Papercamp 2 writeup

PaperCamp is a sweet and strange little weekend affair. Mostly attended by friends or friends of friends, you end up having conversations about stuff, work, life and everything in between. Not quite recovered from my recent travels, I hastily put together a short rant on postcards. I won’t go through everything I talked about, that would be too boring. So here’s the executive summary:

– I made people make postcards addressed to someone else in the room and I was sending it on their behalf. They made beautiful things.

– If you like paper things and storytelling, go buy “The postcard Century”. The author collected postcards and shared their message with the readers. It’s voyeurism in its simplest form.

– Look into the history of the postcard, it will show you that issues of DRM, privacy and speed are old conversations we keep having over and over again.

– Transport for London made some postcards from the Future. They are nice and a little creepy too.

– Postcards are the original Twitter / geo-location mash-up.

– I have decided to bully Ben Burry into helping me make a thing since I can’t talk about something and not make something happen.

Thoughts on the paper experience

Two thoughts late in the evening as I continue to think about what makes paper different. Not better or worse, just different from pixels.

1. I bought this month’s Wired UK as I’m a sucker for a cup of earl grey and a read and right in the middle of it, there was a perfume sample ( l’Eau d’Issey pour hommes) and that made me happy. I like sticking my nose and inhaling a little portion of an experience someone is trying to sell me. It works because I can try it without buying it. It works because it gets me to stick my nose to a piece of paper. Totally strange gesture which, as women, you are invited to do all the time. To the extent that I’m sure most women know what glossy paper smells like. There’s something there.

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2. I’m reading another Duras at the moment. And I like showing off that I’m reading in a foreign language. It’s a peacock behaviour of course. Will pixels help with that at all? Where can we show off now that everyone and their chav cousin has an iPhone, soon an iPad?

Design as survival tool for the 21st century

Forgive this: a quick and dirty theory that I’ve been working on passively as I read Novecento this weekend lounging in a metal chair in the jardin Luxembourg in Paris and later as I flicked through this month’s Marie-Claire Maison in one of Brixton’s fashionable cafés.

I wonder if design as an activity, a field of practice and an economic lubricant is a way for us to survive. If we assume that desire is a fixed element in society, desire for others first, but then desire for wealth, glory, recognition, happiness, is desire of objects not an intellectual extension of that? Another mirror? Another way to tell a story about the lives we live? Another way to help us achieve the story we want to tell about ourselves?

If I am unable to connect with others in traditional ways and my social reference points are no longer in tribes, villages and local geography, is it not through the Ikea catalogue that I construct a sense of what home should be? In London, you barely get to see people’s houses, the way they live, but you can imagine them through the windows of Habitat. You can decide what your home should look like through the colour choices that Paperchase on Tottenham Court Road made on their second floor for Christmas. “That’s who I should be”, you think to yourself. In the same way, we consume fashion based on what we think is hip or what we want to communicate about ourselves, why shouldn’t it be the same with the objects we surround ourselves with? Psychological survival, the ability to chose who we are through what we show, what we buy, what we desire and what we design. The epitome of that thinking being “design art” that has emerged as its very own field of practice. Art is no longer enough, design and everyday objects need to make statements, call out to us, invite us for me, because we desire more meaning from them than they could initially give us. We long for “the other” whether that is a person or a new pair of curtain rods.

If we didn’t have that desire, if we were perfectly happy with what we had, would we not be empty? And would that be sad In the same way that lack of desire in life is seen as a bad thing and often associated with teenage angst?

Will think about this some more as I don’t think its anything new but it has been said that Pleasure disappoints, possibility never and I think our ability to recognise our dependancy to design, our addiction one might say, might be the key to separating one century’s thinking from the other.

Public failure at Interesting 09

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I had the great honour of speaking this Saturday at what I can only describe as a great British institution and cocked up massively trying to talk 300 people into making an origami box. Failure is a good thing, it’s something you can learn from, it makes you humble and since it was only the top of the iceberg of what I wanted to talk about, I thought I’d do it here and apologise for screwing up in a totally public way.

First things first, the theme was paper and since I’d done a 15 minute session at Papercamp last Feb, Russell thought it was a good idea to invite me back. I’m sure he regrets it now. This is what I would have talked about if given a second chance (these thoughts were enhanced from speaking with the lovely Georgina Voss):

– Paper as a tool for 2D to 3D thinking in design and creativity.

The invention of the paper bag

How paper was soaked with a vinegar-based solution during the plague

– Ransom letters, public ads, confession postcards, shopping lists, found magazines, sketch books, scrap booking, notes left behind.

– The new world of Kindle and what it means for paper.

– Quotes from Books vs Cigarettes.

– Lots and lots of images from Un/Folded.

