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Communication, cooperation, sharing, participation, DIY and responsible design

7. 10. 2021    Research

Lilo Viehweg

Lilo Viehweg
Lilo is a design researcher, lecturer and curator. Her focus lies on collective investigations of critical questions and narratives around the hierarchies of knowledge production and the related socio-political conditions of design. 



You are looking into the mediative aspects of design. Did the role of the designer change within the past decades since more and more designers are dealing with this topic? For example, Neri Oxman describes design as a means of communication in her circle of creativity. How do you think did this communicational aspect change?

Lilo: One could say that design has always been a means of communication. Considering design as communication is not so much about the specific focus on outcome, but it rather depends on your positioning and perspective as a designer, your definition of what design is, its purpose, and what role the society ascribes to design. Design might be perceived from different perspectives, but what it always does is that it brings different contexts of knowledge together. Thus, designers always communicate directly or indirectly between different fields. For example, already one-hundred years ago, the aim of early modernist design concepts, such as those at Bauhaus, was to combine technology, art, and craft to create a synthesis of different disciplines towards a more social design. In Germany, UK, and some other European countries, discourse on design as an intersection between science and other forms of knowledge has been on the increase since the 1960s. The design researcher Claudia Mareis investigated the different debates in her book “Design as Knowledge Culture“ (“Design als Wissenskultur“, 2011). One decisive thread throughout all of those debates is that acknowledging communicational aspects of design is related to different hierarchies of the knowledge and power structures that go with them. To consider for example craft, design or artistic knowledge as equal to scientific or technological knowledge is a socio-political negotiation.

Each design project and its related actors are situated in particular contexts. These contexts have to be critically analysed and taken into account if the goal is to communicate responsibly. This is a form of mediation since contexts have to be made tangible. Part of the discussions today of design becoming more and more relevant as an intersecting discipline in scientific research is a crucial and long overdue paradigm shift towards more pluriverse narratives including non-western and marginalised voices being heard. To name a few projects and publications in this context I recommend the futuress.org and decolonisingdesign.com platforms and the publications “Design for the Pluriverse“ by Arturo Escobar in which the author connects social and ecological contexts towards a new thinking in design beyond modernist concepts and “Design Struggles“ edited by Claudia Mareis and Nina Paim (2021), which brings together critical design activist voices discussing questions on intersectionality in design.

Science is important for understanding nature and material aspects. Especially in material-based design, this knowledge becomes more and more important. I have tried to start a conversation with scientists, but it often feels like designers and scientists speak different languages. Could you tell me about your practice and experience in regard to collaboration with people from different disciplines? How can we collaborate and mutually help one another? Could you name some examples of transdisciplinary research projects?

Lilo: From my experience in interdisciplinary projects among scientists, designers, artists, activists, and visitors of museums, time and space are among the most relevant parameters to build understanding and to design collaboratively. Another important factor is the willingness to exchange mutually at eye level. This is easier said than done, because what “eye level“ means has to be defined first. Different forms of languages, narratives and literacies have to be exchanged, translated, understood, and valued. For example, in our research project “smart materials satellites“ we focused on a multi-media, processual, participatory approach to enable building connections between involved actors between material, scientific and other forms of knowledges. This included communicating material knowledge through artefacts, contextual texts, images, videos, collective experimentation, and conversations in constantly changing situations. This concept was crucial to connect different kinds of backgrounds between making as well as the cultural, ecological, technological and socio-political contexts.

In order to reach a common understanding, it is also important to exchange ideas about the respective roles and related actions in tangible forms. It is not enough to have a concept of great design project in mind or its written form on paper. The real work starts when people (and non-human species)3 ave to get specific and interact with each other. How can quieter voices being heard in groups? A compromise in the form of a thick potato soup, where you can no longer tell the individual ingredients apart, might not be the best solution. A salad in which each individual ingredient is still visible may help to highlight different kinds of perspectives and let quieter voices speak in their own language. There are more and more interdisciplinary research projects in experimental material design that are initiated and not less important: funded. Interesting current projects connecting scientific, social and design research in relation with experimental material research in academic contexts can be found at, for example, the Cluster of Excellence “Matters of Activity“ at Humboldt University in Berlin and Weißensee Academy of Art Berlin, the Material Experience Lab at TU Delft or the BurgLabs at Burg Giebichenstein University of Art and Design in Halle.



Communication is essentially related to sharing, which has become the subject of many discussions in the context of material design. I perceive sharing of information and experience as an essential part of responsible and conscious design production. This is one of the reasons why I work on the platform consciousdesign.cz. Therefore, I would like to know your opinion on sharing knowledge in terms of materials (e.g., recipes sharing etc.).

