Saturday, November 12, 2011

Novice to Intermediate Interaction

Yesterday, the group show "Shift" opened at the Elizabeth Patrick Dunlop Gallery. I had two pieces in the show, the first was a video piece in collaboration with photographer and colleague Phil Moody. The second piece was also a collaborative work with Shaun Cassidy and Seth Rouser that deals with communication, and information distortion over networks ( I will post video of the piece soon ). Viewers interact with the work by moving in front of it which triggers the movement of objects on the screen in a circular pattern. As the viewer gets closer the pattern movement speeds up and distorted sounds are triggered. What is interesting to me was the focus of the work became the viewers movement, even for themselves. As they became aware that it was them who was in control of the speed and sound they began to experiment with where they were in space. The focus shifted from the screen to, "what is the ideal location?" or for some "is it better if I move faster?". We have not fully become accustom to interaction where it demands attention and can override the visual experience in spaces that have an expectation of visual predominance. There is still novelty in interacting with technology even in very simple forms. I asked a few people who had spent some time in front of the work if they had seen something like it before? Many had responded that they had and gave various examples. I would categorize them as 'intermediate' users so their input was very valuable. As designers we tend to focus on the visual content which is important because 'expert' users will return to the visual communication over time. The interaction acuity diminishes as they become more familiar with the actions. However, the novice and the intermediate user must divide their attention between the content, the context and the interaction. A measure of time would be useful to determine how long it takes for users to transition from novice to intermediate and then from intermediate to expert. The gallery piece relates directly with the idea of communication technologies and how little we know about the information we upload on to it. We are too focused on what we are doing to notice the effect it has on us and on the rest of the web.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Design-by-Menu Challenges Why We Make

To begin, I would like to say that I am wholeheartedly in support of computer based design education. It is no surprise that the forms of digital media are not only how we design, but what we design and will continue for the foreseeable future. The important aspects of design education in the beginning of ones design life can not be compared to yesterdays methods of making. One simple example of incredible change is the advent of the database and what that means for storing, retrieving, and connecting to photos, color systems, font libraries, and general layout options that were difficult to do prior to databases but were also proprietary, guarded assets of individual studios. Storages of photos and fonts consumed space and time that has been cut extensively from the process. This continues to break down the notion that design is about the form and more about the ideas of communication that are carried out through design. This idea has come to me after watching my students over a number of years plowing through networks of databases, searching for photos or illustrations, finding free fonts online, and more recently using color systems to guide their choices.  General layout schemes also influence how they organize information based on what they perceive as successful and found again, in some archive somewhere.

You may be thinking that this is "design by menu" and you would be right. It is not that this method has not been employed in the past and we see copy-cat commercials and ads all over the visual landscape, but it is becoming the method of some design students who are no longer motivated by "originality" or "uniqueness", but rather by ease and their misguided idea that form is the most important aspect of making design work. It is easy to spot and with little experience one can analyze the pedestrian compositions or insipid ideas that grace the page but what is more difficult is demonstrate that these competent, glossy layouts are not as good a design as sloppier, yet sophisticated ideas created by those less enamored by database diving. What is more difficult is encouraging students to continue to question their designs to make them more appropriate, more interesting, clearer in their communication or communicate a more sophisticated idea. The final product has a particular level of polish and feeling of doneness that is hard for students to abandon in pursuit of better design. Design-by-menu still requires students to make choices but there is less analysis about what they are communicating because of the speed and ease at which compositions can be generated. It is not difficult to see that this kind of design making could be simplified further by having these database components of the menu talk to each other. It may seem futuristic but it is a direction of developers and content holders to make "menu coordinators" out of designers. Assemblies of components come in a variety of iterations for the menu coordinator to filter and propose as possible solutions to clients. Can we legitimately call this design?

This gets at the heart of the question of why we design and make things? There are psychology PhD dissertations a plenty that discuss this topic and attempt to answer this question but I would like to refine it a bit further. The reasons for making communications generally serve the purpose of informing people. The function of form and visual application have long been established and seem logical in the context of the arts to serve communication needs, whatever they may be. The question I have is more fundamental in the fact that there are those human beings who make for the purposes of their own interest and find that the inner dialogue with themselves is somehow insufficient. Self expression comes to mind, but this too seems to have a purpose of showing others the thoughts of an individuals genius, perversion, importance or some other ego centric motivation. If we make purely to visualize some idea with no intended purpose other than to clarify it for ourselves, we may tap into the best motivation to design. Design thinking attempts to solve problems based on the thinkers understanding of the dilemma in a given context and that is all. Moreover, we have anchored design education on the basis of communicating ideas and this would solidify the foundation of design education in cognition and analysis. If the motivation of making is held in the minds of those who are selflessly attempting to clarify ideas in their own minds we stand a chance for design to be sustainable. However, if overestimates of the importance of form to attract attention persist we will compete with database technologies making it more difficult to get passed the design-by-menu advantage. I question my students on why they make, hopefully they answer; "to better understand an idea".

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The System Designers Role

The System Designer is the organizer of time, material and space for audiences to experience. The 9/11 memorial was an example of this in the organization of circulation, the bronze plaques, the large pools and trees surrounding the area. It will be an experience that varies for visitors but there is an attempt to encourage feelings and thoughts that are reverent, mournful, and reflective. These are managed by they system designer and the design choices that are made and carried through in all the aspects of the environment. The formality of the space in the way it is ordered, the symbolic references to the fallen buildings and their footprint, and the natural elements all add to the experience that says, "this is a memorial". We might even consider the fountain as a de-facto memorial trigger.

