Photos courtesy of SEGD
Xlab is a one-day themed conference (this year's being "Experience + Interaction in Public Spaces") led by the Society for Environmental Graphic Design—an entire day that will leave you with a tension headache, a rough bout of writer's cramp (or carpal tunnel) and mental fatigue. But, believe it or not, those are all good things.
The annual event took place last Thursday, October 24, at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens—a fitting location for the conference, with its modern architecture and attention to user interaction through projected images and user-focused exhibits. The day orbited around five different sessions with two speakers featured at each. The guests of honor included (among many others) Anthony Townsend, author of Smart Cities; Jeff Grantz, founder and creative technologist of Materials&Methods and one of the architects/artists behind New York's Nuit Blanche; and J. Meejin Yoon, an installation architect who was featured at the Athens Olympic Games. For a one-day conference, the speaker list was quite stacked—I have to admit that it may have worked better as a longer event. The 15-minute "networking sessions" just didn't do much for me in terms of clearing my head.
For the sake of brevity and in the honor of not boring you with every single personal revelation I experienced/witnessed, I'll share the moments and speakers that stood out the most for me—whether it was for their passionate and prideful tears (big, strong creative technologists have feelings, too) or their insight into the world of spatial interactive design.
Photo courtesy of Vijay Mathews
"The future started five years ago."
This could have been the tagline for the event. Speaker Anthony Townsend—the research director at the Institute for the Future in New York—was the one with these wise words. His reasoning? "In 2008, more people lived in cities than in rural areas, there was more mobile broadband connections than fixed, and more 'things' were connected than people—you know, like when that grad student hooked his toaster up to Twitter." It's a thought that caught me off-guard and got me thinking: So what's next? Our spaces are getting smaller and we're finding more ways to connect with each other and our environment. Where does it all culminate? Later on in the day, another speaker took on this idea—intentional or not, it pulled some thoughts together perfectly.
Anthony Vitagliano went into the idea of "technology moments." The process of new ideas/concepts coming and they going. "We need to live beyond these movements and create something that lasts," he says. And while at times it seemed like some of the speakers seemed to be focusing mainly on their own endeavors and the specific creative process behind them, Vitagliano gave some great insight into the world of interaction past his agency's projects. He discussed the limitations of screens and how we've historically worked past them to connect with users. I thought it was a great (and practical) nod to the points that Townsend made.
"The layers we put between us and our spaces are going to make urban designers lazier."
This was another piece of insight from Anthony Townsend. The further we go into developing new technologies in an attempt further interaction, the further we are being pushed away from the actual object. A little depressing, yeah, but J. Meejin Yoon—an architect at Höweler + Yoon Architecture—lifted all of our spirits with her talk on the public's role in installation art. She explained her entire focus as drawing people to a specific space and working with the actual environment to create a spectacle instead of the other way around. She was invited to create an installation for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, where her project "White Noise/White Light" was a hit. "My main goal was just to bring people to the city center," she said. "We think of the public as completing the work."
Can we vs. should we
Not only is this great life advice from Experience Designer Sam Stubblefield, but it also wholeheartedly has a role in defining good design vs. impractical. Throughout the conference, we learned about projects that further blur the line between exhibit and experience. Screens that not only greet you with a friendly image after filing off of a plane, but also with a personalized message in your native tongue (depending on where the arriving flight is coming from). A light installation that glows stronger as a user walks by it. Wall installations that are controlled by the users' movements. All of the concepts are interesting and demand attention—but how do you know the right mix of bells and whistles? Yoon thinks it's what the public won't expect: "Anytime you can do something unexpected, do it."
One speaker addressed the way people interact with something—if you can make one of their interactions with an installation or project affect another user a few feet away, it complicates the experience and brings more interest. The unexpected connections a user has with an installation and others users is what keeps interest. This will tell you whether or not your installation is a success. "It's how people use it and their expressions while they're using it," Yoon said.
"The designer's UX is pretty terrible."
This and a following thought from architect and computational designer Marc Syp rattled me a bit: "40-50% of a designer's job is wasted effort." When we see a finished product or installation, we hardly think about the designer's experience. Okay, the creative process is—and always will be—a buzzword, but what about their experience with the finished product? It's not the same as the experiences users have. Syp did a great job of giving us the designer's side of a user experience—an aspect of the process I had never considered before.
"It was art for the sake of art and nothing more."
Sometimes, I think that in the midst of experience and distraction, we forget that what we're interacting with is art. Creative technologist Jeff Grantz gave us all a great reminder of this with his teary and proud presentation on his Flash:Light project for New York City's Nuit Blanche festival in 2011. Whether you're designing a light installation or an interactive projection wall, it's all art. And the lasting impression has just as much impact on the designers (maybe more so, as Grantz displayed) as it does on the users who complete it.
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