Ronald Jones (artist, critic and educator)
in conversation with Riccardo Giacconi
published on Arte e Critica N.66
Ronald, you are Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Konstfack, University College of Arts, Crafts and Design in Stockholm, Sweden. At Konstfack, you lead the Experience Design Group. Can you talk about the activity of ‘designing time’, as well as the research the group is carrying on?
I have to go back in time. It was about a decade ago, when two Harvard business professors, B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore, wrote an essay called Welcome to the Experience Economy, where they traced the movement from a goods-and-services economy, towards the experience economy. A few of us began to wonder how design, in a conventional sense, would find a relavant position within the experience economy. I can borrow an example from Pine and Gilmore to explain just what I mean by that. When my grandmother made a birthday cake for me, she was still living in the vestiges of an agrarian economy, so she would go out and buy the eggs in one place, the flour in another place and the chocolate in another place; then she would bring it all home and make the cake. As the economy moved from agrarian to goods-based, my mother would buy a cake mix, bring it home and make the cake. Then as the goods-based economy transitioned into the service economy time-starved parents would buy a birthday cake at the bakery. These days, parents outsource the birthday party to a place like McDonald’s – what they’re buying is a meaningful experience for their child, the cake is for free. If you look around you see that there is a growing emphasis – in business, education and culture, just to mention three – on the value of experience. We can measure the experience economy in a number of different ways. Last year, 88% of everything produced in the United States were intangibles. And “intangibles” are defined as assets that cannot be seen, touched or physically measured, and are created over time. This touchstone definition is a useful way to begin to think about experience, and in turn, its design – as an intangible. Examples of intangibles include healthcare, education, software design, entertainment and therefore, by measuring the production of intangibles, we can be confident that we sit in the middle of an experience economy.
The Experience Design Group was formed four years ago as a way to begin to train experience designers to make a significant contribution to this new culture – also described by Richard Florida or Daniel H. Pink as “creative culture”. This coming year we are graduating our fourth class: they are getting jobs as experience designers, or researchers in experience design.
Can you give an example of a research project the Experience Design Group is working on?
All of the projects we are working on have to do with designing meaning over time, but one in particular is quite poignant. Palliative care centres are patient-centered dying facilities, where people go in the last two weeks of life. About a year ago, the leadership of the palliative care centres here in Sweden came to us, and said they just finished a global study and in effect what they discovered is that it really doesn’t matter whether you are from Tahiti, Stockholm or St. Louis: we all go through pretty much the same kind of psychological passages in the last seven to ten days of life – the cultural differences seem to break down at the end of life. What they wanted us to do, was to partner with them and help to design, over time, the last seven to ten days of someone’s life. Here we are designing time; we are designing the last moments of lived experience for humans. It is a transdisciplinary studio working with the nursing and healthcare staff at the palliative care centres, first of all to see if we can audit what the experience is in the here and now – not just for the patient, but also for the patient’s family and for the hospital staff. And then we begin to see how experience design could intervene to make that a richer experience for them. This is a good example of designing experience over time.
You wrote extensively about the effectiveness of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary methodologies. Can you talk about it?
The other morning, before a lecture I was to give on interdisciplinarity, I Googled “interdisciplinarity” and got 23 million entries. It’s a very hot topic, however, the research on its effectiveness is just reaching us. I would point you to an article by Lee Fleming in the Harvard Business Review called “Perfecting Cross Pollination”. Fleming’s research shows that the most common outcome of interdisciplinary projects is failure. We fail at interdisciplinarity most of the time. Fleming looked at 17,000 patents of all sorts – from medicine to business to design – and what he found was that, while there are many more success stories when it is a monodisciplinary project, the only time we see so-called breakthrough ideas and innovations produced is from interdisciplinary teams. So it’s a matter of how much stomach you have for risk. You are going to fail more often with interdisciplinary projects, but when success comes, it is of the highest value.
Transdisciplinarity, as we think of it at EDG, is an advanced form of interdisciplinarity: let me give you an example of a transdiscipline. Daniel Kahneman won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his creation of a new discipline, called ‘behavioural economics’ or ‘psychological economics’. He fused a hard science, economics, with a soft science, psychology to create a hybrid or transdiscipline. These two disciplines have very low alignment, which makes it even riskier to try to create a hybrid between them, but Kahneman succeeded in creating the very sort of breakthrough idea Fleming talks about.
At EDG, all of our work is interdisciplinary: we only concentrate on themes, not disciplines, so it’s never discipline-bound; it’s always theme-based. We come up with a theme (for example, “The Future of Play” is another research project we have been working on) and then we put together the interdisciplinary team that would make sense to work on that project both creatively and efficiently. Having done that, then we use four primary research methods: one is ‘design thinking’, the second is ‘experience prototyping’, the third is ‘systems design’ and the fourth is ‘future forecasting’. We can go through them backwards. About four years ago, it seemed to me that ‘future forecasting’ would be a very useful tool from an analytical point of view, especially for designers. And it has turned out to be true: using analytic research methods from future forecasting has become an enormously powerful tool for our students. Where “systems design” or “systems thinking” is concerned I like to use this example: the iPod was never about designing one more cool thing, but was about taking over the music industry and finding a new and entrepreneurially creative system for that. So the iPod was never more than just a minor actor in this much larger system. ‘Experience prototyping’ is important to us because it puts the designer in the first-person experience rather than the second or third – we are never standing on the outside looking in. Finally, ‘design thinking’ served us very well to open up and explore different ideas especially across disciplines. And so the combination of those four research methods, along with the basic rule of ‘themes, not disciplines’ is the DNA of our collaborative and interdisciplinary projects.
