I’ve continued with the portrait of the day effort I mentioned earlier. This time I’m working from a book I found in Oxfam called Portrait of England by Sylvester Jacobs. Published in 1976 it has loads of photos of people from that period, mostly in black and white. I’m using it to focus a little more on light and dark, using graphite or watercolour. Here are the “best”. I’ll spare you from the REAL turkeys.
I’ve started trying to draw a portrait a day. This is inspired partially by friends who’ve taken one photo, or even a self-portrait, every day with their cameras for a whole year. I’m hoping to do the same, but with an emphasis on allowing it to try and improve my drawing skills rather than my photography.
At the moment I’m on day 53, with no breaks. I’ve filled one Moleskine sketching notebook already. Who knows if I’ll make it to 365 pictures (or 7 sketchbooks). I’m enjoying trying, though.
On the 10th of April I helped host a workshop session at this years Computer Human Interaction conference (known by the shorthand “CHI”) in Atlanta, Georgia, with Mike Massimi (who really did the bulk of the work), Dave Kirk and Will Odom. I’m a little late getting this out, but I thought I’d write up some thoughts about the experience, as well as use this blog post as a place to write up the notes from my breakout session during the day, which was on “artefacts”.
Workshops are run before the conference proper begins, and are a chance for groups of like minded people to get together to discuss and learn more about a topic area. Our topic was “Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) at the End of Life”.
The term HCI is getting a little outdated in this context, really. It’s a term used in our industry as shorthand for “people using technology”, although it sounds way more geeky than that. What the 11 of us who met were primarily interested in was how technology is being used, or might be used, during the difficult period towards the end of a persons life and after.
Mike Massimi’s original call for participation gives you a good sense of the themes in more detail, and the position papers we received from participants show the variety of work going on in this area. These are all downloadable from the site and worth a closer look. For example, some of the participants had studied activity on social networking sites such as Facebook after someone in a community had passed away. Others looked at how technology might make decision making easier for those approaching the end of their lives. A few papers dealt with the use of digital media in this space, from creating personal chronicles of a life, to photographing people after they had passed away. My own interest was through the work I’ve been doing on Technology Heirlooms, looking at the process of passing digital things on at the end of life.
It all sounds very morbid, but actually wasn’t. I think we had a very thoughtful, thought-provoking and insightful day, with some great discussion and some practical next steps. We spent quite a bit of time doing introductions, and giving each participant time to explain their work. It’s always great to hear first hand accounts of motivations and outcomes.
Then after lunch we did a classic post-it note exercise, developing a grouping the different themes we had picked up during the day. We found 4 themes that emerged:
The Temporal – about the process before, during and after bereavement. Something we called the “Narrative of Dying”.
Identity, Ethics and Social Networks – around issues of online identity. How control of someone’s online identity comes about after their death and the ethics of then managing someone else’s online presences.
The Ethics of Research Practice – dealing specifically with how researchers should do their work sensitively in this domain.
Artefacts – around issues of dealing with “stuff” before and after bereavement.
ARTEFACTS. PROS AND CONS.
I joined the group (consisting of Angela Riechers, Jim Kosem and Daniela Petrelli) that took on the last of these topics, on Artefacts. We really felt like this was an issue of the tension between digital and physical things, that somehow we didn’t understand what we might be losing as heirlooms shift from being ‘real’ to ‘virtual’. We decided to use the time listing out the positives of each.
There was a suspicion in our group that our relationship and sentimentality towards physical things was a generational thing. That new generations, who spent more time with the digital than the physical, wouldn’t feel the same bias as some of us towards the physical.
There was also a sense that physical things were losing their value, as they become transient and temporary holders of digital content. An example of this kind of object is a mobile phone, which is typically replaced every 14 months.
An interesting outcome of these lists are that the positives of one form of artefact are inevitably a negative for the other. And in many cases the reverse of a positive of one artefact type was a positive of the other. So, for example, the ‘uniqueness’ of a physical thing was seen as a positive – the fact that there’s only one of each physical thing makes it somehow more precious. So somehow the fact that digital things are easy to copy and therefore can’t be considered unique cheapens them. At the same time, the fact that a digital thing can be so easily duplicated is also a positive. It makes a digital thing shareable amongst family members, for example, with no arguments over ownership.
