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Fast Learning, BDSM, and Critical Design

Fig. 1—the prototyping process

Interaction designers love to talk about failures. In lecture, Gary Chou recounted his experiences as a product manager for Tribe, the “Craigslist with a face” that eventually became a hub for the San Francisco/Bay Area BDSM community. Liz Danzico discusses failure in the context of music: playing an incorrect note in classical music is considered failure; in improvisational jazz, it is considered the opposite. For interaction designers, failure is often a desired outcome: we learn faster in successive low-risk failures than triumph. The secret to harnessing failure as a design method is to understand how it feeds the prototyping process. (Fig. 1) Failure is the result of doing. It is a phenomena that can be observed, synthesized, reflected upon, and used to plan further doing. The repetition of this process with enough frequency and speed results in fast learning.

Fig. 2

This week, I failed to create the third of four thesis prototypes. The plan was straightforward: fabricate a plexiglass chamber to test the hypothesis that exposing mature green bananas to ethylene gas will turn them yellow. (Fig. 2) After researching the materiality of plexiglass, preparing artwork for laser-cutting, and initial assembly, I discovered the unfortunate brittle quality of plexiglass. (Fig. 3) Uneven edges prevents an air-tight seal and effective conditions for testing with gas. I was crestfallen. However, I quickly regrouped and consulted a chemical engineer to devise a reliable method of filling an industrial-grade vacuum chamber with ethylene, then, backstopped the approach with my technical thesis advisors.

Fig. 3—chips and burrs

While awaiting delivery of the vacuum chamber, I turned my attention to other thesis matters. I defined an audience. Thesis advisor, Jackie Steck, and I spent back-to-back evenings hacking the Fitbit API. I met the creative director of Fitocracy, Jared Cocken, to devise an algorithm to modulate the flow of ethylene gas. In class, students gave each other peer-to-peer written critic. Several classmates expressed concern over naming (Fig. 4–5) and visual language of my work: that it felt “sterile,” “counter to the ideas of conversation and human health,” and “inhuman.”

Fig. 4—a working title

Fig. 5—an illustration used in diagrams and to-be-used in vinyl signage

In response, I cite the audience for this work: designers-across-disciplines who create experiences, products, and services, specifically, those concerned with the sensing, quantification, and visualization of data. My work is critical design. The goal of critical design is to envision, and create conversations surrounding, desired futures. When designing critically, it is important to distinguish between a critical design’s audience—those in conversation—with its users—those engaged with the designed artifact. In other work I’ve created, the audience and user have been one in the same, stipulating humanistic nomenclatures and aesthetic experiences. (See Sidekick, or most recently, Purpose.)

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