2014/15 Design Culture Salon season

We’re delighted to announce a new series of Design Culture Salons for 2014/15. This academic year we are presenting seven salons. These take place on the second Friday of each month, October-April.

They are presented with the generous support of the University of Brighton, College of Arts.

We have slightly changed the format this year. Firstly, Salons 10-15 will take place in Clore 55 of the British Galleries. This offers an interesting space in the corner of the museum, overlooking Exhibition Road and Cromwell Road. Secondly, we are extending the Salon session to two hours, starting at 6:30pm. This, we hope, will allow for the discussion to expand and become more informal as each Salon progresses.

To see the full programme, click here.
All Salons are free to attend, but you must book. Please do this via the V&A ‘What’s On’ pages.
You can book for the first Salon here.

We are aware that occasionally the Salons get fully booked and yet on the evening there are still seats untaken. Demand for these events is high and we hope that everyone who books actually attends. If you are having problems booking, please contact Leah Armstrong (l.armstrong@vam.ac.uk).





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Reflections on Design Culture Salon 9: What are the gender politics of contemporary design practice?

While all of the Design Culture Salons for this second series were framed in response to a burning issue in contemporary design, none took place against quite such a build up of anticipation as this, the final salon, on the gender politics of design practice. This was partly a result of the deliberate timing of the event to celebrate International Women’s Day. However, the topic also met a seemingly revived appetite for conversations about the role and representation of women in design and architectural history, (this one on Jane Drew at the ICA being a personal favourite) and in contemporary practice. The vibrancy of the latter was highlighted through a 48 hour twitter conversation in the run up to the salon, which took place on the 4th and 5th of March, organized by collaborators Women of Graphic Design and the Women’s Design and Research Unit. Such an invigorating set of conversations provided a stimulating starting point for the salon.

Cat Rossi, Senior Lecturer in Design History at Kingston University, chaired the evening’s discussion and eloquently brought this activity to the audience’s attention in her introduction. Rossi introduced a panel of distinguished talent, all three of whom, (Simone Brewster, Sarah Van Gameren and Prof Teal Triggs) work in the practice and education of contemporary design. Unfortunately Marloes ten Bhomer, designer and Fellow at the Stanley Picker Gallery, was unable to make it and sent her apologies.

As Cat Rossi put it in her introduction, in spite of such a buzz of contemporary activity on this issue, the evening’s discussion was starting from a point of  ‘deliberate uncertainty’ over the role of gender in contemporary design practice. This can be explained by the sense of puzzlement for many that the issue continues to stubbornly persist in spite of some very direct and persuasive attempts by design historians and contemporary observers to highlight and confront the issue. As Rossi noted, women make up the fastest growing international market, but in professions like architecture, a startling two thirds claim to have suffered sexual discrimination. So, how can gender discrimination still be such a fundamental issue in contemporary design practice and how might we explain its persistence in practice? If we are to identify this as a negative thing, what might be done about it? As with all salons, the panelists were asked to prepare a short introduction to the discussion and Rossi put to them three central questions for the evening’s discussion as follows. Are you a feminist? Do you think gender is an issue in design? Does gender play a part in your own practice?

Simone Brewster, a spatial designer who initially trained as an architect at the Bartlett school before studying product design at the RCA and founding Flock, an all female design collective, was the first to respond. She opened with an attitude of ‘deliberate uncertainty’ to the word ‘feminist’. This was, in part because in her eyes such a word should not need to exist. ‘We don’t have a word for kicking cats’, she put it. She expressed more certainty over the second question about gender politics in design, confessing a need to restrain herself from off-loading a tirade of examples of how this continues to infuse and contaminate design practice today at many levels. Within this however, Brewster cautioned against looking at gender politics purely from the perspective of design. It is, clearly, something which drives and moulds activity in all spheres of society and should be tackled on this broad level. What happens on page three is connected to the fact that women designers don’t appear elsewhere in the media, for example. She also drew upon many examples of gender inequality in her education which made a formative impact on her decision to address and confront the issue through Flock. In a humorous, but highly revealing anecdote, she described how one of her earliest and most successful designs, ‘Coffee Pommel’, was often presumed to be the work of a man and first began to be circulated online under the name of Simon Brewster. Similarly, she described the process of moving from architecture and spatial design into jewellery and being automatically branded as a ‘jeweller’.

