The organ is a curious instrument. Our class in Auer Hall I felt served as a powerful summation of all that we have learned thus far, and reinforced the far-reaching implications of our field. While Mr. Kazimir was explaining the history and construction of the Opus 135 that calls the Hall home, I began to see a glimmer of what experience is to me: the subjective disposition that shapes the aesthetic qualities of the objects we design.
As stately and imposing as the four-story instrument is, by itself it is merely an artifact, devoid of meaning and context. But considered holistically, it is so much more: the culmination of hundreds of years of music composition, cross-cultural influence, material advancement, and technical achievement. The notion of the organ “speaking” in an 18th century “voice” is not purely an embellishment of phrase, but a distinct contextual and situational representation of the paradigm created by its performance.
In addition, by referring to performers of the organ as “voicers,” it suggests a symbiosis of experiences that frame the performance in space. Performance (and experience) is a dialogue between not only performer and audience, but also between instrument and performer, history and space, process and society as a whole. Reverberations are no longer measured in seconds, but centuries, as the collective history of the instrument speaks through the pipes and echoes through the hall to each of us. I see in this experience an approach towards pure motivation, where the intermediary actions and operations fall away, leaving only the activity present.
But at the same time that I make this realization, I also am abruptly greeted with the notion that the creation of pure motivation is impossible: as we temper and shape a holistic experience that is valued in an active, participatory sense, we cannot help but add our own human contributions to it. And at that moment, it ceases to be pure for the person who may ultimately experience it, forever colored by the designer’s own hand. At that moment, all the operations and actions that compose the experience become manifest, and it is up to the experiencer to unpack them according to their own history.
The closest thing we may have to an axiom in design is the notion that there are no axioms. Much in the same way that good design and aesthetic experience is participatory, so too is the field of HCI/d; it is part and parcel to its advancement. It is constantly under revision, critique, and recontextualisation, and while this may at times make it a moving target, it also makes it a field that will last far beyond the technologies that served as its foundation.
This past week for me, like for many people in our cohort, has been a time for applied reflection; the absence of class forcing my mind to turn its machinations both outward into the world and inward towards the self. Everything I read, everything I see, everyone I talk to is filtered through the lens of design. And from the stories I gather, I’ve begun to think more and more about the real world, the world that exists outside of the studio, the wilds where our trade is practiced.
It’s a messy place, but I don’t pretend to have the answers to solve it; in fact, the boundless idealism and motivation that serves as a direct byproduct of this program is what I’ve been thinking a great deal about lately. All one has to do is open a newspaper to see the real problems out in the world: conflict between Israel and Palestine, a flagging European Union, cloak-and-dagger coups in Egypt, the city of New York struggling to recover after a major environmental disaster. These are what I think of when I think of swamp problems, and where design fits in to address even just one small part of any of these issues.
But it’s a dangerous road for the unbridled and blinkered. Teju Cole, the author of Open City, wrote in an article in The Atlantic, “I deeply respect American sentimentality, the way one respects a wounded hippo. You must keep an eye on it, for you know it is deadly.” While he was speaking specifically regarding the misappropriation of information and aesthetics in the Kony 2012 video that went viral several months ago, it nevertheless also applies to our role as designers. There is nothing inherently wrong with being idealistic or thinking big, but the problem arises when we believe that we truly know what is best for people. That dangerous road is paved with the notion that doing something, anything is better than merely observing; when in reality the damage done along the way has potentially far broader-reaching consequences than the design itself.
This may smack of cynicism, but for me it comes from the increasingly salient point of our ethical responsibility as designers. Through the practice of interactive aesthetics, we are arming ourselves (and those we work for) with the ability to manipulate people, “provid[ing] practical guidance on how viscerally to influence perceptions, behaviors, and affects through design choices” (Bardzell, 2012). As we gain this powerful new insight into the world, and as it shapes us as people, so too must it shape our understanding of just how little we actually understand of the constellation of factors at work.
So what are we to do, if we are so overwhelmed by the magnitude of our problems, with so little real understanding of people? I found myself coming back to Buxton and his mantra of “getting the design right, and the right design.” I would add to that if you can’t help a thousand, help a hundred, and if you can’t help a hundred, help one. But that one person who’s influenced by your design should be impacted in a way that reflects your holistic understanding of the world they live in; your design is a commentary not only of their situation, but also of your competence as a designer.
