Tools for thinking

Friday, May 1, 2015

In my last two posts I discussed 'platforms for creativity', the topic of a collaborative talk I gave with David Gauntlett in Dundee in January. This time, I'll focus on the theme of the workshop we ran that afternoon: tools for thinking.

(I'm only just getting round to this now because I've been busy writing a book - very exciting! - and being pregnant - even more exciting!)

Anyway: tools for thinking. Before the workshop, we said: Each participant is asked to bring along one object – or set of objects! – which you think might be fruitful ‘tools for thinking’. This could be anything really. Don’t worry about it, but bring something. David and I also brought a pile of stuff for people to play with.

During the workshop we asked the participants to fill in a Top Trumps-style card to evaluate the 'affordances' of their tools: what they could do with them.

This got me thinking about different types of tools for thinking, that can be used in different ways. I'm interested in tools that can be used either for a group discussion, or for individuals making individual responses to a question or prompt, that they can then share. 

Tools for fiddling

Lots of the tools that worked well were things that you could fiddle with, keeping your hands occupied while a conversation unfolds. This is quite a basic type of tool for thinking, but a very valuable one, I think. When we're engaged in a practical activity we talk more openly, partly because we're saved from having to keep eye contact, and also because there's less pressure to keep the conversation going - there's time to think, and reflect, and just contribute when we're ready. When people are undertaking the same activity together, it creates a sense of connection, and that supports open discussion, too.

There are loads of objects that you can fiddle with - though stuff that you can transform, connect or build with in some way is probably the most satisfying. In general I prefer everyone to be fiddling with one type of stuff, rather than - as I've found is often the case - being presented with a random pile of craft materials. And I think it's nice if the material you're fiddling with bears some relation to the topic at hand - or at least, doesn't actively distract from it.

When choosing your tool, you might consider: Is this stuff good for fiddling with? Are any skills needed? Do the group have those skills? Is any instruction required?

Also: Is the stuff familiar to the group? Will it appeal to them? Does it complement or clash with the topic we want to discuss?

Tools for creating metaphors

Tools for thinking can be used in another way: to create metaphors that represent ideas, people and emotions, which you can combine to build up models. This is the basis of David's great work using Lego in social research and, recently, other academic contexts. In order to do this, you need things with metaphorical affordances - they might be objects, like Lego, or you could also draw pictures, or even (boringly but straightforwardly) write down keywords using the seemingly omnipresent post-it note.

It's worthwhile thinking about how easy it is to use the tool for representing things; if it's too vague, you're likely to get confused or spend too much energy trying to work out how to use it. And with some tools (plasticine, for example) it's easy to get bogged down in trying to make a perfect representation - rather than thinking about the thing you're representing.

It's good for the elements to be repositionable: that way, you can think and reflect as you build, and change your mind. This is why I think drawing a diagram - which seems like such an obvious means of building a metaphorical model - isn't great; once you've put something down on paper, you're stuck with it. I also have a preference for 3-d objects over 2-d representations, partly because I find them more engaging, but also because 3-d things tend to also be good tools for fiddling. Double-good tools for thinking!

Tools for making connections

Finally, there are tools that are good for making connections. I can think of three versions of this:

  • You could use something long and thin (or things that you can join together to make something long and thin) to connect some of your metaphorical tools in significant ways; this might add complexity and space to your model.
  • If your 'tools for fiddling' allow, you could work together using the same lot of stuff; this would create physical connections between the people in the group which visualise the shared activity and conversation.
  • Alternatively, you might come up with a shared hare-brained scheme, that breaks out of the expected discussion format; one of the groups in Dundee thought tea was a good tool for thinking, and took off to find a kettle together! I like to think that this created a sense of connection, and that they had a fruitful discussion while the kettle boiled.

Happy thinking, everybody!


Platforms for creativity #2

Monday, March 30, 2015

In my last post, I mentioned the talk on Platforms for Creativity that I co-presented with David Gauntlett in Dundee in January. Having had more time to reflect, I now want to capture a few points that I/we made in the talk, that aren't written down elsewhere.

In talking about 'platforms for creativity', we were thinking about initiatives that support people to creatively express themselves - from the perspective that these activities have many benefits in terms of openness, connectedness, well-being, social change and sustainability. (You can read our discussion about the links between creativity, sustainability and social change in our blog posts on sustainability and small steps.)

Our starting point for the Dundee talk was a list of eight principles for building platforms for creativity, which David came up with after working in collaboration with three different media organisations. All of these projects aimed to create digital platforms through which people could 'contribute their own creative expressions within a structured environment'. You can read the eight principles in this blog post, originally written in April 2012.

In our talk, we discussed the idea of platforms for creativity and then a number of initiatives which could be described in this way. One of these projects was my Knitting Circle, part of the Keep & Share Knitting Tent which has popped up at various summer music festivals over the past few years. Although David's eight principles had been written in relation to digital platforms, when I first heard him talk about them I realised that they applied just as much to my 'real world' Knitting Circle as to online environments. This helped me to see my own project in a new way, and think about how I might amplify the positive characteristics of the experience. (You can read a bit more in this post from July 2012.)

Other examples of platforms for creativity that we discussed - and which the eight principles could also potentially apply to - included the many workshops using Lego that David has run over the years (notably discussed in his book, Creative Explorations); the fabulous Smörgåsboard project by Melanie Bowles and Kathy Round, which supports people to design their own printed textiles; the Global Cardboard Challenge, which simply invites children to create amazing stuff from cardboard; and De Chocoladefabriek in Gouda - a fantastic, multifaceted, creative civic space.

In discussing this diverse range of examples, we realised that although platforms for creativity often involve tools - physical or digital things that support making - there is an important role for elements which are often less tangible and visible: tasks and spaces. In the case of the Global Cardboard Challenge, for example, the 'tools' are commonplace; the 'platform' is essentially the open task which invites people to participate, and the online space where they can share their creations.

We also discussed the workshops I carried out as part of my PhD research, where I supported a group of amateur knitters to try out a range of re-knitting techniques, and eventually to creatively rework an item from their own wardrobes. This project can be seen as a platform for creativity, because the participants went beyond what they had previously thought possible, in terms of their ability to design for themselves and make confident creative decisions. 

The workshops took place at my knitwear studio, which was seen as being a creative physical space. More importantly, the structure of the project offered a conceptual space in which the knitters were given 'permission' to be creative: to experiment, to make mistakes, to try out ideas - and to 'waste time' in doing so. As one of the participants observed:

Well, that's been the thing about these workshops, and the space between them, is... I'm getting permission by being here. To play around with things, and it's not wasteful to spend time doing things and pulling them back.

It's a freedom that you have, but you don't know you've got.

At one of the early workshops, I asked the participants to gather inspirational materials that they might subsequently use to design with. I wasn't sure how they'd respond - would they find it tricky to find stuff? But at the next workshop they turned up with piles of fantastic inspiration! Intriguingly, they'd managed to gather all of this from within their homes - suggesting that, in this case, they already had the physical 'tools' which would help them to be creative. Through the structure of the project - the permissive space and the specific task - I'd enabled them to see things they already owned through a creative lens, with new potential.

At the end of our talk we concluded that platforms for creativity can take many forms, and vary in scale - but that all are about creating opportunities. They need structure, which can be created through tools, tasks and spaces; and successful platforms are underpinned by a sense of invitation, or even permission.

With all this in mind, I'm now wondering: How simple can platforms for creativity be? How much can we incorporate pre-existing tools, rather than inventing new ones? What are the qualities which create that sense of permission? And might it be possible to frame elements which initially appear rather fixed - such as a conventional knitting pattern - as a platform for creative exploration?


