The open design object

I wrote this article on The Open Design Object last year in collaboration with my inspiring friend Designer Sofie Edvard, who designed a collection of open garments to illustrate the theory that is unfolded. Together, we presented the article and the garments on a Cumulus Conference at Design School Kolding, Denmark.

I hope you will enjoy!


Sustainability and Durable Openness

The British Romantic painter John Constable (1776-1837), who is primarily known for his atmospheric landscape paintings, has reportedly stated that ”time will finish my paintings” (Saito 2010, p.176). If we transfer the thought of a piece of art containing an openness to the time that will pass and the traces that it will leave to the design field, this would imply moving away from thinking of a design object as being finished or done when it leaves the hands of the designer and moving towards focusing on the user phase. If time finishes an (art or design) object, it might be constructive for the designer to dwell on the user phase in the design process, as well as to work an openness into the design object; an openness that would enable the user to “shape” the object with traces of use and wear, in an aesthetic manner. Perhaps one should, in accordance with Constable’s statement, even go as far as to think about the design object as being unfinished when being “released”, and as establishing its own life or assuming its character in the hands of the user. This would emphasise being inclusive and open to use and the interaction between subject and object in the design process.

Integrating an openness into the design object is a way of making it receptive to the aesthetic value that can potentially be added in the user phase; i.e. it involves viewing changes in the object surface and shape, due to wear or due to integrated variation- or change-possibilities, as aesthetically fulfilling. It also includes assumptions that wear and use as well as personal associations and feelings can add to the completion of the object. And that the object in the dialogue with the user becomes valuable, unique, treasured and, due to this, durable. The focus on openness and inclusion implies a shift from storytelling focusing on the thoughts and hands behind the design object to the story of the life or the use of the object itself. We will get further into the storytelling-focus in the section “Charging a design object with time” – but first, further thoughts on the durability of openness.

When an object is charged with openness and thereby becomes a carrier of the time that is used on and with it, a tactile and emotional bond is created between the object and the user, which supposedly makes the user less inclined to replace it. Or when an object holds inherent possibilities for variation and change, it becomes a source of continuous aesthetic nourishment, which might prolong its lifespan remarkably. Hence, the hypothesis that we are operating with is that the open design object is more durable and sustainable than a “closed” object, which is done when released and characterised by a short peak-period closely connected to newness.

The open design object is not only durable due to a bond that is established between subject and object, which is based on it being an archive of usage. It holds longevity because of its capability to continuously intrigue and aesthetically nurture the user due to its appearance-evolution.

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But how can the designer think and work a prolonging of the peak-period into the design object itself?

When a designer creates and releases an object, in a sense, she/he “freezes” time or constructs an end to prior occurrences. A process leads to the object; an inspirational phase, an experimental phase, a prototyping phase and a production phase as well as a communication phase, in which the receiver is informed about the object and concept around it.

However, rethinking and redoing this process might be the key to creating an open design object. What if an object wasn’t thought of or created to be done when released, or to be the conclusion to a design process? What if the developing phase continued, after the object changed hands from the maker to the user? The open design object indicates an opening of the static way, we traditionally think of objects; i.e. that an object has a shape, and that it retains that shape. Yet, the open design object doesn’t imply “inviting” the user to be a part of the design-process à la co-creation nor does it necessarily incorporate sharing economy concepts. Rather, the open design object is a concrete, material, substantial, visible opening of the design object; it contains an invitation to the user to utilize, explore and leave traces on/in it.

