James Auger, designer et chercheur en design

Entretien mené en juin 2019 par Karl Pineau. Édition en janvier 2021 par Chloé Turquois.

le projet de livre

En avril 2018, un éditeur spécialisé sur les questions numériques nous a donné l'idée d'écrire un livre sur le "design éthique".

Pour l'écrire, nous avons rencontré une trentaine d'acteurs du design et du numérique.

Nous en retranscrivons les entretiens !

James Auger

Nous avons rencontré James Auger en juin 2019. James est aujourd'hui directeur adjoint du département Design à l'ENS Paris Saclay.

Son travail tourne principalement autour du "design spéculatif", que ce soit pour en faire ou le discuter.

Avec James, nous sommes notamment revenus sur sa définition du "bon" design et des liens entre sciences sociales et design.

Nous vous proposons ici une retranscription retravaillée de cet entretien de 55 minutes réalisé en anglais (et non traduit). Bonne lecture !

Can you explain your background and your current situation?

As I get older, my background gets longer. This response will be a little more protracted than it would have been a few years ago (and probably a little more grumpy).

I left school at 16 to pursue an apprenticeship in mechanical and manufacturing engineering at Rolls-Royce Derby, a big manufacturer of aero-engines in the UK. I got fed up with that around the age of 19 and decided to return to full-time education, choosing a degree in product design at Glasgow School of Art (GSA). This was an “orthodox” design programme, very much oriented towards the market, as most things (related to design education) were in the 90s.

I graduated from GSA in 1995 and then struggled to find work as a designer. Almost by accident I found myself in the field of special effects and modelmaking for film and television. I spent about five years doing that, largely based in the workshop, making things, learning new techniques, working on the odd big film (Enemy of the State, James Bond) but mostly for the field of advertising - which ultimately felt a bit dirty!

I got fed up again and returned once more to education. I really wanted to get back into design, so I applied for a Master's Degree in Design Products at the Royal College of Art (RCA), which was run by the well-known architect and designer Ron Arad. This period started me on the trajectory that I'm still on today. Anthony Dunne, my personal tutor on the program, had just completed his PhD in which he described a new approach called critical design. Following this we started using design as a way of exploring and critiquing the role of technology in everyday life. These were the very early days of what would become speculative design.

Whilst at the RCA I started working with Jimmy Loizeau and in 2000 we developed an idea for a telephone implanted in the tooth. It was a way of looking at near future possibilities of telecommunication combined with ideas of transhumanism - of technology entering the body. In many ways the Audio Tooth Implant remains our most successful speculative design project, making it onto the front cover of time magazine in 2003 and generating discussion across the globe.

In 2005, after three years working as a researcher at Media Lab Europe in Dublin, I returned to the RCA to teach in the Design Interactions department, led by Anthony Dunne. I remained there for 10 years, playing some part in the shaping and defining of new approaches to design such as speculative and critical and completing a PhD on the subject in 2012.

I left the RCA in 2015 to work at the Madeira Interactive Technologies Institute (M-ITI) based on the remote Portuguese island. This began with a period of reflection, there were a few things (in my own work) that I was becoming critical of and I wanted to address these through a new research project. The challenge essentially related to taking speculative design out of the gallery to be more impactful in the context of everyday life. I founded The Reconstrained Design Group with my colleague Julian Hanna and eventually developed a project, situated on the island, that proposed an alternative DIY energy infrastructure. We developed several working prototypes of devices built using a combination of local terrains, materials and communities that offered an alternative to grid systems and state based corporations. This project won the Cultural Innovation International Prize at the CCCB Gallery in Barcelona.

I left Madeira last year to move to Paris where I'm now based. I'm continuing with a mix of teaching in various institutions, continuing to run the projects in Madeira, and I'm involved in an Erasmus+ project about speculative design and education.

Can you explain what speculative design is for you? What is the difference with “normal” design?

The main difference largely relates to purpose. "Normal" design usually involves the development of something that can be manufactured and then sold for profit using well-established ideas of fashion and styling to arrange technologies in ways that are largely iterative and therefore generational. We can trace its origins to the model that was developed largely in the United States during the late 1920’s and 1930's by designers such as Normal Bel Geddes and Henry Dreyfus.

