June 2018, Zurich
For my BA thesis I was keen to look deeper into the notion of work and working culture. We live in a world that is designed to work, it’s at the very core of our society. But what relationship do you have with work? What does it mean «to work»?
My goal was to collect qualitative results by using an experimental research approach. The research outcome was a collection of narratives that I captured in a video. The video displays me using different objects I created based on narratives I gathered during the research process.
Mentored by Joëlle Bitton and Luke Franzke
Marx, Memes and the Situationist International
I’ve started off with my thoughts on work and a personal analysis. Quickly I realised that even my own relationship with work is more biased, layered and unclear than I thought.
In my theoretical research I looked at the Situationist International, a small yet influential group in the 60s, made up of avant-garde artists, intellectuals and political theorists. They are known for their radical texts and for their influence on the May 1968 civil unrest in France, where one third of the workforce went on strike. Bob Black’s text «The Abolition of Work» struck me as especially interesting. In the essay written 1985 he criticises how everyone keeps talking about wages, hours, working conditions, exploitation, productivity and profitability, but no one talks about work itself. He suggests to reduce work to be done to necessities and transform what is left into a playful activity.
After this I looked at how work is portrayed in media. We are being sold on the idea that if we just work hard enough we can make it. And at the same time being stressed and overworked seems to be a joke we are all in on – we laugh about how we hate Mondays and «Thank God it’s Friday».
Since working is inevitable intertwined with the system we conduct work in, I also took a look at capitalism with the help of Marx's analysis in «Das Kapital». I found his key statements – alienation, inequality, instability and replaceability – running through the results of my field research like a red thread.
I am aware that a lot of the text I’ve looked at have a slight populistic tone, but we are told enough why and how working is good so I wanted to find some strong anti-positions.
Research: Chatting away on WhatsApp
The field research was key for my thesis. I communicated with over 60 people via WhatsApp over the course of three weeks. Using WhatsApp as a research tool enabled me to make use of a way of communication the participants were already familiar with and thereby talk to them on a personal level. While they were working I sent them questions like «What does this work mean to you?», «How much of personality goes into what you are doing now?» and «What would stop you from working?». They could answer in whatever way they wanted - be it via text, video, photo, voice message or even with emojis. I structured all of the answers into word-clouds of similar statements to get an overview as well as a visual representation. I focused my practical research on Switzerland, because we have high standards of work and I was interested in looking at work in an environment where more obvious forms of oppression like child labour are mostly gone.
Delphine Reist and Dominic Wilcox
In search for related work I stumbled across Delphine Reist, a Swiss Artist who reflects on the modern, technical world. Her installations and videos talks about the failure of societal ideas and illusions. Work is often made the subject of the discussion. I really like the emotionally abstract form of her work. Another artist I quite like is Dominic Wilcox. He creates objects that make you question your perception of normality. His exploration into what is normal has a humoristic tone and is easily accessible.
A stand for being playful and honest
For the practical part of my thesis I initially wanted to create nice objects or a kind of a solution for our often unhealthy connection to work. But this approach didn’t seem to fit the topic, since I didn’t see a solution that could fit into an app or service. I found it to be equally cynical as payed meditation at work, where the goal is mainly to get you more productive. Also nice and polished objects felt contradictory to the messy and sensitive answers I got from my field research. I didn’t want products ready to be manufactured and sold, I was trying to get behind this seemingly firm idea of how defined «work» is.
How does my education as an interaction designer play into this? First how I approached the topic. I wasn’t looking for specific, academic answers. I wanted to use artistic, experimental and qualitative research to get unexpected and honest results. I payed a lot of attention to the field research: How do I treat my participants? Are they just sources of data? How do I get honest and personal responses and how do I treat this information appropriately? Human centred design for me is really paying attention to what people tell you.
In the end I produced a film that features me using objects that came out of a rapid prototyping phase. Each objects is based on a story I’ve been told in the field research. There are three categories: Negative experiences with work, instinctive coping mechanisms and stories where people found a healthy way to deal with work. The objects are not meant to be finished pieces, they are there to get the idea across. It’s about the process and the stories. To make that point clear I opted for keeping the objects in their rough prototype look.
The outcome of my thesis is definitely different than I expected, but I find it an appropriate way of dealing with the topic. The relevance lies in personal insights and reflection - be it mine, of my participants or of people looking at it. With «WORK! WORK! WORK?» I’ve created an unconventional conversation starter and a call for bolder design, honest research and a reminder of the power of narratives.