Lilo: Yes, sharing of knowledge is a crucial part of responsible design. There is a low inhibition to share knowledge in research-based design in general. This also stems from the way design is taught. At many art and design schools, students usually learn to present their intermediate steps throughout the process and discuss these steps in the group. Presenting at exhibitions, on websites, in magazines and publications is an inextricably linked reality of the profession. Just by looking at a material artefact, the socio-ecological contexts and the composition of the substances do not become visible. For designers working in experimental material research, revealing the knowledge behind the design is a decisive part of the concept itself. However, anyone who has worked with materials knows how difficult it can sometimes be to put material interactions into words.

Fortunately, design exists in networks and peers work together on translating and sharing material knowledge. This can be seen, for example, in some of the publications that have emerged in recent years, like "Why Materials Matter" by Seetal Solanki (2018) and "Radical Matter" by Kate Franklin and Caroline Till (2019) in which the editors present numerous current projects of designers considering material knowledge as the focus of their experiments. What all of them have in common is to re-explore and describe social entanglements between human and non-human actors.3 The design ideas are based on questions about new ways of dealing with natural resources that cannot be separated from the actions performed with them. This makes us question human and non-human power relations as well. Describing processes and thereby sharing the background of a certain inter- and intra-action is crucial in that sense. Another example is the publication "Material Alchemy" by Studio Aikieu (2014) in which designers reveal their material recipes in 11 workshops, including explicit information on ingredients and step-by-step instructions. This could be also seen as a form of Open Design in which designers do not consider themselves as the sole creators of a product but see a great value in sharing ideas of critical making.

However, the question of sharing knowledge is not always easy to answer when it comes to making a living and continuing the research. Many socio-ecologically responsible designers are facing precarious situations after graduation or they have to work in different fields. A still dominant paradigm in global industries of an industrial design system which is based upon western modernist ideas of standardisation for mass- production, rationalisation and exploitation of humans and non-humans is largely incompatible with the proposals of the new socio-ecological infrastructures. Thus, more and more material designers are starting to build new networks with science, humanities, arts, craft, education, industry, and politics to find ways for further sharing, discussing, and collectively developing concepts. Therefore, it can be observed that compared to the movements up until about five years ago, the conditions are slowly improving due to the issues are being integrated into larger societal discussion.

In my opinion, responsible designers and product manufacturers need to communicate with the public clearly about what to do with the product in the end of its life cycle (if it is degradable, or can be recycled, etc.) or they can motivate them to send it back to the manufacturer/designer. For example, there are several take-back systems in the Czech Republic. I came across a small shoe design studio, which asks its customers to send back the products when they are not being used anymore. Do you know some interesting and successful examples of such a responsible communication?

Lilo: Success in responsible communication can have different meanings. For example, many big companies use the term sustainability as a generic concept to greenwash their image, but the positive environmental impact is minor compared to the ongoing exploitation of humans and non-human actors globally. Even though we can observe more and more socio-ecological responsible projects, it is not easy to judge yet what an ideal communication of a socioecological responsible product would be. To find answers we have to change our understanding of design first and critically analyse production processes as well as the systems in which the production is embedded in. When it comes to current examples of experimental materials research, communicating ideas turns out to be more complex than simple narratives of replacing petrol-based materials. To substitute petroleum- or mineral-based materials which travel in intricate paths across globe- spanning, rhizome-like networks, it is an elaborate task to find alternatives to the masses of material-based commodities in global systems.

Designers, like for example the design studio Lapatsch/Unger, investigate forgotten materials to critically reflect on material cycles today. They collaborate with experimental archeologists, investigate rare and almost extinct crafts, histories of making, and include philosophical reflections in their projects to develop new human-non-human entangled proposals. Projects like crafting plastics or precious plastic are also interesting examples, since both studios put their emphasis on the change of production processes as essential parameter for a new approach to plastic industries. The former investigates the implementation of bioplastics in already existing production systems, the latter tries to develop new production systems for already existing materials.

Both paths show overlaps in questions around the western modernist paradox of “waste“ and are important contributions to the exploration into new cycles. In his project Totomoxtle Fernando Laposse is looking into the labour conditions of industrial production in relation to agricultural traditions. Based on narratives of various forms of knowledges around Mhusks of heirloom of Mexican corn, the project connects new production processes with those of a rural community in Mexico and the world’s largest seed bank to include socio-political contexts of biodiversity and labour in the discussions about responsibility in design.

And there are many more examples that go beyond the scope of this interview, but for now I would say, to find answers to the questions of communicating responsibly, many different approaches are important needed to break the hegemony of western modernist standardisation.


Participation is an important part of circular economy concept as it is related to the goal of making the product and materials last longer and to make them more valuable to the customers and consumers. For instance, customer/consumer participation in the development and creation of materials and products can establish a bigger emotional connection with those objects. How important do you think is the participation in design and what goals should such participation pursue?

