August 2013 Archives

Chimps, extreme users and didactic objects

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In undergrad, I took a course which involved a social design project. Two course, in fact, in subsequent semesters. In my second year of design school, I designed (with a group of others, in both cases) both a tactile subway station map for blind subway users, and a climbing gym for HIV-positive chimpanzees. The August before the third year of my PhD (or, for the purposes of this post, yesterday), I mentioned the climbing gym project to my supervisor, Matt Ratto, who I've now been working with for four years. We were talking about why I have always and still do struggle with his method, Critical Making. My designerly instinct to make what I now think of as didactic objects runs counter to the Critical Making ideal of not focusing on the end product.

In the first year of my MI (about six months after my move to University of Toronto, a more traditionally academic environment than what I had come from), taking Matt's Critical Making class, my focus on didactic objects was a constant problem. My desire to not just learn from the process, but to create an end product which makes a point visible to others, is very much a byproduct of my time in design school. Concordia's Design and Computation Arts department is housed in its Faculty of Fine Arts. I spent my undergraduate career exhibiting, building projects subjected to final critiques from my peers (and occasionally clients), and doing illustration work for the student newspaper. All of these activities carry with them an implicit value that the work I create should be of some self-evident or easily explainable value to end viewers and users other than myself. This, I think, is why I still believe in and automatically work in didactic objects. I have a now in-built desire to make things that can be of use to others, as learning experiences or as functional objects with particular goals. In my undergraduate design program, we were never taught that just making something pretty was a value we should strive for. Pretty for the sake of pretty was not enough. Instead, communication, utility and appropriateness for particular audiences were goals enforced as crucial in both 2D and 3D work.

Back to the chimps, then. I remember it badly at this point, because it's been years. But I do remember the brief, and the trip we took to visit the chimp sanctuary. Just off the island, on the south shore of Montreal, there's a sanctuary which houses retired laboratory animals. They have chimpanzees, I can't remember how many, who were used for HIV research. At the sanctuary, in their retirement, they were elderly chimps, with a vast collection of health complications brought on by living with compromised immune systems. Our task was to design an outdoor climbing and play area suited to their needs. A healthy chimpanzee is exceptionally powerful, agile and curious. The chimps at the sanctuary weren't as strong as they might otherwise have been, and had mobility problems. The structures built for them would ultimately be less physically challenging than structures built for healthy chimps. Easier climbing surfaces, interesting features in low places, a variety of adaptations for chimps who were still actively curious and had diverse interests but did not have the mobility and strength necessary to carry out what might normally be considered standard chimp activities.

Recounting the limitations of these chimps to my supervisor, at a time when we're actively writing a paper about our experiences building electronic prototyping kits for non-sighted users, he commented that the chimps were extreme users. In our lab, we spend a lot of time talking about, writing about and working with extreme users, a category that encompasses everything from user-developers to, yes, HIV-positive chimps. For us, extreme users are users who fall far outside of the use parameters for which an object, system or norm is conceived. Chimps all on their own, without medical complications, might be considered extreme users to most human designers. HIV-positive chimps are most certainly extreme users, requiring complicated adaptations to what we might think of as a play structure. Though their physical abilities may be compromised, they're still fiercely autonomous, as a chimp trying to tear your arm off still offends. An ill chimp is neither a human child, relatively weak and manageable, nor an elderly human, who understands his or her limitations as a part of the aging process and mostly accepts a degree of help and guidance. The ill chimps are extreme users because any standard solution we might apply to play or fitness areas will not be suited to their needs. They need a thoroughly customized environment.

What does the ill-chimps-as-extreme-users scenario have to do with my urge to build didactic objects? Coming from projects like designing for these chimps, drawing infographics for the student newspaper or, even earlier, distributing shit disturbing zines in my high school, the value of building objects which speak is one I cannot and do not want to override. While I recognize the Critical Making value of integrating thinking with making, I believe that a desire to build an object which speaks does not by necessity compromise the learning possible during the building process. I thoroughly believe that many good artists and designers engage in deep critical research and thought processes while developing their works. And I believe that the object produced as a product of that process, whether didactic, useful or interpretive, carries traces of the process which made it.