Platforms for creativity #1

Sunday, February 15, 2015

At the end of January, David Gauntlett and I went up to Dundee to give a talk on Platforms for Creativity and run a workshop on Tools for Thinking. Both went really well, and we were especially pleased to be part of the celebrations for Dundee being named as a UNESCO City of Design. 

You can read some information written in advance of the event here, and see a fantastic Storify of the whole day - put together by our host, Mike Press - here. Many thanks to all the participants for tweeting and blogging so comprehensively!

In our talk, we explained that we were thinking about platforms for creativity as being opportunities for people to creatively express themselves and transform their worlds. Importantly, we thought about the 'platforms' as supporting people to achieve things beyond what that they might otherwise think possible.

David spent some time hunting for a nice image to represent this idea - but found that most images of real-world platforms start broad at the bottom, and gradually become narrower. In contrast, we wanted to show that our conceptual platforms opened up new opportunities - so, visually, the shape should start narrow and grow upwards and outwards.

When I got home, I realised that I had the answer to this visual conundrum in my bag: two sets of building blocks. I'd taken one set along to the workshop as a potential tool for thinking, and picked up the other in the Dundee Contemporary Arts shop as a treat for our house. As I started to play with them, I realised that there's a natural tendency when playing with blocks to try to defy gravity - to grow upwards and outwards! (That's particularly possible with the ace new set of blocks - the hexagonal 'Brutalism' set from Areaware.)

So, here we go: a couple of visual representations of 'platforms for creativity', just a couple of weeks too late.


'Sustainable fashion' and binary thinking

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

I realised something recently. It's pretty simple, but seems rather important.

This realisation emerged from a comment someone made about my work on homemade clothes and sustainability. They challenged the whole idea of 'sustainable fashion', arguing that too often people assume that sustainable fashion is 'better' than mass-produced fashion - when strategies such as making our own clothes at home might bring their own challenges and limitations.

In response, I explained that I don't think homemade clothes are automatically more sustainable than mass-produced clothes (though they certainly have the potential to be) - in fact, that's the central point of my whole thesis - so, effectively, I agreed with the point they were making.

However, I quietly sidestepped the larger issue they raised. I could only think: well, of course I think sustainable fashion aims to be 'better'! That's the goal, right? Seeking solutions to problems and new ways of doing things? That's what we're all working towards!

Over time, I've come to realise that my confusion over this comment indicates two totally different understandings of what 'sustainable fashion' means. The first is binary, while the other (my own) is aspirational.

The binary understanding sees 'sustainable fashion' and 'unsustainable fashion' as two distinct categories. From this perspective, 'normal' high street fashion falls within the 'unsustainable' category - while anything placed within the 'sustainable' category carries the implicit claim of 'betterness'. 

This binary view is certainly easy to understand: it efficiently splits the fashion world into baddies and goodies. It helps you to feel good as a consumer - having picked the virtuous option versus the negative one. It's also a logical perception: if designers and journalists talk about 'sustainable fashion' it implies a single, unified group which exists in opposition to its nemesis, 'unsustainable fashion'. 

However, given the complexity of the fashion system, the energy and resources consumed in creating and maintaining garments, and the many human and social factors involved in wearing clothes, no initiative can truly claim to be 100% sustainable. I learned early on that this is true of design for sustainability more generally - you will always be trading off advantages against disadvantages, and dealing with unexpected impacts. There are no easy wins! 

From the binary perspective, there is great scope for challenging those who describe their work as sustainable fashion - the critics need only point to the inevitable negative impacts of their initiatives to argue that they are (at best) naive idealists, who have not considered the implications of their well-intentioned efforts.

In contrast, my understanding of sustainable fashion is that it's an aspiration - something that, to be honest, we haven't yet achieved. As a fashion designer exploring alternative fashion systems with sustainability as a goal, I might describe my work as 'sustainable fashion' - but that's a shorthand for the aspirations I have sought to pursue, not for '100% goodie'.

And I'm not alone. I don't know of a single person working within the field of sustainable fashion who thinks in this binary way - that what they are doing is definitively 'better' than the norm. Instead, I see a lot of people pursuing different approaches - based on their own priorities, interests and talents - and trying to expose alternative, more sustainable, ways of delivering the benefits of fashion. They are highly aware of the negative impacts of the strategies they are developing, and the trade-offs they are making.

Meanwhile, many of these people are working with the 'baddies' of the high street fashion world, seeking to explore alternatives on an industrial scale through collaboration, rather than competition - challenging that binary view from another angle.

Simple, right? We were talking at cross purposes all along. Just a shame it took me so long to realise!

I guess we all need to get a bit better at explaining what we mean by 'sustainable fashion'.


Three months, three exhibitions

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

There's been a sudden rush of activity on the exhibition front!

Knitwear: Chanel to Westwood

On 19 September, the fantastic Knitwear: Chanel to Westwood exhibition opened at the Fashion & Textile Museum in Bermondsey, London. The main exhibition is an incredible showcase of twentieth century knitwear, featuring not only work by big name designers, but also popular vernacular styles (such as a display of beautiful Fair Isle jumpers). Sitting alongside is the Visionary Knitwear display, curated by Sandy Black, a 'showcase of bold visions in contemporary fashion knitwear' - including my stitch-hacked piece, St Michael - 12 - 40 (shown, in situ, above).

I highly recommend the exhibition for all knitwear fans! It runs until 18 January 2015, and visitor information can be found here.

Brave Fixed World

Soon after attending the private view of the Knitwear exhibition, I was packing up work for another display - this time in Poland, part of Łódź Design Festival. The exhibition is called Brave Fixed World, and is curated by Daniel Charny (known for his fantastic Power of Making exhibition at the V&A in 2011). I'm sad that I won't get to see the exhibition, because it sounds great! Here's the introductory blurb:

The world we live in is shaped by the heroic successes of mechanisation and mass-production. The democratisation of access to goods and improved quality of life brought about by industrial production has come at a price. While the abundance of cheap standardised products strain our environment, we are distanced from the experience of making, so leaving many with the limited choices of buying new or doing nothing. This ‘Brave New World’ needs fixing.

The Gallery element looks at ‘fixes’ covering a range of activities ... fom these examples the Fixhub invites debate and speculation on what our world may be like if fixing became the norm? What if it became a legal imperative or a sweeping social movement? 

The exhibition runs from 10 to 19 October, and will feature my re-knitting work: the 'spectrum' diagram (which shows an array of re-knitting options), the 'tester' jumper showing five different treatments, and my first ever stitch-hacked piece, 'Who Made This?'.

Knitting Nottingham

Hot on the heels of the exhibition in Poland is Knitting Nottingham, an exhibition at Nottingham Trent University's Bonington Gallery which explores 'new knitting directions and technologies, which challenge current knit practice and offer future-focused ideas'. It celebrates Nottingham Trent University’s 170 years of knitting education, design and research.

Once again I'll be showcasing my re-knitting 'spectrum' diagram, my PhD 'tester' jumper, and a different stitch-hacked piece: ATH + Jayfor.

Knitting Nottingham runs from 6 to 28 November (plus a preview evening on 6 November), and is free to attend. Visitor information can be found here


Externalities and social goods

Thursday, June 26, 2014

I’ve been so busy recently - reading, writing, moving the studio - that I haven’t had chance to blog. But I have lots of ideas for things I want to blog about! So I have reminded myself that I don’t need to write the perfect blog post about each one. I figure that it’s better to capture the idea, even if it’s somewhat half-baked, than not at all. 

Therefore - here we go with one topic that was sparked by a paper I read for the research project I’m working on, Design Routes.

The topic is the not-particularly-exciting-sounding question of ‘externalities’. Externalities are a concept in economics, which I have heard discussed in terms of sustainability.

