Our social context is constantly changing. We live & behave different than 50 years ago. Back then we dined with the family at the table, nowadays family members pop-up at home when it suits them and might eat individually in front of their laptop. From cooperative, rural communities we slowly changed to urban oriented individualised personalities.The youngest generation however seems more co-operative again and in the sharing mood. We live in a society where cultures are mixed, wherein we live longer and where we are less formal. We are digitally switched on 24/7 and this all has an effect on product and furniture typologies that we need or desire.Digital and technical progress also allows us to tackle some global 'big issues' in our society like management of water, energy, food, waste, health and well-being. Designers increasingly play a role in processes that aim to deal with these issues, both as problem solvers or as strategists and try to find sustainable solutions on small and large scale.This fifth East London studio-salon looks into the effect of a changing social context on design and our product needs plus what effects developments in design and technology can have for our society. What tools do designers have to play a role in social issues and what does all of this mean for the role of the designer?
Date & location: 29 November 2016 - Sunbury's Workshops, East LondonModerator:Anna Bates (Dirty Furniture Magazine)Start-up speakers:- Anne van der Zwaag Dutch art historian, curator and design writer of 'Looks Good Feels Good Is Good - How Social Design Changes Our World'.- Martino Gamper, furniture designer for manufacturers as well as community projects in London like the East London Arnold Circus project.- Frank Kolkman graduated from RCA Design Interactions in 2015 with DIY Surgery (nominated for digital design of the year 2016) and designed Design for Flies (winner 2016 Dutch Design Awards service & systems)Participants: Merel Karhof, Carl Clerkin, Jon Harrison (hosts), Valentina Ciuffi (seeds / actant visuelle), ..., Jane Withers (curator), Gareth Williams (Middlesex University) and designers: Marjan van Aubel, Mathias Hahn, Gitta Gschwendtner, Felix de Pass, Chiara Onida (It), Julie Utgard (No), Georgia Cranstoun (studio Vedèt), Ineke Hans, Juuke Schoorl, Thomas Pearson, Thor ter Kulve (photo's)
(design and the changing position of the designer)
Ineke Hans: Very nice that you all came! With seven native speakers here we have the highest number of Dutch persons in one salon ever, but with also native Italian, German, Japanese, Norwegian and Australian speakers we have a very international crowd tonight.If you would go to the recently reopened Design Museum these days for the 'Designs of the Year' exhibition you will notice that Social Design is highly topical and I am happy that we discuss it here tonight. Also to find out what it might change for the position of the designer. I will hand you over to Anna Bates who will moderate this evening.
Anna Bates: Well, I like to start the evening with Anne van der Zwaag, who is a curator, design writer and art historian. She wrote the book Looks Good Feels Good Is Good about the different moulds of a designer across the spectrum really with Social Design related to industrial design and critical design. Perhaps you can give us a reconstruction of why you decided to write the book at the time?
Anne van der Zwaag: As you mentioned I write and curate but not only on design. I do many other things like organising a fair in Holland called 'Object'. I don't look at design as one discipline and I am also closely related to other disciplines: graphic design, fashion, photography, art, architecture and I incorporate them all in my projects as in this book.The fair that I own and organise each year in spring is about selling design and that counts also for the world of art-design - like at the annual fair in Miami. For this the aesthetics are very important, but it is only a small part of the design world and when I was for instance teaching at the Design Academy in Eindhoven you find out that other designers also deal with lots of other things than market and sales and they question: what design can do?". I wanted to dive into the term Social Design also because I read about it many times, but I wondered: what is it really? People often relate to it like they also do to a word as 'sustainability' and on this I like to share an example with you: I worked for the design department of Akzo Nobel years ago of which ICI paints in Slough is also part and I worked here too. We designed all colour collections and trend books for all the Akzo Nobel paint brands worldwide. One of the reasons I left the company was when I was reading their annual report of 2009. The word SUSTAINABILITY was written more often than the word PAINT. For me that was a shock, since I knew the company from inside out and I knew it was not sustainable, but by using the word over and over again people start to think: 'ah... they are doing good work'. It was for me a hollow phrase and I wondered is that maybe the same with Social Design? People spoke about it but: what is it really? I started to look into it and noticed that there are many books about it, but they are very theoretical and make it difficult to understand what it is about. I was reading them and thought: oh, this is very difficult for designers to get a grip on and find out what you can add, but also for stakeholders such as authorities, commercial parties, knowledge institutes..., basically anyone who could add something to making this world a better place designwise. So I thought to make a book that would make things visually very clear but also explain it understandable. I researched the topic and tried to explain about it, not only from the design perspective but also from the perspective from the end-user and the stakeholders. I looked at designers, I looked at needs for our environment like energy, water, waste, food and well-being and how designers together with their context had made things happen for those needs, since I had also noticed in design academies that there are many good ideas, but it is hard to push them forward on your own. So, in a nutshell: I tried to write a book that described our social needs and the real topics we are dealing with now where designers could be of importance and also about what is needed to make the ideas, solutions and alternatives reality.
