A blog started in 2010 by designer Chris Thomas to document the process of his final year project in BA Design at Goldsmiths.
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Blasts from the Past
Tag Archives: Collaboration
So I’ve recently been trying to upload the rest of my year’s work on here, because I don’t like leaving things unfinished. I think once I have done this, I will likely start a new blog and keep this online as a sort of document of an entire project.
Here is the script I loosely followed for my 20-odd minute Viva Voce examination, which if you can be arsed to read it, follows the logic and journey of my year’s work. I think it was the act of doing the Viva that actually helped to bring this project to a conclusion, and in the end it has become as important an outcome as any of the films, experiments or objects I have designed.
NETWORKED: Chris Thomas BA Design Yr 3 Viva Voce
Soooo this is my project, “Networked”
My interest in the network was instigated at the start of the year by a consensus I had noticed emerging with startling regularity in various newspaper and magazine articles, regarding our relationship with technology. The assertion being, broadly, that we rely too much on the internet – that it has rendered us over-dependent and unable to learn or find out things for ourselves. I wanted to see if this was true, and if, so, whether it was a good or bad thing.
Early on, I decided to question this theory by allowing the internet to direct my actions for a day, ignoring my own whims and instead subjecting my decisions to the Google search. From the moment I woke up to when I went to bed, I asked Google what I should do next, and did whatever came up as the first result.
I ate eggs and toast for breakfast, I had a shower and brushed my teeth… I read the paper and had a cup of coffee. I was taken aback by how little this way of living differed to how I might have spent the day normally if weren’t doing anything else.
Admittedly, Google did throw up the odd unusual result – at one point Google led me to the slightly unique situation of peering out of the window searching for tornadoes in Brockley… There weren’t any, by the way. But this anomaly aside, a Google life seemed very similar to a normal one.
In relying on Google, I was relying on content created by different people from all over the world, the ones I could trace shown on this map here. If we have come to rely so heavily on the internet, we have become individuals mediated by far more than ourselves, the objects of a huge network of information and knowledge.
In his essay “I, Pencil”, economist Leonard Read attempted to describe the vast web of processes that contribute individually to the making of a single pencil, and he described the process as such:
“millions of tiny know hows configurating naturally and spontaneously in response to human necessity and desire”
The “millions of tiny know-hows” that he describes, echo, to me, the way in which the best things about the internet work. If you look at, for example, Wikipedia or Flickr – these are huge depositories of individual knowledge and creations that would never work as well, were they made by one person or directed by a centralised institution. No one person can make a pencil from scratch, just as no-one could compile all of Wikipedia alone.
Read concluded I,Pencil with a defence of global free market capitalism, citing Adam Smith’s invisible hand of the market, and claiming that this structure of free trade and economic self-interest was the most efficient way to organise society. This appraisal of self-interest seemed to me in direct contradiction with the network of collaboration that Read had described just paragraphs before, and instigated in me a desire to uncover the injustices and inefficiencies that such a system is also capable of.
As an exercise, I took a photograph of myself one morning, and sought to map out the materials and production processes that culminated in the possessions I had on my person at that moment in time. It involved researching where, for example, Ben Sherman make their shirts and source their materials, and how they are made, before arriving in the shop I bought my shirt from on Carnaby Street.
The exercise revealed, amongst other things, how the great level of productive efficiency that Leonard Read depicts in I,Pencil is a purely economic one. The only reason it’s more efficient for Ben Sherman to have their shirts manufactured in Asia is because its cheaper, and delivers greater profits to its shareholders.
It also means that materials are travelling for miles that they don’t really need to, and that the makers of the shirts are being paid wages that the buyers of them would never dream of working for. Efficiency should not be mistaken as a purely economic virtue, and perhaps, I’d like to argue, is not as crucial to the functioning of society as we like to think it is anyway.
The problem is, that it is too easy to see products and artefacts as isolated things – and it can in turn make us isolated people. Of course, most of us know that products are made somewhere and regularly travel across the world to get to us, but we prefer not to learn too much more (or at least its made very difficult for us). As western consumers, we are removed from the network entirely up to the moment of exchange. They make it, we take it. And I think that this structure creates a delusion of self-dependence amongst the consuming public.
It was clear to me that I wanted to challenge this delusion. I explored the idea of the “interdependent object”, that required a number of people to come together to create something, post-consumption, to make awareness of collaboration and interdependency a crucial part of the things we use.
My early experiments with this toyed with the idea of mixing interdependent use with the banal and everyday – in one case, a toaster that required five people to physically hold it together to make it work.
