What is a Smart Textile?

 an upper-body garment with a hood that exploited the ability for inflated volumes to create structure to further create volume.

The concept was simple: that air pressure within the inflatable structure of the garment would be coupled on the inner temperature of the user, so that the garment would inflate relative to the temperature of the user: more if the user was cold less of the user was warm. The relative properties of insulation would then be visually expressed by the morphing structure of the garment.

Research Report: What is a Smart Textile?

I met a lot of interesting people during this short but intense design research workshop into smart textiles. Within the multidisciplinary setting I was confronted with many different points of views and opinions about what exactly a smart textile is.

Working alongside designers with different backgrounds to me, I saw them take different approaches to the subject and use a completely different design process than the one I was trained in. I would like to focus on this aspect of the learning experience, because it helped me to better defined my own position on the subject, and gave me better insight into my own working practice in the light of contrast with those of the others around me.

We all met in the context of an open design space; a very undefined creative space where strangers are yoked together into groups to research smart textiles and produce a smart winter wearable within a short deadline. The pressure to produce something quickly and to work efficiently didn’t leave much room for exchange of skills and extended discussion, so we tended to fall back on our own specialism and keep to our own way of working.

What quickly emerged from the group dynamic is that different designers gave different emphasis to different stages of the design process. Some insisted on the importance of developing the concept, while others stressed the need for material experimentation, while for others finding and defining the final feeling and image of the desired end result was most important.

Further discussion revealed that what lies behind our individual preference for giving emphasis to one stage of the design process rather than another were completely different ideologies about design and creation. For example in discussion with one of my piers it became clear that behind his insistence on developing a complex social concept and specific context was his desire to justify using a variety of light, heat, and sound sensors and programmable Lilly pads. Ultimately he wanted to incorporate as much new technology as possible because he believes his designs should be original, interesting, and pioneering.

On the other hand, my own point of view is that the concept should be simple, with a clear, communicatable story, and with a context that is as universal as possible. I believe very  much in the 100 hundred monkeys theory of collective consciousness, so I am not so interested in originality, but rather on further developing collective experience and share  knowledge.

Taken to their extremes, our different points of view express fundamentally different positions on the role of a designer. One, where the designer is held to be an individual creative ego that must produce private designs that he must protect with intellectual property rights. Where only that individual designer can further develop the process of their own private design. Or on the other hand, the designer is held to be a participant in a larger open-source creative process: building on prior knowledge and experience and then in turn bringing the whole process further for benefit of the open creative community as a whole.

In our group process, we researched trapping air within inflatable volumes to create insulation. The final result was an upper-body garment with a hood that exploited the ability for insulated volumes to create structure to further create volume. The concept was simple: that air pressure within the inflatable structure of the garment would be coupled on the inner temperature of the user, so that the garment would inflate relative to the temperature of the user: more if the user was cold less of the user was warm. The relative properties of insulation would then be visually expressed by the morphing structure of the garment.

The argument from the experts guiding the smart textile workshop was whether the garment needed to be smart or if the user could simply define for themselves how much to inflate the garment. Within different contexts both options were valid, for example in the arctic or in high altitude summit attempts, users would not always be aware of or have time to adjust the insulative properties of the garment so in these cases it should be able to sense and adapt by itself to short-term changes in temperature. While within the context of the urban dweller, it was perhaps more appropriate for the user to be able to define how inflated the garment was for themselves based on longer-term seasonal changes in temperature. In this situation live, moment to moment changes in the insulation of the garment are not a priority.

When talking about smart or intelligent products, one of the experts insisted on a very formal definition of “smartness”, reading Wikipedia’s definition of intelligence: “understanding, self-aware, communicative, learning, planning, and problem-solving”. That only when an object possesses all of these characteristics is it to be considered “smart”. I disagree with this point of view. I believe something is smart if it can adapt its inherent properties and form to serve a human need. So rather than having individual objects for specific functions, a
single object that can adapt to suit required functions is smart. Where the intelligence is placed; whether in the user or in the object, is a mute point, so long as the object can be adapted to serve the user it doesn’t matter if the object is adapted or adapts itself.

Design Research: what it can and can’t do.

The ultimate context of designs is the human user. In fact I would go so far as to define design as applied humanism. The human user is intelligent, and that fact is the real practical context for most design. Of course it is possible to place intelligence within objects themselves, but to justify doing so with very specific and abstracts contexts, such as passive states, in most cases, means that you are no longer designing for the real context of the human user, but are instead looking for reasons to justify pointless innovation and unsustainable convenience.

In discussion with the experts the subject broadened from what “smartness” is and the reasons for incorporating technology into textile, into different ways of working as a designer to give meaning to objects and create concepts. I hadn’t considered my own opinions on the topics so deeply before, so I was not as able to give a ready reply as the experts. The debate did lead me to reflect on my own opinions and better define my own position on the subject, so that, as one of the experts said, I could “disagree more precisely” within the design debate as a whole.

I believe the act of making is as much an epistemological process as it is a physical process. In my creative manifesto I write: “In ‘making’, man is simply projecting a concept into the unnameable, unthinkablity of what is: populating the existential mystery of existence with conceptual nouns; polluting the living world with a debris of abstract and discordant identities. Man ‘makes’ to project his reality into the unnamed world so he may live in a world of symbols he can understand and control.”

I believe that design research cannot escape the pre-existing context of the meaning the researcher projects on the world around them. By researching, we are not discovering or generating new information or meaning, we are actually simply getting to know ourselves; our own projections, because we can only manifest what is already within us.

So when we try to design a warm winter wearable, we end up producing what a warm winter wearable means to us. Even if we start from a point of material experimentation and let the design probes and process carry us to an unexpected final result, the ultimate application and meaning is still informed by the designer’s own values.  All objects that we make, and in fact all objects that we can name and recognize, are semiotic artefacts: manifestations of our own subconscious. In essence, Form follows Consciousness. In this context, the importance of the open design process becomes clear. If meaning cannot be generated, only projected, then only the end user themselves, or a designer that shares a common experience with the end user, can produce something that is meaningful for the end user.

In conclusion, I believe you cannot use design research to find new meanings that are not related to the reality of a user. Meanings cannot be abstract; they are always subjective, and always relative. This raises an important question for designers and the industry. Why would you (and how can you) design something that does not serve a real and living end user. Such an object may be innovative but it will always be meaningless, because it does not serve the real living reality of a user.

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