Living Surfaces

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P. Scott Makela

Living Surfaces

Designers, in general, play an increasingly important role in an economy of accelerated change, where new solutions and specialties continually emerge. Tremendous amounts of money and serious social and political consequences are at stake. Digital media, technology, and particularly the web offer new forms for human interchange which challenge social norms, and for which there is not yet a mature and distinctive language of expression. It’s an exciting time for designers.

Two conferences initially addressed these new challenges to designers. One was The Living Surfaces conference held in Chicago (November, 1993) sponsored by the American Center for Design. The other was the Vision Plus 4 conference held in Pittsburgh (March, 1994) sponsored by the International Institute for Information Design, of Vienna, Austria, and Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Design. Both conferences featured talented presenters and impressive work; however, each defined and approached issues regarding communication and the role of design somewhat differently that has continued to evolve today largely influenced by the introduction and evolution of new digital social media.

Exploring Digital Literacy

The Living Surfaces conference focused on issues concerned with “Digital Literacy”, an interesting and relevant theme that explored changes in communication design occurring as a result of digital technology. But what, exactly, is meant by the term? Comprehension? The ability to be expressive and have your ideas understood? In what ways has the exchange between designers and audiences changed? And how can we become more “digitally” articulate?

Nearly all designers today use digital tools in their practice, and these tools affect their work, if not their thinking. Using Photoshop to design a book cover is a much simpler type of confrontation with digital technology than, say, designing a distance learning program for the web; involvement in the digital medium occurs at different levels of complexity. The presenters at Living Surfaces can be seen to have fallen into several categories. First, there were those who us with its effect on their practice. Second were those concerned with the effects of digital media’s growing ubiquity upon marketing and design strategy and on culture, due to the quantity and nature of our exchanges. Third were those few who are immersed in projects involving totally new technology and communication capabilities, where digital technology makes its most dramatic impact on design activity.

The Effects of Digital Tools and Technologies on Design Practice

While good design is driven more by ideas than tools, it is clear that there is an intimate relationship between tools and the outcome of work. The effects of those tools are not always explicit. For example, some film editors who started on analog editing machines now use digital Avid systems, and this change has had little apparent affect on filmgoers. In other cases, the presence of digital tools in design development is more obvious. How do designers respond to presence of digital technology in their working environments? Two of the speakers seemed to be engaged in this question, each in different ways.

Kyle Cooper presented a very beautiful group of film titles, including Seven, Spawn, and The Island of Dr. Moreau. His work and personal statements convey a deep respect for and sensitivity to dramatic craft. Like Saul Bass before him, Cooper holds the view that film titles are to film as a prelude is to a symphony; rather than merely introducing viewers to the film, his goal is to prime viewers for the experience of the film. Although some of the titles were produced with the aid of digital tools, nothing explicitly indicates this; his ideas succeed regardless of the use of digital tools, and his tools remain in the background, a means to an end. Furthermore the strength of his work is a reminder of our continued responsibility to the classic lessons of design, regardless of whether or not we work in a digital medium.

Rick Valicenti expressed his excitement to greet us while standing against a backdrop of two life-sized, profile drawings of a man looking much like himself, each nude and bearing an erection the size of a giant zucchini. Having gotten our attention he paced the stage, holding forth on the need for artistic honesty, as images of his work cycled in the background. His occasionally pompous gestures aside, I was entertained by his wit, chutzpah and general showmanship. I found his imagery intelligent, fun, angry and highly original. He showed one series which parodied suburban normalcy with wry juxtapositions of affluent family scenes and bizarre digital fantasies. Valicenti is both direct and complex, entertaining and intense; and whether or not you find his imagery contemptuous, there is no doubt that it is strong and funny. Valicenti is explicit in his use of digital technology, making of it both means and subject.

Digital Literacy and the Information Explosion

The public is not only confronted with increasingly greater quantities of media stimulation, but is also acquiring the means with which to produce that media, hence becoming more “media literate”. For the first time, individuals who are not media professionals can produce media for a mass audience; anyone with a personal computer and a server account can publish web pages for the whole world to see. The relative ease and affordability of this effort exposes the average person to concepts and skills previously of concern only to professional designers and publishers. The resulting increase in the “information sophistication” of the public in turn affects design professionals who wish to compete for their attention. Furthermore, in some cases designers are directly engaged in the development of solutions to help people manage the heavy burden of information more effectively.