Anna Bates: Thank you Anne. So Martino has worked on exhibition design interior design one off commissions and mass produced products. He also worked on a community project with the 'Friends of Arnold Circus' - that is here just around the corner from here - developing a stool. Arnold Circus is part Boundary Estate of one of the first social housing projects commissioned by a local government. If we start with that, given that your client here was a community and different than your 'normal' client. How did the project come about?
Martino Gamper: Well...that the stool which came out of the project that I did is called Social Design was something I only found out later... I started the project in 2006. I did not live in the area but lived not very far away. The Boundary Estate was build in East London at the end of the 19th century. In the 80's and 90's the area was a different area: a lot of drug dealing. Also the little roundabout of Arnold Circus was basically just a drug dealing place. With my friends from Åbäke - a design collective of four people - we thought the only way to claim the roundabout was to claim the space back. We organised a picnic and one of the first things we did is to paint and repair the bandstand with some residents. The people who lived around here were in social housing though and did not get access themselves to organisations as National Heritage, but they were also not allowed to touch the bandstand, so the act of repairing was a kind of sabotage and the 'graffiti paint' was the colour that the bandstand originally had. For the first picnic basically every body brought a blanket and some food so with the people of the estate we claimed the space back. The message was: if the borough - Tower Hamlets- is not dealing with the situation here, we take care of it ourselves.As designers we were somehow outsiders and did the projects that we were interested in. Åbäke made some graphic design and they still do: T-shirts and so on. The first picnic was a success and other events came up with brass bands playing at the bandstand and other sort of things. Every time more people showed up and in the end there was this thing: we need some chairs!The residents wanted to go to IKEA for some cheap chairs. They had managed to find some funding and T shirts had been sold. So there was a little budget of around £ 2000,00, but we said: "No way you are not going to buy something of the shelves", and I said: "Why don't you give me the money?"
Martino Gamper: I thought: why not invest it in a tool that can produce something. I knew of a rotation moulder in Summerset, a farmer who used to make cattle feeders and agricultural items and now had a factory there.I thought this was a relatively simple process and could be interesting. A casted mould was still rather expensive, so I folded it with sheet metal. I proposed it for Arnold Circus and the Friends of Arnold Circus liked it. To make the production efficient we needed two tools, but there was not enough money for that so I paid for one and they did. I only realised later that I had made a product and that it was for a 'Social Project'.
Anne van der Zwaag: What you see and what I noticed also for my book that it is in the end not so much about the product or the discipline, but far more about the mentality: you need to be an entrepreneur, an organiser, you need to connect people. This kind of design goes far beyond design!
Anna Bates: So its about a different set of skills?
Martino Gamper: I am less involved now, but whenever the Friends of Arnold Circus have events they sell the stools and I also sell them myself. I still produce them and it looks like a little side business, but when we looked at the figures over the years I sold 8000 to 9000 stools so it is a business and as a designer you become a designer maker.
Anne van der Zwaag: It is also a bit the other way around. If you see graduation shows you see so many chairs and products where you ask yourself: who is going to use that in the end? What I like about projects like yours is that products come from a totally different process.
Martino Gamper: Yes but I also realised, when working with industry, that I was selling more stools than Magis was selling my chairs. So said to them: "There is something wrong about the way you sell things. It can't be that I sell more stools via my website, where you have probably 300 shops around the world!" Once you are producing yourself, you also realise how much things cost to make and how to sell them. I am now a wholesaler, we sell to Twentytwentyone and also in Korea and New Zealand. For that the shipping costs were an issue but my wife is from New Zealand and when I drove around there I saw a sign: rotation-moulding NZ. So I stopped and asked: "What do you make?" The guy said: "Ah kayaks, water containers, cattle feeding things, etc." So I made some tools and now they are also made in New Zealand and I save shipping costs.