The next panellist Sarah van Gameren, a Dutch, London-based designer forms one half of the design studio Glithero, with Tim Simpson. As Cat Rossi explained in her introduction, this partnership approach has historically been a dominant method for women designers seeking to establish a professional identity in the past. However, Sarah took a quick side-sweep at the notion that gender underlies her rationale for working in this way and offered a different explanation. ‘The role of the designer in contemporary society requires such an enormous set of skills that literally require you to act as more than one person’, she argued. ‘You have to be a great bluffer, a talker, a people’s person, good with money’. You cannot capture this in one personality, but neither can they necessarily be separated into distinct gender characteristics, at least in their practice. While Van Gameren was unable to locate gender politics within her own studio, she was very conscious of how it worked outside. However, interestingly, she argued that this often takes the form of a ‘cocktail of xenophobia and sexism’, and it is hard to see where one ends and other begins. Often, she stated, she plays these identity politics to her advantage when working with clients. The performativity of ‘being a designer’ therefore seems to operate through gender bias, national characteristics and identity politics. She does this comfortably and with a lot of ease. Is this feminist? She thinks so. Again, there was deliberate uncertainty in the air. On a more concrete level, Van Gameren was, like Brewster, able to call upon a host of examples at ‘micro-level’, of how gender bias infuses design practice over issues such as salary and a perceived lack of confidence in the workshop. Personally overcoming this obstacle, she argued that she had found her own journey which involved working at home, building machines using domestic equipment and in a comfortable space where she did not feel as though she was being watched or forced to work in one particular way.

Teal Triggs, Professor of Graphic Design and Associate Dean at the school of communication at the RCA, spoke next from a wealth of experience working through these issues in education and also as co-founder with Sian Cook of the Womens Design + Research Unit. This initiative was established in response to the narrow terms on which the graphic design profession was being theorized and discussed at the landmark FUSE conference for typography in 1994. Attending this conference, Triggs remembers a platform of white males with glasses. She raised her hand to ask the question (fairly simple- where are the women?) and subsequently sparked a conversation within the discipline which has been gathering momentum since. Interestingly also, she seemed to propose that identifying and celebrating the gender politics of design practice can be a positive method of driving a stronger identity for the discipline as a whole. The approach here, she articulated, was a kind of ripple effect of working through small issues – the micro-level previous speakers had identified. These little things make a difference, she said. Nevertheless, international collaborations should be encouraged, if only to raise and provoke conversations at an individual level. The recent twitter 48 hour conversation could be cited as evidence of this. Through this, Triggs and Cook collaborated with Tori Hinn, an emerging graphic designer in Rhode Island and founder of the Women of Graphic Design project. This project, Triggs suggested, is important because it is not about focusing on the ‘big names’ but creating a space for multiple voices and stories about women in graphic design from a range of perspectives. The aim of the twitter conversation was to raise a debate and work across generations. Some of the issues that came up in this conversation (just search #womendesign) relate to education, locating world models, women in professional organisations, in forums and conferences…and the conversation is still ongoing.

Cat Rossi asked the question of how things have changed? Teal reflected on the ‘waves’ feminism has undergone, referring back to the second wave, when she began to practice as a designer, when it had a bad reputation and suffered negative press. The conversation is becoming a little easier, she suggested. Again, the role of national identity came into play. Moving from the USA to the UK, Triggs identified a strong British feminist voice generally but was curious about its absence in the design profession.

The issue of confidence had been circulating through the panellists’ presentation in various forms and Rossi picked up on this. It was clear from the three voices that had spoken so far that they had found a way of articulating and moving through the gender politics that had shaped their careers, whether it be by confronting the issues head on or finding other ways around it.  But not everyone can find this confidence. For Sarah van Gameren, it is important to have multiple voices and multiple perspectives. However, while both Van Gameren and Brewster said that they would rather work inside the profession than stand outside protesting, Teal Triggs said it was important to do both and to be generous in allowing participation from all angles. Brewster expressed concern about how young female designers often designed to conform within pre-existing models of the discipline. The challenge for educators is therefore to give young people the confidence to find their own identity.

