Saturday, March 1, 2014

Digression Tautology

The reference comes from an overly zealous grad student who read a little Derrida and decides she was an expert. Expert enough to try and embarrass a guest speaker all the while attempting to make herself feel superior but ending up sounding intellectually smug. Thankfully there were those in the audience who had also read Derrida and didn't take it as whole gospel fact nor beyond reproach. The question was concerning an augmented reality 'talk' that that uses augmented reality (AR) as part of the presentation. She enquired if the 'talk' was not just a digression tautology in reference to the performance of the subject he was researching. It seems fine arts folks have glombed on to the Philosopher as the official Artists spokesperson for philosophical debate. Not a bad choice but there are a few tenants I would question. What was more annoying than the grad students incessant need to reference her Philosophy 501 reading list and the overt need to inform us that unless we knew what 'digressive tautology' is we just don't cut it. We don't even belong in the room. The funny thing was, the room is filled with scholars! Many, as I have mentioned were well versed and willing to make the argument against her thinly veiled attack on us the audience. In the context of augmented reality the question of digression is a legitimate one particularly if you are interested in the philosophical question surrounding the virtual. The "redundancy" inferred by the notion of tautology in AR, seems naive (to be kind). The virtual still exists even if it is ephemeral or intangible. It is also making clear what may not be evident. For that matter most advertising would be a tautology if we are to believe the makers of products. Sure, I too was once an overly enthusiastic grad student who wanted people to know I could play hard ball. I just didn't kick the senior players in the privates on the way to the batter's box.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

A Small Companion

This past year was a year of design research for me and the following posts will be about some of the work I have been doing at the Institute of Design at IIT in Chicago. The first project is one that has not gone as far as I would have liked. The potential for this device has wide spread implications and I have seen variations both theoretical and actual but neither perfected. We call it 'Jiminy', after the cricket in Pinocchio who plays the role of reason, conscience, advisor, and friend to a wanna be 'better human'. Some have described Jiminy as a friendly drone but with some natural language processing improvements we could see it as that and more. Imagine a helpful device that hovers quietly by your side as you go about your daily routine. If asked, it can go and find your keys or your phone because it can communicate with other devices that send out signals Jiminy can interpret. It can send video or photos back to your phone from distances that make texts more readable like a street sign or menu or a bus around the corner. When you need some extra light Jiminy is there or when you need to send a message he can send it but when you need to get on the train, Jiminy is small enough and close enough that you can reach out and put him in your bag. Jiminy also is equipped with some security features for you and in case someone else wants to put him in a bag.

Currently, we have designed and built a model with a mini quad copter in place. We are also well into developing the control mechanism which uses micro sensors to triangulate and determine the location of the device relative to the sensors. These sensors are built into a jacket running at 2.4 GHz on a two signal frequency in order to maintain location and constant connection over a 2-3 foot distance. Anyone wearing the jacket can control the device by just walking around or with safety controls built into the garment.

Our research will determine the viability of operating and maintaining such a device but also consider the social as well as practical implications, particularly if there are a number of these devices in the same space. Is this really a device for the home or can it be used anywhere in the wild? Many questions arise when we consider potential uses including caring for the elderly, to physical gaming (think new forms of keep-away) and how this device could be used. If Jiminy were equipped with cameras, lights, and audio recording or controls, what new uses each of those features potentially bring?

One common reaction to the device is, "that is scary" and "why would I want a machine following me?" These comments become genuine concerns if it is thought of as a tracking device however, as an assistive device people seemed less reticent about its purpose. Potential unease people have with a device hovering over them is a design concern that can cast Jiminy either as a companion or a drone? Preliminary studies will begin to look at some of these questions starting with a simple version filled with helium and attached to potential users. Once we have completed development on a working prototype we hope to move onto more of these questions over the next few months. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

Adding to the Axioms of Design

Reading Nam Suh's book the Principles of Design makes me think of the number of times I have argued the finer points of design education. Although the text is written as a guide to quantifying design through axiomatic precision it leaves one wondering about the human factors not fully accounted. Axiom 1 is the Independence axiom which considers the function of a design and its relationship to the parameters in which design functions must operate. Function has been a common quality for design that distinguishes it from other art forms. Many an artist will argue that fine arts has a function to which I would agree, however, its function is not paramount in its existence. If the function is missed, misunderstood, or represents a function greater than the localized purpose of seeing the work we can say it is outside of work and more a result than a purpose. Function as a corollary can not be a design. Axiom 2 is Information and admittedly a more difficult quantifiable term. Suh uses probability and the notion of time as it relates to the importance of reducing information required for the design to function. As you can see, the connection to function and through axiom 1 a relationship to design parameters, the  rounds out the axiomatic framework nicely. Coupled functions are problematic because of the unpredictable nature of resultant behavior when one function (or its related design parameter) is changed. Decoupled and uncoupled functions have both a more predictable behavior pattern and the added benefit of modularity. What is valuable about Suh's work is the ground work he lays for design to be seen as a scientific theoretically based field rather than the mystical art form. What is needed is the relationship to human factors that makes it design and not engineering.

