Tag Archives: objects

An interview about ‘Unpleasant Design’

Unpleasant Design

The Unpleasant Design, Picture by the editors.

Unpleasant Design” is a stunning book by Gordan Savicic and Selena Savic (@unpleasanting). It’s a collection of different research approaches to the pervasive presence of “defensible space”, i.e. physical features that prevent people from doing certain activities. With contributions by Adam Rothstein, Francesco Morace and Heather Stewart Feldman, Vladan Jeremic, Dan Lockton, Yasmine Abbas, Gilles Paté, Adam Harvey the book is made of various case studies, photographs and essays about these “silent agents” that take care of behaviour in public space, without the explicit presence of authorities.

Given the relevance of this theme to the “Infra/Extraordinary” column of Ethnography Matters, I took this opportunity to ask the two editors a couple of questions.

EM: I have always been fascinated by the type of anti-design features you describe in the book, collecting examples myself in my travels. Both because it says something about our society and because of the design process behind them. On your side, what made you focus on this?

Unpleasant or anti-design is present all around the globe. We could observe a particularly widespread use of them in Europe. At the time we started this research, we were living between Rotterdam and The Hague and we still think that the Netherlands are at the forefront of applying Unpleasant Design. Unpleasant Design is of course not something that is practised on a national level, but it is very typical of Dutch cities to have strong control over public space and to regulate what can or cannot be done within it. This might have something to do with the weather not permitting a vibrant life on the street, but it also has something to do with the distribution of shared common goods (reflected in the lack of common staircases in buildings, each apartment havin their own street number). So we decided to give it a try, to start collecting and categorising unpleasant applications; hoping that we will arrive at a theory of Unpleasant Design – how is it made, by whom, against what and what does it bring to public space.

Anti-skateboard devices, Picture by Nicolas Nova CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

EM:If you had to summarize your typology of anti-design features, how would you express it in terms of design as well as purposes?

On our blog, http://unpleasant.pravi.me we collected some typical unpleasant applications which we divided up into devices and objects. Within the devices group, we have light, sound and surveillance devices, while in the objects group we observe static things, such as benches, obstacles, surfaces and tactile objects. Typically, objects from the device group are addressing our basic human senses. This is by no means a final typology. It is a way to orient oneself within a wide variety of Unpleasant Design applications. It is also a way to distinguish Unpleasant Design from unsuccessful or failed design. What is really important in our research is that Unpleasant Design is foremost intentional. It is not a chair gone wrong. It is a chair which should make you get up after 15-20 minutes (in fast-food chains, this was reinforced by the design of uncomfortable seats, to keep up the fluctuation of customers and faster turnovers.)

The second very important thing about Unpleasant Design is that it always has a target audience, a group of people or a behaviour that it aims to discourage. In our research, we discovered it is usually one or all of these: homeless, youngsters, drug addicts (hello target group!). There is a funny metaphor for this in our case study of repellent systems against pigeons, which represent a paradigm for homeless, someone dirty and unwanted in your proximity. It is quite normal not to want to run into drug addicts injecting themselves in a public toilet, but there is something intrinsically mean about installing a blue light to discourage this behaviour. It is also a question of limits – today these three groups are the ones organised targeted by Unpleasant Design. Tomorrow it can be women on high heels, or men wearing a tie or a pair of glasses. Or it can be you.

EM:The resistance strategies you address in the book are also very informative. My best example for this is a pillow used on a very nasty fence in Lima so that people can go from one house to another. In your research, did you encounter this type of reaction? What do you think of them?

This is a great challenge for anyone with a critical mind and affinity for speculative design. So as soon as we identified the unpleasant agenda in urban spaces, we started thinking about ways to subvert it. In many cases, the resistance strategies highlight the very gist of the problem.

No one can sit under the Cross in Peru, Picture by Nicolas Nova CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Travelling to different cities, we encountered some humorous interventions and adaptations to unfriendly surfaces and objects. We also organised a competition for Unpleasant Designs, asking for both pleasant and unpleasant submissions. Some very good ideas came out of this. There are also artworks that offer fun ways to overcome Unpleasantness which are featured in our book. From strategies addressing people’s basic needs and conditions (like the BAUM Lav’s SI8DO ‘pleasant’ urban furniture for immigrants or Michael Rakowitz’s ParaSITE housing units for homeless) to the more technology oriented interventions (like the CV Dazzle surveillance camouflage by Adam Harvey) they all uncover subtle attempts at conditioning or designing our behaviour in public space.

