Design Roots and Creative Ecology: Understanding culturally significant designs, products and practices

By Jeyon Jung, Lancaster University. Stuart Walker, Lancaster University. Martyn Evans, Manchester Metropolitan University. Tom Cassidy, University of Leeds. Amy Twigger-Holroyd, University of Leeds.

This paper has been published in Volume IV of Making Futures representing the proceedings of the international conference held in September 2015 by Plymouth College of Art. The on-line volume consists of over seventy papers – the largest in the series to date - from an original conference programme featuring approximately eighty-five presenters selected through double-blind peer review.

You can read the abstract below, and access a pdf of the full paper here.


Our research explores design’s role in developing and revitalising culturally significant designs, products and practices. Although such designs, products and practices can be seen as out of step with contemporary society, they have rich historical links with communities and cultures and have much to offer for the future in terms of sustainability, cultural identity and wellbeing (Gould 2001). This paper draws upon research being conducted by the authors that employs design-led methods to determine if and how design can make a meaningful contribution to this revitalization effort. In particular, we focus on cultural ecologies that are rooted to place, where culturally significant designs, products and practices emerge from place-based cultures.

Our work is informed by three examples of place-based cultures. One such culture is found in Malvern, which is home to a cyber security cluster. A high concentration of SMEs in the area enabled collaborative activities of making and designing of relevant products and services. This led to the development of a cultural ecology of contemporary, non-craft, cyber security enterprise, centralized in a specific location. Similarly, Morgan Motors, a family owned British motor manufacturer, have been producing in the same factory for more than 100 years, developing a local tradition of craftsmanship that transcends the community. Analysis of these examples foregrounds an in-depth case study of Santa Fe, where government policy, history, migration, heritage, culture, music, design, art, a festival and design identity all come together to form a unique place-based cultural ecology. Key informants for a series of semi-structured interviews profile both policy makers and craft makers from various fields of practice – e.g. weaving, carving, tinware, metalwork, pottery and so on – to draw out information relating to culturally significant product collections and making practices that emerge from this cultural ecology.

From this, we identify two incommensurable factors and their interactions that exist within cultural ecologies: materiality (either craft or non-craft) and expertise/craftsmanship. These two factors may be quite contradictory. Understanding materiality may need a more objective/scientific approach that is descriptive and non-temporal. Craftsmanship or expertise, however, requires a more experiential approach to understand its meaning to culturally significant designs, products and practices, which is interpretive, experimental, value-based (thus, meaningful), and temporal. Given the differences between these two factors, and their potential incommensurability, different approaches may be needed to understand them.

We conclude with an overview of how these cases are being used to inform our wider research – which aims to develop a framework for successful revitalisation through the application of design strategies to lead creation of cultural ecologies.

GOULD, H. 2001. Recognising Culture. UNESCO

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