– The myth of the paperless office and consumption of paper and paperboard per capita in the UK:
In 2005: 201.20 KG/person/year
In 1985: 138.41
In 1975: 108.66

– The reassurance of paper

– Humphrey Bogart for good measure (don’t ask)

Instead of all of that, i decided to pick from what I thought was the simplest origami I’d seen (after staring at books my friends lent me for months). It turns out you learn so much about language, signs, importance of steps and procedural thinking in origami, that taking 300 people cold turkey through about 20 different steps in 10 minutes was a rather bad idea. I enjoyed trying though and I hope people won’t be too cross with me. I was tired of giving talks and at the time, this seemed like a perfectly reasonable idea, until half way through when only 10 people were still tagging along…oh well. Next time.

To those young blessed souls

I’ve been invited to lead a sort of online discussion for the near-graduation 4th year students of the BA in Industrial design in Montreal. I was in their position in 2004 which seems like so ages ago and I remember the feeling. I felt like I was sortof on the brink of an abyss, the maternal warm womb of school finally letting go of me on the cold asphalt of reality, bills, student loans, rent to pay and generally not much hope for an industry that barely exists in Québec.

When I graduated in 2004, our class was 72 students. Most of them never got a job in design, only 2-3 of us went on to graduate school.
This year, the same course will have 12 graduates. I wonder who has adapted?

So I figured I’d post up some topics of discussions here since I’ve been asked to talk about “design and business”.

– We were told in 2004 that only 10% of us will go into design as a career. What do you think your chances are now?
– If you want to start a business, what will it be? What will be your USP?
– How important do you think the internet is to your future career?
– What do you think makes a good business person? Guts or reason?
– How many jobs do you think you’ll have in your career?
– Being your own boss? What do you think are the advantages/disadvantages?
– Working abroad: do you think its essential? what do you think about Québec as a market for your skills?

I look forward to the conversations very much, maybe I’ll get to see a mirror image of myself when I was young and innocent as Massimo says. :)

Know your food

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After Open Sauces in November, I got interested in food again, especially the way food is presented and communicated in the context of supermarkets. There’s something deeply depressing about the presentation of fruits and veg in the UK and there is also something cultural about that presentation. When I lived in Italy, access to certain vegetables was nearly impossible. In the UK, some of my American friends can never find the right types of chilis. In a way, global is a term more easily referring to people than our food, and I consider that a good thing.

Following on from that, I wanted to get back to the essence of what food was before it reaches our markets or our local corner shop. There used to be a simple understanding not only about where food came from, but how it actually grew and how it was harvested.

2 ideas surfaced: New guerrila food labels and a new way of displaying fruits and vegetables. In a day I managed to make the first one happen, the second one I would need a partner company to try this out. If you own a cool organic fruit and veg store or stall in London please get in touch!

Idea 1:

I thought I’d design a simple food label that would come on top of existing labels, something you could keep if you wanted to that would give you at least 4 pieces of information you didn’t know.

1. What the name of the item is, and its latin name. Why? I thought it was odd we’re quite willing to learn about plants and flowers in this way and not everyday items. Is it because they’re not posh enough?

2. What the item looks like “in nature” or in its more natural environment, with roots, leaves, the whole lot. The idea is to show how it looks before it’s been cleaned up for public display. We often may forget that some thing grow under the earth or on its surface, as a fruit in a tree or hanging from plants. Zuccini for example, is more or less and un-ripened pumpkin that is picked early enough for it to still be soft. Its the same family as the cucumber, but people don’t usually eat it raw.

3. When and where it was discovered. Fruits and vegetables don’t carry history with them, but it’s fascinating what you’ll find out about how Ancient Egyptians treated the onion.

4. Any other piece of random information or history. I wanted to make sure to pique someone’s interest enough that they’d want to know more or keep the label. I found out that the asparagus plant is protected by the tomato plant from insects for example.

All pictures of the project are on Flickr and were professionally executed by Matt Biddulph :)

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Design's role in the descending economy

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So I find myself more and more motivated to blog as a way to scratch an intellectual itch triggered just today by visiting the V&A’s Cold War Modern exhibition and coming back home to read the Guardian’s interview of Philippe Starck, Terrence Conran and Kirstie Allsopp.

As I walked through the Victoria and Albert’s completely packed exhibition (my fault for picking the last weekend this show was on) full of fabulously utopian housing projects such as Archigram ‘s concept design for the Instant City as well as their abandoned project of the Montreal tower for the 1967 Expo, posters from Atelier Populaire to encourage 1968 Parisians to protest in the streets, objects used in counter espionage in Russia and East Germany as well as “socialist plastics”, it was almost possible to forget we were talking about times where the dangers of the atom bomb, the Cold War, the construction of the Berlin Wall, Bay of Pigs and general cultural and political turmoil were part of everyday life and were felt and lived as a global community. The Western world was on alert and looking for something better.

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Product design, print, graphic design and architecture brought promise and hope for the future, whatever side of the iron curtain you were standing on. Not only that, but these fields were seen as political tools in themselves, because the message or image they conveyed was quite easy to communicate to a large audience. Schools were built to reinforce political agendas (not like today where it’s more often a corporate agenda that is being served), artists and film makers were invited to go to areas of political turmoil to bring their vision and perspective back home. Fewer mass media and a more focused cultural experience (not that this was always a good thing) allowed these visions of happiness and progress to be communicated and absorbed and believed. Innovation took place among fear and uncertainty.

