Reflections on Design Culture Salon 21 ‘Queer Craft…?’

Queer Craft…?
20 May 2016

The brevity of the title for Design Culture Salon 21 — ‘Queer Craft…?’ — belies the complexity of putting these two challenging concepts and practices together and the volume of discussion that this act generates. Both terms — queer and craft — offer destabilisations of categories and categorisation. And thus, the ensuing conversation may best be described as sinuous. It never moved in a straight line.

Left to right: Catherine Flood, Conor Wilson, Matt Smith, Joseph McBrinn, Julia Bryan-Wilson, Laura Carderera, ‘We won’t give it to Putin a third time’, placard by By Seroye Fioletovoe, Alexey Kiselev, Abubakr Khasanov and Nadia Tolokno, carried in a protest rally in Moscow on February 4th, 2012.

Left to right: Catherine Flood, Conor Wilson, Matt Smith, Joseph McBrinn, Julia Bryan-Wilson, Laura Carderera, ‘We won’t give it to Putin a third time’, placard by Seroye Fioletovoe, Alexey Kiselev, Abubakr Khasanov and Nadia Tolokno, carried in a protest rally in Moscow on February 4th, 2012.


Julia Bryan-Wilson, Associate Professor, Modern and Contemporary Art, University of California, Berkeley, therefore kicked-off the discussion with a corkscrew trajectory. Julia quoted an interview with the artist Gregg Bordowitz where he says, ‘I’m very much interested in queer things. Queer things don’t yield easily to comprehension. They refuse to recognize or be recognized. They work from, or occupy a place of shame or embarrassment.’ Extending from this, we might think of links between craft objects and queer objects as being deeply embedded in abjection or lowness, particularly in relation to the category of fine art. We may also see this in relation to both uneasiness and pleasure. To do craft is to doing something queer; to do something queer is to do something crafty. However, perhaps these claims might be too generalising, she suggested. The terms are unstable and by allowing an ellipsis (…) we might also allow a pause to interrogate them and their relationships. Queer craft has, to date, been dominated by textiles, and so by opening up the materials under discussion further, we can push the debate on. Even so, Julia Bryan-Wilson proposed that textiles has a particular relationship to queer politics:  they mediate between private and public and structure bodily relations to the social. We are all experts in textiles, given our intimate and everyday relationships to them. Textiles activate desire.

Joseph McBrinn, Reader at the Art and Design Institute, University of Ulster, began his position statement by arguing that historically, textiles have not always been a feminizing process. Think sailors or soldiers repairing their kit. Thus we need to be more specific about the registers of handiwork that we are engaging with. As Julia Bryan-Wilson had also suggested, Joseph McBrinn acknowledged that the crafts are not always aligned with liberatory impulses. The crafts have been taken up and appropriated into several nationalistic or fascist regimes as oppressive vehicles for ensuring adherence to specific traditions and outlooks. Folk and vernacular art were taken up in Vichy France, for example. A second note of caution that Joseph introduced to the debate was that queer theory, on which contemporary definitions of queer so often rest, is changing twenty or so years after it grew out of the feminist and the lesbian and gay liberation movements. Its continued relevance today, its recent “anti-social turn”, and its origins in elite American universities are widely debated. Definitions of queer should be taken in relation to this context. Meanwhile, the debate has moved beyond reclamation of self-respect, arguably, to discussions of feelings in a fractured world.

Matt Smith, recently Artist in Residence at Victoria and Albert Museum and currently Honorary Visiting Fellow at the University of Leicester’s School of Museum Studies, argued for queer as having a double definition. First, this may be LGBTQ identification. Second, it describes a deviation from the norm. Craft and queer are both marginal situations in relation, in particular, to fine art and heterosexual normativity. While these marginalities may sit in relation to dominant positions, there is also an exchange that goes on between them. Making something is very personal, and has the ability for personalization; so, Matt argued, craft easily aligns with the making of identity politics. Craft objects can make a space in the world for alternative positions in nuanced ways. This nuancing makes it challenging to map any overall aesthetic sensibility for it. However, appropriation appears to be a common technique in it. It opens up multiple readings in its adaptations. It explores and deconstructs structures in society, allowing people to orientate themselves against these. It also opens up possibilities of hearing different voices and examining what interests are at stake in the construction of normative, dominant views.

Conor Wilson, Artist and Senior Lecturer at University of the West of England, developed on the idea of intimacy in craft making. Closeness to the materials, their performance and shaping in the context of functional objects means, he argued, that they are what they are. They do not necessarily, as in fine art, carry any metaphorical role. This pulls on Object-Oriented Ontology, that Conor mapped out. Here, it is understood that there is a reality independent of human thought or language and we can only access this reality through speculation. Objects have a reality, therefore, and have a relationship with each other. Conor Wilson then drew on an account of loading a kiln with cups that he had made where he had not, as yet, tested his process with these. He was happy to afford the cups their own reality, as it were, and the contingent risk of not being able to fully anticipate how they would turn out. This is where the process, he suggested, gets queered.

