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.

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