Systems may be large scale projects like the memorial or they can be small but analyzing the success of a systems design is based on the way that elements within the design interact, inform, and add to teh experience. I am reminded of a very simple stir stick I found at a local coffee shop in Athens, Greece. It was a beautiful, slender, clear plastic paddle with an oval hole at the end to allow the coffee to swirl through it as coffee, cream, and sugar co-mingle. It is the choice of a single coffee shop owner to select this stir stick and adds to the overall experience at his store. In a way the coffee shop owner is a system designer considering the total experience from coffee to chairs, from newspaper ads to stir sticks. It is not every business owner who can bring together all of the aspects that give customers some impression of the coffee shop nor is it something that they should do but they should know it is important. 

The advertising guru Claude Hopkins states that, "if you don't understand the common man and what they want you will never sell them anything". The "common man" Hopkins refers to is the customer of the coffee shop owner. This may seem obvious but all to often designers focus on their client rather than the customers of their clients. Naturally, the person holding the money gets the most attention but Hopkins and avid follower David Ogilvy agree that pleasing the customer is the main concern. The best way to do that is testing designs with sample users before it is released. A system designers will have a difficult time doing this given because it is precisely the interaction between all of the designed components that make the system work.  It is the nature of the connections between designed artifacts and the context in which they are used influence the artifact itself and ultimate the user within the system. This can only be tested and observed once the system is in place. How can accurate testing be achieved at early stages of the design process? The potential for modularity may be a consideration but it is the value of the custom design of systems that makes it interesting and the salable point. If we prefabricate subsystems and offer them as plug-and-play components we loose the overall connection to the experience. An approach that uses visualization tools through 3D models offers many benefits but little information about these tools and their influence on the users experience has been published. The benefits to visualizing are well known but that is useful to the designer to predict scale, orientation, relationships of objects and so on, but what influence have they had on potential users or the customers of our clients to predict experiences that are generally the same?

Here are a few more questions to consider:
How does the virtual 3D environment measure up to the actual experience?
What were the expected emotional, cognitive, social, or political responses to the design, and did the system encourage, handle, deflect, discourage or change over time?
How does the user interact with the virtual environment?
How can you integrate prototypes that are easily made physically with environment prototypes that need to be virtual?

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Visualization within Critical Theory

I have always had an interest in critical theory and for those of you coming from my web site may have seen that as part of my research in graduate school research of this kind is one of the most rewarding things in my life. I will soon be commenting and posting conversations concerning critical theory that will be interspersed with other posts, but to start off review the following site: Critical Theory.

"Horkheimer's definition that a critical theory is adequate only if it meets three criteria: it must be explanatory, practical, and normative, all at the same time. That is, it must explain what is wrong with current social reality, identify the actors to change it, and provide both clear norms for criticism and achievable practical goals for social transformation. Any truly critical theory of society, as Horkheimer further defined it in his writings as Director of the Frankfurt School's Institute for Social Research, “has as its object human beings as producers of their own historical form of life” (Horkeimer 1993, 21)"

In the context of my work I will be looking at visualization of data and its effect on the audiences, their ability to interact with the data in a meaningful way, and attempt to clarify how the information can help and motivate others to change social conditions. I am also interested in papers that cover this material in any way as well as examples that demonstrate any or all of Horkheimer's criteria. 

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Paradigm Shift Toward What We Needed

The most interesting conversation just happened in my neighbors kitchen and only seems like the most revelatory idea I have heard in a long time. Time will be the judge. It started with the typical complaints from professors, of which I am one, around the same age late 30's early 40's, about students who have a very different approach to social interactions in the classroom. The question that arose concerns our understanding of students and their ability to comprehend the issues that impact lives such as politics, economics, and social responsibility. We question ourselves about the thoughts that our parents and academic advisors had about us and if they were the same? Or are we just getting old and we have fallen out of touch with those 20 somethings whose lives are inundated with techno this and iStuff that only to become like our predecessors?

The conversation moved to the idea that the technological shift that has happened is so pervasive that little time has elapsed to adjust our thinking about consequences, or benefits of these advancement on teaching, the quality of education, and the real benefit of human interaction when learning about design in particular. As any good researcher worth their salt would ask, "is that necessarily bad that students have lost the ability, or more appropriately bothered to socially engage in the polite policies, and political morass that we have had to endure"? On the one hand, it is important if the shift, as great as the one we are currently experiencing, gets lost in the transition we later determine to be of value. On the other, (I credit my wife for this idea) it may be the perfect thing these people will need later in their lives.

As things become more difficult in the arenas of politics and ultimately by economics our students may need to be less socially engaged, less empathetic, and in many ways follow a kind of logic that is "pragmatic". We see it in our students who are not interested in the subjects they have decided to study and have fewer motivations for applying themselves to the work that we would categorize as passionate. As the populations become greater and as jobs become less prevalent these people will need to make difficult choices concerning others. If we believe in the broader "entitlement" tag defining this generation it may be easier to make these decisions if they are less attached, not emotionally involved and can turn away groups who are effected by problems that could make their lives more difficult. A kind of toughness their parents did not have and disconnect to ignore balance in social organizing their parents fought to achieve. This may seem bleak but it does give one some comfort to know that the quality of detachment has its benefits. Text on my children, its only words on a screen.