What should be included in the axioms of design principles is one of aesthetic value (AV) which can be quantified with the objective of describing good design. The importance of aesthetic value gets to the human response to a design that arouses visual senses and adds to the experience of using well designed objects. Two effects of design on human interaction include interest (I) which is the level of arousal at initial stages of interaction and experience (E) which is the sum of interaction and the positive or negative quality over time (T). Expressed as follows.

                                         AV= I(E)
These values are relative to the priori of the non-interactive T0 state to the state of T1.... Tn. Where interest is based on arousal levels of the same intervals. Interaction time is proportional to the value of overall experience where if interaction time is larger experience is more positive, and the more negative an experience the time approaches 0 but never equal to zero which would mean no time was spent interacting with the object. To say human experience is quantifiable is perhaps folly and at least controversial but if we are to have a clear axiomatic definition of design we can not eliminate the dimensions that exist within good design. To exclude the aesthetic value would be to neglect the human properties that make good design more value driven than the important features of function and information. Current data on human experience may show that the important nature of experience is, in its measurable self and all that is needed to describe its general value to design. Over the next months I will attempt to prove the axiom of aesthetic value and start the discussion of its inclusion in the principles of design. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Futurism Starting Today

For those who know me, have heard me say that a new Futurism is soon upon us and there is an optimism in the air after the Obama win last night. If we follow the history of design and signals of economic and political waves that have been flowing over us for the last few years it is clear that a look forward is where our vision is turning.

This is not the Futurism of the early 1900's that whole heartedly embraced mechanical technologies as a way to direct culture away from traditional forms and ideology. The disdain written in vitriolic manifestos diminished the neoclassicists in all areas of culture. Embodied in the design forms was a celebration of modern living. What opened the minds of Italian architects like Antonio Saint'Elia to the possible opportunities material and engineering discoveries offered was a new found freedom by rejecting the past. The manifestation of Futurist thinking came about in what was then becoming a radical artistic movement that spread to areas of design. Within the academe, old architectural training emulated classical masters, where futurists forbade what they saw as a compulsion to decorate (cover with pretty things - F.T. Marinetti). Futurists' exposed a buildings "mechanical simplicity" or emphasized the buildings purpose through form. We now see the influence of Futurism in Modernist painting and sculpture but architecture and design spun off favoring the functional International Style. The 'box' of efficiency and economic modesty seemed to justify the designers intent more clearly for makers than that of contemporary cubist or later modernist art which seemed self indulgent.

Futurism of 2013+ will no doubt reflect the new technology rather than mechanical marvel. In some ways we have not seen much of 'technical' building but for a few exceptions like Gehry, Magma or iGuzzini. Materials and form move beyond the current norms of construction but also embrace a human relationship. Curvilinear walls and softer shapes seem to address the shape of human beings rather than drive us into oversized cubicles. Work is changing from its central role for younger people. Being a brand can not just mean 'profession' it means work, play, family, persona... life - both virtual and real. New Futurism will be techno-everything that will not have the edge of the previous version because all life can not be an ode to only work. Because technology has permeated all aspects of the modern world the new Futurism will seem to be more well rounded by human activity like play, and family. Oddly enough it is these things that have been fading in a technology based existence.

What will also make this new Futurism seem more palatable, but should be no less aggressive in its influence over culture is the importance of sustainability. Technology as we know it is only part of the answer but  guided by an ethical responsibility to the environment the new Futurism will be distinguished from the technological paradigm we live in by incorporating a 'green' perspective. Seeing the issues of sustainability as part of design thinking made possible through technological means will bring about innovation unlike the previous decade. New innovation will come about through the story we construct around a 'healthy planet' but backed by large data to suggest its importance and validity.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Research Revisited: Design Elevation

It has been a long time since my last post and the following will begin a series of post from my sabbatical here in Chicago, IL. I am using this year to follow up on research that I have wanted to return to and have neglected for program direction and teaching. The start of this series will be to document my discovery and renewed enthusiasm I have for design theory and some to the more important methods and processes I have missed or dismissed over my career for one reason or another.