Catherine Flood, Curator of the exhibition Disobedient Objects, and Curator, Prints, Victoria and Albert Museum, drew a distinction between what she claimed ‘high craft’ and activist objects. In the latter case, the objects of ‘history from below’ may get left out of museum narratives but might – as LGBTQ objects can – disrupt the value systems of the museum itself. Catherine made reference to a placard that was made by a group of gay rights activists in Russia (see the object to the right of the photo). Taken out onto the streets of Moscow in 2012, it was the first time that the LGBT rainbow had been seen publicly. Clore 55, where the Salon took place, is in the middle of the British galleries, and Catherine Flood was enjoying the disruption of this relatively raw object amidst the high craft of the many objects around it. The placard is quite battered and grubby and is at odds with the highly finished objects normally associated with the museum. We might consider this as a kind of ‘unfinished object’, one that is locked into on-going struggle and, indeed, change of itself rather than a finished piece. (For more on activism and unfinished objects, my article, ‘From Design Culture to Design Activism’ may be of use here.) It may be a failure in terms of the quality of crafting expected in a museum. Or we might turn this round and view other, high craft objects as failing in crafting social change. Objects such as ‘Gaybashers…come and get it’, a banner by L J Roberts carried in the City Dyke March, New York in 2011 can be hybrid, moving between street protest and museums, between being craft and protest objects, queering standard categories.

From there the conversation, expertly guided by our guest chair, Laura Carderera, worked through a number themes. These included:  LGBTQ representation in the museum and normative, heterosexual dominance in curating; whether queer theory has atrophied or has moved into many new areas; the pressure of high expectations following a history of invisibility; varying forms of representation through queer craft. However, in finishing, I want to alight on two issues that emerged in the discussion.

The first initially appeared to come outwith the core of our discussion. This was regarding why there was so little representation of the background makers who are involved in the realisation of many art objects in support of the artist. As an audience-participant observed, at the cinema we get the complete credits of all involved in the production of a film. So why not in the making of the art object? This could not be a more timely question given the very recent publication of Glenn Adamson and Julia Bryan-Wilson’s Art in the Making that considers this in depth. If queer craft includes the disruption of hierarchies and structures and, thus, binary opposites of thinking and doing, acknowledging and exploring the collective work that goes into the production of art and other works may be highly relevant here. It challenges normative identities of individual artists. It may open onto new ways of conceiving of creative labour.

A second issue that was raised came from another field of identity politics, ethnicity. Queer theory has largely been a western discussion, and the need to incorporate non-western views of sexuality and gender was raised, as was the need to discuss the intersectionality between queer and other identity categories, especially race. Be that as it may, I wonder if the kaleidoscopic, shifting and sinuous qualities of queer theory mean that any identity, individual or collective, is transient. As a result, it may be common experience for anyone to feel both inside and outside any given situation. As, currently, a more-or-less straight male, for me parts of LGBTQ politics are sometimes easier to understand or feel than others. Accepting that partiality is more liberating than disappointing. As with craft, it isn’t compulsory to get all of it, all the time. But it is equally impoverishing not to try and get some of it.




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Design Culture Salon 21: Queer Craft…?

20 May, 6:30pm, Clore 55, V&A

Queer Craft…?

Queer has a double meaning: both as an umbrella term for marginalised identities and also as a deconstructive technique. When coupled with craft which also has a fluid meaning, the subject area provides opportunity for debate and multiple readings. Craft has historically been linked to issues of identity since the work of William Morris, through to its adoption by feminist and postmodernist artists.  More recently, craft techniques have been adopted by artists addressing identity politics including Nick Cave, Virgil Marti, Kent Hendricksen, Allyson Mitchell and Doug Jones as well as artists addressing craftivism. Queer Craft both addresses identity and also deconstructs assumptions about craft technique,  explored both explicitly and obliquely in exhibitions including Boys Craft (Haifa Museum of Art) and A Labour of Love (The New Museum, New York) and Boys with Needles (Museum London, Ontario). This Salon aims to explore the debates and multiple meanings that exist in the work of artists using craft and addressing queerness by considering the following key questions: What might queer craft be and what does it look like? Are the labels of queer and craft of use or a hindrance? Can craft learn from identity politics?

Chair: Laura Carderera, Residency Coordinator, V&A


Dr Julia Bryan-Wilson, Associate Professor, Modern and Contemporary Art, University of California, Berkeley
Catherine Flood, Curator of
Disboedient Objects and Curator, Prints, Victoria and Albert Museum
 Joseph McBrinn, Reader, Art and Design Institute, University of Ulster
Conor Wilson, Artist and Senior Lecturer at University of the West of England
Dr Matt Smith, Artist in Residence at Victoria and Albert
Museum and Lecturer at University of Brighton

Laura Carderera oversees the Victoria & Albert’s residency programme, supporting artists, designers and other creative practitioners who are invited to undertake research, develop public programmes and create work inspired by the museum’s collection.  Before joining the V&A, Laura worked as a Projects & Partnerships Manager at Delfina Foundation, where she developed thematic residencies for UK and international artists and curators. Prior to moving to London in 2012, Laura set up a contemporary art production company in Istanbul and also worked at the Townhouse Gallery in Cairo, where she oversaw their educational and public programmes for four years. Laura holds an MA in Arts Administration from Columbia University. She currently sits on the Board of the Townhouse Gallery in Cairo.

