Design Indifference – David Chatting

This afternoon, Design Informatics hosted David Chatting of Open Lab, to provide a talk about Design Indifference – or rather, how we often design with indifference as an intention. He began by bringing us in through the case of Victorian Country Houses, which were often used as test beds for technological innovations of the time. Developments like the first domestic use of the lightbulb, internal telephone network, or the mechanical and later electrical bell ringing system were showcased to visitors in a demonstration of wealth, influence, and learning. However, David highlighted that as much as these innovations were shown off to the public, their design was inherently about controlling the visibility of the labour happening within these homes. All created to enhance the process of convenience without illuminating the the myriad of staff required to keep the homes running.

Sketch of how many components of a service are kept hidden to the average person

Over time, this intention remained consistent with the concept of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ only developing further as services were moved outside of the home. With utilities like gas, water, and electric being managed externally, people no longer needed to worry about where, when, or how these services were being carried out. Often, these actions have become a simple push of a button in order for a desired outcome to appear from nowhere.

There are many reasons why products and services are designed this way, in particular for ease and convenience for the person using them. Yet there can be consequences, intentional or not, to removing people so completely from the process. As David shows, it can lead to indifference – around the labour, energy, time, cost, ethics, procedures, and people required to provide it. This indifference can and often does lead to many issues, such as lack of consumer autonomy or worker exploitation. David has been exploring different ways of responding to these hidden processes, such as finding ways to visualise normally hidden data or revealing nearby invisible technology. These speculative objects have the potential to foster a healthier relationship with the complexity of a product or service and bring more awareness to the quiet labour that surrounds us daily.

David’s point was not that all aspects of any product or service should be disclosed, rather that certain points in the process could be made more transparent. I think that this is where Service Design methods come into the picture – involving people through the conception, research, design, development, and eventual creation of an outcome. By taking these approaches, it can ensure that people are invested and aware of the requirements of delivering those services and products, and have the ability to shape them. We often talk about ensuring that our designs meet people’s needs, but remaining person-centred goes beyond that. It prevents that indifference and allows them to be personally motivated and involved in the creation of something that, ideally, is made to suit them. That can be a powerful thing.

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