Transitional design histories: Designing futures through re-thinking the past
In design, the big questions are typically not where we come from, but where we are heading. Yet, contemporary design practices are historically constructed: How designing is done carries embedded norms and ideas that have entered into design at certain points in time. Our ways of thinking and doing design need to be addressed in relation to their historicity, in order for us find ways towards designing for more sustainable futures.
Design history is often about products and their designers. I propose, instead, to make design histories that question what it means that many of design’s foundational concepts have been shaped in times very different than our own. Starting in concepts central to Scandinavian user-centred design, contexts of Swedish 20th century design history are revisited to explore what comes into view from this new perspective. These transitional design histories aim to open up conceptual spaces for developing new design practices, capable of engaging with a complex ‘now’ and with uncertain futures.
Design is a field that emerged in 20th century industrial settings. Many challenges in contemporary design stem from discrepancies between what design methods and concepts once were made to handle, and what we today try to apply them to. The historicity embedded in design’s methods and thinking, limit what is possible to do in design.
Histories as prototypes
The proposal in this project is that activating the historicity of designing can support design approaches that respond to present and future complexity. Suggesting a methodology for making design histories as prototypes, I combine approaches in practice-based design research with research methods in the history of concepts and ideas.
By shifting the outlook of design history from products to practices, focus is on the contexts in which foundational concepts and central methods in designing once came about. The shift of perspective provides a provisional and propositional scaffolding, activating an attention to of how designing has been shaped over time.
Three examples: Swedish design histories
How transitional design histories could be made is here prototyped in three examples that take a starting point in concepts and themes central to Scandinavian user- centred and participatory design. As prototypes, these histories explore different aspects of mechanisms of design history and designing in relation to each other.
The first prototype focuses on the concept of ‘participation’ related to turn-of-the century 1900 ideas, in the writings of Ellen Key around education and democracy. The second revolves around the concepts of ’use’ and ’users’, more specifically the relationship between designed ideal or intended uses in investigations of ‘dwelling habits’ in 1940s Sweden. The third prototype works with methods development in user-centered and participatory design, through examples of research into everyday domestic work at the Hemmens forskningsinstitut (Home Research Institute) in the 1940s.