The Joys and Sorrows of the Whole Story
Noortje van Eekelen

The trend seems inescapable. Designers and artists are enthusiastically implementing new quantified data and research methods into their work, a development that has recently come to the foreground.

Research and investigative practices have become an integral part of the (artistic) design practice. With the exponential growth of information due to digitisation, and the ubiquitous access to it, it has become obvious as well as necessary to readily seek information, imagery and other data from many different sources. As such, digitisation not only influences the output of designers, it also influences their process intimately. In contemporary design practice we are increasingly encountering projects where designers qualitatively gather, map and frame research data. The core intention of this development is usually to give insight into and comment upon complex (social) subjects and themes.

Research activities in relation to design such as Critical Design1, Social Design2 and Generative Research3, are now more popular and present than ever before. Regardless of the medium or approach used, such investigative practices require a designer to employ some form of memory, and inherently many of the qualitative research results take the form of memories. However, many designers in practice do not consciously refer to the cultural and instrumental role of memories. A large part of the development of research becoming intrinsic to the design process, is attributable to the proliferation of digital media and techniques. And with the development of new digital techniques designers are now also increasingly incorporating digital research methods into their approach. If we want to say something about these methods, it helps to think of the digital medium as one continuous whole, with different forms of expression defining different forms of representational affordances4.

According to Murray, the digital medium holds four affordances; encyclopaedic (it can store and transmit in humanly accessible form more information than all previous media), spatial (we can visualise any type of model), procedural (it allows the creation of conditional behaviour) and participatory (requiring active participation from its users, as well as allowing them to interact with each other).

Each of these affordances can be seen as being part of contemporary projects and design practice. Under the influence of these affordances, creatives try to improve the quality of their work, opening up new modes of navigation and presentation, defining and shaping processes, initiating interactions with the audience and the storing of large amounts of data, in order to derive promising conclusions.

Contemporary approaches

Design studio Moniker, consisting of Luna Maurer, Jonathan Puckey and Roel Wouters, share a similar approach in their work. Through self-initiated projects and assignments they research the social effects of technology, how people use technology and how it influences daily life, among other things. Often they invite the public to be a part of their interactive, installation and performance projects.

We can also observe this in Place a Stone5, a monument on the Dam Square in Amsterdam for the victims that perished during the shooting on the 7th of May 1945, two days after the German capitulation in Holland. The monument is developed with the help of thousands of visitors through Every participant is invited to place his or her stone, and register the names of the thirty-one victims in this manner. In this case, it’s clear how Murray’s affordances map across this project: it is participatory, it uses a procedural system to spatially visualise the names of the victims (encyclopaedic) in unique memorial stones, created by the participants.

Moniker, Place a Stone (2016)

This is also the case with Red Follows Yellow Follows Blue Follows Red6, in which the audience is literally connected to the results of the research. In the project the audience is transformed into a troupe of actors. Every member of the audience receives a pair of headphones with a red, blue, or yellow cape and is asked to follow instructions. With this project Moniker researches the possibilities and pitfalls of the organisation of groups of people. In this project the affordances of the digital medium clearly show themselves: procedures defining conditional behaviour, participatory action from an audience creating spatial structures that allow the viewer to examine and study the effects of the interaction between the mob and the individual (encyclopaedic).

Moniker, Red Follows Yellow Follows Blue Follows Red (2016)

Strengths and weaknesses

As the digital medium is still developing, each of its affordances presents us also with potential risks. While the encyclopaedic capabilities allow us access to enormous troves of information, it also opens the door to unlimited data retention by governments and commercial parties. The procedural affordance is highly dependent on the entity that ‘scripts’ the behaviour. We’ve already seen examples of how systems, when in place, become hard to remove, while their behaviour is determined by whoever holds the power to change said behaviour. Should we assume this is and will always be done by a benevolent designer? Similarly the environments we navigate can be designed in such a way that they only show that which is of best interest to the creator (or host, as is often the case in social media). Similarly, the participatory affordance is often assumed to indicate equal participation, while there are no means intrinsic to the medium to ensure this.

This, in turn, comes to bear upon projects in different ways. For instance, to what type of criticism do we open ourselves up if we adapt these methods with a poor understanding of their strengths and weaknesses? While there is merit in incorporating more contemporary digital methodologies into the research of designers, we should tread carefully. Computer programs and algorithms are governed by our expectations and lead to very limited conclusions.

The question then arises of whether any truths can be gained from data that is collected very subjectively. Isn’t this risky? Self-created initiatives that can never be an essential representation of reality are blindly carried through. We run the risk of regressing into only commenting on reality, instead of being an active part in shaping it.

We should also acknowledge the flagrant violation of privacy we’ve seen over the past few years in regards to the collection of people's data. First it was governments and commercial entities, now it is also designers and artists who want to gain insights into behavioural patterns, interests, and developments within society. The most innovative techniques are introduced to direct and analyse society, yet the retention and registration of data isn’t democratic at all. Data represents a value. In the hands of the designer, artist or initiator they run the risk of becoming a handsome tool for neoliberal capitalism.