Seeing a small crowd of people applaud some toast was one of the single most inspiring and strangely influential moments of the entire project. The shared awareness of time and effort facilitated by the toaster’s co-operative use created this amazing sense of social achievement, even when the outcome really was just a piece of toast. If I wanted to inspire collaborative behaviour, I had to try and find the formula for creating this moment.
In my eyes, it was the sense of event that was a major factor in the toaster’s success. The building of anticipation, and the necessity of working so closely together, ramps up mutual excitement for the moment when the toast emerges.
I looked at ways that the fragmentation of an object could make the staging of an event necessary for its social re-construction.
The internet based networks that had inspired me demonstrate that by learning and contributing separate pieces of knowledge individually, we make it possible to come together and piece these “knowledges” into something greater.
I tried to see if I could teach people to sing together by splitting a four-part harmony from a Beach Boys song into its constituent parts and giving these to people individually to learn, in the form of ringtones. A small network of knowledge interdependency is created through this distribution of unique skills.
After a couple of weeks of hearing their parts as ringtones, the moment came when they would gather together and sing with each other for the first time. That moment is recorded here.
So a slightly flawed performance, but it was not one without positives. The structure and timing of the individual melodies were spot on, it was just the actual hitting of the notes that was perhaps a problem for our participants.
The fact that each person only knew one part meant that it was a sort of experiment that the participators are in on – they wanted to know how it will turn out just as much as I did. The spirit of experimentation amongst users is crucial to building the magical moment when it all comes together. It may not always come off, but even if that’s the case, at least you don’t fail alone.
Another characteristic of the online networks I mentioned before is their potential for collaborative creativity – websites like, for example github, a social coding site, are centres where people can share the building blocks with which digital worlds are built. It seemed I should try this sort of approach to the building of physical things.
One afternoon, I gave four people very brief instructions on making a quarter of a table. They could use whatever materials and processes they liked, as long as thing was within a certain set of dimensional parameters.
When all of the parts were completed, all of the individual makers had to come together to find a way of joining the four quarters together. Again, there was a cheer when the table was flipped and stood up straight and relatively sturdily.
What I had designed here was not really some furniture, but a different way of making. The role of the designer here became in setting the parameters through which others can build things together.
A nice by-product of this experiment was that you had this one thing, built by four people, but with no clear owner. After it was built, the makers decided that it should be used in the design cafe, a social space and venture. The object seems to necessarily become a shared one due to the shared labour that is so clearly evidenced in it.
Now as we could see in my infrastructure map before, there is social labour encapsulated in almost everything we use, but because it is so heavily abstracted by the scale of the network, we are less inclined to use things in a way that reflects this.
Its the distribution of a goal into individual tasks, and therefore reward, that allows this way of making to be a success for its makers. The designer becomes the person who sets and synergises these individual tasks into a process that can result in reward for all involved.
This kind of behaviour is not without precedent. Armish communities have been building things in localised collaborative events for centuries. The phenomenon of barn raising represented to me a folk/traditional version what I have been exploring – the dis-aggregation of a task into component pieces, then the staging of a collaborative event to bring them all together.
The communities that partake in such projects existed very much in a society either before or outside of the capitalist society that we now live in. And in the western world, the mentality that affords barn raising seems far more idealistic than realistic.
IKEA was interesting to me, as a popular consumer product infrastructure, but particularly as one that already has a manufacturing process built into it at a post-consumption stage. When you buy something from IKEA, you intervene in the network of production at an earlier stage than you do in most products. You take it, but you make some of it as well. I sought to repackage the IKEA experience into a more collaborative one.
I took the instructions and split them into four manuals, and packaged the components into four boxes. The idea was that it would take four people to come together and share each others instructions and parts to make one object. The instructions became like a script for a play, telling each “actor” what their role is in this scenario of building a simple cabinet.
As with the slightly more anarchic table made before, due to its collaborative manufacture, it was later shared by its makers in a social space, where it became the graphics team’s cabinet of useful stuff in the studio.
From these successes and failures, and others I haven’t had time to include, emerged a loose system for facilitating local co-operative making amongst a small network of people. And it works a bit like this.
So you start with a person or group of people who want or need a thing. The processes and components needed to make the thing are broken down into easily manageable, distributed tasks. The network, whether it be through the internet or a mobile phone, is the medium through which this distribution occurs, preparing for the event.
At the event, the people come together and combine their individual fruits of labour into a shared, socially made object, image or space.
