Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Interacting with the system

Recently, I was at the AIGA design educators conference as part of the panel on Changing Conditions: Emerging Practices. The beginnings of a paper on design process and the inter-relationship between computer science and business was the basis for the abstract that I submitted. This may have been premature in the context of many design schools still in the throws of changing curriculum and evolving programs that do not include fine arts - the dejected brother. Some educators like Jon Kolko who suggested they throw out 2D I and II, and 3D I and II to start new foundations courses. We had just finished doing that 2 years ago, which leads me to believe we were ahead of the game for a change.  Some students (and professors) have difficulty understanding this sentiment because they see the logical connection to the fine arts and all that it brings to the discussion of the visual aspect of design. The difficulty they are having suggests that we have not done a very good job in communicating our perspective and why it is necessary to change and more appropriately evolve.

Visual Communication Design like other design disciplines have matured to the point where we have established the frameworks for the pedagogical, theoretical and practices of the field to the point that it looks to be a distinctive discipline. A continued evolution of research mainly coming from, but not limited to business sectors on marketing and persuasion have informed design. Theories that have been evaluated in practice by engaging the designer in these areas of research have codified our relationship with disciplines outside the fine arts. Design has also wisely embraced technology in an effort to keep up with the demand of business expectations. This too brings us closer to the marketing and business community. We have seen in recent years the elevation of design to be the center of some business models who have used the design process and ways of thinking to leverage their competitive advantage. These are not new ideas but they have not been described to the general public in terms of our motivation to move design to a position of intermediary. Designers who have implemented user centered design philosophy do not see this as a departure from a progression initiated in the 1990's. We have stepped up in ways that may disgust our fine arts brethren but design has been very savvy in its negotiations with business practices. Market strategy has as much of an impact on design as visual considerations.

More importantly we see that design has expanded into taking a leading role in communications and building a visual language that has purpose and functions to the benefit of humanity. Our responsibility to encourage the easing of readability, legibility and functionality do not stop at marketing and the advertising world. We have increasingly shown that design expertise is of value in directing traffic, promoting healthy activity, and warning the public of dangerous materials. We are also very good at creating interactive experiences that teach, guide, inform and most recently negotiate systems. It was also at the AIGA conference that the discussion of system designer (see Shelley Evenson from Microsoft what she calls service design) is beginning to emerge as another branch of the Visual Communication Designers domain. The systems that we are familiar with include campaigns that have numerous add-ons, communications vehicles, and opportunities for viewer impressions. This requires an understanding of a variety of context in which the communication is going to be seen, interacted with, or consumed in some fashion. Because designers currently deal with these different context it is natural that we deal with context to control a specific experience. The moment you walk into a public space you will soon see that your experience is tailored to you. The design of the visual world around you will encourage the things you enjoy and diminish the things you do not. Your child will be drawn in by gender, subject and development stage they are in so that they can be stimulated but not over looked. Designers will be called upon to create flexible environments that are customized on the fly for visitors.

All of this suggests that we have out grown our fine art roots and yet we still need to understand those principles that make systems interesting and engaging that catch the eye of the viewer to start the conversation. It is understanding all of these perspectives that makes design one of the most difficult professions but also clouds the definition of designer that makes it difficult for other professions to see that we are experts in any particular domain. We connect disciplines, we control experiences, and we design systems, and still, I find we need to communicate that design is more than just making things look good. It is a positive indication that educators are starting to see that we are strong enough to stand on our own and redefine what the next evolution for design could be.

