Surprise Me: Lecture Two; Surrealism, Dadaism and Innovation.

Today we had our second ‘Surprise Me’ lecture, this time Theo Humphries led the discussion, which included debate on several notable movements in art and design. The point was made that the most memorable art and design pieces come at periods in history where major events were taking place, and therefore the pieces were a reaction to these historic events. The pieces are remembered most often because they were, at the time, surprising and new. A prime example of this is Dadaism and surrealism, which came as a reaction to the waves of horror seen across the world during the First World War. An example Theo and Steve chose to show us was the 1928 Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali film; ‘Un Chien Andalou’.

The film has seemingly no real narrative but a collected jumble of dream like harrowing images, each as surreal as the next.

We were then shown a clip from the film ‘Eroica’, which details Beethoven’s music writing methods for a piece of the same name. The clip shows not only the importance and sense of occasion given to music, but also the real emotion caused by its presence. Most importantly however, we see how Beethoven breaks boundaries on music, by being the first composers to introduce a horn solo off-beat into his music. This is a good example of how an artistic surprise might be accomplished by breaking with convention.

We finished this lecture with a group exercise, each having twenty minutes to produce our own surrealist game which could then be played in the lecture room. Our group came up with an idea generation game, which involved two groups of people (a and b) being given two keywords, for example in the case of designing a new music system, they might be given the words ‘punk’ and ‘festivals’ for instance. Each group knows only their keyword, they are then instructed to sit in the order a b a b… The first person is fed with a word that they then have to consider, along side their own to produce a design idea, for example ‘ghetto blaster’. Upon completing it, it would then be handed to the next person, they would then draw a design informed by both this image and their keyword, before handing only their drawing to the next person. These ideas could then be applied or recycled to produce a design of a completely different type, for instance a vacuum cleaner.

Some Early Ideas for the Project: Asthma.

I decided this evening that, because this project is so open, I would like to take the opportunity to look into a branch of design I have yet to explore; Medical Design. I’ve always had an interest in the human body and medicine, so it seems natural to me to try and apply the things I’ve learnt in design to this industry. I think this idea was triggered by a couple of things; firstly, last week while reading, I came across the name Mathieu Lehanneur and decided to look into his work, a number of his products address the need to improve and constantly adapt medical design, and this seems like a very worthwhile and humanitarian investment. Secondly, during  today’s creative careers talk, an alumni of the Product Design course came to discuss her work and research in prosthetic design and maxillofacial reconstruction, something which I personally found very exciting.

With this I considered my own relationship to medicine, in particular through my own experience of medical conditions. Asthma came to mind, and with it the images of the products provided to treat the condition. I started my process with a simple and quick exercise to produce as many terms I could which I can associate with the asthma inhaler I currently carry, and the experience I have of using it: ‘White, Red, Shiny, Plastic, Cold, Robust, Small, Twist, Suck, Bullet, Lid, Seal,  Closed, Sealed, Child Proof, Powder, Medicinal, Identifiable, Click, Braille.’ I then pursued some further reading through general internet searches and on the ‘Asthma UK’ website. This highlighted more of the issues associated with the inhalers used to treat the condition; ‘inhalers are easy to forget to carry when out and about, inhalers are easy to forget to take daily, inhalers are embarrassing to use in public, children are sometimes bullied for using inhalers, there is a reliance on training in asthma techniques to effectively use the inhaler.’

The majority of people who suffer from the condition use inhalers to treat the condition. There are a number of varieties of inhaler which range from the most common aerosol inhaler, to the powder ‘Accuhaler’ and ‘Turbohaler’. In most cases, patients have at least two varieties of inhaler, one taken daily which is a ‘Preventer’, and another; the ‘Reliever’ which is carried for emergency use during asthma attacks. The NHS website makes note that Preventer inhalers are usually identifiable by their ‘brown, red or orange’ colour, while Reliever inhalers are ‘often blue’.

At this stage I decided to look again at Lehanneur, in particular his inhaler design for children, called ‘The Third Lung’. This is an exceptional piece of design, it somehow works semantically without looking in anyway medicinal, it integrates efficiently and unobtrusively into the life of the user by creating a manufactured symbiotic relationship with them. It’s real elegance is in the way it accepts the natural desire of a child, their will to play, discover, and to nurture, and then goes one step further by encouraging it. An audio clip here on ‘Moma’ gives a better account (in under two minutes) of how Lehanneur came to his design outcome.

Next, I want to look into the designs of the most common inhalers (such as those available on the NHS) in more details, and analyse the orthodoxies and themes within them in better detail. I want to look further into the condition and the relationship people have with it. I also plan to approach a fellow student from another discipline to see if they would like to collaborate.