EM:Who benefit from these? Is there a class of citizen/institution that benefit from these anti-design features?

In the beginning we assumed all unpleasant installations are orchestrated by the city authorities, to secure order and raise the image of the city. For example, one of the most basic and most pervasive cases of Unpleasant Design is a park bench with armrests. When parks and metro stops are redesigned these days, they are equipped with such benches to ensure no one is going to use them as a bed.
After some research, we found that there is a whole other world of applications that are designed for private persons and companies to address unwanted users of space or unwanted behaviour. For example, shopping malls use unpleasant objects and devices to prevent young people from loitering. In some cases, we could argue that their video surveillance systems also begin to discriminate people who are potentially “no-consumers”. Systems equipped with computer vision software can target persons wearing hoodies or look for faces from a database of known criminals. A very popular device used by property owners – both private and commercial – was the infamous “Mosquito”, a buzzing teen deterrent that emits high frequency noise to ensue youngsters under 25 won’t spend too much time in their vicinity. All these examples are described in the essay “Technology Enabled Discrimination” in our book.
Unpleasant Design could also influence property value as an relational parameter on rental prices in the city, for example.
As we can see, both city policy makers, private property owners and citizens benefit to some extent from Unpleasant Design. But the application of these systems is not subject to any global standard for public spaces or human rights legislation. Subsequently, private interest groups start using unpleasant applications to influence the demographics of a place, and they can just do it on their own. What is the human scale of those installations? As a side-effect, by looking for Unpleasant Design we found out that public space is very often semi-privatized.

An exchange platform for “trash”: Stories from the Object Ethnography Project

Editors’ note: In this final post of our Ethnographies of Objects edition, we talk to Max Liboiron, Founding Member & Project Leader of the Object Ethnography Project (OEP). The OEP is a project to facilitate the donation of objects among strangers. You can participate in the exchange by telling a story of what attracted you to the object and what you’ll will do with it, and then anyone else can trade an object for a new story. Here, Max shares some of the site’s most interesting stories – some strange, some wonderful and some just plain heartbreaking. Circulating objects in this way shows us how objects can be performative: their meanings arise through a performance with the object in particular contexts. The material boundaries of the object are important to understand in order to imagine their possible futures, but perhaps more important are the spaces they take up in peoples’ lives – in homes, within memory, as gifts and symbolic exchanges. We can’t wait to be a part of an OEP exchange and we’re sure you will too after you read this…

EM: What was the inspiration for the project? 

Originally, the Object Ethnography Project (OEP) was going to be an exchange platform for trash. NYU’s Lucrece Project was sponsoring interdisciplinary methodology projects, and I put out a call for people to create a cultural laboratory looking at waste and value. The original plan was basically an extension of my art practice: I create large-scale miniature dioramas made of trash, and people can interact with the art according to one or two rules of exchange. I use their behaviours to map spontaneous, usually non-capitalist economies.

But the OEP evolved beyond that through a collaboration with Marisa Solomon, an anthropologist, and Vincent Lai, a member of the Fixers Collective. We came together because we were all keen on waste, but we opened up the project so all sorts of objects could be part of an investigation about how terms of value are manifested via circulation and the varied relationships between people and things.Read More… An exchange platform for “trash”: Stories from the Object Ethnography Project

An object of journalism: the hyperlink

Juliette de Meyer

Juliette de Meyer

Editors’ note: Juliette de Maeyer (@juliettedm) kicks off this month’s edition focusing on Ethnographies of Objects with a response to two questions posed to her: ‘Why is the hyperlink an interesting object of journalism?’ And ‘What’s the best way to approach this object methodologically?’ Her work on hyperlinks is a fascinating exploration of materiality, stubbornness and methods for trailing the object. 

An object of journalism?

First things first: why do I even claim it is an “object”? A link is not exactly a thing that can be touched… However, a link has a material existence in the digital realm, with a beginning and an end — it is clearly defined by chunks of code, the <a> and </a> HTML tags that border it. We can define what’s a link, what’s not a link and, even, what’s almost a link: the six news sites I have extensively studied for my dissertation all contain what I call « plain text links », that is a URL effectively written in the text of the news story, but which is not a link. The idea of indicating another place on the web is there, it’s a reference to another web page or site, but it’s unclickable.

