How can metadesign enhance the quality of life?

Transcript from his talk at the colloquium on metadesign on 29th June 2007

By Ian Grout

I think you can work out whether it is metadesign or what bits of it might be metadesign or what are we doing. What I am going to show you is unfinished work, in terms of whatever we are doing, or whatever I am doing, which is constantly changing, constantly developing.
It comes out that a lot of the work you see, and ideas, come out as a teacher in product design in Glasgow school of Art, whatever it is these days, a lot of it is undergraduate level. I will show you some first year stuff right up to fourth year stuff, and some stuff from Sweden where I work in the Masters program.

It comes around several things: I believe it is imperative to take action, you know, we are in a world now where we have to take action, and I try to take action. That is why some of this stuff is strange and not quite right. You can talk to Alex at the back, she did the BDS with us and she did really well, and she taught me a lot, like all my students teach me. I work in a virtous circle kind of thinking, action and reflection. I like to think about what we are doing, but then I like to try to go and do it, and then I try to find out what would happen when we go and do it.
I started from the point of view of industrial design being a drug, feeding the addiction of consumption, and I decided we should stop doing that, which upset a lot of my colleagues, and they didn’t know what to do. But I tried to work my way through that. I tried to look at design not as a one-night stand, but as a long-term relationship with people, and what they are doing. There are going to be some words first, because we have to put it in some kind of context and then they will be fixed.

It could be about Metaphysical design. I like stuff. I think stuff is important. We live in a physical world, and we have got to think about our relationships with that physical world. And we could start with something very important to us all is Socrates’: how should one live? And that is a philosophical question, but it should take action. And then you can say: Well, how should one design? Which is the next step down, we get right down here, somewhere. And you can make some views about what design might be, and this is me trying to work it out and my students trying to work it out; me being wrong and them being right, all being different.
Design could be a physical manifestation of society, design could be an outcome of philosophy, design is visual, sensual, enabling, useful and actual, and design lifts the spirits. These are things that we can take from design and we can start to use them in other places and in other ways.
So we could say: the act of designing makes ideas manifest, looks at new, innovative interconnections and utilises creativity to explore and solve problems or other issues.
The process of designing frequently moves across disciplines, joining deep knowledge to wider experience and activity, and the primary outcome of design is to manage change. These are the things that we can move around and use as we like.

And then you get back into some interesting stuff where, this has been around for a long time, you know. These issues, these things that we are dealing with have been around for a long time and this was 1971. Dear Victor Papanek; “design can and must be a way in which young people can participate in a changing society.” And I think since 1971 to 2007, we have a huge amount of understanding, we have a huge amount of discussion, we have a huge amount of theory, we have all these stuff, but we have damned all action. What are we actually doing? Physically and really? I took these to Sweden because he wrote this after he was in Sweden.
Rahcel Carson, Silent Spring: “those who dwell among the beauties and the mysteries of the Earth, are never alone or weary of life.” I think it comes to John - connecting with nature, it is one way in which we can we can begin to understand, and we can talk endlessly about this connection with nature, and maybe we should in a pub over a pint of beer where we are far away from nature as we could ever be… but it is a natural product…