Julia Bryan-Wilson has been at the forefront of debates of queer craft since her article “Queerly Made” appeared in 2009 in The Journal of Modern Craft.  She is the author of Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era (U California), and co-author, with Glenn Adamson, of Art in the Making (Thames and Hudson, forthcoming). Her book on textiles since the 1970s is due out in 2017 from the University of Chicago Press. She is associate professor of modern and contemporary art at the University of California, Berkeley.

Catherine Flood is a collections curator at the V&A specialising in popular print culture and graphics. She co-curated ‘Disobedient Objects’, a ground breaking exhibition about the art and design of grassroots social movements, at the V&A in 2014. She is currently working on the theme of how design affects our relationship with food.

Joseph McBrinn is a historian, critic and curator currently based in Northern Ireland. Born in 1971 he was educated and has worked in the Ireland, Scotland and France.  He has held teaching positions at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, in the Republic of Ireland, and, currently, at the Belfast School of Art, Ulster University, in Northern Ireland.  He has written articles and reviews for Embroidery, Selvedge, Textile: The Journal of Cloth and Culture, Homes Cultures, Fashion Theory, Art History, The Journal of Modern Craft, Journal of Design History and Oxford Art Journal.  His current research is focused on masculinity and design.  His book, Queering the Subversive Stitch: Men and the Culture of Needlework, is forthcoming from Bloomsbury.

Matt Smith was the 2015/2016 V&A Artist in Residence in the Ceramics Galleries.  His practice often involves institutional critique and responding to cultural organisations. Solo exhibitions include Queering the Museum at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and Other Stories at the University of Leeds.  He exhibits and also talks about his practice nationally and internationally (Society for Contemporary Craft, Pittsburgh, KHIB Bergen, Konstfack Stockholm, Valand Academy Gothenburg).  He co-founded Unravelled Arts which commissioned contemporary art for National Trust houses in order to explore their marginalised histories. He is an Honorary Visiting Fellow at the University of Leicester’s School of Museum Studies and has recently completed an AHRC-funded, practice-based PhD in Queer Craft at the University of Brighton. In 2014 he was awarded the inaugural Maylis Grand Young Masters Prize for Ceramics.

Conor Wilson. Having taught theory and practice across a range of undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in art and design, Conor Wilson is currently senior lecturer in Interior Design at the University of the West of England. Despite developing a specialist knowledge of ceramics over 25 years, he characterises his practice as a mix of craft and bricolage and veers between various processes and approaches that fall under the broad disciplinary umbrellas of art, craft and design. He was awarded a Jerwood Contemporary Makers prize in 2010 and work is held in many private and public collections around the world. Currently in the final stages of a practice-led doctoral project (Writing_Making: Object as body, language and material, Royal College of Art), Wilson has adopted Tim Morton’s conception of objects as ‘strange strangers’ (and rhetoric as a means of contacting them) and has been exploring craft making as an intimate engagement with, or a form of contact with, another object.

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Design Culture Salon 20: What are the values of design and making in China?

Friday 22 April, 2 – 4 pm
Institute of Contemporary Arts
The Mall


How is the maker movement changing design sensibilities in China? What new models of education and expressions of creativity are arising? How do craft, DIY, hacker culture and design interconnect in China? How does China’s vast manufacturing base and high technical skills influence design? What government policies are being employed to promote design?


Chair:  Professor Guy Julier, University of Brighton/Victoria and Albert Museum

Zara Arshad, founder-editor Design China blog
David Li, Director Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab
Lit Liao, Founder Litchee Lab, Shenzhen
Tom Saunders, Senior Research, Nesta

Free event.
Book here:

This event is organised as part of China’s Creative Communities: Making Value and the Value(s) of Making an AHRC/Newton Fund research project led by Kingston University, Falmouth University and the University of Brighton. For more details please contact Cat Rossi.

Zara Arshad
is the founder-editor of the Design China blog. A former resident of Indonesia, Syria and China, Arshad has worked for Icograda Beijing, British Council in China and Beijing Design Week, and studied on the RCA/V&A MA History of Design programme as the 2013-2015 Friends of the V&A Scholar. She is currently a research assistant at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

David Li has been contributing to open source software since 1990. He is a member of the Free Software Foundation, committer to Apache projects and board director of ObjectWeb. In 2010, he co-founded XinCheJian, the first hackerspace in China to promote hacker/maker culture and open source hardware. In 2011, he co-founded Hacked Matter, a think tank on makers and open innovation. In 2015, he co-founded Maker Collider, a platform to develop next generation IoT. He is also the director of Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab.

Lit Liao is the founder of Litchee Lab, one of the most international makerspaces in Shenzhen providing space, digital equipment, workshops and courses for all ages, from kids to adults. She has rich experience in the field of maker education, including open source education product design and curriculum development. Currently Litchee Lab is working with different types of schools in Shenzhen, from primary to high schools and from private to public, to create open and encouraging spaces on campus. Before starting Litchee Lab, Lit worked at Seeed as product manager of education products and led the re-design of Seeed best-selling education products, such as the Grove Starter Kit and Mixer.

Tom Saunders is Senior Researcher at Nesta, a charity that promotes innovative solutions to social challenges. His work focuses on helping governments learn from innovations around the world, with particularly the use of digital technologies to address urban challenges. Tom also leads on Nesta’s research and engagement with China and is co–author of Made in China: Makerspaces and the search for mass innovation.

