Desktop Olympics Maribor 2009

Desktop Olympics Maribor 2009


On 21 May 2009, the world's first Desktop Olympic Games took place in Maribor, Slovenia. This premiere - carried out with due pomp and fanfare - was fuelled by the sweat from a 7-day, intensive, unsworn-academic interaction design workshop.

Contemporary Athletics


Desktop Olympics is an offshoot of the Olympic Summer and Winter Games. Just like the ancient Greeks turned their everyday objects and war tools (spears, discs) into props of olympic competition and play, Desktop Olympians reappropriate artefacts of our times for competitive and playful purposes. In Desktop Olympics, athletes compete with computer mice, qwerty keyboards and office computers in several, new disciplines, ranging from Notepad Fencing to Scroll Racing and Folder Wrestling.

Olympic Challenges

During an intense week in and around Maribor´s old water tower, Unsworn Academy and nine participating students, from various design disciplines, formed the Desktop Olympic Committee. The committee was presented with the daunting tasks of

  • designing and establishing the Desktop Olympic movement and its online presence.
  • inventing, refining and communicating the Desktop Olympic disciplines to local and global athletes and audiences.
  • designing, producing and hosting the Desktop Olympics: Maribor 2009 public competitions.

When the sweaty torch-bearer finally arrived it marked the beginning of the end of a week of hard work, sore keyboard-fingers and science friction:

It turned out to be a beautiful evening at Maribor´s main square:

Designing without producing new stuff

The word design, from latin’s designare, has a threefold etymology: (1) to give shape, (2) to decipher, (3) to assign meaning. Most people think of design in the first sense and connect it to the production and shape-giving of new things. Interaction design brings a fresh perspective that is often more about creating rules and framing situations than adding new stuff to the world.

In Desktop Olympics this is taken to an extreme. Desktop Olympic disciplines are new “computer games” or sports, created without writing a single line of code. We assigned new meaning to contemporary operating systems, by redefining them as stadiums and the applications and icons as athletic props. Similarly by plugging in several USB keyboards and mice into the same computer, we reappropriate existing interface peripherals into olympic tools.

Design in the Desktop Olympic sense is about crafting invitations and action spaces. In this workshop different invitations worked on several levels: communicating the sports to potential online athletes as well as creating and inviting to the public event in the main square of Maribor.

Mutiny at the Heartwheel

A pivotal moment in the workshop was when the participants literally stormed the post-it wall, grabbed the pens and promptly removed Unsworn Academy from the room. So far the workshop activities had been following a strict schedule but the students felt it high time to take over the rudder.

Of course, this is an educator´s dream. But it also made us question the workshop disposition. Failures are excellent learning opportunities. Had we kept the students in too tight a leash?

The pedagogic dilemma is also connected to a organisational dilemma, as the workshop was part of a public festival. Open, educational processes with plenty of room for mistakes are good for the students, while safeguarding a spectacular final outcome is important for the festival organisers, who need something nice to show to their sponsors and the public.

Loose ends, language laxatives, lessons

  • Interaction design is perhaps more an attitude of shameless throwing-yourself-into and tinkering with other disciplines rather than than a set of methods and materia
  • USB-exploitation rules!
  • Never underestimate the enthusiasm and self-organising skills of a highly motivated posse of Bosnian, Slovenian, Serbian and Croatian design students!
  • Too many roles? Next time we will avoid confusion by not hovering silently between our roles as organisers, helpers, tutors, team members, tech-support, mentors… - -=- - Thanks to the communications team, the desktop olympic hype amassed quickly through photos, videos, friends/fans and tweets.
  • Check the official Desktop Olympics site at for more info, and rules for all disciplines. Play at home with your competitive friends!
  • Brian Eno once suggested that more design should be carried out by removing things than adding more. This is a promising topic for the next Unsworn Academy workshop.

Love and credits

Respect to the Magdalena Festival, the Brain Working workshop, the Maribor mayors office, and Rotovž restaurant for supporting the event. Hats off for Ivica and Sara for super-smooth organising. Big hugs to our Olympic heroes: Sarah, Mia, Damir, Klemen, Spela, Ana, Dora, Oleg, Mirko.