Design philosophy for things that change

Heather Wiltse & Johan Redström

Project funded by the Marianne and Marcus Wallenberg Foundation, 2018-2021.

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Design philosophy for things that change

The purpose of this design research project is to develop a design philosophy for things that change: a philosophical and aesthetical foundation that forms and informs a design practice capable of conceptually handling the complexity of the evolving, globally connected and locally manifested socio-technical landscapes now created using networked computational technologies and digital media. It seeks to investigate what happens when computational processes, dynamic networks, and contextual customization emerge as factors as important as form, function and material were for designing, using, and understanding objects in the industrial age.

Previously designers have looked into for example form and colour to understand the basic materials of design. Now, technological developments demand that designers and researchers find new ways of thinking about the role of design and the things it produces.
In this project, we are looking into how THINGS are changing. The actual thing is important in design, and we are arguing that designers must reconsider what a thing actually is. In many cases, we can say a lot about a thing just by looking at its physical attributes. Take a hammer for example: by looking at it, holding it and so on, you can get a good idea of its function. There is no other layer to the hammer than its physical appearance. But today we encounter many things where you can't guess their function just by looking at their physical appearance. An iPhone for example, it is a designed physical object, but its physical appearance is just a small fraction of what it actually is. We call these new kind of things "fluid assemblages".  

The iPhone, even as it remains a stable physical artefact, is at the same time being dynamically assembled in many ways in terms of what it actually is and does. It is on one level customized by a particular user, both in terms of the preferences set and apps installed, but also through a linked iCloud account that provides further customization and data syncing and even influences the targeted ads that are displayed within apps. On another level, the apps and even the operating system are frequently updated, which can change how the iPhone works and what it is capable of. The apps and iPhone itself also connect to other networked platforms and resources that are necessary for its operation, but that are not contained within the physical device. So these types of things, or fluid assemblages, are never really made but rather always in the making, and constituted by both physical and digital materials contained within the device as well as elsewhere. These dynamics imply radical changes in relations of production and consumption, and in how we understand what things are and what they do. In exploring these issues, we are trying to develop design theory that addresses the future foundations of industrial design.

  • Advisory board

    Levi Bryant
    Discipline Lead for the Department of Philosophy at Collin College, a Lacanian psychoanalyst, and Chair of the Critical Philosophy program at the New Centre for Research and Practice.

    Elisa Giaccardi
    Professor and Chair of Interactive Media Design at Delft University of Technology, where she leads the Connected Everyday Lab.

    Cameron Tonkinwise
    Professor of Design at the University of New South Wales Art and Design.

    Peter-Paul Verbeek
    Distinguished professor of philosophy of technology at the Department of Philosophy of the University of Twente. He is chair of the Philosophy of Human-Technology Relations research group and co-director of the DesignLab of the University of Twente. He is also honorary professor of Techno-Anthropology at Aalborg University, including its Copenhagen campus.