Lilo: Whether consciously or unconsciously, participation is an indispensable part of all design processes. The interpretation of what participation really means is revealed in actions and depends on the positioning of the designer towards power relations in design processes. For example, the terms “consumers“ are critically questioned in participatory design discourses because the person using an object is not considered uninvolved but actually included in the design process. The life of a product doesn't end when being sold. The impact of a design becomes visible in its use. Current participatory design research doesn’t solely focus on the development of products but is rather an investigation into social interactions in design processes between humans as well as between humans and non-humans actors. Even if it sometimes seems that designers work silently on a prototype or concept in their studios, their ideas depend on former experiences and already existing knowledge that are being put into the design process. Additionally, non-human actors are involved. The systems, tools, and materials - all non-human species interacted with influence the participants as well. Acknowledging that design does not move in a vacuum is the first step towards critically reflective participatory design processes.

Participation is not innocent but a negotiation based upon social-political realities of participating actors in diverse systems. It is not enough to simply invite someone into the design process. Finding common ground means also to question who the designer and the seemingly “expert“ or “non-expert“ is.

Participation also means to relinquish the control over the sole power of the outcome and to recognize that one cannot design alone and to recognize the socio-political situations and conditions in which the participating actors are able to participate. The field of studies on participation and inclusion in design is very diverse and emerged already in the 1960s. The discussions are related to feminist, anthropological, technological, and social studies, as well as to decolonising and intersectionalising design discourse

To start getting into the topic in relation to material based design, I recommend looking into the research of Pelle Ehnon participatory design, Dori Tunstall on decolonising design anthropology, and “Design Anthropology“ by Alison Clark and “Design Anthropological Futures“ edited by Rachel Charlotte Smith, Kasper Tang Vangkilde, Mette Gislev Kjaersgaard, Ton Otto, Joachim Halse, and Thomas Binder.

There are more and more initiatives in material design which focus on DIY aspects, like for example Paula Nerlich’s Circular Home Lab. Are we currently perceiving a period which might be called the "DIY age“ in Design?

Lilo: Indeed, it can be observed that more and more projects in design today that deal with manufacturing methods of low complexity used to rethink production processes. Those methods are closely interrelated with sharing knowledge and participation in design in general. In terms of material interactions, DIY has a special meaning because it is no longer products but materials that are being designed. DIY becomes a process between low-tech mining, cooking and alchemy. Hands-on experiments with materials and the development of new tools or repurposing of other tools such as cooking pots, nail files or hair dryers are crucial for the development of new concepts with materials. Due to the low complexity of the production, it is easier to share the knowledge of the processes with others. Up to a certain point. Paula Nerlich’s Circular Home Lab is a very good example which highlights aspects of sharing material knowledge in experimental material research. A project with similar aims is "hands on matter", initiated by designer Tim van der Loo and techno-anthropologist Sandra Nicoline Nielsen. Both projects put an emphasis on how ideas on socio-ecological concepts can be developed collectively and how material experimentation is an indispensable part of this exchange.

However, DIY in design is not a new phenomenon per se, but it is again a question of a certain perspective on what design is and how DIY is defined. For example, due to the interrelations between craft and technological knowledge, experiments with materials were already decisive for the concepts of modernist design of the early 20th century. These ideas did not emerge from the void either but made use of previous contexts of knowledges, such as reform pedagogical ideas like those of Pestalozzi, but also indigenous knowledge like those of pre-Columbian textiles in Anni Albers’ work. Here I recommend reading Valentina Buitrago Garcia’s Master Thesis with the COOP Design Research programme. The Bauhaus student and later master (teacher) Joseph Albers made use of scrap yard materials for his early material experiments and recycled glass bottles for window panes. Another period in the Western context, in which concepts and discussions on low-tech design methods with the aim towards a more social design emerged, was a social design movement from the 1960s onwards. To name a few prominent examples, Viktor Papanek’s "Design for the Real World" (1974) which proposes to include anthropological studies into the industrial design process and Enzo Mari’s “autoprogettazione?“ (1974) which is a building manual to DIY furniture for “Anyone, except for manufactures and traders (...)“.

DIY, craft, design, and social knowledge have always been deeply entangled. What is different today is that more designers are dealing with these topics than before, various kinds of narratives from non-western perspectives are involved and former marginalised voices in design are being heard louder. For example, the proportion of female designers in the field of experimental material design is strikingly large and the decolonising design discourse initiated from Global South perspectives is strongly related to material culture studies. An interesting contribution to current discussions on DIY and design in general is The Critical Makers Reader: (Un)learning Technology edited by Loes Bogers & Letizia Chiappini.

One could say that DIY is the basis of socially oriented design in itself. However, the definition and the related goal that a DIY process in design pursues is also linked to the respective socio-political contexts in which the design is made. When resources and access to tools are limited, DIY becomes a necessity instead of a free choice. In my view, this aspect must be also taken into consideration when it comes to DIY methods today. Creating things ourselves with our hands allows us to understand tacit contexts and create approaches that might be harder to understand without direct interaction. However, it is again important to consider the mechanisms behind situated practices and to distinguish between speculative scenarios and the realities in which material experiments find themselves today. Who has access to materials, when, where, in what context and under what conditions?

1 Photo credit: Daniel Hofer

2 Photo: Lilo instagram account

3 Non–human actors = systems, tools, and materials

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