reading and thinking about design in cultural context

I tend to tweet my thoughts as I do my reading for these classes. This ends up cluttering up my twitter feed with random comments. I don’t have time to write full blog entries while I’m reading (and I shouldn’t). As I read and tweet, I’m also taking notes and making comments on readings in a word processing document.
About every five minutes:
I will try to note some of my comments here as I go, instead of cluttering up my twitter feed and annoying people.
I haven’t been to the library once this semester. But I’ve done all the readings and written three assignments. Uni has changed in 17 years.
Challenging the pseudoscience of these design articles is getting tiresome.
I tired of your bullshit, design theory.
your fully justified article is blowing up my eyeballs, design article. Also, your content is desperate flummery.
Gotta remind myself: guiding motivation behind most design isn’t equity or social justice but financial gain. This is important difference.
…………………………………….
Oh man, my brains are blowing up. This article is just so… it’s like they’re trying to reinvent the wheel. It drives me crazy.
I give up.
I’ll probably return to this article later, once I’ve been to the lecture. I’ll definitely return to it if I need it for an assignment. This way I have an idea of what it’s about, and can come back later. There’s no discussion of readings in the tutorial or lecture, so I don’t need to be ‘on’. I’m also finding that the readings have no reference to the material covered in lectures.
I’ve just come across an article about the India Report. This caught my eye because the report was written by the Eames – mega famous American designers – who went to India to have a look at Indian design. I’m not sure if they were invited specifically, but I do think it was a response to the Indian government asking for suggestions about improving design and industry in India. The Eames’ report was sponsored by the Ford Foundation.
The Eames recommended a National Institute of Design be established, and it was. This is just fascinating stuff. I’d be really interested to see how the report (and institute) accommodate:
– regional differences in design
– cultural differences in design within the massive and culturally and ethnically diverse Indian continent
– gender/class/etc in (then) existing design practices, particularly as they relate to rural communities and gendered design and manufacturing processes.
I’d also be be fascinated to see how and if and even whether the Institute and Report worked in a context of cultural imperialism and India-as-British-Colony. I’d be curious about value systems and evaluation of design in this context, as this is something we do in my design subject – we ‘evaluate’ designs. I’m immediately wary of the term ‘evaluate’ – to engage with an item and to assess it according to a set of design values. I smell cultural specificity, but then, the part of me that’s learning about design pragmatics, understands that you do actually have to assess designs. This is especially important if you’re working to create accessible designs, or designs which improve accessibility, particularly for less powerful or marginalised groups and individuals.
I keep stumbling over the relationship between postmodernism and…. that other thing. I think of it in terms of feminism – women are all very different, with different needs and interests, but we also share common needs and interests, and so can work as groups. I always think of these groupings as contextually and temporally dependent, and also as mobile (agile?), changing all the time.
So usability design should:
– recognise the limitations of one designer designing for a group from whom he or she differs. In other words, remember who you are, how your ideas about the world are specific to you and your experiences, and design self-reflexively
– develop useful design personas for developing objects.
I’m not entirely sure about this point as design personas are just new to me. Basically, you develop an imaginary user with very convincing attributes – age, class, etc. The best personas are the product of extensive empirical research and a designer’s long experience. I suspect, though, that it might simply be more useful to work with the intended users directly with a sort of design-centred action research approach. This is complicated, though, by the fact that designers are actually working for clients (retailers, government bodies, etc) who are requesting a design to serve a particular user or customer. So you have to accommodate not only the users’ needs and interests, but also those of the client who’s paying you. Economic factors shape commercial (and government) work, policy issues shape government work, individual notions of the product from your liason affect the design….. and so on.
I’ve just been reading about scientific approaches to design. Or using principles of scientific research (cognitive psychology in particular) in the design process. While I’m interested in one way, I’m also very sceptical in another. Though it seems like a nice approach to user centredness and usability, I think that the power and ideas remain with the designer and client, and so the process still doesn’t actually produce user-centred designs. We are still filtering ideas through the brain of a designer.
