An Argument for Fourth-Dimensional Thinking
The below conversation between School of Critical Design co-founder Gemma Jones and critical designer Ted Hunt and was documented concurrently with the event Design with Time as part of the ReDesign Business talks series during London Design Festival 2020. The pre-recorded introduction to the conversation is now documented at x-AXIS.
G. Why does designing with time matter?
T. Our relationship to time quite literally defines our lives, we exist in time like a fish exists in water. And yet we’re often entirely unconscious of time’s true nature.
At this point in time we need to be increasingly self-critical of the most toxic attributes of our relationship to time as individuals, as societies, and as a species. Our contemporary reliance upon ‘immediate gratification’ and ‘temporal discounting’ (the tendency to view the interests of the present as far more valuable than the interests of the past or future) have heavily contributed to the multiple crises we now face.
By reconsidering the fundamental notions of time (what I refer to as ‘Fourth-Dimensional Thinking’), the field of design can begin to help decouple both businesses and humanity from our most destructive beliefs and behaviours, and replace them with regenerative and transitional alternatives.
G. When I’m researching experiences or spaces, whether virtual or material, temporality and the experience of time always shows up in some way. In a salon environment there are periods of ‘dead time’ needed for colour development and other anonymous processes, everybody wants those to go quicker. At other points slowness communicates care and luxury. Similarly, in designing a coffee shop environment, you want speed but you also want to communicate handcraft and the care and depth around it. There’s a rhythm to be choreographed and signalled by different sensory cues. In urban design you have a multitude of temporalities both human and non-human, co-existing and often clashing, this is part of the poetics of urban space. How do you think about temporalities like these in your design work?
T. These are great examples of how design already works with and in time. The distinction between time and temporality is especially interesting, where ‘temporality’ is commonly associated with our relationship to time, and ‘time’ being perception of duration.
For me temporality is increasingly governed by time, for example the salon appointment might fluctuate between fast and slow sections but is ultimately contained within a commodified 60 minute appointment that can be equated to a financial equivalent and processed in a back-to-back manner like a production line. So, I want us to be redesigning the metronome rather than the tempo variables upon the metronome.
There’s very little work being done to think at this higher dimensional level of time in my view, we’re kind of stuck in messing about with the tempo rather than creating new genres of time, or questioning what time even is, should be, or could be! So in my own work I try to shift up a level to think at this scale, rather than being “a cog in the machine” I’m trying to think about the machine itself. That’s not to be dismissive of cogs, we need to come at this from all angles. If a single cog in a machine breaks then the whole machine stops, so cogs are important to.
G. You’ve talked about moving from conceptualising designs as ‘things’ to designs as ‘events’. For me this is a really valuable way to think not just about products but the whole function of businesses. A business strategy isn’t just a document or a plan on a calendar. It’s a historical event, and as such it is caused by something and causes things to come, it has dominant and silenced voices, it might even alter perceptions around what has come before. What do you think is the case for moving to an event based view of design?
T. Full disclosure, I didn’t come up with that idea! It’s based upon a quote from a renowned quantum physicists named Carlo Rovelli in his book ‘The Order of Time’ (which is a great starting point for anyone interested in exploring the fundamentals of time further) which reads;
“The world is not a collection of things, it is a collection of events. The difference between things and events is that things persist in time; events have a limited duration. A stone is a prototypical ‘thing’: we can ask ourselves where it will be tomorrow. Conversely, a kiss is an ‘event’. It makes no sense to ask where the kiss will be tomorrow. The world is made up of networks of kisses, not of stone.”
So yes, I fully agree that a business strategy isn’t just a document or plan, it is an event in itself, is heavily based upon previous events, and will influence future events. I think we can be guilty of thinking of strategies like stones, rather than like kisses.
A compelling case for the need to shift to a more event based view of design was materialised by Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler’s recent Anatomy of an AI System project mapping the entire design process of creating an Amazon Echo Dot.
