Chris Speed is changing the way designers view data. As Chair of Design Informatics at the University of Edinburgh, Speed aims to understand the role of data in design, examining how network technology can engage with art, design and social experiences. In particular, he is interested in how designers are moving towards designing with data as opposed to designing from data.
Speed first ventured into the field of informatics at what is now the University of Brighton while studying telematics in conjunction with his Fine Arts degree. Using telephones and fax machines, he explored the disruptive nature of telecommunication and its impact on social connections. After working briefly in digital publishing, Speed went on to pursue his Master’s Degree in Design Futures at Goldsmiths, University of London before earning his Doctorate in Digital Architecture at Plymouth University.
Objects as designers
With the emergence of new research fields in Informatics such as the Internet of Things, Speed seizes the opportunity to work on a number of unusual, albeit groundbreaking projects. As a Design United Research Fellow at Delft University of Technology, he and his colleagues collect and analyze vast amounts of data derived from everyday objects connected to the Internet. In the process, Speed collaborates with computer scientists to develop machine-learning algorithms to observe the world from an object’s perspective, spotting the differences that humans fail to see.
“There’s a danger that design is still very eye-centered,” Speed says. “Machine learning and data technologies offer another way of understanding the world from ‘beyond the eye’.” More importantly, it supports the idea that objects could become designers themselves.
“It could be possible that humans have become so entrenched in their habits that they find it very hard to see new design opportunities. So we’d like to think that machine learning or algorithms are strong enough and bright enough to suggest new behaviours, new design, new services and possibly new products themselves.”
Imagining the value of design
This nonlinear approach to research fosters a design sensibility that strikes a balance between designers wanting to push their visions onto the world and the need to reflect sensitively on design’s impact. Speed likens this sensibility to being on a skateboard, whereby the designer moves forward, navigating new spaces, but is also compelled to slow down and stop to reflect and engage with the world she is in. Other times, the skateboard rolls backward, reeling from the “horrors” that the designer has created.
“It’s purely about trying to imagine the value of design,” Speed says, “not in the creation of shiny objects or the function of design products, but establishing ‘things’ as designed partners for living.”
That being said, Speed wants to challenge designers to not only think outside the box but to also deviate from doing things by the book. “Industrial Design tends to pursue things from a rather problem-solving approach, which is fine,” he maintains. “But it tends to ignore some of the illicit practices which might have a lot of clues on how we might do things differently in the world.”