Hand cursor

The 3D hand cursor that appears over a hyperlink. Image by StockMonkeys on Flickr CC BY

The material boundaries that define the object itself suddenly become blurry, and that’s exactly where it becomes interesting. Why did the journalists produce almost-links or anti-links? Same goes for the apparently very simple distinction between internal and external links: internal links lead to pages in the same site, the same domain, defined by its URL, whereas external links point to other sites. Alright, but what about links that lead to other sites belonging to the same owner? News site A is the online counterpart of a tabloid, and sometimes links to articles published by news site B, the online counterpart of the quality paper — all are owned by the same company, and due to convergence efforts, news sites A and B are produced in the same newsroom. Formally, that’s still an external link. The material boundaries again become interesting when they are challenged.

A link also has an unambiguous existence for the actors involved in online news making. Ask a journalist, a blogger or an editor: they know what a link is. They can recognize one, they know when they produce one. This may seem a very mundane quality, but many things that we claim to study academically don’t have such an obvious existence. Try to ask journalists about their Bourdieuan habitus… Of course, this is not to say that the Bourdieuan habitus is an invalid concept. There might even be a portion of habitus involved in the ways journalists deal with links. It’s simply a question of vantage point: studying objects—things that exist—is a bottom-up approach that allows to iteratively discover concepts, theories and issues. It’s an empirically-driven, inductive perspective: instead of saying “Hey! The issue of sourcing is an important concept in news, let’s see how journalists use links to show their sources”, the logic sound more like this: “So there’s this thing that seems quite unique to online news, it’s called a hyperlink: let’s see why journalists use it… They use it to show their sources, but also for many other reasons!”.

Approaching the study of the hyperlink methodologically

A link. Source: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2261628/Britney-Spears-close-signing-lucrative-deal-perform-Las-Vegas-ending-relationship-Jason-Trawich.html

A link

Studying a single object of journalism has a great advantage: because it is so focused, it allows the use of mixed methods. It’s a very pragmatic argument, verging on stubbornness: I’m studying the link, and just that. Sure, other online news features are fascinating, but I don’t want to know anything about the latest multimedia fad or the craze of users’ comments. This is why I can cope with doing a big data content analysis, a historical discourse analysis, and some ethnographically-inspired newsroom observations — and graduate in due time (hopefully). All these methods are extremely time-consuming: being highly selective about what I was actually going to look at was a matter of survival.

And it produced interesting results. Let’s consider, for example, the ancient debate of how outdated CMS weigh on bad or non-existent linking practices. I’ve conducted ethnographically-inspired work in two newsrooms. CMS-wise, one of the newsroom was a classic case of print-centric tools forced upon web people: journalists in charge of online news had to use the same tools as print folks. Visually, it meant that they had to write their stories in an interface that looks like a printed page, with columns and stuff. No HTML allowed, of course. Hence, no links — or more particularly, no inline links: side-column links are another story. If they wanted to add inline links in their stories, they had to circumvent the automatic workflow and log in into another system. Everything was incredibly ugly and counter-intuitive. It involved many clicks and did not exactly fit well with the pressure to publish fast. When asked about their linking practices, journalists in that newsroom complained that there were many technical barriers. They claimed that they did not produce a lot of links, because of the print-centric tools they had to use.

In the other newsroom I’ve visited, journalists worked with a spanking new CMS, a blog-like interface where everything could be dragged and dropped effortlessly. The possibility to add inline links was smoothly integrated and it could be done at any stage of the process. Journalists claimed they added links “whenever it is necessary”.

Guess which site produced more inline links? The first one, with the print-centric CMS and many alleged “technical barriers” to linking. This surprising result was only visible when looking at aggregated data over a long period of time, it wasn’t obvious when looking at a handful of articles because both sites produced rather few inline links (around 10% of articles contained at least one inline link in the second site, whereas the proportion was a bit more than 20% for the first newsroom). This is exactly why it was important to complement newsroom observation with a large-scale content analysis. Or to complement the content analysis with newsroom observation, if you prefer. Looking at a specific object allowed me to do just that: multiply the vantage points while keeping my research feasible with the time and resources I had. Nothing new, really, just good old triangulation with a pragmatic twist.

All in all, the “object” is a very useful lens. It allows a research stance focused on what’s material, but does not limit it to the study of artifacts. Discourses, representations and meaning all play an important role in my research — as much as large-scale content analysis and ethnographic inquiries. Focusing on the “object” is the only way I know of keeping it all together.