A member of the audience thoughtfully pondered the question of how gender balance might be better achieved in design. Obstacles to this were identified. As all the panelists and some of the salon attendees stated, women often start out on careers in design but don’t keep going. There are clear managerial and leadership issues standing in the way here. The need to encourage inter-generational support mechanisms for women in design is therefore key.

Two further questions queried the extent to which design has been adapting to accommodate female perspectives and approaches. While one attendee identified this in his own work, another suggested that the disciplines of social design and service design had already put this shift in motion. Teal Triggs responded to this sentiment positively, but emphasized that this was often the case where the skills of communication were at the forefront and that other design disciplines remained more closed and rigid. Van Gameren agreed also that she could see a shift in the way in which her male students approached design, often in more subtle and sensitive ways.

A question that tickled many in the audience and triggered a very interesting discussion was put to Simone: ‘What would Simon Brewster be doing now?’ Simone felt sure that he would still be an architect, her original training.

After this, the discussion moved in an interesting direction to address the issues of class and age, both of which had been mentioned in various forms throughout the discussion. Brewster referred to her experience in curating the RCA Black show, which opened an ‘explosive’ discussion at the time about the barriers and limitations in design practice.

Bringing these issues into the mix made an important point about the complex arrangement of issues that constitute and animate the practice of design in contemporary culture. The Design Culture Salon was programmed to celebrate International Women’s Day, but the discussion that took place highlighted the insufficiencies of discussions that attempt to address the ‘universality’ of any problem. A cluster of issues, often at micro level- race, class, ethnicity, age, nationality- are at play. It was a discussion which opened many avenues for further thought, some of which we might address in future salon discussions.

This concluded the second series of design culture salons. We are in the process of scheduling and programming a new series, most likely to start in the new academic year. If you have any ideas for topics, questions or if you would like to take part in any way, please email me at L.Armstrong@vam.ac.uk , tweet @LeahJArmstrong or simply comment in the box below.

Thank you all for attending and for contributing to an invigorating and thought-provoking series of conversations.

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Salon 9 — What are the gender politics of contemporary design practice?

Friday 7 March 2014, 1900-2030

Seminar Room One, Sackler Centre, Victoria & Albert Museum

‘Fourth Wave’ feminism has recently put gender politics back in the headlines and is impacting on the design of everyday objects, from the £10 note to Lego.

Female designers are also looking again at the gender politics of contemporary design practice, both in relation to the structure of the profession and through their designs. So, is gender politics still an issue in contemporary design? If so, how and why is this the case? How have gender stereotypes of the ‘woman designer’ changed? How can these politics be resolved and what can designers do about it?

Guest Chair: Dr Catharine Rossi, Kingston University

Marloes Ten Bohmer, Stanley Picker Fellow, Kingston University
Professor Teal Triggs, Associate Dean School of Communication, RCA
Simone Brewster, Spatial Designer
Sarah van Gameren, Designer

Free, book here.
Booking is now full for this event.

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Reflections on Salon 8- How has digital technology changed the dynamics of the designer start up?

For those interested in design culture, the structure and arrangement of the designer start-up is a fruitful place to focus attention since it captures and animates the dynamics of design in relation to a host of other factors: the social, environmental, economic and cultural. Examining where and how design practice is established and the processes by which this is achieved tells us something about where design sits in contemporary culture and also indicates where it might be heading.

The panel gathered for the eighth Design Culture Salon presented a promising set of perspectives on the subject. This included two emergent designers Alexandre Bettler from DesignMarketo and Andy Merritt from Something and Son. A broader view was offered from the chair Liz Farrelly, who started her career in design in the nineties as a journalist covering the start-up culture and Nicolas Roope, founder of new-media art collective antirom (1994), and went on to co-found interactive consultancy Poke and product design group Hulger,  which released the award-winning Plumen lightbulb. It also included the voice of intermediaries and facilitators, the design curator Heloise Parke from The Aram Gallery, a non commercial and independent contemporary design museum in London and observers of this historical change, in Jonathan Sapsed Principal Research Fellow at CENTRIM and project leader of the Brighton Fuse research project.

Kicking off, Farrelly laid out the territory for discussion. It was to be about design start ups, not exclusively digital start ups. Also, importantly, this is no longer a story about ‘getting your first job’ in the traditional ‘career ladder’ sense. Digital technologies (note the plural) have facilitated an entirely new start-up culture that occupies a specific place in contemporary design. Included within this is the evaporation of the design object as the principle point of a relationship between the designer and the public.

