Interview: Yin Aiwen

June 19, 2020

Yin Aiwen, designer, researcher, theorist and strategist teaching at AKV | St. Joost: “design is always obligated to communicate with the present”.

Yin Aiwen is a practicing designer, researcher, theorist, strategist and project developer, who uses writing, Speculative Design and time-based art to examine the social impact of planetary communication technologies. She advocates relationship-focused design as a strategy to redesign, re-engineer and reimagine the relationship between technology and society. Besides publishing and exhibiting internationally, she also works as a strategist and researcher for cultural institutions. Yin obtained an MFA degree from the Design department of Sandberg Instituut Amsterdam, and a BFA in Visual Communication from Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology. She is a practicing tutor at the Master Institute of Visual Cultures (Master of AKV | St.Joost, the Netherlands) and a researcher at CARADT (Centre of Applied Research for Art, Design and Technology) at Avans University of Applied Sciences. In 2019, Yin received the INFORM prize for Conceptual Design for her work.

How connected was your education with the Speculative Design (or related) approach you are using in your work today?

All my work has been growing from the research I began since my design master education at the Sandberg Institute in Amsterdam. There I wondered if design can operate beyond the mass communication/customization mechanism and become a practice that dwells upon ever-changing interpersonal relationships, and I assumed that this kind of practice will make design contribute more to social solidarity, instead of mass atomization. I call this approach “relationship-focused design”. All of my practice after 2013 is about finding out what it means to design based on relationships instead of individual user profiles, and how we ended up the way we are now.

Could you please select one of your (own) favourite Speculative Design projects and tell us what you like about it.

I guess ReUnion Network falls into this category. After spending a couple of years pondering what it means to design with (or based on) interpersonal relationships, or why we need to do so, I began to be able to initiate projects (ReUnion Network, Urbanizing the Digital, Commons.Art) that actually enact this theory. In other words, I have been trying to move relationship-focused design from being Speculative Design theory to practical guidelines for a new generation of design practice, beginning with my own initiatives. Among the three projects I mentioned, ReUnion is by far the most developed (although still developing) and presentable one, so I will use it as an example here. The project began with a speculative question: what would society look like if it had a dominant ideology of decentralization? Initially taking family and marriage as the most basic social contract that creates social bonds, organizes labor and distributes social resources, I started to imagine what if all of these became more “decentralized”? After many discussions with my wonderful collaborators, we decided to forefront the care aspect of social contracts and to think about how would/should/could the economy forefront the value of care and support a mesh network of care. And that’s when I figured out this project is the one that I have been seeking for a relationship-focused design: care is intrinsically relational, so it is the perfect site where rethinking design and technology can take place. That’s why ReUnion has never been a project trying to think about how carework can fit into the technological framework, rather, it has always been about, if our technology is there to care, how should it be designed?

The basic design unit of the ReUnion system is the relationship, the relationship with ourselves, the relationship with loved ones, and the relationship with society. The paradigm shift creates a chain re-design of UX design, proposing many novel approaches that usually wouldn’t be considered. You can see details here: docs.reunionnetwork.org.

If students asked about the practical or professional applications of this type of design, what would you say? (Or what are the practical or professional applications of this type of design?)

I am teaching a module called “Rethinking the social” at AKV | St. Joost in The Netherlands, where half of the class is about analyzing the now and imagining a future that one believes will be better, and the other half is about analyzing the pros and cons of this future and who would like to be part of it. This is basically my way of thinking about how to turn speculation into practice or professional application. You have to understand your project in all possible aspects so that you can find actors in the fields that you can strategically collaborate with or even form a comradeship with. But this kind of work can easily turn into a moral fantasy, which I find counter-productive and potentially dangerous. For that reason, I always try to remind my students that one person’s utopia can be someone else’s nightmare; try to pay more attention to the margin (or the outside) of your audience, and be attentive to their situation (once your project is taking shape).

“Where are we now, why do we want to move to this particular future you speculate, how do we do it.”

In your opinion what is the purpose of Speculative Design? Please suggest up to three key metrics for evaluating the success of a project.

Speculative Design doesn’t really need a purpose when it comes to liberating the client-oriented design practice. The lack of purpose in this case is quite the point of it all. But when it comes to design, call me old school, I think design is always obligated to communicate with the present. Where are we now, why do we want to move to this particular future you speculate, how do we do it – a good speculative designer who wants to implement their future needs to be able to answer these questions. It’s a pitch to society, not to a museum (unless the museum is the site of your intervention).

I think every Speculative Design proposal should be evaluated based on its own shape. But if I had to, I would use the same criteria that I use to assess my students’ projects: (a) does the proposal contain insights or impact analysis from multiple perspectives? (b) does the proposal make its effort seem realistic/plausible, through concrete design strategies? (c) is the proposal able to connect with practitioners/actors/enablers from other fields?

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