Tim Parsons’s parents aren’t really artistic, although his grandmother was encouraging and his grandfather had a shed of tools out back. Tim’s interest in art was really sparked at school. When he was 13, he took a graphic communication course where students were given the choice to focus on design or technical drawing, and a young Tim chose design. It seemed more exciting than the drawing route.
As I got into my education, though, I wanted to find the quickest route possible to getting a job in graphic design. One of the first courses I did was at a local technical college in the southwest of England, and I was getting my national diploma (what you can do between ages 16 and 18). I didn’t actually do the A-levels like Maths or English, which now, I kind of regret.
For the final project in a course, he told me he created packaging and graphics for a program akin to Photoshop. Immediately, I interrupt him to say that I’m very impressed with the arts education he and Jess received. I remember the letter holder I made as a 12-year-old in shop class, its simple composition consisting of the letter ‘N’ on one side with a black and red spray painted color scheme. All of our introductory projects in home economics from square pillows to woven pot holders were similarly rudimentary. Rather than school-based arts activities, community programs excited, challenged, and gratified me. As a high school student, I was not required to take arts courses, but I loved music, so I continued to pursue it, and the offerings were generally strong. I continued to audition for state and regional competitions and play in national camps and the local municipal band in summers. The more complex skills and repertoire I learned resulted from my own will, not the guidance of the state’s educational system. It’s fortunate that students in the UK didn’t have to do so much supplementing in their education. Tim agrees; his school-based arts education does sound unusually advanced compared to mine.
At the end of studies for the diploma, Tim and his classmates were tasked with creating the annual program and event calendar for a theater company. “It was a lot of work, but we were really pleased with what we did,” Tim said. “But that [kind of project] is really ephemeral, something people throw out after they’re done. I wanted to think about some things that were more permanent,” he said. Once, he bought his parents a French Press coffee maker as a gift. Thinking the press was a very clever device and nicely designed, Tim decided to bring it in for a class drawing project. He made a rendering of all the components and treated it like a new product. When his teacher saw what he had done, he suggested Tim take a course in industrial design, since in essence, the exercise he’d just taken himself through would be considered typical of the field. For the first time, Tim’s thinking shifted consciously toward the character of 3-dimensional objects.
* * *
Some people describe design as a tension between pragmatism and idealism. The field often approaches issues from a problem solving perspective: assessing a situation, providing a practical solution, assigning value to objects, ideas, and processes. To administer this process requires the ability to activate the imagination and dream, meaning design can be quite responsive and context-specific if we allow it to be.
What if we changed up our definitions of functionality and effectiveness?
* * *
At this point, Tim hadn’t quite determined what he thought the “work” of design could be, or perhaps its more noble intentions; he only knew it as a career choice in which he needed to decipher its path. By the time he enrolled in a Masters program at the Royal College of Art in London (RCA), he’d begun to think more about how theory, education, and studio practice worked together. Many of the practicing designers he admired were also educators. The design history courses during his undergraduate studies were very good, and this made him give serious consideration to teaching and how it might benefit his own practice. Soon, he was offered part-time teaching opportunities, which confirmed that education was valuable to his work as a designer, and he enjoyed teaching; when the opportunity to teach undergraduates full time at Manchester Metropolitan University presented itself some years later, Tim took it. “I may not be the most experienced designer [at the time], but I have this body of knowledge I can bring to these undergraduates,” he said. “I also started writing then, and started to think of my practice as this kind of triumvirate – design, writing, and teaching.”
Tim is very measured, thoughtful, and methodical in palpable ways. In musicology classes as an undergraduate student, I learned that composition was not an easy task for Brahms, and I would come to admire many of his works and perform them from a compassionate place as a result. Brahms’s perfectionism likely made him his own worst critic. (Who knows how many masterpieces he held back or destroyed in the quest to “get it right.”) And while I imagine that Tim has neither set fire to a significant portion of his oeuvre like Baldassari famously did, nor finds himself in euphoric cycles of creative flow (perhaps like Mozart), I suspect a sense of responsibility weighs on him. Part of Brahms’s difficulty with composition is rooted in feeling obligated to honor the great German forms with which he worked, counterpoint, chief among them. The core of counterpoint is relationships — between the soprano, alto, tenor, and bass voices, between rhythm, shape, and contour. Perhaps Tim might think of objects and ideas in a similar way. Perhaps he is driven by the need to discover and understand their relationships.
