Fixperts Super Salon, June 2015
Event Written by Cat Rossi
The end of June saw Kingston University’s Stanley Picker Gallery host the first ever Fixperts gathering; a two-day “Super Salon” of fixing and talking about fixing by Fixperts, Fixpartners and fixhopefuls (as I’ll optimistically call myself). I attended the second day, during which we were treated to a series of presentations by those who had organised or participated in Fixperts projects since its foundation in 2012.
Salon Speakers included the Polish designer Tomek Rygalik, who ran the first international Fixperts project, at Warsaw Academy of Fine Art Designdepartment in 2012; Edna Day, one of the original Fixpartners and the star of one of its most popular videos; Lea Jagendorf, a design educator who has introduced Fixperts into school education and, at the end of the day, Sean Sutcliffe, who is establishing a Fixperts residency into his Benchmark workshops in West Berkshire later in 2015. This diverse mix of voices was united by their passion, generosity, and enthusiasm for a design method that seems to bring out the best in people.
There was one final element: together with Dr Adam Drazin an anthropologist based at UCL, I was invited to offer some overall reflections at the end of the day, which I’ve summarized in four points below. While they don’t capture the Salon in its entirety, they hopefully present some things to think about as Fixperts develops. Focused on identifying challenges and critique, they might seem more about problems rather than possibilities, but it is only in this unpicking can we think about the realising the exciting potential that Fixperts presents.
As I’ve written previously on the Fixperts blog, Fixperts speaks of the diversifying role of designers today, as many move from conceiving commercial products to working to facilitate our everyday through systems and service design. In this shift in focus from things to people, there is also a shift in mentality. As Gad Charny of the Holon Institute of Technology noted, through adopting the Fixperts method designers are ‘realising that can have real impact on real people’. This is a statement about empowerment that complicates any simplistic interpretation of Fixperts as altruistic - both Fixperts and Fixpartners have the potential to benefit from their involvement. Benefits can be seen in other ways - it turns out that Fixperts can ‘fix’ another problem that has been emerging in recent years in design – the reliance on digital technologies. Speaking about the daylong Fixperts project she ran at Sussex University, Claire Potter observed that the short-time frame, low-tech and iterative emphasis ensured that students couldn’t unthinkingly rely on digital technologies. Instead, they had to revisit making techniques to come up with their ad hoc solutions, an approach that will hopefully inform their future work.
Not all aspects of the designer’s identity are changing however. Rygaliklamented that designers couldn’t stop being - well, designers - as they added extra details or sought to improve aspects that were outside of the agreed brief. Whether or not this was a bad thing was something that I’d question, but it was interesting nevertheless to think about the particular restrictions and freedoms of a Fixperts brief.
Fixperts isn’t just having an impact on how we think about designers, but users too. It isn’t enough to abstractly conceive of what the consumer wants – with Fixperts designers have to invest in a relationship with the user in ways that go beyond many co-design approaches. A successful outcome is predicated on the identification of a problem that the designer can actually solve, the ability to realise models and prototypes through which the Fixpartner then needs to be able to articulate what does and does not work. This can take hours, days, weeks. Throughout this process it is vital that there is communication and trust between Fixpert and Fixpartner, a question of dynamics and power not yet fully explored.
One of the most interesting, if personally uncomfortable, discussions of the day was the concept of finding a “good” Fixpartner. This seemed to be someone who had the ‘right’ personality (whatever that means) and also the ‘right’ sort of problem (whatever that means too). I’m being a bit provocative here, as not everyone voiced this opinion, yet surely everyone has the right to access the potential benefits of the Fixperts experience, and if the relationship is problematic then perhaps this aspect needs to be as well ‘designed’ as the rest of Fixperts method.
There was also the challenge of finding users, of accessing those who need help but don’t have the connections or the confidence to find it. This is certainly a challenge that Fixperts, and all socially engaged designers, need to address.
One of the ways that Fixperts has gained such prominence so quickly is through its films. Each project is recorded through a film that, according to the Fixperts Guidelines, should be a ‘compelling story’ that captures ‘the people, the problem and the process involved’. These are then loaded onto the Fixperts website. There are around 135 currently online - excluding those uploaded onto sites other than Fixperts - and more waiting to go up. Many of these are incredibly powerful, moving endorsements of what Fixperts can achieve: the lightness of Edna’s video almost belies the real difference that the sockhorn makes on her life, while the story of Foridha’s wheelchair was one of the first, and most unforgettable, Fixperts films I’ve seen. These and other films have been so internationally popular that the sheer amount of viewings has even managed to crash the Fixperts website.
