This happened 3: a reportMarch 8, 2008
(Disclaimer: My company Tinker.it was sponsoring this event)
Few events in London care about defining interaction design like thishappend does. It’s third edition took place last Tuesday at the Roxy Bar near London Bridge and in a matter of an hour or so really framed the current challenges the field faces in industry.
First and foremost thishappened is an opportunity for interaction designers to leave their laptops and post-its behind, have a drink and a good chat with each other as there are few other “industry events” (this one sold out in 2 hours) and only that in itself is extremely valuable.
Jussi Ängeslevä, Schulze & Webb, Kenichi Okada and Snug & Outdoor had been invited to speak about a project, it’s challenges and the lessons learnt, a format we don’t see enough and that allows for much reflection on the design process. What I found great in this edition is that each presenter ended up talking about a different aspect of the project and creative experience.
1. The problem with remote projects is…
Jussi started the evening by talking about Art+Com’s project Duality an interactive walkway surrounded by water which, when someone would walk on it, would display ripples of light that would then extend out to create real ripples in the water. This sounds fairly straightforward, but the project was entirely conducted between their Berlin office and Tokyo, through a myriad of emails, testing by the japanese team on the other end, exchange of videos to see if the theory was proving right or wrong. Sounds tedious no? I asked Jussi if he had found there were any additional cultural issues in overseing the project, he talked about the fact that the Japanese were always quite keen to say everything was alright, and not talk about having any issues, until the very last minute. Lessons were certainly learnt in this process and it was great to get to hear it first hand.
2. Design in R&D
Jack was up next to talk about Olinda the social radio project for the BBC. It was a lovely and simple presentation of their challenge in mashing up an online concept of sociability into an everyday object. Coming from a typography background, I could see why he made some of his aesthetic choices. I also think this presented the array of challenges that face you when the outcome of a project is something you’re not entirely familiar with (even if the thought process is) : the learning curve, the time you take in understanding the implications of your design, the way in which your design decisions impact the use of an object, are all part of a challenge that presents itself when you are master and commander of the project. It’s also something that rarely happens in commercial projects in equally large companies like the BBC as those challenges would be broken down into tasks that would be divided up among “specialists” and glued together by project management. ugh. I think a lot of people in the room felt envious of Jack and Matt’s freedom.
3. The utopia of design schools
A similar freedom can be found in design schools. As Kenichi presented his project Animal Superpowers I was having flashbacks of Ivrea. Quick, efficient, with no sleep and little food and no money, the best ideas are often created, prototyped and presented in no time at all. The resources are part of the school’s infrastructure and materials available everywhere. The deadline of the work-in-progress show allows him and Chris to present one of the most successful pieces of their course. The caveat was subtle though, as they struggled to find children to use their capacity-enhancing toys, and showed a picture where Kenichi was pretending to be one of the kids. I can totally relate to that struggle, as designing for children can be one of the most elating activities and at the same time full of restrictions and limitations. When you’re doing a quick project user research is the least of your worries.
4. Implementing is awesome
Access to children wasn’t a problem for Hattie, who presented a great documentation of Snug and Outdoor’s work on London playgrounds. It was great to hear that they had been thinking about undirected and open play way before the topic was an internet meme. Although they label themselves as artists, their approach is a user-centered one and captured everyone’s imagination by demonstrating the different prototypes they had designed and tried on children. This eventually led them to receive NESTA funding and manufacture the Snug Kit. I overheard someone say “Why couldn’t they have just used trees and grass instead. What’s the point?” and to that I reply: show me a school with a playground that isn’t made of concrete. Their challenge was in dealing with the existing social infrastructures that children build in the schools of today not the landscape design.
The fact that the project was tested, changed, accepted, and manufactured made most people in the room clearly envious. The creative process in interaction design can often feel limited to one-off events, screen-based interactions and generally projects that are very “precious” and need tending, so seeing real products being made with the kind of creative independence and scope that Hattie and her partner had was a breath of fresh air.
This crescendo concluded the official part of the event which turned into a mixer of 60 or so people having drinks, catching up and perhaps talking about where it is all going.
In anycase, I look forward to the next edition in June and hope you’ll join me too.