October 28, 2011

TALK TO ME – Design and the Communication between People and Objects

Communication has always been one of the key components of human life, and in today's world which is rapidly changing, new channels of information exchange have been developed. Objects that surround us communicate with us directly and actively or on subliminal ways. Through the utilization of the latest technologies, the form and function of objects has drastically changed and opened a new dimension of use and interaction. As a result, our everyday reality has rapidly and visibly shifted and set new foundations for how we interact with the world.

This premise was the topic of an exhibition and symposium recently held at the MoMA, New York, symbolically named Talk to me – Design and Communication between People and Objects. Paola Antonelli, renowned curator of the exhibition, moderated a panel discussion with some of the most interesting world experts who are known for their innovative use of new methodologies in their field of work. Among them were members of old and completely new professions, such as the starchitect Bjarke Ingels, the creator of multiplayer digital video games Kevin Slavin, consultant for the development of internet culture Kenyatte Cheese, and Majore Carter, the ingenious activist from the Bronx, nicknamed Green Power Broker by The New York Times.

QR Code was used as the facade itself on N Building, a commercial structure located near Tachikawa station amidst a shopping district. By reading the QR Code with your mobile device you are taken to a site which includes up to date shop information. TeradaDesign Architects (Terada Naoki, Hirate Kenichi) and Qosmo, Inc. Media Architecture (Alexander Reeder, Tokui Nao, Sawai Taeji) and Izumi Okayasu Lighting Design (Okayasu Izumi. Tokyo, Japan, 2009.

Objects as storytellers

From the earliest electronic technologies like radio and television, through personal computers, internet and video games, to the newest gadgets like mobile phones and tablets, objects give us access to a great amount of information: objects embedded with complex systems have become modern storytellers.

They not only offer us new experiences, they actively involve us into communication via our tactile senses – by touching a responsive screen, by moving the mouse, by typing – creating new typologies of behaviors and rules. This new generation of objects surpasses the definition of material, gaining almost human characteristics, provoking emotions, giving inspiration and stimulating creativity across age, cultural and gender boundaries.

Streetmusem - an iPhone app of The Museum of London that makes use of its extensive art and photographic collections as well as geo tagging and Google Maps to guide users around London via the iPhone screen.

Talk to me – the role of designers in the relationship between people and technology

Talk to me dealt with the new relationship between people and technology and the role of the designers in this new terrain. Through examples of how design facilitates communication with complex systems like ATMs, check-in kiosks, info graphics (complex visualizations of a great amount of information), and through demonstrating its power in creating a richer culture, the main focus was put on the designer himself, who is not only a creator of physical objects, but a narrator who creates experiences and evokes emotions.

Components of a Designer today. Author: Michael Di Tullo, 2011.

Designers in today’s world

Today, designers have become a filter between the great amount of information that has become accessible to us, and people, turning the noise into a signal, transferring selected and organized information to the user. Designer’s responsibility has increased because the user’s experience depends on the type of signals he chooses to transmit. David Brooks, author of a number of books on culturology, and journalist for The New York Times, debates that people are still the biggest enigma to themselves. We may not know precisely what we want, and designer in cooperation with sociologists, technologists and other experts, are working to figure out our wants and needs before we are even aware of them.

An excellent example is Apple whose success is based on the recognition of the basic characteristics of human nature and the development of products that respond to them, although no wish or need has been explicitly shown. This exemplifies how excellence in design and technology can change people’s habits, and therefore the whole culture.

Fascination with Technology and Learning

This new generation of objects based on technology became our assistants, instructors, coaches, planners, wallets, our music libraries, photo albums and memory containers. Moreover, with the appearance of the internet and globalization, our fascination with technology and the organization of a great amount of information that reach us, has become even more explicit. The ingenious Kevin Slavin, designer of new media, explains this in a very interesting fashion. When you buy a puzzle you receive a fixed number of chaotic, unorganized parts from which you want to make a sensible unity. However complicated this seems, once you finish the picture, you’ve solved the problem and don’t have the need to repeat the process. When you buy a new technological device i.e. Playstation, the possibility of variations is infinitely greater. As opposed to a conventional “old style” game where the goal is to complete the process, new games are more about the process itself. Through trial and error, we are actively trying to crack the code and discover its logic and model of use.