Guy Julier is the University of Brighton/Victoria & Albert Museum Principal Research Fellow in Contemporary Design and Professor of Design Culture. He is the author of several books including The Culture of Design, recently published in a 3rd revised edition. From the mid-2000s, while continuing research in the contemporary sociology and political economy of design, Guy Julier has also turned his attention to design activism and social design. His currently completing a book entitled ‘Economies of Design’.


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Shenzhen Salon

What are the values of making and makerspaces?

Thursday 17 March, 2016, 3pm-4:30pm
Hosted by SZOIL
Sino-Finnish Design Park International Conference Room (B4-113, No.3 Shihua Road, Futian Bonded Area, Futian District)

What are the values of making and makerspaces?

Further information. 


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Reflections on Design Culture Salon 19: How does the design studio support emergent design practices?

About 20 years ago, a group of undergraduate design students I was teaching in Leeds gave a presentation about their idea of the design studio of the future. It was relentlessly utopian in a kind of beachworld, surfer-dude way. They imagined the designer working out of a fancy campervan, travelling the planet, going to exotic places while maintaining their practice with global clients via the (then nascent) internet.

Looking back, their forecast couldn’t have been wider of the mark. While there has been some flexibilisation of the geographical relationships between designers and clients, I would seriously contend that, at the same time, the struggle for space has become all the more urgent. By this, I mean being able to pay the rent on a studio, but also configuring oneself into the ‘right’ topographical networks to support professional practice. This may include insisting on being among the creative milieu (London’s Shoreditch, Hong Kong’s West Kowloon, Manchester’s Northern Quarter and so on) and/or being close to your potential clients (see Reimer et al 2008 on this). Whatever the priority, the key issue is that space isn’t going away (see Massey 2005 on this). Design is not getting deterritorialized. And, as we found out later in this Salon, understanding what goes on in those studio places is getting more complex and varied.

Our line-up for this event was as follows:

Chair: Dr Lucy Kimbell, Director of Innovations and Insights Hub, University of Arts, London.

Professor Daniel Charny, Professor of Design, Kingston University and Director at From Now On
Dr Ignacio Farias, Assistant Professor at the Munich Center for Technology in Society and the Department of Architecture of the Technishe Universität München.
Yiyun Kang, V&A Artist in Residence
Professor Peter Lloyd, Professor of Design, University of Brighton
Dr Alex Wilkie, Senior Lecturer in Design, Goldsmiths, London



l. to r.: Daniel Charny, Ignacio Farias, Lucy Kimbell, Peter Lloyd, Alex Wilkie, Yiyun Kang

l. to r.: Daniel Charny, Ignacio Farias, Lucy Kimbell, Peter Lloyd, Alex Wilkie, Yiyun Kang


Kicking off the evening’s debate, our guest chair, Lucy Kimbell noted two current vectors in design that may be effecting how we conceive of the studio. The first is in the intensification of designerly approaches. This is where, for example, design is beginning to be found in new locations and conjunctions. One of these that Lucy Kimbell has been closely involved in has been in the use of design methods in policymaking, specifically in the UK Cabinet Office PolicyLab. The second vector has been in a ‘de-intensification’ (or is that ‘extensification’?) of design. Examples here would include the rolling out of design toolboxes such as the Nesta DIY Toolbox or in OpenIdeo. Thus, on the one hand, more precise design methods are under increasing exploration for specific circumstances while, on the other, access to more generalized and schematized ways of designing are being provided to a wider set of actors. In either case, and many others, the places where design is being undertaken are becoming more varied. This in turn has ramifications for what we think the design studio might be like.

Daniel Charny followed on by pursuing what the studio means. He made a case for it as a comfort zone – somewhere where, at its centre, material experimentation and new thought processes can take place that are core to design work. That said, design studios have become less private. This is partly to do with digital networks that in various ways give access of different sorts to the studio both to clients and a wider public. In the former case, things like Skyping allow quicker and iterative interchange of ideas between client and designer. In the latter case, designers’ websites are more likely to show design at work. [Elsewhere I have argued that this becomes performative. Citing examples, I have argued that client visits to the studio sometimes involve the self-conscious showing and playing-out of ‘creativity’ (after all, this is what the client is buying).] Equally, studios have increasingly become shared environments with several individual designers or set-ups sharing resources. This is, not least, a result of the rising cost of studio space. Ultimately, Daniel Charny made a case for the studio culture rather than the studio environment as being the most important.

Alex Wilkie was asked about Studio Studies:  Operations, Topologies and Displacements, edited by Ignacio Farías and him, that they were launching. Why write it now? Alex Wilkie explained that in the disciplinary field of Science and Technologies Studies there has been close examination of the science laboratory. In particular, this has been carried out by Karin Knorr Cetina. Here, the focus has been on the lab as an inscription device:  its material and social configuration produces certain forms of laboratory practice, and therefore outcomes. However, STS and then social and cultural theory have, in Alex’s opinion, completely ignored the studio. Perhaps the only exception to this has been Donald Schön’s 1985 book The Design Studio. This was produced as a commission by the Royal Institute of British Architects and focused on architectural practice rather than design. Further, in its framing it continued to reproduce certain well-known ‘master (masculine) – apprentice’ power relations. [I would, however, highly recommend AnneMarie Dorland’s excellent essay on routinization in the design studio in Design and Creativity that Liz Moor and I edited in 2009. (Apologies for the blatant boosterism here.)] So, it is time we thought more deeply about how the design studio functions as an inscription device.

