Governing through Design

The United Nations increasingly rely on design thinking to transform their institutions; infrastructural planning is now figured as urban design; and ecological thinking turns into a problem of adequate programming. Our project seeks to investigate how design methods and practices have contributed to changing politics throughout the 20th century and to analyze contemporary forms of governing through design. It is our goal to establish the interdisciplinary study of design as a new field of research in the humanities and to provide an account of how design has since the mid-20th century become increasingly political.

An interdisciplinary collective of researchers based at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts FHNW (Institute Experimental Design and Media Cultures), the University of Basel (Urban Studies), and Concordia University Montréal (Department of Sociology and Anthropology) approaches these developments through studying the role of design methods and practices in the transformation of international institutions and decision making processes, in the infrastructural transformation of urban centers and rural spaces, and in the computational management of ecological and social processes.

At the heart of the project sits a bottom-up perspective: we do not assume global and homogeneous politics of design, but combine archival research and fieldwork in Africa, Asia, Europe and North America to investigate locally specific mergers of design strategies, infrastructural planning, and politics. An important goal of the project is to contribute to current political debates.

Governing through Design links perspectives and methods of design studies, urban studies, media studies, anthropology, sociology, political science, and science & technology studies to develop a comprehensive understanding of how politics and design are interrelated today. The project therefore intervenes in contemporary debates about opportunities to act on the effects of the ‘anthropocene’ and seeks to confront global solutions with in-depth studies of local projects and processes.

Ground Tests

Ground Tests studies and elaborates the means and methods of art, design and media research. We do extra-disciplinary investigations that connect contexts, communities, and concerns through non-traditional, undisciplined knowledge practices. How should these be composed, and how should they work? Our ‘tests’ activate concepts and styles with their origins in cultures of art, design and media creativity, while diverting these modes toward socially and ecologically responsible issues and ends.

Ground Tests investigates current artistic perspectives, design practices, media systems and digital methods as cross-cutting activators of change, allowing human and nonhuman collectives to represent and express their circumstances and interests, needs and desires. Informed by these explorations, this project tests and grounds the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of artistic and designerly investigations, through empirical experiments that are responsive, respectful and impactful.

Ground Tests undertakes case studies and actions at the critical, permeable and shifting boundaries of ecology and culture, nature and science. The project draws on the work of institutions and people that inspire and enlarge our modes of creating site- and subject-specific inquiries with collective social, political, ecological impacts. We intend an elaboration of the scope of research itself, what it is and what it does, as active and responsible engagements with the contexts in which this work is undertaken. How do we reflexively regard the repercussions and beneficiaries of experimental knowledge practices? What accesses are created to the means and outcomes of creative research, in practice?


Design processes, most of all collaborative ones, need elaborate and well-designed digital tools for their support. Project-based design education should especially foster an experimentation with one’s own way of working, with design processes and forms of collaboration. Existing software tools from notetaking apps to visual online boards, file sharing services to project manangement suites often don’t meet the demands of experimental design processes. More often than not they are oriented towards commercial project structures, impose too constrained ways of working, or are based on too simplified notions of creative practice and collaboration.

How could design processes be better represented, documented and shared?
How could the collaboration in projects be fostered by digital tools?
How does our ideal design collaboration tool look like?

This one-year pilot project sets out to develop a digital tool that is tailored to better support collaborative design practices, especially in the context of design education. Together with students of the FHNW Academy of Art and Design Basel, we study situated design processes to explore possible approaches, scopes and requirements for such new collaborative tools. Based on these findings we further experiment with forms of visualization and interface concepts. In this way, over the course of a series of workshops, a design concept is refined to be realized in a prototype.

The project is an initiative and part of the research project Commons in Design.

The Commons in Design

Due to the interlinking of technologies and the resulting complexity of design considerations, it has become increasingly difficult to understand, monitor, and execute the entire design and production process. Although specific knowledge exists of technological aspects–for example, the handling and variety of applications of 3D printing from rapid prototyping to product-ready prostheses–there is no holistic understanding, in our opinion, of how future technologies and the resulting conditions will be manifested in design.

Based on the socioeconomic transformations described above, the research project will consider the fundamentals of commons-based design. The commoning principle can be used in design to enable new methods and fields of activity (such as open innovation, open learning, and open design). There is a great potential for sharing designs, jobs, spaces, techniques, and the like in commons-based design, which promises more flexible conditions for design professionals and increased agility in the process of development and production. The main question that the research project addresses is how the concept of design can be extended and reconsidered within the context of digitization and the changing self-image of designers. The project will generate essential insights to first understand ‹knowledge practices in the open-design process› and then to consider ‹collaborative spaces and media›. Finally, specific design models and methodologies will emerge in the context of design research.

The research project makes an important contribution to design research and provides a perspective on how the principles of open source and open design can be embedded in an open-design framework and made productive. The aspects to be addressed in the project are primarily those networked, participatory, and open procedures based on the commons and commoning.


Nowadays, software products for the elderly mostly meet functional requirements but often neglect not only aesthetic elements in the interface design, but moreover lack of critical concepts, when it comes to include cultural or bio-political aspects. Through interdisciplinary cooperation between experts in technology, art, design (both visual but also beyond), music and psychology, the project will develop new insights in this area with application for the future.

