Bacon sunglasses or how far should we future cast?

I went to see the impossibly crowded opening of the Work-in-progress show at the RCA yesterday and although I really should try to go back, the feeling I got coming out of it was one of being puzzled by what it all meant.

Fact is, I’m not sure of RCA’s overall design rhetoric anymore. Durrel Bishop who once headed taught Design Interactions is now teaching at Design Products and the product design projects start to look like the works for Design Interactions a few years ago (especially the radio project, a late cousin of the IDII’s Strangely Familiar project when I was there in 2005). The Design Interactions projects are conceptually mostly based on either statistics, exploitation of the edges of society and in general not very self-explanatory. Maybe that’s what that course aims to do, to make us aware of problems to come and simply attempt to illustrate solutions or consequences. But then is that even design anymore or simply creative naysaying?

Few projects were really self-explanatory, and well isn’t that what art is about? You read the description to give you a contextual framework in which to understand what you’re seeing. Devoid of those explanations, I would challenge anyone to understand what was happening. Again, not a good or a bad thing, just a trend it seems.

Bless their hearts the IDE course presented loads of great work, themed on the next generation of mobiles (with the network 3) and global warming solutions for the household.

In strange way, the whole show could have been presented along an axis of time, answering the question: For who is it you are designing?
IDE would have answered: “someone from 2009”,
Design Products: “someone from 2011” and
Design Interactions: “someone from 2025”.

Perhaps then for me would the show have made sense and so would the activity of designing and future-casting associated with it.

By designswarm

Blogging since 2005.


  1. Title: A pair of bacon sunglasses and a chip on the shoulder, or something along those lines.

    I’ve read your blog for some time now and I’ve resisted contributing, until now. My resistance to contributing to blogs in general is that they are by and large vehicles for personal authorship and that participation is ultimately framed and managed by a single authorial voice. Consequently participants tend to get patronized or corrected if they voice dissent or simply toe the line and provide consensual support to common sense statements. I’ve resisted commenting on this blog in particular as the statements and claims posted here police a normative approach to design.

    Having said that, I thought I’d comment on this post as it typifies a set of posts on this blog in which both the RCA and the Design Interactions course are unfairly and inaccurately represented. Some might even say sneered at. I don’t, however, claim to present a more accurate representation. Instead, I just want to ask some questions about this post which I hope might make sense in light of other posts about the RCA and provide an alternative to your representation of the RCA and design interactions.

    Firstly, an inaccuracy: to my knowledge Durrel Bishop has never headed design interactions, interaction design or computer related design.
    Next, the ‘fact’: you speak of an overall RCA design rhetoric. Is there an overall RCA design rhetoric? If so, then how might you describe it? How might it be recognized against other ‘design rhetorics’? Indeed, doesn’t the use of the word rhetoric suggest a lack of sincerity or an artful disingenuous on behalf of the RCA as an institution and the work of the students? Some people might find this a little bit offensive.
    Thirdly: “self-explanatory projects”. I’m not sure if art can be reduced to being “about” explanation. And anyway, is it that easy to separate artifacts from the discourse in which they are embedded, whether they be art objects or design objects? You suggest that without a contextualizing statement or description the projects would present a challenge to comprehending them. They would resist interpretation. So, here we have some implicit normative claims about design. Firstly, that design is not art. Well it could be, and the other way around but you’d have to get specific. Neither discipline, however, would appreciate these kind of reductive claims. Secondly the outcome of the practice of design, the design artifact, should have the capacity to enroll its user in the desired program of use without any linguistic resources and that this capacity is ‘good’. But, do most finished design artifacts arrive in the hands of people unmediated by marketing, instruction manuals, graphical prompts for use and so on? Do they come unmediated by biographies of similar artifacts or by existing cultural practices? To discriminate against design artifacts, whether educational, commercial or other, that are not simultaneously semiotically and materially active strikes me as being absurd.
    Now, you talk about the ‘edges of society’. Where might these boundaries be and what is outside the boundaries of the social? If there are edges then can we speak of an interior and what, then, counts as the interior of society? I don’t have an answer to the question because I don’t understand what the edges of society means. The suggestion, however, is that the topics addressed by the Design Interaction students are not relevant. This begs the question: what is relevant and how gets to decide what is or is not relevant? The students are contesting this in their own way.
    I don’t think blessing the hearts of IDE students merits comment.
    Put briefly, it seems that you have a chip on your shoulder regarding the RCA and Design Interactions in particular. You might say that your comments are designed to stimulate discussion but I think a more sensitive and informed discussion would be more appreciated.

  2. Hi Jimmy,

    Thanks for responding, it’s nice to see someone even comment to these now rare instances of blogging. I’m always keen on having a good conversation as it keeps the subject alive.

    Chip on the shoulder, there is none. I admired and have been a friend of many a former student and current students at the Design Interactions and Interaction Design programs. I even applied to the RCA ! I ended up going to IDII, a sister-like program, met Durrell Bishop there when he visited and enjoyed speaking with them and talking about their work. I stand corrected on the role of Durrell and have corrected it in my post.

    There is in my opinion a rhetoric for all design academic environments I know of. Each one focuses on presenting their work, engaging with the design community, presenting a certain curriculum, focusing on the more technical or conceptual aspects of design. People don’t perceive RISD in the same way as SCAD or RCA as I don’t think that’s insulting, students usually choose a program on the basis of that rhetoric, I know I did. RCA has, in my mind and through what I have experience speaking with students, changed dramatically it’s Interactions program in the past years and this affects how I view the work overall and how I perceive it in relation to broader trends in design.
    You’re right, art isn’t bound by explanations, but this is a design course is it not? The pieces shown didn’t all resist interpretation but most of them did. Is that a result of the growing tension between design and art. I read someone (can’t remember where right now) that designers in the UK specifically were envious of the art world’s elevated status. I am not from this country originally, so perhaps you could tell me if that claim is true and this is what makes that tension something heretic to criticise.

    You’ll excuse me if I find your comparison between a design artifact in academia and a commercial object unrealistic. Most of the design decisions and execution in academia are the results of a single and perhaps another 2 people, this gives them a great amount of power over the connotations, cultural and otherwise, associated with their work. The number of people involved in shaping a commercial artifact is tenfold and the message that each person wanted to communicate through that object can equally be different every step of the way, comlicating the relationship to the end “user”. 2 very different situations.

    As a _design_ student I was always told to make sure in the context of an exhibition that something was “dummy-proof” or another way to put it: that anyone outside of my bubble of thoughts could understand what I wanted to achieve or what were my goals. As I now found myself on the other end of the stick, I can see how much of an impact that makes.

    The 2 projects I liked were Chris’s (although I didn’t get to try it, I think it was the most popular judging by the flickr streams from friends at the same event) and Will’s. 2 very nice and inviting ideas that invited _interaction_.

    I’m running out of time right now but will resume in a bit. Just wanted to respond briefly.

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