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Besides the sustainability that comes along with openness, due to the presumption that the open design object, literally, changes and develops in the hands of the user and therefore continues to intrigue her/him long after the initial fascination of newness has faded, the open design object should have a broad appeal. Designing with openness and inclusiveness in mind should ideally be a way of aiming for broad applicability and relevance, which means that as many people as possible, regardless of cultural background and capital or habitus, feel intrigued by the object.
Now, this goes against most of what we teach design students regarding targeting products to a specific group of people in order to insure that they feel an instant connection followed by the need to own. However, opening up the design object is a way of letting go of that part of the design process; loosening up by generalising and allowing whoever buys the object and uses it to shape it and influence it, is a necessary part of working with material openness. Relevance still remains crucial. If the user doesn’t experience an object as relevant, she/he will hardly consider purchasing or sustaining it. But working with relevance in relation to the open design object does not mean moulding it and closing it in order to ensure relevance for a narrow, well known target group; it implies daring to incorporate universal themes that have a broad appeal and relevance as well as leaving the conclusion to the design narrative open and mouldable.

Therefore, the next section will explore how to simultaneously open up and generalise as well as ensure that the receiver experiences subjective applicability.

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Generalisation and Relevance

In order to create a design object with openness and broad appeal, the designer’s personal starting point must be generalised. As mentioned, this process implies the creation of an opening that offers the recipient applicability and relevance. Working with generalisation as a part of the design process can elevate the object from closing in on itself to being inclusive and open. The personal element of inspirational source must be transformed into something general in order for it to be experienced as relevant and applicable by others than oneself – and in order for it not to close in on itself and thus shut others out by being too narrow. So, rather than integrating a personal experience or memory in a design product, which could for example concern the designer’s grandmother and her beautiful, warm home, her care, thoroughly made dinners and slowly knitted sweaters, the tale should be “lifted” onto a meta level and thereby transformed into something more general, something that the recipient can relate to by connoting e.g. “homeliness” and “slow clothing”. To be able to appeal generally and aesthetically, and thus rise from merely adding personal taste and memories to one’s design product, the designer must transform her/his subjective beauty experiences or sources of inspirations into more general themes or concepts. When one accordingly manages to convert sensory and mentally strong memories or influences into something more universal or something thematic, it becomes a possibility to communicate these to the receiver and thus potentially launch similar experiences in the recipient – broadly. The individual element must, as a part of the design process, be generalised and aestheticized in order for it to contain both a sufficient degree of relevance and an openness that makes it possible for the recipient to embrace and integrate it into her/his personal reality and history.

Correspondingly, Aristotle points out in Poetics, in relation to the Catharsis experience (Aristotle, 1996), that a performing artist should focus on universal human themes in order to “move” or “touch” the receiver. This thought could make sense to transfer to the design process in order to change closed subjectivity to inclusive openness. Pursuant to Catharsis, which is attached to the theatre experience and more specifically to the tragedy-genre rather than the comedy-genre, this will typically result in themes such as “segregation”, “unrequited love” or “death”. The Catharsis experience implies namely that the viewer, from a safe place (the theatre seat) is overwhelmed by the feelings associated with loss-experiences, and thus lives through such without really being endangered. One can, however, only feel touched or affected, if the play (or accordingly the design product) is perceived as relevant and applicable. And the experience of relevance and applicability will only occur if the author of the tragedy (or the designer) manages to generalise and aestheticize the story (or the product) to such an extent that it has a broad appeal. In order for the recipient to get touched or feel affected, the author (or the designer) must make use of universal human themes that can synthesise the diverse sources of inspiration as well as generalise and aestheticize individual taste preferences and memories. In this sense, generalisation causes openness: due to the stylisation of the form the story/product may accommodate or contain the recipient’s needs and feelings and thus is experienced as inclusive.

“The experience of beauty cannot be as subjective as it first appears to the person affected by it. If the productive effort to create beauty is to have any meaning at all, then it must be supposed that our experiences of beauty are, at least to a certain extent, shared”
Böhme, 2010, p.23

This quote by German philosopher Böhme indicates that beauty experiences are similar despite their initial subjective nature, and that they are therefore characterised by certain universality or by being common to all (or most) human beings. The common, universal elements of the beauty-experience are worth striving to identify in order to create an open, durable design object with a broad appeal. Assumingly, the durable design object is aesthetically pleasing; it invites the user to repetitive use and provides her/him with continuous aesthetic nourishment.