‘BBC Horizon: How You Really Make Decisions.’ And Application to Design…

Tonight I watched a BBC Horizon programme on the topic of decision making. I think this ties in particularly well with what was discussed in my latest lecture (see previous post), in particular the ‘Gettier problem’. I think the perceptions of people and their true interaction with the world is what is most noticeable from observing this research. As far as what can be taken from the programme for my own practice, I would look further into the idea that people believe ‘justified true belief’ to be knowledge. If people don’t always know how to make reasoned and logical decisions, and at the same time don’t know that they are making incorrect or illogical decisions, how is the designer supposed to research and understand the user? Should the designer make allowances for the users errors? Or should they attempt to put them correct and find a way which best prevents them making as many errors in decision making? Equally, how do you design products for users who aren’t able to make logical decisions? What does this also mean to the designer about their decision making abilities?

Watch the episode here.

New Field Topic: Dr. Stephen Thompson; ‘Surprise Me!’…

Today I started my second Field Module; ‘Surprise Me’ led by Dr. Stephen Thompson. The lecture started with him, and Theo Humphries, discussing the structure of the module, highlighting that there are no real limitations to the project, no definite deliverables, and no learning outcomes. The desire to see students taking risks and seeking to ‘subvert, invert and pervert’ their project orthodoxies came across strongly.

They then moved on to talk about several themes we might consider before undertaking the project:

– The ‘Gettier Problem’, which highlights the need to question what is assumed to be true, with the issue of whether ‘justified true belief’ should really be taken as knowledge. In the context of design, this shows that we should question the orthodoxies of the design process and the themes and outcomes of current, and past product design. Just because these approaches are being used now, and have been for some time, does not mean they are necessarily the most effective.

– The theories of Judee Burgoon in 1970, who suggested that the communication of knowledge depends on three factors; the communicator, the relationship between the communicator and the receiver, the context. In the case of art and design, the communicator could represent the confidence and depth of the designer or artist, the relationship between communicator and receiver could be the immersion in the engagement, and the context would be the subject, in my case Product Design.

– The philosophy of Derrida (in simplest terms), his deconstructionist theories on the analysis of texts and the application of that to art and design. Here Derrida’s idea that all work is open to analysis and that there is no truth, but only interpretation, has a number of applications in design, not least to remember that all products are interpreted differently depending on the approach of the user, and their analysis of the product.

– The deconstruction of ‘Epistemes’ and the prevalence of them in life. Part of this exercise was to consider how the term ‘Technology’ relates to a butterfly, and why terms such as ‘Technology’ and ‘Nature’ have been produced, and coexist when they seemingly can be described with the same ideas, roots and results. The idea of epistemes shows how easy it is to undo a concept by questioning the assumptions of it.

– The concept of ‘Quora’ as an approach to looking deeper and deeper into a subject in order to find its very roots, and then apply them. this may include finding the patterns or algorithms laced deep within subjects. An example of Quora can be seen in the design of the Jewish Museum, in Berlin, where the structure is based on the relationship of the homes of the Holocaust victims relative to the site of the museum.

– The ideas of Stuart Hameroff on subversive reality. This concept seemed to me to be the most unusual (or even outrageous) concept of all those discussed. It comes from the idea that we constantly live within a consensual reality. In the case of a lecture, the lecturer generated the lecture theatre in their own conciousnesses, and then we consent to it upon entering his or her consciousness.

– The concept of ‘Delimitation’, which simply is to analyse where you put limitations on your own practice and then remove them. In the case of Product Design, this might be a limitation in material, the formalities of the design process, approaches to research processes, and desired outcomes, to name just a few.

We participated in an exercise during the lecture by working in small groups to use the following system to invert the orthodoxies of our practice: 1) Recognise the orthodoxy. 2) Invert it or change it. 3) Analyse why this inversion might be beneficial, and why it might not be.

We finished the lecture by discussing the term ‘Surprise’. Dr. Thompson made it quite clear that surprise did not mean ‘shock’, which has more shallow and hollow traits. I think the best way to sum up what is desired by the term ‘Surprise’ is: to make something which makes observers think; ‘why has it not always been done like that’. I questioned whether it was possible to make a piece of design aesthetically surprising without it moving into the realms of being art, a point which Dr. Stephen Thompson remarked was “very interesting.” and encouraged me to investigate.


Reading: ‘Hello World: Where Design Meets Life’, by Alice Rawsthorn.