The overall project aim is to speak to people not only at a cognitive and emotional level, but also (and this is the role of our subproject) think about their cultural backgrounds, the power constellations both institutional and personal in the retirement home. By achieving a greater understanding of the links between aesthetics, design, interaction and technology in the context of an ageing population, the project will help build expertise in all four participating schools and be able to act as a catalyst for future projects. Our research will enable the needs of this growing group of elderly and aged people to be better addressed.

In our subproject design researcher Maja Riegler works highly interdisciplinary and explores methods such as visual thinking, paper prototyping and co-design not only with-in the research team, but also with the inhabitants of the homes.

Critical Artifacts

The design research project analyses and extends understandings of how critical and speculative design artefacts such as prototypes and scenario stagings contribute to the critique and transformation of established value paradigms in contemporary and future technology development. It attempts to historically assess and further develop design approaches that aim at rendering alternative socio-technological narratives visible and experienceable by the means of material artefacts and their discursive effects.

The project consists of two sub-projects:

Ludwig Zeller puts speculative design artefacts in a trajectory to the ‘scenario method’ that originated in the emerging, global and interdisciplinary demand for planning, creativity and imagination since World War II. His research investigates how Speculative and Critical Design began to use the industrialised material cultures of western societies as a ‘post-linguistic’ medium for critical, moral and fictional exchange. Informed by a historical and contemporary overview of future studies, postmodern fiction theory as well as discourse studies, the sub-project discusses to what extent speculative and critical artefacts can contribute to the democratisation of innovation processes and decision making within the ‘digitization narrative’ of contemporary capitalism.

Moritz Greiner-Petter, in his sub project, examines reflective design approaches in the context of interface design and human-machine interaction. The critical and speculative design of interfaces and interaction modalities is probed as a method to scrutinize aspects of the mediality and materiality of digital media. A focus is on the notion of ambiguity as it arises between the poles of formalization and representation, structure and openness as well as appropriation and use.

The project is concluded with the international and interdisciplinary research conference Critical By Design? in May 2018.

Machine Love?

Machine Love? represents an attempt to get a grip on cultural transformations in underground electronic music production and software engineering via the investigation of changes in infrastructural, material and technological conditions of labour induced by visions of creative economies. While we do agree with and depart from Marion von Osten’s diagnosis that the creative economies as outlined in strategy papers of European governments drafted in the late 1990s have to date only partly materialized (von Osten 2007), we think that the creative imperative has had considerable impact on cultures of production in the selected fields. We comprehend contemporary understandings of ‘creative’ practice to be entangled especially with, e.g. media of collaboration (infrastructural), based on affective relations with materials, and framed by the technological generation and exploitation of intellectual property.

The two subprojects of Machine Love? have been conceptualized in order to find new ways of researching contemporary cultures of production. We seek to be empirical by combining historical (forensic) investigation, ethnographic techniques and practice-based experience to gather evidence and make research public. It is our goal to contribute to the ongoing anthropology of late-modern societies in cultural studies and social science and to be fatihful to experience by modifying our tools in deliberations with our objects.

Moulding the Human Being. Clothing as a Cultural Practice

Hanro is a renowned Swiss company for undergarments with a more than 100-year-old history. In the interdisciplinary project researchers from cultural sciences and design research together with experts from archive studies and textiles of the Canton Basel-Country investigate the company’s extensive archive. The collection comprises around 20,000 specimen of production as well as design drawings, swatches, catalogues, and publicity materials from 1884 until today.

The project approaches the archive materials from three different perspectives: Firstly, the evolution of the brand Hanro of Switzerland is traced back. Secondly, it is asked, how the history of human intimacy and the development of undergarments have mutually induced. And thirdly, the design process under industrial production conditions can be investigated examplarily.

The research results contribute to the field of cultural anthropolgy of clothing and design research and are supposed to have influence on the professional education in the textile sector. Additionally, the insights will be publicly presented in exhibitions.

Systematic Discovery in the Short 20th Century

In this study Claudia Mareis investigates the history and pragmatics of creativity and ideation techniques in the short 20th century, particularly in the post-WWII period. The observation of the present popularity of these techniques and the continuous sedimentation of their conceptual-visual vocabulary in the expertise of many fields of knowledge stands in opposition to a serious lack of historicization. Based on several comparative case studies both individual and collective aspects of the cultural and conceptual-historical genesis and application of creativity and ideation techniques shall exemplarily be presented. This will be done along with the analysis of both individual and shared intellectual influences, material and medial presentation formats, and visual practices.

The three case studies, which are in the making, investigate the technique of the “morphological box” (by Fritz Zwicky), the group-based technique of “brainstorming” (by Alex Osborn) and the system of TRIZ (Russian for: Theory of Inventive Problem Solving, by Genrich S. Altschuller). Other case studies might be projected if essential. The study is based on the hypothesis, that the indicated creativity and ideation techniques are both simultaneously influenced by the individual concepts and approaches of their “creators” in a variety of ways (material, iconographic, technical, normative), as well as from a mutually specific epistemic-aesthetic constellation, which can be described by its (trans-) national, interdisciplinary, and application-oriented character in the face of the historical background of the post-war period and the Cold War. The analysis of the visual-material dimension of creativity techniques is central for the investigation. In reference to the heuristic means of selection creativity techniques are based on various forms of visualization as lists, matrices, scribbles, mind-maps or pin-board presentations. The act of noting and sketching itself contributes here to the evolution of materials of knowledge, and constitute consequently the operationalization of “creativity”.

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