This is, of course, quite practical in one sense. A designer understands how manufacturing processes work. They understand how design processes – actually getting things done work. But they do not – despite their best imagining and empirical research – actually know what it is to balance a child on one hip while you use a washing machine. Not once, but hundreds and hundreds of times. And then, of course, we have to talk about gender and class and the luxuries (and perceptions of) time and so on.
I think of this sometimes in terms of colour blindness or perceptions of colour. We each ‘know’ what blue is. And while we can use various tools to ‘show’ us how other people perceive blue, physically, we cannot ever ignore or leave behind our ‘knowledge’ of blue from our own, everyday lived experience. So the way we use blue, though it might in some sense respond to those alternative uses or perceptions of ‘blue’, will, ultimately, be shaped and informed and structured by our understanding of blue and blueness.
….I’m wondering if design-by-colaboration is useful here? Or how to go about involving users in the design process? Or whether design needs to get out of offices and out into other people’s everyday spaces?
As I read and write about this stuff, I keep thinking about how we do audience research in media and cultural studies. How the notion of positivism – that we can somehow objectively ‘collect’ data – is anathema to solid audience studies research. Design research, though, seems absolutely founded on this notion of ‘collecting’ data. When I am absolutely sure that data isn’t found but made.
Well, we’ll see how we go. I’m a bit sorry I only have two semesters of learn during this course. I’d like to learn a whole lot more. But there’s nothing to stop me getting my independent learn on later, after I’m finished. I’m also very interested in seeing how my experiences working in a job shape the way I think about this stuff. And the new ideas I’ll come up with. It’s all very exciting.

mid-week report

This is just going to be an account of things I’ve done lately, as I’m trying to get my brain in gear for doing readings and some writing.
Today I did the third run of week five of c25k. That was 5 minutes walking, 20 minutes running, 5 minutes walking. I ran for twenty whole minutes without having to stop. I haven’t been able to do that since I was in an athletics squad at thirteen. It’s pretty bloody amazing. And it wasn’t as hard as I thought. My knees did get a bit sore from the impact, and I really felt the limited range of movement in my right ankle, but otherwise it was ok. I’m pretty tired now, and I don’t have that massive, crazy adrenaline-charged energy I usually have on days I run, but I don’t feel terrible at all. In fact, I am tough.
Tomorrow I’m off to Melbourne for Blues Before Sunrise, a blues dancing exchange. I’m not doing workshops. I never do any more – I’d much rather spend the daylight hours being a tourist and socialising. I’m not interested in any of the teachers either, which is usually the deciding factor. I’d really like it if Damon Stone came back so I could do some historically informed blues dancing classes.
I’m doing some DJing there (as I mentioned earlier), and I’m interested in seeing how Melbourne’s social dancing is going these days. I’ll probably play the sort of set I do at Roxbury these days, as Melbourne used to have slightly higher tempos than the Sydney SP gigs, but I’ll also keep an eye on the lower tempo range as it’s an after-class gig.
I’m also looking forward to buying a good sports bra. I’ve lost a bit of weight since I started running and this has meant that most of my clothes no longer fit the same way. Most of my wardrobe is cope-with-able, but I’m finding that I really need to get a smaller bra. I’ve got three super awesome Berlei ones that are actually still in good shape, even though they’re about two or three years old. Apparently the elastic goes in bras after a few zillion washes, so you should replace them. But I like these and they were fricking expensive ($70 each). They’re not, though, really fitting properly, and I’m getting some bad bounce which actually gives me a bit of a stitch. Egads. So I’m going to go in and get fitted at Myer and then have a look at the outlet store in Brunswick to see if they have what I’m after. I really do have to buy at least one good one for running in.
