Critical? Practice!

What is critical practice anyway?

When I joined the course, I was fresh with the frustration of having arguments with my BA tutor in which he tried again and again to convince me that mine was an architecture project and not a sociology work. If I dared to discuss gentrification with course colleagues, they would mostly justify it with the dominant market dynamics and/or cherish it as improving their job opportunities. Altogether, I was hardly ever able to expand on any other aspects of building and buildings other than formal or technical ones.

I didn’t know exactly what I was going into, but the MACP seemed to give me an opportunity to shift my practice away from designing buildings – I had decided at some point that I wasn’t going to aim to become a practicing architect – whilst taking a closer look at the further implications of design work that I had never been able to focus upon during my BA. In fact, throughout my first year in the MACP I was never able to give a concise answer when people asked what my MA was about. However, time and practice did help me gain some clearer insight into it.

“Everything designed goes on designing”: this phrase that Tony Fry uses across a number of his works is maybe what comes closest to defining critical practice in one sentence. In my work, this has meant an increased focus on the broader processes that design work is embedded in, and on its agency within them.

If my first project on the Greenwich Foot Tunnel was relatively conventional in this regard – it used design tools to analyse and “comment” on a segment of urban space – from the second onwards I tried different ways to push my work from pure object design towards practice design. This had puzzling results at first, such as when I responded to the Spaces of Productions brief by designing what could be described as a preset template for Ableton Live, which to a certain extent didn’t look like anything to anyone who wasn’t already acquainted with the software’s interface. In the following projects, I was able to further explore the idea of practice design whilst working with somewhat more accessible objects, on one hand conceiving them as discursive devices or catalysts for processes rather than end points thereof, and on the other designing their process of (re)production and distribution by optimising them for cheap and widespread technologies and releasing them under a Creative Commons license.
There were mainly two aspects of this shift in focus that I have found problematic.
The first and more general one is that in the context of university, one often lacks the resources and the time to implement or even test any of these ideas, and the projects mostly remain at the stage of proposals, which was sometimes a slightly frustrating outcome.
The second one is that by strongly focusing on concept and process, there is a constant temptation to neglect conventional aspects of design. I am thinking chiefly of aesthetics, but in many cases it seems like this type of design process tends towards doing away with the object altogether, potentially crippling itself by getting rid of its most important tangible agent.
To use a simple metaphor, engaging in critical practice can give an illustrator the insight of an art director. The question is if this is going to be used to enhance their original set of skills or to replace it, making altogether something else out of the illustrator.
The emergent field of metadesign takes this issue to its ultimate consequence, abstracting the role of design to the level of having pure process and organisation as its outcome.
My initial attraction to this approach was informed among other things by a general rejection of the glamour and gloss typically associated with design objects; however, the MACP has taught me to think that the specificity of design lies in its ability to shape spaces and perceptions by means of material interventions in reality. Taking this away from it would make it increasingly similar to any other technique for management or policy-making.

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Wrapping up, handing in.

As the end of my MA approaches, it’s time to sum up my use of this blog for the Methods & Processes module.
The initial purpose of die unendliche werkschau was to document my work as it went, providing me an instrument to reflect my practice and its evolution with. I had done this before and I had always found it useful to write about my work and document its intermediate stages, so at first I saw it as a good way of resuming a good habit I had lost. As a matter of fact, however, the time pressure that I’ve found myself in, due to reasons entirely external to my academic commitment, has meant that more often than not I have prioritised pushing my work as far as I could over documenting it. Not only hasn’t my design process really enjoyed the benefits of an ongoing documentation (most of the posts documenting my work were written after the projects had been concluded), but also there hasn’t been a specific focus dedicated to the methods or processes I used in my work. As it stands, this blog is an assemblage of recollections and fragments from different projects I have worked on in and outside the MACP whose connecting thread is very thin at best.
Because I can’t really ask my tutors to sift through all of the entries looking for the bits relevant to it, I have decided to write this post summing up the M&P aspect in the previous ones and recollecting other parts of my design process that haven’t been mentioned on this blog so far.

