Thursday, 29 July 2010



Despite of Western thought's schism between thinking and making, at their origin the terms epistêmê (now commonly related to knowledge or theory) and technê (now related to experence-based practice or craft) were philosophically closely interrelated. In Xenophon's recounting of Socrates's conversations both words are used to describe all human activities, as knowledge is closely tied to knowing how to make things. In Plato's Republic knowledge is indispensable for the craft of ruling the city. Aristotle makes a clear distinction between the two concepts in Nicomachean Ethics, but also defines Technê as the bringing into existence of something by way of true reasoning and therefore grounds Technê within knowledge and reason [Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2003]. According to Heidegger, the poiêsis of the fine arts was also called technê, because art was a revealing that brought forth and hither, and therefore belonged within poiêsis [Heidegger, 1977]. In A Question of Technology, Heidegger defines Technê as something which reveals whatever does not bring itself forth and does not lie here before us, whatever can look and turn out now one way and now another. Technê is the bringing forth of the true into the beautiful.

Four causes are responsible for the process of making: hyle, eidos, telos and logos. Hyle is the causa materialis - the matter out of which something is made. Eidos is the causa formalis - the shape into which the material enters.Telos is the causa finalis - the scope enabled by the combination of material and form. Logos is the causa efficiens - the entity which brings together material, form and scope under careful consideration. The causa efficiens sets the standard for all causality. In Heidegger's example, a silver chalice for use as sacrificial vessel is the effect of four causes: the silver (hyle), the shape of a chalice (eidos), the chalice's use as sacrificial vessel (telos) and the silversmith (logos). If we were to examine these causes in terms of variables, the causalities build up from the material state (which has its inherent set of variables), to a form (which emanates from a portion of material variables and adds a set of formal variables) to the combination of material and form (where scope is a range delimited by the variables of material and form), and finally to the careful consideration of material, form and scope (the ability which creates a range of options based on a combination of three sets of variables). The four causes are four ways of being responsible for bringing something into appearance. They reveal the potential presence of the chalice as a sacrificial vessel. They initiate the occasioning into being of the vessel - the bringing-forth - the poiêsis. They enable the revealing which Greeks referred to as alêtheia, and the Romans translated as veritas - truth.

The process of bringing something into being has been dominant in design practice. Most theory has focused on the art of revealing, the consideration of materials, form and scope - the causa finalis - the finished product. The creative process finished with the first moment of revealing. From thereon the product appeared to have a destiny beyond the range for consideration. It was assumed that it would remain in use as intended at the moment of revealing and any apparent 'misuse' or alternative use was outside of the designer's range of responsibility. The responsibility somehow fell with the object itself, as though with the moment of revealing, the product gained a life of its own. Heidegger's the thingness of the thing, proposes a higher objective for the object (being either a product of human effort or nature) as not only a "thing-in-itself" (after Kant) but a gathering of four modes of being: the earth, the sky, the human and the divine. What Heidegger suggests here is that things are product and part of a greater scheme of things, and as such cannot be completely controlled by mere mortals. This greater, and inherent value of things demands to be acknowledged during the process of creation and therefore we are encouraged to think of the greater context which objects embody. In this way Heidegger paves the way for thinking beyond the causa finalis, either through the awareness that every causa finalis embodies the world in its own way, or that the causa finalis reveals about the world more than mere material, form and utility.

