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Tuesday, 27 March 2007 08:19

Digital poets | icon 043 | January 2007

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words Daniel West

A new generation of designers is moving beyond traditional product and furniture design, and using technology to enrich the way people interact with objects and spaces.

Robotic dresses, wallpaper that lights up, public megaphones that announce text messages and park benches that move themselves under trees when it rains – such work is meant to be playful and socially engaging rather than merely address functional needs.

Often described as “interaction design”, this interdisciplinary practice is difficult to define, and London is one of its world centres. The capital is home to a collection of young designers who are producing disparate kinds of work at the various ends of this emerging field. What unites them is their use of interactive technology and their commitment – in distinction to the established “interactive” fields of web and gaming design – to the real world rather than the virtual.

“A materials-led approach to design is expanding to embrace digital technologies,” says Tony Dunne, head of the Designing Interactions course at London’s Royal College of Art. “New hybrids of design are emerging. People don’t fit in neat categories; they’re a mixture of artists, engineers, designers, thinkers. They’re in that fuzzy space and might be finding it quite tough, but the results are really exciting.”

Some designers, such as Loop.ph, are simply using new technology as another material. Its Blumen wallpaper is layered with electroluminescent circuits that react to sound, lighting up and revealing a botanical motif that changes in response to the surrounding stimuli. Loop.ph’s work focuses on the interaction between people and their immediate environment. While it is predominantly decorative, it can be read as the beginnings of a digital arts and crafts movement. “The domestic environment is being transformed”, says Loop.ph’s Rachel Wingfield. “A lot of it isn’t necessary, but it is happening. We’re using technology to re-establish a link to nature.”

Other designers are seizing on the increasing accessibility of electronic devices to encourage particular forms of social behaviour. Design trio Troika works across art, graphic and product design, sometimes initiating guerrilla-style interventions. Its Tool for Armchair Activists (icon 034) is a megaphone that translates text messages from mobile phones into public announcements. Similarly, its SMS Projector enables you to display enlarged text messages on buildings or people up to 20m away. Such works add a public dimension to what is ordinarily private communication, and investigate the limits of free speech in the digital age.

“Troika are unique: they’re dealing with a new expanded role for products,” says Dunne. “You see a lot of furniture that’s trying to deal with social or psychological issues, but it’s only recently that [electronic] products have started to take on those functions and roles.” By subverting existing devices, Troika encourages people to think critically about how they use technology. “We want to create objects that give new readings to familiar things,” says Troika’s Sebastien Noel.

One reason why this kind of work is becoming more widespread is that, in the age of the internet and open-source software, electronic technology has become cheaper, more readily available and easier to use. Technological developments used to be the preserve of large companies with their own research and development teams, but now smaller studios have access to it. “In the Sixties and Seventies, feedback robots were so expensive only top-end manufacturers could produce them,” says Alexander Grunsteidl, founder of design and technology retailer Digital Wellbeing Labs. “In the Nineties, these tools stopped requiring programming languages or engineering knowledge. Now people are finally doing work where the expression is more important than the technology behind it.”

London’s RCA has been the defining force in exploitating this technology to create a critical form of design practice. The college is the fulcrum connecting the five studios highlighted in this article – all of whom have either studied or taught there. Compared to schools such as MIT in Boston and the Tokyo Institute of Technology, which focus on the technology itself, the RCA could be said to have produced a new breed of designer looking at the cultural implications of technology. As the name suggests, its Designing Interactions course has a social dimension. “The RCA has made a big impact on interaction design by contributing a more cultural take on what’s going on in technical labs around the world,” says Dunne. “Interaction design is an approach – a process of designing relationships rather than things. It emerged from designing for electronic systems, but that thinking can be applied to all sorts of areas.”

