Some stuff that’s been floating around in the back of my head as I finish out the semester and start reflecting on what I’ve been doing. Ripping the Tao te Ching, “The Design that can be explained is not the everlasting Design.” Now I can say whatever I like about capital-D design and always have an out!
Towards the end of last semester, I sat through a number of 10 minute presentations by designers, engineers, and artists. I wrote this in my sketchbook about half-way through:
Graphic design is the ability to focus on multiple compositional elements at once in a 2d space, taking into account typography, color, grid, graphics, etc. It follows that capital-d Design is the ability to focus on multiple compositional elements at once, independent of the medium. Background, typeface, color and grid (2d) are as important as shape, texture, temperature, and other tactile elements (3d). All of the elements have to be considered simultaneously as foreground and background, content and context, instead of focusing on them as individual elements.
I wrote that in response to slides that all had a similar problem: individually-good-but-conflicting elements. Perhaps a nice background and a good typeface, but they have nothing to do with one another at best, clash horribly at worse. A text-heavy set of slides about office workers that quickly became boring due to lack of illustrations of what office life is like, only page after page of fully justified text. Or an in-depth look at music in two different cultures that had no audio examples, only transcriptions of lyrics. Another was a image-heavy slideshow about youth culture with the images sort of randomly placed against various stock background images. All the presentations had excellent content, were clearly researched well, and the conclusions were all supported with lots of data — but because of the design choices made, the presentations were not very effective.
It seems that there is a gestalt people need to be able to comprehend if they want to be a designer, be it of images or things or processes. Maybe that’s how type, color, grid, and whitespace work on a piece of paper; how form and color work on a tool; or how space and light work as an architect. In design classes, we learn to “see the grid” or “learn what gives a thing the quality of thing-ness” but we also learn to look at things within their greater context. If need be, we keep popping contexts off the stack, until we’ve backed out far enough to get a full view and understanding of what it is we’re doing.
So what does that have to do with tangible interaction design?
If the elements of communication design are in a plane and those of industrial design are in a volume, where do the elements of interaction design lie? For web sites and most software, within the plane, but what about interaction design applied to form? Are the elements shape, weight and texture? What if the form can change itself as part of the interaction? What if the form can change its characteristics in ways previously impossible, much less conceivable? How do we sketch these tangible interactions and what language do we use to discuss our sketches?
If the elements of tangible interaction design are the ability to manipulate the elements of texture, temperature, shape, stiffness, etc; what is the context that these elements live in? What is the “grid” of tangible interaction? What is a “form study” in tangible interaction? What will become the traditional exercises performed by students of tangible interaction?