Alexandre Bettler was a good to person respond directly to the series of ‘new conditions’ outlined in the introduction. He spoke about his work at DesignMarketo with partner Jerome Rigaud. His practice mixes designed events and designed objects, often incorporating sensory experience and food design. DesignMarketo’s work represents the role of the designer as a conversation between these elements of design, setting design products in social environments. In describing this process, Bettler presents his practice, which is formed around relationships, in resistance to the instantaneous and direct role of digital technologies. This also involves a more craft-like approach to mass production processes, including baking, whereby the bread dough is one material that can be mass customised to produce a number of outputs and outcomes. Part of their strategy as a start-up has been to hook onto the cultural and social aspects of design.

The next panellist, Andy Merritt, designer at Something and Son with partner Paul Smyth, focused on the relationship between design start-ups and the press, speaking about the implications of being ‘media savvy’ on the design process. For example, he stated that Something and Son developed a conscious strategy of working on projects that can be explained and promoted in one sentence. This, he argued, was in direct response to the role of Twitter and internet platforms which currently structure and circulate start-ups. Kickstarter,  exacerbate the ‘attention grabbing’ culture of designers seeking to establish their practice. It is also strikingly formulaic. Most entries follow the rule of: ‘Trigger words, objective, key words, promise’, he argued. This in turn mirrors patterns established in the tabloid media. For example, the successful Kickstarter proposal: ‘Snaak. Millions of shapes in your hands’ carries the same language and rhythmn as: ‘Contraceptive conservatism. Who wants to take the male pill?’. He proposed that the pressure to access and address popular concerns and interests also shaped design outcomes. Merritt identified the exaggerative role of crowd-sourcing digital technologies in enlarging concerns about the relationship between the designer and the public.

Heloise Parke took another angle on the digital technologies topic and spoke exclusively about the role of 3D printing. Referring to her experience of curating a 3D Printing exhibition in London at The Aram gallery in 2012, ‘Send to print/Print to Send’ she outlined two functions of the 3D printing as an access point for emerging designers. This referred to those who used it to produce something and those who used it as a starting point for future customisation. Generally, she argued, in her experience, most recent emergent approaches fall into the latter.3D printing has therefore re-shaped the meaning of the start-up because it sets in motion a new function for design. This constitutes a layering up process that is open ended and evolving. In this sense, contemporary start-ups are not only using new processes, but in doing so, opening up an entirely new function for design.

Nicolas Roope situated his response within a bigger narrative in addressing how we think of technological change. The expanded distribution of design has had an impact on the structure, shape and organisation of contemporary design start ups, he suggested. As a result, there is an inevitability about the shifting dynamics of innovation in design and the speed, form and culture design needs to respond to. Roope articulated digitisation as a process of broad democratisation, whereby a small design team’s creative output could be shared instantly on a global scale and, crucially, directed at ‘huge niche markets’. Roope injected greater historical perspective into Andy Merritt’s judgement about the formulaic process of circulating a design in one sentence.He did a similar thing with ‘Plumen: Designer Low Energy Lighting’. The very purpose of a start-up has always been to grab attention. This is not necessarily something new. Additionally, speaking from a more hopeful perspective, he argued that the internet has altered the concept of scale in design start-ups. In contrast to the image Merritt presented, he argued that designers don’t have to focus on the mainstream or the middle, but can go to extremes. As such, digital technologies have radically altered not only the pace of innovation in design, but expanded the opportunities for working at different scales.

Building on this more observational overview, Jonathan Sapsed began his response by asking ‘what has changed and what has not changed?’ He suggested that there were two ways of examining this, by looking at design processes and at the concept of entrepreneurship. In previous work, Sapsed compared innovative tools and processes in renaissance Italy and contemporary design. Whereas in the Italian renaissance, he argued, design constituted a discrete step and a preparatory stage, this has now been compressed in the digital age. Design is no longer a step before business. This is what Manuel Castells calls ‘timeless time’. In a survey of the digital cluster sector in Brighton, for the FUSE project, Sapsed and his colleagues examined the dynamics of 500 firms covering digital marketing, media and games development. The results showed that nearly half of design businesses were started by those with design, arts and humanities degrees. Beyond digital networking, designers still have to do face to face interactions to build their businesses. He also pointed out some of the myth around the idea of disintermediation arguing that digital technologies have introduced rather than eradicated intermediaries. In summary then, digital technologies have compressed processes, but many aspects of the overall structure and framework remain in tact.