For pretty much the first time we can see the full ‘eventness’ and lifecycle of a single designed product — from the extraction/exploitation of the rare earth elements formed over geological deep time, to the eventual disposing of those elements as waste back into geological timescales through landfill or incineration. This map surfaces and traces the very ‘dominant voices’ and ‘silent voices’ you mention, particularly on a human level of income distribution created through the process of manufacturing an Echo Dot, from the $16,200 monthly salary of a Chief Executive in USA down to few dollars earned children recruited into cobalt mining in The Congo. Anatomy of an AI System was obviously a highly complex and labour intensive research project, BUT every designer should be aware of it’s connotations.
Everything we design is connected to an ‘event network’ like this, design can no longer continue to delude itself that things magically appear in the world and then magically disappear when we’re done with them.
An event based view of design enables us to take responsibility for, manage, mitigate, and improve the worst elements of our practice.
G. This makes me think of the people, often in the global South, who ‘mine’ E-Waste to form new kinds of brilliantly mutant, hybrid devices. Recycling parts to make new technologies that are fit for localised purposes. In a way this is a new event in the event network, changing the destiny of the world’s waste and making connectivity possible and relevant to those who can’t afford (and don’t need) an iPhone.
T. Design is seemingly obsessed with ‘invention’ and ‘inventors’ (e.g the cults of Silicon Valley /Apple / Steve Jobs etc). But what about reinvention as you say?
The below reinterpretation of the notion of repair by Christopher Alexander completely flips the script on the invention narrative. Here the event of repair gives rise to newly emergent realities. This is another HUGE area that design and business could truly innovate within, what if you allowed for and encouraged this notion of repair in the things we design? The economic incentives of repeat purchase have led us down the road of the entirely cynical and toxic phenomenon of ‘built in obsolescence’. What if we designed for ‘built in reemergence’?
Fairphone is a great example of what this might look like. When you buy a Fairphone you also get a screwdriver to take it apart, self repair it, upgrade it, and ultimately entangle yourself with it.
G. This is a widening of the lens of innovation and invention, and I think this applies to the insight process surrounding design and the cultural impacts of designs. I love using cultural insight as a counterpart to user or consumer insight, because it generates a narrative view of interconnected events and situates your design, service or organisation within that story. This feels really important in a world where cultural context shifts so fast, and crosses over geographies with an intensity we’ve never really seen in history before. We need to get a grip on these dynamics to understand the cultural impact of our designs, and to know when we need to react or adapt to cultural change. The recent conversation about brands and businesses becoming ‘anti-racist’ signals that what was once best practice is now not enough, and there are growing pains associated with this realisation. Your intent doesn’t always match up with perception. This process might be a little slower with design than with brand communication, but there’s plenty of thinking about how buildings, services, fashion and technologies etc might be unintentionally exclusive of different groups, and certainly perpetuating the privilege or ‘normativity’ of others because of the dominant cultural codes reflected in a space or the types of binaries around which we design e.g male and female toilets. We have to acknowledge that the passing of cultural time has a sort of eroding effect on perceptions of relevance or ethical sound-ness of our designs and business practices.
T. I’ve got a theory that design and business is currently stuck in a “less bad” narrative. They’ve realised that a lot of design and business impact in the recent past was bad, and that consumers don’t want to be associated with that, but the solution has been to just shift to “less bad” options rather than actually becoming “good”. It seems the agreed high water mark of businesses such as Patagonia, innocent, and Ben and Jerry’s are just “less bad” than their previous incumbents if you look at them critically. There’s now shifts towards brands actually becoming good rather than less bad, hopefully the passing of cultural time will allow us to fully transition to good pretty soon.
G. With the ever-present iconoclasm and public statues, these statues can perhaps more helpfully be seen as long events that have their eventual ending or re-contextualisation, rather than immovable things ‘set in stone’. So again, it’s helpful here to recognise that design-as-event will be interpreted differently depending on proximity and the cultural conditions surrounding it.