Denise Caruso, who writes the digital commerce column for the New York Times and is a visiting scholar at Interval Research Corporation, focused on the problem designers face competing for the public’s attention in a climate of media overload. She asserted that if designers want to continue to reach people using digital media, their designs need to become more persuasive. Anyone can purchase an instructional manual on making web sites, introducing them to enough rudimentary principles of layout and production that they can make acceptable sites. This not only challenges designers with greater competition in numbers, but also forces designers to re-prove the added value of their skills. Caruso referred us to the work of BJ Fogg at Stanford, who teaches a course on computers as persuasive technology ( I wish, however, that she had been more specific in offering examples, and discussed some of the approaches used for making them persuasive; this information could be quite helpful to other designers. For example, the practice of rhetoric concerns itself with persuasion, and rhetorical approaches to verbal and written communication are beginning to be applied to the development of communication and industrial design.

Exploring new forms

Linda Stone, Director of Microsoft Research’s Virtual Worlds Group, discussed her group’s research on virtual chat rooms. They previously produced Comichat, an engagingly designed chat area where participants assume a character in an ongoing comic strip, and attach facial expressions and body gestures to their dialog with the use of an “emotion wheel”. The group is currently exploring the development of a chat area which is three-dimensional. I found her mention of research regarding chat areas for special interest groups, such as cancer patients, to be interesting and promising. However I felt less confident about the sensitivity of their research with users when she described differences of opinion among her development team about gender preferences regarding 2-D versus 3-D environments, without mentioning insights from user research.

Kristee Rosendahl spoke about Purple Moon, a spin-off firm of Interval Research that makes CD-ROM and web-based entertainment for girls. It was a particularly exciting presentation because the project shows real insight about what is involved in designing appropriate and meaningful experiences involving the innovative use of advanced technologies. I was impressed with the depth of their investment in front-end research (5 years, interviews with eleven-hundred children), the quality of insights gained from the research, and the way those insights were applied to the product. Research and testing in design is most commonly conducted with regard to cognitive and motor functions involved in learning interfaces, understanding messages or completing tasks. This project is intriguing for the fact that such research efforts were applied to designing entertainment, which succeeds or fails based on complex psychological and emotional factors, and these are somewhat more difficult to measure. The feminist ethic that motivated the project is also interesting; the project’s founders were troubled by the fact that the computer game industry appeals almost exclusively to boys, and neglects girls. Rosendahl explained their initial assumption that the reason girls don’t like video games is because they don’t like the violence; after so much observation they concluded that the real reason girls don’t like video games is because they find them boring. In a recent New Yorker article on the project Brenda Laurel, one of the founders, states, “Boys are interested in beating the clock, in beating each other, in seeing their initials on the high-scorers list… Girls want covert competition, narrative complexity, and characters they can relate to.” The research findings led to a web-based product for girls ages 7–12, featuring an interactive narrative and a variety of distinct characters. There are two CD-ROM titles with corresponding sections on the web, one for social play and one for private play.

Although Purple Moon’s site does not have the hip, urbane style that characterizes some designers’ sites, I find it more forward-thinking than many. The biggest disappointment was that Rosendahl was given only a half hour to present, although she clearly had more of great interest to say.

How Do We Become More Digitally Literate?

We will inevitably become more comfortable and truly literate with digital media over time. But by what means do we gain insight and learn to grow more literate? Some discoveries occur naturally, through the intuitive and imaginative leaps of individuals. Their solutions occur in the context of specific projects, and following their success others reapply and reinterpret their ideas. But there are also other ways. While the conference offered some strong presentations, several important areas which can help us become more “digitally literate” either could have been given more sufficient coverage, or were omitted entirely.

One way we learn about a new medium occurs through formal design research, which helps build common vocabulary and references that other designers in the field can use. For example, Joseph Albers’ famous color studies from several decades ago have made a lasting contribution to understanding how we see color.

Another way we gain understanding is from user research. Bill Moggridge of IDEO explained that the field of human factors has been transforming over time from concerns with 1) the body (ergonomics), 2) actions (task analysis), and 3) thoughts (cognitive studies). Now it is heading for a concern with 4) experience, feeling and empathy. This last development questions how users feel and think about their world, and how we design not only products but situations. It rests on the principle that in order to make design which communicates meaningfully, we need to become intimately acquainted with the way people behave, think and feel, in the context of their own environments and values. User-centered design research is now deepening to include ethnographic methodologies from the social sciences.

