Brain Pickings

Talk to Me: Design and the Communication Between People and Objects

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The ever-expanding definition and cultural role of design in the age of sensors, data, and responsive interfaces.

It is a privilege to have someone in your life who is both a good friend and a personal hero. I’m fortunate to count among those rare gifts MoMA Senior Curator of Architecture and Design Paola Antonellidesign oracle, crusader for humanized technology, curious octopus — whose shows continue to define and redefine design, expanding our understanding of it not only as a creative discipline but also as a cultural translator, social lubricant, and “interface between progress and humanity.” Her latest exhibition, titled Talk to Me, which ran between July 24th and November 7th, 2011, explored with an unparalleled blend of excitement and insight the evolving communication between people and objects — a relationship all the more palpable, quite literally so, in our age of ubiquitous sensors and data feeds and interfaces, yet still rooted in our inextricable and increasingly complex relationship with the physicality of the analog world.

Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects (public library) is itself a meta-object in the exhibition — exquisitely produced and thoughtfully constructed to contextualize and illuminate the nearly 200 projects in the show, this analog artifact flows beautifully and seamlessly into the digital and mechanical world it encapsulates. An embossed faux-pixelated cover invites you to touch the “interface” of the book. On many of the pages, QR codes let you leap into a specific project’s digital presence. The Cubitt Fax computerizes the printed page, exuding a kind of binary intimacy.

Antonelli writes in the introductory essay:

The bond between people and things has always been filled with powerful and unspoken sentiments going well beyond functional expectations and including attachment, love, possessiveness, jealousy, pride, curiosity, anger, even friendship and partnership.

And, indeed, the projects and objects featured span the entire spectrum of human intellectual and emotional investment. From the unapologetically analog and deeply personal, like Stefanie Posavec’s handmade visualizations and Nicholas Felton’s infographic life reports, to the widely exploratory and the wildly futuristic, like Christien Meindertsma’s brilliant PIG O5049 project and Daisy Ginsberg’s E.chromi “designer bacteria,” the works cover (and uncover) interfaces, tools, devices, data visualization, video games, websites, and many more facets of this curious cultural shift we are witnessing, exploring the intersection and interplay of these various conduits of communication.

Invisible City: What a Hundred Million Calls to 311 Reveal about New York (2010)

Wesley Grubbs and Mladen Balog of Pitch Interactive

Published in Wired magazine, November 2010

The Lost Tribes of New York City (2009)

Andy London (American, born 1968) and Carolyn London (American, born 1972) of London Squared (USA, est. 1999)

In this stop-motion animation, various objects on the streets of New York City—among them a public telephone, a manhole cover, and newspaper boxes— come to life, with voices taken from the filmmakers’ interviews with New Yorkers and tourists. The result is a kind of urban ethnographic research: conversations with a wide and representative range of people about their hopes and identities and how they relate to New York. Some of the interview subjects speak with heavy accents, some don’t; some tell jokes, others wax wise and philosophical. The filmmakers’ skill with the stop-motion effects allows the objects to embody the voices in a vibrant way. The Lost Tribes of New York City is both comic and poignant, showcasing the city’s remarkable diversity while at the same time emphasizing the common experience that connects its various tribes.

(En)tangled Word Bank (2009)

Greg McInerny (British, born 1977) of Microsoft Research, Cambridge (UK, est. 1997) Stefanie Posavec (American, born 1981)

This visual comparison of the six editions of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species shows the changes Darwin made to the texts during his lifetime. Using data from online versions of the books, the designers created six wheels, each representing a different edition, with each chapter divided into sub-chapters, paragraphs (represented by a leaf shape), and sentences (represented by a smaller 'leaflet'). The sentences are colored blue or orange based on whether or not they will appear in the next edition—on whether or not they will survive. Changes representing scientific advances, adjustments in the author’s thought process, and conflicting sections in the text become apparent, with subtleties as well as major changes immediately revealed.

Talk to Me is also very much about locating the present:

In contrast to the twentieth-century triumph of semiotics, which looked down on communication as nothing but a mechanical transmission of coded meaning, the twenty-first century has begun as one of pancommunication — everything and everybody conveying content and meaning in all possible combinations, from one-on-one to everything-to-everybody. We now expect objects to communicate, a cultural shift made evident when we see children searching for buttons or sensors on a new object, even when the object has no batteries or plug.

Tio (2009)

Tim Holley (British, born 1985)

Tio is a bird-shaped light switch designed to teach children not to waste energy. Using a traffic stoplight’s color progression and a series of increasingly angry facial expressions, Tio lets children know how long the lights have been on, so they can decide when it is time to turn them off. The accompanying website allows them to see their energy-use patterns and explains where energy comes from and how harvesting it affects animals, plants, and the larger environment. Tio was developed for Onzo, a British company that provides energy utilities with data-capture and analysis services.

littleBits (2008)

Ayah Bdeir (Lebanese, born 1982)

Ayah Bdeir’s littleBits are a hardware library of preassembled circuit boards that connect to one another with magnets. Like Legos, which allow anyone to understand how to build structures without a complex engineering education, littleBits make a complex process intuitive, in this case assembling prototypes by snapping together electronic components. Thus littleBits allow non-experts to engage with electronics, letting anyone get a feel for working with circuits. Users have made, for instance, a garage-door opener, a coffeemaker, a pair of blinking shoes, and a joystick.