So barn raisings are not easy things to find the communities, space and resources for in a western urban setting. But I wanted to see if by reducing the scale and using more recognisable product infrastructures, I could inspire a sort of modern day equivalent.
And so the IKEA table raising was born, an event where people would make separate parts of a structure that they would then put together and later eat a meal at to celebrate. The raw materials for the build were eight of these cheap “Lack” side tables.
Again, the enclosed instructions were the medium through which the tasks were allocated, each person required to make one of these slightly obscure looking objects.
Once each of these was made, the final part of instructions would be revealed, and all of the three legged leaning tables would converge into one large one. Here’s how it went.
I think the event was a great success. And I think the infrastructure of IKEA, with its standardised components, easily adaptable instructions, and wide distribution network, could allow for activities like this to become more and more common as a way for people to build the things they use, whether its a weird table like this or a simple cabinet.
Through fragmenting the distribution and the means of producing things amongst a wider group of people, we can, in fact, bring people together.
The human printer is an attempt to use this local distribution of labour to perform a usually mechanised process, in this case, printing.
Each person was given a stamp of a unique colour and size, which had a letter on it. This letter referred them to certain points on the printing surface which represented pixels.This focus on one type of pixel from a huge image means each person can focus on one easy task, becoming a vital cog in a sort of human machine.
When people make things together, I would argue that the things they make are only a small part of the outcome.
The process of making something together, no matter how big or small, creates shared ownership, usership, responsibility – and, potentially, from these objects, communities can be formed.
What’s more, the sense of personal achievement created through the process of being part of making something you could never easily make alone, is of great value in itself.
Throughout my project I’ve been trying to manufacture a certain moment.
Its the moment when the work of a group of people is brought together in an act that builds people’s relationships with each other, but also with the things they make and use.
Its the moment of shared anticipation;
Its the moment where a group’s collaborative project could sink or swim.
Its the moment……..
………that makes cheering for toast possible.
Thanks for listening. Etc.
At some point, I might link all the sections of this script to the blog posts that they refer to, so it makes a little more sense. But at the moment, that seems too great a task.
If you managed to get through all that, thanks for reading and hope you enjoyed it.
So I’m going to take five minutes out from intense last-week-or-so work to write a blog post. Why? Because I care about you, my loyal readers (hi mum).
So carrying on from this thing of getting people to come together for collaborative making of stuff, I was looking at the idea of using scripts, as a way of fragmenting a task amongst its “actors”. They do their bit, come together and make something. Basically. I decided to try it using sections of a visual, in this case the logo for our degree show.
I gave out these “scripts” to ten people, armed them with a sharpie marker, and thus the human printer was born.
Not bad, I reckon. Got a much more ambitious full colour version in the pipeline.
Watch this space.
Haven’t written much on here in a while, mostly due to the fact that its only just over a month until the end of year show and presentations. I’m currently going through the process of trying to put all of my work this year into some kind of coherent structure, hoping that I eventually find out how to wrap it all up.
In an intense tutorial/end-of-the-world-showdown a few weeks ago, the phenomenon of Amish barn-raising was mentioned in relation to my project. I nodded and pretended to know what it was. Much later, I thought I should probably find out.
A barn raising is exactly the sort of collaborative social event that I have been researching and becoming interested in over the last few months or so. An entire community comes together, and through working together and relying upon one another, they are able to build a barn in about two days.
There is an interesting mix of organisation and absolute amateurism within these groups – there is much preparation done before the raising, which then allows less experienced or skilled members of the community to still play an important role. Participants are not paid, and all able-bodied members of the community are expected to play a part. The payment for the individual instead comes in the form of camaraderie, a great sense of social achievement, and the possibility that now that you’ve scratched someone else’s back, they might scratch yours.
The preparation is integral to it working – parts are constructed separately in the lead up, with different parts being made my people with different specialities or interests. It is this process of working separately first that makes it possible, and that sets up the “event” – the sense of event being necessary to summoning the required manpower and energy to complete the building as quickly as possible.
It sounds like a Big Society project, doesn’t it? Thing is, the communities that partook (and in some cases, still do) in such things existed very much in a world either before or outside of the capitalist society that we now live in. And in our world, the mentality that affords barn raising seems far more idealistic than realistic.
I’m interested in this idea though, perhaps not as a way of building things but as a metaphor – of how a local network of individuals can co-operatively create something greater than what they could ever achieve alone.
So recently I’ve been making a bunch of these little films where I get some people to perform various everyday tasks – the difference being that they are forced to rely upon or co-operate with one another in order to achieve their goal.