So here is the list of positive attributes of physical things:
Physical things are unique.
Physical things are precious.
Physical things have a “smell” – subtle qualities of being physical.
Physical (particularly old) things have an aesthetic that comes with time.
Physical things have to be curated because they take up real space. You can’t keep a limitless number. They force decision making.
Therefore, physical things have been ‘selected’, which makes them more meaningful.
Physical things have stories associated with them about their physicality.
Physical things get a patina through their knocks that also tell their story.
Books exemplify a special example of the physical. They have attributes that it’s hard for the digital to match (such as browsability, portability)
Physical things can be personalised and changed.
And here’s the positive attributes of digital things:
Digital things do not take up space – there’s no cost associated with keeping them and they are very portable.
We can have a serendipitous relationship with digital things that can be delightful. I can put all 60 gigabytes of my music collection on random, for example, and find songs I haven’t listened to in decades.
Digital things can have rich interactions, motion etc.
Digital things can be easily duplicated and shared.
Digital things do not crumble.
Digital things can be augmented with metadata – objects can carry their stories, for example.
And a few things we found that both shared:
Both physical and digital things need to be maintained to make sure they persist.
Both digital and physical things make us guilty if we don’t sort them out.
We feel delight when we randomly come across lost or forgotten things, whether they are digital or physical.
Both need curating, but for different reason. For physical things we need to decide what to keep in order to keep our environments sane. For digital things we curate to make special, in order to elevate the “best” for sharing for example.
This feels like a useful list, for me at least, as we continue to think about the digital and physical forms that we reminisce with through the things we keep. Relevant to the Technology Heirlooms work, anyway.
I’d forgotten about this video from last year’s Innovation Day event at Microsoft Research in Cambridge (so this was from about April 2009). It shows the V1 of Timecard, which was a non-working proof of concept that came before the working version I described recently. The comments about the goals behind the project still apply, even if the object itself has changed quite a bit.
I was lucky enough to do a talk at the recent Interaction 10 conference in Savannah. An amazingly inspiring event, spread over a number of really eclectic locations (a theatre, a pharmacy, a blacksmiths and a restaurant). Compared to the inaugural conference in 2008, which was also in Savannah, the distribution of locations really encouraged mixing, as well as giving a much better sense of the city.
At some point I’ll go through my notes and write something up, but for now I thought I’d post the video of my bit.
Odd the things you find now that humanity is dumping its combined knowledge of useless ephemera online. It’s as good a place as any for it, I guess.
Exhibit A, the video for the song “Nowhere Girl” by flash-in-the-pan band, B-Movie. My roommate Nick Mellor and I obsessed over this one in our study at school when we were about 15. A study which we had unadvisedly painted black and red, BTW.
I didn’t even know this song HAD a video (not that ripping off Metropolis counts as creative).
Importantly, this is the 12″ version not the 7″. Something about the 12″ version was way more compelling. Maybe the sound of the girl/gull (we were never sure which) screaming at the beginning of the track?
A year ago Richard Harper asked me to put together a short document on how I thought we should approach our work in the Socio-Digital Systems, from a design point of view. Recently, a colleague who was visiting us in Cambridge at the time asked me to post the document somewhere public because he’d mentioned it a couple of times to others, and he wanted to be able to cite it more specifically. So here it is.
In some ways it’s more about what I DON’T believe about the design process as much as it is about what I DO believe. It’s a draft still, and something I’d like to keep on working on in one of those spare moments that we so rarely get at the lab.
I’ve been asked to write a little on the potential processes and methods of design that might be brought to bear on the research themes that we are thinking about at the moment, such as Domesticity 2.0 and Propinquity.
To be honest, I’m not one to write about what I do as a designer. I tend to draw things more then write. And I don’t believe strongly in methods in any defined sense. But, maybe outlining some things that I DO believe about the design process would be useful. Here they are:
I believe that the design process is unique and adaptable to any given situation. Part of the designer’s job is to be open to that adaptability.
