Concerning the Thingliness of Communication & Information Design

Last year, and a bit this year, there was some consternation about the relevance of this thing-oriented course for some of the students undertaking more Communication and Information Design oriented programs. So this year, I wrote a rantish letter to those in the seminar to try to make explicit how I see the relevance of thing-oriented-ness to those modes of designing:

About this time in this Seminar, you may be starting to think, ‘this is mostly about product-centered design.’ The students last year did. If you are here to master a version of communication design, like information design, you might begin to worry that this is not so relevant to what you came to learn. So, I thought it might be useful if I gave you my position on this. And I urge you strongly to respond to this letter – to turn it into a dialogue.

Firstly, as you may know, there are two required Seminars in the MDes degrees offered by the School of Design. If you are doing the CPID program, you also do other Seminars offered by English. So this is only just one of the Seminars you are doing, and so it has a particular focus.

As you may be realizing the grad degrees here at CMU’s School of Design center on Interaction Design, or what the changes to the School now in place are calling, ‘Design for Interactions.’ This is what is distinctive about the School’s approach to Communication Design. As the CPID students would know, Dave teaches an ‘interaction-based’ approach to verbal composition. The second English course CPID students take is run by Suguru, a professor in English but a Communication Systems Designer. You will find therefore that the School tends to think about Communication Design as a subset of Interaction Design; or, put another way, that a practice like Information Design is a powerful tool for enabling Interaction Design.

This first Grad Design Seminar you all take has traditionally been an introduction to philosophies of design in general. And given what I just said about the focus of the School and its grad programs, it should be unsurprising to know that this Seminar has traditionally advanced the idea that the essence of all design is enabling interactions.

The originator of the Seminar, Richard Buchanan, taught an account of design as rhetoric drawing heavily on Aristotle. Whilst that perspective approaches design in terms of persuasion, employing language around symbols, semantics, contexts and positioning, it is persuasion aimed at action, not persuasion aimed at meaning-making. Buchanan’s famous Four Orders of Design, place the Design of Signs in the lower left with respect to the historical scale of design.

I am breaking with Buchanan’s rhetorical philosophy of design in how I am teaching this Seminar. There are lots of reasons for that explained a bit below (though not with direct reference to Buchanan). But I am not breaking with what has always been the focus of this Seminar, which is offering to you a particularly interaction-based philosophy of design.

I am giving you an explicitly ‘thing-based’ perspective on Interaction Design. This should have been apparent in the syllabus, but it is perhaps only just now starting to hit you. I want to explain why I am doing that, and then I want to explain why I think that this means that the Seminar is still very relevant, in strategically important ways, to Communication Design. I want to suggest that it is even relevant to less interactionist kinds of Communication Design.

You should be aware that my primary concern is the sustainability of our societies. I left philosophy to pursue design in order to find agency to do something about a situation that too few are working on, especially given its urgency. I see the unsustainability of our societies as deriving quite simply from the fact that we each have, use and dispose of too much stuff. We require far too many things moving far too far and much too fast (in one direction from available resources to unavailable waste) to go about everyday lives. To become sustainable, our societies must find ways of being less materials intense.

I am therefore politically concerned about things, about why there are so many things. The least reason there are so many things is, ironically, because we do not notice these things. Our focus is on going on about our business, our practices. Things are essential to everything we do but we pay them too little heed, so they accumulate around us or pass by us rapidly on their way to becoming trash or just vaporize in the background (into climate-changing pollutants) to provide the energy we take for granted in our houses or cars, etc.

Consequently, you could say that my academic mission is to get people to pay more attention to things. And of course I see designers as my ultimate ‘frenemies.’ Design involves making things (beautiful), but then making things disappear (useful). The challenge is precisely the one that Verbeek outlines: how to make things noticeably useful, how to create worlds in which things are valued for their usefulness, how to sense use value.

As you now know from Bruno Latour et al, this ‘missing of things’ is not recent and has consequences not just in relation to sustainability. It has skewed not just sociology (less so anthropology, where communication gaps meant the only thing researchers sometimes could focus on were the things that comprised the material culture of who was being studied), but resulted in the whole missing third between the sciences and the humanities, the realm Herbert Simon called ‘Sciences of the Artificial.’ (Is all this a cause or effect?)

Design, as a craft (1890s), then a recent profession (1930s), and only very recently a discipline (1970s), still without a well-established research domain (as the Symposium on the weekend might have evidenced), has, when it has tried to explain itself, tended to borrow from those skewed disciplines unfortunately. The very domain that should be defining this absent third dimension of materialized artifacts has, instead, been defined by perspectives that don’t understand let alone value what goes in that dimension.

This is why learning a thingly approach to design is not just useful general knowledge about the nature of everyday practices, but affords different ways of designing (for interactions). Hence, the focus of this Seminar is thing-oriented (which is very different from teaching you anything about how to do product-design).