But are the universal elements of the beauty-experience related to the open design object linked to “neutrality” or “noise”?

The 20th century’s design history provides several examples of the search for a universal style or idiom: functionalism, the international style, and minimalism. This search is characterised by pursuing a mode of expression that is experienced by the recipient as relevant, useful and recognisable, cross culturally.

The Bauhaus designers approached the universal design language by removing ornaments and symbolism in order to minimize “misunderstandings” in the decoding of objects. Moreover, the idea was that a minimalist and “neutral” design object more easily would fit into a number of contexts, or that it would be highly adaptable to its surroundings. This adaptability, and durability, stemmed from the fact that it didn’t create any visual noise. The quest for a durable design expression was immanent to the Bauhaus mission, which was focused on creating time- and placeless expressions. The universality of Bauhaus was thus linked to a direct disassociation from time and place (Harper, 2017). In this sense, universalism can be described as a mode of expression that affirms common aesthetic ground rules and that neutralizes local and contemporary parameters of understanding, and in doing so, might produce aesthetic pleasure for people regardless of time and place.

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The theory of the open design object, however, indicates a different approach to a universal design language as well as universal aesthetics. Working on the creation of the open design object is a way aiming for an expression that is broadly experienced as relevant without being uniform and anonymized. It is an expression that is sufficiently unanimous to be long lasting, applicable and recognizable to a manifold of people, and that can simultaneously hold diversity and accommodate a need for variety and change.

The questions that the theory on the open design object contains are: Is the experience of relevance, durability and applicability solely connected to the uniform and the “neutral”? Or is universal aesthetics related to the open design object, rather than neutral and smooth, diverse and “noisy”? The answers to these questions have already been indicated: Openness to diversity, “noise” or complexity, fleeting changes and personalisation can constitute an object designed to have a broad, cross-habitual, cross-cultural appeal. However, in the section “The components of the open design object” we will elaborate on this point and concretise not only why, but also how this can be done.

The narrative of the open design object is created through usage. It arises from the post-creation phase. It contains a great deal of time; the time spend moulding, wearing, changing or experiencing inherent changes unfold, which leads to the next section.

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Charging an Object with Time

As discussed, designing an open design object includes focusing on the post creation phase by aiming for slowing down the aesthetic experience, stretching and prolonging the peak-period of the object and continuously intriguing the user. This implies storytelling; immanent, material storytelling characterised by a dynamic narrative that offers an antithesis to stagnated branding.

Danish philosopher and artist Ørskov describes objects as congealed or fixated occurrences (Ørskov, 1999). By this he indicates that an object is charged with the time that was put into it (and to an extent also with the time-period or the Zeitgeist in which it was created); the creation time and the way that the creator/designer has interacted with the material leaves traces in the object, and those traces form a narrative of the time and the hands behind the object.
The story of the creation time is a very current way of composing storytelling about design objects that fall into the category of slow design. As mentioned in the introduction to the paper, the theory of the open design object arises from the slow design movement in the sense that it concerns prolonging the lifespan of design objects by encouraging the user to preserve and sustain them. The captivating, convincing slowness of an object is partly connected to the story behind it, i.e. the story of the time and the hands behind the object as well as the visions and thoughts it is charged with, i.e. the story of the creation time. The trend within storytelling is, accordingly, tales of hands-on processes, designer-cooperatives and the nourishing tactility and sensuous pleasure that follows thoroughly made products. Luxury of a time period is often, simply put, constituted by being the answer to what people are trying to escape. And in a time period, like the current, characterised by a lack of presence, tactile stimuli and human interaction due to the abundance of smartphones, tablets and (a)social media, not to mention time; no one has enough time, it is not a big mystery that tales of contemplation, reflection and community-feeling are experienced as convincing and relevant by a broad audience.