The current dominance of the RCA in this area has put London in a crucial position. “London is a centre for this kind of design; everything looks provincial next to it,” says Régine Debatty, who runs interaction design blog We Make Money Not Art. “People from other schools really look up to the RCA, I’m a big fan of their agenda,” she adds. “There’s lots of stuff happening in Tokyo and Berlin, but it’s either happening on the edge of academia as prototypes at conferences, or on the edges of media art that doesn’t really connect with design,” says Dunne.

The potential of electronic technology to transform objects or spaces, or the way people interact with them, has meant that increasing numbers of established designers now have ambitions to make their work interactive, and they are turning to specialists such as Moritz Waldemeyer for help. As well as producing his own design work, he acts as a kind of geek for hire. Originally trained as an engineer, Waldemeyer collaborated with Yves Béhar and Ron Arad in the design of their interactive Swarovski chandeliers. More recently he devised a robotic dress for fashion designer Hussein Chalayan.

As interaction design proliferates, there is also scepticism about some of the work being produced. “A few of these projects come from [a perspective of] ‘here’s a technology, so let’s see what we can do with it’ – rather than having a real question, desire or need,” says Loop.ph’s Mathias Gmachl. Others have pointed out the limits of work that is mostly experimental: “Many of these kind of provocative projects wouldn’t make it through as products,” remarks Jack Mama, creative director of Philips Design. “Elements get taken on and put into something else; the interesting thing is how they get translated, but they can get lost in translation.”

However, Dunne sees the work being produced by designers such as Troika as part of a wider movement known as “device art”, a term coined in 2004 by Machiko Kusahara, professor at Tokyo’s Waseda University, to describe a new body of Japanese work. Alexander Grunsteidl, who set up Digital Wellbeing Labs in September as the first retail environment for device art, predicts that consumers will buy it as much to inspire as to meet a functional requirement. “We’re working with people like Waldemeyer and Troika to create a market space for interaction design products. I’m interested in taking these things out of the museums and laboratories, and in front of consumers.”

Troika’s Noel sees this development as the inevitable outcome of a post-industrialised society, where functional needs are being superseded by more abstract desires such as self-worth. “It’s not really about solving a problem, it’s about solving a psychological need for poetry and inspiration,” he says. And this means thinking laterally about how we use the technology. As Bill Moggridge, founder of interaction design giant IDEO and inventor of the laptop, puts it: “It’s to do with behaviours that are not about a mouse and a keyboard.”

Simon Heijdens, whose work sits somewhere between art and design, creates products and installations that are intended to inspire. In his Lightweeds project, plants projected onto a hospital’s interior walls spread and grow depending on the weather and how many people walk past them, making the space alive. “I think the labels ‘artist’ and ‘designer’ are outdated, they don’t have relevance anymore,” says Heijdens.

Also working in spatial design, Greyworld calls itself a public art collective, and comprises a composer, a theatre designer and an art historian. Its work applies the interactive principles of device art to public spaces, engaging users in the artwork’s creation and enabling a more subjective experience. One project involved tuning a set of railings so that they play The Girl from Ipanema when you run a stick along them; another is a bus stop in Bradford that emits different sounds depending on the colour of the clothes worn by passing pedestrians. “We [produce] situations that make people react, leading to a community of presence,” says Greyworld founder Andrew Shoburn.

By making the interaction effortless and invisible, Greyworld’s work is infused with a sense of magic. Professor Steven Gage, from London’s Bartlett school of architecture, believes the mechanics of interactive architecture and design are often close to stage magic in their ability to deceive and create wonder. “Bruce Tognazzini, one of Apple’s first interaction designers, is an amateur magician,” he says. By appropriating illusion and narrative, designers are rediscovering modes of communication that have evolved over millennia. Products and buildings are being infused with the power of storytelling and dialogue. “The choice is between the familiar and the abstract; the practical task-based design versus an enjoyment of aesthetics that is closer to art,” says Moggridge. “Any product has to sit somewhere on that scale. It’s happening not because we didn’t always want it, but because it’s now much more possible. Because of the dispersal of technology you can make magic with almost anything.”

 

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