September 21, 2008

Mobs run amok at algorithmic poetry launch


Temperatures are running high in the small town wherein lurks Doors of Perception's global HQ. An edgy new art galley, Art du Midi, has been mobbed by over-excited art lovers desperate to see the world preview of a show by Frederic "Ric" Durieu. The works have been created using "algorithmic poetry" and feature ... well, you'll have to work that out for yourself.

Posted by John Thackara at 04:07 PM | Comments (0)

July 22, 2008



Passing through Amsterdam last week, I could not help but notice that the entire populace was dressed in white. There was talk of a rave in a football stadium - but I prefer to believe that they've all been assimilated by a post-human collectivity based in Tiblisi.

Posted by John Thackara at 12:05 PM | Comments (0)

October 01, 2007

20 reasons to go to the Dott festival

The Dott 07 Festival opens in 13 days time in Gateshead, England. It brings together the results of projects and events that explore what sustainable life in one region could be like – and how design can help us get there. North East England, as one of the birthplaces of the carbon age, is anxious to help design its replacement. The 12 day Festival runs 16-28 October on the banks of the River Tyne. Doors of Perception has programmed its content.
If you can't come, but know people who might be interested - please pass this on.


1) Free 100-page Dott Manual (handed to you on condition that you have five conversations with a stranger).

2) Debates (the "why?" questions)

3) Site and location (world-class array of bridges)

4) Town Criers (how to be heard)

5) Landscape/Portrait (demonising design data)

6) Move Me! (no car? no problem!)

7) Welcomes (and unwelcomes)

8) Urban Camping (the real thing)

9) Landlines (landscape as spectacle)

10) Mapping The Necklace (from food to fondling)

11) New Work (time, space and lonliness)

12) Low Carb Lane (one house at a time)

13) Eco Design Challenge (the follower-generation takes charge)

14) Our New School (it's not just the building)

15) Better Lives With Dementia (an eBay for time?)

16) Design and sexual health (mourning after the night before)

17) Our cyborg future? (brain-scan heaven)

18) City Farming (hoodies cook burgers)

19) DE07 (twenty more events)

20) North East England (it's gorgeous)

You could 'do' the festival in a morning - but rushed visits are old-paradigm. The days Thursday 18 to Monday 22 October are probably best. Monday 22 is a one day mini-Doors, on Food Systems, Cities, and Design.

What a good idea. Yes. At 18:00h on Sunday 21 October at the Urban Camping site in Ouseburn.
We'll head for a local pub afterwards.


Monday 15 October
Café Scientifique @ World Headquarters 1900-2100

Thursday 18 October
Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, 1300 – 1600

Friday 19 October
Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art – 11:00 -14:00

Friday 19 October
Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art – 15:00-17:30

Monday 22 October
Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art – 11:00-16:00

Tuesday 23 October
Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art 12:00 –14:00

Tuesday 23 October
Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art 15:00-17:30

INTERSECTIONS new design know-how
Thursday 25 October & Friday 26 October
Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art 0930-1900

Yes, here





Choose one of these

Posted by John Thackara at 08:34 AM | Comments (0)

June 11, 2007

"Poke an eye out"


"Void your warranty, violate a user agreement, fry a circuit, blow a fuse, poke an eye out". I arrived in California a week too late to experience this year's Maker Faire. But this preview video gives a good taste of this startling phenomenon, there's a DVD on sale already, and the site is pretty extensive too. Lethal-looking devices abound: the swelling crowds don't wait for "permission to play".

Posted by John Thackara at 07:05 AM | Comments (0)

April 21, 2007

Is this really normal?

Picture 2 11-58-00.png

I was perplexed by the centrepiece cultural exhibition at this year's Milan Furniture Fair. Super Normal celebrates "how much better most normal things are than most design things". One could argue that most of these objects were designed by someone, even if not by a sleb designer. But the bigger curiosity for me was that many of the objects presented in the pristine gallery space of Milan's Triennale (a fascistic guard was on hand to stop you touching the exhibits) are available to buy, online, from the German company Manufactum. Manufactum's founder, Thomas Hoof, has a genius touch for sourcing hard-to-find, daily life design classics - and he's been doing so since 1988. His company now turns over 100 million euros ($135m) a year. Beware: the Manufactum catalogue is addictive.