This thinking opens up the field of responsibility for the designer. If the causa finalis is a product of the world and reveals more about the world, then the world affects the product and the product, in turn, impacts the world *[1]. The product impacts the world not only momentarily, but over the length of its existence. This becomes a concern for more recent design theorists like Tony Fry: "Design is a directional practice that brings directional objects and objectified things into being. To understand it in this way means realizing that designing not only conceptually and technically prefigures the form, operational and symbolic function of the designed but equally its plural destiny (i.e. its posited short or long functional life as an agent of harm and harmlessness)." [Fry, 2009] Fry's concern for the product's destiny calls for a responsible designer and manufacturer, who incorporates ideas of ethics and long-term sustainability into the design process. "Effectively this means that design does not actually create a finalized object or product. Rather all that design brings remains in process within a particular kind of ecology of things, organic or inorganic." Fry therefore extends Heidegger's thinking of the directional process beyond the finished product: in addition to the process of creating a form and a function, he looks at the longevity of its use and the long-term impact (social and ecological) the product is likely to have on its environment. He advocates lengthening the product timeline for initial design consideration to include the implications of this impact, and making the designer responsible for the entire span of the lifetime of the product. From the outset the product is inscribed with futuring agency: whatever is designed and brought into being goes on designing. The aim is to elevate design practices to a meta-discipline with an ethical, social and political agenda for the future of humanity. Fry calls this redirective practice: "Redirective practice elevates the seriousness, importance and futuring potential of design".

Fry's 'strategic planning' - specifying long-term directional goals clearly in advance for those involved in design and production - implies however a great deal of reliance on statistical probability and modelling of the future. If, as Fry states, design is never culturally neutral as it always transports socio-cultural values, and what it brings into being always designs beyond mere function, then strategic planning by the manufacturer and careful consideration by the designer are required to predict the cultural as well as economical and ecological impact of the product. Integral to assessing the future impact of a product is regular user-testing during the course of the design process. This is usually done in a controlled environment, with volunteers being directed with specific questions, based on assumptions emanating from the current cultural agenda. User-testing as part of the design process in the designer's current cultural milieu reflects however, by the time the product is in common use, always the past cultural archetype. The impact of the widely used and culturally relevant product ultimately ends up redesigning the designer. In this context, predicting the product's impact would imply predicting the change in oneself.

In contrast to Fry's 'platforming' (a comprehensive programme in which everything and everyone changes to follow a coherently defined direction), my notion of 'product as platform' is multidirectional. Fry's monodirectionality is broken by the assumption that a multitude of product destinies is possible and a multitude of personal interpretations contributes to generating new cultural archetypes. The product is conceived as an open platform. Regardless of the nature of the process, the focus shifts to the outcome, where the process really begins. Only when the product is released into its particular moment of the evolving collective psyche, can it begin to find multiple resonances and be perceived as more or less archetypally appropriate as a platform for multiple human expressions anchored within a particular cultural moment.


Sengers and Gaver have explored ideas of multiple meanings in design derived from open-ended practices, products and spaces for interpretation. They have successfully proven that multiple, potentially competing interpretations can fruitfully co-exist [Sengers and Gaver, 2006]. Focusing on the area of Human Computer Interaction, Sengers and Gaver examined the role of interpretation and, through a set of examples, challenged the notion that there should be a single, correct way to interpret a system. Instead, the process of interpretation proves to be complex. It operates on several interrelated levels: a basic level of functionality (identifying and using components of the interface), a middle level concerned with the benefits and use of the software, and a high level concerned with the social and cultural value of a system. High level interpretation can affect the interpretation of basic functionality as well as the perception of how the users are being interpreted and represented by the system: "Interpretation at all levels is strongly dependent on context and the resources that users' social and cultural situations provide for interpretation. [Sengers and Gaver, 2006]"

Complexity increases when one examines the question of whose interpretation is correct: the designer's, the users' or one derived from participatory methods. The solution is to gear design towards supporting multiple interpretations. Examples cited by Sengers and Gaver suggest several design methods which leave room for a multitude of interpretations. A designer can define basic level functionalities but leave medium and high level open to interpretation; provide a space for interpretation around a defined topic; block preconceived notions and encourage reinterpretations; allow the gradual unfolding of interpretations; open the system's structure for reinterpretation and allow for ambiguities. I can identify several of those examples in my own practice and outline here three examples, from research, commercial and teaching work.

mHashup, the design which forms the practice core of this thesis, is an example of a system which provides basic level functionality, but leaves medium and high level interpretation to the user. The variety of deployments suggested by users with different aims and objectives or from different trades and occupations, could not have been predicted during the design process, or perceived by the users, had the tools been 'tailored to a specific brief' and not left open to multiple interpretations. By accessing the tools at a basic level of functionality the users are able to apply their aims and objectives and generate a meaning relevant to their area of knowledge or expertise, recognising the tools as essential to the way they operate. The key design task here was to create a language which would translate cryptic figures and algorithms into broadly intelligible components, thus unlocking and opening up the functionality to the widest audience, and providing visual keywords from which the users could assemble their own meanings and draw their own conclusions.

