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Project Findings

For reasons that have to do with historic and contemporary divisions of intellectual labour, analysis of the hardware of consumer culture and its role in the reproduction of social practice repeatedly falls between the cracks of disciplinary inquiry. The Designing and Consuming team examined 'missing' objects, practices and processes in studies of consumption, technology and material culture, and aimed to promote interaction between designers, design academics and social scientists in order to bring different perspectives to bear on familiar debates in all three fields. This page offers a summary of the project's findings. For a broader view, have a browse of the outputs page




Designing and Consuming set out to develop theoretical understanding of the 'stuff' of consumption. It has done so by going beyond conventional preoccupations of consumption studies, focusing on use, rather than acquisition; on the material, rather than the symbolic; and on relations between artefacts and practices.  Building on a programme of empirical case studies the project has generated new ways of thinking about material artefacts and the parts they play in the dynamics of everyday life. In particular, we show how complexes of things and practice co-evolve, and how designers and consumers add value to the products with which they interact.



Key findings

  • The accomplishment of everyday life involves the active integration of meanings, competences and complex suites of material objects.

  • The competences required to accomplish specific tasks are often distributed between persons and things. These distributions matter for relations between people (for divisions of labour), and for the formulation of consumer projects and practices.

  • Product innovations depend upon innovations in practice, but not in ways that are easy to anticipate or to control.

  • Consumers’ projects and practices have emergent consequences for the ‘careers’ and experiences of those involved. These are cumulatively and collectively important for the development of future projects and practices.

  • Objects and the materials of which they are made are locked into relations of mutual influence. Concepts from science and technology studies and material culture can be combined in analysing the changing ‘materials’ of everyday life.

  • Designers, manufacturers and policy makers could benefit from moving away from dominant product-centred or user-centred paradigms and adopting a practice-oriented approach which recognises the inseparability of innovations in product and in practice.



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How to go beyond the study of things as carriers of semiotic meaning? How to think about the agency not only of individual artefacts but of interrelated complexes of stuff? How might we conceptualise the materials of material culture and how do objects and practices co-evolve? In addressing these questions and investigating relations between a range of everyday artefacts and the practices of those who use them, we explored new intellectual ground between consumption studies, design theory and the field of material culture.

Product, project, practice and competence.
We began with forms of consumption involved in DIY home improvement projects. Our respondents told us about the dynamic relation between things, skills and ambitions. Their consumption of tools and materials was inextricably related to the iterative formulation and accomplishment of projects and plans. Projects were in turn important for the accumulation and distribution of competence, confidence and disillusionment. Patterns of consumption changed as new products were developed and as people acquired experience.



Will wanted to turn an attic space into a room for his two young children but was initially thwarted by the layout and by the need to move an existing radiator a metre or so to the left. Will had no experience of plumbing and the whole project would have been abandoned had he not learned about Speedfit, a relatively new product range based on plastic push-fit connections. Technologies such as Speedfit bring jobs like moving a radiator within the reach of those who lack traditional skills.

Analysis of DIY projects allowed us to identify a provisional chain of relationships through which consumer goods are linked to competence; competence to practice and practice to the acquisition and appropriation of consumer goods.


radiator connection

Innovations in practice: making configurations that work
Digital cameras have unsettled amateur photography. New techniques are required, new possibilities arise and new routines have to be established. We used the arrival of digital technology as a means of analyzing both the ‘careers’ of amateur photographers and their cumulative consequences for the field as a whole. We observed patterns of radical transformation - in how images are managed, manipulated and shared - and of remarkable stability, for example, in norms and definitions of photogenic subjects and situations.



Donald illustrated the persistence of aesthetic convention with a striking shot of Durham cathedral taken in the first light of dawn. The challenging lighting would have prevented him from risking frames of film and in any event, he wouldn’t normally have been out taking pictures on a freezing early spring morning. Donald’s classically atmospheric image was only possible because digital photography had become so embedded in his life that he now carried the camera with him as a matter of course. His picture was the outcome of a conjunction not only of digital technology as such, but also of a re-defined habit and a re-interpretation of risk.

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From this we concluded that the careers of individual practitioners matter for the trajectories of the practices they carry. In addition, digital technologies are not simply ‘domesticated’ by different sorts of user. They are drawn into a framework of expectation and convention defined by existing techniques and genres of popular film photography.



The materials of material culture
Sociological and anthropological studies of material culture generally focus on things, not on the ‘materials’ of which they are made. We studied the relation between plastic (as a substance) and plastic objects – plates and washing up bowls - in an attempt to extend the reach and range of material cultural analysis. We showed how stories of promise and potential travel between the conventionally separate worlds of production and consumption and we identified specific forms of cultural-material circuitry through which plastic ‘makes’ plastic products and through which plastic products ‘make’ plastic.

By focusing on the relation between objects and substances, and by writing about colourful melamine tea sets, their ability to resist breaking, chipping and cracking, and their relation to ‘ordinary’ crockery, we connected generic accounts of technological innovation with more culturally specific analyses of individual artefacts.

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Practice oriented product design
Designers and producers have their own ideas about the relation between people and things. In reviewing these we isolated three analytically distinct positions. The first most dominant view is that value resides in the object itself (product centred design). A second interpretation holds that value is constituted in the relation between consumers and the things they use (user centred design). Third, we argued the case for practice oriented design and for an approach that recognizes the active, cumulative and sometimes generative part things play in the reproduction and transformation of everyday life.

In tying these observations together, Designing and Consuming identifies and exploits new possibilities for intellectual cross-fertilisation between technology studies, design and theories of material culture and consumption.


Messages for policy and practice

The logic of concentrating not on individual consumers or on products but on designers’ and manufacturers’ roles in fostering and facilitating the emergence of social practice caught the attention of the companies and design professionals with whom we worked.

The approach we developed - practice oriented product design, or
POPD – recognizes that things acquire value when integrated in practice; that the process of making and breaking links between materials, images and meanings is never ending, and that users and consumers are actively involved in reproducing and transforming these essential relationships.

POPD goes beyond user centred design in concluding that consumer ‘needs’ arise from practice and in emphasizing the role of things in making the very ‘doings’ of which they are a part. By implication, companies would do well to follow and focus on the practices in which their products are integrated and in which they intervene. This is an unusual idea and one that challenges the intellectual foundations of research and advertising rooted in conservatively product-centric theories of markets and in correspondingly individualistic concepts of consumer choice.

Despite dealing with seemingly trivial things like photo albums, plastic plates and plumbing fittings, our research has wide ranging implications for resource consumption and for environmental policy makers, many of whom are increasingly aware of the systemic nature of the problems they face, and of the extent to which social, technical and natural processes interact. More specifically, our analysis suggests that public sector organizations should pay less attention to the ebb and flow of individual belief and commitment and concentrate instead on basic questions about how more and less sustainable complexes of practice emerge and disappear. This is a major challenge, but relevant clues and intellectual resources are to be found in suitably materialized theories of practice of the kind we have developed here.