I believe that the design process is rarely formed of discrete phases, but overlaps and loops back on itself in unpredictable ways. Part of the designer’s job is to embrace and even encourage that unpredictability.
I believe that the design process relies partially on certainties but primarily on intuitive steps into the unknown. Part of the designer’s job is to hone and gradually learn to trust their intuition and instincts.
I believe that the design process is about making abstract concepts real. It’s never too early to do this, although how real or unreal you make things can radically change the conversation. Part of the designer’s job is to learn, develop or even invent new ways to create the appropriate level of reality.
For me, design is primarily about understanding a context; seeking inspirations from which many ideas can spring as solutions to that context; visualizing and testing those ideas in both informal and formal ways; making choices for which ideas to prune; and then repeating this process until the last idea is standing. The last idea isn’t necessarily the best idea. I’m not sure I believe in best ideas.
So in the context of this document the questions I’d ask in developing a design approach to our themes are:
What do we know, and how do we better understand any of the contexts for the themes that are described?
What sources can we use as an inspirational springboard for the development of many ideas for the themes?
How best should we represent those ideas?
How should we test and then select from those ideas?
Then how shall we go about iterating on those ideas that we’ve selected in order to build one or two examples?
Fig 1. The Inspiration process Above is a simplistic visual of the way in which I think of the design process. Many sources of inspiration, whether technological, cultural or even political, lead to a multitude of ideas, which, through iteration and pruning lead to artifacts which help with testing and selection.
Taking the topic of Values of Space and Place from the Domesticity 2.0 theme as an example, a rough outline of a design process might include:
1. Context: Understanding what we mean by values in the home, and looking for situations in which we might develop ideas that add value to these spaces, by revisiting research work that we’ve done to date, as well as instigating a new round of field research. Once we have an understanding of what we do or don’t know about what we’re interested in we can set up a new set of field research, perhaps even revisiting previous subjects, with a new set of questions in mind.
2. Inspirations: I’m a strong believer that inspiration comes from many sources, any of which can lead to strong ideas. My goal here would be the generation and recording of MANY ideas, though. We have a tendency to sit around as a team and chat until ideas emerge, and we often have strong pre-conceived notions of what ideas we are already fans of. I’d like to see us make a more concerted effort at pushing ourselves, in a more typical brainstorming fashion, to go for a breadth of new ideas, rather than fixating on the details of one or two existing ones.
We should see ideas as a resource, as a sign of the creative output of our team. Instead, we tend to let go of our ideas and lose them once they are no longer of interest in our current work. Instead, I imagine making a concerted effort to record our ideas so that even if they don’t work out and apply for our current theme they provide some fodder for future inspiration. Ideas are an investment for our team.
It’s likely that any review of prior work described in the previous section on context will already throw up inspiration for a set of ideas for design work. Some other sources of inspiration might include juxtaposing our theme with unrelated work. We might, for example, review content from the Trends website looking for technologies and their social uses whose compliment or contrast with our theme provide some interesting new ideas. We might also look for inspiration in purely visually-stimulating content. One way of doing this might be to search a stock photo website looking for images associated with particular concepts and keywords.
3. Visualizing I’d like to see us go through a slightly more participatory process for visualizing our ideas earlier on. We have a tendency to talk about ideas in the abstract, and often the process of visualizing them helps bring clarity for everyone. We can do this by having me sketch during reviews of our ideas, but ideally there’s no reason that the team as a whole doesn’t draw what they mean as they say it. As we develop our ideas, we may chose to visualize them in different ways – as abstract 3D models made from found items, as simple thumbnail sketches, or as highly rendered items.
4. Testing and choosing: At this point “testing” really means discussing the pros and cons of different ideas in order to prune. Depending on how our ideas have developed, and what we may be more or less excited about, we may chose for this choice-making part of the process to include family members. Again, we’re not particularly rigorous about this part of the process. I’d like to see us go through a more structured, choice-making exercise, in the style of a design crit, at different points in the project.