In the 1971 essay, “The Function of the Studio,” Daniel Buren describes a traditional and familiar notion of the artist’s studio: solitary, private, worksite, a place where artists go to realize ideas. It is filled with prototypes and concept pieces, half-completed or even abandoned works alongside works-in-progress. In Buren’s view, this is a carefully guarded and regulated space, and only at the appropriate time is the curator, dealer, or critic allowed to enter, but only to advance the winnowing process for works to be displayed in the public realm. The objects selected for their potential to enter the gallery, museum, or critical writing text must be malleable and adaptable to the specificity of those varying contexts; however, this changeable nature may inadvertently create a context for which the work may never have been intended. For Buren, this situation suggests that the studio might be the only real place for an object to belong.
Design studios add a further complication to these ideas of where studio objects belong. Much of modern design – the industrial, mass-produced kind – revolves around theories of scale. If objects are similar in look, feel, and form, they can be produced quickly en masse. A spoon works the same everywhere and serves the same purpose with similar efficiency, and so can a sofa, perhaps even a building. The unique design of the object likely begins in much the same way as a sculpture: a maker seeking to render a recognizable form in an exceptional way. But when does scalability get in the way of the object’s responsiveness, its specificity? Does scalability always cause such disruption? Must societal good and unity need to be reflected as utilitarian, sterile objects?
Is there a place for the replicable context-specific designed object?
A little more than 40 years later, Alex Coles provides an alternative to Buren’s way of thinking. In The Transdisciplinary Studio, he suggests that our contemporary moment puts us in a post — maybe even a post-post — studio world because of our willingness to recognize that artists work in ways that move the studio beyond a space of linear ideas, defined only by the discipline of the maker. Most makers explore materials, media, and subjects seemingly unrelated to their core disciplinary area, and it is this ability to be fluid – to experiment, to delve into the ambiguous and unknown, to test and hypothesize – that allows what appears to be disconnected to unify. Every person, idea, and material that comes in contact with the studio affects what it ultimately produces. This is a studio no longer isolated from the world. The objects it manifests are of it. A certain nimbleness is important to exploring and expanding the boundaries of creative practice. Its mastery can make the studio appear like the site of magic.
During an undergraduate study trip to Norway, Jess discovered semiotics (the study of the use and interpretation of symbols), which sparked an interest in nonverbal communication. She began to read dense, theoretical texts on the topic and focus on how design influences verbal and non verbal exchanges. Jess’s thesis project consisted of an installation of tactile ceramic sound objects, and the companion text for the project became a way to articulate the thought process of someone interacting with this kind of multi-media hybrid artwork. Now she began to use critical theories to communicate a rationale for the existence of her designed objects and give them meaning.
When Jess completed her undergraduate studies, she understood that her way of working and thinking about design was not typical. She wasn’t sure what to do afterward: what kind of job to pursue, what type of environment would best suit her. A mentor from the program encouraged her to apply for a new master’s course at the RCA, but she wasn’t sure. She had not yet identified many role models for her way of thinking and working, so she decided to delay graduate school for a year to stay at Manchester. Her semiotics research had taken her into the realm of human behavior, further clarifying her ideas and approach to design and meaning making. By the time of her matriculation, the RCA Design Interactions program had transformed. Professors like Fiona Raby and Anthony Dunne (of the innovative Dunne & Raby design studio) who conducted projects and tutorials about the social, cultural, and ethical implications of existing and emerging technologies made her enrollment worthwhile. Learning about stimulating conversations in various fields around these issues about the social and ethical implications of technologies opened new possibilities for Jess. She began to think about wonder how a feeling of wonder, play, and questioning – speculation – might assist design in its urgency to “handle” and “decrypt” problems.
Jess spent most of her time during the program reading and researching. This was a new way of working for her – thinking about possible futures and alternative scenarios rather than focusing so heavily on production. Problem solving, she determined was step one, but now she needed to think critically about those solutions and communicate her ideas to the larger world. She wanted to find a way to make this process more active, too: How might people begin to think about imagining alternative futures for themselves?
Upon graduating, Jess knew she wanted to continue living in London, and after a few false starts at traditional design practices and research firms, she began working for a company that allowed her to conduct market research and design ways of communicating and interacting with people, and then translating it to clients. “There was one project where I had to speak to 50 people and remember them all, so I made a ‘mind map’ to turn them into ‘characters’ that could be used to design reports for mobile electronics companies,” she remembers. She understood now that much of design research is about fiction – a skewing of “truth” and explains:
I think the act of design changes when we use a fictional protagonist and give them a narrative. In a few cases, what you’re looking at is an object that has been acquired or even designed by this fictional character. Your role [as a designer] is almost like an actor. You’re not directly expressing your values through the way you’re designing an object, but you’re trying to express something through someone else’s view of the world: Would this person be a good maker, what decisions would they have made to arrive at this object . . .? It will always conform to the designer’s views and ethical positions, but you are still stepping outside of yourself, anticipating how a scenario might play out.