How and why are objects and things important to design? How can making and using design inform theories of things? When do things become objects? Or, vice versa, when do objects turn into things? Is there a process whereby objects revert to, merge with, or mutate into things? These were the hottest topics of discussion at the Design and Theories of Things symposium, held on 9 June 2018 at the Design History Society. The symposium, which was co-sponsored by the Design History Society and Central Saint Martins, examined what theories of things mean, to, for, and in design in both their historical and contemporary contexts.
There was enthusiastic audience participation that led to lively discussions, in particular, about the difference between objects and things, and the way that one may transition into the other. A general consensus emerged at the symposium that objects (and things) possess ineffable qualities. There is an inherent strangeness in objects, which is often so invisible to us, that fully emerges in a tangible fashion when they no longer function right, or stop working. This was one of the topics for discussion proposed by Peter Hall's talk on objects that fail. One of his examples - the Concorde - resonated greatly with the audience as a material-semiotic mix of industrial agendas, material innovation and design daring, which all feed a great mythological narrative centred on the role of design as both a future-building enterprise, and as consumed through a variety of visual media.
Betti Marenko compared the visual culture of eighteenth-century automata and contemporary Android devices - both actors in what she describes as an imaginative material genealogy of technology. Whether they are mechanical or digital, Marenko noted, these devices provoke questions about both the artificiality of life and the intelligence of machines. Phil Jones focused on how design artefacts enable human thought and action. He based his ideas upon George Lakoff and Mark Johnson's 'embodied realism', in which our bodies mediate the production of meaning. Visual culture, this time in relation to fashion, the body, and design, was addressed by Claire Pajaczkowska, who gave an engaging talk about the semiotics of ripped jeans. She asked: What kind of thing is a hole? What is its function? We heard how, in the past, holes in fabric could symbolise conspicuous consumption, and how, today, they can suggest a type of shared experience in which simulation and authenticity are merged - and even indistinguishable from each other.
Yes, objects are complex, complicated affairs...they can be evocative, recalcitrant, liminal, vibrant, with propensities, agency, and attractive powers of their own. They are, after all, the non-human actors that we create and with which we interact, and all of them are products of design, whether we realise it or not. Have you ever considered, for instance, the impact of government policy? Sarah Teasley drew our attention precisely to this. She considered twentieth-century Japan's industrial policy in order to highlight the intangibility of the object 'policy' as a designed artefact that affects people. Policy goes on designing in the world as much as the tangible objects it legislates.
Questions about the functionality of objects ensued, instigating more lively conversation. What happens when an object 'shifts' its functionality, or acquires a functionality that is different from the intentions of its designer? Adam Drazin showed a range of DIY practices that, by re-orienting design scripts in bottom-up and often vernacular ways, offered fascinating examples of user appropriation. Design is effectively a force that can transcend the boundaries of industry, professional bodies and academia.
We were privileged to have, alongside a stellar range of speakers, two exceptional respondents - Lina Hakim (Kingston University) and Joe Moshenska (Oxford University) who commented with verve and insight, respectively, on the morning and the afternoon panel. Both Lina and Joe did a wonderful job of connecting rich, erudite, and eclectic presentations, finding intriguing trait d'union among the themes presented and posing equally stimulating questions.
If the worth of a symposium can be measured by the vitality and vibrancy of the discussion that follows the presentations, then Design and Theories of Things was undoubtedly a fantastic success!