Posted by John Thackara at 12:00 PM | Comments (0)

October 08, 2006

The economics of attention

In his review of Richard Lanham's new book The Economics of Attention, Adrian Ellis says that "its core argument (is) that everyone is straining for distinction in a late capitalist global economy jammed with commodities and information, and that culture and creativity are what affords the producer the possibility of distinction. (This) explains the universal prevalence of shock tactics in both art and advertising (and) offers insights into the changing role of the creative artist and the artist's sensibility in contemporary society". I'm not so sure. Are attenion-seeking artists really a new phenomenon, economic or otherwise? After all, it's 135 years since artist Emile Zola assured the world, "I am here to live out loud" - and few artists before him were shrinking violets. Ellis goes on to attribute the phenomenal increase in the number of people describing themselves as artists, in the past half-century, to "the changing balance of power between the technical and the creative (and) the inexorable logic of The Economics of Attention". Surely traditional job market economics are a simpler explanation. As I've been telling everyone recently, a Dutch survey found that only two percent of those with a degree in art or design consider themselves to be unemployed. The government should introduce compulsory art education for all - and thereby abolish unemployment at a stroke.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:46 AM | Comments (0)

August 15, 2006

What a gas

PICNIC'06 is a new Amsterdam event to do with "creativity in cross media content and technology". PICNIC includes a conference, lectures, an exhibition, art installations, and parties. The conference (I'm speaking at it on the Friday) will explore the distribution of content over different channels and will examine new interfaces and tools which enable people to "live their lives online". That bit sounds sad. But an intriguing roster of speakers includes John Underkoffler, advisor to Steven Spielberg on Minority Report; John de Mol, co-founder of Endemol and a legendary format designer (ie Big Brother); Dan Gillmor, Director of the Center for Citizen Media; Matt Locke, Head of Innovation at BBC New Media & Technology; and Justin Kneist, founder of Fabchannel which won a Webby this year for best music site. September 27-29 at Westergasfabriek, the cultural facility located in a former gas factory.

Posted by John Thackara at 04:49 PM | Comments (0)

June 29, 2006

Product frenzy

The winners of this year's Industrial Design Excellence Awards have been published by Business Week. As a jury member, I am 100% complicit in this flagrant whipping up of product frenzy - which I must say, having seen the results today, is extremely well-done. My favourite entry, the medical equivalent of a Big Dipper ride, is slide number 93 on the slideshow. I wanted to caption it, "The Doctor won't see you now".

Posted by John Thackara at 09:53 AM | Comments (0)

April 23, 2006

Doors 9 and Doors 10 to be announced in Paris on Saturday

Juha Huuskonen has invited Doors of Perception to run a two hour session as part of Mal au Pixel. The session takes place in Paris on the afternoon of Saturday 29 April - ie in a week from now. Juha and Aditya Dev Sood will be on the platform, along with your correspondent, and we'll take the opportunity to tell you about our plans for Doors 9 and Doors 10. If you're one of those old-paradigm types who needs a time and address, the details are: Saturday 29 April, 16-18h, at Mains d’Œuvres (1, rue Charles-Garnier, 93400 Saint-Ouen). Metro Garibaldi.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:17 PM | Comments (0)

February 23, 2006

Doors 9 discussion in New Delhi

As part of our preparations for Doors 9 in India next year (March 2007) there will be a small round table meeting of art curators and cultural producers in New Delhi in the afternoon of March 10. Representatives from funding agencies, cultural missions, art galleries, event spaces, museums, schools of art, architecture and design, prospective sponsors and others wishing to discuss possible activities with us next year are welcome to attend. Please contact On 15 March, we're also organising a creative communities holi party as a means for creative groups and individuals to meet. (The first Doors holi party in 2005 was the concluding highlight of Doors 8 ). This year's holi party will be produced by Centre for Knowledge Societies in collaboration with the Global Arts Village, Khoj, Studio Us, Kids at Home, AIE, and numerous creative individuals to whom we are very grateful. The party is in Chhattarpur, New Delhi, from 11 am. Admission is limited to people bearing a printed invitation. To request one of these invitation cards, send an evocative email telling us about yourself and your interest in Doors 9 to:

Posted by John Thackara at 08:20 AM | Comments (0)

February 03, 2006

Feast of light

A fabulous-sounding event this Sunday is Aurora Feast. Heureka Science Centre, Vantaa, Finland, hosts a celebration of the mysterious, dynamic and whimsical Northern Lights. Recapturing of the mood of traditional feasts, Aurora Feast intertwines the spectacle of sights and sounds with talk and food. Artists and scientists will discuss instruments and interpretations of the medium of light. An audiovisual event features Aurora imagery, VLF recordings, magnetograms, and all-sky camera imaging. And Aurora Live is an interactive, real-time and web-based visualization of personal and cross-cultural interpretations of the Northern Lights phenomenon: On February 5 we are invited to submit, in a single word, what Aurora conjures up in us: a feeling, a sensation, an image, a vision, a memory, a thought.

