The 1973 Design Research Society Conference, co-sponsored with the US Design Methods Group, represents a landmark in the story of DRS conferences. This could be said of all conferences for different reasons and writing these down it feels like a review of wines of different vintage and character: the formal, understated but optimistic 1962; the weighty and academic 1965; the architectural scope but philosophical depth of 1967; the politically engaged 1971...  It's worth recognising that these tasting notes are all based on limited access to the wine. The proceedings are available as published and the design of the covers of these, the label, tends to (and is no doubt intended to) make a statement about the event that is contained within it. Each event is also subsequently referenced by commentators. The Design Council Journal is a good source of this (as seen in previous posts) but there is also a natural tendency for editors to look back at earlier conferences to provide a context for their own. 

The 1971 organisers had, according to their introduction to the proceedings, embraced their Participation theme by offering different ways for delegates to participate with the proceedings and this seems to reflect the concerns of the time where design adopted more user centred perspectives. The 1971 proceedings feels like a 1970s school library book which conveys this sense of inclusivity but at the same time retains some kind of pedagogical authority. Surviving artefacts from 1973 tell a different story. 

There were no formal proceedings published for the 1973 conference and therefore there is no formal reflective record of the event from the perspective of the organisers or editors. Some commentators suggest that there were no formal proceedings at the conference itself. Paper sessions were not chaired, participants were not able to present their papers and the title of "Design Activity Conference" became bastardised by one reporter into "The Design Inactivity Conference". But this journalistic pun belies a more complex and committed undertaking on the part of the organisers.

Whereas the 1971 conference reflected the opening up of the design process to the user the 1973 opened up the design process to a wider whole of society where authority can not be assumed and where those who do assume it can be questioned. It's tempting to draw wider analogies (wider even than a wine tasting) which identifies the UK in a state of political turmoil. The Provisional IRA are in the middle of their renewed bombing campaign across London, millions of workers are or have been on strike against Government imposed pay restraints, Colin Ward's Anarchy in Action is published. There is surely some resonance here and a wider cultural context of every conference (maybe to include the pop songs of the day as well as the political climate) is something for later.

My point here though is that the conference organisers seemed to be circumspect about their organising. Not in the sense of the logistics of the event itself: the preparations for it, traced through the various folders that were produced and circulated, are testament to the rigour of this process and the commitment of those involved. The themes were clearly engaging with the concerns of the DRS: 

  • Design Morphologies; 
  • Design Processes, Techniques And Algorithms; 
  • Design Objectives; 
  • Design Case Studies; 
  • Design Education, Professionalism And Management

But the authority of the organisers was implicitly questioned by their own actions. All papers were submitted were accepted, all papers were pre-circulated, the conference structure and the activities included were open to discussion. While this led to the kind of criticism about inactivity mentioned above (and I write as somebody who is always mindful, then mildly irritated and increasingly annoyed when conference speakers over-run) it also demonstrates a further opening up of the boundaries of design. If the 1971 level of participation showed the designer crossing the conventional border of their domain to engage with the user, the 1973 event showed that border to be artificially constructed and permeable in both directions.

The cover of the "Third Information Folder" of the DRS/DMG Design Activity International Conference, 29-31 August 1973. Not many copies of this folder appear to have survived. A "Second Information Folder" has the same motif as a tightrope walker, in blue, holding an umbrella. There may have been a "First Information Folder" but this is as yet unseen. A poster for the conference has a juggler (in red)

The cover of the "Third Information Folder" of the DRS/DMG Design Activity International Conference, 29-31 August 1973. Not many copies of this folder appear to have survived. A "Second Information Folder" has the same motif as a tightrope walker, in blue, holding an umbrella. There may have been a "First Information Folder" but this is as yet unseen. A poster for the conference has a juggler (in red)

Through the graphic design of the conference material the designer, if we identify with the Vitruvian man used as the motif to be a designer, is presented as a juggler, a tightrope walker and an acrobat. But the Vitruvian man is also "everyman" (yes it's still a man - a gendered history of these conferences is perhaps pending) and these circus acts represent a wider set of activities taking place in a more inclusive circus ring than that provided by the rooms, lecture theatres and bars of the conventional conference.

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