10 years!

I just realized this the tenth year of Pasta and Vinegar! What started as a PhD student notepad is still around. There’s less blogging than it used to be but I still intend to keep this blog running. Weak signals and links are generally posted on beta knowledge, but P&V will still feature longer posts, slide decks and other updates.

The world is not enough

recycled plastic bottle chair

Some of the opinions in this post might not be on trend, I’m happy with this. It is also worth mentioning that I reference ‘design’ as an element of production at scale, as opposed to the practice of an individual maker.

Western design education cares too much. From America to Europe one theme seems to feature highly in design education: sustainability (or more euphemistically: environmental responsibility, renewable energy or ‘green’ projects). This strikes me as odd.

Let’s roll back a bit. I’ve been a professional designer, both in-house and as a consultant for fifteen years. In that time, not once has a client expressed any interest in any environmental or sustainable issues through their brief. In parallel, environmental issues have never formed the backbone of any meaningful discussion in my professional career, either with clients or my team. Why is it then, that student degree shows, curricula and projects seem to be so heavily engaged in the topic? I’ve been fortunate to act as a visiting lecturer and tutor in numerous universities and have witnessed a consistent focus on the sustainable elements of student work, often at the expense of aesthetics, critical rigor or objective integrity.

Design is a multi-faceted discipline. A three year degree course is barely enough time to scratch the surface, particularly with the complex practical skills which need to be developed. I believe too much weight is being placed on creating ‘utopian’ designers as opposed to ‘useful’ designers. This is probably an unpopular opinion.

To clarify: there have been some heinous acts perpetrated against mother nature at the hands of manufacturing. The irresponsible use of resources and materials has caused significant and perhaps irreparable damage to the planet. I understand this and accept that it needs to change, but let’s also remember that design cannot be held solely responsible for such acts. When we see a bottle cap in the carcass of a dead albatross a very short forensic exercise begins. We notice the disconnect between nature and product. We observe the bottle cap objectively. We take note of the shape, the color, the placement of the logo and the material choice. We conclude that the decisions made in those arenas are the root cause of the evident damage. This is an unfair judgement.

In order to bring a product to market individuals from a variety of disciplines need to come together. The marketing, product planning, engineering, finance, retail, distribution, logistics, roadmapping, legal, corporate, sales and strategy teams all have independent agendas which pull at the product throughout it’s creation. Designers often feel very self-important in their role as creators, but it’s my experience that we rarely hold the casting vote when it comes to defining what the product is, what it does, how it is made or how it functions. That’s the truth, like it or not. That bottle cap is bright pink, non-degradable, buoyant and harmful to seabirds not because of the designer, but because of the cumulative effect of a thousand decisions made by a thousand individuals in a thousand departments, including the designer.

As designers our job is to create the best possible outcome from a collection of fairly heavily constrained elements. We can raise concerns and focus our efforts on making the product more sustainable, but if we are working at scale our concerns often go unheeded – worse still we become marginalized. The strength of design’s voice in the vast majority of companies is little more than a squeak when compared to corporate functions. I appreciate i am painting a bleak picture, but I want to be honest.

Western design education could be at risk of creating a generation of utopian dreamers, with little or no understanding of the commercial realities of their craft or how it sits in the wider picture. In parallel, a cursory look at the curricula of the worlds finance, marketing and business schools yields zero focus on environmental or sustainability issues. The voice needs to start somewhere, and things need to change, but if design continues to pitch it’s tent so squarely in this arena we may lose some of the commercial respect which we have gained in recent years. Design should not become a crusade, but it shouldn’t roll over quietly either. Environmental sustainability is not ‘the other guys’ problem, it’s everyones problem. We need a unilateral approach across all disciplines if we are to achieve meaningful change.

May I suggest that we replace focussed sustainability modules with a wider ranging ethical element to our teaching. This would include the responsibility issues related to environmental factors, but also bring our discipline more into line with similar teaching found in other practices. In so doing, we would not only equip our designers with the requisite understanding and focus, but with the lexicon necessary to clearly communicate with our peers.

We should understand the truths of commercialism. That way we can better play with it.

Thoughts about brain-machine interaction


Brain-computer interactions is a pet topic I investigate on the side for quite some time; actually since I was an undegrad in Cognitive Sciences back fifteen years ago. In the last ten years, we saw an interesting evolution in terms of hardware possibilities with the advent of headcaps… this led to a novel situation where prototyping interaction was less cumbersome as it used to be. Plus, the availability of software (games, relaxation apps, etc.) also allows to conduct tests and observe the usage of such devices out of the lab. This is a dimension I’m interested in as wearing these devices in public is not neutral (even more than Google glasses?) and lead to weird technical problems (signal noise) or interaction possibilities (why would I need such device when waiting for my bus?).