first conceptual map

first conceptual map in the TAZ project

The single most important tool that I have used throughout the MA was the diagram. Laying out words and objects on paper and drawing up connections between them has been very useful not only to help me understand the context I was operating in, but also to expand and further my work by providing an overview of its taxonomy and its tendencies.

writing/reading sketch

from Spaces of Production

from Spaces of Production

the reservoir

early sketch for the Reservoir

serendipity01

early diagram for Serendipity

Whilst developing my major project, for instance, I devised two diagrams to roughly describe the mechanics of the two games I had already sketched out. By defining the common elements in the first two games, this provided me with a sort of a visual lexicon to draw diagrams for the third one, prior to having any concrete idea of how it was going to be structured. In this sense, the diagram wasn’t just a representation or taxonomy of what I was doing, but an active tool in the creative process.

HSH

descriptive diagram for first two games, heuristic diagrams for the third

Likewise, in my work on the Networks in Crisis brief, I summarised my first presentation in a diagram in which my subsequent project found its basis. Working on the visual representation of the arguments that had informed my early research on the structure of the Internet helped me identify the directions that were open for my work to take at that stage. (The diagram that I’m referring to can be viewed as a .pdf here.) I was ultimately able to transcend these options thanks to the clarity that this representation brought into my sprawling research, which indicated that I was venturing more and more into a field of which I only had a vague understanding. Hence the choice of remaining within my set of practical design skills instead of pushing my work beyond a boundary that I had never even perceived as such.

Other than this, the TAZ project on the Greenwich Foot Tunnel was perhaps the one in which the greatest variety of methods was deployed.
One of the first things I did in that project was to visit the archive of the Greenwich Heritage Centre, an approach that, in retrospect, was obviously indebted to my years at the Faculty of Architecture in Rome, in which it was always considered of paramount importance to place things in their historical context. I would go to the extend of saying that, except for a couple of minor findings that were hardly relevant for any of my interests in the Tunnel, my trip to the archive was an utter waste of time: in this sense, it was the latest and maybe final step in my long trajectory of withdrawal from the bases of my university education.
A series of field trips would yield much more interesting results, as I proceeded to observe and document both the physical characteristics of the Tunnel’s space and the dynamics that it facilitated in the public. The latter could be reconstructed mainly through traces left in the Tunnel – cigarette butts, graffiti, litter – and without knowing about it yet, I was drawing a map of the environmental behaviour in that space.

litter in the Tunnel

litter in the Tunnel

spitting in the Tunnel

spitting in the Tunnel

cigarette butt in the Tunnel

cigarette butt in the Tunnel

Much of my subsequent work came from the observation of the apparent contradiction between the overstated prohibitions of potentially safety-threatening activities in the Tunnel and the carelessness that seemed to be attested by these traces.
When I decided to focus on this incongruity, and specifically on the overwhelmingly present prohibition signs that were maybe its only designed manifestation, I tried the approach of what I’ve called detypefacing: undermining the authority of the prohibitions by redesigning the signs with typefaces different than their original.

If this was exploring the relationship between authoritativeness and a perceived neutrality of the visual language and typography, it was still something of a one-liner and a typographer’s joke, and I didn’t pursue it any further.
The tool that would achieve the final (?) deconstruction of the prohibition sign was a little device that a friend suggested I market as a smart phone app under the title of “iDon’t” (and can be viewed here): a Flash application in which halves of existing road signs could be randomly combined into a number of pure decontextualised prohibitions, visually credible and coherent symbols that signify nothing but themselves. The series of signs that constituted the project’s outcome was entirely devised through this self-made combinatory tool.

Writing has been another important way of progressing with my work, both to explain it to other people and as an aid in the creative process. The assignments of writing out a brief and a context report for the major project set a neat timeline for its development, encouraging me to round off each of its stages by fixing them in self-contained texts. Similarly, taking part in the Seeding Futures symposium and giving a presentation of an intermediate stage of my work was another opportunity to solidify it in a form that, despite being unfinished, was recognisable in its features and ultimately heading in a clear direction. Other than this, my sketchbooks abound in notes, slogans, quotes both real and invented, unorderly lists of objects or concepts, fragments of imaginary papers, explanations of one or another particular aspect of my work.

from the Reservoir

from the Reservoir

from Design as Politics

from Design as Politics

from the major project

from the major project

from the major project

from the major project

Writing is to me more than drawing a quick way to give a tangible form to concepts and ideas, allowing me to interact with them in a space outside of my head. In this sense, it is ironic that I wasn’t able to update this blog regularly, because I thoroughly recognise how much it would have benefitted my work.

