Rules, Borders, Restrictions and the Role of Design

Image Role of Design

© Valerian Blos

When it comes to everyday products, we humans have a strange relationship with disgust. We feel uncomfortable by touching mold, but have (mostly) no problems eating gorgonzola cheese. We feel sick by seeing bloody guts, but can eat sausage and meat without lots of contemplation.

Disgust is in general an important factor for health by providing us strong body signals when some food is maybe poisonous to our body. But on the flip side, we are often disgusted from unspecific things: A little spider, a certain color, the skin on the surface of hot milk. These things are far from dangerous, but create the same strong feeling like moldy food. Paul Rozin, a psychologist and researcher of cultural evolution of disgust, writes: »A mechanism for avoiding harm to the body became a mechanism for avoiding harm to the soul. (...) At this level, disgust becomes a moral emotion and a powerful form of negative socialization.« (Paul Rozin et al: Disgust, in: Handbook of Emotions, S. 637–653.) Disgust often can be seen as an experience we have, when reaching the end of our cultural and socialized habitat – a signal to our brain that we are about to go »too far« and break a restriction or moral law.

But as we all know, sometimes breaking those borders can lead to new knowledge! During my Bachelorthesis I therefore investigated human borders and their origin, focusing on revulsion. My idea is to open an interdisciplinary discourse which could lead to new approaches and applications. Especially when you have a look at the relatively new disciplines of Synthetic Biology and Tissue Engineering, you can see a huge potential for interesting applications and designs. Furthermore, experiencing all the attributes for disgust, such as: Artificial grown objects which are made from living organisms, certain moral problems about changing the environment with cloning and last but not least the slimy tissue which is imitating the behavior of a real living being. To inspect these problems, I created three narrative objects dealing with possible applications for synthetic skin. All of them got the ability to enhance our life and at the same time, provoke a strong revulsion:

An age indicating package is made of synthetic cultivated human skin cells, which are living in coexistence with its inners, the milk. When the content decays – the cells show natural signs of age. A dying package therefore indicates bad food in an intuitive manner.

An antigen hypersensitive skin: People allergic to certain kinds of food experience huge problems eating with risking their health and life. A cultivated surface which grows from endogenous skin cells can show natural signs of the allergic reactions. The allergic person therefore, could be warned before eating possible dangerous foods.

An ultra-infection sensitive skin: Dangerous, antibiotic resistent bacterias like MRSA, are a huge issue for modern medicine. A possible solution could be a synthetic skin which grows in a bioreactor for human tissues. The cultured product is ultra-infection sensitive: Whenever hazardous germs get in contact with it, it will show extreme signs of infection and therefore warn the patient and doctor.

Together with scientists from various fields, I investigated the behavior of cells and had a closer look on the work of Synthetic Biology and Tissue engineering. In the end I found a way how these speculative prototypes could really work and what ingredients are needed to form these objects.
After creating the prototypes I invited four specialist from different areas to discuss and test the objects on their own. How each person reacted and what relationship they formed, gave an interesting prediction about future consumer products.

Here you can see impressions from this workshop.

I think it is highly important for our society to keep in mind that restrictions and borders are not cast in concrete. Questioning our behavior, morality and personal relationships to create new improvements for our life is probably the future leading role of scientists and designers.

For more pictures and information, please visit this site.

- Valerian Blos