Ineke Hans: The stool somehow also tells a story that local people relate to. In Anne's book the themes of water, energy etc. are related to the United Nations Millennium Goals that were once set and the products that Anne shows often connect to stories that appeal to people. However once the stool is out of its context this story do not always go with it and it has to survive on its own. How do you see that?
Martino Gamper: Well, people interpret products in their own way and it is not really important. The stool has been used as a bucket, I have used it in many ways too, made backrests on it... and when designing it was also for me not only related to Arnold Circus. I always had an obsession with corners; the eight sides are related to the bandstand, but I made a 90º corner to it, because I wanted to make a corner stool.
Anne van der Zwaag: When researching the topic of Social Design I noticed that for projects that work best there are three things that matter: People Planet & Profit.'People' because people have to understand it and 'People' also form our society with aspects like humanity and interaction. 'People' are the 'social part'. 'Planet' is the environmental part and 'Profit' is what is needed in the end: it has to looks good and that is also the last part of the title of my book. It needs to be appealing otherwise people won't buy it or the story.So, a project starts in a social context, you think about how you can produce something in an effective way, also for the environment and you also think about a form a colour that is attractive. And clients are getting more and more aware of this too, so they ask about the story, they ask how you made it with what materials and they ask about the final form. Twenty years ago there was a completely different combination of things that made a design a success.
Martino Gamper: Yes it was much more centralised: there was a company with a good name and a designer with a good name. Not many designers were selling their own products, but now also these opportunities have changed.
Anna Bates: Let's bring the third speaker in. Frank takes a more questioning role and I think you could say the main question is 'What If?' His goal is to challenge the understanding of current and new technologies and their social and political implications. You graduated at the RCA with Design Interactions in 2015 with DIY Surgery: an open surgery initiative that could provide an accessible alternative to the costs of professional healthcare systems worldwide. You are nominated with it for the Designs of the Year awards and also won a Dutch Design Award with Design for Flies in the service & systems section. We like to hear about this and I wonder if you could also talk about recent projects you work on.
Frank Kolkman: I think both projects are closely related. As many of you know Design Interactions was headed by Anthony Dunne who introduced the term speculative, critical design to see if you can use design to explore radical new ideas and directions if you take out the commercial element. I came from a traditional product design course in Arnhem with a focus on conceptual design and self producing designers and I noticed that hardly anything came out there with a plug on it. I started to look into electronics and because I had no real access to it I started from easy entrances online and open source platforms like arduino etc. I still used 3d printers to build a chair or a product.It was only later at Design Interactions that I realised that the potential of these new technologies not only effects aesthetics, but also politics since it changes the way we have access to things.When in my second year I was watching you-tube films that showed - mainly uninsured - Americans performing medical procedures because they did not have access to healthcare and that clicked with me. You-tube was a kind of DIY medium of sharing healthcare with others who have no money for it. It felt sad in a way, but it also had something optimistic, so I started to wonder what would happen if people would have access to a kind of tools that I was looking at that are now used in medical healthcare and actually increase the costs of healthcare. This led to the question: 'Can you build a DIY surgical robot, how much would it cost and how would you do that?' With asking the last part of the question I see myself much more as an experimental designer than a speculative, critical designer, because I really wanted to see how plausible it would be for me to realise it without a medical or engineering background, within four months and with the $ 4000,00 I had on the bank which was a study loan by the way.It turned out to be surprisingly possible. I spoke to a lot of field surgeons who said it was a crazy idea, but after four months there is something that works and moves. It was unstable, but with the right team of people it could be a reality quite easily.Than the discussion immediately changed to: "this is something we have to consider for the future with questions like: do we want to live in a world where this is happening?" I realised that it became a conversation starter for groups that were usually quite separated: the surgeons, the policy makers and the engineers.
Anna Bates: Were you able to facilitate that debate?
Frank Kolkman: Not necessarily myself, but I designed the project very specifically for exhibition context and some design decisions were made to support that the image became very strong, so that I could subvert the gallery system and set up the debate between stakeholders in the field.