Both writing reports about the design process and presenting it to an audience could be subsumed under the idea of precipitating the design process into a unique and intelligible form. Interestingly, this could be a more general description of design practice in its entirety – cf. Tony Fry’s notion of design as “not (…) bringing something into existence (which it does incidentally) but rather, the giving of direction via its efficacy” (Fry, “Homelessness: a philosophical architecture” in Design Philosophy Papers, Issue 3, 2005) – but as a mechanism it can be applied to different stages of the design process, thus recontextualising what we normally understand as a designed product as one of the many outcomes that a design process can yield.

Finally, prototyping and testing a project is a practice that can hardly be avoided in design work, and which I have approached with a certain critical caution. The following considerations are mainly based on diffuse tendencies that I have observed among my course colleagues, and they partially apply to the use of cultural probes – a method that I have, however, never worked with myself.
When setting up an encounter between an unfinished work and a potential user, it is easy to fall to two common and divergent temptations: reading the tester as an absolute other who is entirely alien to all parts of the design process, and elevating the tester to an absolutely representative and relevant sample of the project’s audience. In the first case, the designer will typically fail to take notice of the users’ previous knowledge, experience and opinions regarding the test’s subject matter, preparing a closed framework in which the tester’s agency is comparable to that of someone who answers questions on a multiple choice test; in the second one the test might leave more space to the users’ responses, but the very choice of the testing persons may already imply a bias of some sort towards the prototype and/or its author. Both mistakes are, to a certain extent, intrinsic to the practice of testing, and it may not be worth the effort of investing time and energy into avoiding them in the framework of an academic project. In my opinion, it is instead important to be able to read the results of a testing in relation to their context, and to acknowledge their inherent arbitrariness, rather than seeking some sort of legitimation from the mystifying practice of generalising the outcome of a very limited and located experiment. The use of prototyping and testing in my projects has been intentionally directed as a heuristic tool more than to measure any set of absolute values such as viability or usability could be. It is for this reason that I have been myself one of the testers of every prototype I have created so far, and that I heavily intervened into all of the other tests, trying to gather qualitatively relevant information by steering the tests into the directions that I found most promising while they were happening, instead of simulating a scientific neutrality towards my work.
Within the MACP, my projects that most relied on testing in their development phase were the last two, Discordian Chess and Home Sweet Home, for the obvious reason that they both aimed to be engaging and enjoyable games. In the former, I have played a series of chess matches against myself, testing different sets of slightly modified rules, and I have documented them with animations reconstructing the course of each match, which can be viewed here, here, here and here. In the latter, I have managed to gather a number of friends and relatives in a few occasions to play different stages of development of the three card games I was working on. More than focusing on the feedback that I got, which was mostly based on a shallow insight of my work whilst being positively skewed by the personal relations I had to the testers, I used these occasions to verify the working of the game mechanics, individuate loopholes in the rules and proof the quantitative relations between the different types of cards. These tests were poorly documented due to my great involvement in coordinating the other testers whilst taking part in the test myself and engaging with the different behaviours that would arise around the table. The observations borne out of them, however, were crucial for the completion of my project.

testing

testing

Thank you for reading through all of this :-)

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Ms. Beivindo

 

Ms. Beivindo

 

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Mr. Bovindo

 
bovindo

 

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Hilfsverben, Konjunktiv 2

ich hätte gerne eine tofu-wurst

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So, what am I doing again?

As much as I see the importance and usefulness of documenting stuff, I am just working at a pace in which at the end of the day I want to use those last five minutes to really finish what I’m doing, and can’t really be asked to write and upload any documentation of my work. I’ll try and change this when I’m on top of the things I have to do now…

This is a preview of a part of something I’ve been working on lately, believe it or not, for the Design as Politics brief.

white rook

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Networks in Crisis, all in once

My work for the Networks in Crisis brief had maybe an even weirder timeline than the Spaces of Production one.