Posing a brief reflection on the themes that emerged from the five responses, Liz picked up on this theme of time. While the speakers had pointed towards imperatives and pressures of the digital global market, many equally articulated their practice as a process of resistance against this. This involved a sort of re-balancing, or,as Liz put it, ‘putting time back into the process’. Digital technologies might make things quicker, cheaper and more direct, but the challenge for contemporary start-ups is pulling against this, bringing back friends, personalities, baking and using craft processes.  Nicolas Roope made the important point that it’s not an either or situation and that digital technologies also facilitates this texture.

It was also clear that both Alex and Andy were working with a view of design beyond the object. Both had been concerned with designing systems and looking at the social interaction around their object. Someone asked how they had moved into this space and how it worked in practice. Alex described the process of ‘being organic’ about his work, introducing his practice to friends he really trusted and then gradually building up from here.

Another question focused on how the designer can present value through such loose processes. One answer to this was that it depended very much which discipline you were working in. Nicolas Roope noted the emigration of language that had previously characterised the design start-up, such as ‘agile’, into mainstream business spaces.

The structure of the design school was bound to come up in any discussion of the design start-up, and the panel had some predictably negative responses as to its preparatory role. Andy Merritt suggested that the point of graduation marked a starting point, rather than a launching pad for his career. The lack of support structure beyond design school sets a challenge rather than a path for emergent designers, although as Heloise pointed out, this is also formative and not always negative. Part of the reason Andy had to start afresh, was because he left his background in graphic design and although this continues to inform the practice ‘in his head’, it means engaging with an entirely different network of people and institutions. Therefore, while digital technologies facilitate easy movement between disciplines, educational models do not.

In the design school and beyond, public funding initiatives in design have been bound by disciplinary criteria. One member of the audience remembered that when she was starting her practice, if you were a craft maker you could get funding through the crafts council ‘setting up award’, (now called the Development Grant) but things get more complicated when you move outside your discipline. Heloise Parke argued that this was less complicated than it seemed, because it was a matter of self-definition rather than imposition. You apply for the funding that meets your practice at that particular moment. The panel agreed that while the journey from degree to start-up was not easy, some measure of unpredictability is also a positive thing.

Another interesting question from the audience concerned the flexibility and adaptability of the contemporary design start up. Is there a ‘next stage’ in this agility, or is start-up status something to be sustained and managed? In other words, could it be that start-up culture is an end rather than the beginning? Interestingly, Andy Merritt suggested that in the case of Something and Son, this looks increasingly likely. In his recent experience of working with IKEA, for instance, he found that this large corporation was eager to bend to fit and incorporate their model, rather than the other way round. Equally, he said that the company structure will continue to operate on multiple levels, growing by building up layers, much in the way Heloise described the 3D printing process.

This, it seems, says something powerful about the shifting dynamics of design culture, structurally and economically. However it is important to ask: how new is this and how directly altered by the digital process has it been? Do digital technologies extend and exaggerate processes of flexibility and adaptability that have characterised the movement of design culture for some time, or does it instigate something new entirely? In other words, as Liz pointed out in her introduction, how revolutionary is this?

Perhaps the most interesting thing to emerge from this discussion was the concept of design as the starting point for a new dynamic increasingly directed at the social, whether through baking, bathing , or the mass-customisation potential of 3D printing. If digital technologies have facilitated the start of a new conversation or a customisation of what design might be, then maybe that’s where the revolution is.

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Salon 8 – How has digital technology changed the dynamics of the designer start-up?

Friday 7 February, 1900h

Seminar Room 1:  Sackler Centre, Victoria & Albert Museum

In an economy no longer focused on mass production, designers have had to be innovative and inventive in finding models through which they can start their businesses and establish a public profile. In the past, this has sometimes meant designing their own briefs and starting collectives which utilise networks formed at design school.  In recent years, the success of crowd-sourcing sites such as Kickstarter have formalised this start-up model , creating a template for this process to happen. So how has this changed things? What are the implications both on design practice and on relationships with the consumer and the client? What are the support structures for emerging designers and how does this challenge ‘expertise’ or professional status?