David Pie on durability, DP was a furniture designer in 1968, he started me off in a way, I read this when I was a hippy, hitch-hiking down to Glastonbury and hanging out on hills and looking at UFO’s. It is the nature of Design, as well, which is really interesting; “on durability, a world in which everything is ephemeral, would not be worth working for.” And I think that comes back to physicality. So design is powerful and ever more so when in the service of society and humanity, and we should go there more.
Do we have a dilemma? The dilemma is we live in an unsustainable now and we are not able to get to an unobtainable nirvana, so, how might we begin to construct these kind of things? It’s coming down, down, down, down. There could be a way to move, we have to make transitions with design. If everyone is hooked on the drug of consumption, then we have to do something with them to get them off the drug, we just can’t take the drug away, they would probably murder you for doing so. So what can you do? What can design do?
There might be two sets here. One might be meta-morphosis where we move from one space to another, which is about transition, it is about seduction, it is about changing things. And the other thing might then be acceleration, where we can have people and get them interested, and you can actually push them through a lot of barriers, willingly… so that might be a way.
So why haven’t we got too far on with ecological design? We were able to, we have the tools, we have the methodologies, we have the markets, we have the reasons, but it feels hollow.
Have we defined the territory for sustainable living and design clearly enough? Are we looking at it in the right way? We’ll come on to this idea of standard of living and quality of live in a minute, how one thing is one thing, and the other is another.
The problem is within our existing design paradigm, as if we move, if I drive towards an ecological society with a notion of a re-use, recycling for everything, we decide we may well not really solve our ecological problems in the long term. Continuing designing much the same old things in pretty much the same old way, and miss a great opportunity to design in new and more meaningful ways. We have to shift our perspective and start looking at design in another way.
We are getting down to some detail, but it kind of sets the context for what comes next.
It is an ongoing pragmatic story, this is no end to this and it is just me trying to find out what we might be doing. We could take a design, start from what, how, where we design, involving ecologically aware society. Most of you know this but I thought it would be nice to put it back up. Use design to accelerate the tipping point transition into an increasingly ecologically aware society. How can we use design to help people go green, get better at green, do ecological seduction? all this kind of stuff. Is it a transition or short term thing?
How can we enable and support young designers to take a deeper ecological design approach into professional design practice? Use design to encourage the increasing number of restless consumers to go greener, ethically fast and deeper? this is transitional stuff. This is what I am trying to work out, this is what I am trying to do with the students, this is what we talk about, this is what we try and begin to do.
As society becomes increasingly ecologically aware, this offers unique and challenging opportunities for the future direction of design. There is no better time to be a young designer. It is better than new material, better than new process, society is changing and what can design do with it and help it to do that? And this means design is becoming a fundamental part of the change in how, when and what we create and consume.
So, in accepting an emerging ecologically aware society we may inevitably also have to accept the need to construct a new ethical form of design. This raises some questions: What context may serve designers when designing ethically? May there be any paradigm shift in design for this to happen? How may this affects design education? (which is where I sit) I guess I am a designer of education more than anything else these days. What may be neutral visions, specifications, inspirations, opportunities for designing ethically? If anybody has got the answers, it might save me a lot of time and energy.

