Published in Kairos 19.1


Adventures in GPS

Exploring invisibility through design

In the previous chapter we looked at how GPS is a complex, tangled technology that can be understood through a history of science, politics and popular culture. Now we look at how we explore the contemporary cultural condition of GPS technology through design.

Invisibility is a central characteristic of GPS systems. First, it is technically invisible because we can’t see its radio signals. Even though we may have a vague understanding that GPS radio signals don’t reach indoors, or through tunnels, our knowledge of the system is fundamentally hampered by the fact we can’t see it. As the ‘running at night’ anecdote in the previous chapter shows, GPS is not a smooth, stable technical system, and it is in fact uncertain and unstable. Second, it’s also increasingly culturally invisible, as an everyday, pedestrian technology. GPS is built into a multitude of applications and devices for everyday use, but the technology is backgrounded and hidden by layers of interfaces, that all attempt to make the technology more useable, but does not contribute our understanding of it.

In one sense, design is traditionally a part shaping of the layers of abstraction, the buttons and dials, that conceal the technology. We want to turn this around and use design as way to foreground the technology. How can we explore, find and generate awareness, sensibility, and new understandings of both GPS’ technical and cultural invisibility? In the words of Bruno Latour (2004), how can we turn ‘matters of fact’, into ‘matters of concern’?

For designers it important to develop a material knowledge of the technologies we work with to be able to shape and invent. However, this is only part of the argument behind this project. GPS is important because of its significant part in an increasingly digitised society. With the cultural and technological invisibility of GPS follows a lack of a rich, sophisticated language for describing and discussing it. In being reduced to a blue dot on a pastel map or turn-by-turn navigation, GPS has become mundane in both use and in how it is represented. This lack of language limits the wider cultural understanding of the technology, while also constricting the potential for invention, critique and discourse.

Design and technology

GPS is a phenomena we must work with as we shape interactions and products. From our perspective on design, GPS is one of the materials of contemporary interaction design (Arnall, 2014). Design has a history of taking up technical materials and developing perspectives of new technologies (Arnall, 2013), in order to shape them into sensible, useable and understandable things (Norman, 1998).

Interaction design research has addressed a material perspective on computation (Hallnäs & Redstrom, 2006), hardware (Wiberg & Robles, 2010, Vallgarda 2009) and infrastructure (Knutsen, 2014). An important argument here, is to see technologies as a materials for design, with their own traits and qualities. Hands-on material exploration of these traits and qualities have therefore been raised as an important approach to knowledge-building within design research (Fernaeus & Sundtröm, 2012). This, we believe, situates interaction design well for developing a more granular understanding of GPS technology, both for ourselves and for a broader public understanding.

Design brief

Design briefs are used in many different ways in different projects, in different kinds of design practices. They are rarely touched upon in design research, but generally they are used to guide and constrain design work, and they form an important part of many different kinds of design practice. Briefs evolve during a design project, but they also help to anchor what can be a broad inventive, explorative process. In this case, our design brief translated our aim into a plans, directions and constraints, formulating a concern about GPS into a design project.

The aim of this design project, and the guiding principle of the design work is to find ways of making GPS visible in a way that communicates to a larger audience:

Aim: To show GPS as it takes place in everyday urban life.
Approach: To investigate and understand GPS and design ways that we can (1) make visible and (2) communicate its material and spatial phenomena.
Outcome: An online film accessible to broad audiences.

To do this, we have to explore and investigate GPS as a technical and material phenomenon. But we also have to find means of showing this materiality in ways that makes sense to broad audiences. We want to find ways of connecting the obscure, invisible and highly technical world of GPS into forms that communicate in online popular media form.

The brief guides also the investigations in other ways. First, it sets up the actionable parameters such as formats, types of audience and techniques. Second, it is used to formulate concrete tasks and plans for the project and its collaborative design work. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the brief is also used to evaluate ongoing design work and make decisions.

We want to stress the importance of setting up the design brief. Through the brief we take the cultural background and turn it into an actionable challenge. The brief formulates a guiding principle for how we apply interaction design as a way of studying the immaterial and invisible GPS technology. This is first and foremost a communicative and practice-based interaction design approach where we are driven by curiosity about the technological landscape.

Project background

The Satellite Lamps project project comes out of an ongoing research project called Immaterials(Arnall, 2013), that grew out of a curiosity and interest in the so called ‘immaterial’ phenomena of interaction design. Previously we have through a set of investigations explored such invisible and intangible materials as Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) and WiFi. In the gallery below we have pulled together some of the key developments in our Immaterials investigations.

