A quick word about a new series I’m curating for Domus, the Italian art, architecture and design magazine. Called SuperNormal, it’s an attempt to ‘sketch’ a different kind of technology journalism, recognised how cultural it is.
A few years ago, in response to the usual diminished depiction of contemporary technology as simply “IT”, someone—I forget who—said something like “Is a 14 year-old girl updating her Facebook status from her mobile phone as she walks down the street ‘IT’?” Of course it is, but more importantly, it isn’t. It is more than that; contemporary technology is deeply cultural. We might argue that all technology always has been “deeply cultural”, from the Stone Age axe onwards, but given that symbolic consumption and production—one definition of culture—is now actively and deliberately embedded in objects we design and build, and that these objects are embedded in the patterns, habits and rituals of everyday life—another definition of culture—we must now see technology for what it is.
So with Domus, Joseph Grima and I saw an opportunity to write in a different way about everyday technology. Domus has a long tradition of writing about such things, driven by the strong Italian heritage of post-war industrial design, covering Brionvega radios, Elica hoods, Vespa scooters, or Olivetti typewriters, for instance.
But as I suggest in my series opener (below), perhaps a culturally powerful contemporary equivalent of these things now exists in the form of social media, mobile phones, web services, information graphics, smart cards, personal informatics, robots, and so on.
It might be a stretch to suggest that these things are the equivalent of an Olivetti Valentine in a number of ways, but not in terms of the way such things now shape our lives. Yet the vast bulk of journalism concerning this everyday technology is dominated by the technology press, which is rarely critical in the sense that Domus is, rarely covers design aspects with any depth, and rarely attempts to place developments in a wider cultural context. While I have no problem with the likes of Engadget, Techcrunch, Wired and the rest—not that they’d notice either way if I did!—there did seem a gap in the market here.
Conversely, this was also a way to introduce discussion of the recent design disciplines of interaction design, experience design, service design and information design, to this more established strata of design media. For what it’s worth, my motive for doing this—discussing the technology in terms of culture, and discussing its design in the context of other design practices—is in order to try to understand it better; which is in turn in order to design it better, to realise it better, to procure it better, and so on.
(By the way, it’s a huge honour to work for Domus. There can have been few more influential titles in design history since its inception in 1928 and Joseph Grima, who I first worked with on Postopolis, has repositioned the magazine at the forefront of media once again, for me alongside Eye and Idea as the best design magazines out there. It’s also been a pleasure to work increasingly closely with the designers, Salottobuono, and particularly Marco Ferrari.)
The series will run in the magazine and online. We’re using the website to carry more in-depth versions of the print articles, and including video and other contextual information such as interviews where relevant.
I’ve written the first two articles to frame the series.
The first covered the Nokia N9 (and to some extent its successor, the Lumia running Windows Phone) but pitches that in the context of the wider skirmishes in the mobile phone market, tactility, sounds and ocularcentrism in cellphone design, the hegemonic power of Apple, the importance of materials and the “dark matter” of licensing and logistics, European design history and entrepreneurship, via Roland Barthes and the Citröen DS19.
The second piece concerns Facebook Timeline, and so timelines, information design, social graphs, identity and representation, and so on —but also the broader context of a shared social memory, and how that might affect the way we forget and function. (Additionally, Facebook were good enough to get us an interview with Timeline’s lead designer, Nicholas Felton—he of Feltron Annual Reports fame)—and his early mockups of Timeline, to accompany this article. Thanks to both Nicholas and Meredith Chin for that.)
These initial articles are markers, sketching out the trajectory and territory of the series to some extent. But as the series opener suggests below, the terrain should get increasingly rich, diverse and fertile and I’m lining up a set of great writers ready to explore it and map it. More on that to follow. I’ll pitch in from time to time too.
And here, below, is the original text for the series—which I’ve dubbed SuperNormal, in respectful homage to Jasper Morrison and Naoto Fukasawa’s great book and exhibition, noting its title Super Normal: Sensations of the Ordinary. This text introduces and frames the venture, and is a slightly different version to that which appears on the Domus website and in the magazine.