Simply speaking (and blatantly borrowing from Wikipedia), externalities are costs that affect a party who did not choose to incur that cost. So, for example, if an industry produces air pollution, which negatively affects the environment (and other people), and the cost of that pollution is not included in the price of the products the industry produces - then that cost is an externality. 

This is a big problem in sustainability terms, because it means that the price we pay for goods does not reflect their true cost in environmental and social terms - and so the economic system we live within encourages us to produce and consume at rates which are literally unsustainable.

(Of course, this whole concept is rather narrow-minded, in that it assumes that you can put a price on everything - and suggests that negative impacts are ok, as long as they are costed in. But that’s a problem of economics in general, rather than externalities specifically, I think. I certainly don’t want to see the world through the prism of the market, but I think you can borrow the idea to think about costs in broader, non-quantified terms - such as human costs, social costs, and environmental costs. That would probably (hopefully?!) horrify an economist, but it works for me.)

The other day I came across a paper by Jeff Dayton-Johnson (download it here) about an economic framework for ‘cultural products’ - such as, in the case of our project, designs and products which are associated with particular places, and traditional craft processes. He argues that these cultural products contribute to ‘social goods’ - things which benefit society, like social cohesion and a sense of identity. Thus, the benefits are felt by third parties, external to the organisations and businesses which are producing the cultural products themselves. 

Reading this, I suddenly realised that externalities can be positive, as well as negative. (Of course, when I read the Wikipedia page, this was pointed out right away. But it was a revelation to me!)

The paper describes four different types of positive externality associated with cultural products. I particularly like the idea of ‘intergenerational externalities’, in which actions today contribute to a ‘dense and diversified cultural base’ which encourages and enables action in the future - it relates strongly to my idea of the fashion commons.

However, the producers of these cultural products don’t receive payment for the wider benefits they create, or at least contribute to. This is a problem because - to refer to trusty Wikipedia again: ‘if there are external benefits … less of the good may be produced than would be the case if the producer were to receive payment for the external benefits to others’. 

I’m certainly not arguing that we should try to quantify social goods - or that craft makers should somehow receive a payment in exchange for their contribution to, say, social cohesion - but I do think that this idea of positive externalities is a useful one in arguing for the importance and value of place-related products and traditional craft processes, beyond the price on the tag.


An Emotional Makeover and other stories: dreaming of upcycling services

Monday, May 19, 2014

Presenting an unseen piece of writing from the Keep & Share archives!

I wrote this for publication in early 2010, but I don't think it ever saw the light of day. So, here it is - outlining some four-year-old, but probably still relevant, thoughts on fashion upcycling. 

At the end, I've added some present-day reflections!


An Emotional Makeover and other stories: dreaming of upcycling services

Upcycling, at its best, has the potential to add value and dramatically extend the useful life of materials and products. An admirable goal - but as a maker concerned about the huge quantity of clothing bought and thrown away every year, I have a worry. Surely upcycling also has the potential to be a one-off event which simply creates more fashion items to be discarded in the usual way?

Once upon a time, a talented designer decided to set up in business. Wanting to be eco-conscious, she kept her fashion label small-scale and local, and used a particular style of outdated sweater, gathered from local charity shops, as her raw material. With painstaking effort, she re-fashioned the tired old garments to fit in with the latest trend. She was proud of her achievements when she sold each one at a premium price, having added value through her work.

Her pride was short-lived, however - before too long her 'upcycled' items began to appear in the charity shop racks, now out of fashion themselves. Her dismay only increased when the original, dated sweaters became ultra-desirable again, their appeal now described as 'classic'. How many such examples had she destroyed?

In this cautionary tale, the feel-good element disguises the small beneficial impact of this one-off upcycling 'event'. The increase in value is temporary; the upcycling process consumes resources; and the method of upcycling may preclude further future adjustments, consigning the materials in the garment to the scrap heap. This rather depressing scenario is a far cry from the life-affirming, positive upcycling proposed by William McDonough and Michael Braungart (2002). Time to dream of a more uplifting upcycling future...

Upcycling services

Our clothing system is almost exclusively focused on the purchase of new garments and their rapid replacement, and upcycling activities that imitate the norm will do little to change it. To really see the benefit of upcycling - the sustaining of material value - we need systems that work in different ways: upcycling services, rather than upcycled products. Let's think of services as actions which add value to existing garments or materials, and replace the purchase of new items. 

Upcycling services have the potential to reconfigure our fashion landscape, divorcing fashion from consumption. If we can find ways to satisfy our fashion urges in ways other than the purchase of shiny new garments, our fashion system could become more eco-effective. According to McDonough and Braungart, eco-effective products and services replenish the world, with 'designed-in' positive side effects. Such a situation would mean that far from having to 'go without' to achieve sustainability, we could indulge our urges without guilt. An enticing idea, indeed, and one which may help us to imagine how we can tempt purchase-addicted consumers to change their behaviour.

Perceived value

In a typical upcycling system, materials have different applications over time; when something is no longer useful at one stage, it progresses to the next. Part of the difficulty of conceiving upcycling systems for fashion is that the useful life of a garment is largely defined by non-material, rather than practical, factors.

Van Hinte (1997) describes 'psychological life span' as the time that products are able to be perceived as worthy objects. The psychological life span of a garment is highly personal and subjective. Typically, a garment is high in perceived value at the time of purchase, and gradually loses this appeal as it falls out of favour. Both personal emotions, and a changing fashion context, have the power to affect how valuable we perceive a garment to be. A strong emotional bond has the power to make us want to keep, and keep wearing, a visually unremarkable garment; conversely, our perception of a garment as valuable may be prematurely cut short by fashion magazines deeming its style as totally 'out'. These complex factors combine to make it difficult to identify when a garment's useful life, in its current form, is 'finished'. Our upcycling services, therefore, will need to be creative and versatile, ready to adapt to different scenarios.

Similarly, we must consider that the value we add through upcycling will also be subjective. The fact that clothing serves a range of 'hidden' roles, such as identity and belonging, is at once a potential headache and a great opportunity. It opens up the thought that our upcycling services could be not only physical - such as repairing or re-fashioning - but also non-material, or even a potent combination of the two. Can you imagine a service which, rather than 'making over' your cardigan, instead enhances your emotions and desire for it?


“Contingency is, quite simply, the fact that things could be otherwise than they are.”

William Rasch (2000) quoted by Till (2009, p45)

Let's take a moment to consider the idea of contingency and its relevance to our brave new world of fashion upcycling. Jeremy Till (2009) discusses the fact that buildings are subject to unpredictable external forces, beyond the control of the architect. While great emphasis is placed on the shape and form of a building at its unveiling, the way that a space can cope with the changing needs of its users is far more important over the long term, and often overlooked.

Does this thinking hold lessons for the clothing sector? The media obsession with catwalk images demonstrates that we obsess over the aesthetic appeal of a new fashion look at the expense of a more long term view, just as for buildings. Fashion, too, is intrinsically contingent – our needs change over time, and part of the joy of fashion is the sheer unpredictability of tastes and trends. Somehow, fashion manages to pull off an impressive doublethink, simultaneously acknowledging and denying this fact. A designer presents a new range of garments, with the implication that they should replace those previously offered; but the new collection is given an air of permanance, a denial that they will ever lose their appeal. This hampers both customer and designer in contemplating the period after the purchase 'snapshot'.

The essence of contingency is that we know things will change, but not how, or when. Fashion needs to become more at ease with its contingency, and acknowledge the existence of future, as well as past, changing desires.  Our upcycling services – which, after all, will take place in this uncertain future – can then be planned to cope with, and even embrace, whatever the vagaries of fashion happen to throw at us.