Research is being done on new narrative forms, as described in such books as “Hamlet on the Holodeck” by Janet Murray at MIT. A games designer at the conference introduced his presentation with the promising question “what can we learn in other areas of interaction design from games design?”; after a full hour the question was never answered, let alone barely addressed. Murray, on the other hand, devotes some interesting space in her book to discussing the narrative issues expressed in games.

Other disciplines such as anthropology, linguistics or theatrical arts could offer designers valuable lessons in communication which may be applied to the digital medium. The social issues surrounding distance communication and email are enormous, for example, and designers working in this area can benefit greatly from research in sociology. Digital design usually involves cross-disciplinary activity, and designers would do well to extend their awareness beyond their own field.

Vision Plus 4

The subtitle for this conference was “Republic of Information: An International Symposium on Design for Global Communication.” The goal of the conference was to foster an international community of designers, and to engage a dialogue about the role of information design in global communication and change. The concept of this “republic” rests on the notion that traditional geographic and political boundaries are blurring and being replaced by relationships based on information exchanges. As Tony Goldsby-Smith reminded us during the conference, we are changing from a land-based to a knowledge-based economy, where knowledge equals power. In this kind of economy, information design is a pivotal concern.

There were three conference themes:

What is `information’? Is it data? The raw material of messages? Something else? What is the difference between information and knowledge, and how does this difference affect the practice of information design?

How does information become organized into meaningful experiences? This includes questions such as how we can incorporate strategic thinking, as well as thinking from other disciplines (such as law or anthropology) into information design, or what role information design plays in organizational processes.

What are the purposes and values that guide information design? This includes questions of how information design both affects and is affected by cultural diversity, issues of access, and politics.

There were quite a number of good presenters, and 8 or 9 were excellent. There were about 150 attendees, with a high international representation, making an articulate group whose lively discussions added to the value of the conference experience. It was a very worthwhile event, and my only disappointment was that some talks were scheduled in parallel. At Living Surfaces all the talks were held one after the other, in the same room. This latter format encouraged attendees to bond; everyone could converse knowing that they shared the same experiences, and no one had to worry about missing one good talk in order to see another. However, scheduling sessions in parallel may mean that more can be offered.

The conference opened with a keynote speech by Larry Keeley, strategic planner and head of the Doblin Group. Keeley is an impressive presenter, and he skillfully set the context for the following talks by mapping out his model of the changing economy and its effect on the future of the design profession. He claimed that as mass production yields to customization, it will become critical for organizations to be more responsive to individuals’ experiences and needs. Modularity will be crucial to companies’ financial survival. Marketing will becoming increasingly unbound by geography, and this fact will alter strategy. Enterprises will gain agility, industry boundaries will continue to blur, and “infrastructure options will abound.” He cited the example of Heath candy bar profits resulting from their product’s incorporation into other companies’ products, such as Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Keeley pointed out the trend in the proliferation of specialized skill sets in design, which he predicts will continue. In addition to the broad job categories of information design and interaction design which currently exist, there will be new categories added for those who design transactions systems and systems of experience, and who develop interactive systems theory. Keeley likens the overall picture to a coral reef, where there is “an extraordinary array of life forms” which seek their appropriate level and eventually find balance among each other.

David Small, Ph.D. candidate at MIT’s Media Lab, replaced the term `information highway’ with `information landscape.’ His intriguing work on navigating huge bodies of information in three-dimensional space (such as the entire works of Shakespeare, the Bible and the Torah) is important because it shows a new way of seeing information that is only now becoming possible with current levels of computing. These new ways of organizing information offer the potential for revealing patterns which will lead to new insights about the content itself. Furthermore, Small’s work offers a new kind of visual and visceral beauty; the pleasure of traversing immense spatial landscapes of information.

Thomas Muller, Design Director at Razorfish, presented “Liquid Typography”, a formal exploration of temporal typographic design. His goal is to construct a taxonomy for typographic motion and gesture by juxtapositioning movement qualities of rhythm, direction and speed with static typographic qualities such as tracking, leading, thickness and color. Muller’s work relates to the themes of information design in two ways: first, his subject concerns the meaning that movement adds to visible words, and second, his design approach to conveying his ideas forms a basis for their rational understanding. This is also an example of precisely the kind of discussion of formal design explorations that would have enriched the Living Surfaces conference, in its attempts to understand digital literacy.