Gareth Williams: So is the project really not about addressing the issue of people that have no access to surgery because they cannot afford it, but it is about trying to start the conversation about it?
Frank Kolkman: Exactly!
Gareth Williams: And in that way it is completely different than the stool project of Martino and it is stepping back from a nearly solved problem and than not solve it?
Frank Kolkman: I realised that I did not solve any problem in the end and created all kind of different and even more problems, because a lot of legal and ethical questions came up. This is where critical and speculative design is different from regular design and creates self questioning projects and you could say I created a monster. At the moment the project is a research on two levels where it provides a critical debate on DIY surgery and on the other hand it offers insights for a new strategies and methods that can be developed to create real functioning tools.
Anne van der Zwaag: We found also that there are two types of Social Design one creates acting and the other creates thinking and making people aware of that things can be different.
Jon Harrison: Looking at it now I wonder who the first person was to have his eyes lasered? There is an innovation but what were they thinking?
Frank Kolkman: Well there is not much new in my project: robotic surgery has been around for over ten years. The machines are precise but the issue is that they make operations very expensive that can also be performed manually at lower costs. If you had no access to medical care anyway it makes no difference for you. However as soon as a hospital bought a machine they can no longer work manual because they have made this investment.Especially in the medical industry there is a kind of innovation paradox. Things are not getting cheaper. You have these big giants with patents and they buy all kind of patents to prevent anyone from entering the market and that is a massive problem.
Ineke Hans: Do you want to guide all that and get control over it? Specifically in open source situations control is difficult where for healthcare some sort of control might be desirable. How do you want to do that? And Anne was earlier talking about profit where is that coming in?
Frank Kolkman: I am limiting the open source element because there is the risk of liability claims. The RCA send me a letter saying: you need to talk to our layers because we don't know if you can continue with this project. Their patent department was mainly concerned with the intellectual property rights.
Mathias Hahn: You were talking about making things accessible but if you go into patents you join the same system!
Ineke Hans: Maybe this is where we have to be more active as a designer too? Where Martino said give me the money and I make something happening, in matters like this designers have to stay involved longer and more active too to protect their thoughts?There is a great potential for designers if you keep involved, where I can also understand that you like to move on to another project get bored to be into politics.
Anne van der Zwaag: What Ineke says is interesting. I am in the Netherlands also in the board of DOEN Foundation that supports Social Design projects also internationally. Two years ago we worked with ten designers from non-western countries and they all did a project like Martino in a specific small local context and they were very successful. What I found very confronting was that when we presented this to students of the Design Academy, they were somehow numbed and acting a bit spoiled. After they had heard me speak about Social Design they had all been critical about the power of big multinationals like Shell, etc and thinking that no one would listen to them, so they just wanted to do their own thing. But these ten people had just started, not being influenced by the power of big companies. They just got on with it and achieved so much!
Jon Harrison: The word context came up earlier and Martino worked in an overseeable context, but there are systems that are so big! You would like to get your hands on it but its so difficult. There are a lot of beautiful solutions in what we call Social Design but it is about implementation!
Ineke Hans: So can't we help? We as designers can see how to solve problems and we are in a profession that is called applied art. If we can apply art to an object, can we than also not apply solutions? I am thinking more and more that our role could also be problem solver in social contexts and implementing strategies and solutions! So not only for tangible objects but also in non-tangible situations.
Anna Bates: I like the active role of the designer. Martino's project was about claiming back the space on a small and direct scale, but with complex and bigger systems like healthcare and systems that are about to collapse like NHS the question might be: do you want to design for that and claim space in that?
Frank Kolkman: In my case if you have a system that is inherently bad, you can play a bit of piracy in a way. It is my humble attempt to address issues. Normally engineers and policy makers would decide that a robot comes in as a great gift to humanity. Where if you would involve designers earlier in these processes when the science is not finished yet, when you can explore the potential of technology and the possible downside of it, then you can design around it. It is my hope that this can be achieved with design and this hope is based on the idea that design can have a very big impact on mindsets.
Jane Withers: This has also a big impact on designers education with ethical issues, philosophy, politics. There is a little, but it is still very primitive.
Ineke Hans: It is weird that in design education there is also no anthropology or psychology, because this is what we are dealing with as designers all the time if we are dealing with people.
