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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.

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Infra/Extraordinary: Pedibus, a school bus without a bus

The Infra/Extraordinary column is devoted to zooming in on intriguing objects and practices of the 21st Century. Adopting a design-ethnography perspective, we will question informal urban bricolage, weird cameras, curious gestures and wonder about their cultural implications.

Pedibus1

, “Lausanne Pedibus” by Nicolas Nova, CC BY-NC on Flickr.

Running across this “pedibus” sign on the streets of Lausanne the other day made me think about the cultural implications for such practice.

Pedibus are commonly found in European cities such as Geneva, Lausanne or Lyon and one can see them as an intriguing type of school bus line that collects students at scheduled stops located in the city, except there’s no actual “bus”. Children are “picked-up” in accordance with a predefined and fixed timetable. They are then brought to school on foot by volunteers (parents or people from the neighborhood).

The name is a portmanteau word formed from the latin root “pedester” (which means “going on foot“) and “bus”. This semantic combination highlights the ambulatory character of the system, with the participants walking without any other mean of transport (that being said, I sometimes see kids on scooters when “in” the pedibus).

In general, pedibus systems can be created by urban institutions, or by a group of parents who are interested in a healthy and cheap way to deal with pupils’ schedules. Of course, such collective services are necessarily bound to the structure of urban environment. They are indeed more likely to be found in dense (and safe) city centers than sprawl-like suburbs, but one can also run across a pedibus in the countryside in France or Switzerland.

Pedibus2

“Lausanne Pedibus” by Nicolas Nova, CC BY-NC on Flickr.

The pictures above have been taken in Lausanne, a Swiss city with a population of nearly 130’000 inhabitants making it the fourth largest city of the country and 41.38 square km2 (15.98 sq mi). The website about the pedibus in this town indicates that the network is 21 km/13 miles long with 40 “lines” (approximately 575 m/0.3 mile long).

These numbers are intriguing but that’s not what I’m most interested in. Looking at the picture above, several elements caught my eye:

  • A very casual form of signage: it’s made of a wooden plaque with bright colors and a hand-drawn typeface, which is a bit unusual in Switzerland with its high standard of graphic design. It is also attached to existing urban infrastructures (signage, wall, etc.). This highlights the informal character of this system: disconnected from the other urban signs (which have a more structured visual identity). Pedibus stops like this one are sometimes removed during summer vacations, as if to tell us the temporary existence of this means of transport (and the rythm of the “school season”).
  • Unlike other bus stops, the timetable is pretty basic and limited to certain moments of day: morning, end of morning, beginning of the afternoon and end of afternoon (based on school schedules).
  • There’s a short description of what a pedibus is (with words and a drawing representing the bus): even if the system is 14 years old in Lausanne, it may tell us that it’s still important to explain what it is; probably for newcomers.

Beyond my interest in alternatives means of transports, I find pedibus systems fascinating for two reasons. First and foremost, they show the importance of bottom-up innovation as well as citizen participation. That’s probably what could be called a “Smart City” from a human perspective. Second, they also reveal how innovation can be based on “removing” elements from an existing system. In this case, and because it makes sense in terms of distance, this mean of transport corresponds with the removal of the main artifact that was involved in the process: the bus. I think that this is more than the “less is more” ethos commonly found in design circles, and which strives for minimalism. To some extent, the pedibus may be another example of “innovation through subtraction“, a sociological concept that I recently encountered in this research paper: “innovation founded on reducing a practice or ceasing to use – subtracting, detaching – a given artefact.“. From a design POV, I’m fascinated by this move: you take an existing technological system (e.g. school bus), you remove the main component (i.e. the bus), and then you try to find a workaround.

Do you see any other examples in your everyday life? Can you invent other examples of pedibus-like innovation with other technological artifacts/services?

Infra/Extraordinary: From GoPros to vanity camera drones

The Infra/Extraordinary column is devoted to zooming in on intriguing objects and practices of the 21st Century. Adopting a design-ethnography perspective, we will question informal urban bricolage, weird cameras, curious gestures and wonder about their cultural implications.

