Exploring the future foundations of design

What new challenges will the rapid development in digital technology bring designers?  How does technology change the way we perceive reality? These are some of the issues that the researchers at Umeå Institute of Design (UID) are investigating.

B/W Heather WiltseLeft: Heather Wiltse, photo: Peter Lundholm

Heather Wiltse is an Assistant Professor at UID. After completing a Bachelors degree in psychology and a Masters degree in human computer interaction (HCI), she defended her thesis in Informatics at Indiana University in 2013. Erik Stolterman, Professor in design at UID and in Informatics at Indiana University, was Heather's PhD supervisor, and it was through him she first became aware of UID.
"I have always been interested in how people interact with and through technology in a broad sense. Now, people's engagement with the world surrounding them is often mediated and experienced through technology, and I want to learn more about what that means - for how we communicate, how we perceive the world and so on," says Heather.

Design research is a relatively new field within academia, and it is still finding its forms. Many researchers within the field are investigating what implications societal change have to design and designers. One large change that needs to be studied further is the development of digital technology and how that affects design.
"Researchers from UID are relating to, among others, research from the fields of science and technology studies (STS), philosophy of technology, and feminist technoscience. These fields also look at how society and technology interact." Heather continues, "In comparison to those fields, design research is a bit more action and future oriented; we are interested in how things actually are now and where that can lead us in the future. Design research also cares more about aesthetics, in a broad sense, and the qualities of particular artefacts."

Digital technology makes activities visible

In her thesis, Heather looked at how digital technology makes activity visible. One example of this is the time stamp on email and text. This captures the actual activity and shows when someone performed it, providing another kind of information than simply the message itself.
"Digital technology gives us more information about activity then we might think at first glance. Take a Facebook status update for example. When we see a status update we intuitively understand that someone, probably the one owning the account, has used their computer or mobile device to write the status. We understand that it did not appear randomly, but rather because of the intentional activity of the poster: the text tells us what the person is thinking about, but the fact that it shows up as a Facebook status also tells us what she was doing at that particular moment in time, and perhaps even place if a location is tagged. Facebook is thus not just a platform that enables communication, but a rich social space in which people and their activities in that space are made visible to each other."

Things that change

Previously designers have looked into for example form and colour to understand the basic materials of design. Now, technological developments demand that designers and researchers find new ways of thinking about the role of design and the things it produces.
"Right now I am working on a book project together with Johan Redström, Rector and Professor of design at UID, where we look into how THINGS are changing." Heather says, "The actual thing is important in design, and we are arguing that designers must reconsider what a thing actually is. In many cases, we can say a lot about a thing just by looking at its physical attributes. Take a hammer for example: by looking at it, holding it and so on, you can get a good idea of its function. There is no other layer to the hammer than its physical appearance. But today we encounter many things where you can't guess their function just by looking at their physical appearance. An iPhone for example, it is a designed physical object, but its physical appearance is just a small fraction of what it actually is. We call these new kind of things "fluid assemblages"".  

"The iPhone, even as it remains a stable physical artefact, is at the same time being dynamically assembled in many ways in terms of what it actually is and does. It is on one level customized by a particular user, both in terms of the preferences set and apps installed, but also through a linked iCloud account that provides further customization and data syncing and even influences the targeted ads that are displayed within apps. On another level, the apps and even the operating system are frequently updated, which can change how the iPhone works and what it is capable of. The apps and iPhone itself also connect to other networked platforms and resources that are necessary for its operation, but that are not contained within the physical device." Heather continues, "So these types of things, or fluid assemblages, are never really made but rather always in the making, and constituted by both physical and digital materials contained within the device as well as elsewhere. These dynamics imply radical changes in relations of production and consumption, and in how we understand what things are and what they do. In exploring these issues, we are trying to develop design theory that addresses the future foundations of industrial design."