Industrial design came about in the transition to an industrial society, around than 150 years ago. We still live with implications and ideas shaped by industrialism, and search for ways that design can change in order to support transitions towards other, more resilient ways of life. However, during more than a century, historical ideas and world views have become deeply embedded in the design's methods and foundational concepts. In order to open up spaces for thinking and doing design in other ways, we need to be more aware of how the past is still present in our ways of designing.
The gap between what design methods and concepts once were made to handle and what we presently try to apply them to, shape and limit the outlooks as well as the outcomes of design. Unless actively dealing with the historicity of design’s central concepts, the risk is that we continue inadvertently reproducing and reinforcing past norms and values in outcomes as well as in practices of design. Bringing historical perspectives into contemporary designing scaffolds conceptual moves that can shift understandings of design in the present, and open other possible outlooks towards diverse and divergent futures.
In my PhD project, I investigate what design histories might be like, if they took a starting points in matters of concern in today's design practices. Could a different kind of design history make visible some of the past and current ideas that shape not only how design is perceived, but how it is done?
I propose a methodology for making design histories as prototypes, combining a programmatic approach from practice-based design research with research methods in history that focus on analysing concepts and ideas. Shifting the outlook of design histories from things to thinking – from products to practices – other aspects of design's history can come into view.
I prototype this shift of perspective through making three design histories focusing on a Swedish design context, from three concepts central to user-centered and participatory designing:
The first prototype focuses on the concept of ‘participation’, tracing its roots to turn-of-the century 1900 ideas of the relationships between design and democracy, in the writings of Ellen Key.
The second revolves around the concepts of use and users, and the relationship between designed ideal or intended uses, in investigations of ‘dwelling habits’ aiming to redesign housing and products in light of socio-political transformations in 1940s Sweden.
The third prototype explores how and where user-centered design methods came about, through the context of research and redesign of everyday domestic work at the Hemmens forskningsinstitut (Home Research Institute) in the 1940s.
These transitional design histories do not aim provide solid foundations for, or explanations of, what design is or has been. Instead, they aim to make conceptual moves that support developing design practices capable of engaging with a complex ‘now’ and with uncertain futures.