Design deals with matters of aesthetics. Historically, aesthetics in industrial design refers to the designed artifact: aesthetics of objects. When designed artifacts include digital technologies, aesthetics in design refers to what happens between people and artifacts as well: aesthetics of interaction. Now that these artifacts increasingly mediate our social lives, what aesthetics in design quite obviously also refers to, is what happens between people.
This dissertation proposes an aesthetic of being together, as a necessary addition to current notions of aesthetics in interaction design practice, when it engages with digital systems that are part of people’s social life. It does not answer the question what Aesthetics is in general, instead it examines the work that particular notions of aesthetics do in interaction design practice.
The practice based design research assembled in this dissertation starts from current notions of aesthetics in interaction design to explore the social experiences that mediated interactions between groups of people offer. What I found, through designing digital systems, is that current notions of aesthetics in interaction design are not conducive to addressing the kind of social experience people have with such systems. On the contrary, current notions actually inhibit interaction design to approach any experiences that cannot in the first place be conceived of as useful in terms of instrumental task performance. Yet, being social is hardly like performing a task or using other people in that sense.
An aesthetic of being together is a proposition of a different fundament for interaction design practice. In addition to referring to properties of things and qualities of interacting with things, it refers to the kind of relations that come to expression between people interacting with each other with these things. Consequently, interaction design needs to resolve basic issues in what it considers and brings to expression, i.e. people’s relations with things and people at the same time. This requires (re-) considering what the designed thing is, what interaction is about and what the role of design is in bringing those to expression.
My work contributes to the field of interaction design research an example of how, through practice, fundamental issues can be addressed. By orienting one set of concepts, ways of working and objectives into a different design situation, tensions built up that exposed foundational issues with that frame of reference, while pointing to the different fundaments needed to enable design practice to engage such situations.
The results of the practical experimentation led to the articulation of a series of structural mechanisms of mediating systems. These mechanisms provide material handles for interaction designers on how experiences of being present with others take shape. They configure the relations of artifacts and people in different ways than current notions of aesthetics afford. This theoretical investigation is then synthesised in the form of a new logic of expression for interaction design practice: an aesthetic of being together.
This year’s DRS conference was redesigned. Apart from regular paper sessions, the program now featured a debate at the start of each day and the new format of ‘Conversations’.
The (open) format of a conversation seemed to me very well suited for the methodological thread I have been spinning in my project. In a previous post I discussed a paper I wrote for the IASDR’13 conference regarding my search for methodological support in existing discourse on Research through Design/Constructive Design Research. For the conversation at DRS2014 the intent was to bring the daily practices of design researchers in this field to the forefront and avoid more abstract reflections.
Actually, the intent initially was to approach possible reasons for much of the discourse in Constructive Design Research to be centered on: its academic standing, the kinds of knowledge contributions it provides and the forms and formats it is published in. Those reasons may have to do with the various and possibly disparate academic backgrounds of people practicing this kind of research. But that, again, could very quickly become an abstract , political discussion, of little practical use for projecting and navigating my own project. So instead I decided to leave those issues implicit at this point.
My conversation at DRS2014 was titled: The Practice of Constructive Design Research. Catalysts (=invited participants) for the conversation were researchers in this field: Lorenzo Davoli, Mahmoud Keshavarz, Pierre Lévy and Ambra Trotto. In order to feed and frame the conversation, I made a video containing statements taken from interviews with more consolidated researchers: Pelle Ehn, Daniel Fällman, Caroline Hummels, Johan Redström and John Zimmerman. In the interviews, ranging from 15 minutes to a full hour, many things were discussed that I could not or did not want to use for the purpose of this conversation. They were very rich for developing my ideas in various ways. I’m still thinking about what and in what form to publish regarding those.
The conversation was well received it seems. There was a good number of people in the room and many people joined in. We received much positive feedback on how the session went. For me it was a success in the way that the conversation seemed to develop consistently and we avoided too much abstraction. Having spent many days on the preparations (interviews and editing the video), to me it felt like we only started scratching the surface of many aspects that I had hoped to dig into much deeper. Maybe my expectations were a bit ambitious for a 90 minutes discussion; maybe I set up the conversation still rather broad. All in all, I have (and am) learning a lot from reflecting on this event, both on the subject and on how to do these things.
Conversation Starter video
All in all, this year’s DRS conference was one of the better conferences I have attended. Throughout the conference there was a friendly critical and engaged atmosphere; there was incentive, time and space to exchange and actually develop ideas. The plenary debates at the start of each day I think were a great way to set the tone. The informal and friendly but knowledgeable and capable attitude of the organizers certainly gave a good example. Similarly the branding, graphics design and routing of the conference was simply well done (Art Direction by Marije de Haas). And then I think there are the difficult to grasp qualities of the isolated but international atmosphere of Umeå Arts Campus.