Another of Senger and Gaver's methods can be seen in my recently completed commercial project for Pelé Sports. Here the task was to create an identity which would not only compete with major sports brands (and not resemble any of their major campaigns), but also retro-fit already prototyped footwear and equipment. A single fixed solution could not be fitted to every existing prototyped stitch or material construct arrangements, and so looking for the quick and obvious symbolism that a standard graphic mark usually denotes was not an option. It quickly became apparent that the solution had to be adaptable and therefore modular, and that the meaning would not be fixed, but altering and gradually unfolding. The inspiration came from Buckminster Fuller's geodesic structures, which have already inspired the Bucky Ball (the popular football construction composed out of 20 hexagons and 12 pentagons which is identical to the more recently discovered molecule of Carbon C60). The basic component of the brand became the triangle, which builds up narratives in geodesic dome fashion through diamond and polygonal shapes, through to the Pelé crown and more complex and intricate patterns: from abstract, sturdy sports geometries, to the narrative of "Pelé o Rei de Futebal", where the ascent of the first famous "Slumdog Millionaire" to the status of the "King of Football" assumes universal meaning with every football-loving child on the planet. The brand therefore becomes a platform for multiple narratives.

Heidegger pointed out that the tools we use on a day-to-day basis do not usually seek attention from our conscious awareness though they become highlighted within our awareness the moment they break down or the processes involved are interrupted [Koschmann et al, 1998]. Sengers and Gaver suggest purposefully raising this awareness by exposing breaks in HCI processes and opening the system's structure for reinterpretation. In Networks in Crisis, a brief written for students of the MA Design Critical Practice (with Duncan Fairfax and Mike Waller of the Goldsmiths' PI Studio, 2010), we set out to expose breakdowns in both urban and virtual networks. The students were encouraged to uncover broken, misused, empty, intermediary, imaginary, camouflaged or neglected spaces within social, cultural and political networks, and critically assess them and reinterpret them. The result were a series of design projects which owed their accomplishment to the space that had opened up to them for interpretation.

Evaluation of design methods for multiple interpretations follows with multiple assessments. Sengers and Gaver incorporate techniques like dynamic feedback, longitudinal studies, or critiquing by external experts, all in view of supplying data which expert readers can interpret for themselves. With these methods at his or her disposal, the function of the designer shifts from interpreting a single authoritative view to becoming an active participant in collective meaning-making. Considering this as the key role of the designer, and as per all of the above practical examples, we can see how the product becomes a platform for interpretation from which a rich web of meaning is built. Collective meaning-making is the very activity which evolves cultures. The primary role of the product as platform is one of enabling. The real success lies in interaction being used in ways which are perhaps unexpected to the designer but more rewarding for the individual user. By adopting this attitude, the goals change not only for the interactive software builder but also for the architect and product designer, as in the idea of 'design hacks' : "Broadly, it's about the user taking on some of the role of the designer and figuring out solutions for themselves rather than simply buying products to fill the breach. Hence, it can be seen as a very sustainable movement - but also a subversive one, undermining modernist concepts of the designer as sole author of a design and of the consumer object being the inviolable zenith of the design process. [Wiles, 2010]"


The philosophy which underpins the idea of 'design hacks' originates from the hacker culture developed by the MIT computer hackers of the 1950s and 1960s, based on free access, sharing, openness and a disregard for authority and bureaucracies [Levy, 1984]. From this culture emerged pioneers like Richard Stallman who founded the free software movement and launched copyleft, a right to distribute versions of a work with few or no restrictions. From his early years as software freedom activist, Stallman has emphasized freedom of choice of how to form communities with other people, the right to help others and the right to share. This stance was radical in a culture dominated by Ayn Rand's (and more recently Alan Greenspan's) promotion of rational self-interest over altruism.

