Abstract

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How can a trans-disciplinary media designer fit in today’s diverse landscape of media outlets? In The Void I examine the in-between spaces in a range of forms including animation, physical objects, interactive architecture, and the urban environment.

Animation excels at bringing life to the tween frames but suffers in it’s 2-dimensional linearity and prescribed narrative. Physical objects may be 3-dimensional but being mass produced for predefined purposes they discourage other creative uses. Interactive architecture may be more dynamic than traditional static architecture but despite being very spatial it is often more similar to animation with its predefined experiences. Scaling up our view to include the urban environment we find the life in the spaces between the beautiful structures.

Within all of these I explore the idea that designers can interject themselves into a range of areas by using a hacker’s mindset. By identifying the unused or overlooked areas in design and space we can expose the weaknesses in these systems and find more personally meaningful outcomes than the ones predefined for us. By engaging these voids through design hacking and space hacking we can create platforms for other people to engage with their world more creatively.

Designing in The Void

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What design opportunities are there in the spaces between?

1.The Current Landscape

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Surveying the design landscape around us today, the modern designer may feel stretched in multiple directions. We must be both experts and dilettantes of fields both within and around our domain. Every day we find there is an endless supply new devices, spaces, and outlets to design for. The possibilities available to us are at once awe inspiring and intimidating.

How can we begin to build a scaffolding upon which our practice may thrive in this disparate landscape? As an undergraduate student learning about visual hierarchy my design professor, Karen Cheng, often said “If everything is important, nothing is important.” This idea can also be extremely helpful in thinking about how to position ourselves as trans-disciplinary designers. If we can’t be experts in everything where should we focus our energies? In many ways, it seems the most interesting space emerging today is the space in between.

Fig. 1 The InDesign Layout

It used to be that designers were just focused on designing The Pages. For instance, pages of a book (see Fig. 1) or pages of a website. The reader could only turn the page to get to the next one or click a link for a new page to load. Content also usually existed in just one form. While the visual design of this main content is obviously very important, with advances in technology we’re finding there is now emerging a void in between these beautiful things. Who is responsible for filling that void? Clearly that should also be the designer. But a modern designer is not only responsible for creating a linear journey from point A to point B. We are also tasked with setting the stage for the interesting range of possibilities that can take place during that journey. This is also a common thread capable of transversing multiple forms, whether that be animation, physical objects, or the built environment. These seemingly disparate fields are united by the need for a designer to create the scaffolding for complex experiences that can evolve in the gaps.

2. Animation

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Of all the fields in question, animation clearly has the most history and development in the importance of the spaces in between. While the key frames are important, it is in the actions between the keyframes, the tweens, that really give the animation personality, character and a sense of life. The animator must consider a wide range of variables aside from merely the path a character takes from point A to point B. The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation is a classic which establishes 12 basic principles of animation. These include squash & stretch, anticipation, staging, straight ahead and pose to pose animation, follow through and overlapping action, slow-out and slow-in, arcs, secondary action, timing, exaggeration, solid drawing, and appeal (Lightfoot, “12 Principles).

Of these twelve steps its important to note that only the last two out of the twelve, solid drawing and appeal, relate specifically to the the aesthetic visual and technical representation of a character. Many people think that character design is the most important aspect of a cartoon. But in reality it’s the sense of life that comes from the way the character gets from one point to the next (in addition to the story). This explains why the first 10 principles relate to the details of movement and timing which are all about giving the character a unique personality when getting from one point to the next (see Fig. 2).Without considering these details the animation would be lifeless.

Walk Cycle

Fig. 2. Williams, Richard. The Animator's Survival Kit.

Animation’s fundamental principle of the nuanced tween can extend to 3D, non-linear, and tangible systems as a way to fully appreciate the potential for life in the in between space. But animation itself is still quite passive, one sided, and allows the viewer to only observe a preset narrative from a screen. While there is life, it is still heavily scripted. There is little room for interaction, improvisation or interpretation.

 

3. Design Hacking

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This is where animation could begin to borrow from the idea of design hacking. Hacking has traditionally been thought of in the digital sense, where weaknesses in software structures are exploited for unintended purposes. But recently, with the increase in manufactured goods and a decrease in personal creation, there has been a surge of people hacking physical objects in response to the impersonal linear relationship between consumers and the objects designed for them. For instance, Ikea Hacking takes the preset materials provided by Ikea and reconfigures them into new objects with more personality and potential uses (see Fig. 3).

Fig. 3 Yonoh. Ikea Hack

Traditionally, a designed object has had a direct relationship between its form and its function. On one side of the spectrum the designer creates a specific form for a specific set of functions for the consumer on the other end of the spectrum. By hacking a system or object we’re able to insert our own ideas into the space between the defined form and its predetermined function. Like in animation, by adding details to this space between we are able to add a sense of personality to an otherwise rigid and lifeless object. Scott Burnham explains hacking as  “a ‘middle process’ between creation and consumption, creating an opening for new design processes which are not about the use of new resources, but about the ingenuity to expand the potential of existing ones.”