However, as mentioned, the open design object implies a shift from a focus on the creation time to the post-creation time or the user phase. Ørskov operates with two other time categories in his writings; the time of existence and the time of being (Ørskov, 1999, p.85). Both of these time categories concern the post-creation phase and specifically the interaction between the object and the user. The time of existence is the time-course of an object; it is constituted by the traces of use, the repairs, the wear and tear and weathering that mould and transform an object that has existed for a while and has been frequently used (because someone has treasured it and considered it useful and/or aesthetically pleasing). An object characterised by the time of existence holds a story of the user and her/his habits and preferences. This story establishes an immanent, dynamic, ever-evolving storytelling that adds value to the object and shapes it. Charging an object with the time of existence implies creating space for development.
The open design object that holds openness due to “the time of existence” is not done when released; it contains an immanent openness to the user shaping it, affecting its functionality by wearing it and leaving her/his unique physical traces on it. Working with the time of existence means embracing the beauty of the unpolished, the imperfect, the beauty of time passing by and leaving its inevitable traces, and the beauty of changeability. When the designer works openness into the design object by emphasising the time of existence the value and beauty of usage is underlined. Slowing down fashion by involving the time of existence involves creating garments that can in fact be repaired or upgraded and that age with grace.

The time of being is the time it takes to “be together” with the object in order to detect it or understand it (Ørskov, 1999, p.85). Opening up the design object involves a prolonging of the time of being. Prolonging the time of being implies stretching the peak-period and postponing the interest-decrease that is typically, simply put, connected to “closed” objects. But how? As described, the open design object is not done or “rounded off” when released by the designer, hence it holds an enclosed invitation to the user to touch, engage, interact, use, shape, transform and leave traces of wear on it. This invitation might be shaped by its idiom or by its surface. It might lie in its colours or its print. Or it might unfold itself as an inherent metamorphosis led by the time going by, the body that wears it, and the hands that touch it. The time of being is a Ping-Pong or a wordless dialogue between the experiencing subject and the design object.


The Subject-Object Dialogue

”The passionate early stages of a subject-object relationship could be described as a honeymoon period, a period of intense synergy within which everything is new, interesting and the consumption of one another is feverish. Honeymoon periods are by their very nature short lived and must, ultimately, give way to the inevitable onset of normalcy” Chapman, 2011, p.63

The durable subject-object bond or “relationship” between a person and a thing is characterised by what Chapman, Professor of Sustainable Design, calls normalcy; i.e. by everyday life and by repetition and routines. Normalcy is the antithesis to the glittery newness of “the honeymoon period”. Continuing on the relationship metaphor, normalcy ought to be the natural “next step” after the initial seduction and the honeymoon period, but in most subject-object relationships it fails to appear. Perhaps because consumers have gotten used to consuming objects, i.e. devouring or going through objects by using them for a short period of time, getting done with them, and finally getting ready to buy and consume new ones. Or perhaps most design objects need REDOing. Perhaps a lot of objects are not made to be used for a long time or to be sustained, due to poor quality, the incorporation of fleeting trends, or due to an inherent closedness that makes them unchangeable, inflexible or unable to follow along the natural changes and rhythms of human life. Even though the word normalcy might connote triviality and the boring repetitions and chores of daily life, normalcy is in opposition to the trivial. Normalcy holds, rather that triviality, the nurturing repetition that follows the perfect mix of the well known and intriguing.

In order for the design object to contain the possibility to establish a bond based on normalcy, it must be inclusive and flexible. The open design object is exactly that. It holds an inclusiveness that is based on concrete, material flexibility and changeability and/or on aesthetic and narrative openness due to the generalisation of the designer’s initial subjective inspirational source, as previously described. Furthermore, it invites to continuous usage and dialogue due to its ability to be both flexible and static (this will be elaborated in the last section of the paper “components of the open design object).

