Design weeks and biennials are not really the kinds of events you should flit through. It takes time to discover what’s really going on – to read the research behind the project and not just look for image-friendly work. Time (or lack of) connected two recent design events held in Ljubljana and Eindhoven, but their main handshake was between knowledge and information.

The recent inroads design is paving towards journalism makes perfect sense to Thomas Geisler, curator of Common Knowledge, the name of the 26th Biennial of Design (BIO 26) held in Ljubljana.

“It’s the same way of thinking,” he says. “Often both start from scratch researching a topic.  The journalist might end up with an article and the designer a concept for a product or service, but the early skills of enquiry are similar.”

It wasn’t that long ago that the term common knowledge meant known by most, but the concept grew awry as the idea of what ‘we’ can all agree on and trust was challenged to the point of collapse. The result has been an important opening up of what’s assumed as shared and a deeper and broader debate on pretty much everything. All good, but in the process more and more information is being generated and keeping up can be a nightmare. It’s an information crisis.

“There becomes a lack of filtering or of curating that really makes it hard,” says Geisler. “For BIO we wanted to revisit the term common knowledge, pose questions and see how designers are responding to it all.”

It was a clever and important theme. Last October and only a few weeks before BIO 26 opened, the Dutch Design Week (DDW) in Eindhoven saw a slew of projects addressing similar questions.

My First Vlog by Joris Verleg, multi-phone video installation

In fact Martina Huynh and Jonas Althaus who only recently launched their studio, Cream on Chrome, presented their first project 4-D News at both BIO and DWW.

Inspired by cubism, 4-D News strips the pretence of its supposed objectivity from even the most credible journalism. Rather, it handles news in a non-linear format that builds on a story via correlations, loops and versions. The story evolves making it clear to the consumer that there are various versions of one fact, that terms and meaning change with time, and that very often it's the news itself that creates the story.

This format offers a type of meta-narration and breathes context into news coverage, making it both more real and dynamic. In the DDW installation, users navigated a timeline of how the 2015 Angela Merkel phrase “Wir schaffen das” (“We can do this”) evolved over time in the daily German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung.  Using a physical arrow, visitors would move through time to see how the story was being told at any specific moment.

In 2015, “We can do this” was Merkel’s reaction to the question “Can the EU accommodate more Syrian refugees?” and yet four years later the phrase had been manipulated to mean “Can Germany integrate Syrian refugees into their labour market?”

It’s the speed of the news, the abundance of channels and the constant connection to devices that call for fresh news formats. Everything has changed and yet mainstream journalism mostly remains pretty much the same.

“We spent a lot of time on this project with journalist Stern de Pagter,” says Huynh. “He talks about how the speed of the news these days creates so much pressure, making accuracy, thorough research and context harder to find.”

"What 4-D News does is merge design and journalism from its core out,” says Althaus.  “We wanted to experiment with different formats and hand them over to our collaborators to investigate. Our final design introduces a subtle layer of meta-information that changes over time making the whole narrative more fluid.”

The Fish Effect by Domitille Debret. Photo: Femke Rijerman

Joris Verleg also commented on the perennial nature of reporting. With My First Vlog he presented a messy and organic tree-like shape with branches going in all directions – each ending in a small screen that broadcast a personal blog of ‘important’ news.

“Among millennials, traditional opinion makers and media figures have been replaced by influential vloggers,” explains Verleg on the troubling role of influencers. “Tips about gaming, fashion and makeup, but also familiar uncertainties and vulnerable moments, such as coming out, are shared with fans on YouTube.”

Also at BIO was Seen by Emil Kozole, a font with a programmed set of sensitive ‘spook words’ that the National Security Agency in the US and various agencies in the UK use to scan internet usage.

“When I moved to London I was overwhelmed by all the security cameras,” Kozole says. “When I was studying at Central Saint Martins I went through all the Edward Snowden files. How everything was tracked astounded me.

“Smaller countries don’t have the same budgets of course, but on the internet it doesn't really matter where you are located because your activity all goes via a couple of big companies that are mostly based in the UK or the Sates anyway. Even when we use local pages, there is a big possibility that they are hosted by Amazon.”

Voicing Borders by Irakii Sabekia. Photos: courtesy of the designer

Voicing Borders by Irakii Sabekia. Photos: courtesy of the designer

The Seen typeface can be used in software such as Illustrator, InDesign and Word, but also in a browser. It works just like any other font, but when a trigger word is written, the font automatically crosses it out leaving a text with bold and obvious deletions.

Seen is about highlighting how we are being watched,” explains Kozole, “and it can also show how to avoid being tracked. It is an experiment in evasive and reflexive techniques to interact with the lack of privacy we face online.”

New spook words are added by agencies all the time. “I only know via people working just outside the law how it works,” Kozole admits. “But hackers and hacktivists say the words are often names and acronyms, not necessarily obvious words like drugs and explosives.”