4. Design for Empowerment

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If we as designers would like to foster and empower people to embrace this form of personal ingenuity how can we approach the practice of designing? As designers we traditionally like to be in control of all the aspects of an experience, but in order to allow for this personalized tween space to thrive we must release some of the control. Instead of just packaging the experience for consumption, a rich experience is one that’s designed to be hacked. Legos may be a very basic classic example but it’s a great example of a system that supports multiple outcomes (see Fig. 4). In other words, in order for things to have a sense of life we need to consider not only what goes on between the two ends but also systems that can support multiple possible uses, some of which we may not have anticipated. The focus then becomes on designing for the idea of Productive Interaction, which “shifts the emphasis of interaction design away from the notion of creating persuasive, consumptive, feel-good experiences for people, and moves it towards the design of content, contexts, affordances and interactions, creating an open mode of communication where people can form their own outcomes and meanings” (Van Allen et al. 56).

Fig. 4. Will Gorman. Battle Bricks: MakerLegoBot: A Lego Mindstorms NXT 3D Lego Printer.

 

5. Interactive Architecture

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Designing for design hacking may seem limited to small scale objects and interactions but this idea can actually scale to the built environment that surrounds us. While adding new technologies to the traditionally static structures in the environment can add a level of life, similar to finessing the tween in an animation, it often stops at that level. Currently, what is usually considered “interactive architecture” tends to be just a linear relationship between an input and output, taking in A and giving out B. The environment recognizes my presence, and reacts in a pre-determined way (see Fig. 5). In this scenario the designer still controls the whole experience and leaves no room for people to create their own outcomes. On the other hand a more complex interaction would be able to adapt to the intentions of the people or the system (Greenfield, Shepard “Urban Computing and Its Discontents”).

Fig. 5. Studio Roosegaarde. Dune 4.2.

While graphic designers have traditionally been experts at controlling every aspect of the beautiful glossy page, or what I would consider the keyframes, architects have traditionally been well versed in controlling every aspect of the big beautiful structure which functions as a threshold separating the outside world from the inside world (Beesley, Khan “Responsive Architecture/Performing Instruments”). But even if a structure has the added technological ability to react to the presence of people, by not designing it in a way that adapts to complex goals it fails to understand the human experiences that fill the gaps above, below, through and in between the structure.

6. The City

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When we scale up to the city level we see the implication of this human experience oversight multiplied throughout the urban landscape. Architectural and urban development projects have often tried in vain to bring cities back to life by building bigger, more impressive buildings downtown. But as cities like Detroit have come to find out, shiny new convention centers and beautiful buildings alone can’t do all the work. Adding responsive facades to the buildings aren’t going to draw people into the city either. It’s the thriving conversations happening between the structures that generate thriving cities (Brooks “The Splendor of Cities”).

Fig. 6. Cake ladies in Downtown Seattle (2006)

Urban activist Jane Jacobs saw successful cities “not as a mass of buildings but rather as a vessel of empty spaces, in which people interacted with other people. The city wasn’t a skyline — it was a dance” (Lehrer “A Physicist Solves the City”). Again, we see the lively core of a city focuses on the experience of the space between.  In this case, not only is it about the varied paths an individual can take to get from point X to Y, but also the constructive collisions that happens when multiple people intersect each other on their individual journeys (see Fig. 6). In contrast, cities like Phoenix, who have prioritized isolation in single family homes over public space, have performed poorly on a range of urban metrics from income to innovation. It’s when people collide and influence each other in those in between spaces their ideas can develop and grow even faster (Lehrer “A Physicist Solves the City”).

7. Space Hacking

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But it’s not enough to just build more plazas and expect people to show up and sit on the benches provided, especially when these plazas are often not true public spaces. Particularly troubling is the growing trend towards privatizing what would appear to be a public space. Commercial shopping districts, playing on our sense of nostalgia, increasingly emulate traditional public spaces of the past while simultaneously limiting the potential for public use (see Fig. 7). Instead of fostering complex and multi-dimensional interactions between a diverse group of people, commercialized pseudo public space seeks to minimize conflict and maximize order and monetary gain (Hou 6).

Fig. 7 Americana at Brand

Like the designed object, so singular in its form and function, these so-called public spaces are ripe for the hacking. The rigid and lifeless structures of the regulated city leave little room for personally meaningful outcomes that adapt to the complex goals of the people. Perhaps this is why we’re seeing people in cities around the world starting to reshape their urban landscape between the structures to suit their own needs and desires, and at a greater scale. With the help of networked technologies more people are able to find ways to intentionally come together throughout these in between spaces. While these gatherings are ephemeral and sporadic they serve as a tool to chip away at the officially sanctioned uses and open the door for new possibilities, inspiring others to find new ways to engage in their own world around them. Free from the bureaucracy of official rules and regulations, citizens take ownership of their urban environment. This form of guerrilla urbanism “recognizes both the ability of citizens and opportunities in the existing urban conditions for radical and everyday changes against the dominant forces in the society” (Hou 15).

8. Looking ahead

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Animation, design hacking, and the urban built environment may seem unrelated when in reality they are connected by the need for complex and nuanced signs of life in the space between. What we can learn from this need is that instead of only constantly aiming for progress in the form of newer, bigger, and faster there are ways to add life in the nooks and crannies of the world around us. By reconsidering these overlooked spaces we can also encourage others to find their own personally meaningful experiences. Blaine Merker explains that “deep within every rational system holding societies together are assumptions that, if taken to their logical conclusion, tend toward absurdity. As such, they are highly fertile terrain for artistic exploration” (Merker 55). Thus the modern world is ripe with opportunity for designers to make a difference in these spaces, regardless of the end form. The trans-disciplinary media designer’s role is not to define and control every aspect of the new media landscape, but instead to expose and create platforms that encourage creativity within those voids.

Fig. 8. Flickr user BuhSnarf. "Mind the gap!"