Designing and consuming: exploring ideas of objects, practices and processes

An interdisciplinary workshop held at Durham University, 5th and 6th July 2005.

workshop report
biographies of participants


On the 5th of July 2005, 22 design scholars and social scientists from a range of disciplinary backgrounds gathered at Grey College, Durham University, on an incredibly wet day. The event was a two day workshop designed to generate and promote conversation between design scholars, sociologists of consumption and science and technology studies about how designed artefacts are configured and appropriated and about how they structure the social practices and situations of which they are a part. It was the first of a series of three workshops which form part of Designing and Consuming: objects, practices and processes, a two year project funded under the Cultures of Consumption programme by the Economic and Social Research Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Session 1, Conversations between design and social theory

Following lunch and introductions, the first session aimed to explore potential for productive communication between design and social science. Guy Julier gave the first presentation, From singularization to complexity. From visual culture to design culture. He began by reflecting on the potential contribution to understanding design culture which could be made by visual and material culture approaches. He criticised dominant characteristics in visual culture approaches including occularcentrism, passive observation and singularization of objects, reflecting a model of culture as a separate realm of representation. Julier argued that these characteristics limited the contribution of visual culture to understanding ‘design culture’ which inevitably engages in and emerges from the complex milieu of the lifeworld, using examples including the ubiquity of coca-cola red in urban environments around the world, and of architecture. He ended by proposing a model of design culture based on intersecting domains of value, practice and circulation.

Jack Ingram presented next, beginning with the point that design opportunities emerge from the use of products which are themselves the outcome of design. In exploring potential conversations between social science and design, Ingram drew on a heuristic classification of design literature (diagram below) in relation to overlapping domains of objects, people and practices.


spacespacJack Ingram's heurisitic classification of design literature

Focusing first on “man-machine” systems design, he reviewed systematic conceptualisations of the relationship between humans and objects, including those which argue that the design of objects and interfaces must be synchronised with the competence of human users. Ingram went on to explore how the sequentiality of user actions is inscribed within product and interface design; and how designers seek to invest products with symbolic value. He concluded by examining the idea of ‘designing the user experience’ as a means of exploring how industrial design can be conceptualised as not simply designing products, but rather designing for the practices and experiences of the user of those products. (powerpoint)

Gordon Hush responded as initial discussant, reflecting further on prioritisation of the visual in social science more generally, over an appreciation of embodiment and the significance of bodily/kinaesthetic experience. He went on to suggest that distinctive insights generated from design’s engagement with objects could inform social theory, not least through creativity and insights into sensual experience of objects. Wide ranging discussion followed, including a spirited defence of visual studies, against Julier’s characterisation; and the first of many reflections over the two days on the difficulties of terminology and language when speaking across the disciplines. Processes of innovation were discussed, starting with the question of why re-design perfectly good objects, such as the teapot and leading into a discussion of ‘post-optimal products’ where functionality has been fully realised and design has to focus on issues of style and symbolic meaning.

Session 2, the agency of materials and objects

The second session began, which aimed to introduce and debate different ways of thinking about the role of materials and designed artefacts in everyday life. Tom Fisher spoke first, approaching the relationship between design and consumption by challenging conventional preoccupations of consumption studies, with the cultural and symbolic aspects of objects, by evaluating the usefulness of understanding our embodied relationship to the material world. Contesting designers’ implicit assumption that they have a privileged way of understanding materials, Fisher reflected on empirical work exploring people’s relationships with plastic objects to draw out understanding of how the Gibsonian concept of ‘affordances’ could shed light on human relationships with objects. (pdf of spoken paper)

Next Matt Watson reviewed understandings of agency (capacity to act), using this as a frame through which to introduce a range of concepts more or less deriving from Science and Technology Studies which promise to illuminate the relationships between humans and artefacts. Through discussion of scripting, appropriation, assembly and normalisation, he articulated a progressively more complex and relational understanding of agency as a property distributed in networks of both human and nonhuman agents. (powerpoint)

Nina Wakeford was initial discussant and raised a number of important issues. First she noted the importance of temporality in approaching relations of humans and materials, such as in the effects of age on materials themselves and hence what objects can afford; second, she identified what is a general neglect in studies of materiality, of non-solid materials; thirdly, the importance of bringing inter-personal relationships, and the difference they make, into analysis of relationships between people and things; finally, symmetrically with the last, the need to reflect on the implications of the ‘sociality of things’.

Subsequent discussion picked up on the difference which inter-personal relations make to an individual’s relationship with things, such as in the power relationships of a couple or a family. Also prominent was discussion of the role of the designer, the limits of both their responsibility and their power when embedded in systems of manufacture, marketing, retail and consumption. Ways of approaching the ‘sociality of things’, how they assemble into technical, social and symbolic systems, was also explored.

Session 3, working groups. What sort of agency do objects have?