In the 1930's, however, people had a very different relationship with the environment and were largely unaware of the consequences of the behavior that was being encouraged, such as the burning of fossil fuels and the consumption of other non-renewable resources. Today we are becoming increasingly aware of these consequences but normal design remains largely defined by last century’s methods and motivations. There are many excellent exceptions emerging largely via education (such as Transition Design at CMU), hopefully these will gradually influence positively what we view as normal design.

So, the main purpose of speculative design, following radical design, is to act as a counter to mainstream design. To reflect upon and to critique the role and actions of design and the corporations that exploit it. And, if it's done well, to also come up with alternative approaches and solutions. In terms of actual practice, there are two general approaches:

The first is to speculate on the near future (speculative futures). This begins with an examination of the technologies that are emerging at the moment, and then to imagine the future products, systems or services that might exist as a consequence of their domestication. These provide an idea of what (aspects of) life might be like should technology continue to develop in the same direction. It allows us to evaluate possible futures before they arrive (not to simply sell them as is the case with corporate futures).

The second route (and much more interesting in my opinion) is what we call alternative presents. These are imaginaries that explore different configurations of existing systems or technologies. Let's say, for example, digitisation never happened. We could speculate on an alternative timeline to the present day - a world where the development of analogue products continued for another 40 years or so. It's very common in literature, the imagining of worlds based on different outcomes of a historical event, for example Germany and Japan winning World War II (The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick). From a pedagogical perspective this approach is extremely powerful as it encourages the student to better understand the complex systems (political, economic, corporate etc.) that influence or constrain design practice.

What is your definition of “common” design? Is what you call mainstream design the whole other way to design?

Design is a very promiscuous and problematic word. I rather lazily tend to fall back on Charles Eames description which is something like "a plan for arranging elements to accomplish a particular purpose." This is good because it works across all design disciplines - my work mostly focuses on the field of industrial and product design, which in practice could crudely be described as the arrangement of technical elements into usable and desirable products. Purpose is where things become complicated. Industrial design is still very much influenced by modernist notions of progress - purpose being to make our lives more comfortable or more easy through the action of designed products. In reality, however, there is the hidden purpose of satisfying the shareholder of the company behind the product’s development. This is what I mean by mainstream design. It’s part of a very highly tuned capitalistic system. And as such, it is largely problematic for the world of today.

If we consider that design was always this kind of mainstream design…?

As mentioned above Design is multifarious. The problematic version emerged around the 1920's. There's a quote (that I probably used in the Ethics Conference talk) from Paul Mazur, a banker for Lehman Brothers who, in 1927, talked about shifting America from a country of needs into a country of desires, and finding ways to manipulate human desire to sell more things (see Adam Curtis: The Century of the Self). Design became a fundamental part of this activity. For example, the movement Streamline Moderne, emphasised, for the first time, style over function with aerodynamic futuristic forms being given to anything from trains to cigarette lighters. This was completely at odds with the ideas being developed around the same time in Europe with the Bauhaus (these being influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement) demanding radically simplified forms with mass production being seen as something reconcilable with individual artistic spirit.

So it would be possible to have a good design? Is it relevant to speak about ethical design, design for good, care design?

It's just a slight sideways step in the key motivating factors. A good designer would still be involved in the development ends that somehow improve something, it's just these will be realised through different means - approaches that don’t exploit non-renewable materials, use dubious approaches to manufacture, place an emphasis on image over object, that enforce non-repairability or encourage constant iteration or improvement towards a non-defined goal. Means that don’t priortise (a very limited percentage of) human needs above everything else.

The designer also needs to find ways of exploring the psychological and behavioural impact of products before they reach the market - new gadgets such as Amazon’s Echo are mediating increasingly private and emotional interactions between people. We have little idea what the long-term effects might be of such developments.

I do believe that there is much potential for a more appropriate form of design. We just need to start educating designers differently. Of course there is always the elephant in the room when we have such discussions - that is the economy.

Papanek discussed how World War II changed design to something more aligned with the period. Perhaps this period of climate change (catastrophe) will demand a similar, more appropriate form of design.