As described, in order to create openness the designer must focus on the post-creation phase as a part of the design process. In other words, a thorough investigation of durable subject-object bonds and continuous use could be a beneficial way to explore ways to open up the design object. Another possibility is applying secondary data on durability. A good example of such data is the Local Wisdom Project, which is a thoroughly conducted ethnographic investigation of the characteristics of garments that are kept and worn for many, many years, and even passed on through generations. Professor of Sustainability Kate Fletcher introduces the term user-ship as a part of the project. User-ship is a process in which the users in dialogue with the piece of clothing mends and takes care of, and thereby makes the piece truly their own. Perhaps they add colourful embroidery or change the buttons or add a patch of patterned fabric; all of which gives the garment its own unique and rustic beauty as well as turns it into a tale of use.

The dynamic narrative that constitutes the repetitively nurturing subject-object dialogue is the essence of the durability of the open design object.

In the essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction German philosopher Benjamin introduces the term aura, and discusses an aura-loss linked to modern reproduction techniques (Benjamin, 1969). The aura-loss associated with reproducibility is a loss of what Benjamin calls cultic aura. This type of aura is connected and subject to the authenticity and uniqueness of an artwork. A reproduced artwork can never be authentic, since it isn’t original. However, Benjamin does not view the loss of aura negatively. The loss of cultic aura doesn’t mean that auratic experiences are not possible in relation to modern artwork, not at all. In relation to reproducibility, we are just dealing with a different type of aura; a profane aura (Jørgensen, 2001, pp.368-69). Profane aura is not dependent on authenticity. The opening of the artwork can due to reproducibility techniques and the enclosed profane aura-experience be described as inclusive; it releases the artwork from traditions and brings it into the distinct life-situation of the viewer or recipient.

The thought of the profane aura can advantageously be transferred to the design object. As described, an important part of rethinking the design object by opening it up, is aiming for broadness and universality. The open design object is not a “niche”, unique product that is auratic due to its singularity. The open design object is meant to be experienced as inclusive by a broad audience, and it shouldn’t require any pre-understandings for the recipient to capture it and make it a part of her/his life. It holds an anti-elitist beauty-experience or profane aura.

Professor of Philosophy Saito operates in her book Everyday Aesthetics with the term the familiar strange. The familiar strange can be described as gem-like aesthetic potential hidden behind the trivial and mundane facade of familiar objects. But even though there can be a lot of reasons to charge a design object with strangeness and thereby momentarily “force” the recipient out of the comfort of familiarity (Harper, 2013), perhaps some objects should also emphasise and celebrate the rewarding, non-trivial rhythms that our human lives are build up around (Saito, 2010, pp.49-50). Saito argues that by seeking the familiar strange or pursuing to embed ordinary, everyday things with gem-like aesthetic qualities, and thereby attempting to overcome the triviality of monotonous daily life, “… we also pay the price of compromising the very everydayness of everyday” (Saito, 2010, p.50). By this, Saito emphasises the quality and beauty of everydayness. Everydayness can, just like the term normalcy, connote triviality and insignificance. But in Saito’s use of the term, everydayness implies the on-going satisfaction of a rewarding everyday life – and the pleasure of being accompanied by everyday objects that support everyday rhythms and habits. The majority of our lives consist of the rhythms of everyday life. And most of the objects we surround ourselves with should support those exact rhythms and perhaps even improve them, emphasise them and bring beauty or aesthetic nourishment to them by being embedded with changeability and inclusiveness.

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Components of The Open Design Object

Designing an open design object – exemplified here by open garments – implies focusing on the post-production phase and the user phase by considering how interaction, use and wear might become a part of completing an object, or how to charged garments with inherent development options.