Posted by John Thackara at 02:51 PM | Comments (1)

January 30, 2006

Creative communities and social innovation

For service design, public services are an enormous opportunity - half the economy in most industrial countries. This seminar in Helsinki, on Friday 10 February, is about framing the welfare and care story as a series of design opportunities. Speakers include Ezio Manzini (on creative communities and active welfare); John Thackara (platforms for public service innovation); Anna Meroni and Francois Jegou (on the case studies we encountered during the Emude project); Kari-Hans Kommonen; from UIAH MediaLab (on the co-design of social spaces); and probably Markku Wilenius from Finland's Futures Research Institute. Wilenius is leading a national project to discover how Finland, which most people consider is already one the world's most innovative countries, can become much more so in the future. The meeting is organised by Teolliinen Muotoilu (Industrial and Strategic Design) at UIAH. Friday 10 February, 13h-17h, Taideteollinen Korkeakoulu, Hämeentie 135C, Helsinki - 8th floor, room 822. Contact: Cindy Kohtala, The seminar is free and open to the public, but please register here by Monday 6 February 2006.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:28 AM | Comments (0)

December 07, 2005

Santa, strategy, and gifting

Do you need to send a memorable gift to your 25 most valued clients and friends? Of course you do. The good news is you don't have to think about what to buy: Howard Rheingold in Strategy+Business magazine has included In The Bubble in his list of Best Business Books for 2005. And there's a great little company where you can buy-and-ship copies here. Do it now!

Posted by John Thackara at 07:24 PM | Comments (0)

September 11, 2005

Cellular Doors in London

About one hour after reading Malcolm Gladwell's article, I attended a small group meeting of Doors persons in London. I cannot report that we avoided discussions of abstract knowledge, or ideas for the sake of ideas - but we had a good time. Kristi van Riet made this mini-movie:

We're thinking of staging similar meet-and-greet evenings in Helsinki (18 October) and Tokyo (31 December). Details will be announced in the Doors newsletter:

Posted by Kristi at 06:06 PM | Comments (0)

August 26, 2005

Please don't deluge Deal

A plaintive request arrives from London: Diana Deal, conferences administrator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, has been 'deluged with emails' about the Critical Debate between Rem Koolhaas and myself on 14 October - but it's not Diana's job to sell tickets. For that, please enter 14 Octobner at the 'What's On' box on the the V+A website - or email:

Posted by John Thackara at 07:39 AM | Comments (0)

July 03, 2005

Obscure but secure

If you're too damn mean to shell out a measly $4,400 to join those manly TED guys in Oxford, five pounds ($9) buys you access to BACKSTAGE.BBC.CO.UK Open Tech 2005 in London on 25 July. Organised by NTK (Need To Know), this event is about "technologies that anyone can have a go at, from Open Source-style ways of working to repurposing everyday electronics hardware". Among the programme highlights are Yahoo Troublemaker Jeremy Zawodny and "a look at the Dirac open video compression algorithm". If you know what the hell that is you'll presumably be impressed. Speaker Danny O'Brien explains: "On the Net, you can go from obscurity to slashdotting to global fame to obscurity without making a penny. You can have privacy or influence, but not both. You can be famous for fifteen people, but not keep a forwarded email a secret". O'Brien talks about "the decoupling of fame and fortune, and the new security of obscurity".

Posted by John Thackara at 08:55 PM | Comments (0)

July 02, 2005

The high cost of manhood

A ticket to the TED Global conference in Oxford next week costs $4,400. Which is only right and proper: the calibre of speakers is exceptionally high. Mind you, the provison of "really big world changing ideas" is very much a guy thing in TED-land: I count seven women out of 44 names in the programme - of whom (the women) I reckon two will get to talk; the others, though doubtless brilliant, are performing artists.

Posted by John Thackara at 11:10 PM | Comments (0)

June 27, 2005

Koolhaas and Thackara vs Queen Maud of Norway's frocks

Do come to the "Global Design Critical Debate" at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London on 14 October. There will be two introductions - by Rem Koolhaas and John Thackara. Then a panel discussion chaired by Joe Kerr will include Professor Leslie Sklair, Vice President for Global Sociology, London School of Economics; and the writer Sukhdev Sandhu; his book 'London Calling: How Black and Asian Writers Imagined a City' was recently published. The four of us have to compete for your attention with a V+A exhibit entitled "Style and Splendour: Queen Maud of Norway's Wardrobe, 1896-1938". The big debate is in the V+A Lecture Theatre (near the Silver Galleries) on 14 October 2005, 14h-16.45h. Information: Diana Deal:

If Maud's frocks prove too enticing, you can always attend a lecture I'm giving at the Royal Society of Arts , also in London, on 12 December. My topic: "Solidarity economics and design: life after consumerism".