The importance of these theories will primarily be to shape my own thoughts on design but will ultimately influence my teaching and approaches to design research. My current literary research includes four notable writings, which I will describe and add to in the commentary I have set out here. Starting with Charles Owens' Structured Planning, followed by Horst Rittel and Werner Kunz's theory of Issues-Based Information Systems or IBIS to identify case studies that follow methods laid out in the writings. The others I am working on through prototypes, employing the Repertory Grid technique and followed up by the Design Principles described by Schermann, Kremar, Gehlert, and Pohl from the Munich University of Technology, and the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany respectively.

Structured Planning, developed by Charles Owen who is a professor emeritus at the Illinois Institute of Technology extends the idea of user centered design practice to formalize the design planning or what he calls 'metaplanning' using design factors, a document that states, "information about the problem detected (opportunity)" and, " information about what might be done about it (action)". Owen goes on to describe his process of documenting the information under observations, extensions, design strategies, speculation, structuring, and synthesis operations. One of the more important aspect of this theoretical framework is the value in the resource itself. Few designers approach the process of design in this manner and even fewer document their work with such meticulous detail for two main reasons. First, designers feel they have little time to formulate such documents because of time they feel is wasted on a process that has been internalized and now naturally follows from their experience. This is short sighted in its inability to recognize the value in a documented process. Using structured planning helps to clarify ideas and connect conceptual thinking with practical responses and identifies opportunities for clients (an invaluable skill), and demonstrates a deliberate methodology for tackling projects of a larger scale also making designers more valuable. The second reason designers fail to see the value in documentation and deliberate methodology is the notion that they will loose their 'mystic' quality as an unpredictable artistic genius. A sentiment that has all been lost on the business community and discounted by the technology industry. It is no secret that I have little admiration for 'creatives' that believe their value lay in the aesthetic qualities that veil intellectual gems for the trained observer, and for the untrained you get a cool looking cereal box. What is also important is the early implications of this theory to lay the ground work for service design and experiential design practice. Its approach is inclusive and particulates complex problems establishing relationships of all people and issues involved. What service design and experience design have in common is the scope and complexity of design problems each face. Structured Planning is particularly suited for these types of problems giving designers tools to demonstrate their particular ability and expand the practice of design to include strategic planning and systematic approaches to handle complex problems.

To read a detailed description of Owens work and examples of a design factor document see:

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Re-direct to System Design

After reading an article on service design from Live|Work a company that specializes in service design and thinking I am drawn back to the idea because it poses to overturn processes that are unsustainable in design. (see article Live|Work here) As a follow up from my last post changing point of view or approach to a design problem will significantly alter the interventions iterating from you sketch pad. If you are thinking of designing from a users perspective service thinking only extends this further and may help to justify ideas you have direction and creation of new communications. The most significant is the idea of sustainability and what that means for design. In the article, the writer uses the natural metaphor of the water cycle that is a closed loop on a large scale. The process of how water is used and returned to the system varies but does so continuously. If we think of design in these terms we would consider the brochure after the information is consumed immediately impacting the process we typically think about as graphic designers. In a more contemporary scenario we design and develop for web products or services but do we consider the energy that is being used by the electronic devices we are using to access information? How can you modify consumers energy use in the products and services you buy to offset the energy used to make the purchase of those products and services? Sustainability is a difficult variable to integrate into the design process but its impact on thinking about design solutions is immediate and complex. I often ask my students a question that is intended to be difficult for them to answer but one that was posed by my old school friend Rosan Chow. "How do you design a (fill in the blank) with kindness as a central criteria"? It is difficult for a number of reasons but it is often the first time my students have thought of a project in those terms. It forces them to think about the design from a position outside their own, kindness to whom, to what, how is kindness understood? These are the tenants of service thinking and should be encouraged from all our students. I am encouraged by our university to recognize students involvement with social learning and am rewarded by my own efforts to engage students in these ideas but they must extend beyond the classroom and be embraced by business leaders who are interested in real innovation. I believe there are a great many people capable of thinking in these ways but are stifled by tradition and old models that are entrenched by years of integration and investment. It will take a great deal of power and motivation to reconsider these approaches but proving their worth on smaller projects that have high performance and efficiency may encourage growth and an effort to adopt service thinking. My next few posts will discuss a case of service thinking. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Something from the French

It has always been of interest to see what the French design establishment has embellished by way of industrial, graphic and fashion design. I say embellish because it feels applied to me whenever I see french design and yet it projects sincerity in its execution. From Yves Saint Laurent to Philippe Starck the material is designed with the human form in mind and a rightful approach to design function. Then there is something more - a detail, a finish that is not just stuck on but not without whimsy. It feels like a later idea in the design process with enough relationship to the bigger concept it becomes essential to the work. It adds more than the big idea expanding its luxury, wit or complexity. As I said to artist Sonya Clarkson, cheap is never funny. I will write more on the subject of French design and other cultures that have defined 'style' and the role style plays in design.