So now I want to insist that the new(ish) approaches to design afforded by thing-perspectives are also relevant to communication and information design.

First of all, all communication is in the end material: words on paper, pictures on screens, phonemes being vibrated out of throats and lips through the air till they strike ear hairs and bones, ideas residing as reinforced synaptic connections or capacitors in off-on patterns. We so take all this materiality for granted that it has taken poststructuralists like Derrida to point out to us how much we privilege notions of immaterial pure presence in relation to concepts and communication by repressing things like writing. Still in the humanities, the overwhelming tendency is to downplay the material form of a communication (a book’s typeface, paperstock, margins, etc; along with the default MS Word format of critical reviews of that book); what is much more important are characters, plot, themes, metaphors, frames, etc – the content, considered completely separate from its materialization. Very occasionally you find someone like Gerard Gennette referring to ‘paratext’ in the discipline of literary criticism, though it is becoming more common since poststructuralism and with the arrival of multimodal media-studies inflected analyses.

If you are trained as a communication designer, you should think the complete reverse; not just that the way a communication is materialized can be influential over the content, but that the same content materialized in different ways is pretty much completely different content. From this perspective, all Communication Design is Product Design. Communication Designers design books and magazines and posters and maps and websites and business cards, etc. On the one hand, Communcation Design is well aware of this – page through the objects fetishistically photographed in any Graphis Annual. But on the other hand, even Communication Designers tend to forget it, portraying themselves as the magicians of pure meaning, direct affect and valuable experiences. As Karrie Jacobs once said in a keynote address later published in one of the hundreds of Looking Closer series, whenever a company calls a graphic designer, they should also call a dump truck to take-away all their existing letter-head and signage, etc.

Importantly, this thingly approach to Communication Design points to not only the materiality of the communication of itself, but to the materiality of contexts in which it is situated. (Good) Communication Design is not just the design of a poster, but the poster as it will be situated in a certain place at a certain time being viewed by certain people. Communication Designed Things are interventions into (material) practices. A beautifully designed decal prompting you to use reusable shopping bags is useless unless positioned where it can do its prompting work, like on the windscreen of the car that you jump into having left your reusable bags in the kitchen after unpacking your last shop. The thing-based, practice-oriented focus of this course is deliberately aimed at increasing the effectivity of communication design (and is explicitly critical of free floating infographics drifting without any impact around the internet superhighway).

But this is all kind of obvious. And it is a little too materialistic in how it is promoting things. When we say things, we immediately start thinking about material objects. But, as I hope you have been learning in this class, we should also start noting all the uses of the word ‘thing’ that are not quite or more than everyday objects. When I say to you, “How’s things?,” or “The thing is…,” or “I’m a bit lost at the moment; I feel like I am waiting for something, anything,” it is difficult to know if I am speaking metaphorically or not. Bruno Latour (following Heidegger and Austin) has spent a lot of time and words pointing out that in the end, a thing is ‘a matter of concern.’ It either concerns us because it physically in front of us, a hunk of matter, blocking our way, or helping us around a blockage; or it is a concern that weighs upon us as if it were physical; some (seemingly immaterial) things matter to us in much the same way as material things; they burden us, tug at us, trip us up; they disrupt out otherwise habituated practices. Now Latour insists that these two versions of things, things made of matter and ‘the things that matter to us,’ must go together. It is difficult if not impossible for us to be concerned about things that don’t get materialized in ways that make allow us to practice our concern about those things. We forget ideas unless they get noted down in notebook. We need parliaments to sustain our democracies. We need temples (or at least ritualistic places and things) to be religious. We show our love for people by creating protective homes for them. We help other people when we have branded work-places from which, and collated tools with which (in other words, organizations, whether businesses or community groups), to help them.

The job of a Communication Designer and an Information Designer is to thingify things, to find (dispersed) things that should concern us (i.e., issues, ideas, groups of people) and cohere them into a thing, a coherent Communication or piece of Information (which designers judge to be ‘strong,’ ‘clear,’ ‘elegant’). And the way Communication and Information Designers do this is by making things, (material) things that capture, cohere and convey (immaterial) things, turning them into the sorts of things that can be dropped strategically into peoples everyday practices in ways that make them have to be concerned about them. And hopefully in ways that enable them to be more productively concerned about them, restructuring their constellations of devices, skills and object(ive)s so that those concerns become regularized everyday things that we habitually take care of.

Sorry for the lecture, poorly materialized in default MS Word settings without irony. I hope that this Communication is nevertheless some thing that will allow you all to see why things should be the things that this Graduate Seminar in Design (for Interactions) is concerned about, and the sort of things that all design practices should put at the center of their concerns.

If not let me know. Throw some thing back at me.

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