The Immaterials project invented methods and approaches to exploring technology and communicating broadly in popular media, emphasising the importance of multi-faceted design practices, and popular culture as audience. These are the intentions and approaches that we brought with us to this new project about GPS.


These investigations take place as part of practice-based design research (eg. Sevaldson, 2010), which involves research through, and reflection on, our own design practices, techniques and tools. These are related to an interdisciplinary body of design, social science and cultural studies research. We therefore draw on a range of methods from across these disciplines. From design research we access practices including critical design(Dunne, 2005) and critical making (Ratto, 2011), from engineering and computer science we include complex data visualisation, and more humanistically, we make use of methods such as the anecdotes (Michael, 2012) and popular cultural observations (Moran, 2005). In addition, we lean on a long history of design practice that realised through techniques such as sketching, prototyping, electronic engineering, coding and product development.

On the surface the project is about GPS, but it is also about a reflective interaction design practice (e.g. Schön, 1983, Sengers et al. 2005): an investigation into how to investigate. This makes it a multi-layered approach where one of these layers is about finding methods. These questions are weaved together throughout this process.

(1) Make visible. (2) Communicate

The key aspects of our brief – making GPS visible and communicating it – meant that our process was driven both by a material curiosity and by the opportunities of communication.

In the spirit of this multi-mediational article, we illustrate some of these processes in the gallery below. This gallery is a horizontal collection of images with overlaid captions that allow us to go into detail in a visual way. We use this form of gallery throughout the publication, and designed these specifically to be able to use our images extensively.

The multi-faceted process depicted in the gallery above has produced rich and diverse content, films, photographs, and piles of sketches and drawings. We have produced the web-text you are reading now in order to be able to reveal and bring forward as much of this material as possible. This places more focus on the intentions, practices and on our process, rather than just on the outcomes. The additional challenge for the project has been to investigate and design this web-article, to design a place in which all this kind of content can live.

Over the next sections, we will give an account of the practice that makes up the Satellite lamps project. We will show and reflect on our experiments and difficulties, and the evolving production of work.


  • Arnall, Timo. (2014, forthcoming). Exploring ‘immaterials’: mediating design’s invisible materials. International Journal of Design, 8(2).
  • Arnall, Timo. (2013). The Immaterials project. Retrieved September 17, 2013, from
  • Fernaeus, Ylvia and Sundström, Petra. (2012). The material move how materials matter in interaction design research. In Proceedings of the Designing Interactive Systems Conference (DIS '12). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 486-495. DOI:10.1145/2317956.2318029
  • Dunne, Anthony. (2005). Hertzian tales : electronic products, aesthetic experience, and critical design. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
  • Hallnas, Lars & Redström, Johan. (2006). Interaction Design. The Interactive Institute, The Swedish School of Textiles University, College of Borås.
  • Igoe, Tom. (2011). Making things talk. Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly.
  • Knutsen, Jørn. (2014). Uprooting products of the networked city. International Journal of Design, 8(1), 127-142.
  • Latour, Bruno. (2004). Why has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern. Critical inquiry, 30(2), 225–248.
  • Martinussen, Einar Sneve (2012). Making material of the networked city. In M. Hensel (Ed.), Design Innovation for the Built Environment (pp. 235–247). London & New York: Routledge.
  • Martinussen, Einar Sneve.(2012). Visualising WiFi for the masses. Retrieved October 18, 2013, from
  • Michael, Mike. (2012). Anecdote. In Lury, Celia & Wakeford, Nina. (Eds). Inventive methods : the happening of the social. London; New York: Routledge. 25-36
  • Moran, Joe. (2005). Reading the everyday. London; New York: Routledge.
  • Norman, Donald A. (1998). The design of everyday things. London: MIT.
  • Ratto, Matt. (2011). Critical Making: conceptual and material studies in technology and social life. The Information Society, 27(4), 252–260. Taylor & Francis.
  • Schön, Donald A. (1983). The reflective practitioner : how professionals think in action. New York: Basic Books.
  • Sengers, Phoebe, Boehner, Kristen, David, Shay, & Kaye, Joseph. (2005). Reflective design. Proceedings of the 4th decennial conference on Critical computing: between sense and sensibility, 58.
  • Sevaldson, Birger. (2010). Discussions & Movements in Design Research. FORMakademisk, 3(1).
  • Vallgårda, Anne. (2009). Computational Composites: Understanding the Materiality of Computational Technology, 1–207.