Nevertheless interesting and refreshing designs come out of this contemporary method of operation. However, the impact and reach of such artistic research is frequently limited when it comes to the audience at large. An extensive part of these initiatives travels no further than the art and design circuit and remains at a distance from the audience that could possibly profit from the outcomes. Part of this may have to do with the individual and inwardly focused nature of the type of research activities and knowledge production that designers currently do. We should strive to ensure that projects using these techniques reach a large audience, increasing awareness of and reflection on their impact, as well as strive to create knowledge that is democratic, and involves many different types of people. As such, the research activities of designers should not only be aimed at the realization of new work, but also at knowledge creation that is open, shared and created collaboratively and co-operatively7.

Promising approaches

And yet, it would be a loss if the creative mind ignored this overload of information. Society has become a digital society after all, with a daily reliance on social media channels and a phone full of software.

This is a development that the artist Constant Dullaart uses intelligently in his work. He prefers an approach in which he does not use online data literally, but tries to subvert the processes of its collection. The motivation for his project The Possibility of an Army8 is that the sale of likes and followers on social media has become the order of the day for celebrities, companies and even news media and political parties. Dullaart feels this is a strange development and should be halted. “The possibility of an army” is a virtual “army” of 20.000 fake accounts on Facebook who massively like, share and follow unknown persons or companies, in order to generate celebrity. With the project Dullaart reflects critically on the sale of popularity on social media, fake accounts and the distorted value that people attribute to the numbers of likes or followers.

Constant Dullaart, The Possibility of an Army (2015)

Why would creatives limit themselves and convulsively cling to deficient initiatives, if they can also respond from a distance, or from a sober perspective on scientific developments?

We encounter a promising development in artist Floris Kaayk who chooses a more playful approach to medical science. He recently launched the project The Modular Body9, an online scenario in which a scientist grows his own cells into organs and limbs. These ‘modules’ come together until the so-called creature ‘Oscar’ is born. Numerous fake videos show the clichéd image of the ‘spectacular medical discovery’ including the well known laboratories, white coats, schematic representation (for lay-people), ethics about ‘the rights of Oscar’ and of course the vlogger. The message is clear. News about medical science is usually a mix of science fiction and entertainment, instead of a development that truly allows us to progress.

Floris Kaayk, The Modular Body (2016)
Floris Kaayk, The Modular Body (2016)

Nuances in human existence

In the end, working within the digital environment brings many benefits to designers. The scale that is attainable by one individual is immense, both geographically as well as in terms of volume. Similarly its breadth allows designers to reach out to any subject matter expert. Its speed allows for immediate realisation of a project, that can be updated, adjusted and improved as the audience reacts to it. Yet at the same time, there are a number of pitfalls. Building on the results of others, without knowing the context of those results is seductive but not desirable. Its speed opens the door to miscommunication and misinterpretation. The question that should continually be in the back of our minds is whether the registration and retention of all this data as well as the procedural and participatory scripting of behaviour does justice to the nuances of human existence? Our arbitrariness, imperfections, emotions and complexities of social ties are simply hard to express in data. Reality is much messier and not to be captured in a few numbers after all. Data forms only a limited part of our reality. Does registering and analysing the limited observable part have any use?

This leaves designers with quite some considerations to take into account when working and researching in the contemporary digital environment. We should not naively gloss over the intricacies as well as the implications of technology. Wild projects and large-scale research can be done, but don’t underestimate the negative impact what it might bring about. The large scale at which we are now able to work forces us to consider how to deal with collectivity and what parts of our work remain present within the collective memory that we, as design-experts, shape. We must not only feel responsible for our own work, but also for what our works means to the practice, as well as society.

  1. Dunne, A., & Raby, F. (2013). Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming. MIT Press. 

  2. Bruinsma, M. (2016). Introduction of The Utrecht Manifesto. Design Issues. Vol. 32, No. 2, pp. 37 – 42. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

  3. Stappers P.J. & Sanders E.B. (2013). The Convivial Toolbox: Generative Research for the Front End of Design. BIS Publishers. 

  4. Murray, J. H. (2011). Inventing the Medium. Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice. MIT Press. 

  5. Moniker (2016). Place a Stone. Participatory memorial in Amsterdam. and 

  6. Moniker (2016). Red Follows Yellow Follows Blue Follows Red. Participatory performance. 

  7. Press, M (2016). The resourceful social expert: Defining the future craft of design research | BIRD, Design as Research: Positions, Arguments, Perspectives. Board of International Research in Design. Birkhäuser.  

  8. Dullaart, C. The Possibility of an Army (2015) 

  9. Kaayk, F. The Modular Body (2016) 

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