Posted by John Thackara at 05:40 PM | Comments (0)

May 19, 2005

Surrogate blogging

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang blogged my talk at Ideo and made it sound much crisper and more interesting than the talk itself. Surrogate blogging sounds like a great businesss opportunity - and good for the environment, too, if it reduces the quantity of hot air entering the atmosphere.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:30 PM | Comments (1)

April 17, 2005

It's a material NYC

The US leg of my book tour for In The Bubble kicks off in New York on May 13. I'm speaking at an event called Malfatto: Imperfect Design for a Better World?. Material Connexion's founder, George M. Beylerian, has invited an awesomely creative bunch of speakers: the architect/artist Gaetano Pesce; toy maker and sculptor Kardash Onnig; trend announcer Li Edelkoort; Scott Henderson, co-founder of Mint; James Ludwig, Director of Design for Steelcase; and Scott Wilson,Global Creative Director for Nike Explore. Then at the weekend (14/15 May) I'm taking part in Orange Alert, a season of events celebrating Dutch design organised by Robert Kloos.

Posted by John Thackara at 06:54 AM | Comments (0)

April 14, 2005

One for the birds

Science tells us birds sing to attract mates and defend territories. But why do some birds make only a "peep" and others sing ornate songs that go on for hours? An intriguing event in New York on 16 April brings scientists together with musicians and poets to explore how different approaches have explored and made sense of bird song. David Rothenberg, a philosopher and musician, who has just published book WHY BIRDS SING (Basic Books), will host the event and present live examples of music he's made live with actual birds, from the white-crested laughing thrush in the National Aviary to the Albert’s lyrebird in Australian rainforests. David's guests include Don Kroodsma, who is among the most accomplished field biologists working on the intricacies of bird song; Ofer Tchernichovski, who has recorded every single sound a baby zebra finch makes during the two months he takes to learn his song, and then analyzed all this data using custom computer software; Alan Vardy, the leading expert on the poetry of John Clare, the British Romantic nineteenth century poet who best understood the rhythm and sense of the song of the nightingale; and biology professor Fredric Vencl,who wrote the only scientific paper published on the song of the white-crested laughing thrush.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:22 AM | Comments (1)

April 02, 2005

Conference pictures

Pre-Conference workshops. 46 images.

Day 01 Conference. 18 images.

Day 01-b Conference. 49 images.

Day 03 Conference. 69 images.

Posted by John Thackara at 03:16 PM | Comments (0)

March 30, 2005

Doors 8 Holi party pix

The first 61 Holi party images are online. As Bhagwat Shah explains: "amongst India's innumerable festivals, Holi ranks as the most colourful. It celebrates the arrival of spring and death of demoness Holika, it is a celebration of joy and hope. Holi provides a refreshing respite from the mundane norms as people from all walks of life enjoy themselves. In a tight knit community, it also provided a good excuse for letting off some steam and settling old scores, without causing physical injury". Thus ended one of the most memorable of all Doors parties.

and here
second bunch

Posted by John Thackara at 06:23 PM | Comments (1)

March 29, 2005

Doors 8 proceedings

So here's the deal: You probably had a perfectly good reason not to come, and you were of course missed, but those of us who made it to Doors 8 are pretty comprehensively wiped by an amazing week. The concluding Holi party slowed our turnaround time further, so you'll have to wait a few days for presentations to be be posted here. Someone in Delhi guessed that 200,000 photos were taken at Doors 8 - but we have no idea where most of them will end up. Some will be posted here. Keep an eye on Flikr. And please, send us the url if you know where else they (or blog entries) are:

Posted by John Thackara at 11:14 AM | Comments (1)

March 05, 2005

What you will miss in fourteen days from now...

Doors of Perception 8 begins in two weeks from now - plenty of time to grab a flight and a visa. We have posted details of a pre-conference workshop on Emerging Economy Service Design. This complements a series of street-level workshops that now also include 'exploring market cultures of Delhi' with Jogi Panghaal and something on 'social robots' with Roher Ibars. The website is also online for the special new media exhibit at Apeejay Media Gallery,Bombay, Badarpur Border. We all go to the opening of that on the Tuesday evening. The Doors of Perception party is on the Wednesday evening. If you don't feel a terrible anxiety at the thought of what and who you might miss by failing to come Doors 8 - well, lucky you.