The hacker ethic was taken up by a group of activists in the late 1980s in Amsterdam, who approached the subject from the point of view of its social, ethical and political implications on humanity, and used it to emphasise philosophies of social change. In 1989, Caroline Nevejan, Patrice Riemens and Rop Gonggrijp founded the influential Hack-Tic magazine and organised the Galactic Hacker Party: the first open, public, international convention of hackers in Europe. The organisers made use of the controversy surrounding the term 'hacker' to gain a great deal of press attention. Their social activist approach was a reflection of Dutch tradition and its cultural moment. According to Patrice Riemens, the Dutch had a great tradition of mathematics and physics, and an interest in cybernetics, whilst openly encouraging political and social activism, which made for a fertile ground for hacktivists*[2]. "The time also was witnessing the emergence of electronic networks. These were of course already in use with the military, banking and finance, and academia. A cluster of grassroot computer enthusiasts had also been building up a patchwork of so-called 'bulletin boards systems' (BBS) for some time, but it were the hackers' repeated and much publicized intrusions in the big network, known as the Internet, that bought electronic communications for the masses on the political agenda. Thus was the demand for public access born. What made the Amsterdam situation special, however, was the degree of organization amongst the hackers and their willingness to structure themselves as an open social movement. [Lovink and Riemens, 1998]" The tendency may have been the result of the Dutch political tradition based on the polder model, where multiple political entities aim at reaching a consensus: "The polder model can be explained by the struggle against water that the Dutch have had to carry out to keep the land from flooding. When the water comes, everybody has to collaborate. [Nevejan, 2007]" With open access, plenty of affordable media, a proliferation of small non-commercial media outfits, a few pirate broadcasters, and a dominant hands-on attitude, the media culture in Amsterdam was able to develop independently of mainstream market forces or high-brow cultural elitism.

Realising the importance of technology in everyday lives, and with the awareness of the power of authorities' control over technological tools (and therefore over the people), the founders of Hack-Tic set out to expose technology in ways which could subvert control and authority by the major telecoms. The future of networks was to be shaped by the users. The Hack-Tic Network threw a coup by hooking up to the academic network and offering free access to the Internet for all. Mass participation grew into The Digital City (De Digitale Stad), an electronic platform for democratic debate. The user base became so diversified that it enabled decentralised activity of semi-autonomous units and immunity from any attempts by the management to steer its course. "This peculiar variant of the 'network effect' can only be achieved in true measure when the infrastructure operates as a facility and not as a compelling framework, and when the existence of competing, and sometimes contradictory sets of values among the user-base is accepted. (..) The ensuing climate of productive, rather than repressive tolerance, leads to all sort of initiatives from the very obscure to the highly flamboyant, quite reminiscent to the 'Islands of the Net' model. [Lovink and Riemens, 1998]"

Hack-Tic had a major impact on the perception of technology's role within social systems both in and outside the Netherlands. With both social activism and design as core activities within the Dutch cultural and industrial landscape, the three founders carried the ethic on to further projects which became influential in opening up the freedom of communication and opportunities for social participation. Gonggrijp went on to found XS4ALL, one of the biggest ISPs in the Netherlands. Caroline Nevejan went on to found The WAAG Society in Amsterdam (Society for Old and New Media) and organise the Doors of Perception - a series of highly influential new technology conferences with John Thackara, which promoted innovative ideas and design for sustainable futures, including speakers like Manuel de Landa, Pierre Levy, Bruce Mau, Mitchell Resnick, Brian Eno and Paola Antonelli. Patrice Riemens, an active member of the WAAG Society, became a self-proclaimed FLOSSopher (articulator, educator and promoter of Free/Libre/Open Source Software) encouraging the FLOSSophy ethic with empowering projects in Asia and Africa.

