Workshop 4: Stuart Walker, ‘Experimental Objects – propositional designs for sustainable futures’

Stuart Walker (ImaginationLancaster, Lancaster University) opened his presentation by stating that he is interested in looking inside and re-conceptualizing the nature of our material culture in order to create more sustainable and meaningful (not just disposable, exploitative and damaging) approaches. Walker explained that propositional design is concerned with exploring the nature and aesthetics of functional objects in relation to sustainability and understandings of substantive meaning, where particular function is not a primary concern. He claimed that his take on sustainability orientates around economic viability, environmental care and social responsibility. Walker argued that as 90% of plastics and 90% electronics go to landfill, environmental issues of resource use, energy use, pollution and waste, as well as social issues of social inequity, exploitative labour practices and effects of use (value, meaning etc) are at the forefront of his interest as a designer. He also emphasised that approaching this topic through a historical perspective of pre-industrial and industrial stages, sustainable future is difficult to conceptualize.

Stuart Walker proceeded in explaining the reasons for propositional design in terms of sustainability and meaning:

- through creative practice, to explore potential alternatives  based on sustainable principles

- to allow aesthetics and non-rational, intuitive ways of knowing (including tacit knowledge) to inform our understanding of “sustainability”

- to “show” rather than “say” – i.e. visualise alternatives in material form

- to add to our understandings of what functional objects are and could be.

Walker argued that the issues of economic viability, environmental care and social responsibility should be considered with a particular focus on culture, governance, ethics, spirituality and personal meaning. Further, he claimed that technology related multitasking causes us not to be fully engaged with:

(1) the person we are talking to

(2) the information we are looking at

(3) the place we are walking through.

 Hence, he explained that this sort of multitasking has an adverse affect on empathy, ethical responsiveness, compassion, tolerance and emotional stability leading to decline in attention, intellectual ability and productivity. Further, Walker proposed that information overload and multitasking adds to our “blindness” (Thackara, 2009) and is linked to anxiety, depression and  compulsive behaviour.

Concomitantly, Stuart Walker described new design values in terms of:

continuously evolving products:  as needs and aesthetic preferences change 

products that accommodate change: as technologies advance

localisation: production (in part); maintenance; repair; upgrading

considered use: related to substantive values and personal meaning as well as choices that offer less “distraction” 

in line with emerging enterprises: where sustainability is internalised.

He proceeded to argue for exploring ideas by creating functional objects, illustrating his claims with examples of his own work with chairs, lamps, wall phones, solar calculators, radios, flashlights, doorbells, mp3 players and digital clocks.

Walker used an example of his own new mobile phone design to show how easily a transformation can take place from fixed commodity, convenience and impulsive use to provisional, continuously upgradable artefact, focal practices and considered use. In this context, he presented ‘product’ as evolving entity with replacement only of those parts that require an upgrade, leading to reduced waste (reduced use of resources, energy transport and packaging). Here, he compared three designs (pouch, wallet and pocket phone) with the standard mobile phone to illustrate the full scale of benefits of this sustainable conceptualization. He argued that during a period of time where usually 9 mobile phones would be discarded, his pouch phone version requires only components for recycling equivalent to approximately 1,5-2 mobile phones.

Stuart Walker concluded in arguing that as his design presents an equivalent to 80% reduction in electronic waste, which, taking into account 400 million mobile phones discarded each year, is a very significant alternative.


Firstly, it was pointed out that Walker’s approach operates on the assumption that this type of thing (recycling, re-using and personalizing) does not happen. However, it was argued that large amounts of things are kept by people (including re-used packaging) and communities grow up exchanging information regarding these matters. Therefore, a question was posed of whether a strategy could be designed for engaging with these types of things that happen spontaneously. Walker agreed with these claims and explained that in his work he looks at how designer can re-imagine the future of the objects in a sustainable way, incorporating natural and local.

Secondly, a problematic of technology globalizing difference and localizing ethics was considered. Here, Walker argued for an importance of a more substantive values and a recognition of their relationship to objects: to develop renditions of material culture in which ethical issues are related to social exploitation and environmental destruction. He proposed that we need to create a material culture that is more considered, reflexive and suited to your needs – not just a quick convenience. Further, Walker argued that to make material culture more meaningful we need to make it more understandable to us. He explained that at the moment technological comprehension is very superficial and instrumental and this is a main thing that needs to be addressed.

Next, some questions were posed of whether Walker represents a creationist, pre-darwinian approach where we know what objects are and what they are created for – if you decide that everyone needs a phone does that not deny the constant becoming of objects? Here, a danger of not looking at the organic production of things in this process of breaking/undoing was emphasised. In response, Walker argued that he perceives it on the contrary, as an evolving approach of experimenting with design and not knowing what it evolves into.

Finally, the issues of values were debated in terms of Walker’s conceptualization as bringing the individual spiritually into the consideration. It was pointed out that perhaps it is not so much the individual lacking the values but a problematic of selling the idea at the corporate level that is of a main importance here. Walker agreed and proceeded to argue that we want to care but we don’t know how, hence he is interested in how we can interact with the objects – going from the one way production system (production, retail and waste mode) to a more continual use and provision of services. He concluded in emphasising the issues of interaction with services, as opposed to a non-reflexive consumption of material goods.