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Designing Things: A Critical Introduction to the Culture of Objects

Designing Things: A Critical Introduction to the Culture of Objects.

by Prasad Boradkar
Berg Publishers, Oxford, UK, 2010
336 pp., illus. 100 b/w. Trade, $34.95
ISBN: 978-1-84520-427-3.

Reviewed by John Vines
University of Plymouth
Plymouth, UK


‘With some exceptions, design has traditionally under-theorized the cultural meanings of objects’ (Boradkar, 2010, p.12). Designers have, traditionally, been rather uncritical of the objects they create and the wider networks that their activities are embedded within. In Designing Things, Prasad Boradkar attempts to encourage designers to be rather more critical of the diverse networks that their creations are, and become, embedded within. What Boradkar wishes to highlight is the agency of not only designers of things, but how these things themselves then design those who use and ongoingly interact with them in the objects lifetime. This is embedded in the title of the book, which in one sense ‘refers to the primary activity of making, i.e. the process of the design of products, buildings, graphics, interiors, services, [and] systems’, and in a second sense as suggesting ‘things themselves have agency, they afford specific kinds of action, they encourage certain types of behavior and they can elicit particular forms of emotions’ (Boradkar, 2010, p.4).

Boradkar alludes to walking the precariously fine line between emphasizing the agency of human beings and the agency of the objects that become embedded into the quotidian. In the introductory chapter, Boradkar presents a philosophical backdrop to this argument in ‘a very brief history of ‘the philosophy of things’ (p.26-35). Within the space of nine or ten pages, Boradkar takes the reader from Anaximander, Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle through to Descartes, Locke, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, Heidegger, and the contemporary philosophy of Bruno Latour, Graham Harman and Paul Verbeek. In particular, it appears to be Latour who has inspired Boradkar’s book the most, and Latour’s work is given more space to be explained than the lineage of thinkers prior and since. The consequence of this concise discussion leads Boradkar to assert that ‘[f]or this study, things will be treated as inseparable from the networks to which they belong’ (Boradkar, 2010, p.35).

Whilst Latour appears to be particularly en-vogue in contemporary design literature, the manner in which Boradkar discusses Actor Network Theory and then introduces Graham Harman’s work leads the reader to begin thinking about the entanglements between human and non-human agents and actants encapsulated in an emergent network, where ‘things’ exist on both their own terms and their relations to the other. The drawing upon this particular philosophical discussion alludes to a refreshing take on the critical discourse surrounding the design of material objects. In the following sub-section entitled ‘Disciplining Things’ (p.35-44); however, this refreshing perspective is somewhat diluted. Continuing the swiftness of the previous section on philosophy, in eight to nine pages Boradkar takes the reader through Anthropology, Cultural Studies, Material Cultural Studies and Science and Technology Studies as examples ‘of a few disciplines engaged in object studies’ (Boradkar, 2010, p.35). The purpose of this section is for Boradkar to highlight how the boundaries between these disciplines are somewhat flexible, and individual research projects belonging to one discipline actually crossover with one another. It might be questioned here, however, that these boundaries have such flexibility as a result of their inherently similar epistemological basis.

Whilst the first chapter is a flood of information, the following eight chapters are a steady flow of critical and cultural theory as it relates to the Western (mostly North American) industrial design. Chapter two explores the concept of value, highlighting how whilst value may generally be assumed to be an economic and monetary concept, objects accrue values over their lifetime that have various emotional, symbolic and aesthetic meanings to those who come into various contact with them. Chapter three discusses labor and a Marx-informed history of making things, leading into chapter four which takes the reader through Fordism, Taylorism, mass production, and on to contemporary examples of consumers being brought more directly into contact with the production process. Chapter five focuses upon aesthetics as it is understood in the design of consumer goods, which Boradkar summarizes to be residing ‘neither in the solid materiality of the object nor in the ephemeral mind of the consumer’ (Boradkar, 2010, p.158). Whilst style is not inscribed by the designer, it is also not ‘organically created by the owner in processes of consumption’ (Boradkar, 2010, p.158). Boradkar argues here that aesthetic experience is located between the designer and the consumer, in the ‘external surfaces’ and ‘object skins’ of the material goods. Chapter six examines how designers have focused upon exploring the ‘needs’ of consumers, appearing to sympathize with Victor Papenek’s [1] argument that designers tend to design ethically questionable needs (as in make them up) with which to then design for. Chapter seven critically interrogates the issue of ‘planned obsolescence’ in Western industrial design, identifying a number of cultural arguments both for and against designing obsolescence into the end-product. Chapter eight moves into the realm of semiotics, mostly in terms of Charles Sanders Pierce, Ferdinand de Sassure, and subsequently Barthes. Boradkar examines how theories of semiotics have been incorporated in industrial and product design (particularly as it emerged from the Cranbrook School of Art and the influential product semantics work of Krippendorff and Butter). The discussion of signs and meanings lead into the final, and brief, chapter (nine), which discusses certain aspects of the fetishism of certain materials and objects.