What is the responsibility of designers, compared to the business or the marketing responsibility? Are designers powerful?

In many ways this was best expressed by the economist Milton Friedman in the 1970s. He argued for the freeing of business from any pretence of social responsibility, on the basis that it went against the interests of shareholders. Friedman suggested that companies that did adopt "responsible" attitudes would be faced with more binding constraints than companies that did not, rendering them less competitive. This kind of neo-liberal approach is epitomised by many of the big corporations of Silicon-Valley. Designers commonly work for such corporations meaning that they operate under the same "responsibilities". The power of the designer is to imagine and develop the objects and marketing strategies that give a company its commercial advantage. I don't think anybody would ever claim that design doesn't have power in a company like Apple or Dyson. The whole model is built around the power of design. The problem occurs when we try to challenge this economic model - here designers so far have been less powerful.

Even today?

Especially today. Apple, the most wealthy company that has ever existed (at the time of writing), is built on excellant design. Design is powerful because it provides a shortcut to very complex psychological aspects of the human brain. So designers are powerful so long as they accept the existing economic paradigm. This leads to the most pressing challenge for designers who wish to be responsible - to provide an alternative to the mainstream. The Fairphone has provided a glimpse of this - a mobile telephone that can be updated or repaired whilst still providing fairly reasonable functionality / desirability.

Do you have any recommendations about the training of designers, to go in this direction?

It is imperative that design education provides a better introduction to the complex systems in which design happens - through collaborations or interactions with diverse other disciplines: anthropology, philosophy of technology, natural sciences and so on. The problem with a lot of design education is that there is an almost total focus on the artefact - its form, our interaction with it, its materiality and so on. Very rarely does design education introduce students to the bigger systems that facilitate both the manufacture of an artefact and its ability to function. The politics surrounding design activity, such as notions of sustainability, are starting to creep in but largely on a banal level such as simply choosing materials that are somewhat renewable.

Then there are the implications of designed objects, for example, smart phones operate in complex social systems. Whilst these make certain aspects of our lives easier, there are also negative impacts on human behavior such as screen addiction and trolling and more complex, unpredictable consequences - who might have imagined in 2007 when the first smartphone was introduced that it would give rise to the likes of Uber, and in turn ruin the retirement plans of a whole generation of taxi-drivers in Europe (based on selling of their license when they reached retirement age). It is not part of corporate culture (and therefore not the requirement of majority of designers) to think about the negative implications of what they do (likewise for the majority of scientific research) it simply brings bad publicity. So, the western ideology, informed by corporate culture, is driven by optimism towards techno-utopian imaginaries and therefore futures.

There are a lot of ways through which we could enrich design education and prepare designers for being a positive force in the world. What I'm very much driven by at the moment is figuring what this education looks like. I’m involved in an Erasmus+ program called Speculative Edu, looking at how design education needs to change for the world as it is today. At the École normale supérieure Paris-Saclay I’m working with Anne Lefebvre, a philosopher of technology with expertise on the works of Gilbert Simondon, on a master of design research programme. Here we’re running practice-based projects supported by related theoretical classes.

You say that designers need social science skills. Are you not questioning the methods that designers use and are trained for?

I think classic design methods and skills are still extremely relevant. Creating products (amongst other things) that are pleasing to interact with, great to look at, that we want to share our lives with is not problematic in principle. But as I discussed above, products are increasingly entering the emotional realm, mediating and automating elements of human life that should be (in my opinion) more sacred.

I honestly don't think designers need to become social scientists, absolutely not. Designers simply need an awareness of the methods and findings of social science, likewise, a good reading of philosophy of technology. Essentially understanding the languages and relevant contributions of complementary disciplines. In Madeira, we worked very closely with ethnographer Laura Watts, our approaches came together to create outputs that could never have been achieved had either discipline developed the project alone. Laura began to challenge elements of the project from the perspective of STS (Science and Technology Studies), an incredibly relevant and poignant field for designers. It took me until the first year of my PhD to even realise that STS existed as it had never entered my design curriculum. I found academic papers on socio-technical imaginaries that described numerous examples from diverse cultural perspectives. This was particularly relevant when considering the role of Western power and politics in fostering a causal relationship between scientific discoveries / technical innovations and a better future.