Posted by Kristi at 01:26 PM | Comments (1)

February 19, 2005

How to avoid time compression

Like the migratory patterns of Arctic Terns,the travel patterns of the Doors crowd are a perennial mystery.All we know is that people register later every time we do a Doors event. (At Doors 7 in Amsterdam, we sold a third of our tickets in the last couple of weeks). Now, with just four weeks to go before Doors 8 begins, we know that more people are thinking about coming, than have yet decided. Please note: you cannot register for Doors 8 by SMS, and we do not advise trying to obtain an India visa using a mobile phone. Be modern: don't leave it too late.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:07 AM | Comments (0)

January 30, 2005

Save the Giroud Verifier!

Speaking of infrastructure, I was shocked to read that Amsterdam's museum of energy generating equipment and lifts - EnergeticA - is threatened with closure; there's also a danger that its collection will be broken up. EnergericA is in an old power station and most of its exhibits relate to electricity rather than electronics. I never head of the place until I read about its plight in the paper yesteday, and to judge by its remarkably clunky website the whole thing is a volunteer-run anomaly. But there are pictures of old storehouses full of gauges, and the exhibits mentioned online include strange devices such as a Giroud Verifier used (in 1789) to test the purity of gas. A lively discussion of EnergeticA is to be found on the website of the UK Vintage Radio and Repair Association.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:14 AM | Comments (0)

January 25, 2005

Who will be who?

We have updated the speaker profiles (there's a button on the right of this screen). These should give you a better idea of the kind of people you'll meet and interact with in Delhi. Our week together features a range of activities :
- plenary think-piece presentations (Monday and Tuesday);
- Project Clinics and workshops (Wednesday and Friday);
- one-to-one conversations (every day);
- encounters and exchanges in the city and around.
We've added a new session on the Wednesday evening. Marko Ahtisaari, newsly appointed Director of Design Strategy at Nokia, and Joi Ito, a Vice President of Technorati (among a networked universe of other activites) will host a happening on the theme: 'Infra Of Sharing'.

Posted by John Thackara at 10:19 PM | Comments (1)

January 20, 2005

Danger zone?

Someone asked us if Doors 8 is near the tsunami danger zone. No, it is not. The distance from Delhi to Chennai (the Indian city where the tsunami hit hardest) is 2095 km, or 1301 miles. That's similar to the distance from Boston to Miami, Amsterdam to Athens, or Tokyo to Beijing. The real danger is that you'll miss this great event and kick yourself so badly that you'll end up covered in bruises.

Posted by John Thackara at 12:12 PM | Comments (0)

January 06, 2005

Presenting at Doors 8

Many employers will only pay travel and registration costs if an employee has been invited to present a paper. This crazy policy implies that nobody comes to learn - just to speak - and it leads to over-crowded conference agendas. The policy is a pain for us, too: We want you to come, and we want everyone to be an active participant - but if we overload the agenda with one-to-many presentations, nobody benefits. But we live in an imperfect world, so here are the three ways by which people get to present at Doors 8:
a) By leading a pre-conference Workshop during the days before the conference: these events are an opportunity for incoming experts to meet local designers and design students and engage with a subject and/or situation in a rather open and exploratory way. We will announce these events and make connections between interested parties where we can, but will not provide financial support.
b) By speaking the Conference (Monday/Tuesday): the programme for this is full.
c) By presenting at the Social Innovation Salon (during Conference breaks, and all-day Wednesday and Friday): the Salon is a kind of bazaar in which project leaders and teams will present the results or work-in-progress of a live project. A small number of projects will be the focus of Project Clinics on Wednesday; others (we reckon 30-40) may be presented in the Salon where we will provide space, time, a table, and a noticeboard. If you have a proposal for (a) or (c), send a short email to Priya George ( with a copy to Joost Wijermars ( - and they will give you a speedy decision. We will not waive your registration fee if your workshop or project is included in the programme.

Posted by John Thackara at 11:48 AM | Comments (0)

January 04, 2005

Pyramids and campfires

A key question for Doors 8 is, how best shall we share design knowledge when and where it is most needed? Books, databases - or blogs - full of insights, tools and rules are a support, not the thing itself. The most important knowledge is embodied, and situated. There's a tension between the capacity of institutions to help us share (design) knowledge, and their opposite tendency to foster entropy. Martin Buber proposed that 'the tradition of the campfire replaces that of the pyramid'. And Bruce Chatwin, in Songlines, quotes an Indian proverb: 'Life is a bridge; cross over it, but build no house upon it'. Hmmm: now where does that leave architecture?

Posted by John Thackara at 07:39 PM | Comments (0)

December 17, 2004

Heard the one about averting catastrophe?