Matt is quick to point out that perhaps this is something we can only explore now, some 40 years after, with a comfortable sense of perspective, but I genuinely feel that events like the Expo 1967 in Montreal or the Bruxelles Expo in 1958 had an impact in shaping people’s view of what was possible at the time. I don’t think that this is possible in this way anymore.

If something has come out of the Internet age it is specifically our ability to listen in to the micro-trends and micro-events that have been unheard and that we like, not the ones we might not hard heard of and probably should. Like choosing our own blinkers if you will. Again it’s been a blessing and a curse, for we’ve found a fantastic tool for self expression, creativity and global social understanding. At the same time, i doubt we know who our local MP is or who our neighbors are. When governments try to steer the public in a certain direction on some issues, we accuse them of treating us like nannies. Had the climate change issue been as central to us as the proliferation of the atom bomb, we would be in the streets asking for architects to create better buildings, products to stop using plastics, plastic bags to be eradicated, etc. Instead, we channel hop between issues that interest at the moment and hope that someone, somewhere will make the big decisions for us.

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Back to fear and uncertainty. The Guardian piece has Philippe Starck himself, one of the pioneers of the designer superstar model almost talking about service design “We need to stop thinking about ownership. We need to look at the idea of renting rather than owning.” while at the same time leading a reality TV show on BBC entitled School of design where he’ll be working with “Ten aspiring designers with the talent, drive and vision to create the next ‘must have’ products of the 21st Century”. I’m sure the economic downturn won’t affect his business as he seems to be covering all the angles.

Designers like Starck have contributed to a fashion-led and attention-deficient design industry that in these difficult times couldn’t possibly hold up.

The great principle of design have faded. Form no longer follows function but fashion. Less is more but a lot more often.

The eternal realist, I also would like to be an optimist. I hope the design industry emerges from the downturn a little wiser. I’ll be watching this year’s Milan Furniture Fair closely for signs of decay and for the type of utopian vision of the future that once inspired people. I look forward to hearing about more of the types of micro-projects like Russell Davies’s Speculative Modeling, for conferences that get the sustainability, web and design crowd together, to get people thinking ahead, being smart, innovating like crazy, creating and in constant forward motion, as opposed to a never ending sugar-coated merry-go-round.

In short, I hope design can once again give people something to hope for and look forward to instead of a quick fix.

2009 resolutions

I don’t like chocolate that much anymore and I’ve already promised myself to do more exercise, so all there’s left to commit to are a loose collection of interests I’d like to pursue in the coming year:

– Find out what’s behind the current trend of doomsday scenarios for the future..is it only a byproduct of a downturn? Can we find solutions to this general malaise? Is it common to former times of despair? (Great depression? Great war?) Future-casting is now a completely depressing activity (see Trend Blend 2009.

– Where is design going exactly? On one hand we have very cheap and limited productions by a limitless number of young aspiring designers being pumped out of every design school in the world every year (see See Super Christmas Market), then we have design for the masses with every new version of iPod or Dyson vacuum cleaner which is actually a great vacuum for the car, then we have luxury focused products made by signature designers ( see the rest of OLPC designer Yves Béhar‘s work as an example ), then we have design that wants to occupy the same function as art , then architects who design products (although that’s always been a sort of tradition) and then design as a business solution. I’m interested in this absolute dilution and often wonder if the field will dissapear entirely as we enter the post-modern age and industrialised processes break down and shut down or if people will stop referring to “design” as an activity at all. Will design be a word that will become “dirty” in 30 years, by referring to an era of 100 years of absolute excess?
Related: Will product designers stop using Flash in their websites and start participating in the global internet conversation? What would convince them?

– How can you teach people management skills when they are young entrepreneurs who don’t have an MBA? I’m sure there’s a ton of stuff out there, but i’m looking for bite-sized advice.

– Can people be interested in DIY problem-solving when they’ve been spoon-fed with produts to fulfill every solution to every problem they could imagine in the past 60 years? What can we learn from our grand-parents? Should governments be taking a more active role?

– Sustainability / climate change / global warming is impacted by sets of constraints and imbalances in a system we can’t quite wrap our heads around, can we build a machine (not unlike this one) to illustrate the problems tangibly?

– What is the next generation of web-enabled products and interactions? I can feel this is really going to be very exciting. Should designers and developers be working together on this? YES!

There, that should keep me busy.

Fighting the war against terror by blowing air up your shirt

Just went through 2 “secondary security” checks at San Francisco airport today and got introduced to this delightful contraption.

“To collect microscopic particles for analysis, the EntryScan3 takes advantage of a natural upward airflow around the body called the “human convection plume.” By not using forced airflow from a fan-which stirs up dust and other contaminants-cleaner samples are collected.”

What this means is that you walk into this box with glass doors on one end and without warning they will spray you with air quickly and at every angle. Not only is it really scary and unexpected, but you also get the added pleasure of having it blow your shirt upwards… not usually what you’re looking for from a security device.

Gotta love the US.