In 1970 Victor Papanek, in Design for the Real World, calls for a “social and moral responsibility” of the designer. Can you talk about the responsibility of design today, 40 years after Papanek’s call?
Papanek represents an important figure for us, since he taught at Konstfack and he also wrote his book here. Rolf Hughes, who sits on the EDG faculty, and I have been working on the definition of what we call a “post-critical” approach, where we look for solutions to wicked problems in the world that are scalable, entrepreneurial (not necessarily in the business sense, but in the creative sense) and which offer a relevant and proactive contribution out there, including but not limited to creative, social, economic, political and moral issues. As opposed to sitting back and criticizing the culture, the government or society at large, what we are encouraging our students to do is to design, create and innovate post-critical solutions. We are also calling this “Modernism 2.0”. There are really interesting examples, even historical ones – Hans Haacke’s Rhinewater Purification Plant (1972, first exhibited at the Museum Haus Lange in Krefeld) is a fundamental example. We could, as in the case of Critical Design merely sit back in a position of critique, but I think we came to a point where the method of criticality became so rote that it foreclosed on its relevance. I wonder how much longer we are going to give special dispensation to artists and designers because what they produce is merely worthwhile. This may appear to some as a rather aggressive position, but we are very satisfied with this approach at EDG. Its realistic and creative.
In 2009, you wrote that “design professions migrate from myopic design assignments – design me a toaster – towards conceiving the intangible commodities that feed the experience economy – design me a system”. Can you expand on that?
We could go back to Hans Haacke’s Rhinewater Purification Plant again. In that work, he pumped the foul water released from the Krefeld Sewage Plant through an additional filtration system, making it clean enough for fish to thrive in, and thereby making evident that the sewage plant was, itself, collapsing the Rhine ecosystem. Haacke was talking about redesigning an entire system; he wasn’t just criticizing the way in which the river Rhine was being polluted, but he was offering a proactive system that was scalable and could be applied, not only to a grey-water reclamation but also to the political debate that was ongoing in Germany at the time. I think this is a significant example of systems design creating a hybrid from two disciplines – ecology and art – with very low alignment. Or take for example the artist Michael Joaquin Grey, who had an exhibition at MoMA P.S.1 a year ago, and years earlier designed a toy called “Zoob”, where we see play as a proactive, scalable and post-critical approach. “Zoob” was designed to teach all sorts of things to kids about evolution through play. Grey describes it as an “evolutionary toy”, but I would also say it’s a great system toy, since it mimics various kinds of systems from biology to physics.
If I may take this one step further, I would like to lift up an example I am quite passionate about. Physicist Freeman Dyson spoke recently about the fact that physics was the science of the 19th Century, and he could point to so many different examples where poets were absolutely fascinated with the work of physicists, became colleagues and friends, and for example, wrote poems about the discovery of planets. He goes on to say that the science of our century is going to be biology, and that artists and designers should begin to design new plant forms and species that could take an active role in reversing global warming and cleaning up our polluted environment. He says this is not so far off, and here again I see not only an interdisciplinary approach but also a proactive use of systems design in order leverage moral and social impact on the world at large.
Talking about systems, we can also refer to the economic systems against poverty designed by 2006 Peace Nobel Prize Muhammad Yunus, such as microcredit or social business. What is your take on such and other “market against market” systems?
We have actually talked about using microfinance as a tool to create social protocols for healthcare reforms in places like India and China. We see this as a remarkable instrument that we can build in to some of the projects we are considering undertaking. For us, this approach has real advantages especially when we are trying to create reforms bottom up.
A broader question would be: can design, an activity inevitably tied to the market forces, be at the same time be concerned about the social consequences of its action?
I don’t lose sleep over that, because the kinds of projects that we are undertaking are very expensive. We don’t see our work with palliative care centres as an experiment; we see it as something we want to institute, share and spread within the larger culture. And that costs money. From the university point of view, I like to address your question with this answer, “Hey listen everybody, we are in business!” At the university, this makes everybody grab their chests and take a deep breath. But then I go on and say, “we are in the knowledge business, our job is to create new knowledge – that’s what we do for a living”. This creation – trying to achieve breakthrough innovations, from local to global – requires huge amounts of resources, not only in terms of finance but also in terms of human capital and facilities. We work with a number of industries and research partners in order to affect that.
To conclude, I would like to question the very notion of “experimental design”. What can truly be called “experimental” about contemporary design?
I’m allergic to that word actually, because it conjures up the image of the mad scientist. In the Experience Design Group we are not engaged in conventional design practices; we are designing systems across multiple disciplines: I would describe our practice not as experimental, but rather as “highly speculative”. And a big part of that is having our students being comfortable using techniques associated with risk management, which we have carried over to design from the financial side refitting them to our goals and objectives. Interdisciplinary projects fail most of the time, so you must be particularly skillful at risk management. If you are, then you can be more and more speculative, because you will be able to manage the failures, learn from them and move forward. It’s highly speculative work, but it’s not guesswork. There is too much baggage to the word “experimental”, especially from the fine arts side, and we don’t need that kind of burden to carry around.
I like to tell our students, “if you are not failing early, you are doing something wrong”. At the same time, we take the opportunity to look back at every failure to see what we can learn from it. The great example that I like to use is the Titanic. The Titanic sank, a lot of lives were lost and that was a tragedy. But I might also remind everybody that when the unsinkable Titanic sank, it advanced the engineering of shipbuilding by twenty years and nearly overnight. We need to use what we call the “Titanic Effect” to go back and look at failures and see where those failures can leverage real success stories, or at least carry us further down the road.