Following afternoon tea, participants reconvened for an exercise. Three groups were confronted with a table of more or less random objects and were asked to create an exhibition articulating something about the agency of objects. One group created a linear sequence of objects and explained relationships they embodied, such as of design, systemic co-dependence, etc. Another group provided a performance highlighting the dynamism of relationships between things dependent on and partly determining the flow of human action in a household. The third group challenged themselves to make something of the collection of objects on the table left by the other two groups and created an exhibition of pairs of objects which, through their juxtaposition with one another suggested particular relationships and thereby brought out specific affordances. The process of collectively hammering out some sort of story was undoubtedly more useful in drawing out themes of material agency than the exhibitions themselves.

Grey College provided us with a fine college dinner, with the apple pie particularly commendable. The still persistent rain meant retiring to the college bar rather than venturing into town.

Wednesday 6th July

Session 4, Perspectives on practice.

The first session of the second day set out to explore how theories of practice might cast light on the relations between social action and objects. Under the title Knowledge in people and things, Tim Dant argued that knowledge is not a property of an individual’s mind, nor located in discourse. Rather, as it exists in practice, knowledge is distributed between embodied humans and the objects with which they interact, most obvious in the context of achieving practical tasks involving tools and materials. Using first reflection on construction of a flat packed chest of draws, and then analysis of ethnographic observation of motor mechanics at work, he examined the critical role played by ‘immutable mobiles’ such as instruction sheets, diagrams, etc, in mediating the gap between materials (embedded knowledge) and the embodied human (embodied knowledge) to enable competent execution of tasks. (powerpoint)

Elizabeth Shove followed, with the final presentation, in which she looked at various possibilities from social science with which to contend Victor Margolin’s statement (2002 The politics of the artificial) that 'we have no theory of social action that incorporates a relation to products’. She covered perspectives on the ‘social life of things’ (Appadurai); Latourian ideas of human-nonhuman hybridity; and Rip and Kemp’s sociotechnical regimes. Next Shove presented a theory of practice, based on differentiating and exploring the relations between stuff, image and skill, using these to integrate diverse theoretical and analytical perspectives on the relations between humans and objects. She elucidated the potential of the approach by using it to analyse the emergence and death of forms of practice through the making and breaking of links between image, stuff and skill. (related paper)

Inge Ropke, initial discussant for the session, reflected on the motivations for the research reported on and the nature of the problem being explored, if not framed in terms of environmental and resource questions. She also raised questions about the extent to which a focus on practices de-socialises analysis, ignoring questions of individual choice of institututional context in the recruitment of individuals to practices.

Session 5, working groups, the birth and death of practice.

After coffee we reconvened for another group exercise. Participants had been asked to bring with them an object which was once indispensable to their daily life but which is now practically useless. A table in the middle of the room was filled with these ‘fossils’, the material remnants of the practices and meanings which once made them useful.

space space space

space space spacsome fossils

In groups, participants told the story of the relationships which once maintained the object as more or less indispensable, and what had changed to render it now useless. Each group chose one of the stories to present to the whole workshop when we reconvened. The exercise effectively tested Elizabeth Shove’s model of the emergence and death of practice through the making and breaking of links between image, stuff and skill. What emerged from the discussions and presentations was how far products and their usefulness are suspended in relationships including the material, interpersonal, semiotic, etc, coming together in practice. Harder to see generally were dramatic moments of making and breaking links, rather a steady aggregation or degradation of relationships.

Session 6, Final plenary

From the working groups we passed into a final discussion. Irene Cieraad presented reflections on the workshops, as did Louise Annable, contextualised in her current work reviewing design literature. This was followed by structured discussion with an invitation to participants to write key thoughts on what had been productively present in the workshop, and what they felt was noticeably missing. A number of dominant themes emerged:


As is inevitable when disciplines come together, issues of language were significantly to the fore. For some there is a need to build a common language with agreed definitions for ideas and concepts. Others argued that aspirations to such clarity are hopeless and potentially harmful. Specialist language is after all a condition of expertise, and in fields relating to the complexity of social practice and meaning, the flexibility of key terms, such as materiality of practice, even within single sub-disciplinary fields, is perhaps both inevitable and valuable. The problem of specialist language is perhaps better reframed as an opportunity. As difficulties and conflicts of understanding are confronted and negotiated, possibilities arise for progress on all sides.

Interestingly, whilst gaps in ways of thinking and talking were very apparent in relatively formal sessions, they were much less obvious when it came to handling and discussing objects in the exercises.

Promoting useful dialogue

Whilst the workshop appears to have been successful as an opening of conversation between social theory and design theory, taking the conversation forwards seems likely to require more active and imaginative ways of promoting constructive dialogue, particularly across disciplinary divides.

Concepts worth exploring further

In bouncing concepts around in the course of the workshop, some emerged as likely to warrant further focused exploration as a means of taking forward constructive discussion between social and design theory. These included affordance, scripting, domestication, value and practice.

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