GoPro Helmet

GoPro helmet in the Swiss Alps

The other day in the Swiss Alps, among the crowd of heavily-protected people skiing and snowboarding, I couldn’t help noticing a peculiar type of people: the ones with a camera attached to the top of their helmets. It’s hard to miss them as this apparatus gives them extra inches as well as an odd robomechanical look. For those unaware of this intriguing outfit, this device is a “GoPro“, a camera named after the brand of “wearable” camcorders one can add on different types of gear for sport/adventure video and photography. Common usage of GoPros range from surfboarding to bungee jumping, snowboarding or just driving your car in memorable places.

Contemplating such devices during my day skiing, I started noticing a certain amount of GoPro-enabled people around me each time I was in the line for a ski-lift, or at the outdoor restaurants (which left me wondering about the type of video the users might get when seated sipping their coffee). What does the recent surge in such devices indicate? What does it mean with regards to the evolution of photography?

A SUV with a GoPro cam attached on it, encountered in Monument Valley, UT.

In the last fifteen years, we have seen an exponential growth of digital photography. Compact cameras, SLRs and cameras available on cell phones have become ubiquitous and are used by increasing numbers of people. This situation has led to a wide range of practices, as shown by various studies in sociology or human-computer interaction. Wearable camcorders seem to be an extension of the tendency some people have to copiously document their activities on platforms such as Flickr, Instagram or social networks in general. But there’s an important difference here: the documentation is no longer discrete; it’s continuous, as long as there’s enough battery. To some extent, this documentation is delegated to a machine that is also no longer gripped by the users; it’s attached to our clothes or to specific gear such as an helmet or your skateboard.

Gordon Bell

Gordon Bell, Photography by Dan Tuffs.

For people interested in Human-Computer Interaction, this practice does not come out of the blue. Certain projects conducted by Microsoft in the last ten years have dealt with this already. Gordon Bell, principal researcher in the Microsoft Research Silicon Valley Laboratory, is a long-time defender of what he calls “extreme lifelogging”, i.e. the exhaustive collection of data and content about one’s life in order to create a personal archive. This type of project also corresponds to existing products such as Vicon Revue or Memoto. And of course, readers of “As we may think” by Vannevar Bush in 1945 may find some similarities with the Memex project, a “device in which individuals would compress and store all of their books, records, and communications“.

Beyond tracing the genealogy of such an idea, what interests me here rather deals with the evolution of such practices. Talking with GoPro users and observing their use in my daily environment, I recently noticed a shift: the camera is sometimes pointed at the user(s). So, instead of filming the mountains, the ocean or the road, wearable cameras are also employed to collect footage about the people using it. Look for instance at this YouTube video called “GoPro Hero 2 rear view facing driver, Suzuki GSF 650N”:

Of course, cameras have always been used to shoot people, but what is relevant here is to see how users can do that on their own, without the help of friends or relatives. From an Actor-Network perspective, one might say that this function has been delegated to a non-human: the camera mounted on an arm attached to something close enough to frame the user. This situation is reflected in the design of the “arm” with plenty of what they call “mounting accessories” which are aimed at different contexts. There’s a whole ecosystem of artifacts and practices to observe here!

MeCamMeCam Finally, being interested in design and futures practices, I also can’t help being intrigued by the next logical move. Given this practice of filming one’s self and the recent surge in personal drones, we’re only a few steps away from what I’d call “Vanity drones”, flying robots that would film users and stream the data on social networks… But, wait a minute, I just stumbled across this MeCam, a $49 camera “designed to follow you around and stream live video to your smartphone, allowing you to upload videos to YouTube, Facebook, or other sites“.

Head-mounted cameras, necklace cams, vanity drones… all these artefacts highlight how digital photography evolved and how their design encapsulates assumptions about their use. One can see a trend towards the automation of data collection, which correspond to common practices on the Web and social media. To put it differently, these devices reveal the intricate relationships between their design and our information ecosystem.