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Award-winning book focuses on human relation to design

August 16, 2011

The Institute for Humanities Research at Arizona State University has named Prasad Boradkar, a highly regarded scholar of industrial design, the winner of its annual Transdisciplinary Humanities Book Award for his work “Designing Things: A Critical Introduction to the Culture of Objects.”

The award recognizes and celebrates humanities faculty authors from ASU and around the country and the substantial body of transdisciplinary humanistic research reflected in their publications.

Boradkar will open this year’s Humanities Faculty Authors’ Reception with a discussion about “Designing Things,” which will take place at 4 p.m., Sept. 20, at the University Club on the Tempe campus. The event is free and open to the public. 

Sally Kitch, director of the institute, says Boradkar was selected for his ability to communicate behind-the-scenes and beneath-the-surface glimpses at some of our most familiar and iconic objects.

“Offering both an integrative and concrete look at how we shape things and how things shape our lives, Boradkar draws on philosophy, anthropology, cultural studies, business and marketing, and globalization and production in order to explore the social meaning of objects,” Kitch says.

“’Designing Things’ provides an accessible and very readable analysis of how we think about the role of things in our everyday lives.”

Prasad is interested in the research space that lies at the intersection of design studies, material culture studies and cultural studies. In his writing, he relies on cultural theory to understand the social significance of the designed environment. He is also interested in music and recently served as the guest curator for an exhibition called Rewind Remix Replay: Design, Music and Everyday Experience at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art in Arizona. This exhibition showcased the role that design plays in shaping our experience of music.

“Though the primary output of design activity is the physical stuff we see around us, its central purpose is to help improve the human condition,” Boradkar says.

“My goal, through ‘Designing Things,’ is to enrich design studies by bringing into its scholarship a broader and more interdisciplinary conception of what things mean to people."

Boradkar is an associate professor in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts and the Director of InnovationSpace, a transdisciplinary laboratory at Arizona State University where students and faculty partner with corporations to design and develop human-centered product concepts that improve society and the environment.

In “Designing Things,” Boradkar asks questions such as: When and why did the turntable morph from playback device to musical instrument? Why have mobile phones evolved changeable skins? How many meanings can one attach to such mundane things as tennis balls? The answers to such questions illustrate this book, which examines the cultural meanings of things and the role of designers in their design and production.

“Designing Things” is a map of the rapidly changing field of design studies, a subject which now draws on a diverse range of theories and methodologies – from philosophy and visual culture, to anthropology and material culture, to media and cultural studies. He explains key concepts – such as planned obsolescence, object fetishism, product semantics, consumer value, and user needs – and illustrates the discussion with a wealth of historical and contemporary case studies.

“Boradkar presses for an ethic that reconciles the value of things (in terms of use, function, or aesthetic pleasure) with valuesas ideals (that lead to ecological, moral, and psychological well-being),” says Patricia Huntington, professor of philosophy and religious studies in ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, who reviewed the nominated works.

Past award winners include Silvia Spitta, professor of Spanish and comparative literature at Dartmouth College, for “Misplaced Objects: Migrating Collections and Recollections in Europe and the Americas,” Claudia Sadowski-Smith, assistant professor of English at ASU, for “Border Fictions: Globalization, Empire, and Writing at the Boundaries of the United States,” and Marita Sturken, professor of media, culture, and communication and co-director of the Visual Culture program at New York University, for “Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch and Consumerism from Oklahoma to Ground Zero.”

The Institute for Humanities Research, a unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, funds transdisciplinary research in the humanities.

Kirsten Keane,
ASU Institute for Humanities Research