chapter  14
10 Pages

Utopian Things

WithPelle Ehn

An epilogue often tells what happened afterwards. In the case of this book, it would be about the fate of those we used to call designers and users. This, of course, is an ongoing story unfolding in many unforeseen ways. Instead, as personal reflections, I will take my point of departure in what happened before, in the Scandinavian tradition of participatory design and efforts towards democratization of the workplace originating some four decades ago. My point of departure will be Utopia, not as yet another joyful nowhere, but the Utopia-project and concrete experiments carried out in collaboration between skilled typographers and a diverse group of designers and researchers in the early 1980s. This project was set within discourses and practices concerning the democratization of the workplace, not least the controversies in the newspaper industry on the involvement of new technology in the workplace. It had at that time the unusual goal of a technological design aiming at tools for skilled work, quality of work and product in what we today refer to today as a user driven innovation process. To cross the borders between design and use, to build on the crafting potential of graphic workers, and to counter management prerogatives in the workplace, a design approach emerged, centred around collaborative hands-on experimentation as ‘design-bydoing’ (mock-ups and prototypes) and ‘design-by-playing’ (organizational games and other performative interventions). These practical design interventions were conceptually reflected in the pragmatic and unorthodox interpretations of the later

Wittgenstein (Wittgenstein 1953, Ehn 1988). Design was understood as the staging of participatory events of intertwined language-games of design practice and use practice, and skill and creativity as the human capacity following a rule in practice in wholly unforeseen ways. Artefacts used in the design process were understood, with a concept later borrowed from Susan Leigh Star (1989), as ‘boundary objects’ binding different practices together.