Never mind about tarmac-covered land and the fate of the planet - what about sales of my book? I've been jolted awake by a reference in Future Now to a research paper that describes the use of an "Epidemics-Type Aftershock Sequence model to track how information about a book travels through social networks". The researcher, Didier Sornette, a specialist in the scientific prediction of catastrophes in a wide range of complex systems, said his model for analyzing peaks and falls in book sales is very similar to one he uses to understand earthquakes."Sales are typically greater when a book benefits from an endogenous shock which progressively accelerates over time, and is illustrated in the book business by favorable word-of-mouth". Fine, excellent, well-done Didier. But what do I do with this information to avert the catastrophe of the above-mentioned artefact not selling well?

Posted by John Thackara at 09:39 AM | Comments (0)

December 14, 2004


This blog is part of the build-up to Doors of Perception 8, which takes place in New Delhi next March and is on the theme, "INFRA: Platforms for social innovation and how to design them". What infrastructures are needed to enable bottom-up, edge-in social innovation - and how do we design them? Doors 8 will address this question from a variety of angles over the five days :
- plenary think-piece presentations;
- Project Clinics;
- a social innovation bazaar;
- one-to-one conversations;
- an exhibit of 100 years of media artefacts from India;
- encounters and exchanges in the city and around.
Your takeaway from Doors 8 will be next-generation service concepts, plus many of the connections and capabilities you will need to implement them.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:56 PM | Comments (1)

November 21, 2004

Round Table: dinner pictures

Images of a dinner which you did not attend or were not invited to are not the most gripping. But what the heck: if you don't want the Project Leaders Round Table stuffing their faces, don't click here.

Posted by John Thackara at 11:51 AM | Comments (0)

November 20, 2004

Project Leaders' Round Table

(click on the image for an image collection.)
On Thursday and Friday, 18-19 November, 60 people met in Amsterdam for the Project Leaders' Round Table. Our aim was to learn from each other about success factors in design research projects. We heard about projects that were based in real-world issues or situations; were multi-party collaborations and involved new actors, and new partners; and in which new technology was a means, but not as an end-in-itself. These stories involved Tools For Citizen Services and 'Touching The State'; Resource Ecologies involving Food, Space, People; and projects to do with Locality As Interface | Creative Communities | Design And Local Knowledge. A more detailed account of the event, and a reflection on its conclusions, will be posted here shortly.

Posted by John Thackara at 12:11 PM | Comments (0)

October 31, 2004

Adpocalypse Now

Gloom-and-doom mongering can be self-indulgent for the mongerers, and de-motivating for the mongereed. All credit therefore to Adbusters for breaking that pattern with a brilliant come-back issue. It's about "The Day The World Ends", and contains some great writing. ""The collapse was only a problem so long as we thought it could be reversed. As soon as everyone gave up, things got better". "Well, you finally got mass participation in 'Buy Nothing Day ".

Posted by John Thackara at 04:31 PM | Comments (0)

October 04, 2004

Doors of Perception 8 - INFRA

Welcome to the website and weblog for Doors of Perception 8. The box on the right of your screen lists all the usual notices and announcements you'd expect for a Doors event. The top box, "What & Why", is an introduction to the event -- why we're doing it, what we hope to achieve, and what you should get out of it. Over the coming weeks we will post news items and other stories here, in this web log bit, as we develop the programme for the week-long events next March. We're not sure how the web log and the event will interact, but we invite your suggestions and participation.

Posted by John Thackara at 10:18 PM | Comments (8)

March 22, 2000

Objectionable objects: the failure of Workspheres

At the invitation of Paola Anotonelli, one of the world leading design curators and an eminence at at MoMA in New York, I spent a most enjoyable year talking with her, Aura Oslapas (from Stone Yamashita), Bruce Mau, and Larry Keeley, about the future of work and what that future portended for design. Paola’s show was an enormous smash hit. - but I was disappointed how little of our ‘beyond the object’ thinking made into ino the exhibition.

Are museums a menace? I have long thought most of them to be harmless, but boring; good places for tourists to escape from the rain, and for art persons to escape from the present. But, having recently attended the opening of Workspheres at MoMA in New York, I wonder now if I have been too complacent.

Paola Antonelli's show is a smash hit - "off the charts" in the words of Chee Pearlman, a very Solomon (or should it be Solomona?) of what's in, and hot, in the US-of-A. There were more people at the press opening than attend most public openings of big art shows; the private view proper, that evening, was simply packed; a heaving, black-clad throng containing everyone who is anyone in architecture and design. The next day Herbert Muschamp, the arch but hugely influential architecture critic of the New York Times, said Antonelli's show "falls just short of greatness; modernity is back at the Modern, and Ms Antonelli's got it."