T. Exactly. I’ve been thinking about the event of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol being torn down, and how in many ways this reflects the sci-fi time travel construct used in Christopher Nolan’s recent film Tenet. This film essentially asks the question “can the future influence the past” (reverse entropy) in the same way that we accept the past influences the future? Like most of the time travel narratives in literature and film we tend to anthropomorphise this concept in order to make it more compelling, and that’s when the laws of nature render such narratives as entirely imaginary.
BUT.. if we replace a human traveling through time with an idea or scenario traveling through time there’s far more room for manoeuvre.
And so I came to ask myself was the event of Edward Colston’s statue being torn down on 8 June 2020 a case of “his past catching up with him” or “his future closing in on him”?
To be more specific if we accept that humankind broadly moves towards social harmony, justice and equality (despite the best efforts of some to disrupt this for cynical gains or self-interest) then it would be inevitable that at some point in the future a statue celebrating a slave trader would no longer be tolerated by society, and as such that future inevitability would influence the present reality and past narrative.
The same could be said about the future cultural conditions and inevitability of much of today’s design and business world, a lot of which is entirely out of sync with broader cultural arcs and aspirations, not to mention the limits of empirical science.
G. Your work deals a lot with the cycles of nature like circadian and lunar rhythms — what does thinking open up for business and design practice?
T. There’s a great quote from Mark Twain that “history doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes”. Cyclical thinking can help us to distinguish between what is non-repeatable and what is rhyming.
For example your own recent essay in Marketing Society on “unprecedented, but widely predicted” events highlights just this. A global pandemic was known to be a when not if scenario for by scientists, virologists, epidemiologists, historians, the World Health Organisation, Bill Gates, and even Netflix programming commissioners (who’s release Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak on 8 January 2020 was either an entire coincidence or was sitting in their archive just waiting for right time to drop). The fact that many South East Asian countries such as Hong Kong, S Korea, and Taiwan dealt with initial outbreak far better than Westernised countries such as the UK and USA could be partly explained by an evolutionary cognitive bias known as the ‘availability heuristic’ which sees us believing if something has not yet happened to us we have a tendency to act as if it will never happen, and as such dedicate little to no contingency or mitigation to its possibility. In short we consistently tend to mistake the unfamiliar with the impossible.
And so looking for cyclical patterns (rhyming history) over days, months, years, decades, and centuries can help business and design to mitigate against the unfamiliar and make the unthinkable actually thinkable.
Obviously measuring time against the Sun and Moon doesn’t give you the power to divine the future for the exact timing of events such as a global pandemic or stock market crash, but it can begin to attune us to the notion that we are governed by the rhythms and cycles of nature. For business and design this can open up new ways of appreciating their audiences as not just easily pleased ‘users’ and ‘consumers’, but as complex and fluctuating people and living-beings.
I give the example of Apple’s slow development of NightShift mode as a clear instance of this. A user of an iPhone was previously afforded the same experience of a blue tinted back lit screen 24 hours a day, a human with a circadian cycle requires an absence of blue light that is usually associated with mid-day Sun in order for their body to produce the melatonin that initiates sleep. The fact that NightShift was so slow to be introduced by one of the world’s largest, and most renowned design orientated, corporations highlights just how separated from natural and biological cycles we have become. It also highlights just how much more understanding and work designers still need to do in this area — shifting from user centered, to human centered, and inevitable planetary centered.
G. It’s no coincidence that the language of ‘circularity’ and ‘regenerative’ is replacing ‘sustainability’ as we start to reckon with business in a climate crisis. These are cyclical concepts.
T. This is very true. There’s a natural tendency for systems to settle in cyclical patterns in order to sustain themselves, so it makes complete sense that these adjustments to business and economics are gradually finding themselves there.
