Essay: Agent Provocateurs

DanEssayImage4Design has always affected the way that we live. From furniture, to gadgets, clothing and housing, design’s ability to improve the way we look, move, work and feel has long been evident. In recent times however, it has become increasingly evident that design has transcended its ‘form or function’ role. As we stare down the barrel of unprecedented planetary challenges, the true potential of design is being revealed: it can show us a better future.

CUSP: Designing into the Next Decade charts this future-focused landscape, presenting a selection of outstanding Australian designers with ideas that have the potential to change the way we inhabit the world. These remarkable practitioners represent a global community focused on a new direction for design in society. No longer solely concerned with the exquisitely functional object, design’s remit has expanded to include the capacity to impact on humankind’s progress and survival over the coming decades.

In the 20th century, arguably the moment where design came into its own, design was characterised by the utilitarian cliché, “form follows function.”[1] Yet the 21st century arrived with a litany of complex “wicked problems”[2] in tow, each in urgent need of attention. Climate change, a world population boom, globalised economies, nuclear armament and resource depletion are but a few of the familiar (yet ferocious) issues. Against this backdrop contemporary designers have sought new ways to effect social, cultural, political, technological and economic change. They have expanded their role, leaping beyond the pages of glossy tomes to claim a place as agents of change in society.

“Design has been wasteful for too long,” notes British strategic designer, Dan Hill. “Not in the sense that it has often been focused on producing unnecessary or harmful commodities or addressing problems that didn’t need solving, though these are also true, but that it has been wasteful in terms of its core proposition, its essential mode.

“Design has too often been deployed at the low value end of the product spectrum, putting the lipstick on the pig,” he continues. “[It] has failed to make the case for its core value, which is addressing genuinely meaningful, genuinely knotty problems by convincingly articulating and delivering alternative ways of being. Rethinking the pig altogether, rather than worrying about the shade of lipstick it is wearing.”[3]

Not for the first time in its history[4], although now more widely than before, design is being recognised as a world-shaping force.

Early in the curatorial process, it became clear that we weren’t looking for ‘work’ to curate into a ‘show’. The ten individuals and two three-person collectives selected for CUSP hail from a range of creative fields and disciplines – architecture, data visualisation, industrial design, exertion game design, fashion design, interactive art and media, therapeutic object design, product design, sound performance art and social robotics.

What unites this seemingly disparate group is a vision for something beyond the immediacy of individual practice. Design’s muscle is flexed as questions are asked that haven’t necessarily been asked before.  Can design humanise medical technologies?[5]  Can we build ‘sustainable architecture’ that works for both rich and poor?[6]  What precisely is ‘intelligence’, and how can it be passed on?[7] Regardless of discipline or outcome, the visionaries featured under CUSP’s umbrella share a concern for humanity’s progress and wellbeing. This is what positions them ‘on the cusp’, pursuing ideas to propel us into the decades ahead.

Designers are not just problem solvers (although, they are very good at that). What separates the design-wheat from the design-chaff is an ability to probe the premise of any given issue. “The problem-solving ability is perhaps the least important aspect [of design], coming as it does at the end of a potentially more valuable exploratory process or approach,” notes Hill.[8] Before embarking on solution finding, designers consider reframing the original question with ‘bigger picture’ enquiries to be sure they are answering the right question.

The power of the right question can be seen in the set of core questions accompanying each design practice featured in CUSP.  These relate to the project that is presented in the exhibition and are a poignant illustration of the broader interests of the individuals. These propositions are not focused on how to design grand buildings, or how to produce show stopping dresses. The object-outcome is not the main driver. Rather, the ambition is altruistic and socially aware in flavour. How, for example, can data help us make sense of our complex world?[9] Can design change how we listen?[10] Can interactive media reduce the pain and anxiety experienced by children undergoing painful medical procedures?[11]

The Future Looks Bright

Arguably the world’s most conspicuous design optimist is larger-than-life designer Bruce Mau. Famous for his exuberant claims such as “this is the best time in human history to be alive” and for arguing that unprecedented challenges bring with them unique design opportunities, Mau believes that there is an exceptional solution for every ‘problem’[12]. Indeed, the most basic of design dynamics – the brief – whether prescribed of self-initiated, illustrates the ingrained industry-wide belief that for every ‘problem’ there is a solution. Optimism and the belief in a better way, it seems, is unavoidable.  The CUSP designers similarly tackle 21st century problems with hope and gusto.