If this is the new modernity, then I'm worried. I should explain that I was involved in the development of Workspheres as one of Paola's Antonelli's advisers. I admire her enormously as one of the great curators of our time, otherwise I would not have been seduced into taking part. So this piece is as much a self-criticism as anything. But I believe that this smash--hit show tells more or less the opposite story about the future design of work, to the one we developed during the planning phase for much of 2000. Paola, our host, was sympathetic to the storyline we collectively developed during that year - indeed, she led the way in looking for fresh and insightful angles. Between those discussions, and the show itself, the storyline was turned upside down by the museum, and by the way it works.


Workspheres is a glittering collection of products for the workplace of the future; but it is all about tools. It says next to nothing about the content of the work we will do, and how we will do it. The show pushes design firmly back into the ghetto of pointless and narcissistic object-making from which thoughtful designers have been trying desperately to escape.

The show is full of objects for isolated and inward-gazing individuals. Many of these objects are harmless, if banal: Hella Jongerius' fur-covered bed, which appealed to the man at the Times, springs to mind. Others exhibits are downright insulting: the ponderous, gas-guzzling, permafrost-destroying Maxi-Mog Global Expedition Vehicle, by Bran Ferren and Thomas Ritter, would be a brilliant parody about the reification of male sexual insecurity; if it were not for real. Needless to say, it's the hit of the show.

The Workspheres catalogue is a metaphor of the twisted values of the museum system. The front section contains a series of essays (one of them is by me) about the changing nature of work; its collaborative nature, its paradoxical relationship with time, its attempt to engage with the incredibly complex world we have made. Then come the 'plates'; 140 pages of desks and chairs and mobile phones and accessories and gadgets. Hardly any people. No groups. No mess. No conflict. No fear. No confusion. No love.

At the end of the book, six specially commissioned projects are presented. Some of these are pretty interesting: Marti Guixe's surreal but insightful 'Hi Bye' mood-altering food system; Ideo Japan's 'personal skies' installation; John Maeda's time-mapping machine; LOT/EK's Inspiro-Trainer. But, although these special commissions look beyond the object in workspace design, they are lost in the book; and in the show, where all you see is desks and chairs.


Museums like MoMA are big, rich machines that produce, not understanding, nor meaning, but exhibitions and catalogues. They have hordes of staff to keep busy: researchers, people who buy things, conservators, cataloguers, display designers, and catalogue editors constantly on the scrounge for beautiful pictures of; objects. Museums are like little galaxies; vast open spaces that their hordes of servants have to fill up with; things. And always, hordes of people queueing up outside waiting to escape from reality and be entertained.

What museums do not have, as institutions, is the remotest interest in changing the way we understand design. This is why I conclude that museums are a menace. Workspheres is the biggest and most prominent design exhibition for years; and it has a great theme. But it takes us backwards. It reinforces an object-centric understanding of design that is hopelsssly outdated.

I was prompted to write this self-criticism by two experiences on my return from New York. My first was the opportunity to check out KLM's new Operations Control Centre at Schiphol. I love this kind of thing: one hundred workstations face towards an enormous map of the world. For the people who work there, the map seems to function as a shared mental and physical space that enables them to co-ordinate an amazingly complex operation: KLM's aircraft cover nearly a million km a day, and just one long-haul 747 needs to be stocked up with 5,000 kg of catering equipment. While important, the design of the desks and the chairs and space in this room, while important, are a thousand times less interesting than the design of the communication flows among the people who sit in it; and between them and their computers and the planes and support vehicles buzzing about all over the world.


The second experience that hit me after Workspheres was a minor problem in our office. Eight of us work in two connected rooms; we have a great team that works really well together. What did not work well was a relationship with a writer working from home a few miles away. He is an excellent writer - a typical high-tech, powerbook-toting, mobile-always-on nomad of the kind celebrated in Workspheres. And we, of course, are excellent clients. But somehow, things between us did not 'click'. For all the phone calls and e-mails and briefing sessions, we did not build up any momentum of understanding during a six-month editorial project. And the reason? He was not there, with us, in the office. That's all. And the best desks and mobile devices in the world would not have made the slightest difference.

Kayoko Ota, in one of the best of the introductory essays to the Worksheres catalogue, gave our strangely intractable local difficulty a name: nemawashi. Originally a horticultural word that means 'to turn the roots' prior to replanting; or, by implication, 'laying the groundwork'; nemawashi has come to mean the process by which groups in Japan develop the shared understanding without which nothing much gets done. Workspheres; or, to be precise MoMA, the institution which created it; suffers from a nemawashi-deficit. They are fixated on things, and disconnected from the flows of people and ideas in the world from which we can really learn. Museums are probably unreformable, too. They are bad news for design.

