Materialising public engagement: The articulation of public issues through design

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How does design enact the articulation of public issues? In this study I examine how particular design work actually supports action-oriented and material forms of public engagement. To do so, I describe and analyse several case studies that use design as a means to support the articulation of a public issue. Examples are Smogware – in which crockery is coloured using a glaze that contains particulate matter – and The Rain Project, in which popsicles made out of unfiltered rainwater were handed out to passers-by. These cases illustrate how specific, well-considered design decisions forged new, meaningful relationships between elements that hitherto were regarded unrelated, in order to render the public issue of atmospheric pollution experientially accessible (DiSalvo, 2009). I argue that they demonstrate how engagement with public issues can be channelled into the enactment of specific activities and the employment of particular artefacts, and that design work can meaningfully contribute to these processes. Moreover, I expand design scholar Carl DiSalvo’s (2012) concept “devices of articulation” – a term depicting “ubicomp” artefacts created to ignite controversy and establish “participatory spaces of contest.” I do so by including certain noncomputational artefacts in this category; non-electric, ‘dumb’ artefacts that were also purposefully designed to underpin material forms of political participation. I argue that creating devices of articulation enables designers to support material publics (Marres, 2012) in articulating matters of collective concern.

Throughout its history as a formal profession – using both problem-solving as well as problematising approaches – practitioners and theorists have mobilised design in relation to various interpretations of “the social” in different ways. In order to be more precise about how exactly design can meaningfully address matters of concern, I follow sociologist Noortje Marres’s (2007) argumentation to differentiate problems that might be fixed, from issues that can merely be stabilized. Acknowledging that both problems and issues are not given phenomena but instead need to be actively constructed and sustained, I argue that “designerly agency” can be understood as the framing, setting and solving of problems, as well as the articulation and stabilisation of issues, through the creation of utilitarian artefacts (objects, environments, services and systems).

In this study I describe the social life (Appadurai, 1986) of the Dutch National Measuring Network for Air Pollution to illustrate how an artefact initially designed for entirely different purposes, can be recalibrated to additionally serve as a device of articulation initiated by state officials. By describing and analysing a number of specific artefacts and activities, I argue that – over a period of decades – state officials have actively supported engagement with atmospheric pollution by facilitating interactions about this issue between state representatives and lay publics through specific entanglements of the social and the material such as “citizen sensing” (Gabrys, 2016). I state that – as an interpretational space of contest where abstract scientific representations meet concrete lived experiences – “citizen sensing” is a relevant context for designers that seek to support the articulation of public issues through the artefacts they create.

Following from the cases I have analysed in this study – as well as from the educational workshop I have organised at St. Joost School of Art & Design – I conclude that designers can use their integrative approach, aesthetic sensibilities, imagination, and communicative skills to mediate tensions that emerge at the interfaces of concurrent realities. Design enacts the articulation of public issues by channelling engagement with matters of collective concern into the employment of specific, well-considered artefacts within the context of specific, curated activities.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Erasmus University Rotterdam
  • Schinkel, Willem, Supervisor
  • van Eekelen, BF, Supervisor
Award date4 Jul 2024
Place of PublicationRotterdam
Print ISBNs978-90-9038569-3
Publication statusPublished - 4 Jul 2024

Bibliographical note

© Laurens Kolks, 2024
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any
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