On Monday, I was very excited to be attending the Huntairian Museum, at the Royal College of Surgeons near Holborn, to attend the public debate entitled “Design-Science”. Instigated by the the Design Science Research Group (a collaboration of Central Saint Martins students and graduates from Science Communication Masters at Imperial College London), the discussion aimed to put science communication under the microscope and to debate the role that design can play in this process. Their was a large audience of mixed backgrounds, eager to debate the topic at hand.
Chaired by Anne Odling-Smee (of O-SB Design and Central Saint Martins), the debate began in high spirits, even the opening set of slides causing a passionate reaction from various members of the audience. The respectful contention between artists, designers, scientists, journalists, lecturers etc present grew throughout the discussion, with certain points causing notably heated argument. The first section of the debate questioned how science is communicated to the public. Quickly, a very valid point was made by a Central Saint Martins lecturer whose surname I didn’t get, but his christian name was Adam (if someone knows Adam’s surname can they let me know). Adam denounced the idea of a “public” saying that there was no such thing as a generic public body, and therefore using it in this context was meaningless. I agree with Adam here, in that public bodies emerge and congregate around certain ideas, causes or cultural stimulus – there are in effect lots of publics, and one person can be part of many different publics. Of course scientists and designers are also part of these wider publics, and therefore cannot be examined as a purely external entity.
A point which wasn’t raised throughout the debate really was that asking who are these design/science collaborations really trying to communicate to? And what are they really communicating? The emphasis in this discussion was always on “communicating science to the public!” – but this is a very broad statement, and I would question how many of the design/science collaborations in recent years genuinely do communicate to a mass public. In my previous post, I used a quote from Brian Aldis which I think fits here too – “Science fiction is no more written for scientist, as ghost stories are for ghosts”. This resonated in my head throughout the discussion, and I wondered was it not a danger that design/science collaborations were often created for the designer rather than anyone else? This is not an outright criticism – I think that of course there is a huge importance in designing to question and influence the work of your peers and design practices, indeed my own work has been influenced by many designers practising speculative design collaborations with scientists. But this is only one path for the practice of design/science.
The majority of the products of these collaborations are displayed in art galleries, design shows and museums, and by placing them in these various contexts, their assimilation and their audience is hugely affected. A vast proportion of the population on the UK do not regularly visit art and design galleries, science museums and similar cultural events – how can science be communicated to this public? This was completely brushed over by the panel (who were generally very good, and I realise had limited time), and it seemed it had not even been considered. With projects like the ones being discussed here, we are in danger of using design as a tool to make science exclusive in many cases. The potential for design to communicate and question science is fantastic, but maybe we need to push its remits further than the gallery or museum? Or perhaps we need to rethink exactly who these projects really are aimed at and be more honest about it?
I am a product designer who has done a few speculative design/science collaborations, and am not holding up my work as a shining example for how these can work, but the process of doing them has highlighted a few things to me. My project the Quantum Parallelograph has been on display in a number of settings including science museums, design shows but most interestingly with various scientists. An interesting and unexpected result of this project was the reaction the different scientists involved had to the final piece. They all commented on how they would never have thought of their research, which was often very abstract in nature, being illustrated in a tangible form like this, and one which added a human/social element to the work. So maybe one other route for such collaborations is design for science?