Climate change solutions, for example, typically concentrate on what humankind has to sacrifice, or quit doing altogether.  The usual solutions include a plea for noble restraint as opposed to indulgent hedonism.

But what if a ‘green’ solution, rather than using guilt as a tool to change our behaviour, instead seduces our hearts and minds by thinking bigger and more imaginatively about climate change?  In answer to the issues facing our planet, this is precisely what Stephen Mushin’s fantastical ecological machines do.

Aquaponics Ecology profiles the fascinating ethical design processes undertaken by British-born, New Zealand-raised, Melbourne-based Mushin and his collaborators in his most recent ‘real world’ project: a zero-waste, human-powered, low-cost aquaponics system for growing food in developing nations. Presented as a series of curios in specimen jars, Mushin’s installation illustrates the crucial components required to create the most sustainable and accessible aquaponics system on the planet.

Outlandish and bordering on the absurd, Mushin’s Now, If, What, Then illustrations are reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci’s then-absurd flying machine drawings. A suspended taxi-cum-milkshake-café powered by farting cows removes the abundance of methane from the atmosphere, while a floating polar bear habitat in the ocean made out of recycled refrigerators has the dual benefit of saving the polar bears from extinction whilst also farming them for ethical polar fleece jackets.  However unlike the 15th century polymath, Mushin has meticulously researched his ideas to ensure that they are scientifically possible. If someone were to raise the capital for his designs, a pedal-powered shuttle crossing the Tasman Sea would not only go into production, it would also do the job for which it was intended.

German-born, Melbourne-based designer Florian ‘Floyd’ Mueller believes we humans can exercise and play better than we currently do.  To this end he designs play experiences that combine technology and sports psychology to physically engage the body while also increasing motivation and boosting social connectedness and health. Historically, play was a predominantly physical experience until technology introduced new ways to play that relegated our bodies to the couch.  While this has started to shift in the last decade with products such as Nintendo Wii or Kinetic, Mueller believes we are only beginning to tap the power of digital technology to catapult us off the couch and get us moving again.

For CUSP, Mueller showcases two projects to illustrate his thinking.  Hanging off a Bar is a meticulously designed activity intended to trigger psychological responses from its players while it presents as an innocuous interactive game. Conversely Cart-Load-O-Fun takes place on public transport, transforming the socially isolating experience of commuting (compounded by the pervasive use of personal audio and entertainment devices) into one of connectedness and enjoyment. Mueller’s exertion games show us an alternative social structure where the fabric between virtual and real worlds collapse to create better, more integrated, play experiences.

Coffs Harbour-based designer Alison Page champions a future where everyday design products have a cultural and spiritual dimension that adds value beyond aesthetics.  A descendant of the Walbanga and Wadi Wadi people of the Yuin nation, Page launched the a title=”National Aboriginal Design Agency” href=”” target=”_blank”>National Aboriginal Design Agency (NADA) in early 2012 to connect artists, designers and manufacturers around work that honours the origin and intention of Aboriginal stories.

NADA is a community-shaping force, building an industry for authentic cultural design products from the ground up while also securing a viable profession for future generations of Aboriginal artists and designers. The chain of impact stretches from the student to the design professional to the custodian of the goods with his or her heightened awareness and appreciation of culturally authentic designs.

The Sit Place is NADA’s re-framing of the Australian living room in light of Indigenous belonging, and asks the question: “What is Australian style and how does Aboriginality fit within the national design identity?” With lace, textiles, wood and carefully chosen lighting, the domestic space is transformed from decorative interior to an environment that communicates stories about Australia and its people.

The Liberating Joy of a Rejected Status Quo

While optimism may be the pervasive thread of design’s fabric, having the audacity to question the fundamentals of what is presented as the ‘norm’ is the key to unlocking profound change.  “If we all worked on the assumption that what is accepted as true is really true, there would be little hope of advance,” pilot Orville Wright once said, expressing the drive that underpins all original ventures.[13]

So it is with India-born, Brisbane-based architect Anupama Kundoo who has rigorously probed present-day ‘sustainable architecture’ conventions.  Doing so, Kundoo has reacted against the innate bias of many ‘green’ architectural methods that cater only to those who can afford them.