Existing services

Traditional clothing services, such as shoe repair, tend to occur within a narrow remit: an occasional, brief repair 'event', carried out by an expert in a rather mundane transaction. If we're lucky, our shoes are returned back into regular service, but the process is not accompanied by any sense of celebration.

Looking at some quite different upcycling services will help us to broaden out our view. Swap-o-Rama-Rama is a clothing swap event where participants bring unwanted clothing and select new pieces from a donated pile, modifying the pieces to suit them in workshops at the event (Tremayne, undated). While the acquisition of used clothing is nothing new, the sense of community is refreshing. The upcycling here happens within a social group, and is carried out by wearers with the encouraging support of experts. Could the fashion 'buzz' of participating in an event like this replace the buzz of a Saturday shopping session?

The idea behind my Riot & Return label is to invite customers to join a 'clothing library', enabling them to borrow handmade children's clothes and exchange them as the child grows. The garments are designed to embrace the contingency of children: the promise of overprinting and re-cutting by the designer means that each garment will develop and change uniquely, gradually gaining in perceived value with each wearer. 

Gary Page's 1-2-6 project offers customers one dress with six lives designed-in, the physical transformations occuring at intervals controlled by the wearer (Earley, 2007). This service is planned out in advance, with re-fashioning 'events' involving several experts. There is an enticing sense of destination – the final stage – but the uniqueness of each step means that the wearer enjoys the journey and the time between each interval.

Worn Relics is an online virtual archive of fashion stories. Participants request a 'Worn Relic' label with a unique code which they sew into a treasured item of clothing, before recording details of the item on the project website (Hoette & ten Hoor, 2009). This non-commercial service has a sense of community and encourages conceptual upcycling: by taking the time to select and profile a favourite item, the wearer is likely to value their piece even more. Any future wearers can also access the profile and enjoy an emotional upcycling boost, when they discover the piece's hidden story.

Let's dream

So, our dream is to move from a world of new products to one of upcycling services, which sustain material value. We're looking for versatile services which satisfy our fashion urges and which embrace the exciting unpredictability of fashion. We know that perceived value is highly subjective, and because we're all different, we'll need a broad diversity of solutions. We have a few inspirational examples, but how will we come up with something new? It may help to consider the full scope of upcycling services by thinking about some contributing factors. 

  • Is the service a commercial concern or a community project?
  • Is it a continuous process with a gradual increase in value, or a brief, transformative event?
  • Is the upcycling carried out by an 'expert' or by the wearer themselves? If by the wearer, is an expert involved in providing advice or facilitation?
  • Does the increase in value happen quickly or slowly?
  • Is the upcycling a private, solo endeavour or a social, group activity?
  • Will the action occur frequently, seldom, or just once?
  • Is the system linear - with a definite beginning, middle and end - or is the upcycling cyclical, able to be carried out again and again?
  • Is the service pre-destined or opportunistic?
  • Does the garment have one user in its imaginable lifetime, or many users?
  • How much physical impact will the action have? Will it break in? Adorn? Repair? Re-fashion? Re-configure entirely? And/or will the upcycling be non-material, involving a change in perception?

At an idea generation workshop with MA Textiles students at Chelsea College of Art & Design in December 2009, small groups were given random selections of these descriptors and asked to imagine, through discussion and story-telling, what a service that fit those descriptors could look like. 

The first selection – physical modifications, continuous process, activity carried out by expert, and linear – inspired a concept where discarded jewellery items were used to adorn tired clothing, and developed into the idea that this service could travel around the world, with each area's distinctive jewellery transported to adorn the next location's garments. Another selection – non-material interventions, many users, cyclical, frequent, continuous process and group activity – led to a hilarious proposal for a drinking game where a group of friends invent fanciful stories to psychologically enhance their everyday items of clothing. Both ideas had an input into the following inspirational tale...

Once upon a time, a talented designer decided to set up in business. She loved fashion, but was bored with the usual way of doing things and hit upon the idea of a 'chain fashion' club. 

Paying members of the club were organised into chains of twelve, and asked to select an item of clothing and send it to the next person in their chain. Every month the garments progressed to the next person, and the next, until after a year the well-worn garment returned to its original owner. Members were encouraged to upload photographs of themselves in each garment to the project's website, and gained kudos in the community for contributing a particularly unique item, or for original styling. The owner often reported being more appreciative of their item when it arrived back from its long and eventful journey.

After a tentative start, the project grew and soon specialist and more complex chains were created. The designer found that her members were blogging about their addiction to the club and how they now found 'normal' shopping boring and isolated. She was pleased, and enjoyed thinking of the fashion pleasure and new friendships she had organised.

A more uplifting parable, then, to end, but remember – this is just one story of many. We need to work quickly, and cleverly, to generate the solutions for an enriching fashion future.

Earley, R. (2007) Ever & Again: experimental recycled textiles. London: TED.

Hoette, R. & ten Hoor, H. (2009) Worn Relics. [Online] Available at: [accessed 19/1/10].

McDonough, W. & Braungart, M. (2002) Cradle to Cradle: remaking the way we make things. New York: North Point Press. 

Till, J. (2009) Architecture Depends. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Tremayne, W. (undated) Swap-o-Rama-Rama. [Online] Available at: [accessed 19/1/10].

van Hinte, E. (Ed.) (1997) Eternally Yours: visions on product endurance. Rotterdam: 010 Publishers.


I'd totally forgotten the detail of what I'd written in this article. Reading it now, I really like the idea of the 'chain fashion' club. I wonder if anyone fancies giving it a go with me, just for fun?

I'd forgotten, too, about the cards I'd made for brainstorming upcycling services - although they are sitting right here, on my bookshelf. I've even just dug through my old notebooks and - amazingly - found my notes for the workshop. Might these be of use to anyone? Should I send them out into the world? Maybe I will, one day soon...



David Gauntlett and Amy Twigger Holroyd in conversation, #3: on small steps

Thursday, May 15, 2014

This is the third in the series of three conversations between David Gauntlett and Amy Twigger Holroyd, which we have been posting each Thursday, during May 2014, on our respective blogs ( and

Our previous two discussions were ‘On design, and systems’ and ‘On sustainability’. This third one takes as its starting point the importance of small steps, which David picked out as a key point in his talks at the Maker Faires in New York and Rome, in September and October last year. We recognised that we have both noted the importance of small steps for some time.

ATH: So to kick off, I wondered if you could describe one situation, related to making, where you feel that small steps are important?

DG: Well my main ‘small steps’ point is that any small step can be a good and powerful step! I mean, where a person is taking a small step into the world of creating and making and sharing, rather than being just a consumer of stuff. So for each person it might be different, but it’s that moment of discovery where you get that feeling of surprise and power, that you actually made something, something that wasn’t there before, and now it is, because you made it! And that it’s kind of unique, and can’t be bought, and nobody else has one quite like it, and you did it yourself.

ATH: Oh yes, that’s nice. Do you have any examples of your own ‘small steps’?

DG: Oh, well memorable ones would be, say, when I got the first box of Powercut zines back from the printer in 1991 – ‘I made this!’. A zine that I had made myself (with contributions from others too – making and connecting). That was quite a big thing rather than a small thing. Similarly, the first time I put a webpage online, where you upload it on one computer and then find it very exciting to go to a different computer – maybe one in someone else’s house! – and find that you can see it on there too! Magic! Well, a 1996 sort of magic for me anyway. Of course that was quite a big deal too. And that was both ‘I made this’ and also ‘Here I am’ – because it was visible to the world. Whereas the Powercut zine was not really visible to the world at the point when it was just a cardboard box with 800 printed copies in it. So there, I had the ‘Here I am’ moments in little bits, later on, like when it was mentioned in a tiny bit on the Guardian women’s page or in a few feminist sort of magazines, or in other people’s zines.

