It does, you know. You just have to get it hot enough.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Thoughts on “Tangible Internaction Design”

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?

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posted by jet at 19:09  


  1. There’s one immediate, if limited, response to your lovely sentence about plane and volume – since these are two-dimensional and three-dimensional respectively, this really invites the thought that the elements of interaction design lie in the fourth dimension, namely time. And that the fourth dimension expresses change in the three lower dimensions.

    I have to admit I’m not quite sure which side of the profundity/obviousness line I’m walking here, but I’ve never seen this mentioned explicitly, so I hope it fits in as a footnote to your discussion of wider issues.

    Comment by francis norton — 2009/04/19 @ 02:12

  2. I agree — time is definitely the fourth dimension for interaction. My sketches of interaction currently take the form of storyboards, similar to what people would use for comics or movies.

    Comment by jet — 2009/04/19 @ 09:28

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