Layers: Weaving Narratives & Design to Construct Futures

Introduction — Floating space junk & other objects

In the summer of 1977 NASA launched the Voyager 2 into space, a space probe that is now over 11 billion miles from earth, the farthest human-made object ever launched into space. What makes this object especially poetic are two disks placed on the probe. Constructed from gold, they are etched with a map back to earth and contain sounds and images capturing the diversity of life and culture on our planet. An object capturing the mystery of what it means to be human, an artefact of cold war space exploration, an engineering masterpiece — space junk floating out into the abyss.

Voyager 2 via Wikipedia

A call for designers

Designers are accountable. Designers are object makers. Whether physical or digital, designers devise and craft objects that are deployed onto reality — solutions that go on to live with real people and communities — who consume and produce them, who are directly and indirectly impacted by them.

A new framework

Co-developed by Ignacio Tovar, Noteh Krauss and myself, Giuliana Mazzetta, Layers is a framework that dives into the relationship between the designer and the (designed) object, peeling into the constituent layers that reveal the evident and hidden narrative strands and structures that shape up our reality — and inclusivity. The tool encourages designers to take apart that which surrounds us, challenging the preconceived ideas hidden in the context through aesthetics and association. The framework aims to make a case for the future mindful, inclusive designer.

Bringing together methods

In order to achieve this, Layers brings together principles across of varying theories and methods. Specifically, inspired by:

  • Interspecies design: Embracing the principle that humans and the natural world are interdependent, aiming to develop intersecting solutions that take human and nonhuman actors’ needs into account.
  • Actor-network theory: Examining how everything is interrelated and how as we take more into account, complexity emerges.
  • Design & society: Harnessing a contextual point of view to consider the dynamics of how design creates feedback loops of change — and how we can start hacking some of these feedback loops.

Layers Canvas

In order to untangle the object we devised this canvas that will guide you through the different layers. This canvas has many different ways of being used and read, but the main goal is to provide you with a framework that allows you to understand the designed thing at increased levels of abstraction and complexity.

Breaking it down

  • At the centre of the canvas is the object. That is the innermost circle.
  • Each of the lines that connects to the object at the center is a strand guide. Strand guides allow you to question specific aspects of the object. Here we are considering the following categories: Materiality, Production Process, Supply Chains, Institutions/Organizations, Markets, Trade, Consumers, Consumption, Communication, Semiotics and Meaning, Aesthetics and Use.
  • One way of understanding the relationship of these strand guides is by reading them in a counterclockwise manner. In this way, they describe the process in which the object is made, supplied, traded, consumed and understood.

Frontend vs. backend

The framework can also be thought of in terms of its halves.

  • If we divide it horizontally, we can describe two main ways of understanding the object. On the lower half we have the Front End of the object, which is linked to the Business Strategy and hence the viability of the object. Here, we are trying to understand the value creation process as the object exchanges hands and is consumed.
  • In the upper half we have the Backend, or the process that happens behind the scenes; the way it is produced, understood and used. The way the design process captures needs and cultural values, and materializes them is the key to understanding this side.

Materiality vs. meaning

We can also divide the canvas vertically to show a different way of understanding the object.

  • To the left, we have the Physical or Material aspects of the object. In this half we consider the way the raw materiality is transformed into an object and then is moved and shipped.
  • On the right side we have the non-physical, the subjective qualities that are linked to the desirability of the object. When analyzing the strands related to this side, we are trying to dissect the way the object is perceived and consumed.

Strand guide

Additionally we can understand this canvas in terms of quadrants. The first and third quadrants are broken up into strands that describe the value creation of the object, while the second and fourth can tell us about the power structures that are held in place through the weaved thing.

  • The first one is the Supply Chain strand guide, which make us understand the leap from manufactured object to commercialized product. What is the object made from? How is it manufactured? Who produces it?
  • The second is the Trade strand guide, which describes the way the end user gets a hold of the object. Who owns and sells the object? What institutions enable or regulate it? How and where are supply chains set up? Which markets do they serve? Where and how are they sold?
  • Then we have the Communication strand guide, describing the process in which the end users and general public come in contact in any way with the object. Who consumes it? Why do they consume it? How do they consume it?
  • Finally is the Use strand guide, which comes to describe the way or ways in which the user interacts with the object. How does it make you feel? What does the object mean? What is the cultural significance? What do the aesthetics signal?

How to use it?

Placing an object at the centre of the canvas, we can start to dissect and uncover its complexity and network of implications. What strands sit directly around the object? What are the underlying origins behind these strands? Who does the object effect and how? How might my privilege as an individual inform and contribute to the existing context?

Conclusion

Objects are the surface layer for complex realities — tying up and integrating diverse materials, activities and beliefs into unified wholes. By peeling the layers back from them, we are able to see interconnections and uncloak the invisible actors, forces and structures of power that enable their very existence.

  • Context — Exploring & understanding the role of context in shaping the products and services we design — thus expands our scope of responsibility as designers.
  • Relationships — Through deconstruction of object, we can uncloak the complex relationships we engage with as designers.
  • Blindspots — Through self-reflection and empathy we further uncover blindspots we wouldn’t perceive on our own at first glance.
  • Intersections —Through reconstruction we take intersecting needs into account, reminding us we can’t design in vacuums for the needs of one human or customer segment.

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Giuliana Mazzetta

Exploring alternative routes forward through strategic design, speculative design, business design and more.