This kind of down-to-earth/blue-collar-design perspective was actually the topic of my talk at the recent American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting 2013 in a session called Advances in Brain-Machine Interfaces: Applications and Implications, along with Miguel Nicolelis, Todd Coleman, Martha J. Farah and Brent Waters.

Why do I blog this? In order to move forward, I’m thinking about a new teaching workshop about this topic next year. The panel as well as the discussion with experts there was quite intriguing and led me to think that there’s a good opportunity in these topics when it comes to design/foresight.

Green Pages

Nick and I came back again to the Emerge 2013 event at Arizona State University to workshop an issue of “Green Pages”, the Laboratory’s ‘Quarterly Design & Technology Fiction Almanac.’

For those of you who haven’t subscribed, or don’t know about it, Green Pages is Design Fiction operationalized. Green Pages makes Design Fiction into something the entertainment industry can use directly.

In Part 1 of each issue we curate a careful selection of imminent and emerging technologies, provide a brief on each. In Part 2 we select a number of these and provide authored narrative and cinematic elements that are one-page diegetic prototypes, elements of fictions, Macguffins, props, prototypes, conceits, etc.

An example of Part 2 would be a one page plot synopsis, or a bit of production design for a prop informed by one of the technologies introduced in the issue.

The stories in Part 2 for this issue are especially good. They do not make the technical element central, but rather use it as stimulus for a proper narrative. We spent a lot of time unearthing good, dramatic, character-driven stuff that wasn’t ham-fisted techno-thriller fodder. I’m excited by these stories — they’re quite compelling, evocative moments of larger dramas that could easily see their way to being produced in some form — film, pilot, novel, etc.

Since this is the first time we’ve mentioned Green Pages here on the blog, I should say that it is a trade publication — it’s not an art project, or flight of design fancy. It’s an edited journal for a specific trade audience — producers, agents, writers, production designers, directors, etc. It’s not a PDF — we print it, authenticate each copy of each issue, and mail them out like normal, human print publications.

There has been interest beyond Hollywood for a publication like this. That’s partially because of the content but also some interest in the approach we take to translating raw technology ideas into compelling narratives — scenarios, they’re called in other domains.

For the workshop here at Emerge 2013, we thought the general approach to creating these Design Fictions and diegetic prototypes would be a worthwhile learning experience for folks at a large research university like ASU. For example, engineers and scientists who perhaps could learn how to translate technical stuff into compelling stories that help them round out the purely technical idea (wireless power distribution, for example) with issues and implications in a broader sense. Working in a room with engineers, policy gurus, creative writers all at once — everyone with their game-face on — was truly exciting and extremely productive. We had some excellent, exciting starters .We managed to get a solid bit of work on them the first day. Then on the second day we had some super exciting creative work — a screenplay excerpt, page one of a novel, a film synopsis, character casting notes and production design for a key prop of eco-thriller.

We’ll be working over the next weeks to clean up the material — in one and a half days it’s difficult to really complete a full issue, printing and binding and all that. But we were able to get the core done and hand out a few to the Emerge participants.

Good stuff.

Arizona, February 2013

From the desk of The Editors

Welcome to Issue 7 of Green Pages.

This is a milestone issue for a number of reasons.

Firstly, our subscriptions have more than doubled since we first launched — and that happened entirely by word of mouth. This kind of growth is unprecedented in the trade journal world.

We’ve also received an unprecedented number of recommendations from you, our subscribers, recommending colleagues for a complimentary issue. Thank you for the suggestions. We are working hard to follow through and vet your nominations.

We’re also excited because this issue was done in collaboration with the Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination. This is the first time we’ve worked directly with a major research university. We hope this will set a new precedent for the way we create and curate our content.

Inside this issue you’ll find a diverse collection of our front pages containing concepts that range from biotech to counter-surveillance to prosthetic enhancements. There’s Swarm Robotics, Encoded Ballistics, Image-based Diagnostics, Foliage Penetrating Radar, Lab Grown Bone, Afterlife Cells, Surveillance Drone Mitigation, Depression Detection Systems, Lighter Than Air Vehicles, Billion Pixel Camera, Digitigrade Prostheses, Tracheal Scrubbers, Data Magnets, Predictive Vaccines, Nanoturbine Surfaces, Organ Printing, ‘Miracle Salt’, Svalbard Gene & Seed Bank, Vortex Ring Gun, and more. There are some very exciting, provocative research projects that are easily extended into the realm of story telling — and not all as purely techno-thrillers. We’ve developed several of these into one pages conceits and précis both cinematic and traditional narrative-based. We have some evocative production design as well.

Overall, we’re quite happy with this issue. We hope you enjoy it.

Dr. Bleecker and Mr. Foster (Eds.)