So it would be different for different people, but it’s that moment when you can feel the pleasure of saying ‘Here I am’, and ‘I made this’, because you took some little step into the world of making things, making ideas, rather than the world of consuming other people’s things and ideas.

ATH: Ah yes, I see. So the ‘I made this’ thought is perhaps about a personal, and possibly private, satisfaction in seeing the thing that you have made – and ‘Here I am’ is about seeing that thing existing in the wider world, and being seen by others? I can certainly think of my own versions of that!

DG: Well to be precise (!) – since you’re asking! – and let me explain – these are the points, ‘Here I am’, and ‘I made this’, which I made in my talk at the Maker Faire in Rome, 2013 (see video). I meant ‘I made this’ to be a more emphatic, outward-facing statement, a message to others that, look, I made this thing. That’s the pride in the achievement – a pride which you want to be recognised by others. That ties in with a finding from my research for Making is Connecting, where I looked at studies that had been done about why people liked to make and share things in the offline world, and other studies about why people liked to make and share things in the online world, and a common finding was about the interest in being part of a community with shared interests, but this included a desire for recognition of the contribution that the person made to their community of interest.

ATH: Oh yes, I’ve definitely seen that in my research with knitters – a big part of the satisfaction is about being able to share the story of what you’ve made, and especially with other knitters.

DG: So ‘I made this’ reflects personal satisfaction, but is also a statement to the world. And then ‘Here I am’ backs that up, saying not only that I made this but also that it contains something of myself within it. And that this deserves some recognition. So my points were slightly more outwardly demanding than in your version!

ATH: Interesting – I’m glad I asked! Another thing that I’ve realised about small steps is that one tends to lead to another – they take you on a journey. You do something, and have that feeling of surprise and power – and want to do it again. But this time, you can be a little bolder, and go a little further, because you know a little more about the world you’re stepping into. After a while, you look back and realise how far you’ve come: how much you’ve learned about crochet, or Arduino, or growing vegetables, or whatever. And with each step, you’re likely to become more engaged with a community of fellow enthusiasts, and more knowledgeable about the activity you’re doing – the subtleties of its particular challenges and opportunities for creativity. 

DG: Oh that’s nice, I like that – the steps are part of a journey. Of course they are.

ATH: Now, while it’s reasonably straightforward to see that these steps and realisations are important and positive for the individuals involved, I think lots of people would see them as insignificant in the wider scheme of things. But I think we would both agree that these steps into creating, rather than consuming, are actually very significant indeed.

DG: Yes indeed. I think you have helpfully said something we both disagree with, so that I can disagree with it! So, the thing is, it’s not a matter of saying that the small steps are actually, somehow, big steps. We are talking about small steps. But all of these small steps made by different people add up, and pile higher and higher, until you’ve got a huge amount of meaningful activity in your culture which, once it’s all piled up together, is bigger than many other big cultural things. So that’s the macro scale. But the important part is what each of those things means, back on the micro scale. It’s about people changing their sense of being within our culture – recognising that culture is a two-way street, a place for writing as well as reading, singing as well as listening, making as well as taking.

ATH: In my PhD research, I was looking at how homemade clothes could contribute to sustainability. I remember acknowledging in my thesis that this approach could be seen as both over-ambitious and naïve: to think that you can change something as huge and complex as the fashion industry through such personal and individual acts as making and mending clothes. But I honestly feel like it’s potentially more powerful, and certainly more subversive and exciting, to think about change in this way.

DG: Yes exactly – that’s the only way real change works, I think. That’s similar to my wee rant about the ‘critical’ media studies scholars – which appears in this article – who seem satisfied to have come up with a complex theoretical account of what’s wrong with things, but are unable to tell you how this might actually be changed. I think change happens, step by step, little step by little step, as people do things differently. That’s the only way it makes sense. People on the ground start to do things a bit differently, and start to expect things to happen a bit differently, and then this gets absorbed into the more macro-level context of how people in government, or visible in the media, do things, and what they expect things to be like, and then this macro level sets the tone of what is then assumed and expected down at the micro level, which then means the envelope can be pushed a tiny bit more, and so on, and the whole thing goes on in a cycle. This is, in fact, Giddens’s structuration theory in action, sociology fans. Giddens is a sort of middling-left figure politically, not a fully signed up Marxist, but he’s the one who has the theory of how things can actually be changed in modern societies. And it shows the significance of the small steps. As long as there are quite a lot of them.

ATH: Oh yes, that’s a really useful theory, and one that makes a lot of real-world sense. It’s an important reminder to step back and see that macro view, that things really can change – that tides can turn. To share my own current rant, I’ve been frustrated recently by people who seem to think that behaviour only ever moves in one direction – more specifically, that because in recent years, clothes have become cheaper and cheaper, and (on average) people wear them for a much shorter time before disposing of them – that it’s impossible to conceive of any future in which people are happy to keep their clothes for longer, and to pay more for them. Now, this is obviously a very crude view, as it lumps everyone together, as if we all think and behave in the same way – but it’s also depressingly fatalistic. Whereas I think, well if things can change in one direction, surely they can change in another! So, this structuration theory helps me to remember that. 

There are so many examples, though, where people feel that any change they might make would be insignificant, compared to the bigger things going on in the world. Like in terms of environmental stuff, and sustainability – that pessimistic view that there’s no point us making little changes to how we live, to reduce our energy usage or carbon emissions or whatever, when however-many coal-fired power stations are being built every year in China. It’s quite hard to challenge that mindset, I think.

But there are a couple of things about small steps in making, in particular, that are different and exciting. Often, the little lifestyle changes that might reduce energy use are worthwhile collectively, but don’t bring any personal benefit (beyond the altruistic satisfaction of ‘doing your bit’, perhaps) – so it’s easy to see why people sometimes feel they are pretty pointless. Making, creating and sharing, though, are personally satisfying – very much so – so there’s the potential for a ‘double dividend’ scenario, where people feel happier, and collectively, their activities become more sustainable.

And the other thing is that – as we discussed in our second blog post – these activities don’t just contribute to environmental and social benefits in a purely technical and pragmatic way, but (surely more powerfully) they start to change how people relate and respond to other people, and the world. So, as you say, these are small steps – but with a potentially big impact in terms of people’s attitudes and perceptions, I think.

DG: Exactly. And it’s like the feminist notion that ‘the personal is political’, which I take to mean a number of things. One is the point that the small stuff of everyday life is important, and if you change that – and other people start to change it too – then you really are changing the world. You actually are. People think they can’t change things, but they can – by changing things, on an everyday level. It’s like the title of the new book by Rob Hopkins: ‘The Power of Just Doing Stuff’. Talking about what’s wrong with the world can play some role – raising awareness, and so on, which is a necessary step – but just doing stuff is much more powerful in the obvious way – it’s tangible, it’s visible, people can experience it and hopefully like it and want to do more of it.

Now – ha – I say this as an exhausted father-of-two who doesn’t visibly do much big world-changing stuff. But thankfully we’re talking about small steps. Small steps make a difference and they’re not too hard. So, being a vegetarian counts – that’s doing something I believe in and it takes precisely no effort at all really. And being enthusiastic about a hands-on approach to creativity and play and learning just amongst the kids and the students that I am directly involved with – that’s something too, because it’s about fostering engagement with the world around us (as we’ve discussed before). And it’s all those choices you make in what you support and don’t support. All those kinds of things.

Anyway, a second meaning of ‘the personal is political’, for me, is I suppose the inverse version of the same thing – so it’s saying that you can’t do political pontification if you don’t try to live up to those ideals in your personal life. 