Monday, November 1, 2010

New frontiers - the smart phone

My students have been working on web pages, apps, and all things mobile. It is very much like the early days on the web, when we had to learn every possible browser interpretation of the pages you built. PhoneGap has made it easier to take some common files and convert them to different platforms. It still is not as easy as saving different file formats but it seems that we will see some conventions across smart phones soon. I have had some difficulty on the design side of mobile apps where many examples have used the interfaces put out by Apple or Android which work great but have little to do with designing for mobile marketing. There is little interest or initiative to use custom designs on the part of the students for apps that should reflect the web presence. Much of this stems from the type of CMS designs that are out there but little is changed to reflect the needs of the business and marketing of the company. As an educator I have resisted teaching students to use CM systems for this reason but also because students stop asking the questions of what does the client and user need from the site. I also despise the notion that designers are there to 'hang the drapes' after the building has been designed. (read my paper "A designer gets no respect") We can not be lazy in assuming decorating is somehow going to carry us through. We need to look at the entire system and experience of the app for the sake of the user. This does not mean we should reinvent the wheel, rather it means we need to know most of the possible plug-ins available for smart phones. Mobile developer Jonathan Stark noted that we need to take advantage of the sensors in the phone and I would include that we need to consider the relationship to the location of the phone and its inherit user. Games and entertainment apps defy this idea but considerations for locale even in games can make them relevant to the user and multiply the development of geographic specific games similar to augmented reality applications.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Interaction with Avatars, Robots and the Web

I just returned from the UK where I gave a lecture to a group involved in visual evidence. I had talked about a subject that I dealt with in my graduate work including animated reenactments of crime scenes. It was an interesting conference that disclosed some information that was new to me, not the least of which was my research was still relevant to the field of jury perception.
More recently, I read an article on robotics and their use in teaching autistic children because robots  potential to have endless patients and repetition skills that autistic children need. I have always thought that my brothers work in tactile fabrics that measure pressure could aid in child learning disabilities if designed to measure both pressure of mechanical "hugs" as well as measuring a child's pressure of returned affection or physical interaction as some reference to their satisfaction or frustration in their teachers.
What do these things have in common? My talk in Europe references Masahiro Mori's theory of "Bukimi No Tani" or the uncanny valley. His theory has to do with the eerie effect of humanoid robots as they approach more human-like qualities. I make the connection to the uncanny valley to animated reenactments affect on jury perception. A kind of unwanted side effect to being more accurate in depicting crime scenes. This eeriness creeps in the robotic interaction with autistic children and can have unwanted responses to their already socially distressed clients. The article described a fix where a staged encounter with the robot interacting with humans (a wave to each other, or short conversation) alleviating fears the child had with the robot. The children quickly became comfortable because of their perceived "humanoid" motion. It is important to note that this is a visual perception of motion and not to human characteristics that can be described as aesthetic. For example, they have human-like hair we find attractive, or human-like eyes either beautiful blues or bodacious browns makes little difference in their comfort level. It is precisely the fact that they react within one and a half seconds of a child's inquiry that makes them feel human.
The other connection to my research into motion suggests we recognize avatar behavior as "artificial" making us more comfortable in their existence possible because we know then avatars are not human. This is contradictory to autistic children being comfortable in aesthetically "odd" or "unusual" robots who physically respond in more human ways. I am not an educator of the mentally disabled but I do know that children who suffer from autism are motivated but hyper-sensitivity to physical response and audio signals. "
Treatment may include having the patient handle materials with different textures or listen to different sounds" HealthCommunities.com. The research question arises in what connection to the physical interaction and viewing physical responses performed by robots or even avatars aid therapy in treating autism.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Discreet Piles of Data

Lately, I have been working in XML and AS3 and have seen how loading data dynamically can keep a website current and easily maintainable for clients. A simple admin shell goes a long way to helping people update their own sites. This begins to shift the point of view that text data can be separated into discreet piles; persistent data (different from static data), up-to-the-moment data, modular data, random data and others that I have yet to encounter. Persistent data is that information that can change but approximates the same type of information and probably in the same format, addresses of a semi-annual event for example. This is different from static data such as the address of a company that hosts the event. Up-to-the-moment data is just that, but can be any type of string of varying lengths and varying subject, format and style. Up-to-the-moment (uttm) requires the most flexible of parameters. Modular data has some format restrictions such as twitter's character count but can be used to string together conversation, narrative, or even poetic structure. Thoughts strung into an idea, like this blog for instance, stanzas in a poem are also a good example, but modular data can be reused in appropriate places with parameters that help it fit into the larger whole of the narrative. Random data may have some length constraints but that is its only physical restriction. Random data has a topical relationship to the site such as quotes of famous authors may be found on Amazon's site but not on Home Depot, yet these quotes may change out regularly.