I’ve just finished reading Alice Rawsthorn’s book; ‘Hello World: Where Design Meets Life’. This piece of writing puts together a clever, concise and engaging perspective on the history of design to date, by analysing the role and identity of the designer and their on going relationship with society, art and cooperation. I particularly enjoyed the way Rawsthorn explored a broad range of design examples for each topic. For instance, in a chapter titled; ‘What is good design?’, she uses short case-studies about the following topics to illustrate her views: The M16 rifle and The AK-47, Google’s ‘Doodle’ logo, Helvetica and Arial fonts,  BP’s logo, the Monobloc chair and the Egg Chair with it’s relationship to the McDonald’s restaurant.

On several occasions, I found myself reflecting on what I’d read, in particular during the chapter ‘So why is so much design bad?’ where the topic of ”designing for other designers’ syndrome’ came up, along with the notion of wanting to be fashionable and the motivation for why we, as individuals design. I think the notion of ‘designing for other designers’  is a particularly interesting subject when you consider it from the perspectives of a student, such as myself, who constantly has the thought of how their design tutors (who themselves are product designers) will react to their work. I agree entirely that all design should be user-centered, but this seems somewhat paradoxical, as it is design tutors, not users who mark students work, which seems to me to fall right into the trap of this ‘syndrome’. Similarly, it is often Senior Product Designers, not the users for whom they design, that employ Junior Designers, again this seems to fall into this same paradox.

Further on in this chapter, Rawsthorn writes about how designers in industry so often have to compromise their designs because of contrasting views of other members of the cooperation that they’re working in. Rawsthorn sites a number of designers who have been ‘gifted’ enough to ‘combine raw talent with the necessary diplomatic skills and strength of will to steer their ideas through corporate bureaucracy’, not least of all the design icon ‘Dieter Rams’. This put me in mind of some of the tutorials we have in university, especially those where on occasion arguments are made by our tutors for us to modify, or reconsider our designs. I now wonder whether this is a test in itself, perhaps a ploy to replicate the likely meetings in industry where part of the team might push a designer to compromise. Could this be an act to see if we have the ‘necessary diplomatic skills and strength’ to continue working down the route we first intended prior to the meeting? Are the tutors perhaps looking for an undergraduate to show the confidence and self motivation to take the risk to try and prove them wrong, just as those like Rams have done already?

On another note, this book has affirmed the notion that the role of the designer is ever changing. We are no longer the people who just solve issues by making things, but also by applying an expertise in communication and problem solving to suggest ideas for solving issues. This is no more clear than in the chapter; ‘What about the other 90%’?’ where Rawsthorn asks us to consider those who are ‘not the richest 10% of the world’s consumers’. It also affirms that the majority of real design issues lie in helping this large majority.

This book has opened my eyes to a wealth of new designers, but one stands out more than others to me personally, and that is the french designer; Mathieu Lehanneur. He is an individual who went against the advice of his tutors and followed his own instincts, which led him to working with the pharmaceutical industry. He developed a range of products which aimed to ‘help people take the correct doses at the right time’. His projects have since been adapted for production, and by now he is a well regarded, highly respected and well acclaimed designer, who works in a number of industries, including medical and pharmaceutical design. He is also a leading example of how the role of a Product Designer is changing to more of a solutions designer, be that product based or otherwise.

Our Field Project Video: ‘James Allum and Huw Hopkins, Play and Creativity Field Module: Umbrella Recycling Project.’

We put together this compilation video to show what we produced during our Field project through the application of what we’d learnt from the Play and Creativity Module.

With further time I would consider developing a brand for the designs we produced. I would be keen to develop a design which could benefit the homeless making use of the umbrella materials.

Fashion Design, Recycled Chic…

This evening, while listening to some music and relaxing, I looked again at the patterns on the fabrics of the umbrellas. In particular, some of the smaller umbrellas, which are often marketed to women as they fit easily into handbags, had stylish and fashionable patterns. Two in particular caught my eye, with these I proceeded to attempt to make womens skirts. With the first (red design with the polka dots) I miscalculated the size of the hole I needed to cut, at first I thought I’d ruined the piece, but upon folding the circular piece inwards it presented itself in a flower like layered cone. I then decided to sew a black circle inside the cone and some green embellishment on the outside. Instantly I related it to the commemorative poppy, and remembering that it is the centenary of the start of the first world war this year, I thought this might be a nice product to commercialise to raise money for the poppy appeal.

I then continued, developing the waterproof skirt design I had initially set out to produce. Upon testing the product, it was clear that I needed to add a small piece of velcro to allow a larger opening for the user to put the skirt on. The natural flared shape of the umbrella gave the skirt a fantastic voluminous look, with elements of retro chic. To develop the design further, I might embellish with some of the flowers created above, another umbrella to line, and possibly some recycled elastic for comfort on the waistline.