Yet the feel-good nature of the films, epitomised by the popularity of using songs such as Pharrell Williams’ Happy as the soundtrack, troubles me slightly. Admittedly this could be because I’m a cold and cynical English person (!), yet I wasn’t alone. Sutcliffe posed a flash poll to the Salon audience, and found that just over half would prefer the films to have no music, in part because it was felt it detracted from the film’s power.
The film is one of the most interesting aspects of Fixperts – I’d suggest it is the first product design initiative to have an accompanying moving image presence, a combination of media and disciplines that merits further investigation. Yet the films raises a number of questions - how can Fixperts maintain the authentic, empowering message of the films if the presentation becomes formulaic? Should a film be made for every Fixperts project? Should music be banned, or required? What other ways could film play a role in Fixperts, and what does its inclusion right in the inception of a Fixperts brief say about the changing practice of design itself, in which as much emphasis is placed on the communication of design as its development and realisation?
My final reflection is about an aspect that was surprisingly little discussed during the salon. This was the object, the fixes, the physical manifestation of the Fixperts process. This isn’t just true of the Salon. Compare the objects with the films: while the latter are archived online, there is no collection of the actual designs available anywhere.
On the one hand this dematerialising tendency makes sense, a reaction against the emphasis on products over people that has defined much commercial design in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Daniel Charny was amongst those to emphasise the importance of the films over the objects, of use over appearance, and others similarly suggested that aesthetics weren’t important. I’m not convinced about this. It is the physical fix that remains the material legacy of the Fixperts process, the thing that (hopefully) continues to improve the Fixpartner’s life long after the project is over. Surely it is important that these have as much aesthetic as emotional appeal, even if the appearance of the fix doesn’t correspond to the stylistic criteria of most design products? Actually, I’d suggest this anti-aesthetic position speaks of an increasing appreciation for a very old aesthetic. This is the adhoc, an ‘undesigned’ artefact defined by past and future fixes and realised using the limited resources available, and an object typology of interest to everyone from the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.
The objects that result from the Fixperts process raise other aspects relevant to the broader condition of design and manufacture today. Some speakers struggled to find names for the objects that resulted, many of which were re-iterations of recognisable object typologies. Instead, phrases like a ‘sort of’ or a ‘type of’ were used to describe these strange hybrid manifestations. I found this fascinating, in particular because I don’t think this linguistic and artefactual problem is going to go away: as we tiptoe ever closer towards mass customisation and even to domestic 3D printers, there is the possibility that we can all have our own bespoke things, that may not fit in with existing objects archetypes and typologies or the language that we use to describe these.
The object also brings me back to generosity, a quality raised at the beginning of this text. There is an inbuilt charity to Fixperts, in which designers volunteer their time to design things that meet people’s real needs. The resulting objects are not capitalist commodities – no money is exchanged and instead the object is what Edna rather wonderfully called a ‘present’. It seems a shame then that not everyone in need can benefit from the gift that Fixperts represents. While some of the fixes are highly bespoke, others, like Edna’s sockhorn, would benefit a huge range of people. There’s nothing stopping anyone being inspired by the films to make their own versions of the designs, and in some instances the one-off fix has lead to a larger scale of production, or the designs are available online in different ways – yet there is no complete catalogue of the designs. An open licensing system would be one way to address this problem, an idea that was discussed on the day.
Whether in terms of designers, users, films or the artefacts, I think it is this question of access that represents Fixperts’ biggest challenge: how to make its benefits reach the widest number of people possible, and how to turn us all into Fixperts and Fixpartners.
I’d like to end by thanking Fixperts, the Stanley Picker Gallery and all those who spoke, fixed or otherwise participated in the Super Salon, an inspiring event that deserves a regular place on the design calendar.
Images from Top:
1 - Fixperts Super Salon Day 1 - Fix & Repair Drop-In Day. Credit: Ezzidin Alwan, Kingston University
2 - Gad Charny, professor of Industrial Design at Holon Institute of Technology Israel, fixes a toy brought in by a member of the public. Credit: Ezzidin Alwan, Kingston University
3 - Fixperts help Jayson who dropped in on the Fix & Repair day to find a fix for his wheelchair controls, which sometimes stop working in the rain. Credit: Ezzidin Alwan, Kingston University
4 - Claire Potter, independent designer and tutor at Sussex University, gives her presentation on the second “Think-Tank” day. Credit: Daniel Charny
Cat Rossi is a design historian based at Kingston University, who is interested in researching, writing, talking and teaching about design past and present for a wide range of audiences.
Read Cat’s blog at http://thinkingaboutobjects.tumblr.com/