Rather than focus on grand architectural forms, Kundoo has immersed herself in the brick-by-brick detail of how structures are built. She researches building techniques that provide socio-economic benefits to communities through a holistic and contextual approach to sustainability. Her material and process innovations pivot around locally and cheaply produced materials that eliminate the need for more expensive and environmentally harmful materials like steel and concrete.

Light Matters, Kundoo’s work on show in CUSP, is a prototype for a dwelling that will be made using ferrocement, a low-tech material comprised of cement and chicken wire most commonly used in boat building. The structure is light in weight; low on cost; and has a small environmental footprint. And because of it’s origami pleat surface, is aesthetically striking. As a complete package, this means that the structure meets disaster relief needs just as easily as it meets urban dwellers’ architectural requirements. In the face of an escalating world housing crisis, where conventional permanent housing options remain unaffordable to most of the globe’s populace, Kundoo’s Light Matters shows us another way.

Super Critical Mass also signposts a different future. Initially trained in composition and performance, this Australian-born sonic art collective creates sublime performance-installations that change how we listen to and experience our surroundings. Super Critical Mass’s co-directors Julian Day, Luke Jaaniste and Janet McKay created their troupe as a reaction to the strict hierarchy that defines classical music, where a performer is accepted by virtue of his or her formal training. Spectators, meanwhile, are restricted in different ways, typically shepherded into prescribed audience spaces and expected to respond predictably.

Super Critical Mass rejects these systems. Their performances bring together ‘masses’ of participants, both amateur and professional, in public spaces to sing or play identical instruments. Simple algorithmic instructions – such as boundaries for movement or what notes to play, in what order – guide the performers, leaving listeners free to wander through the dispersed ensemble and to enjoy the performance as they see fit.

Pivotal (from me to you and back again) marks a shift in the way Super Critical Mass exhibit their work. In June 2013, the collective performed with local volunteers in Casula, Sydney and filmed the event. This documentation is on exhibit in CUSP as a ‘virtual’ mass, with the performers at the original performance replaced by digital doppelgangers. By questioning and then reconfiguring the conventions of how music is performed and appreciated, Super Critical Mass redesigns the aural experience. Here, music happens with and around you, not at you.

Melbourne-based fashion house MaterialByProduct rejects the fashion industry status quo. In a trade where collections are typically produced biannually, only to be superseded a season later, MaterialByProduct offers year-round continuity and timelessness. While fashion is often characterised by mass production and waste, MaterialByProduct creates garments that topple fashion’s typical homage to continual renewal; instead it focuses on renewed continuity.

The label’s director and master artisan, Susan Dimasi, begins the garment-making process by focusing on methods for marking, cutting and joining cloth. As the name of her label suggests, the garments are merely a ‘by-product’ of her process. Embodiment profiles the most recent technique in the MaterialByProduct stable, that of ‘accumulation’. This process includes marking her fabrics by hand with an ink marker that ‘bleeds’ into the fabric when activated by a wearer’s body heat.  Dimasi advocates for a long-term relationship with clothing that becomes an ‘embodiment’ of the wearer, accumulating visceral experiences over time.

For German-born, Sydney-based architect Chris Bosse the future is a world where buildings mirror the biological world and respond to external influences like air pressure, temperature, humidity, air pollution and solar radiation.

In his future city, buildings are not singular structural entities but part of a larger networked system, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Bosse looks to nature’s underlying design principles to inspire new possible structures that overturn the idea that buildings are fixed[14]. Instead he sees buildings, as in nature, having the potential to respond and adapt to their surrounds.

Cloud City: An Urban Ecosystem is Bosse’s vision for an interdependent future city where transport, housing and urban infrastructure have the ability to communicate with each other via an omnipotent data cloud. Currently, most building facades are passive, lacking the ability to adjust to fluctuating external conditions. Here, each tower has been re-skinned in a high-performance translucent cocoon that can create its own microclimate; generate its own energy; collect rainwater; and improve the distribution of natural daylight. By re-skinning inefficient buildings rather than bulldozing them and starting over, Bosse transplants the past into the future, transforming relics into super-enabled buildings.

