I wake up on Monday morning - the first full day of DesignInquiry - with expectations. I am looking forward to finding out the latest in design research and practice.
When I enter the presentation room I feel like I am going back in time as a student at Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design where I studied communication design. We’re inside on a sunny spring day with dimmed lights watching a projected image on the wall. I hunker down on one of the couches and try not to fidget.
The presentations are fascinating. Florian Sametinger from Berlin’s Design Research Lab works on-site in Berlin communities. Sametinger sits on a couch with his computer balanced on his lap as he discusses his collaborative research into sustainable approaches to interaction design.
He shows a video about a project that has youth experimenting with basic materials, microchips, sound recorders and video equipment to envision future communication concepts. Sametinger describes another project about a neighborhood sharing system, where locals did a number of workshops, including a mapping exercise.
Next up is Deborah Saucier's neuroscience research into synesthesia. In simplified terms, this is a condition where people have dual sensory reactions. Synesthetes may associate specific colours with a corresponding sound or melody. Saucier uses graphic patterns to describe her research. She points out that a high percentage of artists and musicians are synesthetes. I recall Canadian musician Buck 65 talking about having this condition, it's also the name of one of his records.
After lunch the entire group takes a stroll up Boulevard Saint-Laurent led by David Szanto, a PhD candidate at Concordia. Szanto is a competent tour guide describing the history of the area and his research linking food to design. I ask Szanto about local food systems. He recommends la Le poulet Chantecler and la vache Canadienne as well as specialties such as locally grown apples and iced cider.
The walk is food-centred but Szanto is amenable to conversational diversions around the BIXI bike system, architecture and Quebec language laws. Language laws have played a major role in Quebec history. In 1976 the Charter of the French Language (Bill 101) was passed making French the official language for the population and the primary language of business.
Once the Bill was passed business owners stewed over signage. Proprietors with English signs needed to remove them or adjust them to the French translation. Szanto points to ‘Steve Pizza’ as an example of a hacked attempt at the requirement. “There must be a warehouse somewhere in Quebec full of apostrophes and 'S’s'.” muses Szanto.
Later, speeding underground on the retro, rubber-soled Métro, the discussion shifts from the history of language protection to predicting how language will evolve in the future.
Framer, Christopher Moore, recently saw the movie Into Eternity about the nuclear safety and the Onkalo nuclear waste repository on the island of Olkiluoto, Finland. He discusses the communication challenges that are arising around preparing instructions for how to properly maintain the facility. This is challenging because nuclear waste needs to be stored properly for 100,000 years and it's unclear how humans will be communicating and transferring information that far into the future.
Josh makes a joke about iomega Jaz discs which underscores the point about obsolescent media perfectly. I share a memory of my first graphic design job at a community newspaper where we used a waxer to assemble the newspaper by hand every week. I think finding the iconography and archival materials that would allow anyone in the future understand nuclear storage systems from 2011 is a characteristic of the sustainable design city.
The food walk was good prep for my first collaborative adventure: cooking for 24 people, with Gail from L.A. Bobby from North Carolina and Josh from Oakland. We had discussed our culinary strategy after the tour over stacked meat sandwiches, pickles and coleslaw at Schwartz’s deli. We reviewed our collective kitchen prowess and decided on pasta – using a perfectly aged design technique – keeping it simple. Chopping for 24 takes time. Supper is on the table by eight.
We reconvene in the screening room for dialogue on ad-hoc co-design, lines of desire and an analysis of the process for being designated a UNESCO City of Design. Anne Galperin, Associate Professor at the State University of New York at New Paltz, wants us to consider alternative avenues of design production. She’s suggesting that the City of Design needs a grass roots component in addition to the formal top-down initiative. "I'd like to know if local people, designers and non-designers, are interested in the possibility of working collaboratively on projects of joint interest.” She explains.
I retire to my room feeling exhausted from walking in the sun, shopping and cooking. This conference is hard work! I enjoyed the presentations – they are interesting and the participants are smart. But I can feel my brain stretching to find a link to what I came here to look at.
My interests are rooted in applied design - the stuff that is filling our landfills and the systems that rope citizens into being accomplices in unsustainable ways of getting around and constructing cities.
I am struck by the realization that I am the only person here that is not a formal researcher (professor or student). My work is pragmatic: online outreach, telling climate action stories and encouraging governments to reduce greenhouse gases. I wonder if researchers can be as opinionated as me.