Antonelli’s talent for bridging the esoteric with the universal shines throughout:

In our relationship with objects, as in any relationship, indifference is the worst offense and laziness the worst sin.

Phantom Recorder (2010)

Revital Cohen (Israeli, born 1985)

Revital Cohen designs speculative, metaphysical objects that examine the relationship between the natural and artificial. The Phantom Recorder explores the phenomenon of the phantom limb: an amputee’s sensation that a missing limb is still attached to the body and functioning. 'The phantom owner is suddenly endowed with a unique and personal appendage,' Cohen explains, 'invisible to others and sometimes capable of extraordinary hyperabilities.' This physical hallucination is often treated as a hindrance and corrected through therapy, but Cohen feels that attempts to alleviate it 'tend to overlook poetic functions of our body.' What if, she wonders, the sensation could be harnessed and used at will? The conceptual interface Cohen created in response to this inquiry would connect the part of the brain that thinks it is controlling the missing limb to electrodes in a neural-implant device. This device could be activated to record or cause particular sensations. The potential for new ways to understand the communication between mind and body goes further, Cohen says: 'Could we use this technology to record illusions of the mind? What if our imagination could be captured through our nerves?'

My Wheel of Worry (2010)

Andrew Kuo (American, born 1977)

Andrew Kuo presents his inner worries, arguments, counterarguments, and obsessions in the form of charts and graphs. In the three-tiered graph my Wheel of Worry, originally published in the May 16. 2010, New York Times Magazine, Kuo illustrates the things in his life that concern him and his specific feelings about each. On the graph's innermost ring Kuo shows what causes him anxiety in the moments before sleep (loneliness, death, money, bedbugs, and the new York Knicks); in the middle ring he charts his very specific reactions to his credit card statement; on the outermost ring, what he thinks about as he scratches a lottery ticket. In this chart and others, Kuo brings the graphic language of scientific fact to the irrational emotions associated with everyday life.

Citing Austrian-American psychologist and philosopher Paul Watzlawick and his five axioms of communication, defined in 1967, Paola examines how our paradigms of idea-transmission have both changed and remained the same half a century later:

The first axiom tells us, ‘One cannot not communicate.’ Any kind of gesture, behavior, and attitude can and will be interpreted as communication. In e-mail, for example, responding immediately to a message creates a particular subtext, as does not responding at all; a congratulatory message sent ‘reply all’ can be interpreted as displaying presence and authority or else insecurity, and an ill-advised response by a person who received only a blind copy reveals…something else.

The third axiom says, ‘The nature of a relationship is dependent on the punctuation of the partners’ communication procedures.’ Communication, Watzlawick posits, is cyclical, with each partner believing that he or she is simply responding to the other; some of the most common problems of the digital era arise from the cycle of amplification and reaction that marks our text exchanges, something that serial e-mail gaffers and awkward users will be familiar with. The problem is acute enough to require the invention of ToneCheck, developed by Lymbix, an emotional spell-check for e-mail messages that alerts the writer to excessive displays of anger, sadness, or insensitivity.

Locals and Tourists, New York and London (2010)

Eric Fischer (American, born 1973)

Locals and Tourists uses geotagging data from the photo-sharing websites Flickr and Picasa to visualize the different areas frequented by locals and tourists in New York, London, and 124 other cities, including Taipei, Sydney, Berlin, and San Jose, California. After harvesting millions of data points in the form of photographs, Eric Fischer links them by photographer and date and then plots them on a city’s OpenStreetMap grid. A photographer with many shots of the same city and a long photo history can be assumed to be a local and is represented in blue, and someone whose photos are taken within a limited time period is assumed to be a tourist and represented in red; photographers whose status can’t be determined are represented in yellow.

Menstruation Machine–Takashi's Take (2010)

Sputniko! (British/Japanese, born Japan 1985) Design Interactions Department (est. 1989) Royal College of Art (UK, est. 1837)

With Menstruation Machine, Sputniko! explores the relationship between identity, biology, and choice, while also inquiring into the meaning of gender-specific rituals. The metal device, which looks like a chastity belt and is equipped with a blood-dispensing system and electrodes that stimulate the lower abdomen, replicates the pain and bleeding of the average five-day menstruation period. It is designed to be worn by men, children, postmenopausal women, or whoever else wants to experience menstruation. A music video that can be displayed with the device is about Takashi, who wants to understand what it feels like to be a girly girl. Takashi builds the Menstruation Machine and wears it out on the town with a girlfriend, strutting around a shopping mall and occasionally doubling over in pain. Thus an internal, private process is transformed into a wearable display of identity. Since the 1960s, advances in hormone-based contraception have, by suppressing ovulation, made monthly periods no longer biologically necessary. Sputniko! notes that the Menstruation Machine may be particularly desirable in a future in which menstruation in fact becomes obsolete.