And a third one is that personal stories and experiences are meaningful political things. They’re not trivia. There’s not a hierarchy where people dealing with the things we call ‘politics’ are doing more important stuff than the people who are making their own efforts in different ways. Personal things are just as vital to social change as well.

That might just be three ways of saying the same thing, I don’t know. But it shows that the feminist notion that ‘the personal is political’ was, and is, full of rich meanings, I think!

ATH: Absolutely! 

DG: So, I think that’s about it. I have really enjoyed these conversations.

ATH: Yes, me too. Let’s remind blog readers to make any comments or observations in the comments bit below.

DG: Yes, it would be great to hear absolutely anything that anyone would like to say. Continuing the conversation on the blog with others, below, would be really nice.

[Tiny shoes image by Flickr user Carolina (see original), used under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence.]


David Gauntlett and Amy Twigger Holroyd in conversation, #2: on sustainability

Thursday, May 8, 2014

This is the second in the series of three conversations between David Gauntlett and Amy Twigger Holroyd, which we are posting each Thursday, during May 2014, on our respective blogs ( and

We are discussing some of the things we find most curious and exciting. Before this one, you might like to read the first conversation, ‘On design, and systems’. Next week we will publish our third conversation, ‘On small steps’. This one is about sustainability, in relation to design and making.

ATH: This time, I wanted to talk to you about sustainability. Now, I’ve been involved in design for sustainability stuff for over ten years, and really see that as the big underpinning motivation and context for all of my work in design, making and research.

In the past few years I’ve become particularly interested in how craft and amateur making can contribute to sustainability, and of course, you’re very interested in amateur making too – that’s one of the areas where our interests coincide. However, I don’t think I've really heard you talk explicitly about sustainability. I wondered whether it’s a motivation for you?

DG: Oh yes it’s a very strong motivation. Making is Connecting – which describes my main argument, the whole thing I’m most interested in – is about sustainability on multiple fronts, I think! I hope it’s not too buried in the text. It’s certainly the central thing in what I think of as the most important bits, but I suppose those bits are probably a few single pages of a book that’s 280 pages or whatever it is, so maybe they end up with less prominence than I might like. So I’ll say them now!

The first one, is the vitally important thing, the thing I always say, that making and creating is not just ‘a nice thing’. Obviously it is a nice thing, when someone does some small creative act – they write a song or poem, or make a funny video, or knit a hat – but it’s much more than that as well. All these acts of creativity, they are all cases of somebody doing something a bit different, expressing something of themselves, and choosing not to just buy something made by someone else, but to make it themselves. They’re making their mark, they are saying ‘here I am’. It’s the John Ruskin point about being able to see the spirit of the maker within the thing they have made. It doesn’t have to be the most finely polished piece of art, it can be all rough and home-made, but you can see in it the passion of a person who wanted to make something. This applies just as well to a wood carving or a YouTube video. All these little acts, if you look at them one by one, can seem small and sweet and insignificant, but if you take them all together, they add up to something big and something political.

These are people who want to sustain a creative, engaged world, not a world of mass consumption. In all the environmental and sustainability literature, the main enemy is mass, reckless consumption, isn’t it.

ATH: Well yes, certainly in the so-called ‘developed’ world.

DG: Yes. And what Making is Connecting celebrates is the opposite of that mass consumption model, basically. So for that reason I think the connection with sustainability is obvious throughout, but maybe I could have spelt it out more.

Other things are also spelt out, though. One is just the whole point of Making is Connecting, that in making things you feel more engaged with the world and more connected to your environments. And therefore, more likely to care for that world, rather than being the sit-back, switched-off consumer.

Then there’s the point, which links back to Ruskin again, that a society where people don’t have regular opportunities to exercise their creativity is like a tree cut off from its roots, which will wither and fail.

ATH: That’s a lot of sustainability-related points!

DG: There’s also the point that I make, which is similar but slightly different, which is that I don’t know what are the solutions to the various environmental challenges that we face, but what I do know is that we will need lots of creative people, and people engaged with their world, to be able to solve those problems, and I know that we can develop such people if we use different modes of learning, based around making and tinkering and experimenting, and with widespread everyday creativity based on a culture that embraces the homemade joy of creative practice more than it loves mass-manufactured entertainment. (You can have a mix and a balance, of course – this is not about stamping out Hollywood movies or anything like that. But we need a mix of things and especially platforms for the sharing of diverse, personal stuff made by individuals).

ATH: Ah yes, so that’s about the importance of creativity to how we might transition to sustainability.

DG: Would you say that all this is similar to, or different from, your own ideas about sustainability?

ATH: Oh, pretty similar, I think! I’ve always been of the view that sustainability really needs a massive diversity of approaches – there isn’t one magical solution, but a galaxy of tiny, contextually-relevant solutions. I think we’re in the same bit of the galaxy.

DG: Oh yes I like that. A galaxy of diverse approaches. The reason I’d be nervous about talking to sustainability people is basically the fear that they would think that there was just one proper solution and were not tolerant of other solutions. But I have no particular reason to think that they’d be like that!

ATH: By the way I should say that I think it’s important to remember that sustainability isn’t just about ‘the environment’ – it’s about social stuff, and some people, including me, would argue it’s about culture, too. So lots of the points in Making is Connecting also relate to those other aspects of sustainability.

DG: Ah yes – good!

ATH: My personal approach as a designer has always been about tackling the issue of overconsumption, and exploring the potential contribution of craft to that. So, I think a lot about the emotional connections and sense of satisfaction that can be engendered through making, and how they might make you feel more attached to your possessions and therefore consume less. And also about how the knowledge you gain through making can be applied to repairing, for example. If you scale up these ideas, I think they relate to your points about being engaged, connected and caring. And I certainly see people making things themselves as an important and political act – even if they don’t see it as such themselves.

But while I totally agree with all of that, I’m quite wary of romanticising making. From working with amateur knitters for years – and from making things for myself – I know that people aren’t always emotionally connected to things they’ve made. Sometimes they are really disappointed with them! Knitters are often critical of a rough, ‘homemade’ finish. I think that’s partly because of the dominance of shiny, mass-produced things – there’s a temptation to compare homemade things to stuff brought from the shops, particularly in terms of clothing. So, while I passionately believe in the value of people making things themselves, and think there are many benefits from that in terms of sustainability, I think some people need support to do so.

DG: I agree about supporting people, of course. But this whole thing is quite curious. Your dissatisfied knitters do have the option of buying inexpensive, well-finished garments from the shops, don’t they. But they choose to be knitters. I expect you’ve explored this apparent contradiction. Why do they dislike the look of the things they’ve made themselves, or rather, why do they carry on doing it?

ATH: It’s a conundrum, all right! It’s hard to speak on behalf of all knitters, as we’re such a diverse bunch – and, of course, lots of people are happy with the things they’ve made, and enjoy wearing them, which is great. But, from my research, I think those that are sometimes disappointed carry on because they love the process of making, and find it really rewarding. And also, of course, there’s the hope that you’ll do better next time! That’s part of why making things is so satisfying, I think – because it’s a challenge.

While this might all sound a bit negative – I don’t mean to be, honest! – I really think change is afoot. I think the stronger that ‘maker’ culture becomes, the more confident people will become in their own skills, and in using the things that they’ve made.

DG: Yes I agree. Just to have rough-and-ready maker culture offering a kind of role model for other makers – I mean in the sense that you can be inspired by how imperfect something looks – is really valuable. Like, ‘if they can do that, I can do that!’. As rather a perfectionist myself, I tend to be more inspired by less polished things, not the highly-polished things. That might seem counter-intuitive. But if people make highly-polished stuff, it’s kind of intimidating, whereas if they seem happy with effective, interesting, not-too-polished things, then you think, ‘Oh yes, I can do that!’. And you’re released from the self-imposed obligation to spend hours and hours making the thing look perfect.