Social Entrepreneurs

In distinguishing the methodology of design from the ‘form or function’ outcome, designers have been able to effect change across varying sectors of society. This is an idea that has gathered momentum around the world. In 2007 the British Design Council launched Dott07, a series of projects that connected designers with communities to address issues in health, transport, illness and education. In the United States the humanitarian design organisation Project H continues to achieve acclaim for their education programs that empower children to make positive long-lasting change in their communities. Closer to home, the University of Technology, Sydney has established the ‘Designing Out Crime’ research centre, a multi-disciplinary lab with the mandate of finding solutions to crime-related problems that have been impossible to solve until now. Against this landscape, CUSP has sought out designers who are also effecting change in society and transforming the way people live.

Melbourne-based designer Leah Heiss works with scientists, doctors, patients, healthcare providers and nanotechnologists to design therapeutic technologies that are profoundly sensitive to the emotional experience of the person using the equipment. For people who rely on medical devices in their day-to-day lives, such as diabetics, the hearing impaired or those in need of medic jewellery, Heiss’s designs are game changing.

At the core of Heiss’s work lies thorough empathetic research and an understanding of the emotional needs of the end user. Early in her research, the designer discovered that many people opt out of wearing or using devices such as hearing aids or medical jewellery because they are unattractive or loaded with social stigma. By re-imagining them as covetable design objects – although with far better technical performance than their predecessors – Heiss removes the visible signals of ‘disability’ and ‘illness’ and puts the choice to disclose a condition back in the control of the wearer.

Close to Me: Designing for Health and Wellbeing reveals the design process undertaken by Heiss in order to produce one of her devices, presented in CUSP as a series of 3D printed prototypes and photographs. While medical products take up to ten years of testing before being released to market, Heiss’s dedication is testament to the extraordinary potential of design to revolutionise the human experience of those that rely on medical aids.

Similarly, but in a different realm, Healthabitat uses design to map the relationship between health and housing – and in so doing dramatically improves the lives of disadvantaged communities.

When architect Paul Pholeros, physician Paul Torzillo and environmental health officer Stephan Rainow visited the Anangu Pitjatjantjara region in north-west South Australia in 1985, their brief was simple: “Stop people getting sick.” Their ensuing design methodology, known as Housing for Health with ‘Nine Healthy Living Practices’ at it’s core, links health to housing function in a bid to improve health and wellbeing in communities.

In addition to preventing people from falling ill, Healthabitat has statistically debunked the commonly held view that public housing is neglected or abused by its inhabitants.  In actual fact, more than 90% of faults in houses are due to poor design and the subsequent lack of maintenance. From Australia to Nepal and New York, the Housing for Health program has proved that the health and social issues faced by these communities are not caused by race or geography, but by poverty. In the face of this, almost three decades later, Healthabitat remains focused on using design to upgrade living environments in order to boost community health.

A New Perspective on Reality

Whether championing a positive future, overturning the status quo or effecting societal transformation, designers offer the world new perspectives and fresh creative visions.

New Zealand-born, Melbourne-based Greg More has done so with the mountain of data that characterises our world in the 21st century.  In an age where material is more prolific and more widely available than ever before, he has understood that harnessing so-called ‘information’ and transforming it into knowledge is critical for making sense of the world. Wrestling data as a raw material and transforming it into visually compelling narratives, More is at the forefront of a design discipline increasingly vital to business, learning, political and cultural realms.

Temporal Dimensions: Visualising the Data of Environments is a collection of More’s visualisation projects, presented in CUSP as a series. Collecting and interpreting data on a wide variety of topics, including everything from water usage, transport habits to coral reef decline and global communication trends, these visualisations tell stories about our world that, once understood, empower us to take action.

For the past decade, Sydney-based George Khut has been researching the creative potential of biofeedback – a method of observing subtle changes within the body such as heart rate, brain waves and blood pressure – so that we can influence the body function we are monitoring. Since 2011 Khut has been working with Dr. Angie Morrow, a paediatrician at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead, Kids Rehab, NSW, to assess how effective his interactive designs could be at reducing pain and anxiety in children undergoing painful procedures in hospital.

