Text: Jens Persson, November 2018
Today, social media shape many facets of human relations.
Quick digital messages have replaced the physical meeting or the
phone call. But are the social media platforms really designed for
socializing? In his PhD thesis, Aesthetics of Being Together,
Christoffel Kuenen suggests that the services provided by companies
such as Facebook or LinkedIn are primarily designed to complete
different tasks, not for being together.
Traditionally, interaction designers have designed for the
communication that occurs betweenpeople and digital objects,
typically a task waiting to be checked off a list. In the social
media landscape of our time, digital objects now also mediate
relations between people, not just between people and things.
Christoffel Kuenen believes that this calls for a new way of
approaching design in relation to social digital platforms - "a
design for being together".
"When I started my research project, I didn't realise there was
a blind spot when it came to designing for being together in the
digital world. Through my research I came to the realisation that
interaction design is currently locked into efficiency and task
performance, seeing people as resources or commodities", says
Christoffel Kuenen, Programme Director for the Master's Programme
in Interaction Design at Umeå Institute of Design.
What Christoffel Kuenen proposes is that we expand the notion of
aesthetics to refer to how technologies shape how we relate to each
other, through digital things. This can be done by looking at how
design approaches group interaction, for example.
"I'm interested in the social dynamics of larger groups of
people and how traditional forms of being together could translate
into the digital realm. The realization that today's social media
platforms are primarily concerned with completing different tasks,
rather than promoting socialising for the sake of just being
together, was what put the research project on its current
"For example, when posting a photo on Instagram or setting up an
event on Facebook you are not really being together with the group
of people you are addressing. The communication is a by-product
when performing a specific task. Also, we are constantly curating
our presence on these platforms making the actual social
interactions less than organic, rarely in the moment."
In his thesis Christoffer Kuenen poses the question: 'What does
it take for design to create things that have more emphasis on the
experience of being part of a group, of being present with a
group?' He wants to know what it takes to design digital
equivalents to the social settings we experience in real life, like
walking down the street or going to a concert. Today, there's not
really a digitally mediated equivalent to that.
"The aim of this research project has not been to present a
full-fledged revolutionizing app for your phone. It's a starting
point, really. By identifying a glitch in the way interaction
designers approach designing for togetherness in the digital era,
an avenue previously unexplored is opened up."
In his future research projects, Christoffel Kuenen will
continue to explore the way digital products and services are
present in our lives, the role they play in how we relate to other
people, and what it means for designers to shape our digital,
Read the full dissertation:
Stoffel Kuenen was born in Tanzania and grew up In Haarlem, the
He received his Master's degree in Industrial Design Engineering
from TU Delft, the Netherlands, in 2002.
About the Public Defence of the Doctoral Thesis:
On Friday November 30, Christoffel Kuenen, Umeå Institute of
Design at Umeå University, defends his thesis titled "Aesthetics of
The dissertation takes place at 13:00 in HumlabX, Umeå Arts
Campus, Umeå University.
Faculty opponent is Prof. Dr. Dag Svanæs, Department of Computer
and Information Science, Norwegian University of Science and
Technology inTrondheim, Norway.
Main Supervisor is Prof. Dr. Erik Stolterman.
For more information, please contact:
Christoffel Kuenen, Programme Director for the MFA Programme in
Interaction Design at Umeå Institute of Design
Phone: +46 90 786 5630
Mobile: +46 70 338 5144