Only by coupling our motivation with respect for the design process can we move beyond idealism as an epithet of the privileged and become more than designers: true agents of change and progress.
One of my favorite books as a child was a picture book by Ann Jonas called Round Trip. In it, the reader is guided through a day trip to the city from a cozy suburb, and then at the midway point of the book (which is actually the very last page), the book is turned upside down and the reader reads the same pages in reverse to detail the journey home. I recall being very taken by this book, and how a simple change in perspective brought out details that I hadn’t noticed before.
In many ways, our development as designers follows the same sort of progression, we follow a path that we believe leads to a conclusion or outcome, only to have our world turned upside down and wind up back to where we started, but with a completely different outlook on the world. I use the word “designer” here tenuously; I still do not feel that I fill those shoes, or if there are even shoes to fill. Embracing uncertainty and the unknown has been a reoccurring theme throughout this program thus far, and by questioning myself each step of the way, reflecting on what is happening to my personal and professional processes I believe is slowly making me more confident in my direction.
That uncertainty has also manifested itself in strange and curious ways, particularly in my sudden interest in designing for failure. Not failure as shortcoming, oversight, or error, but more as an inevitability. After reading this excellent piece in Wired magazine, I started to think about what if instead of trying to avoid or mitigate failure, we design for it? How do we design for a decaying world?
Far from the distopic visions that this sort of theme entails, I see a lot of opportunities for breakdown-centered design (as opposed to design that is solely user or epistemologically-focused). Breakdowns are one thing that both users and designers have in common; the disconnects that bind them together (even if the outcome is not ideal) still provide new spaces for exploration. There are many other facets to this concept that I haven’t yet been able to fully articulate (sustainability of the mind, digital decomposition), but I feel a connection to the idea that I haven’t felt up to this point. If anyone is curious about it, I would love to discuss it in more detail with you. But for now, I keep a scratch pad handy to record the bits and pieces that settle with the intent of combining them down the road.
Hominem unius libri timeo.
I fear the man of a single book.
- St. Thomas Aquinas
The curious thing about dogma is its duality. Aquinas’s phrase can be interpreted in a number of ways; the fear can be attributed to the shear scope and depth of one person’s knowledge of a particular text (or paradigm), but it can also stem from fear of stark ignorance in the face of the outside world. After listening to the podcast today on the game of chess and its relentless approach for “the Novelty” after so many games followed the same move sequences as thousands of games before them, I couldn’t help but think to myself:
How lucky are we?
Here we have a discipline that is an “Out of Book” experience every time we sit down to practice it. Sure there are principles and guidelines, but essentially they are all tools in a kit; we are free to forge our own path if it serves our purpose and accomplishes our goals. That being said, we are taught these things not as a requirement, but simply because they are time-tested strategies to make our job easier and more contextually valuable as we drill down into the core of our idea.
But while there is no “Book of Design,” I have struggled with a different sort of book this past week: the one in my head. At the end of each project, we’re asked to sketch out the whole “game” of HCI. Though part of it may be attributed to the mental exhaustion of completing a project, I find myself struggling with this cognitive offloading. It’s as if I can’t keep the entire model in my head at any one time, and so merely associate what I’ve learned most recently into my sketch. And as of late this has carried over into Project 3: at times I feel paralyzed by my process; that my ideas are caught in limbo as I unconsciously run each of them through this stripped book in the back of my mind before they ever make it onto the page.
The one solace I have is in my teammates; in the times where I feel I’ve come up short, they always bring fresh concepts to the table. While I am concerned about the rate of progression through the core, I feel we are on the verge of a “Wow” moment; some watershed event that propels us forward into iteration and testing. Persistently forward is the order of the day, and as time marches on, so will I.
So this is what it’s like.
This week is the first week where I really felt like I got a taste of what this course is about. It’s about making choices (or sacrifices, in some cases); sometimes it just has to ship. Between preparing for the presentations for Project 2, turning in the Chair Project, studying for Jeff’s test, taking the takehome portion of that test, and starting on the prompt for Project 3, let’s just say my dance card has been full.
But as glad as I am to have those two projects out of the way, I still really want to process the feedback we received. Our group had a great post-mortem (kind of macabre, no?) discussion with Holly on Thursday night, and I really felt like we all got a lot out of it. It made me realize that while we might have had our disagreements, by the end we really were all on the same page, and had the same goal in mind. I also am more inclined than ever to do a presentation without slides, perhaps interpretive dance?