When the brief came out, I didn’t even think of working on it because I was in the middle of something else – to be honest, I can’t even remember what. However, just a few days before the presentation date it turned out that I had been assigned to a working group that was relying on some input from me, so I did have to come up with something. Fortunately, I had quite soon an idea that seemed promising to me, and, relying on my part-time privilege to make me get away with presenting some half-sketched thing and be able to say it was just a work in progress and I wasn’t even really required to present, I quickly put together some material and went for it.

There’s not much to say about this first partial presentation that isn’t in it already. I did some sketches, looked for images on the internet, and then put everything together into one slideshow.

The presentation went really well but everyone agreed that the project wasn’t completed. A few months later I carried on with it.

The first thing I did was to recapitulate my work so far in a diagram to see in what directions it could further evolve.

big diagram(the wavy line in the middle marks the end of history, and the stuff to its right would have been the further development of my work, while the stuff to its left is more or less an abstract of my previous work)

I had been reading some comics by Chris Ware in the summer and I was mesmerised by his narrative diagrams, so I absolutely wanted to shamelessly rip him off. In some ways, you can see that in a part of my work for Spaces of Production too.

The diagram didn’t help a lot though, I kept struggling with the idea of an infrastructure-based project, while researching on and about the internet and doing crappy networky sketches.

The more I learned, the less my ideas seemed to make sense and the more I realised that I didn’t know enough about what I was working with. I really needed to focus my work somehow. Fortunately, Terry [Rosenberg] appeared to me in a sort of desperation-induced vision, and his soothing but authoritative voice suggested: “from programme to project, from project to programme”. So I finally began concretely asking myself questions about what I wanted to achieve with my work and what its final shape could be.

Doing research about the issues I wanted to address, it turned out – what a surprise! – that I’m neither the only nor the first person doing work about security and anonymity on the Internet, and that there are indeed a few working and almost-working applications out there to implement some of the concepts I was trying to develop. Also, I had promised to myself at some point that I would become a communication and graphic designer, so I couldn’t help but ask myself why I was trying to propose alternatives or improvements to something that I didn’t have a massive technical insight into and didn’t fall within the field of my work anyway. I began to see my role as one that facilitates processes and divulges knowledge more than developing products.

That’s how I decided to create a campaign to distribute and publicise software for online anonymity. In fact, the first idea was to design a CD with a collection of open-source programmes (for the very practical reason that they are free to be redistributed) and an information sheet attached to it, but I soon realised that some of the steps I was taking in the design process would be easy to reproduce – at the end of the day, I was compiling a list of programmes that were freely available on the Internet, and designing a package that I myself wanted to be able to create with just a regular digital printer (because that’s what is available to me at the moment). Hence the idea to shape the whole campaign as an open-source project – a work that anyone could reproduce, modify and redistribute; an ongoing process in which my role as a designer would be that of kick-starting it, creating the conditions for it to develop and spread by itself.

I began working on the packaging by folding paper, trying to figure out how to make a CD case out of an A4 sheet without cutting or measuring anything. When I reached a satisfying result, I began to sketch a part of the diagrams I had created before on it, trying to design a set of icons that would explain how the software in the CD works and create some sort of narrative about online security issues.

The reason for the CD to exist in the first place was that I wanted to have an object, something that can be passed from hand to hand, having a base on a real-world relation without resorting to online distribution. At the same time, it wouldn’t be functional to pack all the information about the campaign into it, and although I wanted to avoid making it the centrepiece of the project, a website is indeed (!) a very useful enhancement for the campaign: not only does it present the project in a more accessible way, it also serves as a “repeater” in itself, making the other materials for the campaign easily available. The third “leg” of my work is a series of flyers that do nothing but mention the website’s URL, providing an “outreach” tool. The flyers are also downloadable from the website in vector format, making it easy to reproduce or edit them.

The finished work is on hidedontrun.info.ms – or at least its designed artefacts.

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