ATH: At the beginning of this conversation, I said that I hadn’t heard you talk explicitly about sustainability. I’ve just done a quick search of Making is Connecting, and only found ‘sustainability’ appear a few times. I wonder if it was a conscious decision not to use that word? Do you feel it’s over-used, or perhaps might make people switch off?

DG: Oo, checking! Well you must be right. I always try to use clear, everyday language, and although ‘sustainability’ isn’t exactly high-end jargon, it’s not that accessible I think. I don’t really use it myself except when talking to someone like you and joining in with your terms. I suppose to be honest I associate it a bit with holier-than-thou green sort of discourse – as I sort of alluded to before – and which is unfair, probably, and of course they’re lovely people, and it’s a bit inverse-snobbish of me to not use the term for that reason. But there you go. I think the typical reader (for example, me) doesn’t necessarily know quite what ‘sustainability’ is meant to mean, but we translate it into meaning ‘environmental issues’, and we find it slightly intimidating even though we know it’s all about some good values that we actually agree with. I wonder if you think this is all a very silly explanation!

ATH: No, not at all – it’s another conundrum, and one that’s very familiar to me. For the first few years of running my knitwear label, Keep & Share, I didn’t use the word ‘sustainability’ in my communications to customers, because I didn’t want to put them off. I talked about slowness and emotions and relationships instead. As the sustainable fashion movement has grown, I’ve started to use it a bit more on my website, but I still try to explain my philosophy in a way that people can relate to.

It’s no wonder that people aren’t sure what ‘sustainability’ is meant to mean – there are so many different interpretations, even (and especially) amongst those most involved with it! That’s both in terms of defining sustainability itself, and how it relates to things like consumption and fashion. In the fashion sphere, many people still think it’s ‘just' about organic cotton, or recycling, when it needs to encompass so much more than that.

So, I agree – when talking about ‘sustainability’ there’s always a danger of intimidating people, and them either misunderstanding or switching off. But on the other hand, if we don’t explicitly say ‘this relates to sustainability’, then there’s the danger that interesting ideas and creative efforts, that are highly relevant to sustainability really, are somewhat disconnected from those debates.

DG: Yes. Though you might hope that good ideas within the same sphere, whether labelled with a particular word or not, will probably be connected up by the people in that field. 

ATH: Oh yes, that’s true.

DG: This also relates to communication and what academics now have been told to call ‘impact’ – whether people make an effort to get their ideas out into the world and to connect up with others. Of course I think they should do that but I also recognise that it’s hard work, and there are often multiple communities that you should be talking to but it’s hard to link up with all of them. In my own case, and as you’ve sort of indicated, I’ve not really managed to connect up with the ‘sustainability’ people as much as I should.

But let’s end this part of our conversation on a positive note. I think we both believe that amateur making, and craft, and the maker movement, and homemade media, all these things are valuable for sustainability, because they change people’s relationship with the material world, and with culture, and your attitude about what things in the world you can change for yourself. And we think this is growing, yes?

ATH: Yes, I think so! Great, isn’t it?

NEXT WEEK: On small steps.

[Maple leaves image by Fotopedia user Martin Heming (see original), used under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0 licence.]


David Gauntlett and Amy Twigger Holroyd in conversation, #1: on design, and systems

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Over the next three weeks, we are going to be posting a 3-part conversation between David Gauntlett and Amy Twigger Holroyd (posted each Thursday, from 1 May 2014, on our respective blogs, and 

David Gauntlett is well known in the world of making for his fantastic book, Making is Connecting: the social meaning of creativity, from DIY and knitting to YouTube and Web 2.0. He is a Professor in the Faculty of Media, Arts and Design, and Co-Director of the Communications and Media Research Institute, at the University of Westminster. David's teaching and research is about self-initiated everyday creativity, and cultures of making and sharing. He is the author of several other books, including Creative Explorations (2007) and Making Media Studies: The Creativity Turn in Media and Communications Studies (2014). He has worked with a number of the world’s leading creative organisations, including the BBC, the British Library, and Tate. Rather enviably, for almost a decade he has worked with LEGO on innovation in creativity, play and learning.

Over time, through a shared interest in craft and making, design and creativity, and other things, we have become friends, and we decided to discuss some of the things that fascinate us, for our blogs. The three posts in the series are #1, ‘On design, and systems’, #2, ‘On sustainability’, and #3, ‘On small steps’.

So for this first one, we decided to start by talking, rather generally, about design and what it means to us.

DG: I’m interested in design, basically, because it seems to be about doing things, or doing things better. Whereas the discipline or disciplines that I come from, they seem to be about commenting on things, or describing them, or providing frames for understanding them, but not really about doing things or making things. The ‘describing’ role is the most tedious, whilst the ‘frames for understanding’ role can be rather good, but in either case, it’s not at all ‘hands on’.

Now, I’m not a big fan of ‘disciplines’, and the idea of boundaries between disciplines. I genuinely have no idea why anybody would really think that ‘disciplines’ serve any purpose really. But nevertheless, in terms of my own ’discipline’ background, I started off by doing a degree in Sociology, and then an MA in Sociology and Gender Studies, and then a PhD in an ‘Institute of Communications Studies’. Now, I think Sociology is regarded as a discipline, but I’m not sure if Gender Studies is a discipline ... maybe it’s just an area of Sociology. Similarly, I don’t know if Communications Studies is a discipline. There’s lots of people who’ve written things about media and communications, but they come from a range of backgrounds and fields of interest. I’d be quite happy to count all of that as Sociology, in a broad sense, as well, I think.

But nowadays I’m happier just saying I work in a Faculty of Media, Art and Design, because then it sounds like I might actually do something! And there is some ‘practice’ to integrate with the ‘theory’.

Design, in particular, seems to be about using creative activity to address problems, or questions, and so ... well, I like that.

What does design mean to you?

ATH: I think that to me, design means action, change, and creativity – so, pretty close to your thoughts about ‘doing things’ and ‘using creative activity’. What has always excited me about design is the opportunity to do something new, to bring about a change in the world. 

I trained as a fashion designer, so for some years my design practice was mainly about making new stuff – garments, in my case. Recently I’ve become interested in broadening my design activity to include designing systems and services, and structures within which other people can be creative.

Even more broadly, I think that a design attitude does encourage you to try to bring about change, rather than accepting things as they are. Like you, I’ve been frustrated by academic research that describes some sort of negative situation, but doesn’t make any suggestions about how it could be improved. On the other hand, it might be dangerous to swan about trying to bring about change, without really understanding a situation – so I think that designers, and ‘design activists’, could benefit from some of the ‘frames for understanding’ you described.

DG: Oh well that’s nice – that makes sense.

ATH: So, whereas you’re looking for some practice to integrate with the theory, I’ve been hunting out the relevant theory to enlighten my practice!

DG: This may be pointlessly pedantic about my own biography, but I do, incidentally, think I’ve always had some kind of practice, whether that has been making websites, or – later – online videos, or drawings, or even writing itself, or whatever. It’s not unfair to the idea of ‘practice’ to understand it quite broadly, is it?

ATH: Oh no, that makes sense. I think of writing as part of my practice too, actually – it shares many characteristics with designing a collection of knitwear! Gathering inspiration, generating some rough ideas, refining and combining them to produce the finished article... So I guess we’re saying that theory and practice are always entwined, but perhaps there’s a happy balance that can be achieved between the two?

