Based on my ethnographic fieldwork in a Milanese interaction design studio I describe how design work is being reimagined through the ambiguous notion of ‘"flexible skills" and I analyse how those "flexible" work practices open up unforeseen possibilities for interdisciplinary collaboration between ethnographers and designers.
In the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008-2009, interaction design work in Milan became increasingly precarious and stemming from occasional projects. Flexibility is configured both as a way of dealing with job uncertainty, and also as freedom, autonomy and mobility. The examples I discuss expose this ambiguity, providing insights into the tensions that this reconfiguration of the interaction designer through this figure of flexibility bring about, namely, a tension between older and newer models of action, in which an ethos of improvisation and continuous openness to transformation is sometimes hard to combine with the designers’ desire to keep their design-centred conceptions of action and creativity. Flexible skills, thus, are the instrument through which designers articulate an interesting anthropological tension: the tension between precarity and opportunity. Flexible skills challenge designers' modern and hubristic narrative of action (centred on the designer rather than users/people; centred on a cognitive notion of planning) and generates another one, which is based on a continuous openness to adaptation and unpredictability in relation to an (economic, social, professional, cultural) environment and a way of extracting potential from contingent encounters and situations - including my own ethnographic encounter with them. Performing "flexible skills" as a means for generating new opportunities from unpredictable situations, I argue, opens up the opportunity for turning the ethnographic encounter with design into a mode of speculatively (Wilkie et al 2017; Dunne & Raby 2013) and experimentally (Estalella & Criado 2018) researching together
interaction design, information economy, labour, post-Fordism, flexible skills, ethos of potency, speculative pragmatism, collaborative ethnography, (un)commoning