Björn Franke

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Undesign, 2014–2016

What does it mean when the outcome of a design process is the decision not to produce an object? Is this a design decision? How can designers work outside the narrow constraints of the profession and deal with real world issues? Is design for behaviour change an appropriate tool and what are the limitations of this approach? How might ‘undesign’ processes be used as a medium through which to investigate a design issue? This research project explores new and emergent critical positions in design through the concept of ‘undesign’. It takes the concept of ‘undesigning’ to mean reducing, simplifying, removing or eliminating design (and complexity). Building on the tradition of critical design, it aims to uncover and examine new functions for contemporary design. The research project is part of the FWF Research Project “Émigré Design Networks and the Founding of Social Design,” led by Alison J. Clarke.


The Stuff Between Us: Designing Interactions Beyond the Object, 2012–2013

The design of a technology is also always the design of an interaction. Hence the subject of design goes beyond formal aspects, appearances, and interfaces of technologies to concern the experiences, behaviours and qualities of life that emerge from them. As designed interactions influence individuals and societies, technology cannot be considered as neutral. This necessitates that the political, social and psychological effects of technology assume a more prominent position within the discourse surrounding design. Currently, however, technological development seems to be increasingly led by notions of innovation and economic efficiency, as well as the aim of increasing shareholder value, rather than an ethical debate that addresses more complex human needs. A deterministic view on technology renders its development as unstoppable, irreversible, ungovernable and, above all, incontestable, and thus prevents a nuanced perspective—either you are for or against it. A danger also lies in the possibility that technological development overwhelms us and overtakes our attempts at contemplation. Without a differentiated debate, our relationship with and design of technologies become somnambulistic. This research project explores the current state of the design of interactions from three perspectives. First, from the perspective of interacting through technologies, by discussing how technological artefacts increasingly mediate interpersonal communication and thus, human relationships. The promise of new communication channels, for example, often lures us into a private world that, rather than allowing us access to the world’s knowledge, reinforces our preexisting views. Second, from the perspective of interacting within environments shaped by technologies, exploring for instance how technologies such as light not only ameliorate everyday situations, but fundamentally influence and reconfigure social interactions. Third, from the perspective of thinking about possible or alternative ways of living through fictional and speculative design objects, which thereby become objects of debate and forms of interacting with possibilities of existence.


Making/Crafting/Designing: Perspectives of Design as a Human Activity, 2009–2011

Humans are essentially makers of things. These material artifacts surround us, they form our environment, and even form part of us. It is no longer possible to ignore that the world we live in is not a given, but is made by us. Alongside this realization, the world itself has become increasingly makeable, for example through genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and synthetic biology. As the resulting artifacts grow ever more complex, it has become crucial to understand the process and consequences of their production. These operations can essentially be understood as design processes. Within an extended notion of design almost all human activity is, to a significant degree, a design activity. This research project investigates how this notion of design could be conceptualized and what the consequences for design as an academic discipline might be. An extended notion of design must, however, also be critically evaluated: if most artifacts are considered as being designed, how can unintentional processes and their material outcomes be accounted for? Within an investigation of human material culture it is thus important to distinguish the terms “making” and “designing.” While the former designates the production of material artifacts as a human activity in general, the latter term indicates a more advanced form of making that involves planning, intentionality, and an awareness of consequences. As a result, the notion of what constitutes design is narrowed to concern only “designed objects,” while the overall view, which concerns the process of making, is extended to include intended and unintended artifacts. This will raise important questions for the role of design in human life. Who designs and for which purpose? How do we deal with responsibility for material artifacts and their intended or unintended consequences?


Design as Inquiry: Prospects of a Material Philosophy, 2007–2015
PhD Thesis

For many, design is the production of useful artefacts. Designing can however also provide a basis for exploration, speculation or critique. This research project develops this conception further by providing a theoretical framework for conceiving designing and design objects as a mode of and media for philosophical inquiry. Design is thus regarded as a material philosophy that explores and reflects philosophical issues by situating them in the concrete and particular reality of human life rather than in a generalised and abstract realm. Design objects are equipment and media that can be understood in terms of their contextual references and consequences as well as the way in which they mediate human action, thinking and existence, and thus in terms of the worlds that they open up. As media for reflection they allow one to gain an experiential understanding of these contexts and worlds. Design therefore relates to philosophy in terms of ethics and concepts; that is, in terms of exploring possibilities of existence and new forms of thinking. Since design objects can create new experiences and interactions they can lead to new values and concepts. These objects can be used to reflect on philosopical issues and to thus see the world from a new perspective. They can make abstract ideas experienceable, as they materialise issues in concrete situations and thereby allow one to judge them in a real world context, including possible consequences. (Images: Pioneer Plaque, Designed by Carl Sagan and Frank Drake, 1972)


Designing the Self, 2007–2010
Essay, Objects

The transformation and transcendence of the human being has long been a subject of philosophic inquiry. Currently, however, through advances in technology and scientific understanding of the functioning of the brain, the human being is increasingly subject to fundamental modification. Progress in the scientific understanding of human cognition and behaviour, as well as the potential modification of these, challenge long-held beliefs about responsibility, identity, autonomy, agency and in this sense about our “selves.” When we think of our selves we mainly refer to internal matters—to our dreams, desires, wishes, fears or memories. Our self, however, is to a large extend shaped by external objects. Things play a fundamental part in thinking consciously about ourselves, for example, through objects of self-definition, but also unconsciously, as objects shape our thinking and carry of memories. In this sense, we may say that objects are part of our thinking and thereby our part of ourself. This project explores the role of artefacts and technologies for the creation of selves and particularly how new technologies may influence the kind of selves being created. It suggests, that new technologies of the self do not require to work on oneself anymore, but have become instrumental and have turned humans into technological selves. (Images: José Delgado, The Physical Control of the Mind, 1969)


Apocalyptic Architecture, 2005

Since the invention of nuclear weapons and the possibility of destroying the entire civilisation, many protective structures were built. The notion of the shelter became the main strategy for the survival of civilisation. Many dystopian visions seemed to become reality and humans had to live underground beneath the uninhabitable surface. This research project investigates these structures and their relation to society during the Cold War, as well as their relevance today. Some of them are hidden as they were kept secret and some are hidden inside other structures. Digging under the surface of the Cold War means bringing something forward that might lie under everyday structures. (Images: US Office of Civil Defence, Public Shelter Designs, 1960s)


Eastern Remains, 2005

The Reunification of Germany was the end for the German Democratic Republic and its political, social and economic system. Its national institutions were integrated into the structures of the West. The shutdown of factories and military sites, as well as the migration of large parts of the population to Western Germany led to an enormous amount of abandoned spaces. Furthermore, the departure of nearly half a million soldiers of the Red Army stationed in Eastern German increased the amount of deserted military sites and objects. Most of these spaces are vacant today and slowly disintegrating. Others are torn down or converted for private use. Some of them were bought by military enthusiasts and are kept alive to function as a museum. This research project investigates these spaces, their transformation and their new occupants - which are sometimes the old ones - on a road trip through the former German Democratic Republic. (Images: Tim Giesen, 2005)


© 2004–2018 Björn Franke