DG: Yes. And going back to what design means, I think it’s useful and important to ‘reclaim’ the term design, to be about something very useful and important, rather than the popular association between design and something flashy-looking. Design museums tend not to help on that front – they still tend to show some cool record sleeves and a classic telephone and an impractical chair. I can admire those things too – well, nice record sleeves and pleasing technology designs, anyway, but not the chairs, I’m sick of seeing chairs in design museums – but where they are about making things look a bit nicer, then yes that’s part of design but I think it’s about 5 per cent of what design does. You saying ‘design means action, change, and creativity’ is much better – and the ‘design attitude’ where you’re inclined to change things and make them better – that’s what it’s all about.

ATH: Yes! And of course, that ‘design attitude’ can pop up anywhere. It means that design shouldn’t stay in its own disciplinary silo (which of course you’re not a fan of anyway), but really is an approach that can, and should, be applied very broadly.

DG: You mentioned ‘designing systems’ earlier. I’m interested in systems too. But what did you mean by it?

ATH: Well, I’m sure there are established definitions that I’m ignoring here, but to me a systems view is about taking a holistic approach, and understanding how things relate to each other. And so design in this context might involve designing relationships and paths between things, rather than just focusing on individual products or services or whatever. And I think those ‘things’ are both tangible and intangible, and therefore this sort of design should include individual people’s experiences and attitudes and emotional responses, as part of the system.

I think a systems view can operate at different scales. For example, I like to try to take a systems view of fashion – which requires a pretty epic perspective – and aim to alter flows and relationships within that system through design interventions. I recognise that that’s pretty ambitious! At a smaller scale, in my work I’ve tried to design systems that support people in being creative and designing for themselves, in specific contexts. 

So, that’s me. Can you tell me about your interest in systems?

DG: Erm I think I have a number of interests in systems in different ways! I absolutely agree, the thing with systems is the recognition that everything is just part of a whole – or, to put it another way, everything is just one element amongst other elements, and they are all interrelated in some way. Even if connections are not obvious, there are often knock-on effects. So, to make this more concrete, for example it means that I think it’s silly to think about a communications medium, or set of media, such as ‘television’ or ‘the internet’, in isolation, because each of those things – as well as being very complex and not-at-all-singular in themselves – each of those things is just part of an ecosystem of other media, and society, and culture, and economics, and all the complex relationships between all those complex things. So that’s basically the wholistic view, and the ‘ecosystem’ model, which a focus on systems draws you towards.

ATH: Yes! That’s exactly what I mean.

DG: This also reminds me of my recent trip to Italy, where I found I kept stressing that things were ‘all part of the same thing’ – I can come back to that, more specifically, later!

ATH: Oh no, go on, tell us now.

DG: Oh well it’s just that in Italy – at least this is how the situation was reported to me, by actual Italians – there seems to be a big separation between their great craft traditions, which are all about carefully crafted things made by hand, and which are now associated with an old generation, and digital media, which is seen as being separate – almost the opposite – and done by young people. And there seems to be a sort of crisis of confidence in their craft traditions, and a fear about this modern internet destroying that kind of thing. And so for that reason, I kept finding myself saying that, for example, creativity, whether offline or online, old or new, is all part of the same thing, all part of the human drive to make and share things. It doesn’t matter if you’re making a physical thing by hand, or a digital thing by some more technological process – probably still led by the hands, in fact – it’s all part of the same thing. And if you’re a man trying to carve a small owl out of wood to give to your child, in 1714, or a woman making a short video for YouTube where she presents a poem about owls, in 2014, it’s all part of the same thing.

The thing it’s all part of, the system here, is the system by which humans keep themselves alive in the world and engaged with each other and their environments, by making and sharing simple things which communicate some feelings, basically.

ATH: Ah yes, interesting!

DG: Another thing about systems is the idea that you can set up a kind of process, or environment, and then let it take on a life of its own, which you hope will be fruitful or interesting but you have no idea at the start what it’s going to be. An example of that would be the version of LEGO Serious Play, developed by Anna Sophie Trolle Terkelsen, which I call the ‘self extracting’ version, where you can basically hand over a box of stuff, which comes with some simple prompts on cards, to a group of people, and they do what the cards suggest, and a whole kind of experience unfolds, where they can learn about themselves, and each other, through building and talking. The cards are not instructions – they don't tell you what to build – but the cards set tasks to build something that represents an idea or experience, metaphorically, and the cards 'instruct' the group on practical things, like, build for 5 minutes and then share it with the group.

ATH: So is that what you mean by ‘self extracting’?

DG: Yes, well that’s just the phrase I use, based on a sort of half-remembered thing, from the early days of Windows, when it had a thing called the ‘self extracting file’. I don’t really have much of an idea of what ‘self extracting file’ really meant in Windows terms, but it had a nice icon with a sort of box with things springing out of it, and I always liked this idea of a kind of box of delights which would open itself up and do something magical without you really having to do anything! If you know what I mean. You’d just click on it and then the delightful thing would happen. So, that’s like the idea of a system in a box, and you can hand it over, and people respond to it, and between them it does something unexpected and wonderful.

ATH: I like the self-extracting file idea! I’ve got an ongoing project that relates to this – my Knitting Circle. It pops up at various events, and is basically a long knitted rope with loads of in-progress knitting growing off it at various points. People come along and join in, if they want to – they can stay for as long as they like, and experiment by changing the stitch or the colour or whatever of the bit they’re knitting. When they’ve finished, they leave their knitting for the next person to carry on with. As the whole thing grows, it visually reflects all the people who have taken part, and their creative experiments – and because lots of people are sitting together, it encourages reflective conversation about making, which I really like. I provide little tags, so people can record a fragment of the conversations they’ve had – and these, in turn, inspire new conversations. I’ve refined the design of the project over the years, so now it’s pretty ‘self-extracting’ – once it’s set up, people can see what the ‘game’ is, and join in without the need for instructions or anything. 

DG: Oh that’s very good – especially that it gets to a point where you don’t even need instructions, it’s just implicit and ‘obvious’ what people are meant to do with it next. That’s great. And so that’s an example of you designing a system. When I asked what systems mean to you, you also talked about altering flows and relationships within systems through design interventions. That’s great, but a bit abstract. Could you flesh it out with an example of the kind of thing you’re talking about?

ATH: I’ll try! I think the whole idea of designing interventions within a systems view links to the ‘design attitude’ we were discussing earlier. If you have this design attitude, you can look at something – recognising its complexity and links to other elements – and start to think about how the system might be redesigned, or tinkered with. You might try to create new paths and connections, or support existing ones. 

For example – I’m interested in people making their own clothes, because I think that could bring lots of benefits for both sustainability and personal well-being. However, I know that many people are dissatisfied with things they’ve made, largely because they’re comparing them to ‘perfect’ items bought from the shops. If you take a narrow view of homemade clothes, they seem straightforward – but when you recognise the wider context, things are way more complicated. So, I’ve been looking at designing ways to support people in their making, to help them to be happier with that they’ve made. In my PhD research, this was about running a project that created a space where amateurs had ‘permission’ to design for themselves, and supported each other to develop and execute their creative ideas. That might seem a really tiny and insignificant change, but it could potentially have quite a significant impact on the way that fashion works, both sociologically and economically. 

To link back to the start of this conversation, I think that to take a systems view, you really need to take advantage of ‘frames for understanding’, as you called them – otherwise the complexity is just too overwhelming, and you can’t see the wood for the trees. So we’re back once again to the need for theory and practice to be entwined, I think – so you can try to change things, but really understand the context you’re trying to work within.

NEXT WEEK: On sustainability.

[Yellow arrow photo by Flickr user Peter Rukavina (see original), used under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence.]