These categories are my own construct to attempt to make some sense of their practical uses in programming or design terms but they also have some relationship to the site as a group. They do start to communicate the overall impression of a site if followed regularly, or they could give two different impressions by arbitrary viewers. We don't often consider our personal blogs as a set of text snippets that tell a complete story. These are the ramblings of a day in a life scenario. However, if we consider the aspect of brand and our incessant need to brand ourselves we should consider what the sampled view is at any given moment. The data categories I have described begin to talk about what we are, but also who we are, and the importance of texts as they describe our persona for us.

The relationships are complex not just because of their influence on each other but also the context of the site and who is viewing the data. Drunk pictures on a facebook page seen by ones peers seems more like a laugh than it would to an employer. Now consider the drunk pictures next to the text that reads "Just Married!" and a reserved image of the page owner with a nicely written, conservative job description which indicates that he just graduated a year before. The tag at the bottom reads "grandma made me get up and dance", maybe we will cut him some slack. Now take all that out of facebook and put it in a wedding site for the lovely couple, now put it in mywildwedding.com each of these context taints the viewer to perceive the image of the drunk in different ways. As we assemble these discreet piles and leave the sorting, formatting and proximity to algorithms we are obligated to assess these relationships and at least sample the brand we are attempting to build.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The long and the short of it

Animation projects take a long time no matter what software, planning schedule, skill level you have, they are just laborious. Trying to keep students interested in animation and its tedium is difficult and frankly I am not sure it is worth the results. In previous years the first project takes Edward Muybridge images and translates them into silhouettes to consider smooth movement in cell animation. This seems to work well to prepare the novice animator for the work ahead. Part two of the project maps a character the students have created onto the silhouettes to emulate the motion they have already performed. Lastly, the character is set in a short joke or tale that uses the motion of the character and some additional frames to tell the story.  The results for this three part project which, has been elongated into six weeks from its previous four week iteration, has not seen any improvement. In order to establish reachable landmarks for students mandatory dates to turn in parts of the project as we move through each stage were set. They have hit the deadlines but the final result of the project is still not well considered.

It is not unusual for students to overlook the final result of a project when they are so focused on the immediate "making" and completing. This is, in part, due to the nature of paper projects they have in graphic design which allow them to redo and review and redo multiple times. Time only allows for one well chosen plan of attack. Early sketching and sequencing inform the planning but not the crafting per se. Most students seem to be able to do this until it came to story boarding. Their drawing skills seem lazy and not given the attention it needs to consider the crafting of the character, environments or props that need to be included. It still seems as though connections of the obvious kind need to be literal an well established before they can embark on the long project. A better approach may take the form of collage and adding all the little bits together from short projects. The crafting should slowly improve as they create scenes instead of the whole movie, as well their approach should be more considered and efficient. This still will not produce quality animations but it may effect the telling of the story - that is - in a better way.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Long time coming

