Contemporary design at MOMA


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Not many people know what designers do. Designers themselves often have trouble explaining their work. Designers design, of course. But what does that mean? How is designing different from inventing, or making, or some other sort of doing?

Bruce Archer, the influential Professor of Design Research at Royal College of Art once wrote, “Design is that area of human experience, skill and knowledge which is concerned with man’s ability to mould his environment to suit his material and spiritual needs.” It is a good general definition, but it lacks specificity. Maybe the old Modernist credo “form follows function” is more direct. From that perspective, the purpose of design is to understand the function of an object and then make sure that the form of that object is as perfectly tailored to the function as possible. Think of an Eames molded chair from the 1940s. It is impossible to look at the inviting and simple curves of the chair without wanting to sit down in it. Good design is what works well; great design is when something that works well feels as if it couldn’t possibly be doing anything else.

In recent decades, the “form follows function” credo has been challenged from all sides. The pure pragmatism of the credo now seems insufficient to the depth and complexity of our relationship to things. A contemporary person’s interaction with manufactured things goes beyond the utilitarian. Here’s something Paola Antonelli (a senior curator the Museum of Modern Art’s Department of Architecture and Design) wrote in her essay for the new MoMA show about contemporary design, “Talk to Me:” “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 — think of the bond between a chef and his knives.” According to Antonelli, it has always been the case that the functionalist approach to design leaves behind the important bond between people and things. Recent developments in technology and design scream out that truth all the more.

For Antonelli, clear sign of that deepening relationship is in the level of communication we now expect from the objects we interact with. That, indeed, is the premise of MoMA’s show and the reason it is called “Talk to Me.” There has always been communication between people and things. Think of the way that a person might say, “That armoire really speaks to me.” The way you can feel addressed by a piece of furniture or made to feel emotions by a product or a building long predates the contemporary fascination with interactivity.

On the other hand, something has changed. The speaking has become literal. A whole new generation of “intelligent” products is coming into the world. Your dishwasher sends you a message telling you it wants to get going on washing your dishes now. Sensors everywhere take in information from the surrounding environment and send that information to the devices we use every day: computers, smart phones, electronic readers. It is nearly impossible in the developed parts of the world, and even in the less developed parts, to navigate a day without coming into contact and interacting with all sorts of devices that demand our attention. Design today is thus largely about communication. It is about designing the space within which humans and things communicate with one another. As Antonelli writes in her essay, “It is not enough for designers today to balance form and function, and it is also not enough simply to ascribe meaning. … Things may communicate with people, but designers write the initial script that lets us develop and improvise the dialogue.”

“Talk to Me” is, indeed, filled with dialogue. It is downright chatty. There is a design for a device (“Touch Hear,” Design Incubation Centre, 2006) that will attach to your finger and allow you to run your finger over words on a page that you would like to get more information about.

A network of interrelated and interactive maps called “Exit” tells us stories of global migration. There is a hat that proposes to translate the “noise” of the thought process into physical form (“Muttering Hat,” Kate Hartman). “Chromaroma” (Toby Barnes, and Matt Watkins of Mudlark) turns the London subway system into a giant interactive game.

The exhibit has aggregator projects (“Newsmap,” Marcos Weskamp) that attempt to collect and sort information. Other projects proliferate and expand information. Many of the design projects are meant to be inserted into our everyday experience in order both to provide more information about our immediate environment but also to make that information more relevant. A project called “Gotham Guide” (Aaron Uhrmacher) explains, “By installing yellow QR codes on walls and surfaces throughout NYC, Gotham Guide has embedded a self-guided tour into the very fabric of the city. When they come across one of the Gotham Guide QR codes, participants can use their smartphones to access a wealth of historical facts about that particular site or neighborhood.”

There are whimsical projects and there are ideas with direct commercial impact. “Square,” by Jack Dorsey (a co-inventor of Twitter), is a smartphone attachment that allows it to swipe credit cards. Some projects serve to turn down the volume and to control the dialogue. “The Hierarchy of Digital Distractions” by David McCandless is a pyramid diagram sorting devices and websites by how distracting they are.

Some projects design contemporary technologies in order to be more useful for prayer and social activism. “Prayer Companion” (Interaction Research Studio, Goldsmiths, University of London) is “a communication device with a very explicit purpose: it alerts the nuns [at a monastery in York, UK] to issues that need their prayers.”

“Digital Remains” (Michele Gauler, Design Interactions Department, Royal College of Art), is a personalized data-storage device that “allows users to log on to the digital remains of a loved one and receive their data on personal digital devices.”

In short, there is everything. All forms of communication are being served. The operative words, which can be found in abundance on the wall descriptions and in the catalogue essays for the show, are “enhance” and “augment.” As Antonelli argues, “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.”

