Design History on the DRS2016 – A Design Summer in Brighton

This year in summer the British Design Research Society celebrated its 50th anniversary with a big conference in Brighton. About 600 designer and researcher from Great Britain, Europe, and the world came together at the DRS2016 in the lovely seaside city, one hour south of London. The main theme of the conference was „Future-Focused Thinking“, which related to the popular designer self-understanding, designing the future and especially being the right profession for that task.

Brighton Pier and the sea

The conference was well organized and soon fully booked, although the registration fees with more about 400£ for three days were anything but cheap. Nevertheless I was really appreciated about the use of digital infrastructure at the whole event. The conference program was mainly organized via an online tool – what is not a real innovation nowadays. Anyhow this was combined with all the papers, the referents handed in before. In a pdf file and with a CC-BY license – I find that really refreshing – it was possible for me to prepare myself in advanced (all papers are online). In this way it was easier for me to listen the specific details more precisely than just trying to understand it, because your read the paper already before. Unfortunately the time at all sessions was planed very short, so there hadn’t been enough time for questions to the presenters. And further I still have a question about the digital persistence, because I am worried about the long-term storage of these research data.

What I also really appreciated was the decision not to give a keynote lecture. Instead there was on every day a podium discussion as a „starter“ with four experts from different fields about burning issues in design. The audience was able to ask questions via the Twitter hashtag #drsdebates. At the whole conference the hashtag #drs2016 was the digital code to share information to everybody. By using Twitter in this manner, all papers published online and an additional online exhibition about the history of the Design Research Society, it was also possible for people who weren’t in Brighton, to follow the conference from far away. Sharing the information in this way worked excellent and I would wish to see such an active use of digital tools also more on German conferences – may be at the Historikertag 2016 in Hamburg.

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From the greatest interest for me was one session on design history, that lasted the whole first day in the Old Courthouse. These panels from the 29th June was called „History, Theory, Practice – Histories for Future-Focused Thinking“ were led by Maya Oppenheimer (Royal Collage of Art, London) and Harriet Atkinson (University of Brighton). This was organized in cooperation with the British Design History Society chaired by Jeremy Aynsley (University of Brighton). The main aim was to reflect what happened since the famous Design Method conference from 1962.

After the lunch break Tania Messell opened the next section with her paper about „International Norms and Local Design Research“ at the ICSID and its engagement in Latin America in the 1970s. Messell, a PhD candidate at the University of Brighton, supervise by the professor for design history Jeremy Aynsley. She gave convincing ideas about how design was used as a development topic between the so called first and third world. By looking at this, it became clear how western focused the ICSID was as structured. Messell’s PhD thesis will close a big „research gap“ in design history and help to understand the globalized network of the industrial designers since the late 1950s. I am really looking forward to her book.

After that Sylvia (Technical University Berlin) and Christian Wölfel (Technical University Dresden) presented some of the results (see Wölfels paper), which they published 2014 within their book about Martin Kelm and the „good“ GDR design. This publication was – part time for reasons – criticized by German design historians (i.e by the design historian Siegfried Gronert or the eyewitness Günter Höhne). But nevertheless it was commendable the save Kelms story of his work as a design manager in the totalitarian system of the GDR. And it was also a enriching step further by the Wölfels to bring up questions about the GDR on the“radar“ of the no-German speaking design historians.

The third presentation in the section gave Ingrid Halland Rashidi from the University of Oslo – so she’ll be one of my colleges when I am as a visiting PhD fellow in Norway’s capital in fall this year. In her paper she followed the path of her PhD thesis by presenting thoughts and a re-reading of the exhibition „New Domestic Landscape“ about Italian design at the MoMa 1971 (see Ingrids paper). Her main question was if a work would always operate within the framework of human intention. By asking this she questioned the agency beyond human intention in an museological context, and the audience was very pleased about this.

The section was completed by the paper from designer Isabel Prochner (Université de Montreal) on current question about feminist work in industrial design (see Prochners paper). Her point was that in the 1980s and 1990s there was much more feminist critique than it is today. So Prochner claimed for a rebuild of feminist work in industrial design. Her paper was widely discussed in the follow conversation between presenters and the audience.

After the tea break the session on design history was re-opened by Kees Dorst (University of technology Sydney and Eindhoven University of Technology) (see Dorsts paper). He asked in a quite refreshing manner, if design practice and research would finally find together. Dorst emphasized in his presentation, that the ambition to create a „science of design“ in the past can be criticized for being too disconnected from design practice. With that he claimed for a new way of thinking „academic design“. This last session on design history was finalized by the papers from Tao Huang (Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, USA) with an advertisement on contemporary Chinese design, Adam de Eyto’s (University of Limerick) short history of Irish design and Joyce Yee’s (Northumbria University) appraisal of the current situation of the so called design research.

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So when I resume, even if „only“ one whole day was focused on design history, there weren’t that many papers on this special part of the history. This is not surprising, because the Design Research Society has its major focus on current design questions and not on the past – like the Design History Society. Looking at this I had the whole conference the impression, that the way of arguing, presenting a thesis and coming to new topics set apart from the historians on the one side and the designer on the other side. But even thou this was one of the great strength of the DRS2016 to bring these both groups together. Because the possibility to listen to papers that were not from the own research field, can be enriching and build new bridges.