Creating animation is less difficult and more time consuming than most studio courses, at least that is what I tell my students in the VCOM 363 sequential media class. Going through the process of selecting a narrative (story, joke, etc) that is visual in nature, creating a storyboard, planning the making process, and executing the animation, not to mention the refinement process is more than one student seems to be able to handle in half a semester. At least it seems as though the final results don't reflect the efforts it take the students working at it.
The first problem is efficiency; students have a great deal of difficulty modifying the work they do to plan or refine projects. Even though they are forced to plan out projects and write out steps, benchmarks, goals and time management plans the still want to short-shift this process so they can get on with "making". The planning process is also inefficient because they do not take time to think about the process to making, or how they will proceed to making, or how they will legitimately cut time by reusing materials that they have already generated, backgrounds, characters, props, etc. Because they have not thought about it they commence with making and the endless discard, remake, discard, remake cycle begins. One the one hand they are not so committed to the work that they don't know when to through out an idea but on the other, they discard so quickly that they toss potentially good work. This can also be part of their inability to analyze and determine when something is valid and use it, while discarding the stuff that is superfluous.
The second problem is seeing quick results; I have found recently that I get more traction with students if I can demonstrate the practice quickly to them and have them attain an small amount of success early in the process. For example, using foreground, middle-ground, background principles a scene can quickly come alive with good results from small amounts of time and effort. It is critical that I follow up with the deeper more extensive explanation of those results, coding, principles, or theory that underpins the overall effect. Then the student is most likely to learn and achieve the deeper concerns I want them to attain. Some retain the information they have learned and others do not because of the first problem of inefficiency, the time laps between the demonstration and the need to use it is so long they have forgotten the success they had earlier.
The third major problem is interest; no you will not be an animator however, you may not be able to hire one, or you will avoid it because you can not do it yourself. This is the basis of my first book which could be titled "You think your kid is so smart! The electronic thumb generation". Yes our kids and students born in the 1990's do plow through a ton of information. Most of it is useless or forms some kind of tacit knowledge at best. This is ok but not what school is designed to do nor should be modified to accommodate. Knowledge needs to be explicit and formal for students to be prepared to the working world... Interest wains when we move from quick results to deep learning because of their inability to focus and maintain interest or seek out what is of interest in a given subject because they have a tendency to reject.
Two months in we are soon to wrap up the first of the projects. I don't see better results than when I made this a 4 week project. It is not apparent that they have learned any more about process either. Rethink this project again.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Sequential Media - VCOM 363

I have protracted the course from its original form and extended the projects, process and teaching of methodology for the students. I expect the final versions of the projects to be of higher quality in form and tempo as well as narrative. The Muybridge experiments are still involved in the early process of the animation production. This is followed up with a greater emphasis on character development than in earlier years of this course with the addition of the five profile drawings. The final product to be included in the first phase of this first project is the storyboard as seen in the examples shown in class. All three of these deliverables should give the students a foundation for fleshing out the final animation.

The Muybridge experiment will start fluid walking animation for the character. The side profile of the character may cause the animation to continue from this POV but with close direction on the storyboard I hope to encourage students away from two dimensional story telling.

The five drawn profiles is meant to encourage emotional definition of the character. Students should start to feel what the characters are feeling at some point in the story. This should come across in the way the character is drawn and then extend into the movement of the character.

The storyboard services as a plan to tell the story in a way that communicates humor. Comedy is difficult and not easy to describe visually. Relying on the story or joke the students have brought to class will have to suffice as a measure for how they will plan the animation. It is not a course in story telling or creative writing which seems best left to the students in the class to judge the comedic value of each project. Discussion on how to emphasize punchlines, or exaggerations, or reactions to dialogue will continue with the critique of timing and pace of the story.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Design is Existential - Minus the Individualism Stuff

I was reading about the famous playwrite Samuel Beckett and considering his most famous play Waiting for Godot and thought about the absence of creative motivation or what some might call their muse that has gone missing. Many critics and scholars of the theatre have referenced the dichotomy of the characters, Estragon and Vladimir in their admiration for Godot to their vague understanding of him or even if they were to ever meet him. This seems to follow Beckett's relationship with writing or at least his existentialist tendencies.

"An existentialist theme is that of anxiety, or the sense of anguish, a generalized uneasiness, a fear or dread which is not directed to any specific object. Anguish is the dread of the nothingness of human existence." T. Z. Lavine.

Many designers "fear" of not being avant garde or even aujourd'hui, threatens our existence as design beings. It is not the object so to speak but our awareness of the "current" and "cutting edge" we are both in and out of that we fear. I have consistently approached my design with the notion that the content and context of the work would guide my observations to analyze my creativity, and the aesthetic result would be relevant to these subjects. I think this still resonates with me but I look at contemporary design with some disconnect and envy. If I have ever tried to be "current" or create using the visual language of designs I have recently seen it feels appropriated. Creating may support the axioms of existentialism but it is evident designers have, and will continue to, muster the bravado to put the work out there for everyone to critique. The older I am the more I admire the courage of designers who continue to push the definitions of design that gives me the courage to move forward with my own. It is not in the interest of setting the new avante garde but just to say, I did that, in the most conscientious way I can and maybe just to take a step towards getting over the fear.