In the 1990s, ideas of 'hacktivism' inspired a number of artists working with digital media, who created work which commented on the right of access and freedom of spread of information. Much like the organisers of the Galactic Hacker Party, the artists made use of the controversy surrounding the term to gain press attention: cyberterrorism or non-violent haction; hackers vs crackers*[3]. The term appealed equally to those engaged in anti-globalisation campaigns as it did to those interested in opening up data sources to fuel public debate. However, the long-lasting benefit of the Hack-Tic ethic has been in the theoretical shift towards a hands-on interventionist methodology in the arts with an emphasis on positive disturbance and constructive agitation. As an overall theoretical framework it has opened up possibilities for a revision of linear modernist methods and an introduction of collective, collaborative, multi-interpretative practice.

Otto von Busch, self-proclaimed fashion hacktivist, haute couture heretic and design renegade, has coined the term abstract hacktivism for social activism that is inspired by online strategies or tactics. He is interested in how the abstract mechanisms enacted in actual computers are adopted elsewhere, in noncomputer contexts [von Busch and Palmås, 2006]. Instead of subversive culture or violent destruction, von Busch argues for constructive positions of co-design and a practice of transformative action on a physical, semantic and spiritual level. He cites Bruno Latour: "The critic is not the one who debunks, but the one who assembles. The critic is not the one who lifts the rugs from under the feet of the naïve believers, but the one who offers the participants arenas in which to gather. [Latour, 1994]" In the way that Stafford Beer applied cybernetics to management with his Platform for Change [Beer, 1994], von Busch advocates using design as a platform for change and an arena for letting understandings, intentions, skills and wills meet in an arena for practical discussion: a parliament of palpable prototyping. Abstract hacking is used to describe movements like Urbex - spatial hacking and exploration of hidden urban spaces; shopdropping - insertion of modified goods back onto store shelves; craftivism - using traditional craft to comment on mass production and the surplus society; fan fiction, where famous authored narratives are modified and re-released by the fans (in fanzines and across a variety of media); and even Liberation Theology, a Latin American movement, where catholicism is reinterpreted in the service of social justice and gives everybody the right to interpret the holy scriptures in their own way. "Hacking is in this sense more than a deconstruction-recreation or a modification of copies. It is a very conscious opening of a system, revealing its power under new light to modulate or amplify it. [von Busch and Palmås, 2006]"

In a report written for the Royal Society of the Arts in London, Scott Burnham has built upon von Busch's ideas and created what could be described as a design hacker's manifesto *[4] [Burnham, 2009]. According to Burnham hacking is really just today’s name for the personal creative spirit that has always underpinned human ingenuity, especially when there was a need to circumvent limitations or the resources were scarce. The kind of ingenuity promoted by Burnham requires the application of knowledge in a sense that John Kay calls Obliquity [Kay, 2010], which is also directly related to the lateral thinking successfully promoted throughout the 20th Century by design giants like Alan Fletcher, Bob Gill, Paul Rand and Tibor Kalman. The difference is that tinkering is not just part of the process of arriving at a causa finalis, but is an ongoing process which continues throughout the lifetime of a product. As Kay puts it: "Good decision making is oblique because it is iterative and experimental: it constantly adapts as new information, of many kinds, becomes available. Much of that information comes from the process of decision making itself. [Kay, 2010]" Both von Busch and Burnham cite Manuel de Landa's praise of the hacker's can do mentality: “Adopt a hacker attitude towards all forms of knowledge: not only to learn OJFP or Windows JN to hack this or that computer system, but to learn economics, sociology, physics, biology to hack reality itself. It is precisely the 'can do' mentality of the hacker, naïve as it may sometimes be, that we need to nurture everywhere. [Miller]”