Featured image by JanneM on Flickr CC BY NC SA

August 2013: Ethnographies of Objects

This month’s edition is co-edited by CW Anderson (@chanders), Juliette De Maeyer (@juliettedm) and Heather Ford (@hfordsa). The three of us met in June for the ICA preconference entitled ‘Objects of Journalism’ organised by Chris and Juliette. Over the course of the day, we heard fascinating stories of insights garnered through a focus on the objects, tools and spaces surrounding and interspersed with the business and practice of newsmaking: about faked photographs through the ages, about the ways in which news app designers think about news when designing apps for mobile devices and tablets, and about the evolution of the ways in which news room spaces were designed. We also heard rumblings – rarely fully articulated – that a focus on objects is controversial in the social sciences. In this August edition of Ethnography Matters, we offer a selection of objects from the conference as well as from an open call to contribute and hope that it sparks a conversation started by a single question: what can we gain from an ethnography of objects – especially in the fields of technology, media and journalism research?


Hardware. Image by Cover.69 on Flickr CC BY

Why an *ethnography* of objects?

As well as the important studies of body snatching, identity tourism, and transglobal knowledge networks, let us also attend ethnographically to the plugs, settings, sizes, and other profoundly mundane aspects of cyberspace, in some of the same ways we might parse a telephone book. Susan Leigh Star, 1999

Susan Leigh Star, in ‘The ethnography of infrastructure‘ noted that we need to go beyond studies of identity in cyberspace and networks to (also) look at the often invisible infrastructure that surfaces important issues around group formation, justice and change. Ethnography is a useful way of studying infrastructure, she writes, because of its strengths of ‘surfacing silenced voices, juggling disparate meanings, and understanding the gap between words and deeds’.

In her work studying archives of meetings of the World Health Organization and old newspapers and law books concerning cases of racial recategorization under apartheid in South Africa, Star ‘brought an ethnographic sensibility to data collection and analysis: an idea that people make meanings based on their circumstances, and that these meanings would be inscribed into their judgements about the built information environment’.Read More… August 2013: Ethnographies of Objects

We’re growing! Nicolas Nova Joins Ethnography Matters as a Contributor

Editor’s Note: When we launched  Ethnography Matters one year ago in October 2011, we wanted to create a place for ethnographers who were fluid in their practice, ideas, and theories. And so far, the interactions in the comments, on twitter and facebook, and along with our amazing guest contributors, have reflected our original goal. We’re excited that you’ve all made this possible by reading, contributing, and tweeting. While we come from different disciplines, backgrounds, and industries, it doesn’t mean that we can’t build conversations that stretch outside our institutional circles for support, new ideas, and collaborations.

To celebrate our one year anniversary, we’re very excited to announce that Ethnography Matters is expanding! Nicolas Nova is joining EM as a regular contributor. You may be familiar with Nicolas as he has written several guest posts already for EM. He brings a lot of experience and expertise in design research, interaction design, and speculative applied ethnography. Nicolas is based in Switzerland, teaches at the Geneva University of Arts and Design, and works closely with design and corporate firms throughout Europe, so we look forward to expanding EM to the European community of ethnographers. He co-founded Lift, a conference that has often been described as the cozier & smaller version of TED. He’s been blogging about his research since 2003 on Pasta & Vinegar.
We thought it would be fun to introduce Nicolas by asking him some questions about, of course, ethnography! And if you have any more questions for Nicolas, ask in the comments section below. 
How did you discover ethnography?
I “formally” discovered ethnography during my undergraduate degree in Cognitive Sciences when studying in France. Aside from classes in experimental psychology, we had courses in linguistics and cultural anthropology which is where I ran across this field and its approach. I remember that the lectures were fascinating, and the assignments were even more intriguing. We had to run interviews and observe curious topics such as how car-makers named auto-parts and their color, or how people make sense of the spatial environment. What caught me as interesting at the time was the approach, as it was totally different than the controlled experiments we had to run in Cognitive Psychology. Now that I think about it, the gap between these research endeavors is also huge in an epistemological sense, and I’m not sure that people in our program got that from the outset, but it was a marvelous opportunity to understand ethnography.
What did you enjoy about it when you started to learn about it? 

What I enjoyed was that it framed the way I was curious about the world, artifacts, people, and what they were doing. It basically corresponded to a more rigorous approach compared to something I use to do as a kid with my brother: going anywhere, sitting on a bench and looking at people, trying to make sense of what they were doing… an activity we used to called very naively “street physiognomy” (which, in retrospect, wasn’t physiognomy at all since we were focused on people’s activities).
Read More… We’re growing! Nicolas Nova Joins Ethnography Matters as a Contributor