Beyond the Horse

A cup of coffee (content which is both functional and social) doesn’t exist without the activity of a global system of persons (context as activity continually reproduced through interpretation and reinterpretation, individually or collectively). In the case of coffee that global system involves people planting, growing, harvesting, processing, auctioning, exporting, shipping, importing, transporting, roasting and brewing. What feels like such a simple, given pleasure is actually a highly complex global commodity that equals varying degrees of livelihood for very many people. 

At the cafe level, we brew coffee considering three important variables – strength, extraction and brew ratio. Plotting the relationship between these factors, we aim to achieve the optimum balance that will produce the most naturally occurring sweetness in that coffee.

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We use tools like refractometers and smart scales and thermometers and cupping spoons and grinders. And we rely on science and math and graphs in addition to our own palate, developed over time and with practice. Often times we will understand palate as intuition and lean more heavily on this because nobody wants to do math at 5am in the morning.

Why is this relevant to understanding the role of design research? Context isn’t just ‘there’, Paul Dourish writes, “but is actively produced, maintained and enacted in the course of the activity at hand.” I believe what Dourish is driving towards is that context and content are not mutually exclusive but produce meaning and value when we consider the interplay and interconnectedness between the two. 

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The graph is charted to reflect how the methodologies described by each author are indicative of an approach more concerned with Designing With People, as in participatory design or co-creation methods, versus Designing For People, as in product ecology or experience prototyping. The Y axis is reflective of the authors bent – towards a focus on content, as in objects, technologies or interventions, versus a focus on context, dynamic interpretations which are continually reimagined and sustained by activity or interaction. 

Through learning about different design research approaches, and considering the ethical implications of each, I’ve developed my own perspective on what the role of the designer is in 2019. We are given access to many opportunity spaces through individual stories which is a privilege and a responsibility that we shouldn’t take lightly. What’s lacking from the conversations about the functional and social roles of designed objects, technologies or interventions is the possibility that those can also have an integrative role. 

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Today’s designer should consider their role, then, as one of Integration. Not only integrating context with content but also, bridging the divide between an organization and its people; merging the functional with the social; and cultivating participation between the designer and their publics. 

I’ll leave you with a quote from the spiritualist, Parker Palmer, that was instrumental in my decision to leave the coffee industry after fifteen years. It compelled me to consider how else I might participate in the world and ultimately led me here. 

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