What is the Action? ❋

Sweet Dreams Are Made of This 2020, Session 01

Zoë Elizabeth Urand
4 min readSep 22, 2020

Our first session began with a discussion based on reflections from the last two years of studies and what we consider to be a contribution, as we head towards our thesis semester. The following questions helped to shape our reflections and discussions.

What has made an impact on you during your studies here at ZHdK? Does not necessarily have to be related to studies.

While my time here at ZHdK has definitely had an impact on me, my thoughts immediately jumped to my personal life when asked this question. I officially moved from the city of Vancouver to a small Swiss village in the spring of 2017. During the past few years I have spent time (and $$$) learning German, while simultaneously trying to navigate the many dialects of Schwiizerdüütsch. I have also quickly come to learn that running late for an appointment and vacuuming on Sundays are both equally frowned upon. The Kanton of Zürich believes that people from Aargau can’t drive — and vice versa. FCZ and GCZ are soccer teams, not graffiti tags. En guete is the Swiss equivalent to bon appetit. Oh, and rösti is pretty damn delicious.

Moving to Switzerland has without a doubt been new and exciting, but it has also been unfamiliar and lonely. Of course it’s a challenge to create a new home in a country with four national languages—none of which you speak—and a culture quite different from your own. But what is truly lonely about moving abroad is the weird limbo state you become stuck in, where your new home doesn’t feel like home yet, and your old home doesn’t feel like home anymore. This, and the people you leave over 8300 km and 9 hours behind, make it really difficult.

On a less personal note, I thought it might also be useful to begin writing down all the bits of information and various ideas I have come into contact with, which have really stuck with me during my time at ZHdK:

  1. Phatic communication (Ritual Machines I & II: Making Technology at Home)
  2. Undesigning design (Undesigning Technology: Considering the Negation of Design by Design)
  3. The notion or idea of rebooting technology, education, etc.
  4. Leverage points (Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System)
  5. Cultural probes (Gaver et al.)

What impact have you personally had during your studies? Does not necessarily have to be related to studies.

I was briefly speaking with Sophie about this, and she mentioned how the impact we have on others and our environment can sometimes be difficult to see—I agree. As students of interaction design at ZHdK we contribute daily to our community. We share discussions and laughs, beer, and our knowledge and individual skill sets with each other. These small actions and exchanges have a long term impact on the overall wellbeing of the other students and our community as a whole, but we might not notice this impact unless we are explicitly told by the someone who has been affected.

When I reflect on my move to Switzerland and how I have had to become comfortable being an outsider in many ways, I realize this has made me increasingly aware of others in a similar or more difficult situation. I recognize I am privileged in many ways, and perhaps haven’t had the same experience as others when moving to a new country, but I try to treat others with respect, openness, and patience.

What is a contribution and how do we as designers contribute?

During my studies I have come to realize that designers are often viewed or understood as problem solvers. This is problematic, however, because the word solution suggests a kind of finality or coming to an end. Yet, the world is always changing and evolving; it is never static. For this reason, we as designers need to begin thinking in terms of contribution. How can we contribute to addressing the many issues we face today? How can these contributions be forward thinking, but also make space for future tweaks and improvements?

We discussed briefly how we as designers can contribute:

  1. The first step in contribution is to raise awareness. But what follows?
  2. Maybe we make interventions/improvements to an existing system.
  3. Or consider a political approach.
  4. We could make the invisible, visible.
  5. Take action.
  6. Even build a tool.

Then comes the question, what does a tool look like?

  1. It could be a participatory design approach.
  2. Or an app.
  3. Installations and interventions are also possible.
  4. Something on the Internet.
  5. An array of visualization techniques.
  6. New methods too.

We also watched excerpts from How to Survive a Plague (David France, 2012) and 120 BPM (Robin Campillo, 2013). What struck me the most were the layers of contribution in the latter film. There were people who had volunteered their time to organize and hold the ACT meetings, and others who were there to participate, either by speaking out or snapping their fingers in agreement. This film demonstrated that contribution comes in different shapes and sizes, and that the loudest contribution does not necessarily have the greatest impact.