In this context, we may consider that future designers will be able to proactively operate within a stimulating emerging sustainable design markets, respond to a shift in design needs in the future, ecological societies, create dynamic solutions for industry, business, society, within the context of an increasingly ecologically aware society. And offer a design interface in connection between the seemingly conflicting requirements of ecology, economy and business. Big, big order, isn’t it really? But it is very interesting that within that there are re-active things with designers do, and there are pro-active things, there are educational things, there are actual things, there are lot of things in there.
So the things we will be designing will need to be driven by deeper ethical reason to exist, be challenging, delightful, surprising and enjoyable to use, reflect more honestly our relationship with ecology and our planet and embody a better understanding of quality of life rather than the standard living, easy isn’t it, really? But that is not as difficult maybe.
So one way to look at this is kind of looking at the idea of metamorphic design, where you might begin to actually work with metaphors to try and describe -it is not everything - but I take you off the site here with a little project: There is a student who was interested in how you get people to start to come back to the table and interact with each other, and she created a set of a objects as metaphors, where if you wanted to get people to eat breakfast together - you give them a cereal bowl that is plugged together and they can’t run away from each other, and it is intended to be humorous, it is intended not to be quite real, and it is intended to sort of create a kind of discourse and dialogue. You can put little sticks on your knives or spoons to engage in conversations, you can start a conversation with dysfunctional families that don’t speak to each other, you can leave messages for your Mom on the plate when she does the washing up, or Dad, let’s be social inclusive here. You can leave little messages about things you might have not spoken with them, or you can actually dress for dinner, physically dress for dinner in a proper way. These are kind of, somewhere between an idea and reality and they are useful, but they are not everything.
So then we can start to think about metamorphic design, oh God I love playing around with this word. you know; glad I don’t know what it is; John but I am playing around,
You can elude it in two ways, you can have meta with design or design with meta. I worked in Sweden in the Masters program in Gothenburg, and I am going to show you a bit of design with meta. It is very interesting in Sweden that you work with this, almost religious design process. These guys are great - Masters students, and about 29-30 and they can design the ass of anything, and they are in total control of their process, in total control visually, formally, everything. But they don’t think too much about it. There are still in that kind of wonderful Swedish mindset. So I have been there for two years, I go one weekend every month and I am gradually, gradually and faster and faster undermining them, and working with ideas of how do you think about context, how do you tell stories, how do you connect out to a wider thing than this beautiful object. So, this is a guy called Mats and Mats told me everything I need to know about the “Me-We” generation of voluntary simplifiers. He came and said: there is a group of young people who are thinking differently, acting differently, subverting brands, doing all these things. These people really interest me, and what I want to do is to explore their needs in terms of mobility. In this we are accepting that the world is not where we wanted it to be. We are saying: that there will be mobility needs in the future, in a transitional sense from where we are now. So, he started to play around with these people and what they liked, and then he started to construct stories about how these young people get around, and he started to think of it as an object, which will grow better over time, it has patina, it has hydraulic motors in the wheels, it has no kick stand so it does get scratched and bumped, you can re-spray, you can add to it, you can set up little businesses around it where people will customize it for you, or if you get a new girlfriend you can swap your single C for CC or if you want to get down the shops you can get a trailer. And he wanted to develop an object that was fairly anonymous but would grow better over time to the point where the object you have over time would become more valuable than the new object, and you would develop a new set of relationships with it. And he just carried on and he could make it happen, this guy. You know, he can actually make form around it, give it shape and substance and, he made a full sized model of this damn thing, and I think in a transitional way he is a pretty amazing guy, because he cannot only begin to tell what we should be doing, he could actually be giving you the physical, emotional, visual experience of the object. Not perfect, but it is really interesting, and we are going to do a project with Volvo around future mobility with this guy, and a couple of other people. There are people in Gothenburg interested in mobility, but have never designed these kinds of things, he has never designed a vehicle before.
So what about Meta with design, and we come back to Glasgow, in a way. I mean, these guys in Sweden, they can do, but they don’t think too much. But the interesting thing is that in Glasgow we think too much, we can’t do so well, but somewhere in the middle we get something. This is, if you like an issue-based project, you can look at issue-based problem solving. This is an issue-based project, and this is first-year students, so these kids are something like 17/18 years-old in first-year, and we kicked them out of the studio, put them in the community centre. This comes off the back of _, sort of, in a way more response to what we actually do with the ideas the came out with the _. We took the students, out of the studio and we put them in the community centre, on the south side of Glasgow, which is a pretty lethal place to be spending your time, and we said: “lot of waste out there, go out, find out who creates the waste, who lives with the waste, who picks up the waste and what can you do about it with the people that you are engaging with.” So, they went out and they ran a one-day event where they got all the community together start talking about this issue. They put together a huge research report about where all the stuff is, they mapped it, they talked about it, talked to every one. Then we said ok, young 17 to 20-year olds: “What are you going to do about it? How do you design out solutions with these people to deal with these issues?" And this is a three-week project. And you get responses like: “lot of rubbish out there, we will go and spray graffiti all over them and you can take me home, I am worth something, contact this website (they set up a website) and we will tell you how to recycle it, come to our workshop, we will help you put these things together”. So they are using a very kind of direct action to start looking at waste stuff and what you may do with that.
Another group got hold of a whole tenant block, which is five families, and they said to them simply: “how do you want to recycle your stuff? Get every older systems around and how do you want to do it? You want to do it collectively, individually, you want it picked up once a month, every two days?” All this kind of stuff. They worked with the people in the community, co-designed with them, great sense of humility, all that kind of stuff. And then they created two things: they created a kit of how these people wanted to do it, they can transfer community by community, and get transformed and changed as it goes along, and then they gave a report back to the local government and said: "if you want to recycle responsibly and properly in these areas - this is how the people want you to do it".
This is another little one where, you know, they wanted to encourage young kids to start recycling, so they gave them a whole lot of stickers and you put it on your bottle and you chuck it in the recycling bag, and every week you get a, well you don’t get a free cheap flight, you get something useful for society coming as a reward to encourage people, young people to engage.

