from?
That's where it comes from.
If you just separate out the trained designer and the paid designer... They do their acts of designing. But others do acts of of design as well. That's why I think the remit of design is much broader.
You take in a lot of students. I presume you have graduate students who work with you, and undergrads.
Are there books, movies, YouTube channels, documentaries, that you recommend to your students?
Suppose a graduate student comes to your lab, to work with you... Do they get like a reading list? And what is on that reading list, if that exists in any form?
If somebody wants to join our group, or work with me as a PhD student... Not because I'm egocentric, but I ask them to read our research. Because I want to know if that is something that interests them – that way of thinking. Because I think we go about it in a certain way. So, did those ideas resonate with them?
I don't necessarily have a canon that says, here's the reading list. Of course, it's implied. Then, are you interested in different ideas?
If I think about people who are interested in philosophy, technology, and design, I might ask them to read, or suggests that they read Peter-Paul Verbeek's What Things Do. That's a really great gateway book to understanding philosophy, a little bit of relationality, and design.
I also like... It's more of a philosophical text... To understand posthuman relations: Jane Bennett's Vibrant Matter. This is a great book understand that...
Donna Haraway, and Staying with the Trouble... Those are really even more challenging texts to read. But that's the kind of work, I try combine that...
And actually, I have it here... This is a great book. It's fiction. Richard Powers' The Overstory, which is about relationality, in terms of the more recent work that's been done about trees, and how trees communicate. It's a wonderful relational story, to understand the urgency of how live with things.
And then, I've actually pulled some books, since I knew you'd ask this question... So here's another... Kind of really abstract... In Praise of Shadows... What's the willingness to push things to perceive, you know, just focus on something like shadows? The depth that we were talking about, for focus and commitment... Through focus and commitment, you can start to see some broader sets of issues, in something really fundamental. I really like to challenge key assumptions that we have, and then work through them.
In that book, In Praise of Shadows, there's a chapter talking about toilets. He's comparing the design of traditional Japanese toilets to western toilets.
It was so crazy, when I read that. I was like, OK, this is what I got into design for. It's so nerdy... Being able to look at these everyday [things] – the coffee cup, or the toilet – these everyday objects in your life, and access so much meaning and so much, I would say, even emotion through these materials, in these forms.
That's what design is about to me. And he captures that brilliantly in that little book.
It's all these mundane things... There's a term, a philosophical term. of "sedimentation." Over time, these things sediment. And they create and construct a world, and they shape us very directly. But also we attune to them in very complex ways.
My favorite part of that book is when he's talking about a restaurant that he loves. But then they used electric lighting, and it changed everything. It's an interesting question about that... It's well beyond the utility of the technology. That's an interesting question, of course, since we're also designing with technology.
To me that's really important, it's to try to understand the relationship. This connects back all of the work I'm doing now, the everyday design work. The knowing within the mundane. That's where design has a kind of purchase. There's a lot of power in that. We are really shaped... If you look around you, look around me, these are the things that literally shape who I am, and what I am, and what I can do, and what I cannot do, what I will do, what I won't do. And that's the power of the mundane. It touches on everything.
So anyway, I think that's worthwhile. That's why I think design is so fundamental. Design is so rich. And to me it's not a strange notion to think about design, and then move quickly in philosophy. Because design can be very philosophical.
What are you excited about these days?
What is next for you?
I kind of mentioned earlier, that the book was a kind of act of discovery. It was a way of... I had where I was at the time, in my own practice of research. That is, what I was working with, and what questions I was asking, and what goals was I working with, etc. So catching up to the book, really.
We've been doing things now, where we've been exploring biographies. We've been designing things, as design research, to ask the question about, what is the end of the thing that we're designin?
I mentioned earlier, I was doing a lot of work with textiles. It just sort of came together... It's a material I always wanted to explore. And I think we can start to think about textiles in terms of its life, and the differences between organic and synthetic textiles... A number of things... It actually goes beyond the material.
The other aspect I'm thinking about is this... The overall term I use, that I wanted to think about designing to cohabit. I call it "designing with." So what does that mean, to design with more than humans, and so on?
So we're doing work related to bees right now, designing with the idea... Sort of, bees and wifi... We construct environments within our own apartments, within our homes, but they extend beyond our homes, into environments and worlds that are not exclusively human. What happens if we bring attention to that? We bring that to the fore. So what's the connection between wifi, for example, and bees? And how do we design with that in mind? So that's a real concern of mine, actually... I'm trying to, not resolve that, but try and understand all the tensions around that.