One afternoon in the pub, Matt House suggested that he have his hair cut by a few people at once, for the sake of my project. A very noble gesture. And very brave, considering the beautiful, long flowing hair that he (used to) have.
We got three experienced (well, kind of) scissor-smiths in to do the job – Anisha, Jigna and Natalia. Once again, I filmed it and cut it down to make the viewing experience less arduous.
Were Matt’s precious long locks savagely ruined, or transformed into a wonderful new barnet? Theres only one way to find out.
There you go. A pretty stylish haircut I’d say. Not sure what to say about this one, it was just a quick video done one morning when I didn’t have too much else to do. I didn’t really design anything there. Maybe need to stop
I’m not sure if I’d personally like the three-barber experience because I hate getting my hair cut. But if you don’t mind a little bit of attention, maybe next time, do it this way.
To continue my stream of random stuff I’ve been making, the other day I made these one-wheeled skateboards – again, the idea being that it would make sharing and interdependent behaviour necessary to get anywhere with them. They were really easy to make, just a bit of plywood and a wheel, took about 25 minutes to make one.
So here’s a little gif of the boards in action. You might need to click on it for it to work.
With four people using them (or, for that matter, two or three) they didn’t really go anywhere quick. Mostly because the wheels weren’t very good – they held the weight well, but didn’t roll very smoothly. It was still kind of fun though, there was something nice about the having to physically hold on to each other in order to not break your neck.
I’m not sure whether to refine the design to make it work better or just leave it. I think, once again, it was the sense of anticipation and experimentation that made it work – not knowing what the outcome of this shared process would be. This has definitely been the most successful thing so far throughout my experiments, so its perhaps this that I should focus on going forward.
Also need I to use real people, not designers. They’re not real people.
Following on from the collaborative chair I took part in making the other day, I decided to build more objects in that vein, but under different conditions. This time it would be a table, to go with the chair, but made by four people rather than two – myself, Henry, Ben and Natalia.
Again, measurements were agreed, namely the height of the table and the width of half the surface. One quarter with one leg each, all joining in the middle. Once again we all worked completely separately, only joining together at the end.
For my quarter, I just started off by cutting the 40×40 square that would make up my part of the surface area. It was really crap MDF board, so I thought I’d best cover it up somehow. When rummaging about for materials to do this with, I came across some green felt and my decision was made: my quarter would have to be a snooker table, as such:
Henry made this hefty bastard:
Ben made this perspex-topped beaut:
Natalia made this very neat creation:
It took each of us the best part of a day to build our respective quarters, and when we brought them all together at the end of the day, we had quite a task joining them all together. If you look underneath the finished table, there is an amazingly complex botched structure of various planks of wood, glue, screws and steel rods. Top class engineering, I say.
As with the chair, the result was really positive. Especially when you see them together, its really interesting to see how different people have approached the task, and how it all fits at the end. The spirit of experimentation, and not knowing how it will all come together, really makes it a fun process to be part of that would never be possible if done alone. There’s more in this. Off to do some thinking.
Still languishing in post-dissertation limbo, I decided a couple of days ago that I should make something to try and get things going again. Picking up from previous themes around collaborative production, I teamed up with good pal Henry Flitton with the vague plan to build something together. Now, both of us are in our third year of studying design, and neither of us have ever made a chair. This farcical state of affairs obviously had to be addressed.
We made some rules. We would make half a chair each, split down the middle. A loose set of measurements was agreed – the height and depth of the back and seat, no more. We would build the two halves in separate rooms of the workshops so that we weren’t influenced by what the other person was building.
For my half, I basically got a big plank of wood for the seat, and rather than making two legs to hold it up, used loads of pieces of thick dowel. This was less an aesthetic decision than an attempt to avoid having to dwell too much on the chair’s structural integrity. I figured that if I don’t really know what I’m doing, eleven legs are probably better than two.
After a full afternoon of making, we both proudly emerged with half a chair, and set out to somehow stick them together. Much crude bolting of wooden planks later, the halves were joined and we held our breaths as Henry took the first sit on this rather ramshackle creation. It held, and is actually a pretty solid chair. Well, it wobbles a bit. Its got character.
There’s a really nice thing in the personalities and styles encapsulated in the two contrasting halves. Close friends found it quite easy to say which of us made which half – the aesthetic and structural decisions made during the making process revealed clear things about each respective maker.
I’m going to try this kind of stuff with more people to see how the dynamic changes – whether more people is better, how organisation needs to change within groups of different sizes, when it becomes too many people etc.
Back in a bit.
The conclusions to these posts are getting worse and worse aren’t they?