What follows is a proposal that some members of 115 put forward in response to an open invitation from the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Arts & Humanities Research Board (AHRB) in 2004, to form a research cluster around the theme of ‘Designing for the 21st century’.
We were the only non-academic institution to put forward a proposal. It helped us to refine some thoughts about sharing ideas, working together, and working across boundaries. For example, it includes a plan for a series of practical workshops and a summer school. Though the plan was not taken up, we are still interested in developing these kinds of activities in the future.
This proposal is for a series of meetings and discussions between different artists, designers, architects, writers and teachers. It will take place over the course of a year, with two one-day workshops at the beginning and end and four shorter sessions in between.
The purpose of these meetings is to make the participants think more carefully about some of the familiar ideas and skills that they use every day in their professional work and ask them to employ this expertise to do different tasks.
Here is an example of how this might work:
Photographers normally produce single images that are frozen in time and will carefully manipulate colour and lighting as well as focus and composition in order to produce exciting images. For them the act of taking a photograph is not just a way of passively recording things, but an active process which involves making a lot of quick decisions. These choices transform and often radically change the way things look. When we view a photograph however we often ignore the fact that somebody has taken it, we forget about all the editing and selection that has gone on and perhaps even think of it like a window directly onto the world. In a similar way, the photographer can become so acquainted with his or her working methods that they become completely automatic and routine. In some ways this is a good thing because professionals are expected to work to exacting standards and to have a high degree of knowledge in their chosen field. However, habits and routines can sometimes hinder enterprise and experimentation and make people lazy. The pressure of financial and commercial deadlines can often result in the same techniques and devices being used unquestioningly over and over again.
The research cluster meetings will address these issues by asking participants to rethink the ways in which their work is normally done. Firstly, participants will make short presentations to the whole group that describe the main ideas and processes that are essential to their profession. Then, after some discussion, a series of partnerships and collaborations between different sets of people will be set up and the participants will be required to think about how the methods they use in their own occupation can be applied to a completely different creative activity.
For instance, the photographer may collaborate with a book designer and have to work on the layout of a scientific book for young children. Taking ideas such as ‘light’ and ‘focus’ or even ‘speed’ and ‘stillness’ and translating them to the challenges of another task may create some original ways of thinking about the construction of the book. This may involve reinventing the overall form of the book so that it folds out like a sequence of stills on a roll of film. Or it may result in the decision to use translucent, see-through paper in which the images and text gradually appear and disappear, like turning the focus ring on a camera. The photographer might even suggest that the book be printed using light sensitive inks, so that the words and pictures only gradually become visible as the pages are turned.
This is just a quick example of some of the ways in which people working in different areas of art and design can co-operate with each other to develop original ideas and perhaps even produce new products. Once this process has been started it can keep on growing, creating chains or networks of people and joining together many creative professions. A book designer for example might start to work with a landscape gardener who in turn may collaborate with a composer. In this way fresh ideas can slowly flow through a web of individuals and groups and across different creative disciplines until they eventually start to change the design and production of things that we use in our daily life.