We just need to accelerate that transition so that it happened yesterday rather than tomorrow, or the day after! It is an empirical inevitability that business, or whatever business one day evolves into, will become cyclical and regenerative at some future point in my own view.
For me it would be very wise for nations to invest in holistically embracing this change right now and in doing so place themselves as global leaders in this transition. For example if Britain were to lead a Green Revolution in the same way that they still see themselves as leading the Industrial Revolution, then its position as a world leader might be ensured for many more centuries. It’s a very safe bet that climate change is going to require human change, and when various governments and organisations realise they need to change (rather than posture change) one of the first things they’ll do is look for leaders in this process. I recently speculated on this very scenario with this project.
T. Let’s talk about the semiotics of time. There’s a great quote stating “you don’t hate Monday’s you hate capitalism”. This highlights how time (in this case going back to work on Monday morning after a weekend) has its own distinct semiotic codes built into it. I’ve been researching how natural codes are built into a more natural sense of time through the ‘entrainment signals’ we experience via Solar and Lunar information. We’ve spoken briefly about biosemiotics before (the prelinguistic meaning-making, or production and interpretation of signs and codes in the biological realm). I wonder what your thoughts are on the semiotics of time in this regard?
G. Natural temporality is something that design and innovation in the 21st century seems to want to erase. In many ways this is symptomatic of how we see ourselves in relationship with the world as a material universe. We’ve tried to transcend materiality, and in many beautiful and terrifying ways we have. But the result is we’ve eroded our habitats and sucked the nutrients from the soil that feeds us through an aggressive speeding up of time or simply a cognitive departure from its material impacts.
Working a lot on the semiotics of the body, in beauty or menstruation categories for instance, I can see how so much of the meaning being communicated seeks to further untether us from time. From the ravages of ageing, from the inevitability of the menstrual cycle. In the menstruation category for instance, typically R and D has been focused on ideas of ‘protection’ or ‘invisibility’, and what underpins that is shame and notions of impeded “productivity”. It’s a category that for a long time tried to help you ignore what happens to a body with a uterus, reframing it as an inconvenience and even a threat. New code-breaking innovations in that space, often developed by women, include menstrual cups, full cycle subscription boxes and reusable period underwear. And the language and design around these products often alludes to cycles, to the moon, to having a period rather than erasing it. It’s intriguing that these products, at the same time as re-engaging with the material and temporal effects of nature on the body also offer sustainable or circular designs. As you’ve pinpointed in your Circa Solar work, many of us are tired and damaged by the decoupling of body from nature’s temporalities.
T. That’s really really interesting. Two groups I identified in my research into time who do have a highly sophisticated relationship to natural temporality were practicing muslims and women of menstrual age. Practising muslims because they conduct the five daily prayers of Salah which are precisely aligned to fluctuating daily Solar cycles. And women of menstruation age because menstruation cycles are pretty much precisely the same duration as Lunar cycles.
I made a decision not to explicitly lever these as ‘user functions’ or ‘target audiences’ of Circa Solar or Circa Lunar, however, as I believe both instances are embodied experiences — so even if I read all there is to read about these relationships I would never be in a position to truly know the embodied reality of those relationships. And so for me to claim I had designed something that explicitly relates or augments those experiences would be an act of cultural misappropriation, no matter how well intended.
That said one paradigm shifting insight I came across in my research was the argument that it may have been women who made the very first reckoning of time (beyond the observation of day/night cycles) through calculating menstruation cycles from moon to moon. Much of mythology is based upon the characters of Mother Nature and Father Time, but it might be more rational and historically accurate to embrace a matriarchal Mother Time.
Another interesting anecdote I came across was someone recalling being shown the below Palaeolithic bone carving in a university history lecture and told it “was the very first known man-made calendar” only for them to correct the lecturer that it was in fact probably very unlikely it was made by a man as what specific need would a man have for a 28 day calendar compared to a woman? There’s obviously room for debate as to whether the lecturer ment man as in male, or man as in mankind, but you get the point.
