As part of my personal commitment to learn more about pioneering creative work, I make a point to attend as many cutting-edge and/or thought-provoking project exhibitions in Boston area and elsewhere as I can. Over the last month, I attended some stunningly inspiring and awesome events such as the down:2:earth conference presentation on "sustainable design" in Boston and the MOMA (museum of modern art in New York City) exhibition on "design and the elastic mind."At these events, I was struck by the groundbreaking potential of interactive and responsive designs that closely weave digital lives with the physical world, blurring the boundaries between the two and redefining each other. In the previous decade, it seems that there was a real drive to move everything to the exciting frontiers of digital media. However, slowly with time, companies have been moving to an integrated brick and click model. Even in our pedestrian lives, there seems to be a growing interest in bringing the cyberspace into our physical world. This runs parallel to another trend where we're building richer virtual communities where we may share more in common with those of like-mind and interests than we do with some of our offline communities merely connected by geographic proximity. The digital seems to take on more organic characteristics while the organic world is becoming enhanced and redefined by the digital media.
Some examples of fascinating trends that I observe are emerging and may transform our mundane experiences with design:
1)3D printing that has the potential to transform and collapse the manufacturing supply chain as the technology to manufacture 2D generated images into 3D objects such as furniture in a matter of minutes versus days advances. In a MOMA project, I watched a video of individuals painting in white digital globby ink furniture formations around them. This two-dimensional video that featured people interacting with their physical space to create digital forms was then used to print three-dimensional actual chairs made from resin in a 7 days. These chairs and tables had an organic, hand-drawn appearance and were created from a single brush stroke at each time. From a 2D video capture of a 3D moment, I witnessed the transformation of these two-dimensional video images into new physical three-dimensional permutations of the designers' imagination.
2) The Emergence of Responsive Design as demonstrated, for example, by a MOMA project featuring digital organisms that respond to real world physical stimuli such as sunlight, human interaction, etc. These digital organisms display organic characteristics such as an ability to pollinate and populate a room. Represented at the MOMA exhibition were digital flowers—shadowy silhouettes of digital weeds/flowers—that may have bloomed on one wall but then through pollination and interaction with real world stimuli, these digital organic flowers populated other parts of the room.
3) Google Maps customized to the purposes defined by different organizations and companies to give a new level of statistical information and means to examine emerging trends. For example, there were demonstrations of how to find certain fast food restaurants and to search and plot for them on maps. In another example, the NYC police department used google maps to describe hotspots for crime. Individuals are also using it to share photos on their road trips with others in the blogosphere.
4) Digital interactive installations are pulling real-time data from the web to create a more instantaneous and meaningful end-user relationship with live, evolving content. At the MOMA exhibit, I saw a very creative, poetic, and fun installation piece by Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar entitled "I want You to Want Me" that pulled real-time data from dating sites such as photos and profile details. These information were presented as balloons representing real men and women on existing dating sites and categorized in varying age groups. When one selected a balloon to view a profile of a particular individual, one could glean the professed identity of that individual and learn more about the qualities he or she is seeking in a mate. Also, another balloon also opened up simultaneously that is a match to that first balloon based on the profile details. Each balloon represented a hope rising to the sky of the large screen, a hope in finding the ideal mate for each individual. This project essentially explored the increasing plurality, plasticity, and ambiguities of digital identity creation as the web and social media community grows.
5) Concise data visualizations that display rich and complex details that empower us to access, absorb, and interpret a tremendous quantity of information more quickly. For example, there was a MOMA project exhibited called "History Flow Maps" that was able to concisely depict the multi-tiered terrain of the collaborative content editing processes for the Wikipedia entries on chocolate and abortion. This project provided perceptive insights into this collaborative Wikipedia process through color coding of each author's editing period in the collaborative sequence and the duration of the color line corresponded to the length of the text line they edited. The project enables one to see which topics described were more controversial through either harmonious periods of non-editing or rapid content changes.
6) Environmentally responsible and sustainable designs are becoming central to a forward-thinking company's message and solution to address a burgeoning public demand for solutions that are socially conscious and eco-friendly. At the down:2:earth expo, Ursual Tischner, founder of a German based sustainable design consulting firm and one of the guest experts in global sustainable design concerns, presented some case studies on this trend. She discussed how firms are starting to recognize that a demonstration of their commitment to socially conscious issues and eco-design is a competitive edge against others in their industry. This commitment also helped these firms project a more progressive image to their customers. For example, according to Tischner, Timberland creates boots made of recyclable and renewable materials and manufactured through energy generated by wind and solar power. They now proudly display their environmental commitment by including a "nutritional label" in all their shoeboxes that feature a quantifiable eco-conscious "nutritional" score on their shoes. Timberland cleverly asks, "what kind of footprint will you leave?" — a play on the ecological footprint concept.
Sustainable design are redefining the landscape of our daily lives as well. At the MOMA exhibition on sustainable design, there was an example of a street light used in Europe that is powered by solar and wind energy. Imagine the potential of these structures as public art sculptures and objects that help to generate its own light through solar and wind energy. These street lights are rather simple sculptures now but as they became more popular as a concept, perhaps there will be even more spectacular sustainable design sculptures. I can envision a world where there are public sculptural art galleries in this city featuring these projects that also serve the purpose of generating solar and wind energy for a public center. If they are truly beautiful displays, imagine their potential to help stir tourism in our beloved Boston or in other cities. If we concentrate these public displays in certain cities and centers, then people may go out of their way to visit these public outside galleries.
7) Increasing awareness that designers are not merely plastic surgeons and beauticians of existing content and images that should be introduced at the last rung of the creative cycle, but rather an integral part of the solution strategy and vision. Consumers of content are more influenced by design subconsciously than many have realized previously. Tischner at the down:2:earth expo also described a case study where a eco-friendly drink was made dramatically more popular with a new well designed product package that conveyed a superior, natural taste. As eco-friendly product packaging also become more attractive and well branded, these products become more appealing and are considered the preferred option beyond the merits of their primarily socially conscious value. Through the imagination of sustainable design experts like SMIT (Sustainably Minded Interactive Technology), solar cells are given an attractive face-lift and made more compelling to the end users for a variety of reasons. SMIT exhibited and prototyped GROW, a new hybrid energy delivery system designed to look like organic ivy when it's placed over buildings to harness solar and wind energy.
Stay tuned for more musings on particulars of some of these major themes as well as exploration of other emerging themes in digital media in upcoming postings...
Janet Si-Ming Lee
Principal Web + Graphic Designer, Siming Cybercreative