Peter Lloyd picked up on the traditional power relationships of ‘master-apprentice’ that goes on in studio culture. Even when it’s all meant to be very open and participatory – when the Post-It notes start to fly – there is still someone in charge of the process. Aside from this tradition, Peter Lloyd focused on the role of language in explaining or obfuscating studio practice. Thus he talked about the painter George Shaw, recalling a phrase written about his work, ‘he imbues his meticulous records with a melancholy nostalgia’. Peter asked whether this is really what Shaw was doing at the point of creation or, even, whether this was actually possible! The record of the studio in action is always imprecise and the issue is to focus, as Alex Wilkie had also argued, on what was actually happening there, not on what people says happens. You can read more of Peter’s thoughts on this in his own blog.

Yiyun Kang reflected eloquently on her experience of working in digital arts and design. As a  V&A Artist in Residence, her work has involved digital projection mapping, interacting, in particular, with the museum’s cast courts. The ‘performance’ of the work itself is in adding layers of light to pre-existing objects. In this, and much of her other creative practice, she is working in site-specific ways and so, for example, the V&A itself becomes the bigger studio to her work. In more conventional terms, for Yiyun Kang, the traditional studio may be important as a site of exploration but, importantly, it also functions as the place of documentation. Her work is very spatial and ephemeral and thus the studio becomes the place where the outcomes and processes of her work are archived and analyzed. This is an important point in that it reminds us that studios fulfill multiple roles. Many of these roles go beyond the straightforward conception of the studio as a cradle of creative outputs. Studios do other things as well.

Ignacio Farías pushed this discussion of creative work taking place beyond the studio. He spoke of the experience of creating a kind of nomadic studio with the artist Mirja Busch. Even on a road trip, the issue of storage became a central challenge. They found themselves increasingly ‘living off the land’, drawing from resources they discovered through the journey rather than what they had brought with them. The gear they were carting around seemed increasingly irrelevant to what they were doing and yet they still felt the need for it to be there. Wherever the studio takes place – even if it doesn’t exist in the traditional four walls – it is subject to various contingencies. It is a place of happening. Later, Ignacio Farías reinforced this by stating that this doesn’t necessarily mean that this kicks notions of exploration and creative freedom out the window. The studio — and all its social and material knick-knackery — can provide the conditions for these. It’s just that every practice comes with a particular world. This means that a designer is working on something, but is also working on the conditions that make that working at the same time.

The multiple reference points for what really is a design studio unfolded through the evening’s discussion. It’s difficult to keep up with and, I would forcefully add, impossible to make overarching generalizations about what the design studio might be or, indeed, what studio culture may involve.

A bunch of us at the V&A are getting increasingly interested in what’s happening in Shenzen in China. Salon regulars, Daniel Charny, Cat Rossi, myself and others will be taking the Design Culture Salon to Shenzen in March 2016 to build dialogue with practitioners, commentators and entrepreneurs there. It seems that there are some fascinating developments going on. Design, in that traditional consultant form exists but much more embedded and complex relationships with manufacture and making are also at work. Watch this space.

The intensification and de-intensification of design involves new spatial arrangements. But I won’t be expecting the imagined, globe-trotting surfer-dude designer to become a significant actor in any of this. Arguably, much of design is far too weighty and material, rough-edged and friction-dependent, people-centric and social practice-oriented to ever be deterritorialized. The reality of the design studio in all its manifestations has a long way to go.



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Design Culture Salon 19: How does the design studio support emergent design practices?

Friday 19 February, 6:30pm,
Clore 55, Victoria and Albert Museum

 For many designers and design educators, the studio still forms the key site for design practice and learning and is often said to facilitate creative processes, not least collaboration and making. Our understanding of precisely how or why the studio can support these forms of labour, however, remains relatively vague. Moreover, the activities that currently constitute contemporary design practice have moved beyond the ‘object’ and into seemingly immaterial practices, such as social design and design thinking. So, how does studio support these new kinds of processes? How can we contextualise and understand novel instantiations of studio? How can sociological or anthropological approaches to studios inform our understanding of situated studio practices?

This Salon will address these questions, among others, through commentary on the new book: ‘Studio Studies: Operations, Topologies & Displacements’, edited by Ignacio Farías and Alex Wilkie. This collection of essays, published by Routledge, examines the role of studios in the production of cultural artefacts, not least those brought into being by designers – a remarkable blind spot in social and cultural research, the accounts of which remain dominated by the ‘creativity’ of privileged individuals or the stimulation of creativity through urban clustering.

Chair: Dr Lucy Kimbell, Director of Innovations and Insights Hub, University of Arts, London.

