Research Through Design 2015

rtd2015Recently I attended the excellent Research Through Design conference, hosted by Microsoft Research in Cambridge. I presented a paper on ‘Re-knitting: exploring openness through design’ and also collaborated with Professor David Gauntlett of the University of Westminster, giving an invited provocation on ‘Making, and making a difference’.

Of course, I took the opportunity of being at the conference, in the midst of an amazing community of design researchers, to talk to people about the Design Routes project - and to look out for papers which might relate to our areas of interest. Two, in particular, caught my eye…

Botanical Fabrication - A research project at the intersection of design, botany and horticulture by Carole Collet & Guillaume Foissac

Carole presented a fascinating research project which is investigating how designers might work with horticultural techniques to develop alternative sustainable manufacturing or ‘eco-facturing’ tools. After sharing a diverse range of design ideas which had emerged from a week-long research workshop, she then discussed one idea in detail: the cultivation of gourds within moulds to create casings for household products, such as radios or lamps.

As the authors explain in their paper:

The pose of the mould takes place as the gourd begins to grow and will not be removed until it is fully mature and the stem attaching the fruit to the vine begins to dry. Once harvested and left to dry over a few months, gourds naturally transform their outer skin into a hard shell comparable to wood … Traditionally, such dried gourds are used as decorative containers, birdhouses, and even as the core of musical instruments.

The second phase of the research project involved the development of this idea: adapting the traditional craft of dried gourds for use within a new type of production process.

The key objective was to inspire designers to look beyond the current manufacturing model and to explore ‘organic’ and slow alternatives for industrial production. Here the gourd shells are designed specifically to replace the plastic components of ubiquitous electronic products.

ma-31929957   Collet

Left: Snuff bottle made of moulded gourd. China, Qing dynasty, Qianlong period, 1736-1795, Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Image courtesy of Right: Detail of the multiplug and torch moulds applied to growing gourds with illustrations of the aimed results. Design: Guillaume Jandin, Christopher Santerre, Arnaud Wink, Justine Andrieu, Gaétan Barbé, Raphaël Pluvinage 2012. Image taken from the full conference paper.

As the authors acknowledge, this project is at an early stage and much further development would be required to overcome the many issues surrounding the ‘slow’ production of such products. However, for the purposes of the Design Routes research, I find this to be a particularly interesting example of a revitalised traditional craft. While I’ve collected many examples of traditional crafts being used to create contemporary versions of a particular product type, the Botanical Fabrication research goes further, exploring the application of a traditional process to the production of resolutely un-traditional objects - and considering the ways in which this production might be scaled up.

Want to read more? You can access the full paper here.

Walking off the garden path: a design journey by Liz Edwards, Paul Coulton and Mike Chiasson

Liz gave a great presentation about this design research which aimed to ‘enhance and support novel connections to nature in a garden’. Working in a Walled Kitchen Garden managed by the National Trust, and in collaboration with the volunteers and gardeners based there, Liz designed a number of fascinating digital interpretation projects.

One of these, the Rhubaphone, particularly took my fancy. The authors explain the starting point for this project in their paper:

The Walled Kitchen Garden holds over 130 varieties of rhubarb, and has a mission to preserve diversity, especially of heritage varieties. However many people are unaware of the existence of different types, as rhubarb it is often sold without reference to name. Even walking in the garden it can be hard to notice individual varieties because the broad leaves grow to flop over covering both stems and plant labels.

The Rhubaphone communicates information about this hidden diversity by using digital technology, combined with physical engagement:

Holding a stem of rhubarb causes the rhubarb to ‘talk’ as the Head Gardener tells its story. Letting go of the rhubarb causes the story to end, so sustained contact is required. This [uses] a capacitive touch sensor in combination with Arduino and Raspberry Pi … The installation has been overwhelmingly popular with gardeners and visitors, variously described as ‘fun’ and ‘innovative’.


Rhubaphone by Liz Edwards, with thanks to National Trust gardeners and volunteers at Clumber Park. Photo: Alex Johnson. Image taken from the full conference paper.

This project demonstrates an exciting design strategy that could be translated to culturally significant designs, products and practices. Just as there are many varieties of rhubarb, there is amazing diversity in traditional products - as showcased, for example, in the fantastic book England in Particular by Sue Clifford and Angela King. I’ve come across many initiatives which seek to support traditional and place-related products by communicating their diversity and value - but often these are through quite dry, ‘educational’ displays and texts. The Rhubaphone seems like a really exciting alternative means of telling these kinds of stories - and a lovely use of digital technology.

The other thing that struck me about Liz’s work was the time required: she emphasised that she was only able to create this work by spending extended periods of time in the garden, getting to know the place and people. This corresponds with a key message of another fab book, Design + Craft: the Brazilian Path by Adélia Borges. Borges argues that the most successful revitalisation projects depend on a sustained engagement between designers and artisans, rather than a ‘quick hit’ strategy.

Want to read more? You can access the full paper here.

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