Guest Chair:  Liz Farrelly, University of Brighton.

Andrew Merritt, Something and Son
Nicolas Roope, Founder of Hulger and Poke
Alexandre Bettler, Designer, DesignMarketo
Héloïse Parke, Curator, The Aram Gallery
Jonathan Sapsed, Principal Research Fellow, CENTRIM, University of Brighton.

Free. All welcome. Book here.
If the bookings page shows that this event is fully booked, please send an email to Leah Armstrong  (l.armstrong[at]vam.ac.uk), who can put you on an additional list.

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Salon 7 — Reflections on Transparent Design

How we think about the information that is embedded into design or that accompanies it in its processes and products is inextricably linked to the larger contexts of political economy. The misinformation or, at least, misapprehensions that have surrounded the workings of financial institutions running up to the economic crisis has created one vector of influence on the debate. Activist attempts to open up restricted governmental information has opened up another.

How designs are constructed and interacted with, how their meaning is formed is brought out when we use computers. Working with digital information encompasses skimming and coding. You surf its information or you can dive deep into its informational architecture. Each of these notions, and these working together, have wider implications for how design culture is constituted and can constitute itself.

An overarching question of the differences between transparency and openness emerged that quickly brought in political and ethical questions. This salon moved through this and many other questions.

Left to right:  Gillian Youngs, Jessi Baker, Alison Powell, Martin Dittus, Kevin Walker

Left to right: Gillian Youngs, Jessi Baker, Alison Powell, Martin Dittus, Kevin Walker

Martin Dittus described his organisation, London Hackspace, in terms of the benefits that it accrues through being open. This means open in the sharing of knowledge within it but also in its own governance. Openness can consistently run through an organisation so that, for example, playful and more applied practices can co-exist.

With the visual and material aid of an electric toaster, Alison Powell described two approaches to the object, deriving her observations from the work of Martin Heidegger. One was to view the object as ‘closed’, as a means to an end. The other is open and observable, where the processes to make toast are laid bare. But there is a separation. Even if the means of production can be seen, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we can engage directly with them. In the former, it is, in Heideggerian terms, ‘ready-to-hand’; it can be used. In the latter, with the toaster taken apart and broken, we have a different engagement with our technologies. It is a way into their politics. And this is where all of the politics of hacking is located. How do you bring the these two levels of the object together? This is an interesting design problem.

Jessi Baker spoke of her company, Provenance, that helps companies and organisations understand and communicate where the materials they use come from. Jessi made a distinction between transparency and openness. The former is really an ability to convey facts. This can be manifested actually in products:  so, for example, antiques carry the story of their life-use through chips and scratches. Self-referentiality can also achieve this, as in, former V&A Artist in Residence, Julia Lohmann’s Antonia Cowbench which is made of leather and is in the form of a cow. The origins of its material are clearly expressed in the form. In terms of quantities Jessi Baker has been thinking about ‘quantified stuff’ – things that, for instance, declare their own embodied energy. By extension, for her, design is about fate – how you shape the outcome and experience of things.

Political economist Gillian Youngs began by declaring that she had been studying the internet since its inception. As a scholar of globalization beforehand, she has been interested in the macro-forces that information technology are bound up in. She emphasized that the so-called digital revolution is quite distinct from other technological revolutions. Our relationship to it is embodied and intellectual and it engages with every aspect of our lives. Pivotal in this is that it connects us as individuals to a whole and this is how she came to it from a globalization perspective. Following on from this, her own generation has been raised thinking that politics, economics, culture and the social are segmented, whereas ‘digital natives’ experience these as enmeshed with one another. Even so, digital culture has grown out of the former world and institutionalised policy arenas continue to dominate with this paradigm of segmentation. Hence, Gillian opines, governmental notions of ‘innovation’ still haven’t got beyond the industrial revolution in their conception of it. For them, the digital revolution is just another stage on from the industrial revolution rather than a radically restructuring process. In the meantime, too little attention has been paid to NGOs as innovators in information society. This brings the argument back to small-scale groups, like Martin Dittus’s London Hackspace. But the institutional predominance of other models means that the idea of innovation is still being distorted.

