by Ralph Ammer
In Design there is a traditional distinction between the production of objects and the production of communication: There are industrial designers and graphic designers.
This has been challenged with the advent of digital media. And here is why:
1. Objects turn into representations
Many objects have been disappearing. To “digitize” something basically means to translate information such as images, sounds or words into numbers. These numbers can be easily – and without loss of data – be copied and transported using various media. Thus the information is divorced from its carrier. We don’t need paper checks anymore. And photographs which used to fill heavy paper albums can be put on tiny USB sticks. Telephones have evolved from clunky objects to an icon on your screen.
Even everyday objects like flashlights, maps, or cameras can all be replaced by a piece of software on a smartphone.
2. Remote Communication
Much of our interaction has been moving from direct “face-to-face” conversation to visual – mostly written – communication.
So in recent decades objects and direct physical communication with people seem to disappear in favour of texts and images on screens.
3. Data becomes physical
And yet this grants us some freedom: freedom to design with less technological restraints. If we don’t need to use the clunky 20th century phone mentioned above we might come up with better communication devices.
No matter how obsessed we are with representations – images, texts and so forth – we are still physical beings inhabiting a physical world. So we need physical interfaces to mediate between us and the information at hand.
In a lot of cases these interfaces are reduced to screens and keyboards, mostly because the combination of those interfaces is extremely flexible in their use and thus: affordable. It seems like you can build an “app” for almost everything.
The overabundance of screen-based tools is also highly problematic. Why?
4. Somatic tacit knowledge
Our obsession with twodimensional representations – whether on screens or printed paper – is rooted in a deeper problem: our division of mind and body. For various reasons a lot of people consider the brain as the only “thinking organ” in the human body. The body seems to be a mere receiver of commands by this central commander.
This idea is based on a model which is commonly attributed to René Descartes and thus coined “Cartesian Dualism”. It is the idea that our purely mechanical body is controlled by a non-tangible “spirit”. The brain as the sole controller of our thoughts and actions seems to continue this disregard for our seemingly profane bodies.
Let’s consider a different model!
Maybe the body is not just a stupid machine controlled by a ghost but actually a complex system which constitutes our thinking.
We all know that we can tell a child about how to ride a bike but that she actually has to do it with her body if she wants to master this skill. But our connection between thought and body goes beyond those mechanical skills. Perceiving the world is an active process achieved through a number of organs. Our eyes, ears, arms, legs, etc. define how we think. We don’t record our environment like cameras but actively look at it. We don’t just scan objects, instead we touch and explore them with our hands.
So if our bodies are so vital for our understanding what are the effects of reducing everything to twodimensional screens or pieces of paper?
We get confused.
The object which used to be a desktop just seconds ago is now a map, and then a flight simulator. And we use the same gestures to turn on a lamp, delete a message or start a video. We neglect the role of the body and thus disturb the relationship between body and thinking. We burden our conscious thinking with tasks that used to be coordinated by our whole physical system without us actually having to think about them.
How can we design physical objects that help us deal with representations or “abstract things” in a meaningful way?
5. Physical Communication
The miniaturization of technology, new production and prototyping technologies – 3D printing just being one of them – and ever-improving software structures and algorithms endow us with the ability to develop systems which connect products, information and human interactions.
This project is an exploration of how to use “old” and “new” technologies as designers in order to physically expand our communication and thus – our understanding.
This is an experiment. Read more about our design process here.