Posted by John Thackara at 05:37 PM | Comments (0)

January 22, 2000

No more (design) heroes

The lone genius is dead. Long live collaborative design. I was interviewed by Chee Pearlman for Wired. Chee wisely published less than the stuff that appears here, but, shucks, this is my column....

Interview for Wired. Questions by Chee Pearlman, who also interviewed Paola Antonelli, Tim Parsey, Bruce Sterling, Lee Green, Lorraine Wild, Don Norman, Ayse Birsel, Tucker Viemeister, David Kelley, Ted Selker, Ray Riley, Ettore Sottsass, Erik Adegard, Robert Brunner,Trevor Creed, Gary Fisher, Andy Proehl, Rick Valicenti, Richard Saul Wurman and Susan Yelavitch.

Chee Pearlman: Let's talk about experience design.

John Thackara: I tend not to like or trust any all-encompassing experience that has been designed for me, and not with me: theme parks, shopping malls, air travel, most websites, 98 per cent of e-learning products. The majority of architects and designers still think it is their job to design the world from the outside, top-down. Designing in the world; real-time, real-world collaborative design; strikes many designers as being less cool, less fun, than the development of blue-sky concepts. To be fair, many younger designers feel free to set the stage for what is experienced. But the big money still goes to the control freaks. People do like to be stimulated, to have things proposed to them. Designers are great at this. But the line between propose and impose is a thin one. We need a balance.

CP: When is a design finished?

JT: Design has been too slow to focus on services rather than on things. As a result, we have flooded the world with pointless devices. It has taken us far too long to consider material end energy flows in all the systems we design. We need to think about the consequences of technology before we act, not after. We've created an industrial system that is brilliant on means, but pretty hopeless when it comes to ends. The result is a divergence between technological intensification and perceived value. We are hovering uneasily between an undiminshed infatuation with technology, on the one hand, and unease about its actual value, and possible rebound effects, on the other. Locating innovation in specific social contexts can, I am sure, be a resolution to the innovation dilemma. Designing with people, not for them, can bring the whole subject of 'user experience' literally to life. Looked at in this way, success will come to organisations with the most creative and committed customers (sorry, 'actors'). The era of the lone design genius working in isolation is over. But not all the lonely geniuses realise it yet. This only matters when you get stuck in a restaurant with an egocentric design star who cannot or will not think about anything except himself. (It's rarely a she).

CP: How about the contribution of design to the bottom line?

JT: I've always found it hopeless trying to isolate the financial contribution of design to a business. Yes, design matters; but so too does technology, the value proposition, the people who work in the business, and people who cohabit its space (the ones we used to call 'users' or 'customers'). All these factors interact in ways too complex to measure financially. I don't know the numbers, so I simply assert the following: design contributes to the 'triple bottom line' of environmental impact, social quality and business profitability. It's a no-brainer: helping companies re-tool their processes to reduce wasteful flows of matter and energy reduces costs and adds quality.

CP: What is the next killer-app?

JT: Words like 'killer app' and 'cutting-edge' are throwbacks to a Neanderthal time when technology was seen as an end-in-itself. Sweet spots occur at the intersection between latent social needs, open systems, smart consumers and smart companies. That's when real value is created. The result will probably be a new service that constantly evolves. The best way to navigate a complex world is through a focus on core values, not on chasing the latest killer app. We're in the middle of a transition from an economy of transactions, to an ecology of relationships and contexts. Business strategies based on the 'domination' of markets are hopeless. The best companies are focusing on the innovation of new services, and new business models, rather than on new technology per se.

CP: What is your favourite design?

JT: My all-time favourite information product remains the Oanda Currency Converter ( I use the site almost every day to calculate guilders into lire into pounds sterling into US dollars into euros. If this is all that the Internet revolution has brought us, I am content. It is just so useful, it's sublime.

CP: So what is the future of design?

JT: I'm less intrigued by science fiction futures than by social fictions; untapped needs that can be met using the technologies we already have. Our technologies may well be multiplying, but we're finding it harder to find useful or valuable ways to use them. On the contrary: as I state in Thackara's Law: if you put smart technology into a pointless product, the result is a dumb product. But I'm not naive. We are innately curious, playful, and creative, so technology is not going to go away: it's too much fun. We're at a turning point in the relationship between design and network communications. Which is just as well: sometime soon there will be hundreds of microchips for every man, woman and child on the planet. Hardline systems people, steely-eyed marketing types, and formerly effete designers; plus fellow travellers like myself; now find themselves working together. And they; we; are getting on surpisingly well. With levels of complexity growing all the time, dividing our work into 'hard' and 'soft' design simply doesn't work. Pervasive computing and experience design are accelerating the transformation of what we mean by 'design'.

Posted by John Thackara at 05:27 PM | Comments (0)