Going forward, the hardest part of the post-project phase is clearing your head enough to ideate for the next one; my focuses on time still feel too narrow at this early stage. I’ve been thinking a great deal about the Pomodoro Technique…mainly because of the parallels between its processing of time and the functioning of working memory in the perceptual portion of the Model Human Processor. Pomodoro really seems to speak to some elemental cognitive need in time management, but it still feels too forced to me with timers and tasks; there needs to be a more (if you’ll pardon the pun) organic way of segmenting time.
With our second project now set in the books (well, most of it anyway; about those presentations…), I came to an interesting realization while I was completing part of the requirements for the physical documentation due on Monday. After all the iteration, the prototyping, user testing, and documentation, one of the most involved processess of this entire project for me was writing the team member evaluations. And not because of anything especially problematic (I loved my team!), it was just at that moment, those evaluations represented the first time I really considered the people behind the project outside of their natural context. In other words, how did they iterate and develop over the last two weeks?
Working with the Department of Justice has given me the experience of having worked not only within group dynamics, but also interoffice politics. Being able to consider others’ feelings, and showing empathy towards your fellow coworkers I believe is essential to forming trust and cohesion amongst a group, particularly in the face of adversity. That being said, I’ve had to learn a whole new type of trust-building for this project; shooting down ideas hurts me just as much as the person who derived it. We are still so new to this whole process that we grasp onto any tendrils of inspiration or success, only to have them dashed in the interests of the next pragmatic deadline. But whether they’re yours or mine, any idea is equally subject to the chopping block: we just have to get to the point where we can let go.
But discarding failed ideas or overcoming setbacks are as much a part of the finished product as anything. A design, corrugated by collaboration like a well-worn paper prototype from the many callused hands of its creators, is the sum of its parts: humanly heuristic. And this most recent iteration of myself I feel is only going to get better with time.
Between meetings and class this past week, riding home from class serves as the primary means to clear the mental cache in my head each day; to give my brain a chance to begin to process what I’ve just learned. In that 2.5 miles, which takes about 10 minutes to travel depending on traffic, I try not to think about class. No matter how frustrating, how effective it is at deconstructing 8+ years of academic dogma, or if I leave with tenfold more questions than when I arrived : that all disappears when I throw a leg over the top tube. My goal is clear, my rationale simple: get home in one piece.
My bike of choice is a little different than most; I ride a fixed gear bike, which changes the basic means of locomotion in one very important way: you can’t coast. Your legs are constantly in motion along with the drivetrain, and thus the wheels. Suddenly, the things you used to take for granted: braking for a sudden change in the flow of traffic, cornering, rolling downhill, take on a new dimension. Now you have to consciously consider your following distance behind other vehicles, time your cadence for pedal strike as you round a curve, and leg brake to check your speed as you go downhill. This cognitive load on top of basic riding awareness is overwhelming at first; it’s like learning to ride a bike all over again.
And yet you do learn it. You take it slow. And once you understand the protocol behind what makes the system work, you can begin to explore it. It’s then you realize what the big deal is when people say you feel more connected with the bike. I stop thinking about what sketches I need to finish or what readings I need to do, and focus on the 18mm of rubber that I’m rolling on; the quick-link in the 1/8″ chain that has just enough give to let me know when my cadence is too high and I need to back off on the throttle. And the one short climb up Woodlawn starting at the base of Brian Park up to the Carlisle Brake plant is all the justification I need. I’ve logged many miles on my other racing bike, with all the bells and whistles, and there’s still no purer or more elemental experience than riding this simple machine.
One of my favorite professors at Wisconsin, Howard Schweber, told us one pertinent piece of information that I’ve internalized, and I believe it’s especially relevant here: Fear and Entitlement Kill Learning. Worrying about having to learn to ride all over again, or dismissing these bikes as a trend declared obsolete by the advent of their geared counterparts are equally missed opportunities. The ideas are foreign, their methods at first strange, but they are methods all the same. It’s just a system of protocols in place to accomplish a goal. They get you to where you want to go, and if the experience is better, isn’t that what really matters?
Process. It’s a word that I have heard repeated over and over this past week; a term and mantra that guides each of our actions as we learn about design. The activity of design itself is very experientially oriented: we observe, iterate, collaborate, experiment, and evaluate. All very active modes, which at times has left little time for reflection.
