26 Apr 2014

making work with heart: experimenting and improvising

This winter I was invited by a colleague at IBM Design to participate in a Pecha Kucha series internal to our studio. The idea was to share where I find inspiration and how I approach my work—before and outside of IBM—with 20 slides that each show for 20 seconds. I regarded the invitation as an opportunity to speak to a few core design principles and practices I've applied in my recent experience that I also have been pulling forward into the pragmatic and complex practice of user-focused enterprise software design. Here are the slides and videos I shared, with their accompanying text (I cheated btw by repeating a few images so as to be able to speak longer about them).



I aspire to make work with warmth, life and humaness like Keetra Dean Dixon, Sister Corita and the ladies who made a garden in a desolate parking lot near my studio in LA. Their work embraces possibility in a way that has always seemed quite magical to me.

So I’ll share a few projects of my own to illustrate how I introduce chance, failure and improvisation at sometimes inopportune times into my otherwise planful design process.

Here I am with my colleagues Juliette and Lauren. For Collective Show LA we were trying to show what it looks like to work together, to find balance to make something good. We didn’t have a plan, just agreed to bring stuff we liked to Lauren’s gallery and to document our performance of collaboration every step of the way.

And this is what we made. It didn’t "look" good, so we photographed it and re-photographed it, and photographed it near a disco ball...at this point in the process I was at a loss for what we should do next.

But we took those photographs and we took turns finding what we thought was beautiful in them by placing them on the page. After several rounds of poster making—each taking a few hours at the mouse—we ended up with this.


But we were not done. The poster was both a promotion and a piece for the exhibition and was to be installed in the space. We saw the space we were allotted and asked ourselves “What else?” So we used materials from the mobile and spray painted, folded and taped two improvised versions to make the final triptych.

To me, this project is a success because I learned that improvisation backed by clear intent—such as our choices to embody collaboration at every stage of the design process and seek balance at every turn—is a means to a surprising and expressive end.


As I worked on my thesis, I introduced improvisation to quickly physically prototype ideas and generate breakthroughs. I often failed  epically. I was designing for this idea of enhancing meaningful conversation—seeking to articulate something more heartfelt—but I struggled to create the humanness I so admired in others’ work.


So I just started making things I did not fully understand or could stand behind to figure out my path through the project. Did I want to design solutions, like depicted here? Jewelry that you wear with someone else that forces you to stop texting? This is awkward and I really liked that...but somehow it did not feel true to my intent**.


Or did I want to design commentary and use design to be critical of how we have come to behave in regards to our ubiquitous and habitual use of mobile and internet technologies? It was in making these quick prototypes of varying fidelities that I learned my project's limits.


And I did find the voice of the work and the stance I wanted to take...a fine line between earnest, knowing and empowered. I wrote and re-wrote the design principles to follow and channeled the voices of the women for whom I was designing.


I learned from those earlier experiments that oddly the more “real” my prototypes got, the less convincing they were as provocations and invitations to other designers to join in with my imaginings.


But just like before, in these brief improvisations, digressions and failures I also saw possibilities, new metaphors and somehow the next thing I should do presented itself to me. I saw the aspect I needed to make feel "real" was not the designs themselves, but the voices of the college-age women I had spoken to.


Here is one of those voices:
"I remember when there was no word for unfriending; when breaking up meant we stopped talking, then I gathered the remnants of him littering my apartment to set ablaze or seal in a box destined for the attic."


"Ending a relationship is messy. It feels dishonest and unsatisfying to disentangle our profiles and erase our history instantly. My relationships change, yet apps cannot sense when I no longer want someone in my life. The delete button doesn’t understand what it means to lose a person. I feel wounded and empty."


Finally, this summer I presented at and participated in a residency called Design Inquiry on an island off the coast of Maine. I knew I was meant to create new work while in residence, so I started documenting people working as well as the landscape with video and stills, not really knowing what I would exhibit in six day's time.


The week of making, wandering, learning, cooking and writing passed quickly and on Saturday morning I still had nothing for the exhibition that night. So I made this collage of videos and stills on my laptop and looped them. A temporary tapestry of my experience.


Also another designer had brought a wand scanner, more portable than the regular kind. All week I kept trying to understand this tool and what it could or couldn’t do. For instance, it cannot scan a field of flowers, but it can scan flowers pressed up against a barn window.


So I made these “digital pressed flowers” by using the wand scanner “wrong”. I really love the results. I don’t know what I am going to do with them yet, meaning I haven’t found the right use, or how to expand on the series...


But as I have learned, isn't that the fun of it?


**Only after presenting "Text Cuff" to the IBM audience did I come to learn that Keetra Dean Dixon has a similar finger trap inspired piece. I do not believe I saw this work before producing my own, but want to acknowledge it came first.