In the introductory essay, Antonelli also exercises her remarkable gift for explaining technical terminology and complex systems in layman language that takes none of the substance away, breaking down the four main design disciplines covered in the show:

Communication design focuses on delivering messages, and it encompasses most graphic design, signage, and communicative objects of all kinds, from printed materials to three-dimensional and digital projects. Interface and interaction design, which is sometimes brought under the more generic and functionalist rubric of user-experience design, delineates the behavior of products and systems, as well as the experience that people will have with them. Information or visualization design includes the maps, diagrams, and visualization tools that filter and make sense of the enormous amount of information that is more widely available than ever before. Critical design is one of the most promising and far-reaching new areas of study, using conceptual scenarios built around hypothetical objects to comment on the social, political, and cultural consequences of new technologies and behaviors. Its disciples are experts in ‘What if?’

Rubik's Cube for the Blind (2010)

Konstantin Datz (German, born 1988)

Konstantin Datz has reimagined the popular Rubik’s Cube for people who cannot see the toy’s original colors. Datz stuck white panels embossed with the Braille words for each color over the squares, transforming the game from a visual puzzle into a tactile one.

Prayer Companion (2010)

Interaction Research Studio (est. 2000) Goldsmiths (UK, est. 1891) University of London (UK, est. 1836)

Developed for the nine Poor Clare Sisters who live at a monastery in York, UK, the Prayer Companion is a communication device with a very explicit purpose: it alerts the nuns to issues that need their prayers. The nuns, whose everyday lives have changed little since medieval times, have taken vows of enclosure, and their only connection to the outside world is through occasional access to Catholic newspapers, mail, and limited use of the telephone and computer. Designed to be understated and unobtrusive, the Prayer Companion subtly scrolls a ticker tape of issues across its top; its small screen can only be viewed from above and close-up, thus minimizing its distracting potential. The device was designed specifically for the nuns and is the only one of its kind. 'Goldie,' as the nuns call it, sits on a table in a hallway that they often pass through, scrolling news as well as the feelings of anonymous strangers whose blog entries are aggregated by the website We Feel Fine. The nuns have told Bill Gaver, of the Interaction Research Studio, that 'it has been valuable in keeping our prayers pertinent.'

More than anything, Talk to Me is about both challenging and owning design as a centripetal force of culture:

Talk to Me is an opportunity to anchor design’s new dimension and highlight innovative interfaces that can inform designers in the future. Whether they use the skin and shell of objects as an interface or animate them from within, designers are using the whole world to communicate and are set on a path that is transforming it into an information parkour and enriching our lives with emotion, motion, direction, depth, and freedom.

[…]

It might seem that design has abandoned its tested, grounded, functionalist territory to venture into an ambiguous universe where its essence is confused and a crisis of identity arises — is the 5th Dimensional Camera art or scientific modeling? Is Humeau’s work creative paleontology? Are Sputniko!’s devices contributing to interpretive anthropology? Is Pachube mere coding and infrastructure engineering? Not at all. I claim them, with their powerful vision and their focus on knowledge and awareness, as design, and I praise their radical functionalism. Ambiguity and ambivalence — the ability to inhabit different environments and frames of mind at the same time — have become central to our cultural development. They are qualities that embody the openness and flexibility necessary for embracing diversity, and they are critical to the questioning and imagining that are the preferred methods of inquiry. Communication is at the nexus of all these necessary human features: the most critical function of design today.

Tweenbot (2009)

Kacie Kinzer (American, born 1983)

Tweenbots are small, constantly moving robots that depend on the kindness of strangers to get where they are going. Interaction designer Kacie Kinzer sent Sam, the best traveled of the Tweenbots, on many missions in New York City’s Washington Square Park, armed only with a flag that asked passersby to point him toward a particular destination. She fully expected that Sam—made of a battery-operated motor and cardboard—would be crushed, lost, or thrown away, but surprisingly (or unsurprisingly, depending on how helpful you believe New Yorkers to be) he always arrived safely at his destination. The Tweenbots demonstrate that a clever situation staged by a designer can set a dialogue in motion between people and objects.

Several essays by prominent cross-disciplinary thinkers contextualize the various thematic sections. In one titled “Reality Is Plenty, Thanks: Twelve Arguments for Keeping the Naked Eye Naked,” the always-thoughtful Kevin Slavin asks:

As parlor tricks go, [virtual reality] is a neat one. Reality is built on human perception, entering consciousness through the human eye. If you add to the stack, you have something like reality, only more. But more what?

In another essay, “Conversations with the Network,” Khoi Vinh observes:

The designer as author, as craftsperson bringing together beginning, middle, and end, becomes redundant in a space in which every participant forges his or her own beginning, middle, and end. And that is exactly what happens in networked media. The narrative recedes, and the behavior of the design solution becomes prominent. What becomes important are questions that concern not the author but the users. How does the system respond to the input of its users? When a user says something to the system, how does the system respond?

At its heart, Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects — like the show itself, and the entirety of Antonelli’s work — is the essence of what true curation is: Context, conscience, cultural curiosity, and, above all, a point of view of what matters in the world and why.

Exhibition images and image captions courtesy of MoMA

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