As the above synopsis highlights, Boradkar covers a lot of ground in one book. Each individual chapter is easy to follow and the ideas discussed (of other authors) are well conveyed. At the same time, each chapter reads as being somewhat discreet from the next and on many occasions it is not always clear as to why particular ideas are discussed rather than others. This is perhaps the consequence (and a necessity) of the mass and generality to the terrain that Boradkar (de)limits himself to. This leads to the feeling that on a number of occasions certain ideas are repeated from chapter to chapter without clear acknowledgement, and chapters that feel clear and easy to read are yet somewhat vague in where they are heading.

More problematically than any of the relatively minor writing issues with this book, I have a deep sense of “so what?” after 280 dense pages. Whilst in the opening pages the book comes across as rather dynamic and refreshing, Boradkar loses his own voice during the following chapters and repeats arguments that have been staples of design, marketing and consumer theory for much of the latter twentieth century. This leads to the realization (on this reader’s part) that what Boradkar is providing here is a contemporary, post-modern, design undergraduate theory programme (spread over three years) condensed into a single book. It is a textbook reframed as scholarship. This is not to be conveyed as entirely negative; when considered in these terms Designing Things is a useful publication indeed, and would be of much use to a designer struggling to identify any critical basis with which to begin reflecting upon their own practice. This may have been what the author intended, but much of the introduction and opening chapter alluded to a rather different text to what follows.

Perhaps it does not come to much of a surprise that an early title for this book was the Marx inspired ‘A Very Strange Thing’, which Boradkar argues highlights how ‘mundane, inanimate objects are repositories of many untold stories’ (Boradkar, 2010, p.263). Not only would this title have been rather apt, it might also have provided the unsuspecting reader the forewarning that what follows would be a contemporary Marxist stroll through the history of very contemporary consumer-led, industrial design. Similarly, if Boradkar’s book were subtitled ‘An Introduction to the Culture of Objects’ (minus the critical), then perhaps this reviewer would be rather less disappointed. The issue at hand appears to be that, whilst arguing that an interdisciplinary approach to theorizing design is required, he limits himself to a group of social-science disciplines that are highly cohesive with one-another. Beyond this, these are the disciplines that have been the primary basis for design theory in the past. In drawing upon this lineage in a somewhat unquestioned manner, Designing Things feels as if it is repeating ideas and theories about design, consumerism and material culture that have often been said (and repeated) before.

Whilst Boradkar pronounces that objects, within design disciplines at least, are under-theorized, he does not provide much of a critical interrogation of those theories he uses to critique these objects. By emphasizing a reliance on the social sciences, critical and cultural theorists’ as the primary source of knowledge on human and object culture, Boradkar’s book somewhat lacks the sensitivity to diverse ideas and approaches that he so argued for in the opening chapters. Whilst with a few exceptions the design discipline is criminally under theorized, it is perhaps just as problematic to repeatedly analyze design as a primarily culturally (or economically, or technologically) determined discipline. The textual mass of this book, the ground covered, and the broad manner in which critical theory is used makes this reviewer wonder whether this book would have benefited from been more specific and detailed, yet the same length; longer yet shorter, if you will. Perhaps another age-old design reference is required here; less is more.


[1] Papenek, V. Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change. New York: Pantheon Press.

Last Updated 1 December 2010

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