Anna Bates: Perhaps students should take a year out and work in the area where they want to act in (not necessary design) and learn about the tools you need in there. Frank, I read somewhere that you liked to be a scientist at one point.
Frank Kolkman: Well, I act more like a journalist now, where I shadow experts. I was in touch with Dr. Martin Jaere at the Imperial College who happens to be both a surgeon as well as an engineer. He gave me a very clear sense of what the issues were. In most cases you expect that in hospitals the doctor makes a decision, but that is usually a board of people. An ethical board decides if someone can be operated or not. For operating there are a lot of legislations but it can be very vague too. In some places it is for instance illegal to operate yourself where in African countries there are hardly rules, so that is why a lot of the big companies go to Africa to set up hospitals and try out things.
Gareth Williams: A lot of what we discuss now seems really about getting access to things that were usually controlled by experts and than commercialised and getting expensive. I can't help thinking about the 3d printed gun that actually does the same thing: it gives access. It is easier to say that a gun is something bad and healthcare is something good, but I can't separate the two things to be honest.
Frank Kolkman: I worked on Design for Flies in Japan. It is a kind of follow up on the robot, but I realised DIY surgery was quite radical and completely depending on people building, maintaining and using it. I also knew from experience with open source projects that there is always an increase of people interested in it in the beginning, than it stays on the same level for the next two or three years, but often core members leave the project and than the project dies. So I was interested to see if this process could be more institutionalised and therefore bring industry into it. In Japan I looked into the pharmaceutical industry where something is going on for patients with rare diseases. No one is investing in those.So the project was treated in a similar way as the Surgical Robot: the patients were becoming part of the research by creating a business model that was viable for the pharmaceutical industry and that you could do at home. We designed a system where transgenic fruit flies could be used as model organisms to test drug compounds on. The patients would get a different test kit send to them every week based on chemical libraries that the industry had already. The patients could do the tests and experiments themselves on a device we prototyped and this gave the them also a feeling of control over a condition that for them - till than - had seen hopeless. In a way this is also speculative because there are regulations preventing us to send transgenic fruit flies.
Anna Bates: But isn't that why you worked with this partner?
Frank Kolkman: Yes so I worked with the Design-lab of the Kyoto Institute of Technology. A professor had invited me to work with the research on rare diseases that he was doing. There is a link with the RCA. Professor Julia Cassim works at this institute who was connected to the RCA and the Helen Hamlyn Centre of the RCA. They set up a residency program there and because of my background they were interested if I could make a connection with the technical side of their Institute with design. I came in touch with professor Masamitsu Yamaguchi who was looking into rare diseases and working with fruit flies.
Jane Withers: So they set the brief in a way?
Frank Kolkman: Well no, they set the context and we started talking and working together. First they wanted me to make a sculpture of the DNA of fruit flies with the idea that that would blow away the pharmaceutical companies.
Ineke Hans: But that says also something about what they think a designer can do for them. They ask you to do a funny sculpture and sometimes that is how deep our profession has sunk.
Mathias Hahn: What is interesting here, is that both of you, also Martino, see through the system, ask questions and work out how you can make an impact within the system.Martino Gamper: The difference of designers working in this, is also that if the local government would have been interested in the area they would have said: we are going to redo the space, the bandstand has to go because it is too expensive to fix it and you will get an expensive space that no one wants to be at, not even the drug dealers.So if you want to have an impact: do you do a big thing or do you start small and slow? The little things do change something and at Arnold Circus they send out the message: we take it over! The residents got involved.
Jon Harrison: What was that food project that you did?
Martino Gamper: 'Tratoria al Capello'. That was very much about us not finding a restaurant that was worthwhile spending the money on and where you would learn something while you eat. So with a similar group of Arnold Circus we organised a supperclub for people with whom you would like to hang out with, talk to and learn from. The bar was semi-legal. I made the furniture, there were graphic designers designing menu's, invites and table mats and basically we cooked together and invited people that would pay a bit.
Carl Clerkin: You made your own system.
Martino Gamper: In a way we commissioned ourselves and received a bit of money to create things, but we did not make any money. However people who did have money and went to restaurants did not have the same experiences. We set up our own system and without it we would not do what we do now.
