Dr Adam Drazin on Fixperts Super Salon
Event Written by Dr Adam Drazin
At the Fixperts Super Salon in the Summer, a parade of films and projects were presented and debated. Design students and professionals have worked with all sorts of problems and people in different countries, and in film after film one problem after another was scrutinised and conquered. Most of the issues were particular to a person or place, but as a whole they hinted at a much bigger design and social paradigm. Perplexingly, all of the projects worked. The Fixperts framework helped establish a connection, the group worked over a period of time with somebody, and produced design work which made a difference for the better.
For me, one intriguing thing about Fixperts is simply that it works. I am a design anthropologist, and I am most of all interested in people, culture and social relations which happen around designing. In the conduct of social research, anthropologists are always trying to find a critical angle on social and cultural situations and phenomena. How could they be different? It is one of the underlying principles of anthropology that social phenomena vary - if this were happening in a different country, or at a different time, or among slightly different people, it would be culturally different. So unpacking the differences, difficulties, tensions and problems is one of the ways in which anthropologists begin to think about culture, through cultural variation.
Culturally, Fixperts seems like a fish within its own element, very appropriate for a certain kind of design work, design relationship and design problem. This means that Fixperts imagines the social and cultural world within which it operates in a certain, appropriate way.
Design has a long tradition of social imagination through film. In the 1920s, the Bauhaus in Dessau produced a film to publicise and promote some of its architecture. Its film “The Way We Live Now” presents and proposes a wide range of modernist designs, objects, architectures and practices. More than just a film, it is a proposal for a lifestyle. Through films such as this one, modernism suggested a sense of normality, and that designers not only had responsibility for solving problems but for proposing what kind of lifestyle is normal in any case. We still live in the wake of this modernist sense of a “normal lifestyle”, to the extent that a unified sense of normality has sometimes come to be problematic for designers.
If there were a film “the way we live as Fixperts”, the “we” would be very interesting, because Fixperts projects are full of diversity. As individuals, people engaging with Fixperts all seem to have very individual and distinct issues with their lives. One person has physical difficulties with putting their trousers on, as in the award-winning “The Right Trousers” video. In another project, a food delivery service cannot fit its delivery box on to the back of a moped easily. The Fix-partners in a Fixperts project, whoever they are, seem in some sense magnetic and charismatic. As a video unfolds, we find out more about them, their lives and how they want to live. The emerging lessons we learn about these other people place us as an audience on a gradient of difference, students of social difference and of the extraordinary variety of lives people lead in their own homes and workplaces, and the variety of difficulties they encounter.
The modernist design approaches of the twentieth century have left us with a design burden and heritage which different designers respond to in different ways. One of the ways is user-centred design, in which design responds to problems in the world. However, it seems that most Fixperts projects are only indirectly responding to ‘problems’. What seems to be most important in many of the projects is not that Fix Partners aspire to live ‘normally’ somehow, but rather that Fix Partners themselves make the decision as to what is normal anyway. In video after video, a Fix Partner specifies not so much what their problem is, but rather how they would like to be living. This ‘design of aspiration’ displaces to a certain extent a conception of user-centred design as a quest to find and conceptualise the ‘problem’, because the criteria by which things are judged to be problematic itself shifts.
In its displacement of normativity, and by seeing Fix Partners as the owners of what is normal anyway, Fixperts projects often seem like celebrations of difference and diversity. Fix Partnerships cross boundaries, bringing together different generations, people in public and private institutions, people with expertise in different professions, and people with very different physiques. It is within this difference that we can begin to think about the values which are being transacted in Fixpert videos. The videos manifest value in many ways. They represent a sense of aspiration, they represent a particular kind of specific design problem, and perhaps most importantly they embody and show the work involved. Value emerges not only embedded in a designed ‘thing’, but within the contexts, spaces, routines, and identities.
In anthropology, value is very often about exchanges, but these are of different kinds. Some exchanges are about lots of similar people working together - for example, a rural community gathering in the harvest for one another, where everyone pitches in together and, for a period at least, they are the same. Other exchanges are posited on difference, where the production of value necessitates different kinds of people, with different skills, knowledges, resources, experiences, and capacities.
The particular value models of Fixperts projects, and their associated videos, seem to work well. They work within the particular kinds of frameworks of Fixperts and Fix Partners (often but not always groups of design students and individuals in their homes). And the forms of value may also work elsewhere. The designs generated are particular to Fix Partners, they are in a sense owned by them; and yet the videos document how the Fixperts have generated them, and are testament to the ownership by the designers. The videos render the work involved as visible, not invisible (as is often the case in design). They also generate a dialectic between the particular and the generic, where a very specific design enters a global domain through video media. All of this helps in the imagination and demonstration of a world of intersecting senses of values, considerations and care.
At the same time, one question which is being asked of the audience by the videos, is whether this sense of value and values, this re-imagined world of plural responsibilities for normality, can be reproduced in other design models and partnership?
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