Fred Wordie is a critical and service designer based in Berlin. He graduated from the BDes Product Design course at GSA in 2017. His work focuses on how society engages with technology and his projects explore issues such as big data, privacy and virtual consumption. In this podcast he discusses life in Berlin, taking on the capitalist system, and what success means to him.

Fred Wordie is a critical and service designer based in Berlin

Arbit is a smart device for the home that listens to conversations and corrects mistruths

Big Data Girl is a children’s book that explains big data using rhymes and illustration

The Cookie Consents Speed.Run game challenges players to disable website cookies as fast as possible

OvertNoise uses low-cost satellites to transmit sounds from everyday life to people listening around the world

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After I graduated from Product Design in 2017 I stayed in Glasgow for a while doing various freelance jobs. Also, I was Designer in Residence at the Innovation School for a bit and when I was there I built a website for them. I started to get a bit bored and unexcited by Glasgow so I decided to move to Berlin because I had a job opportunity here at a creative company called Kids.

 I’ve been living here now for two years but I no longer work for Kids. I was a casualty of coronavirus but it hasn’t been too bad because now I’m freelancing for them, so I work a bit less and get paid a bit more.

 When I joined Kids they were trying to move into an area called Company Culture Design, which involves helping big corporations design better working cultures to make them feel more like start ups, as well as working with start ups to make them feel more like big corporations. Firms like Deutsche Bank were having issues because if you worked there your biggest hope in life was to have a corner office but you still had no real power or responsibility. So we were trying to help people feel like they were making an impact and were listened to and valued, or with start ups it was about creating a system to control that energy.

 Like most graduates from Product Design, we don’t have a fixed skill set, which is not the worst thing in the world but it does make it hard when you start a new job, or even now as a freelancer. Trying to explain to companies what I can do for them is difficult because I’m not a coder, I’m not a programmer, I’m not a designer, I’m not a visual designer, I’m not a researcher. I can do a bit of all of those things.

 GSA was great for helping me become very good at learning those things, so for Kids I started off doing user research and visual design. They had a mentor system and I kept telling my mentor that I hated doing visual design and so I moved into process design, which involves doing a lot of workshop design and dealing with workshop data and processes to help companies design workshops. When I left there my role was predominantly a process designer, although I still don’t know exactly what that means.

 Glasgow was good to me. Looking back on it I’m so happy I went into that kind of product design rather than more industrial design. In my work now I don’t really design anything physical, it’s more about the meaning behind things. One of the things I loved at GSA was that it introduced me to critical design. The idea of using design as a way to ask questions rather than answer them was really important to me. It’s nice to be able to think about design as an art form rather than purely as design.

 My last four projects at GSA were all very much related to what I do now. I did one group project about the future of education, which looked at what might happen if Google used big data to run schools and how they could use it to mark you without giving you tests by looking at what you searched for.

 The next one was a collaboration with a CubeSat [a type of miniaturised satellite for space research] company. That project was about the idea of post-empire communication online and how we all communicate in a way that’s very politically correct and happy, anyone can advertise on it, it’s all very joyous and we all have good lives and nothing is ever boring or sad. I was looking at CubeSats to fulfil some kind of service where you could listen to people’s everyday lives, so people would wear a microphone and you could tune in and listen to someone else’s boring day.

 The third project looked at music ownership in the digital age, which I’m still thinking about quite a lot now. Since streaming we think about music being £10 a month and that isn’t a realistic model. My project was about making a magazine based on the music you stream and the money would go to the artists, but now I think that rather than giving artists money for extra things we should be paying them for what they’re doing and creating.

 My dissertation was about consumption in virtual worlds and applying the theories of Marx to Second Life, which is an early virtual reality game that had its own system of money, purchasing and selling. It looked at the idea that if something has no inherent material or labour value and it can be copied multiple times, how is it valued in a virtual world. My conclusion was that virtual consumption is the future of conspicuous consumption, because if we live in a world with limited resources and we still want to show off our individuality through consumption then we’ll have to start doing that in a virtual way. I find it odd that, with hindsight, all of the projects I worked on still influence the work that I do today.

Luckily my rent and living costs here in Berlin aren’t very high so I’m currently trying to do more artistic work alongside freelance projects. It’s really hard to get people to pay you for critical design, especially when a lot of it is anti-consumerism and anti-capitalism. Not many companies want to pay you for that, so I’m trying to find different ways to use this medium to generate income for myself.

This year I’ve done a few interesting projects. With Kids, my old company, we made a web app called ‘I miss the office’, which is meant to be a reminder that offices are annoying spaces but at the same time you miss the noise and bustle when you’re at home. That was the one that got media attention and did well.

 During my time as Designer in Residence I developed Ventually which is a fictitious venture capital company. I designed all these fake startups that were meant to be as realistic as possible and talk in the way that real startups do. I also promoted them on Facebook to make them seem more real. The idea was to get critical and speculative design out of the realm of museums and into real people’s lives, because I feel a lot of those mediums are done for other designers and artists not for the people they’re meant to be for.

 I found Ventually quite intense, it involved a lot of thinking, and it was also very hard to communicate. I think I got quite upset that my parents didn’t understand it. So I ended up writing a book for my mum called Big Data Girl. The original idea behind it was that as kids we have books that teach us about the world and I wanted the same thing for adults – something that would take care of them, especially people who didn’t grow up with the internet. My mum has no idea how data works or how the internet works, so I wanted to confront that head on. I worked with Santiago Taberna, who was also at GSA for a bit, to make this picture book that explains big data through a metaphor in the style of a children’s book.

Now I’m working on more projects in that area, making some more startups for Ventually and collaborating with different people on those. They’re all about how data is going to be sold back to us, which I think will be the next big thing with the internet. 

Money has never been the main motivator behind my work, I think especially because of where I come from and my experience. A bit of me craves respect, which is awful, but I think I’m also ambitious and I don’t know if that’s good or bad. I think my work is most successful when people other than designers understand it. It’s really important to me when it’s both serious and playful and when it’s not perpetuating myths that I don’t believe in.

 I’ve been thinking a lot about my work and whether I’m putting out messages that I believe in. A bit of me wants to impact the world and make it better, and a big part of that is through trying to make things that are sticky and that people can understand and that have strong myths and storylines and that don’t belong in a museum, although I’d love to be in a museum! But I’d also like my work to affect people in the public realm. I’ll consider myself successful when I make money from doing work that I believe is good for the world.

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