G. The Radical Indigenism movement suggests we should be taking our design cues from nature’s various temporalities. E.g designing for users that are not even born yet, like the root bridges Julia Watson’s researches in her book Lo-TEK. Indigenous design and culture seems to be striking a chord with designers of all disciplines, I think because it has not been decoupled from environmental meaning systems in the same way that contemporary urban culture has. Indigenous cultures in many cases remain adept at reading and decoding natural systems because they haven’t broken their bonds with them.
T. Pretty much every example in Julia Watson’s book Lo-TEK is aligned to nature’s temporality, and it’s no surprise given that indigenous cultures are so much more closely attuned to the temporalities and durations of nature as you point out.
Towards the end of my talk Design with Time I highlight the below chart I first made for the Circa Solar Kickstarter campaign, which shows just how recently in human history the notion of ‘the time’ emerged. Before this the rhythms of nature, the sun and the moon were pretty much humanity’s only timekeeping reference. The popular domestication of mechanical time broke that eternal and essential bond, but the bond with the nature of time remains strong for indigenous cultures and indeed is still deeply encoded in each of our DNA.
Homo Sapiens managed to survive ok all the way up to the adoption of mechanical time in the last 150 years, so it gives me hope that the most toxic aspects of commodifying time might just be a blip in our human history. One day we might return to more natural timekeeping models, and an appreciation of far far longer durations of time, beyond our current culture of ‘immediate gratification’.
G. The intersection of Design and Business is very ‘frameworks’ heavy and in an era of pervasive Design Thinking methods it can feel like innovation is in service of the framework. This indicates the frameworks themselves need to be critically analysed, we should be asking if they are still fit for purpose. How might time be applied as a dimension of design and innovation frameworks?
T. Good question. Beyond the immediate need for pretty much all of design to be far less trend and novelty led and start to think significantly more long-term, I’d personally advocate for more ‘free time’ as a means to innovate. By this I mean decoupling certain strands of design innovation from the requirements of proven ‘impact’. If you trace many (but not all) world changing innovations back to their genesis they originated with individuals or small teams experimenting with no specific application in mind. It seems counterintuitive to allow talented designers to ‘waste time’ on exploratory projects, but inversely it is only when we free ourselves from the constraints of conventional thinking that we can break those conventions and surface entirely new innovations.
So in short I’d probably “unframe the frameworks” and let unrestrained creative intuition (free time) lead the way a lot more. Interestingly I’ve just been reading David Eagleman’s new book on neuroscience and found that this is essentially how every human learns to to walk and talk, through what’s known as ‘babbling’ and ‘motor babbling’. We often need the opportunity and permission to be inarticulate before we can become articulate. Well I do at least.
G. Tell me about x-Axis. What is it?
T. It is essentially a coping strategy! I spent the early phase of Covid lockdown considering how to increasingly couple my self-initiated work and paid commissions together as a means to sustain my independent income. x-Axis is the result of that thought process. The name comes from the horizontal axis of almost every chart and graph representing time, but its potential malleability is never actually questioned.
x-Axis is an independent design strategy consultancy, focusing specifically on the niche of time and what I’m calling ‘fourth-dimensional thinking’.
Over the last few years my self initiated research and development has afforded me unique opportunities to work and collaborate with some of the most innovative academics and practitioners in this field including; King’s College London department of philosophy, The Daylight Academy, Studio Wayne McGregor, Science Gallery London, alongside numerous conversations with experts and laypeople of widely diverse ages, backgrounds, and beliefs. x-Axis will draw upon my lived experience of that knowledge and wisdom.
The hope is that more design agencies, businesses, and brands will begin to realise time has so much more potential than they previously assumed. And that the research and development I’ve put into exploring the relationship between time and design might prove useful, if not essential, in giving others that edge. So it’s a coping strategy for myself, and equally for others, to more consciously navigate the changing and challenging times we face.