kimberley crofts


an information and communication designer living in London

Knowledge through engagement

The Tactic of Tracing Design Issues: Volume 25, Number 1 Winter 2009

As a tactic, tracing takes on dual meanings. First, tracing is a following back to what Dewey calls “the origins of an issue.” Inherent in tracing is the activity of revealing, of exposing the underlying structures, arguments, and assumptions of an issue. Second, tracing is an activity of “mark-making.” To trace is to follow and record the presence and movement of an artifact, event, or idea. Within the context of the construction of publics the tactic of tracing can be defined as the use of designerly forms to detail and communicate, and to make known, the network(s) of materials, actions, concepts, and values that shape and frame an issue over time.

Communication design, inclusive of information and graphic design, is the most immediate place for locating the tactic of tracing within established design fields. Popular authors such as Tufte and Wurman have highlighted the pervasiveness of communication design in contemporary society; and scholars such as Buchanan, Kauffer, and Tyler have examined the rhetorical strategies and uses of communication design. The tactic of tracing builds upon these discussions and activities, adapting them toward the construction of publics and, in the process, opening them to new contexts and effects. More specifically, the tactic of tracing is characterized by the use of designerly forms to creatively express the histories, discourses, and techniques that constitute an issue; in ways that foster knowledge through engagement. Increasingly, these forms reach beyond the common artifacts of communication design. In this way, tracing both connects with and extends contemporary design, particularly the areas of participatory and service-oriented practices that embrace forms of engagement and exchange beyond the traditional object.

The project Zapped by the collective Preemptive Media is a striking example of the tactic of projection. In part, it is striking because it exemplifies the ways design tactics are being used effectively, even furthered, outside of what we might commonly think of as a design project, thus reinforcing the notion of a tactic as an adjustment to, appropriation, or manipulation of design products and processes. As a collective, Preemptive Media is more aligned with art than design. However, the work of Preemptive Media demonstrates the blurring of contemporary practices between art and design, particularly in the context of socially-engaged work. This blurring results in a productive confusion between art and design in that it makes it easier to exchange forms, methods, and effects. Such exchanges are particularly fruitful to design, because arts practices and discourse have made much more significant inroads into the issues and sites of the public over the past several decades than has been witnessed within design.

…But in a more nuanced fashion, we can consider them [design tactics] designerly because they make an issue known by making it experientially accessible (K: particularly the case for the Living Newspapers)

…Given that tactics are designerly means for the identification and articulation of issues; such that they might be known enough to enable a public to form around them; a central concern is to discover what forms of expression are most appropriate and compelling for the those people and institutions the tactic is intended to communicate with.

Suggestions for study:“How and how well are designerly forms employed to make known the network of histories, discourses(s), and techniques that shape and frame an issue over time?” and “Were structures, arguments, and assumptions of a given issue newly revealed and made more accessible?” Beyond review and appraisal of individual projects, answering the question of “How” would reveal shared rhetorical devices and themes employed toward the construction of publics, which could be further critiqued and assessed across projects and subject matter.

Another course of assessment would be to ask if the form of expression was appropriate to the audience.

Assessing the effect of design tactics is particularly important in determining what “works” and what counts as “working” (i.e., how do we know that a specific intervention or engagement has had an effect, or what effect it has had).


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