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
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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 a few days ago I had my “Prototypes” presentation, the brief essentially to show where I am with the project at the moment and where it might go next. I was shitting myself a little bit in the lead up, especially considering how good everyone else’s were.
As with most of these things, in the end, everything was alright on the night. Got some decent feedback. Going to try make sense of it here. This will probably be tedious to read, so I might throw a lolcat in there just to spice it up.
Apparently I’m on the edge of something really good, but no-one seems sure what. This particular bit of feedback was both assuring and useless. I take from this that I probably just need to keep pushing these weird experiments I’m doing into different spaces and hope I hit on something…
It’s definitely the process of collaborative use, as opposed to manufacture or consumption, that has been the most successful stuff so far. Sharing, and objects designed specifically for the act of sharing, will probably define the rest of the project. The problem I’ve been having with my previous experiments has been in trying to force more social ideals onto objects originally born of a private consumer capitalist system – there’s always an awkwardness about this contradiction. I might need to create completely new typologies of objects in order to overcome this, which would be no mean feat. We’ll see.
Also, I need to leave the studio and start experimenting in the outside world, move what I’m doing outside of my circle of friends. Simply designing for these more public and therefore more complex situations should provoke new angles from which to approach stuff. Hopefully.
So yeah. Some interesting stuff. Going to spend a couple of days wandering about the city just looking about and seeing if anything occurs. Might take some photos. Might do some drawings. See you later.
I haven’t been too good with the blog recently, and the reason for this is that I have been busily scribing away at my dissertation. Two months, many books and countless cups of black coffee later, I can happily report that it is all over now and I can get my blog on again.
Here are some pictures of the final thing for your viewing pleasure.
Glad that’s over. Now back to making stuff.
Recently thoughts have moved on from thinking solely about our own projects to thinking about what kind of shape our end of year show will take. This has proved to be quite a difficult task so far.
As an exercise to get the ball rolling, our course leader asked us to each produce a personal manifesto on what we believe in as a designer. Not easy either. I tend not to like making such things concrete, because using language always seems to somehow betray what you actually think. But eventually, I managed to settle on a good eleven nuggets of pure design wisdom. Here they are.
Everything is interesting.
Read about everything other than design, because that’s what design should be concerned with.
Designers should always believe they have the power to change the world.
Everyone is a designer, and a designer cannot be everyone.
Go for walks.
If your brain stops working, drink some tea.
Designing is like crap science, but that’s no reason to stop experimenting.
Don’t depend on computers, they are only one of many tools you can use.
Value your time, but don’t underestimate the value of pissing around.
Admittedly, it could do with a more snappy ending. But anyway.
It was suggested that we write a new manifesto every year and compare it to those that have come before. I think I might just do that. It’ll be interesting to see how this stuff changes throughout my life. Maybe (just maybe) keeping a record and review of my beliefs will stop me falling so easily into a middle-aged rut of conservative self preservation.