The semester has started and I’ve been to two of my three classes. There’s an option of getting credit for one subject because of my previous study, but I’m not sure I’ll take it. I should, because it’ll save me heaps of money and make the workload easier, but I’m actually interested in the content. It’s really just basic semiotics and critical thinking, but it’s applied to information systems and data management, which is interesting. I really could just do the readings and guide myself through the content on my own (seeing as how I’ve spent a couple of higher degrees learning just how to do that), but I think the discussions in class could be interesting. At any rate, I have until week four to make up my mind and then withdraw without academic penalty. I should withdraw – it’ll save me 1.5 thousand dollars.
Classes have been interesting. The one I’m thinking of dropping was a little frustrating. It really was like being in a first year semiotics/intro to cultural studies subject, but in a very light weight way. It felt as though the discussion was going really. really. really. slowly. Partly because the group doesn’t have the sort of discussion skills you get from an arts degree, but also because the tutor/lecturer is kind of adversarial, and this shut down the contributions. It’s also because it seems as though information management people are only just discovering concepts like cultural diversity, active readership, meaning as a product of reader + text not inherent in text, etc etc.
The literature is equally slow – it’s very tentative about its claims about audiences and users and the status of texts, which is very ANNOYING. These things are so standardly basic in cultural studies, it feels as though we are reinventing the wheel, but without actually using any round shapes. It’s a bit interesting because it also makes clear the fact that info management really does rely on the idea that texts do have innate or essential value and meaning. If they didn’t, you wouldn’t collect and catalogue them and libraries wouldn’t exist. The very nature of cataloguing is that texts and items carry meaning within them.
I think this is why the field is having such difficulty accommodating the idea of users as a diverse bunch with different needs and interests. If your text is the important bit, you really have to assume that readers have a shared value system and shared approaches to text. I’d like to see how the literature ultimately deals with this stuff, but right now articles published in the 1990s are all ‘you know what – anything can be information! Even a building!’ and I’m all ‘oh fuck, didn’t we talk about this thirty years ago?’ So it’s very frustrating, but also reveals a whole lot about the way museums and libraries and things work.
It’s super frustrating because I’m used to teaching these things to undergrads, and I’m not particularly enjoying the way the tutor in our classes is handling discussion. This stuff really requires a lot of talk and testing from students; they really have to actually do the whole ‘meaning is made not innate to texts’ thing in class through their own discussions and exploration of readings. But this can’t happen if your (white, male, hetero, alpha-male…) tutor can’t let the discussion move away from him-as-focus. It’s really emphasising the way patriarchy relies on masculinist ways of communicating and engaging in public talk and the negotiation of ideas to maintain the status quo. And while this tutor is all about ‘multiple approaches to texts’ and so on, he can’t see that his own discursive style is enforcing boring old hierarchies and status and modes of engagement that marginalise women and not-patriarchy-types. This is way poop when your group is 90% middle aged women with badass careers behind them. I mean, you’ve gotta be doing something wrong if you manage to reduce a loud, enthusiastic, cooperative group of mature aged women students to silence. Self-reflexivity, please.
But I am really really really enjoying being back in a class again, as a student not a teacher. I did have to fight my instinct to manage the discussion in the first tutorial (especially when I could see the tutor squashing the discussion). It is hard to change the way I work in such a familiar setting. Tutorials are so clearly hierarchical. The tutor really is the alpha, or at least the guiding, structuring entity. And while I don’t mind being in the beta position (yahoo! no lesson planning!), I’m finding it hard not to act on my instincts to lubricate discussion. I think in part it’s because I’m also used to being in academic discussions where everyone knows how to talk – you know how to keep things rolling along.
I also think it’s a part of being a woman in talk – women tend to do more affirming, active listening and general social lubrication. I’ve noticed that women tend to respond to alphas in a particular way – affirming, listening, agreeing rather than volunteering ideas, disagreeing or asserting themselves. In a group setting, when faced with an alpha, I tend to square up, to assert myself. And I’m trying not to do that in this class because it then encourages a sort of competition between me and other alphas, but it also provokes a particular response from the women in the group – agreeing, nodding, etc. And while that’s all very nice, it also shuts you off from the sort of serious, hardcore communicating women do in all-female groups. Sure, there are particular hierarchies and power dynamics at work there, but they’re not such blunt objects. So I need to chill and step back because a) I’m not responsible for the smooth and productive running of the tute, and b) these are my peers, not my students and I’ll gain a lot from remembering that.