I had an experience last year when I lived for some months with my in Antwerp. I brought my smartphone to Belgium with me, fully intending to set it up with European service. I kept putting it off, though. Soon enough, I wasn’t carrying the phone with me anymore. A little after that, I no longer missed having it with me, no longer felt panicky about leaving the house with only my keys and a few Euros.

The real turn came one day while I stood in line at a cheese shop while an elderly Flemish woman sampled every cheese in the establishment before making her decision of what to buy. I found myself reaching for my pocket more than once. I was going to check my email or look up something on the web. I felt the urge to do something else while waiting. But I couldn’t. I didn’t have the phone. I just had to wait. It wasn’t pleasant. The store was very well stocked with cheese. The old Flemish woman, bless her heart, was possessed of a determination that, I suppose, only a lifetime of eating Flemish cheese at a pace of one’s own choosing can create. An overhead fan creaked lazily as she spoke calmly with the cheese shop proprietor. I noticed, suddenly, that the store smelled not just of cheese, but of Northern European cheese, which gives different notes and nuances than an American cheese shop. Was it tangier, somehow? What a nice hat she had, the elderly cheese expert, pinned to the side of her head. Look how carefully the cheese proprietor cuts each slice of his samples. There was a rhythm to all this cutting and sampling and discussing. They have done this dance before.

I’ve also thought frequently in the last year of my friend, the writer Tom Bissell, who is a lifelong player of video games and who recently published what I am prepared to call the most thoughtful book on video games in existence, Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter. In the book, Tom expresses a desire that has stuck with me and troubled me since. He wonders, roughly (I am going from memory here), why video games cannot capture the intricacies and subtleties of real-life human interactions. The writing in such games is usually too simplistic, he concludes. The imagination that goes into the scenarios doesn’t plunge deep enough into the human condition. He hopes, Tom does, for a video game experience of the future in which the real depth and complexity of human interactions could be experienced within the game. What an interesting thing, I kept thinking, to want the very thing you already have. Our cities are, after all, littered with real human beings and the countryside is getting rather crowded as well. Real human interaction is to be had everywhere. Not that I don’t understand the desire that Tom is expressing. I’ve wanted it, too.

Along those lines, one of the amusing things about the new technologies of interaction in the “Talk to Me” exhibit at MoMA is that they often reduplicate, with new technologies, things we can already do. That is not entirely fair, of course. Some of the design projects, especially those that increase the mobility of the physically disabled or augment the senses of the deaf or blind, for instance, seem to add something real to the lives of the people who would use them. One project allows paralyzed people to write with their eyes (“EyeWriter,” Zach Lieberman). But few of the projects strike me not as attempts to reach out into the brave new world of tomorrow so much as attempts to get back at experiences we can access even without the new technologies of communication.

All the new technologies bring us back to all the old problems. It is difficult to have a desire to communicate when you’re not sure exactly what you want to say. This is a condition in which we all find ourselves all the time. In short, there is a great yearning to be heard in all the murmurings and yammerings on the exhibition floor of “Talk to Me.” Paola Antonelli wants to give this yearning a positive spin and there is no doubt that this exists. Enhancement and augmentation open up new choices. There is a diversity of communication that amazes and astounds. The very profusion of communication has an inherent excitement.

If, however, it is also the case that the reality we confront every day has aspects of pain, confusion, disappointment, and loss, then the augmentation of that reality is going to be an augmentation of those feelings as well. The unexpressed but nonetheless palpable dream of “Talk to Me,” and of much new design, is that somehow the enhancement of our capacity for communication is also going to be its improvement. It is like Tom Bissell’s dream that the world of human interaction he encounters in an as-yet-to-be developed video game will both be fully as real as the interactions he has with actual human beings and simultaneously a little bit better, a little bit more satisfying. It is like my desire to experience waiting in the cheese shop as “waiting-plus.”

The truly amazing thing about “Talk to Me,” then, is the degree to which it utterly fails to prove that augmentation is improvement. The exhibition is meant to convey confidence, meant to put forward enhancement and augmentation as substantive for the bettering of our lives. Instead, it produces the all-too-human emotion of loss and confusion. My feeling walking around the show was that we human beings simply don’t know what we really want to be talking about. That problem continues whether we are talking to our washing machine or communicating by means of emoticons telling smart devices how we feel before we even know we feel that way. All the noisy chattering of “Talk to Me” blends together to sound out a great lament, out into the streets of New York City, and beyond. After an hour or so interacting with the projects of “Talk to Me” I was hearing that lament loud and clear. At that point, I began to enjoy the show very much. I understood exactly what it was saying. • 11 August 2011