In the short breath between the submission (the irony of this word is not lost on me) of our first project and the beginning of our second, I find myself returning to our professor’s words about polish and learning to let go of your ideas, good or bad. It reminded me of an art form known as hikaru dorodango, or literally “shiny mud balls”. This traditional pastime of Japanese children (and adults alike) involves the careful molding of mud and dry dirt into spheres. After many hours of hand sculpting, drying, and polishing, the resultant orbs glisten and shine with an almost otherworldly glow. The composite materials of thedorodango are never any more than earth and water, and through this simple process is created
…an artefact of such utter simplicity and perfection that it seems it must be either the first object or the last, something that either instigated the Big Bang or awaits the final precipitous descent into universal silence. At the very end of things waits the hikaru dorodango, a perfect three-inch sphere of mud. At its heart: the unthinkable.
- William Gibson, TATE, pg 108, issue 1, September/October 2002
The design process can be said to be similar to the creation of a dorodango; it is both the first and the last: a continuous cycle of genesis that stems from problems and the pursuit of their solutions. We will grapple everyday with the unthinkable: concepts and applications that have no one true answer, measurements that are not empirical, and difficult constraints. But if we learn to respect the process of our work, the beautiful struggle that bonds us under a common banner, we are one step closer to achieving the polish that we strive for.
So I am learning to slowly embrace the smeared pulp, the smell of pencil shavings, thinking twice before brushing aside the chaff of my eraser. For these are part and parcel of our process, our earth and water awaiting our touch, and that itself is the product.
There is a technique used by players of wind instruments known as circular breathing. It is accomplished by the performer simultaneously breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth to continuously maintain a tone without interruption. It is a difficult technique to master, requiring years of practice and patience to develop, but the end result is a level of control in phrasing and musicality that is unrivaled by other means. The key to learning this skill involves rethinking and to some degree rewiring what has been ingrained in one’s autonomic nervous system; you have to surrender the notion of what it means to breathe.
And I feel as though I’m learning to breathe all over again.
Sketch to sketch, concept to concept, test to test: each of these iterative activities is slowly conditioning us; teaching us to live and breathe as designers. The ability to quickly adjust your designs based on feedback in a variety of mediums (e.g. critique, usability tests, or even in the construction of a prototype) is essential to an agile process.
With the introduction of another new project today (despite its longer timeframe) I feel inspired, overwhelmed, hungry. A soft sine whispers in my ear, a sound that I have come to associate with ideas jostling for position in my head. Even as this first project comes to a close, another is close on its heels: filled with new potential, pitfalls, and possibilities. It’s all there, waiting.
We just have to remember to breathe.
One theme has been swirling around inside my head, and resurfacing into my notebook, time and time again this first week, and that is the imagery of the Tower of Babel. The unification of so many disparate elements: psychology, computer science, graphic design, sociology, industrial design, and countless others all influence, and confound, the field of HCI. In this manner, HCI is simultaneously selfless and selfish, absorbing into its collective study anything that can be applied towards the advancement or expansion of the field. Rogers elaborates:
While it is in the interest of the “other” fields to maintain their distinct boundaries and separateness from HCI, HCI does not have to reciprocate. Its tendency towards inclusiveness means it will continue to expand, sometimes at the expense of others losing ground. (Rogers 3)
This “lost ground” to me seems to stem from the noise on the line that arises in the chasm between theory and practice of HCI. Being unable to establish a clear identity or set of boundaries makes it not only difficult to define HCI, but in my mind also to study it at such a broad level. What are we to make then of this dissonant language?
After tonight’s lab session, I believe I’m beginning to see an answer to that question.
As each member of our cohort stood and spoke, first in their native tongue, and then in English, I noticed several common trends amongst all the speakers. Body stances opened, voices projected; a unique timbre and cadence arose out of each person’s voice as they shared their personal journey that led them here. I began to condense certain precepts from these vapors of nuance in each speaker’s story, before a word of English was ever uttered: that perspective is principle in HCI. It’s the human part of this discipline that makes it what it is: beyond the theories, paradigms, and methods, it’s the people that we design for that make us designers. And in its selfishness, HCI teaches us to be selfish: to absorb all of the fields of knowledge around us, and integrate them into our collective thoughts and processes, only to release them a thousandfold upon our users in the form of thoughtful and selfless design.