Basically, this has reminded me of how challenging being a university student is, and of how academia is – despite all this talk about discourse and collegiality – absolutely all about competitive, masculinised interaction. While it was professionally a good idea to learn how to do this type of behaviour when I was teaching, it’s actually a fairly shitty way to be in a cooperative, collaborative class setting. So I’m trying to – once again – stop talking and to listen more. To not be the first one to answer questions, and to not ‘take control’ of the discussion or social setting, even by doing things like massaging conversation or discussion, or heading off at the pass disruptive influences.
It’s also a real change to be a student within the university. I’m used to the status and privilege of teaching and researching. But as a student, no one will provide my reader, no one will tell me where to be at any one time, no one will organise rooms for me. Staff deal with me in a different way (I’m definitely lower status). It’s super-nice to have other students treat me as peers, though. It’s strange because though I’ve always tried not to be a ‘we are gods’ type academic, I’ve still benefited from the higher status of being staff. But I just haven’t noticed it. So that shift in status is kind of destabilising.
I noticed it most yesterday when I couldn’t find my lecture room. When you’re doing the teaching, everyone has to wait for you to find the room. But when you’re a student, things just continue whether you’re there or not. I found this a bit daunting because it was the first class of the semester for a new subject. So coming in late, I found it tricky to catch up.
This class was discussing stuff I really know nothing about – the internal architecture of information systems like google or databases or search engines. It’s taught by a computer science dood (who’s really a very good teacher and a lovely guy) and it’s run a bit like a computer science subject – practical lab work and lots of contact hours, but NO READINGS (that blows my brain). So I’m going to have to learn how to learn in this new type of setting.
I’m kind of lucky that I do do dance classes regularly – I have ongoing experience learning how to learn in a class, and being comfortable with not knowing things. I think that dancers in the lindy world are very much about learning and knowledge… well, most of them are. The ones who are interested in historical dance forms tend to be very interested in learning. Learning new steps, routines, etc. But there’s a great deal of difference between learning a routine from an archival clip or being in a dance class, and learning how to construct databases in a computer lab.
So being a student again is challenging. But it’s also very exciting. I really love being in a group again, rather than working independently as you do during a PhD. I love hearing other people talk about their ideas, and having my own brain fired up by their saying things I’d never have come up with. I love this part of teaching, but when you’re part of the group it’s as though you have permission to just let your brain go, and follow ideas much further. When I’m teaching, I have to stay on track and keep the discussion within some sort of structure, as you have some goals and definite things to achieve. But when you’re a stood, you can just let your brain run on and on and on. It’s fabulous, and I love it SO MUCH.
Meanwhile, less fabulously, the bathroom renovation continues. The tiling is going on as I type, insulated by my headphones. The floor will go in today (hopefully), and then it will be tiled tomorrow. The vanity should be in by the end of the week, and the plumber in and doing the bits and pieces that make water work and the toilet exist. Next week they put in the fittings and shower screen. So, really, it won’t possibly be done by next Wednesday, unless we’re really lucky. But it should be done by Friday.
I haven’t had a shower since Friday, and though I’m doing a good job with buckets, I’m looking forward to showering in Melbourne. Especially as I’ll be dancing so much. But the bathroom will look good, and I think I did a good job choosing the tiles. It’s all white, but the shade of white matches the old tub. The shiny (rather than matte) tiles mean it’s already far brighter in there, and the whiteness is really good for light. There’re no external windows, just a skylight, but the new downlights have also made a big difference. I’m not entirely happy about the vanity, as it will just eat up room, but we just couldn’t afford a custom-made one, which is what would be required. Well, we could have afforded it, but it’s not a good investment in a flat we won’t spend the rest of our lives in.
And that’s just about it, I think. I have some readings to do now. :D