Suguru Ishizaki accompanied Noboyuki Ueda in discussing his development of the neoMuseum in Japan, an innovative learning center for children, and a research center about learning. Noboyuki is an immensely charming speaker who conveyed an infectious happiness about his work, and it was easy to imagine his success in working with young people. He is concerned with how social, sensory and physically interactive means can be used to convey complex conceptual ideas, and explained how his approach to teaching supports children in constructing their knowledge as opposed to giving them knowledge.

Lauralee Alben, co-principal of Alben+Faris, was chosen as one of the ID Magazine’s “most important design innovators from the West Coast.” She gave an engaging, well-crafted presentation on the way values are expressed in design, and on the integration of design thinking with practice via a human-centered design approach.

Jim Faris, Lauralee’s business partner, gave a very interesting talk on a concept he called “adaptive design”: design which can serve a wide audience over a long span of time. He pointed out that while evidence of this approach has been around a long time, the current climate of accelerated product and business cycles makes it more necessary than ever. Adaptive design is characterized by persistence (design so fundamentally useful that it becomes classic or ubiquitous, such as the paper clip), re-configurability and mutation (ability to withstand changes or be re-adapted to a variety of uses, such as modular offices on wheels), and dynamic adaptation (systems which are designed to adapt to individual cases with minimal human intervention, such as data bases connected to web-based templates).

Carolyn Bloomer, cultural anthropologist and design professor at Ringling School of Art and Design challenged our tacit assumptions about the universality of various kinds of visual expressions. She provided an interesting and varied account of how Asian ways of seeing and reading differ from our own, and how deeply these different conventions affect the way we think and feel. Her message was that in order for us to achieve effective global communication, it is not enough to simply craft strong messages; we need to shed our culturally-based assumptions and learn more about how other groups of people perceive their world.

Sally Grisedale gave a slide presentation on her project for Apple Computer in 1996 to develop a hand-held portable computing device, similar to the Newton, for health care workers in rural India. She described her months in the field with an ethnographer, conducting early field observations and task analyses, followed by interface prototyping and development. This project doesn’t seem to have been realized to the same level of completion as the Purple Moon project, nor was the initial research quite as extensive. However, they share a belief in the value of contextual field research with users as the basis for design. Grisedale was given twice as long to talk as Purple Moon’s Rosendahl, enough time to flush out her inspiring documentation of the difference design can make in the fundamental quality of people’s lives.

It is interesting that, unlike Living Surfaces, the Vision Plus 4 group did not limit their discussions to media which is digital; their view is that the global changes affecting the role of information affects all kinds of information, not just digital information. Tony Goldsby-Smith is an information designer and strategic planner who has acted as consultant to top level government offices in Australia on projects such as the redesign of the National Income Tax. His concern is to “…conquer information complexity and so release people to make better decisions… I work to crystallize purpose, to plan and create process, and to energize and unite people into a coherent team.” Tony is a compelling speaker, passionate about his subject and adamant in his view that information is a dynamic, interactive process, expressive of human intention, rather than an object of any sort. He led us through an explanation of his complex process in helping people become more effective in knowledge organizations, guided by his vision of information design as an art of human integration and purpose.

Erik Spiekerman, founder of MetaDesign, wrapped with an enlightening and fun-as-ever talk on the power of typography and graphical icon design to convey meaning, during which time he amused us with his inability to spontaneously draw a perfectly politically correct icon of a female. His final note was on the mission of designers to convey accuracy and truth; it was short, sweet and clear.


The Living Surfaces conference was fun, and we saw some excellent visual design; there was more of it, in fact, than at Vision Plus 4. However it suffered at times from being less challenging intellectually. There were speakers who didn’t relate their ideas to the theme of the conference, and a number of them could have pursued their own questions more rigorously. Presentations were by invitation, and no papers or conference proceedings were offered. Such lack of competition can tend to weaken a conference. The Vision Plus 4 presenters came as a result of both invitation and competitive entry, and the conference papers we left with are of high quality, giving us more to think about after the event is over. Hopefully future conferences will open up the competition even wider. Although designers need to see and be inspired by beautiful work, we also need situations which challenge our thinking. Academic programs can foster design thinking skills, if they so choose, but their audience is select. Conferences are in a unique position to foster a sense of community among a broad group of designers, and to challenge and hopefully raise the level of design thinking and awareness within that community. Next year I may return to Living Surfaces, because they showed some beautiful work, but I would definitely return to the VisionPlus conference because the quality of the presenters is excellent, the level of thinking and insight about design is high, and because I think that they are asking some fundamental questions.