The humble form of the mobile phone galvanises culture and design like few other products ever have.
Well beyond its original brief of connecting voices in real-time, and now dissolved in social media substrate, the mobile phone is essentially a tool for cultural production and consumption, for the everyday projection, dissembling or articulation of identity itself. As such, the cellphone represents an entirely new form of industrial design; it is intimate physically, psychologically and culturally, as well as framing the city and its activities. It can only be understood in the context of the few genuinely new design disciplines of the last two decades: the overlapping circles of interaction design, experience design, service design.
And for mobile phones, read Facebook Timeline’s interface design, the organising principles underpinning operating systems like OSX and Google Chrome OS, the platform service ecosystem of iTunes+iPhone, an RFID-based airport check-in system, the architecture of Angry Birds, what XBox Live says about community; what transport data apps say about contemporary urbanism; what the Microsoft Word interface says about our approach to tools; how the design strategy of the New York Times sketches the future of journalism, how Spotify follows in a lineage of music experiences from Brionvega to Technics …
When Domus started, there was no equivalent of these kind of devices, these kind of platforms, these kind of issues, although Domus has a long history of reviewing the products of everyday life, particularly through its coverage of industrial design. The publication absorbed these daily objects from its earliest days, particularly placing domestic products, furniture and office equipment on its pages. These are technology too of course. But now we must see beyond furniture to the glowing devices lying upon them. The iPhone, Facebook and Chrome are the descendants of Sottsass’s Olivetti Lettera, in a way. Perhaps Sottsass sensed this:
“My furniture is a trivial thing and doesn't matter at all. But the idea would be to invent new total possibilities, new forms, new symbols …” (Ettore Sottsass, Domus, 1965)
It turns out that these are the new objects, products and services of everyday life, the “new total possibilities”. They are ‘Super Normal’, though perhaps not in the sense that Jasper Morrison and Naoto Fukasawa intended in their exhibitions of 2006-2007. Our reading of the situation attempts to move beyond the traditional frames for assessing industrial design, and assesses designs that are intended to be usable, functional, meaningful, personal, productive, strategic, participative.
In the introduction to the accompanying Super Normal: Sensations of the Ordinary book, Gerrit Terstiege mentioned the 1976 Darmstadt exhibition ‘Das gewöhnliche Design’, and in particular the opening talk by Bazon Brock, professor of Aesthetics in Wuppertal:
“We must analyze and understand our contemporary world as if it were the everyday world of a historical society”. (Bazon Brock, 1976)
This would entail critically unpicking the social and cultural meaning of everyday products, not simply assessing their form, material or technical characteristics, but getting to their point; what each product says about our time and place.
So the cultural potency—the sheer relevance—of products like mobile phones, social media, and operating systems, has prompted Domus to start a new form of technology criticism, in a series that politely and respectfully hacks the name ‘Super Normal’.
Our idea is to offer an alternative to a discourse dominated by the likes of Engadget, Techcrunch, DPReview, Gizmodo et al. Sites like these cover products and services in unparalleled levels of technical detail and with respected in-depth knowledge. Yet they rarely discuss design in any meaningful way or the wider cultural impact of such things.
Domus won’t cover technical details, as they are ably covered by those sites, but it will assess what these products say about contemporary design. It won’t pore over unboxing videos, but it will try to unpack the wider issues that these products imply for contemporary culture. It won’t attempt to second-guess business strategy, but will describe how products and services are now linked as never before to the spheres of economics, logistics, environment and community.
So this is no buyer’s guide, but it may be a user guide of sorts, to the key products and services of the 21st century; the things that surround us, yet are currently not on the radar of design criticism. Stay tuned.
“Super Normal is already out there, out in the open; it exists in the here and now; it is real and available. We have only to open our eyes.” (Gerrit Terstiege, 2007)