Burnham's manifesto pitches the online open source movement with its infinite diversities and modifications against our physical or analogue world full of the same, uniform products and services from globalised brands and retail chains, as the climate in which hacking is evolving as a means to alter the software and hardware of our lives. This does not imply customization in the sense of marketing tools which offer a pre-set range of options, but an appropriation of the product through mashups and modifications. "Where customization offers a limited amount of options for change, hacking is in this sense the 'colouring outside the lines'. [von Busch and Palmås, 2006]" Customization is pre-defined; hacking modifies in ways which are often unpredictable. "If retail and manufacturing’s response to commercial sameness is to offer a limited range of customisation choices, then hacking is the individual’s response: circumventing those limitations and creating new options on one’s own terms. [Burnham, 2009]" This approach is true both of the popular IKEA hacker community *[5] in the developed world, and of the customisations born of necessity in the developing world. Emily Campbell, Director of Design at the RSA, reminds us that much of this practice is common in favelas and rural villages of poorer countries where necessity has always been the mother of invention. Most designers thrive on images where helium tanks are welded to the backs of bicycles carrying balloons and party favours; grills are attached to mobile food vendor bikes; racks, shelves and platforms are welded onto structures of leather goods dealers, pot vendors [Burnham, 2009]. Hacking may therefore be seen as a convergence of the open source movements and detachment from the global marketing systems, and the inventive ideas coming from the developing world which have continuously served as a source of wonderment and inspiration.

Within the globalised manufacturing industry, Burnham advocates distributed production, where products are distributed at design stage to small manufacturing facilities around the world, where they can be customized and built to local needs. This potentially reduces the product's carbon footprint whilst establishing the local knowledge and engagement required for future repairs or service. Distributed production is another way of seeing a product as a platform for collective and localized input. Whilst globalised commerce of product clones offers a limited range of rather uniform realities, localized interventions generate meanings which are more relevant to the individually lived experiences. We could say that finished, closed products prevent us from generating relevant meaning in the way that open products allow us to.


Evidence of a similar kind of thinking has filtered through to a variety of art and design practices. These have included agricultural and urban planning, architecture, products, fashion and the fine arts. The Open Source Ecology Movement encourages open, shared tools for sustainable agriculture and building. Their aim is to design a Global Village Construction Set from simple, easily replicated, open source designs with closed, zero-waste resource cycles. Their mission statement emphasises openness as an ideology of transformation, and acknowledges debt to Sim Van der Ryn, author of Design for Life, and promoter of collaborative design, who devoted his life to sustainable architecture after attending campus lectures by Buckminster Fuller: "The best design experiences occur when no one can claim credit for the solution - when the solution grows and evolves organically out of a particular situation, process, and pattern of communication". Krax, a project by a group called Citymine(d), looks for 'cracks' in urban structures which can be highlighted to those not normally involved with planning and architectural processes, and encourage interventions - versions of 'hacking the land' - aiming for innovative answers and proposals coming from the citizens themselves and the creation of new tools for social transformation. Krax is a platform for urban intervention and social change. A recent series of initiatives in a number of European cities, under the banner of Micronomics, encourage and document spontaneous and informal interventions in public spaces, highlighting non-hierarchical shared micro-initiatives, such as guerilla farming, Bicycology (an educational cyclists' collective), and the Waffle Bank Investment Bank (a skill exchange programme using Belgian waffles as currency).

A number of designers and collectives are interpreting the new terms of home manufacturing, upcycling (creative reuse of old into upmarket or contemporary) and parasite products (creative reuse of waste materials). Recent designers in residence at the Design Museum, Farm are a design collective which adds value to existing products by discovering new ways of using and representing them through mashups, additions and re-casts. Swiss-based architect Nicola Enrico Stäubli designs patterns for cardboard furniture called Foldschool which can be downloaded freely and assembled at home. His Indie Furniture sets out as a creative collaboration between the designer and the user by providing simple components for a bespoke storage solution which the user assembles to their liking. With Rearranged he hacks into the plastic chair by Charles and Ray Eames by adding a new series of bases. The Pallet Project by Nina Tolstrup is a collection of template designs which can be purchased online in order to create furniture out of pallets. The concept has proven a great success both in domestic use, as an exhibit in art galleries and as a solution for one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Buenos Aires, where the pallet furniture is being built cheaply and then customized. A recent initiative by Tolstrup was to invite Gavin Turk, Cornelia Parker and Rachel Whiteread to customize a pallet chair each for an auction, the proceeds of which went to the Buenos Aires workshop. Amateur DIY and upcycling activity is enabled by novel products like Makedo, a reusable connector system that enables the creation of objects and spaces from found materials, and Sugru, a specially-developed modelling clay with a variety of useful properties which goes under the slogan 'hack things better'. Much of this playful activity is the result of the popularity of the American Make magazine and their Maker Faires - festivals of making - which attract thousands of visitors and are now spreading across the globe with the ethos of 'If you can't open it, you don't own it [Burnham, 2009].'

