- Designing Things: A Critical Introduction to the Culture of Objects
"With some exceptions, design has traditionally under-theorized the cultural meanings of objects" (p. 12). Designers have, traditionally, been rather uncritical of the objects they create and the wider networks within which their activities are embedded. In Designing Things, Prasad Boradkar attempts to encourage designers to be more critical of the diverse networks that their creations are, and become, embedded within. What Boradkar wishes to highlight is not only the agency of designers of things but also 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, [End Page 277] services, [and] systems," and in a second sense suggests that "things themselves have agency, they afford specific kinds of action, they encourage certain types of behavior and they can elicit particular forms of emotions" (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'" (pp. 26-35). Within the space of 9 or 10 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 than the lineage of thinkers prior and since. The consequence of this concise discussion leads Boradkar to assert that "for this study, things will be treated as inseparable from the networks to which they belong" (p. 35). While 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 both on their own terms and in relation 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" (pp. 35-44), however, this refreshing perspective is somewhat diluted. Continuing the swiftness of the previous section on philosophy, in 8-9 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" (p. 35). The purpose of this section is to highlight how the boundaries between these disciplines are somewhat flexible, and individual research projects belonging to one discipline actually cross over with one another. It might be questioned here, however, whether these boundaries have such flexibility as a result of their inherently similar epistemological basis.
While the first chapter offers a flood of information, the following eight chapters are a steady flow of critical and cultural theory as it relates to Western (mostly North American) industrial design. Chapter 2 explores the concept of value, highlighting how, while 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 3 discusses labor and a Marx-informed history of making things, leading into Chapter 4, 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 5 focuses upon aesthetics as it is understood in the design of consumer goods. Boradkar summarizes this concept as residing "neither in the solid materiality...