Carl Clerkin: I once designed a bench for the Council, but did not get any reply on placing it for six weeks. I decided to just place it in the park and within a day it was removed. I was amazed! Someone had complained and made the council responsible which made the Council reacted in a day!
Anne van der Zwaag: What helps is to make things public. Bring it to the press, also locally because if it is not on their plate, they don't react or invest time and energy in it.
Anna Bates: Anne you mentioned you did a survey. Do you have examples of what works well?
Anne van der Zwaag: Well it is already said that you have to start small it doesn't help to think big. These things only work bottom up.I also think that you always have to relate it to your own context. I see a lot that people come up with solutions for problems that they don't even have and that is already a failure in itself. There is a nice example from Uganda where a young boy that studied and noticed that all the girls in his village had to walk every day really far to get firewood for the ovens that are crucial to make charcoal for their cooking. This means the young girls cannot go to school and earn money and won't develop themselves. He looked at alternatives and from agricultural waste that was piling up around the village he made briquettes. He also made packages and a hole chain of shops. He set up a system that is now working in several African countries, but he started with a sharp analyses in his actual daily life and ended up with a solution that goes far beyond just a product. He kept every thing in his own power without funding and I think that was also crucial. To be successful in these kind of cases as a designer you have to take a project from the beginning to the end. Often the projects only get funding when they become successful and than they can go to the next level.There is an another example of something that looks good but did not work and that is a project with healthcare. It is difficult in Africa to distribute medicines. A designer came up with the idea to do that with an existing distribution network and everybody who has been in Africa knows that means: coca-cola or beer companies. So a package was designed that would fit in the coca-cola packing, but than coca-cola said: we are not going to do this. Most of the time is better to start smaller and with local authorities. Commercial entities will only support you if they get better.
Gareth Williams: And than you have to be the entrepreneur, because no one supports you.
Anne van der Zwaag: Exactly! And I think that this is crucial and goes back to design education that is often so far of from reality. I have that now with the Social Design department in Eindhoven where I look at the end results and I think: it is all empty!
Anna Bates: How could you change this?
Anne van der Zwaag: Well students should go out more during their education, be active in the field and gain more practice and less concepts.
Ineke Hans: A lot of the education that we still have is based on the Bauhaus and from a time where the designer was also the maker. In England you had bodgers who would make furniture directly in the woods. Gitta talked about that once. Nowadays the designers don't necessarily have to be the makers anymore. They need to know how things are made but don't have to be the expert maker. They have to be the people that have to connect things and relate to different processes and systems and you need to have negotiation skills.
Anne van der Zwaag: And they need to be aware of the context you operate in. I see in art schools so many people that start only from themselves. But that is also the case with companies. A company like Heineken is interested in three things: selling beer, selling beer and selling beer. So if you want to work for them as a designer on either commercial, or social projects you need to know: they want to sell beer!So for me Social Design is much more about a mentality and less about the design.
Martino Gamper: Next to the focus on design, there is also a thing with authorship. Some designs are related to certain people and you can not touch it or improve them. In Asia there is a completely different perception on this, where you sometimes copy and improve. Here everyone is trying to invent the wheel, but 'not working together' is not always good for innovation.
Anne van der Zwaag: I once did a survey about where graduates wanted to go and where they ended up. Once out of school 80% of them wants to set up their own label, but only a small percentage of these designers are needed. Designers are needed in the companies where a lot of design-thinking is going on for the masses. If designers are not involved in this marketing people and others in the companies start steering design with a lot of bad design as result.
Tomoko Azumi: But companies often think they don't need designers.
Frank Kolkman: In the 'Flies' project - where they expected me to do this sculpture - I kept a visual log that helped to communicate between my English and the Japanese of the professor. At one point we had this scedule with how things worked and I pointed to a very illogical step for me and said why don't we do this? I made a jump in the schedule. The professor really had not thought of that move, but as a designer you learn how to zoom in and out and you come to different solutions with an overview.At that moment the attention shifted in their research and we started to work on Design for Flies. For me that shows what design can do instead of making something purple.
Anne van der Zwaag: I once listened to a program on the radio where experts talked about robots taking things over form us. It was not about if, but about when and all kind of jobs that are important now - like doctor, accountant, lawyer - will all be gone because they can be taken over by robots and algorithms.They concluded that the only people that will really be important by then will be the creatives: the designers, the artists and the architects because of their creative minds...