Summer 2003

Friendly users in Lisbon

User Design Congress

Portuguese Design Centre
27-30 March 2003, Lisbon

The Portuguese Design Centre’s first congress, User Design, attracted more than 1000 students and professionals from Portugal, with 100 from Brazil and a leavening from Spain and Italy. The programme was supposed to address the themes ‘Places’, ‘Values’, ‘Competences’ and ‘the Future’. Its advantages and weaknesses sprang from the organisers being architects and their well known difficulty in reading graphic design as a different order of representation and structure.

In his excellent keynote presentation on Places, Ezio Manzini recycled and reinterpreted attractively some ideas which have been around since 1968, and then 1986, ideas of process rather than objects, of flows rather than matrices, of networks and changes of paces, of slow food and the ‘cittá-slow’ or slow city. His presentation, incidentally, was a model for translation (and graphic design) that was quite absent from the appalling Congress material (apart from a rhombic shoulder bag).

It was under the Places theme that the more interesting papers showed up. But too often the graphics content meant logos and pictograms for signage, which the traffic authorities exclude for all public roads because of EU regulations.

Values, the second theme, presented design mainly as added value. Rachel Cooper of the University of Salford Design & Innovation Research Group was impressive in her presentation of ‘design against crime’, but depressing in her industrial case studies, with her uncritical use of Blairspeak. The dumbing-down of a company with the Enlightenment name of Ideal Standard, whose shower unit pressure and temperature controls were ‘reinvented’ with a set of pop-poetic mood-names for each combination, was hailed as admirably innovative. Other kinds of values were broached in some papers: the role of the blind and partially sighted in design for accessibility as user/experts by Peter Colwell of the Portuguese Association for the Blind and Partially Sighted and the problems that older people have in coping with computer interfaces. In this paper – more of an update of the literature than a demonstration of redesigns – Raquel Teixeira and Vera Nojima from Rio de Janeiro reinforced the idea that designing from (and with and for) limitations can be rewarding for all.

Steve Hitchings, who keynoted Competences with loud music and citations from Sherlock Holmes, archly placed within dumb quotes, made the boring case for designers’ associations, intellectual property rights etc., well, less boring.

But a full programme was not helped by the competence of the refereeing panel for papers. Many of the ‘posters’ looked more convincing than most of the papers uttered. The panel seemed blissfully ignorant both of Information Design – a basic competence for user designers – whether theory or practice, let alone visual rhetoric. Many of the students I spoke to felt defrauded.

Nobody, however, felt defrauded by the performance of Alex Manu, from Toronto, exemplifying the designer as performer, as ‘trickster’. Two cohorts of young designers and their teachers had already been exposed to the concept by Isao Hosoe (from Milan) who had demonstrated the biomimetic, self-unfolding maps of Korya Miura, inspired by the cautious opening and closing of the buds of the hornbeam tree. Manu illustrated his case for Play as Working Method by manipulating cup and ball toys from Latin America with a sleight-of-hand suggestion of the Zen art of archery; we must let creativity happen, rediscovering ourselves as the children we were.

Manu’s show was also, like Manzini’s, an exemplary exercise in how PowerPoint should work: there were too many papers, whether half-baked PhD projects, or accomplished but vapid parades of Theory, where presentation skills could have helped the authors detect the faults. Many participants must have shared my wish that I had remembered to bring opera glasses.

But what counts most at congresses, are the personal contacts. And for a good number of congress users, for all its faults, User Design worked.

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