I first learned about accessible and universal design during those projects in my second year of design school, building useful objects for ill chimpanzees and blind transit users. I learned about the lives and requirements of the users for whom I was designing. While I was not directly engaging with explicitly theoretical issues, I was learning about principles and problems which have ultimately informed my experience and my subsequent work. I believe that, in building more prosaic objects which do not stretch our existing knowledge, we may often miss the learning experiences which can make art and design into profoundly critical engagements with particular objects and situations. The extreme cases always make us take stock of ourselves, of our existing knowledge and of the blank spots in our experience. Designers and artists who watch for their blank spots, who leave themselves open to the situated learning that comes with difficult projects, are making critically, even while considering the end product.

Disintermediation, discovery and plush bunnies

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Our landlady just had a baby. We wanted to get her something, so we ordered a nice little plush bunny from a company in Montreal. They make these adorable creatures from locally-made, organic, or recycled materials. It's a great little bunny. Very cute. Giant eyes. Gender-neutral brown. Because we ordered the bunny directly from the company that makes it, we get to put a little more money in their pocket. I know at least two places in Toronto where we could have gotten the bunny, and it would have been about the same price. We didn't save money by buying the bunny online, we just made a decision about whether or not we want to give some of that money to a retailer. This is disintermediation in action. Because this company offers their products for sale directly through their website, we get to deal with just them instead of engaging with a middle man.

One of the big problems with disintermediation is discovery. And it seems like discovery is always brought up as a problem when a digital practice starts to replace a physical one. How did we find out about the company that makes the cute little plush bunnies? From a retailer. Coming out of an art gallery in Montreal about a year ago, we noticed this store across the street, with really neat throw cushions in the window. I bought one. We call it "Sheep" because it looks like a sheep. That store offered the opportunity to discover something new. Loads of somethings, really. The animal throw cushions were only one of the product lines they carried. That's what's great about stores. Someone curates a collection of products which they think of as cohesive, interesting, or in some way linked together and puts them all on display. A really good retailer, like that little store in Montreal, does the leg work necessary to put a good collection together and to wrap it up in an appropriate experience. That sheep cushion smelled like vanilla for a month after I bought it, just because it had absorbed the ambient smell of the store.

The discovery argument has been around for a while. It's in libraries, where we worry about losing the serendipitous finds that come from browsing the stacks near something you know you want. A lot of work has been done in music to improve discovery as purchasing and consumption move to digital platforms. Services like Pandora and Rdio aren't just notable for their streaming capabilities, but for the ways they help their users find new music. The argument is starting to play out with electronics stores. There's a worry (See, for example, this Economist article) that people are using bricks-and-mortar retailers as showrooms, just trying out products, before then going online to buy them at lower prices. The stores continue to be sites of discovery, but they lose the sales essential to keep them running. This is where it gets thorny, though.

A move from bricks-and-mortar to online isn't necessarily disintermediation. If shoppers are buying their electronics from Amazon, there's still an intermediary. On the flip side, the Apple stores are a beautiful example of disintermediated physical retail environments. They offer both a showroom and direct contact with Apple. They can promise an authentic experience of their products, and get all the benefits of cutting out a middle man retailer. This kind of disintermediation has been exceptionally common in clothing stores for some time. Walk into a mall, and you'll find that the majority of clothing retailers only sell their own lines. And they use very specific retail environments to support those lines. But it's different with clothing, because one size doesn't fit all. Products with fewer variations have an easier time breaking out of the bricks-and-mortar selling environment. And products with less brand baggage than Apple may see less need for physical stores. Besides, most companies aren't Apple. Discovery in third-party retailers matters more for small companies, like the people who make those nice plush bunnies.