If I try to summarize what is a perfect design for you, I would say it’s local, sustainable and thinks about consequences. Is there something missing?

There are many possibilities. It depends very much from product to product, context to context, situation to situation. The work we were doing in Madeira started to explore notions of local from the perspective of design. The early solutions were very utilitarian, and as such weren’t at all desirable when judged by contemporary metrics. They looked like scruffy machines built by someone living as a survivalist. The newer work tries to combine the local, sustainable element with more traditional expectations of good design.

What we design is not just the product but also a system - of local makers in Madeira (cabinet makers, metal shops), materials, from diverse sources, located on the island, an open-source communication system to disseminate the information and add knowledge and perhaps most importantly the incorporation of energy systems into the design problem.

If you want to own one of these products you could either do it all yourself or if lacking the time or skills initiate a system. We're in complete control of the whole system. If something breaks we can fix it.

You said that good design depends on the context. But do you have examples of projects, services that you think are really good designs ?

We’ve been cataloging these on Speculative Edu. I’d rather not get into examples here but to say that essentially good designs build relations between things. People and people, people and communities, people and objects, objects and environments. Fundamentally these relationships are not exploitative.

My guilty example is the motorcycle (I'm extremely passionate about motorcycles) which conflicts terribly with the post-petroleum nature of my design discourse. But I’ve been riding and repairing bikes since I was around 7-years old. It’s a relationship of maintenance, of modification and of experience. My motorcycle will not become obsolete through fashion, trends or technical advances (although it will when petrol is no longer available). Motorcycle enthusiasts typically exist within excellent networks of knowledge, repair and social activities. They also encourage a repair mentality that migrates to other products - I have taken great pleasure in fixing anything from worn bushes in a washing machine motor to a dodgy solenoid in my coffee machine, both informed by clips uploaded to youtube.

So how do we do, politically or by design, to break the cycle of desire, to go into what you described?

It will not be easy. This question keeps me up at night, worrying whether my work is simply a facile indulgent intervention. We're dealing with the most powerful companies on the planet, companies that have more influence than many small nations. They have more lobbying power than companies have ever had. They have the finances to buy intellectual property from others that might threaten their position. They have the financial power to pay designers more than other companies. And if you align that with the American educational system where graduates leave college with ridiculously high debt, then choosing less-paid but more ethical work isn’t often an option. Really it is difficult to be optimistic when you grasp the scale of the problem.

The hope comes from younger generations realising the scale of the environmental issues we face, and rescripting notions of what is desirable - this is starting to happen to a small degree.

When the current leading brands things stop being the thing to be seen with (the way the wearing of animal fur has become taboo), interesting opportunities will emerge. The Fairphone gives us a glimpse of the possibilities.

What do you think that our book should bring? What do you think we should say to someone who wants to start a new company, a new service?

I don't know if I'm very good at advising people on business. It's probably why I've remained in academia all of these years. However, I’ll have a try. The origins of service design are interesting to look at. Some friends of mine were defining service design in the early days of the approach. Lavrans lovlie, a Norwegian designer, said that they were trying to create “service envy” - just as you might be envious of your neighbour's car, or your brother's stereo system, it might be possible to envy a service that somebody uses. Service being something that you don't own, rather, something that you might rent or share. This is interesting because it still relates to notions of desire, of envy, of these quite complex human emotions, but shifting away from the idea of ownership towards something more relevant for this particular moment in time.

It is an exciting time to be challenging the orthodox ways of doing things, the normal iterative processes through which technology evolves (and therefore technological artefacts). Predictable and narrow pathways based on existing and entrenched models.

So the advice would be to clear your mind as much as possible of what exists in your problem space through dismantling the current system and then to re-mantle in more appropriate ways, with the new motivations and the new factors that are relevant to this particular moment in time. I don't know if there's advice there or not. It's just not following the pathways that have emerged from the last century because they're no longer appropriate.

Découvrez d'autres entretiens

Venez échanger avec nous sur http://slack.designersethiques.org, canal #projet_livre_ethique.

Coordinateur du projet : Jérémie Poiroux.