Transitional design histories

Abstract: Design practices are to a large degree conceptually and methodologically based in ways of designing rooted in the 20th century. Some of the challenges that arise in contemporary design stem from an unawareness of design’s historicity, and the discrepancies between what design methods and concepts once were made to handle, and what we presently try to apply them to. This historicity of design, embedded in its methods, tools, and thinking, shape and limit what is possible to do in design. Unless we actively deal with the historicity of design’s central concepts, we risk inadvertently reproducing and reinforcing past norms and values in outcomes as well as in practices of design. Bringing history more actively into design can reframe the spaces in which to explore possibilities for how to go about designing differently.The program of transitional design histories presented in this thesis is formulated on the proposal that the historicity of designing should be made more present in design to support developing approaches and methods for responding to contemporary issues of complexity and sustainment. Design histories therefore need to work differently, taking an outlook in design practices rather than in design outcomes. I propose a methodology for making design histories as prototypes, combining a programmatic approach from practice-based design research with research methods in history that focus on analysing concepts and ideas. These transitional design histories do not provide solid foundations for, or explanations of, what design is or has been. Instead, they aim to make conceptual moves that support developing design practices capable of engaging with a complex ‘now’ and with uncertain futures. The aim is to support making conceptual moves through using historical perspectives in exploring if it would be possible to see, think, and do design in other ways. By shifting the outlook of design history from product to process – from things to thinking – an ambition is to sketch the contexts in which foundational concepts and central methods in design once came about. This shift of position can provide a provisional and propositional scaffolding that activates an awareness of how – and why – the ways we design have been formed over time.How transitional design histories could be made is here prototyped in three examples that take a starting point in concepts and themes central to Scandinavian user-centred and participatory design. As prototypes, these histories are constructed in slightly different ways, and aim to explore partially different aspects of mechanisms of design history and designing in relation to each other. The first prototype focuses on the concept of ‘participation’ related to turn-of-the century 1900 ideas, in the writings of Ellen Key. The second revolves around the concepts of use and users, more specifically the relationship between designed ideal or intended uses, in investigations of ‘dwelling habits’ in 1940s Sweden. The third prototype works with methods development in user-centered and participatory design, through examples of research into everyday domestic work carried out at the Hemmens forskningsinstitut (Home Research Institute) in the 1940s.