This is a problem based one and it is the right one also, I was thinking about services and systems and we have a discussion about what the hell is service design and what the hell are we doing in Glasgow and this is kind of service system and object. This is a guy from fourth year last year, a bachelor student.
And this is Charlie Hill, and Charlie was interested in, (it is all about rubbish, this presentation). Charlie was interested in: When you go to these great pop concerts and you have these huge amounts of rubbish afterwards, and it is so difficult to deal with that. What can I do about that and he said: well, why can’t you say to all the people supplying drinks in this venue or food, that you supply the food but you don’t supply the packaging, and then your packaging is your ticket. So, through the post comes a ticket which is a bottle, which you use, and that bottle starts to have value to you because you start to share it with other people; people might sign it, you might get the band to sign it, you might keep it as a memento, you might do lots of things with it, but if you do discard it, the site only has to do with one type of rubbish, and that rubbish can also be of a biodegradable nature, so you get a lot of things happening just around a very simple idea.

I want to talk about eco-seduction. I love eco-seduction, because it is a way of making a transition from where we are to where we need to be, and it is taking back from consumption those things that design can do, and giving it away to something better. And it is to get these dear restless consumers to ecological action, and we should be very seductive with what we are doing. Designing in quality is nothing, simplicity, resilance, engagement and charm, - some of them came form Alex a couple of years back. How can these things reveal over time deep and sustainable, ecological story and social notion? Long term relationships to increase and then start to go deeper and greener? How can you get people, capture them while, because everybody is not going to stop consuming tomorrow, but when they are going into a consuming situation - how do you capture them with a product that would actually make them go further?
I am still trying to work out what a good product is. We are going to do another one in September. Some of the clues might be - this object should tell a connected ethical story, they should create a providence, they should match upstream action to downstream benefits, they should resonate with quality of life rather than standard of living, and create possibility to accelerate change. How do we get people engaged?
We are hard wired in some ways to beauty, so why not get beauty, different meanings and justice in our consumption?

This moves towards the quality of life based on ways of doing the stuff. This is a student call Jenny Dauts, she is now living in Sweden, she was a bachelor student and she just took a simple idea about arthritis and it affects 9 million women, it affects people of all ages, a lot of young people. How can we improve their situation? And she just did this whole research about how do people grip, reach, open, put cloths on and she worked with a lot of people. She just made 4 statements about what she wanted to do. She wanted people to feel confident, to fit in, to be stylish, to be able to buy from a normal shop. She wanted to separate these people out, she wanted to make them more inclusive in society, exploring actually what these things might want to do, and she picked a mainstream retail outlet, Marks & Spencers, and said: I want these clothes to be there, with these people, actually in the market place, right now for people to start doing stuff and she created these clothes. What she did is, I don’t have the video which is a shame. A normal structure, kind of subversive in its way but it is attractive to anyone to buy. That is the trick with that, and she made a video which I don’t have and she has run away now. Well, I know where she is in Sweden and I can get it and she did videoed people sat at the bar table, one with ordinary clothing, without ordinary clothing and one without this clothing and it came to the end of this drinking session. She filmed a girl putting on this jacket which implies she has arthritis, and it was the most natural action you ever did see, you wouldn’t think it was special or different. Then she kept the film running and then the person that wasn’t arthritic put on an ordinary jacket and it looked clumsy. This is, I think, good design. I think this is a beginning towards quality of life designing. And I put this, I told people about this the other day and I know I misquoted it and it is about what we do, it is about what we do with our students. Jung says: “The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances. If there is any reaction both are transformed.” I think this might be meta, I don’t know what meta is.