The last thing, I would say, is I'm really trying... This a bigger challenge for my own practice: trying to go beyond, working in Eindhoven and with SFU to find groups that can really work on this issue of constituencies. This is actually happening in the Netherlands, working with students here, and recent graduates, who want to rethink collective structures to design. In the Netherlands, it's actually a wonderful culture for this. It's accepting. There's much more experimentation, about what it means to design, or how to design, and so on. So that's another area I want to explore.
Design in the Netherlands... You've touched on this topic before, but I should do a whole episode on this topic. It's fascinating. The entire country... The land on which they are setting foot is actually human-made. The whole geography is designed....
Also in Sweden, these northern European countries... The climate can be unforgiving. It's not very bountiful. Nature is not giving to you a lot of the resources that you get in the Mediterranean, for example. So you have to design. You have to create your own living environment. And that really contributes... That's what makes up the design culture in these geographies.
You know, design doesn't... It's not an abstract concept. That't's what I was getting at earlier, actually, we started talking about it... We've come back to it different times in the conversation...
It's true of many places. My parents are from Indonesia. I go to Indonesia... In the different places in Indonesia, and the different ways in which rice is grown, for example, shapes, actually, the culture and design around that...
Italy is a clear example of working within the constraints of, you know, mountains, and water, and valleys, where you are manufacturing the kind of materials that are available to you, and the skillsets, and so on.
In Eindhoven it's fascinating, because Eindhoven as a city didn't even... Like you said, in much of the Netherlands, it's just constructed. And Eindhoven is a city that didn't exist. It is, of course, known for Philips. And Philips decided that's where they're going to do their manufacturing. And so they drew farmers from villages around Philips... They thought, these would be people they could train to do the production of light bulbs, for example...
You know, there's another book... It's an early book on more-than-human thinking, and it's by a phenomenologist named David Abram... The Spell of the Sensuous...
So David Abram... He's a phenomenologist, so he's a philosopher. He went to Bali, to Indonesia, to study magic. That is his hobby, of magic.
He began to explore the relations toward more than human. You know, you can have things in different traditions... In Bali, this notion of Hinduism, there's a kind of relatedness to, say, to other species and things. But he goes on to talk about this. And he talks about language, actually indigenous language, as embedded in place. Like language comes up from the land that you walk, the materials, the type of plant life, the animals, everything... It's a really wonderful opening into the thinking about more than human, or relatedness.
In a way, we've turned away from our deep relations to the things around us. We have abstracted notions of language. We abstracted practices of design. We strip them, literally. We extract them, from the place where they are. And I think we lose a lot in doing that.
So when we identify the uniqueness: the nomadic practice of design in the Netherlands, versus the nomadic practice of Sweden, versus Indonesia, versus Thailand... That's what we need to do.
This is a subject that we can go on and on talking about, because it's something I think about... And it's something that will show up in the future on Design Disciplin as well: this idea of design being tied to places.
But we are at the end of the time that we booked together. As you can see, it's actually getting late where I am. I've lost all of my lights. Literally, my computer screen is the only light on my face right now. That's why it looks weird.
But before we conclude...
Where can we find you on the internet?
And then, on the web: eds.siat.sfu.ca
And Google, Ron Wakkary... With a last name like Wakkary, it's not like you're going to find many...
Is it an Indonesian name?
It's an Indonesian name from Sulawesi, which is the northern...
I have been meaning to ask you for this for so long. The origin of, what does Wakkary mean... I thought it might be native Canadian...
I mean, if you go to Sulawesi, you're going to find a lot of Wakkarys. Don't Google Wakkary Sulawesi... Particularly don't Google Wakkary Manado, which is actually where my father is from, because they're just endless... But outside, not very many. And I don't know if it became... Of course, it was a Dutch enclave, during the last of the colonial eras. Not that colonialism is over... But anyway, you know, in occupation... So I don't know that it was actually, in that way Europeanized. The spelling of it, maybe...
Is there a question that I should have asked but haven't? Perhaps a question that only you and the world can answer...
You asked a lot of questions! You asked pretty dense questions. So I'm trying to think about, what could you not have asked... I think you're one of those interviewers that could actually sneak, like, 12 questions into one...
It's a bad habit that I'm trying to overcome...
It was actually really well-thought-through questions. I really appreciate it. So no... No stone unturned here.
Thank you. I've done my homework. I read the book...
Yeah, I appreciate that.
It was really cool. Especially the later chapters, about the biography, and force, and all those questions that define the identity of the designer.
They are useful for wherever you want to apply yourself – if you want to apply yourself to commercial practice, dedicating yourself to the service of a cause, or in academia, or whatever... I think those questions are relevant. And I'm happy to have a list of them, and a way of thinking about them, in the form of this book.