Design Observer Twenty Years 2003-2023

John Thackara | Essays

The Promise of Proximity [March 2003]

This free monthly newsletter starts conversations on issues to do with design for resilience — and thereby reveals opportunities for action. It also brings you news of Doors of Perception events and encounters. Back issues are now archived on Design Observer. To subscribe to future newletters by John Thackara click here.

"Mobile telephony might seem very much to do with being apart, but a lot of telecommunications behaviour is aimed at getting together physically in the same place." Marko Ahtisaari's thoughts on proximity as a design criterion are now online at the Doors Flow site. The Nokia guru's insightful piece also introduced us to "Finally We Are No One", by an Icelandic group called Mum. Remember where you heard that first.

"How would you feel if, six times out of every ten times you went to a restaurant, the waiter presented you with food that was really bad, spoiled, or burned? Or if you weren't presented with any food at all, but still had to pay the bill at the end?" Massimo Banzi's restaurant-from-hell analogy (he was talking about large-scale software projects) is now online at:

The first materials we used to design with were stone and wood; later came metals, ceramics and glass. In recent years, membranes and so-called "technical textiles" have given us more functionality to play with than than the pelts, fur, leather, and woven textiles we used to use. For Axel Thallemer the next big building material, to which computing opens the door, is fluids.

For list addicts. The bestselling books at last year's Flow were:
1) Envisioning Science: The Design and Craft of the Science Image, by Felice Frankel.
2) Utopian Entrepreneur, by Brenda Laurel.
3) Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, by Janine Benyus.
4) Breathing Cities, by Nick Barley (ed).
5) Flow, the Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
6) Making Use: Scenario-Based Design of Human-Computer Interaction, by John M Carroll. 7) Learning Beyond the Classroom, by Tom Bentley.
8) Linked: The New Science of Networks, by Albert-Laszlo Barabasi.
9) Blur, by Diller & Scofidio.
10) Design Noir: the Secret Life of Electronic Objects, by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby.
These titles are reviewed at:
For lots more Doors book reviews:

By popular request the "5 minute TV samples" by Marcel van der Drift are now online at:

If the throw-away society is over, how do we design for longevity in products and services? Eternally Yours, a Dutch foundation, is organising a round-the-clock, 24-hour event, in October, to look at this timely question. Eighty different projects, case studies and scenarios - all dealing with time in design - will be presented. The event will experiment with a range of formats and tempos - from one-minute films, and 100-word lectures, to slow-food dinners and leisurely fireside chats. Doors of Perception, and The Long Now Foundation, are supporting the event. 4pm October 16-4pm October 17, in Eindhoven, The Netherlands.

Is it really true that to be better off, we must consume more? To the despair of the stock markets, a growing number of people seem to be sceptical that the consumption of trashy products and devices leads to well-being. But what alternative models of progress are there? An exhibition at the Milan Triennale this October - The Futures of Everyday Life - engages with this issue. "In tomorrow's communities, an obsession with things will replaced by a fascination with events," suggests Ezio Manzini, curator of the exhibition. Manzini has run workshops in Brazil, China, and India to develop new design ideas for the show. "We are collecting examples of situations in which energy and material consumption is ultra-low," he says. "It's a concept of innovation that uses more people, not less."
Read Ezio Manzini on sustainable design at Doors 7 Flow:

Are you sitting on a brilliant design concept, or project idea - but lack the time to develop it? The Jan van Eyck Academy invites designers, artists and thinkers to apply for a one or two-year research period, starting in January 2004. Besides a stipend, a production budget, and a studio, researchers are offered access to technical workshops, the library, and support from the Academy's production office.

Together with design guru Nathan Shedroff, our friend Debra Solomon is a judge in the 2003 Webby Awards in the category "personal website". These are sites by and about individuals - ie, they exclude portfolio or personal business sites. Deborah and Nathan have been asked to cast the net wide in their search for websites that represent excellence in this area - and we're happy to help. To submit a personal site for review, go to:

The capacity of designers to produce too many prize ceremonies - and to confuse everyone in the process - never ceases to amaze us. Doors' John Thackara spent the weekend pre-judging entries to the "Dutch Design Awards" - only to discover that this was not, as he had thought when accepting the invitation, the Rotterdam Design Prize. It transpires that there are two completely different organisations whose urls are:
Colleagues, please stop it. This kind of thing is inept, pointless, and counter-productive.

