A number is worth more than a thousand pictures: The case of designers’ cynical resistance through quantification

Ulises Navarro Aguiar (2020)

Ephemera, 20(3), pp. 153-186. Open access.

Abstract. This article draws on an ethnographic investigation of product development at an engineering organization to examine the struggle faced by designers in justifying design proposals when cooperating with engineers and managers. Frustrated by the priority given to numbers over other modes of evaluation traditionally used in design, designers in this case developed and mobilized their own evaluation device to quantitatively prove the validity and worth of their work. This quasi-parodic form of evaluation enables designers to criticize and influence strategic project decisions. At the same time, this cynical act of resistance paradoxically endorses the quantitative approach and undermines designers’ own professional expertise as a valid way of conceiving worth, which ultimately renders this move more indeterminate than what a distinction between resistance and conformity denotes. Overall, the study adds to our understanding of how modes and principles of justification typically embraced by professional groups can be unsettled by attempts to protect them. In doing so, it brings to light the ambivalent nature of resistance through a cynical embrace of quantification.”

Extract. “Following recent calls for the study of the ‘dynamic intertwinement’ between devices of valuation and valuation cultures (Zuiderent-Jerak and van Egmond, 2015: 66), this article focuses on the performativity of the novel evaluation device as it intersects with the working values of professionals labouring at ACM. The study adopts a ‘post-critical perspective’ that foregrounds the critical capacities (Boltanski and Thévenot, 2006) and experimental dispositions of actors in the field (Winthereik and Jensen, 2017) in order to illustrate how unsettled values are inherent to situations in which collectives of people and technologies vie to shape what counts in an organization (Dussauge et al., 2015; Hauge, 2018). It tells the story of a group of designers who develop an evaluation device to measure their own work and then mobilize the numerical output as a form of critique and justification (Boltanski and Thévenot, 2006).” (p. 155)

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