Professor Daniel Charny, Professor of Design, Kingston University and Director at From Now On
Dr Ignacio Farias, Assistant Professor at the Munich Center for Technology in Society and the Department of Architecture of the Technishe Universität München.
Yiyun Kang, V&A Artist in Residence
Professor Peter Lloyd, Professor of Design, University of Brighton
Dr Alex Wilkie, Senior Lecturer in Design, Goldsmiths, London

This is a free, drop-in event. No need to book.
Directions to Clore 55 here. 


Professor Daniel Charny
is an internationally recognised curator, strategic consultant and lecturer in the field of contemporary design. His specialist background as an industrial designer puts him in a unique position in the curatorial field, as does his strategic and curatorial practice applied in the context of design education. Charny curated major shows for the Design Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum including ‘Power of Making’ one of the most popular exhibitions in the V&A’s history. Involved in strategic consultancy he led on the Content and Interpretation strategy for the Design Museum London contributing to their successful bid for HLF major projects funding in 2012. Charny has been involved in design education for 20 years including between 1998-2012 at the Royal College of Art where he was Senior Tutor on the Design Products Department.

Dr Ignacio Farías is a senior researcher at the Social Science Research Center Berlin (WZB) and holds a PhD from Humboldt University Berlin. In the field of urban studies, Farías has conducted ethnographic research in three main areas: a) cultural consumption, tourism, and city-marketing; b) cultural production, studio practices, and creative industries; and c) urban disasters, city reconstruction, and governmentality. His publications include Urban Assemblages. How Actor-Network Theory Changes Urban Studies (2009) and articles in journals such as Mobilities, Space and Culture, CITY, and EURE. Revista Latinoamericana de Estudios Urbano y Regionales.

Yiyun Kang was born in Seoul, Korea. She holds a Bachelor in Fine Arts from Seoul National University’s Painting department and a Master in Fine Arts from UCLA’s Design & Media Arts department. Upon completion of her MFA in the United States, Kang worked and taught in Korea for 3 years, subsequently moving to London, where she is currently working and pursuing a PhD at the Royal College of Art. Kang is internationally recognized for her projection mapping installations. Her work has been exhibited in a number of museums and galleries in Europe, Asia and the United States and she has taken part in several residency programmes, including that of Korea’s National Museum of Contemporary Art.

Dr Lucy Kimbell has spent much of her career on design’s fringes, intersecting with other disciplines and contexts including social innovation and policy. Before joining UAL Lucy was AHRC research fellow in Policy Lab in the Cabinet Office (2014-15) and principal research fellow at the University of Brighton where in addition she jointly led projects for the AHRC around social design. Previously Lucy was Clark fellow in design leadership at Said Business School, University of Oxford for five years, where she remains an associate fellow. Lucy co-founded one of the UK’s first digital arts groups and went on to work in digital innovation consultancy before joining academia. As an educator she has taught an MBA elective on design innovation at Said Business School since 2005. She also designs and delivers training in people-centred design for the UK Civil Service and contributes to UAL’s courses including CSM’s MA Innovation Management and its proposed MBA.

Professor Peter Lloyd is Professor of Design at the University of Brighton. His research looks at all aspects of the design process with a particular emphasis on the language used in design activity. He teaches in the areas of design methods, design thinking and design ethics. He is Associate Editor for the journal Design Studies and his research is based on interests that include design ethics, storytelling in the design process and design in the media. Prior to his appointment at the University of Brighton College of Arts and Humanities, Professor Lloyd held the post of Professor of Design Studies at The Open University from 2011 and was a senior lecturer between 2005-2011. Between 1999 and 2005, he was an Associate Professor at the Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands and a Research Fellow at Cranfield University between 1995-1999. You can read Peter’s latest thoughts on design at:

Dr Alex Wilkie is the Director of the MPhil/PhD programme in Design, Co-Programme Leader of the MA: Interaction Design and Co-Director of the Centre for the Study of Invention and Social Process. He has been working at the intersection between design and science and technology studies (STS) for over sixteen years. Alex studied interaction design at the Royal College of Art and gained his PhD in sociology, an ethnographic study of user-centered design, at Goldsmiths. Alex was an original member of, a group who designed and developed the Issuecrawler, an online tool for tracing and visualising controversy on the web and has been a member of the Interaction Research Studio since 2006.


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Some Reflections on Design Culture Salon 18: Is Designing for Behaviour Change ‘Creepy’?

Falling in the midpoint between the return from the summer holidays and the Christmas period, this Salon was a popular one. In fact, it ended as standing-room only, even after going in search of more chairs. It was rammed.

Clearly, the idea of designing behaviour change (or ‘nudge’) is one that divides opinions. This is not just because of the big philosophical questions it strikes at such as individual agency v. social compliance. It is also about the limits of design and what should be prioritised in its practices. These are not necessarily a new questions. Behaviour change thinking really stepped up in the UK under New Labour, as Kevin McCullough of product strategy consultancy Plan had discussed in Blueprint magazine back in 2007. But it was high time we re-appraised nudge, designing nudge and design that nudges.

So, to return to Friday 20 November 2015, and this write-up, I’m going to depart from the usual template I use for the blog. My behaviour has been changed! This isn’t because of any design interventions that took place on the night. Rather, I was busy finding seats for late-arrivals and ended up jotting haphazard notes from the debate.