What does it mean to create a good, meaningful, or authentic experience? New York - the obvious location for a seminar on this topic - hosts James Howard Kunstler, author of The Geography of Nowhere, at this Good Experience seminar (May 2). Other speakers include a methodist minister, Stephen Bauman; game designer and Doors speaker Stewart Butterfield; and a leading New York City historian, Ken Jackson.

Lexicographer Paul McFedries has an entry for "google," an "important new verb" which has entered the vernacular on his Word Spy website. Imagine his surprise when he received an email from a Google lawyer, protesting about his use of their trademark: "We ask that you help us to protect our brand by deleting the definition of "google" found at or revising it to take into account the trademark status of Google", the mail concluded. Google, in other words, is doing a Xerox.

With designers playing an increasingly crucial role in product development, how to bridge the traditional gulf between the drawing board and the boardroom? Enter the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) with its new Masters of Design Methods (MDM) programme, designed to coach seasoned designers in validating their professional decisions at the executive level. Closing date for applications: June 1, 2003. Further information:

The EU has designated 2003 the year of the disabled, so Cumulus 2003 (May 8-11, Tallinn Academy of Arts, Estonia), takes as its theme, 'Disabling disablement, enabling enablement' (try saying that after a glass or two of wine). The conference is entitled VALID: Value-Added Design and surveys a broad swathe of enabling technologies, including wearables, 'designer drugs', ambient intelligence, and urban planning.

Toronto Festival of the Future, on October 17-20 this year, promises to prod the world's "biggest thinkers" to share thoughts on how to "accelerate the future". The Toronto International McLuhan Festival of the Future (TIMFOF) is named after the most widely-quoted Canadian of all time. Would-be attendees are invited to define themselves as one of 30 copyrighted, media-friendly categories such as Designarazzi, Webweavers, or Internetocrats.

Tales of the Disappearing Computer brings together research projects in the EU's Disappearing Computer initiative, against the enticing backdrop of the azure Aegean sea. June 1-4, Santorini, Greece.

Remember Liz Diller's inspirational presentation of the Blur building at Doors 6: Lightness? Now there's a chance to review this, and other projects such as the Slow House, by the subtly subversive and abundantly talented duo at Scanning: the Aberrant Architecture of Diller & Scofidio, a retrospecive exhibition at the Whitney Museum of Art, New York, March 1-June 1.

An International Institute for Information Design's conference on knowledge presentation, will address five themes, including Communication and Conceptualisation (how people understand), and the familiar-sounding Making Information Flow (matching info to human needs). Chicago, May 30-31. For more details, email: [email protected] INFO DESIGN #2: SUNNY, SHARKY
The Information Design International Conference's programme will cover the use of info design in education, its history and taxonomy, its application to society and its role within knowledge systems... oh, and you might be interested to know it also boasts the rather tempting beach location of Recife, Brazil (shark attack capital of the world, so sun, rather than swim - tiny bathing costumes obligatory). September 8-11.

Intricacy is the name given to an emerging aesthetic of folded, interwoven and layered forms, influenced by digital and genetic engineering, developed by architect Greg Lynn. His presentation at Philadelphia's Institute of Contemporary Arts is "a new way of thinking about the interrelation of concepts and techniques on an abstract, holistic scale." Until April 6, with a one-day symposium on March 27.

As the economy becomes more service-oriented, companies are sharpening their competitive edge by combining products and services. The EU has responded to this trend by funding a thematic network on sustainable product-services (SusProNet). SusPro holds its first international conference at De Rode Hoed in Amsterdam, June 5-6, to discuss the state of the art in PSS (product-service systems).

Doors' firstPerceptron John Thackara is giving lectures at the School of Architecture in Aarhus, Denmark on March 24; in Copenhagen, at the Danish Design Centre, on March 26; and at Anydisseny, the Barcelona Design Annual, on April 25 (where John is also honorary president of the After Tomorrow conference).

Jobs | September 22