To specify some of the components that might play an important role in the process of creating an openness in a design object/garment a selection of the below elements can be taken into consideration:

  • Open surfaces: Designing an open design object can imply including inherent options for the surface to change its appearance. Perhaps the structure of the garment is affected by usage or by the movements of the wearer’s body. Or perhaps the garment surface will change appearance over time. Opening the surface of the design object can also mean incorporating textural variability. The designer can expand the receiver’s tactile sensibility and cultivate her tactile literacy by consciously letting the creation time as well as various textures characterise the design-expression, as well as by opening the object-surface to use and time or allowing decay to shape the look of the object.
    Inviting the user to mend and sustain the design object can be another way of opening up for surface changeability. Mending can add aesthetic value to a garment. Not in a flashy, shiny-new kind of way, but in a sensual and tactile way. Patches and stitches and rough parts hold a rustic beauty that cannot be machine-produced; it is a beauty characterised by the storytelling of usage and by the meaningful subject-object dialogue.
  • Open patterns: Perhaps making use of prints or patterns that hold an inherent ability to develop or change appearance when being used can create an opening of a garment. This could imply including wear and stains in the completion of the pattern. Or it could involve the development of an open print that is sensitive to heat, moisture or light or atmospheric changes, and hence holds the ability of alteration.
  • Open shapes: The open garment can also be a garment with a manipulable shape, or clothing that plays with flexible silhouettes. Open shapes concern aesthetic flexibility and thereby an inherent changeability in the aesthetics or the expression of the object. This could result in modular thinking; i.e. considering the garment a whole consisting of elements that can be combined or replaced. Or in an inherent option of changing the overall lines or look of the garment. Incorporating open, changeable shapes into the design object is a way of inviting the user to engage in sensuous explorations.
  • Open usage: Working with open usage means opening up the design object in order to accommodate the user’s changing needs. In this category of the open design object, the focus lies on functionality; e.g. how can a garment adapt to the user’s functional needs in order to improve or support her daily life routines. Creating garments that can be used for different seasons, for a range of occasions, or that can be adjusted in order to follow the life-situations of the user are other examples of concretising the theory of the open design object.

Working openness and inclusive durability into the design object is a way of rethinking design practises. Despite the above listed ways to ensure changeability and avoid closeness and stagnation, and thereby activate the continuous subject-object dialogue, the inclusive and open design object embraces normalcy and everydayness. As mentioned, the open design object invites to continuous usage and dialogue due to its ability to be, simultaneously, flexible and static. This means that, just as human life; the open design object is built up around a constant, static core that ensures its quality and comforting familiarity. But simultaneously it is changeable and dynamic.

The pre-Socratic Philosopher Heraclitus is known for having said that no man ever steps into the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man. The open design object is, just as life and our natural environment, always evolving, but at the same time it is experienced as familiar and well known 


References:

Aristotle (1996). Poetics. London: Penguin Books.

Benjamin, Walter (1969). The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In: Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (ed. Hannah Arendt). New York: Schocken Books

Böhme, G.(2010). On Beauty. Nordic Journal of Aesthetics, 39: 22-33.

Chapman, J. (2011). Emotionally Durable Design. London: Earthscan.

Fletcher, K. and Grose, L.(2012). Fashion & Sustainability – Design for Change. London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd.

Harper, K. (2017). Aesthetic Sustainability, Product Design and Sustainable Usage. London: Routledge

Jørgensen, D. (2001). Skønhedens Metamorfose. De æstetiske idéers historie [The Metamorphosis of Beauty. The History of Aesthetic Ideas] Odense: Odense University Press.

Jørgensen, D. (2008). Skønhed – en engel gik forbi. [Beauty. An Angel Passed By] Aarhus: Aarhus University Press

Saito, Y. (2010). Everyday Aesthetics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Walker, S. (2007). Sustainable by Design. London: Earthscan.

Walker, S. (2011). The Spirit of Design, London: Earthscan.

Ørskov, W. (1999). Aflæsning af objekter, Objekterne, Den åbne skulptur.[Detection of Objects. The Objects. The Open Sculpture] Copenhagen: Borgen.

 

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