In the field of fashion Giana González runs workshops under the banner of Hacking Couture based on identifying the basic components and 'cracking the source code' of major fashion brands in order to then customize, redesign or upcycle found objects with the brand components, or create new fashion objects by recombining the code and rediscovering the brand potential. Stephanie Syjuco's project Counterfeit Crochet (Critique of Political Economy) encourages participants to download low-resolution images of expensive desirable fashion items and then reproduce them by crocheting them pixel by pixel in order to produce a low-resolution branded fashion item. Following the experience of a series of projects and workshops Otto von Busch speaks of fashion hacktivism as being not only about opening the machine and reverse-engineering, but much more about using the energy and the passion that is within fashion, as a tool to further crafts, help people engage and spread knowledge. For him hacktivism is a big palette, a kind of a wunderkammer of modes of engagement, which gets the energies flowing [von Busch, 2009].

In the fine arts reinterpretation has long been a theme, but more recently a trend has evolved which derives directly from hacker cultures, refers to our current preoccupation with the value of our monetary and consumer systems and focuses particularly on copyright and ownership. Having bought The smell of sulphur in the wind by his favourite artist Richard Long for $20,000, and given it the pride of place in his bedroom for a while, in 2001 Bill Drummond decided to chop it up into 20,000 pieces and offer them for a dollar-a piece [BBC Radio 3, 2010]. Goldsmiths' 2009 art graduate Roisin Byrne stole, recycled or 're-rescued' a rhododendron from a piece by Turner Prize winner Simon Starling which he had rescued from Scotland and re-introduced into cultivation in Spain, and she used it as the main piece in her graduation show. In 2009 Anthony Gormley intentionally set out to create a platform for hacks with his One and Other where he invited people from the UK to occupy the empty Fourth Plinth on Trafalgar Square for periods of time and add their physical and creative input to the piece. 2,400 people created as many variations of the same work over a period of 100 days.


The question which arises here is: what does this mean for the authorship of a work of art or the copyright ownership of a piece of design? The history of copyright centres on power and profit. Lawrence Lessig, the promoter of Free Culture, traces the birth of copyright back to 1710 and the Statute of Anne. Copy-right was created for a small group of publishers known as the Conger, who had the monopoly over book-selling in England, giving them the right to control the copying of books they had acquired from authors. It acted as a means to eliminate competition, keep prices high and secure the book seller's profit, but also as a means for the Crown to control the spread of the written word. The system ensured books were a luxury afforded only by the elite. The Parliament saw the booksellers (and the Crown's) monopoly as infringing on Enlightenment's emphasis on the importance of the spread of knowledge, and sought to limit the term of copyrights, ensuring that valuable works would become widely available after a period of 21 years. Not wishing to surrender profit after 21 years, the publishers called upon the author's perpetual common law right to property ownership, and following a number of law suits, succeeded in keeping their monopoly. In 1774, a case which became famous in legal history, that of Alexander Donaldson, and independent Scottish publisher who made profit from selling low-priced copies of books, and Thomas Beckett, who chaired a syndicate of printers with exclusive rights to a number of great works, resulted in a rejection of perpetual copyrights and the resolution that after 21 years the protected works were to pass into the 'public domain' [Lessig, 2004]. The notion of a public domain did not exist before 1774. Suddenly culture was free to proliferate and develop. The spread of the written word as the main medium for the transfer of information meant a power shift towards the masses. Without the public domain there would be no mass education, democracy and modern culture as we know it.