So, now we want to talk a bit about standard of living and quality of life. I got off on this thing, I remember two defining moments: one was listening to the radio the last general elections and coming on and saying: “we must make sure when we move the energy argument that we maintain our standard of living.” I remember shouting at the radio: “it is not standard of living, it is quality of life!” and immediately thinking: “what the hell did I mean by saying that?” to myself, and the idea that we would have nuclear energy and expand it just to maintain the standard of living rather than thinking about quality of life, and then I got into my friends house in Sweden with too much vodka and he said: “what would you like to do for a week?” and I said: “I would like to try and run around a project, around designing for quality of life.” And he said: “that sounds good.” And we actually remembered it the next morning in our hangovers. So, we set about what that might look like, or be like, because the interesting thing is everybody in this Western world is saying “high standard of living, poor quality of life,” but what do we mean by that? When people are talking about happiness, health, well-being, but what does that mean for design? Could this be a new paradigm in which we can explore sustainable design which is more meaningful?
I love it, because it is a slippery bar of soap, and I have no idea about it because we design for standard of living, we design for status, we design for desire, we tackle on recycling, reused as assembly and it doesn’t work, really well. So, what about going off on another loop?
We got it postponed, I am really so sad. We are going to run this this October but we needed £78,000 and we were £15,000 short by the point with the whole of Sweden badgered off to the woods for a month, which they do, so you can’t get hold of anyone. So it’s on hold, but it will come back next spring or at the latest next autumn. And what we want to do, and the other thing is, we put polyco design school and Cumulus together, Cumulus is the world wide educational design body, 125 schools and, you know, my friend in Sweden, when we got over the hangover, we went and said: We want to do this. And we have to come to the board meeting, so we trembled off to Nantes and all that stuff, and they said: “what do you want to get out of this?” And I said: “well, you know what the good thing is? I don’t know, because it would be to do with the people who come”, and I said: “but the only thing we have to agree on - it is worth doing,” and they said: “well, yeah, sure, it is worth doing.”
So, the idea is, we want to try to understand some definitions, some specifications, some visions, some manifestos about quality of life and both design education and designing, and this is specifically a design-led activity because, I think, everyone is telling me is a design thing, so why don’t we put designers into a space where they have to do something about it? And I want to connect our education with the profession better. We are able to produce very, very, very enabled and interesting students, but the profession is going “we don’t know, we don’t know”. So we are going to bring 7 designers, 7 educationalist, 7 students and 7 thinkers… John Wood is one, Ezio would love too, but he couldn’t last time, but he will this time, I am sure… we are getting the monks and other very interesting people, and what we will do is have a public forum where people will talk to us about quality of life from a spiritual, ecological, ethical, economic perspective. And we will listen and then we are going to take 7 designers, 7 teachers and 7 students up this wonderful archipelago in Sweden and we are going to sit down for 5 days and we are going to say “what do we do with this thing?”, you will all hear because it is interesting. We got people lined up from all over the place, most of the money is in air fares and stuff like that. And we want them to explore maps, suggest actions within and for that critical aspect of design, for future and ecological sustainability, and we want to suggest ways in which design may evolve, steps designers in their practice may take, and strategies that design educators may employ in the education of their students for the future benefit of an emerging ecologically aware society.
As design is working towards change in our society, we believe this to be a challenge worth of our attention. I have no idea what will come off the back of that, but that is kind of nice. I am actively not trying to work it out, because I don’t want to kind of, we will have frames and we will have ways of doing it, but I don’t want to mess the energy.

I have a couple of minutes, so I am going to tell you a short story. I love this. This comes from the Tibetan book of living and dying, it is a short story and maybe it is a nice sort of analogy. It is an autobiography in five chapters and it goes: one, I walk down the street, there is a deep hole in the sidewalk, I fall in. I am lost, I am hopeless, it isn’t my fault. It takes forever to find my way out. I walk down the same street there is a deep hole in the sidewalk, I pretend I don’t see it, I fall in again, I cant believe I am in the same place, but it isn’t my fault, it still takes a long time to get out. I walk down the same street, there is a deep hole in the sidewalk, I see it, it is there, I still fall in again. It is a habit. My eyes are open I know where I am, it is my fault, I get out immediately. Four: I walk down the road, there is a big hole in the sidewalk, I walk around …