The BrightHearts app exhibited in CUSP is the outcome of this research. Measuring changes in heart rate using a pulse sensor attached to the earlobe, the application works by making internal physiological feelings like fear and anxiety – and conversely, calm and relaxation – apparent. Each time participants relax and slowly exhale, the app interface becomes animated with colourful visuals and relaxing sounds.  With practice, users notice how they are able to control their heart rate, stress and relaxation responses and by so doing influence the app’s response in turn.  The power of Khut’s work is that it offers a combination of enchantment and distraction, overlaid with empowerment, to patients who often have little sense of control over what is happening to their bodies.

Athens-born, Switzerland-raised and Sydney-based artist Mari Velonaki is fascinated by the way humans and machines communicate. Having worked as a researcher and artist in the field of interactive media for almost two decades, her artworks encourage intimate and immersive relationships between living and non-living things. Specifically, her projects are linked by the concept of ‘amphidromos’, a term Velonaki coined to describe the brief moment of recognition between two parties before words or actions are exchanged.

Blue Iris, Velonaki’s contribution to CUSP, is part of a five-year collaborative research project exploring artificial intelligence and the emotional communication of human movement. Specifically, Blue Iris is ‘intelligent’ wallpaper that invites visitors to touch, caress or whisper to it.  In response, it may weep, change colour, or display and rearrange marks on its surface. It is the anthropomorphic skin of a ‘living’ system that understands human actions, and preserves a memory of its visitors. This poetic human-machine interface exists within a broad field of artificial intelligence research that pursues the creation of truly intelligent non-human objects.

As Velonaki and her research team cultivate new forms of intelligence for the Blue Iris wallpaper between 2013 – 2015, new panels will be added to the room interior, gradually covering the walls with an increasingly responsive surface.  In this way, the CUSP exhibition does not only feature resolved works, it also provides a public platform for designers’ ongoing research and development process.

Each CUSP designer and project presents a ‘possible future’ or alternative way for the decade ahead – whether that be an overhaul of current definitions of ‘sustainable architecture’, a total re-think of how the fashion world operates, or a collaboration between design and science to create human-centred medical aids. All of these futures are possible. Indeed, they already exist. The question for us is how will we choose these futures, and together, write history?

Danielle Robson
CUSP: Designing into the Next Decade



[1] This is a common misquote. The original phrase was “form ever follows function”, and is usually misattributed to modernist giants such as Le Corbusier or Mies van der Rohe, but was actually said by the less well-known American architect Louis H. Sullivan in The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered, 1896.

[2] A ‘wicked problem’ is a phrase originally used in social planning to describe a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are difficult to recognise. The term ‘wicked’ is used in terms of the problems’ resistance to resolution. The term was first coined by Horst WJ Rittel and Melvin M. Webber. “Dilemmas in a general theory of planning.” Policy sciences 4 (1973): 155-169. Retrieved 25 May 2013

[3] Dan Hill, Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary, Strelka Press, 2012, p. 16

600High[4] The idea of a new kind of designer is not unique to the 21st century. In the mid 20th century R. Buckminster Fuller famously describe the designer as an “emerging synthesis of artist, inventor, mechanic, objective economist and evolutionary strategist.” Thomas TK. Zung, Buckminster Fuller: anthology for the new millennium. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2002. In his seminal 1970 book La Speranza Progettuale, translated to English two years later as Design, Nature and Revolution: Toward a Critical Ecology, Italian design theorist Tomás Maldonado argued for a substantial effort on the designer’s part to play a role in the process of social change. Design, Nature, and Revolution translated by Mario Domandi, Harper & Row, 1972.

[5] CUSP question for Leah Heiss

[6] CUSP question for Anupama Kundoo

[7] CUSP question for Mari Velonaki

[8] Hill at p. 16

[9] Paraphrased CUSP question for Greg More

[10] Paraphrased CUSP question for Super Critical Mass

[11] CUSP question for George Khut

[12] Interview with Bruce Mau by Rory Hyde, Future Practice: Conversations from the Edge of Architecture. Routledge, 2012. p. 34

[13] Orville Wright was one half of the team who overturned the belief that human flight was impossible; As quoted in Bruce Mau, 24 Hours to Massive Change, Massive Change Network, LLC, 2011 p. 16

[14] Looking to naturally occurring patterns, structures, and models for innovation in the synthetic world is a practice known as ‘bio-mimicry’.