In broader terms, a set of background issues (the need for more chairs) were altering my behaviour that evening. And this is something that has always concerned me about nudge. Design can articulate a clear choice architecture, but it can’t necessarily take into account all those other social practices and everyday realities lurking behind the scenes that are going on that come to bear on everyday life. (This is discussed by Will Leggett in Policy and Politics.)

So this blog pulls out some short ‘takeaways’, from the speakers and then draws on some crowd-sourced material. In other words, I asked three attendees if they would write a short, personal response to the event. First, an abridged version of key points made by our excellent chair and speakers.

l to r: Jessica Pyketty, Phoebe Moore (hidden), Dan Lockton, Peter John, Alison Powell, Simon Blyth.

l to r: Jessica Pyketty, Phoebe Moore (hidden), Dan Lockton, Peter John, Alison Powell, Simon Blyth.

Dan Lockton, Research Tutor, Innovation Design Engineering, Royal College of Art, as the Salon’s chair, kicked off firstly by asking if behaviour is something you can design with and what kind of medium is it, then? He showed that thinking about influencing behaviour is by no means new, but basing this on an assumption that there is an ‘irrational’ set of behaviours that need ‘correcting’ is. This needs to be explored rather than accepted a-critically. There is a new degree of quantification of the self that was previously not possible. This isn’t just about individual fitness data, for example, but found in the rise of Smart Cities, Smart Homes and Big Data. What are the assumptions that are being made here? Is it down to who is instigating the behaviour change and for what?

Jessica Pyketty, Senior Lecturer in Human Geography, University of Birmingham, followed up on this issue of scale. Is it about very small, quite trivial changes to action or does it involve a wholesale involvement of the state, and, indeed, neoliberal systems in the correcting or construction of the self? It’s probably both and therefore it’s equally important to explore the in-between spaces between these two extremes. A number of questions then ensue. What are the rationalities behind and what are their accumulative effects? Is the behavioural intervention open to challenge? What institutions and organizations are delivering these and for whom? What is the legitimacy of paid-for experts (e.g. designers) here? Is behaviour the actual problem to be solved? Again, as I noted above, what background issues are at stake that should or could be addressed instead? What are the unintended consequences of nudge? Does this lead to a fragmented, over-therapeutised self? Does this lead to hierarchies of rationality and irrationality?

Peter John, Professor of Political Science and Public Policy, UCL, viewed behaviour change as offering a fresh set of tools for policymakers that are, in fact, not top-down. Thinking through how a citizen interacts with services forces the policymaker to think like the citizen. Rolling out nudge approaches doesn’t take much in terms of resources. It’s the light touches that matter, he argued. But the challenge is to design nudges that involve some civic participation. There is an experimentalism in nudge within policymaking. The government’s nudge unit has been very transparent with the way the work. By being open about how you’re working and what the benefits may be for all (for example, saving local authority money so it can be re-invested elsewhere), you are treating the public as grown-ups and generating greater empathy.

Phoebe Moore, Senior Lecturer in International Relations, Middlesex University, drew on Gilbreth and Taylor’s time and motion studies in the early part of the 20th century and then Packard’s 1957 text The Hidden Persuaders to illustrate the deep historical background for design for behaviour change in workplaces. To bring this forward, data technologies allow one to see parts of behaviour that are not otherwise knowable – think worker tracking and its analysis to reveal patterns of actions. In 2014, 10,000 companies began to introduce worker-tracking devices that can track steps and heart-rate to provide metrics on activity. The creepy possibility emerging then is whether new forms of tracking will may be linked to appraisals and performance indicators in future, leading to work intensification. Big data accumulation at work can also be used in ways that are less about surveillance and more in helping workers to identify their own best ways of working.

Alison Powell, Assistant Professor, Department of Media and Communication, LSE, pushed the debate away from data as a way of analysing what has happened to data as a way of anticipating a set of potential future possibilities. Futures can then be framed and structured. Nudging design is precisely to do with this. It’s about establishing the range of possibilities and within this, desirable and less desirable possibilities are also established. This then opens up or closes down what is normal in what we can even imagine. Through this, self-trackers, for instance, don’t just represent the body but construct the body. What are the politics of the data that comes from this? Who owns it? When does representing ourselves in terms of data become creepy? The creepiness is when we don’t know what to do with this information. It’s in the design of the system or in the feedback loop between the quantifiable and the possible. You don’t know the extent of knowing about yourself and you can’t control its boundaries. How are you measured? Against what? And what lies outside what is quantified?

Simon Blyth, founder of Actant design research consultancy, spoke from the context of working with the analysis ordinary practices as an innovation consultant to various large corporations. Simon works with consumer packaging and FMCGs. He views the companies as ‘brand bureaucracies’ who are obsessed with marketing – they love abstraction and reduction so that core messages and procedures can be expressed and understood easily and quickly. More recently he has been getting briefs that are not about creating new products but are directed at changing consumers’ behaviour. These can be quite simple things like getting children to wash their hands after going to the toilet. Sometimes the work is then about continuity – how to get people to carry on the same behaviours which may be positive when it comes to things like health. Sometimes these are about compensating for other innovations.


These are some of the highlights. Let’s hear from three attendee-participants. All three have been panellists at previous Salons, so it’s nice to feel that some kind of Salon community is building.

First up, Stephen Feber, wrote to me the day after Salon 18 with the following points.