Our chair, Kevin Walker, asked why transparency should matter? Martin Dittus replied that this needn’t have to be there all the time, but from a political standpoint there should be a right to it if required or requested. Alison Powell reversed the argument to posit that there is no democratic accountability to the transparency to which we are being subjected. In short, data on us that is held by government and corporations or how it is used is not accessible or, at best, very difficult to uncover. We leave data trails that we can not track back on. Meanwhile, by leaving a trace we are verifying that we are busy doing all those things that contemporary capitalism expects of us. You have more to fear if you are not displaying all the time, she argued. Jessi Baker suggested that when signing up on the internet to a service such as Facebook, you should go through some kind of check-out process to demonstrate to both parties that there was some kind of value exchange going on. Gillian Youngs came back to the problem of the distinction between material and informational exchange, or the lack of distinction that institutional forces make between these. Thus, big data is treated too much as just another material resource or object, rather than deep regard being paid to its differences, subtleties and complexities as ‘information’. She went to talk about ‘automaticity’ where we engage with information (for example through our smartphones) unconsciously, unaware of the politics of the systems that we are engaging with. How often do we read ‘Terms and Conditions’?

Design is where some of these trade-offs can be made evident and, indeed, the politics of design itself. Martin Dittus reminded us that notions of transparency are culturally specific and that there are different locations and standards applied in different locations.

The next question is, who is pushing transparency? Kevin Walker asked how is hacking then corporatized in a way that creates conflicts between individuals and institutions? Martin Dittus pointed out that hacking is predominantly the preserve mid-20s, white, middle-class males and this needs to be addressed, perhaps as a way of breaking this constant defection from individual creative practice to corporate interests. Perhaps another demographic will open onto other pathways. Gillian Youngs agreed that greater inclusion of women in the discursive field of innovation may lead to new forms and processes in business and elsewhere.

Much of the rest of the salon went on to discuss information asymmetry. Where and for whom is it most beneficial to provide data? An example that was cited was the Fairphone which, at the time of this salon, was going through self-declared difficulties in its supply-chain. This start-up is dedicated to complete transparency in its operations, a risky activity in the world of smartphones which tends toward the other extreme (witness Apple’s secrecy in its operations). In which so ever case, the internet allows smokescreens to be eroded, argued Jessi Baker, as information is revealed through hacking or hacking-like activities in any case. Meanwhile, Alison Powell adds that political agency and disruption should not just come through hacking but through a range of practices.

It seems that transparency is a challenging and compelling concept for design. It places up front a series of questions as to how we design, its timeframes, publics, priorities and outcomes. If the institutional apparatus of governance is so far behind what the information revolution affords and implies, then it might be some while before mainstream notions of innovation catch up and the possibilities for transparency become truly appreciated. Meanwhile, the salon made clear that it immediately engages deep questions around the politics of design.

Finally, a salon attendee has kindly emailed with a suggestion for further reading. Rosie Wanek recommends Marek Bienczyk’s book Transparency (2012) that, she says, offers useful further historical context to the discussion. I give this information out in the interests of openness and participation that we hope the salons reflect.

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Salon 7 — Transparent Design: what does it mean?

Friday 10th January, 1900h
Seminar Room 1:  Sackler Centre, the Victoria & Albert Museum

From banking to national security, the notion of transparency has been a popular subject of late and was high on the agenda at the G8 summit last year. Transparency, openness and provenance are also emerging as strong principles in contemporary design practice, across a range of disciplines. But what does transparency mean in a design context? Does it mean different things to different people? How has it changed the relationship between the designer and consumer? How has open data changed things? What are the ethics and politics of transparency and is this is being adequately factored into design practice?

Chair: Kevin Walker, Head of Information Design, RCA

Jessi Baker, Founder of Provenance and PhD Candidate, UCL
Alison Powell,  Assistant Professor in Media and Communication, LSE
Martin Dittus, Trustee and Founding Member of London Hackspace
Gillian Youngs, Professor of Digital Economy, University of Brighton

This event is free but booking is essential.
If the booking page shows as ‘fully booked’ please email g.julier[@]vam.ac.uk to reserve a place.

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