Can we entangle design and social science? Thoughts from a one-day conference

Still from The Girl Effect video

‘Designers evolve the world bit by bit’

On 24 September 2010, Goldsmiths, University of London held a conference Making and Opening: entangling design and social science. It asked the following questions: How might design and social science speak to each other’s practices? How might social science and design remake one another’s objects?

The conference and its two questions were timely. I had just completed a Master’s degree in Design Writing Criticism where I created an academic zine titledThe Everyday Experiment: Sampling the design, the queer and the politics in the everyday. It is a space where alternative voices – gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and women – can write about and critique design.

The sociologist Anthony Giddens’ theory of everyday experiments gave a name to, and a theoretical framework for the zine. Giddens wrote in TheTransformation of Intimacy: ‘Everyday experiments are where interpersonal existence is being thoroughly transfigured, involving us all in what I shall call everyday social experiments, with which wider social changes more or less oblige us to engage’. In later writings Giddens argues that the changing role of tradition is because of the individual’s increasing self-reflexivity. He suggests that the experiments we are making everyday are in part influenced by abstract systems on a global level, in areas of material technology and specialized social expertise.

The enchanting and humourous Harvey Molotch, Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University told delegates that ‘designers evolve the world bit by bit’. The everyday experiments that designers are engaged with in their working lives, have an impact that transcends the immediate. Change happens over time, with tradition playing a fundamental role in shaping how design evolves.

Writing originating from social science, in combination with writing about design, shaped The Everyday Experiment‘s content and form. Through the process of entangling design and social science, I agree with Professor Lucy Suchman of Lancaster University. In her closing comments at the conference Suchman suggested writing provides a bridge between the practice of design and the more linear academic discipline of social science. Earlier in the day, Dr Nina Wakeford, director of INCITE (INcubator for Critical Inquiry into Technology and Ethnography) based at Goldsmith’s, gave delegates a light-hearted, but thought-provoking soundbite: ‘designers pitch and sociologists submit’ reinforcing the practical/academic binary of the disciplines.

Writing can combine both pitching and submitting. Writing’s ability to transcend and breakdown the preconceptions of the disciplines, is a pre-requisite for entanglement. This is illustrated in the animated film that promotes the Girl Effect campaign (see girleffect.org) that Michelle Murphy, Associate Professor, Women and Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto used to begin presenting her paper. The strength of the three minute film is the powerful sense of urgency and clarity in the writing, combined with a bold, arresting typographic animation. On first viewing the film’s message is inspiring, invest in an adolescent girl in a developing country and not only she, but her family, village, country and ultimately the whole world benefits. However, when Murphy revealed that the Nike Foundation created the campaign, she expressed what most of us were thinking, ‘hope had become a non-innocent proposition’. Nike had a precarious history concerning child labour and the gender divide was poignant, Murphy says, ‘Brown boys offer a lower rate of return, the girl is a better investment as she is already undervalued’. As a case study, the Girl Effect film is polemical. Set aside the ethical issue and Nike has managed to entangle a social issue with design resulting in a tremendously powerful outcome.

If writing is the conduit through which design and social science can be entangled, then  courses like MA Design Writing Criticism can facilitate opportunities for students to employ methodologies that – are both practical and academic – to make entanglement a reality.

This article was written for the London Design Festival Blog

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