I’ve used behavioural economics in a project funded by the department for communities and local government – applying it to behaviour change in the visitor economy – where it’s simply too difficult to alter the physical infrastructure but possible to alter the relationship between the suppliers and customers via behavioural change nudges. I ran four innovation labs in Bournemouth with Bournemouth University.

I’m sure you’ve covered this elsewhere but the most obvious point is how generally ignorant we are and how poor we are forecasting. Also, several of the panel did seem to be working with a really old version of the state. Really, the question of the century is how we lighten and simplify our organisational structures to move beyond the command control state. Data visualisation and digital everything start to extend our sensing, responding and thinking capabilities both at individual, community, region and state level. We should be looking at design which facilitates and frees, whilst providing some behavioural boundaries solve the larger questions – energy independence, food independence, population et cetera. Digital connectedness starts this – it’s not simply dark but it does need watching!

So shared surface road design, at a very trivial level, is one interesting example of design that works with the grain of human behaviour – which is the really important part of behavioural economics – design which fits us, rather than design that manipulates us.

[We need] really, intelligent design, resilient design provides iterative/feedback mechanisms that inform the user/creator/builder – so that cycles of continuous improvement happen. And the lesson of nudge is not really about state control but about design that works with us – the good and the bad parts of us – to establish a facilitating environment for learning and growth. When I used to talk about interactive science centre exhibit design I used to use a continuum: instructive – reactive – interactive – creative. It’s perfectly possible to design streets, towns, public buildings, housing which follow this “facilitating environment” idea.

Lucy Kimbell (UAL), who recently completed a one year AHRC fellowship in Policy Lab in the Cabinet Office, shared some perspectives from being inside the policy making environment. She said, I’ve heard David Halpern [Chief Executive of the Nudge Unit) talking about the Behavioural Insights Team and he often emphasises that he thinks its major contribution is a new empiricism and experimentation in policy making. In contrast – or rather alongside this – are new kinds of expertise such as those being introduced by Policy Lab within the Civil Service, which involve setting up collective inquiries using inventive methods in which problem and solution are not fully defined at the outset. You could say that all policy aims at changing behaviour and design is being explicitly brought into play to help achieve this. Positivist approaches that resemble hard science remain the dominant narrative but there are plenty of other kinds of experimentation going on.


Finally, Jocelyn Bailey brought another view from the design consultant arena.

Working for a design agency that occupies itself primarily with socially-focused projects, and quite often at the behest of government and other public bodies, I find myself thinking about the ethical, political, institutional, and value frameworks that shape what we do.

In social policy interventions, broadly, you can either try to change the service, or to change the user (or in some cases to change the system). Nudge and other behaviour change techniques are essentially about consciously attempting to change people, and the argument is, typically, ‘it’s for their own good’.

A lot of the time it seems fairly self-evident what constitutes that social or individual ‘good’ – persuading people to give up smoking, or save money, or get themselves tested for some disease, or do whatever it is the institution in question wants them to do. So on the one hand we are helping solve some social ills (assuming that is even possible).

But in another sense, if we just pretend for a second that ‘social good’ isn’t an absolute, we could view many social interventions as an imposition of one (more powerful) organisation’s set of values onto another (less powerful) group, and we are acting as the go-between that helps that happen even more effectively.

As a practitioner, the questions of which interpretation is the right one, and whose agenda we are really serving, become acute. In one sense of course we know we are very overtly serving a client’s needs or agenda – that’s why we’re hired – but what underpins that? Taken to its logical conclusion, we are either part of the next brilliant wave of social renewal and innovation, or handmaidens to the neoliberal dismantling of the humane state.

Design historians have a much easier time of things. Spotting political agendas and cultural narratives at work in design policy and practice is relatively easy with hindsight: the horrendous colonialism of the Worlds Fairs, for instance. But when you’re in a particular political moment, it’s a bit harder to discern the different currents in the water you’re swimming in – and tell which one you’re riding. And even if you do bother to puzzle it out, there aren’t any clear answers.

So, to answer the question, ‘is designing for behaviour change creepy?’ (sinister?), I guess my work-in-progress answer to myself is, ‘only as soon as we stop worrying about whether it’s creepy’.

The problem is, I don’t see that many design practitioners worrying about it all that much. To get anecdotal, I recently heard the chief designer for a multinational manufacturer of medical devices (and other things) say, to a fairly large audience, and with no hint of awareness that this might be a terrifying statement:  “we can see inside 400 million people’s bodies, all of that data is in our cloud, and we can mine that data to come up with new ideas and products.” This was couched in terms of “delivering products and services that make people’s lives better”, with not even a nod to the profit motive of the company in question. Leaving aside the tricky territory of behaviour change, there is a highly prevalent trait across the mainstream design community for practitioners to see themselves as the heroic ‘agent of change’, without stopping to ponder which master that change serves. Perhaps it’s very easy to believe that doing ‘user-centred design’ means you’re doing something good for people


Thank you to Stephen, Lucy and Jocelyn for sharing their post-match thoughts. And thank you to the panellists, the chair, Dan Lockton and to all the attendees who filled out the event. And if you want to add some of your own comments, please join in!

7 December 2015

Posted in behaviour change, citizenship, data, publics | 5 Comments