K. Slavin uses a climbing wall as a metaphor for designing digital systems.

Didacticism of Digital Systems

Digital systems are programmed as a means for solving problems and once we learn how to use them they can become important tools for our intellectual and creative work. While designing these systems, Slavin uses an interesting metaphor – a climbing wall. The wall creator uses the same philosophy as the programmer or a designer. He tries to find an interesting and demanding way to the top and once he reaches it his task is to tell others how to do the same. If the system is well designed, there is not just one obvious way to get to the top, and that’s what makes it interesting. The user tries to crack the code that the creator made. The value of linear media (the puzzle) decreases through time since there is only one problem and one solution, while the dynamism of digital media is quite different. Constantly evolving communication between the user and the media creates a learning experience making its value increase over time.

Who controls communication?

Canadian theoretician of communication Marshall McLuhan said: “First we form our tools, then they form us.” Kenyatta Cheese, a guru of social media takes a poetic and amusing approach regarding the use of new technologies and gives new meaning to communication platforms like Tweeter and Facebook. He posits an interesting question: “Who is in control in this communication – the machine or the users?” Wanting to take control over the information that we receive, Cheese has created an inventive application for Tweeter. People who “talk a lot”, in other words write many tweets, have their post displayed in very small, almost unreadable type sizes. Those who rarely use the platform (therefore it is presumed that they have something more important to say) are rewarded with big type size.

Humanlike architecture – “YES IS MORE”

What happens in bigger systems like architecture or cities? Our environment is talking to us all the time, through its presence or through human intervention. A city is a network of relationships, interactions and constant exchange of information (communication). Buildings, like our homes, are its components, each with its own story. The whole process can be compared to a living organism in which many small segments, having various functions, keep the organism alive.

Danish Pavillion at Shanghai Expo (2010) by Bjarke Ingels (BIG). Photo: BIG.

Bjarke Ingels improves that communication through his buildings with a surprising combination of things that, in appearance, exclude one another. Through an interesting construction of his building Mountain Dwellings he gave all the tenants the possibility to access their apartments via bicycle, even if they lived in the penthouse. At the entrance of the Danish pavilion at the Shanghai Expo he presented a bicycle as a transportation medium for going through the exhibition, so that everybody could experience the Danish culture of living. He also transformed a landfill site in Copenhagen into a self-preserving ski run; a logical move for a city without mountains and a northern climate.

The roof gardens Mountain Dwellings consist of a terrace and a garden with plants changing character according to the changing seasons. Photo: BIG.

These examples very clearly show how design and architecture increase the value of a building or a city, and how they strategically place and change the former point of views and usage of objects and spaces. This could be considered a new methodology: designers and architects stop being only delivery men, they innovatively enhance and create new processes and experiences.

The influence of surroundings on people

On the other hand, Majora Carter researches the influence of the surroundings on our behavior, working on improving the communication between people and spaces. Inspired by the infographic by Laura Kurgan, Erice Cadora and Sarah Williams, Million dollar blocks, which shows districts in New York with a very high level of crime, Carter researches the financial burden that these neighborhoods put on state and tax payers (jails in the USA have become a very profitable business).

Majora Carter uses the green economy as a social and economic solution to poverty.

She started projects for the revitalization of critical districts in New York demonstrating how creative thinking can be used on a state level, showing how design can be an effective tool in solving social problems. With her project South Bronx she proved to what degree surroundings influence the behavior of people. In distressed crime and litter ridden neighborhoods, it will not only be easier to drop a piece of paper on the ground, but the crime rates are proven to be much higher.

Green roofs of the buildings in South Bronx - Green the Ghetto project by M. Carter.

Because of investments into parks, river banks and green roofs, these areas of the Bronx are now cleaner, safer and healthier. Additionally, organized educational programs have provided local residents with skills, that have turned into jobs, maintaining newly created surroundings.

It is obvious how vital the role of designers and architects can be in shaping the modern world. Former profit driven principles of communication are becoming obsolete, a time of creative humanistic strategies is starting. After being marginalized and put into the category of commercial arts and decoration, design has been recognized as the builder of our future, of processes and experiences, changing our physical and digital surroundings, as well as ourselves.

Mirna Raduka

Mirna Raduka

Mirna Raduka is a designer working in fields of graphic design and new media, with emphasis on strategic thinking and theory of design. She earned degrees from School of Design, Zagreb, and Parsons School of Design, New York, and is currently working and living between New York and Washington DC.

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