Nokia Research recently gave me a small grant to conduct a research project in Summer, 2011. Here’s the basic description:
This project explores the design opportunities in objects that seem to have inner lives through their expressive behavior.
An Emerging Landscape in The New Ecology of Things
An updated, illustrated, and edited version of this post was published in the JohnnyHolland.org magazine about Interaction Design.
With the Apple iPad launched and scores of other tablets and e-readers hitting the market, I think it’s important to step back and look at the larger trends. We’re in the middle of a major shift towards ubiquitous computing, cloud based personal storage, and tangible interaction. It’s a shift away from the generic computation typified by the “personal computer,” which never really achieved the individuality or specificity implied by the term “personal.” In short, we’re experiencing the emergence of The New Ecology of Things, where a network of heterogeneous, smart objects and spaces create opportunities for a more personal and meaningful landscape. This is what I’d like to explore:
- Where we’ve been and how the personal computer has made us soulless
- Where we’re about to be #1 with the emergence of digital slabs
- Where we’re about to be #2 with a new form of design that’s a hybrid of software and product
- Where we may be going and the future of the designer in an era of bespoke objects
A lot of doubters are making a classic mistake in evaluating Apple’s iPad. They did the same thing after the initial announcement for the iPhone, or for that matter the Toyota Prius. The mistake is thinking in terms of existing categories and value propositions. For the iPad, the doubt seems to boil down to: “I don’t like it because it doesn’t fit my ideal for a great laptop.” The critiques don’t always state it those terms, but I think that’s where it’s coming from. No camera, no keyboard, no multi-tasking, no Flash (okay, actually Safari on the iPad really does need that), etc. – these are standard expectations for a laptop.
A couple days ago, RISD president John Maeda tweeted that “Design is a solution to a problem. Art is a question to a problem.” Perhaps he was kidding, but I have to object. To me, good design raises new questions. If designers simply solve problems, we deaden design and culture by making things that operate at the most mundane level. Instead, we should create things that inspire, challenge, provoke, surprise, satisfy, engage and open up opportunities. The best design changes the context around it and allows people to see and feel the world in a new way. What problem did the Porsche 356 solve? What is the impact of the new Seattle Public Library? Why is the iPhone important? What’s interesting about Paula Scher‘s posters? What makes a great hammer?
Each of these play a role in people’s lives with broad effects in terms of activities, emotions, thinking, tactility, social interactions, creativity, work, play, and more. Even the “functional” hammer does more than solve the problem of putting nails into wood – it feels right in the hand, it gains a patina over time that makes it personal, in a pinch it will open a beer bottle, and you can use it to repair a church after Katrina.
In particular, if we think about Interactive Design, the highest goal should be to empower people to create their own meaning spaces, not solve pre-determined problems or even make great experiences. As I’ve discussed in my Productive Interaction paper and in The New Ecology of Things, design plays a greater role than serving tasks and solving problems. The things in our lives communicate, create social exchanges, and enable us to manipulate both the tangible and the idea. They afford creative abuse and invention. Forget solving problems, design things to be productive, embodied, mythological, meaningful.
How can we make computational design and code understandable to design students, and how can they define the designer’s role in regard to coding? I was recently explaining to a student the importance of timing when a project responds to a user – a difference in milliseconds can make a big impact. We were also talking about how designing and developing code requires a different way of thinking and abstraction compared to visual design. In interactive design, the 4th dimension of time and the definition of behavior in code is very different from the see-it-all gestalt one can get from looking at and refining a 2D visual design.
I think the way to go is to cast it in terms of designing behavior. There are many principles and concepts of designing interesting, rich, meaningful behavior that I think could be developed, some of which is instantiated in code, other aspects in the mechanical design (the turning of a doorknob or the page of a book for example), and others in the conceptual design. This shift to behavior design as an overarching concept that encompasses computation may make it more interesting and relevant to designers.