In a similar way to the attempts at controlling the spread of the written word in the 18th century, modern copyright law has centred on protecting large corporate media publishers, most of whom owe their trade to the free content from the work in the public domain. Walt Disney famously recycled stories by the Brothers Grimm and then fought hard to secure long-term ownership of the resulting work: "Disney ripped creativity from the culture around him, mixed that creativity with his own extraordinary talent, and then burned that mix into the soul of his culture. Rip, mix, and burn. [Lessig, 2004]" Lawrence Lessig makes a strong case for a revision of modern copyright law, which is currently more restrictive than ever before and has been continually extended to ensure the monopoly of large corporate publishers. As a result of the latest extension in the US, no copyrighted work is to expire and pass into the public domain between 1998 and 2018. This means that we have lost our right to reinterpret or build upon a wealth of creative material from the beginning of the Twentieth Century. If both the artist's and designer's role is one of an active participant in collective meaning-making, and meaning is built upon past cultural archetypes, the extension of copyright hinders this process. What the author gains in extended royalties, she loses in the richness of culture she can build upon.

The question of copyright is therefore complex. An author typically gets a very small percentage (typically up to 4%, and more often 1%) of a sold reproduction of any work, while the rest goes into the hands of publishers, manufacturers and distributors. It is fair to say that copyright law protects industry more than it does the authors. Yet the author's freedom of creativity - the kind of creativity that Walt Disney had access to - is considerably reduced. Lessig suggests dealing with copyright law the way we deal with patents. Each copyright would be registered for a nominal fee for a limited short term, thus flagging clearly who the owner is. At the end of this short term the author could choose to either renew the copyright or release it into the public domain. This would result in a great deal of work which does not warrant renewal, to pass into the public domain and thus enrich our culture with a greater pool of work to draw upon. While a change in the law is still overdue, Lessig has successfully pioneered his ideas online with the Creative Commons licenses. Inspired by the Free Software Foundation’s GNU General Public License (GNU GPL), the Creative Commons developed a set of copyright licences which allow authors to licence works freely for certain uses and under certain conditions, or choose to dedicate them to the public domain. Creative Commons enable collaboration across space and time, creative co-cuthorship with people you never met, and standing on the shoulders of your peers - all without intermediaries. In 2008 there were an estimated 130 million Creative Commons-licensed works. The lines that confine copyright and authorship are being redrawn. We are now increasingly able to create legally and freely by building on others' ideas and allow others to build upon ours. With this in mind, design thinking once again shifts from the single authoritative view to one that is open to multiple interpretations. The product is to be hacked, reused, and reinterpreted.

*[1] The term product, as opposed to tool(s), implement, equipment or appliance, is nowadays commonly associated with marketing and consumerism, though here it is intended in its original use as the product of human endeavour. In terms of discussing the notion of product, I make no distinction between information design, computing, industrial design or manufacturing.

*[2] a term which appeared later, in the mid nineties, and is popularly attributed to Jason Sack, now Associate Creative Director of Information Architecture at Apple.

*[3] Eric Raymond has provided the clarification of the difference between 'hackers' and 'crackers'. Put simply, hackers build things; crackers break them: "Being able to break security doesn’t make you a hacker any more than hotwiring cars makes you an automotive engineer.” [How to Become a Hacker]

*[4]14 Ways to get hacked

(by Scott Burnham)

1. Design ingredients instead

of complete products

2. If you create a complete

product, include an ingredients


3. Design for disassembly

4. If the design was created

digitally, ship the source

files with the product. Better

yet, just ship the source

files. Don’t flatten the layers

5. Include version histories

of your designs

6. Design modules of larger


7. Release your work half done

8. Release your concepts as

product. Let others make them

9. Design products as platforms,

and vice-versa

10.Create a plug-in library

for others who want to

add things to your design

11.Release a ‘flat-pack’ option

– it was all just pieces at

some point…

12.Release beta versions

13.If self-assembly is required,

provide options for assembly.

Create a wiki to allow your

customers to do the same

14.If it comes pre-assembled,

include instructions for

taking it apart

*[5] popularized first as a blog and then as an initiative launched by Burnham for an exhibition with Amsterdam's Platform 21 at the 2009 Montreal Biennial

With thanks to the genius of Duncan Fairfax and Prof John Wood aka the excellent Rev Max Ripple.