Kozole sees it as a huge problem that so many millennials say they have nothing to hide so don't care if they are tracked. “They can’t even imagine now how it might affect them in 10 years,” he says. “Things you did years earlier that you assumed were private can resurface to your disadvantage in ways we can’t yet imagine, like for jobs or public positions.”

Both of these projects were part of the central exhibition at MAO, the Museum of Art and Design. But BIO, co-curated with journalist Aline Lara Rezende, also commissioned a series of interventions (prototypes that will continue to develop) into existing institutes around the city of Ljubljana, such as a university, a newspaper office, a botanical garden and a retirement village. Each project included designers, a mentor and most efficaciously an expert in the field. Although apparently not always easy, it was this influence by someone trained and experienced in the area that really gave breadth to the impact of the interventions.

Commonplace Studio (Jon Stam and Simon de Bakker) mentored perhaps the most successful prototype – a physical search engine that sat in the revered and classical foyer of Ljubljana’s main library. Instead of relying on typical browsing tools like key words, year, or author to find material, it asks the user to place a few selected images onto a light board grid that then generates other images from the archive. Seen together these tell a different story in a new context via unexpected relations.

And at the Design Academy Eindhoven show seen during DDW the information crisis was also being tackled from different angles.

Domitille Debret’s subversive project explored how statistics have come to dominate web design, meaning it’s numbers rather than a solid process that often dictates how our interfaces look and feel.

“My clients always want to know which page is most efficient, and they want those statistics to determine how the user experience should be,” says Debret. “For marketing this makes total sense, but I think the problem is this approach has crept into everything. Even the New York Times will test run two headlines to see which one catches. This shouldn’t be how all decisions are made. Just because a button will get more hits if it is bright red doesn’t mean that according to good design principles every button should be bright red. This thinking loses sight of the bigger picture.”

To toy with this topsy-turvy reality Debret designed The Goldfish Effect, using her pet fish. As the fish swims in its tank it is tracked which then activates the computer cursor. The cursor scrolls through websites generating data – fake data that Debret has designed to disturb the process.

“First I created a database of websites that monitor user behaviour in a specific way,” explains Debret. “If you know how, you see which technology a website is using to track their users. It’s embossed in the website.”

“Even if you are trying to donate to a cause,” continues Debret, “how you use and manoeuvre your way around a website is being watched.  They then use what you do to define you.”

Debret realises her project is a tiny drop. “I don’t know what else to do though,” she says. “This problem has become so big, it’s practically impossible to fight against. We all have to live with big data so my goal via this sweet little fish is to at least point out the importance of being more data informed than data driven.”

The Fish Effect by Domitille Debret. Photo: Peterr Cox

Russia's presence in the Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia destroyed many villages and a lot of architecture during the 2008 Russo-Georgian War. The border fence still exists.

To handle the presence of the inflammatory fence and all it represents to him, designer Irakli Sabekia developed Voicing Borders, a device that turns the fence into a radio transmitter. “I studied the structure and its properties to work out a way I could possibly use it to my advantage,” he says.

He discovered that he could use the fence as an antenna. He added a specially tuned transmitter to broadcast via Morse code the names and geographic coordinates of villages that were eradicated.

"The work switches the function of the fence,” says Sabekia. “It ends up voicing what it's meant to hide. A weapon of occupation becomes a tool for voicing an objection to it.”

Managing our social media profile has tipped over to yet another thing we need to do to just keep up. So imagine if we owned a small robot that could do it all.

Marion Foulquier is creating a film – E.topia – starring exactly that robot, a programmed assistant tasked with taking care of the social media presence of her client. Not bad, except her client has almost nothing with which to create an interesting social profile out of.

All media is information,” says Marion. “And if you don’t stay connected, it’s basically impossible to remain a part of what is going on.”

It’s not a radical position. “We need media,” she continues. “Good creations to help us connect, but we also need to be able to take a step back and be able to not use it. Today it is all about trying to strike a balance.”

That balance or lack thereof is explored through the robot’s struggle. She can only work with what exists but her owner eats badly, is miserable, and has a mundane lifestyle… characteristics that fail to attract followers on social media. The only option is to create an exaggerated profile to make a grim reality look glamorous or funny enough to seduce more followers.

“And I am showing both sides of the coin,” adds Marion. “How mass-produced everything has become. It’s not just the information that never ends, it's also the things, because constant innovation can be exhausting.”

Reuse and repair needs attention – even a sexier image – because despite being distinctly unglamorous, and Instagram unfriendly, the robot’s client is employed in work that matters – she burns old electronics to extract the copper.

Marion’s film was released during DDW as a trailer and is now in proper production. Poignantly the stop-motion film is so far being made from scrap materials and found objects.

It was the humility of these Eindhoven projects that was most telling. It seems the days of brash and sleek objects with over-inflated captions promising to save the world are gone. These were a series of quieter and gentler designs that admitted fear, confusion, and most poignantly an admission of the limited impact each will ultimately make.

Seen by Emil Kkozole, images courtesy of the designer

By Gabrielle Kennedy