"Hello, Dave." The LaCie 5big Network hard drive has a HAL-like presence
After moving into a teeny New York studio and going through the psychically exhausting task of purging possessions, I found myself frozen in the middle of the room holding the dictionary in my hands, quickly coming to terms with an inevitable fact: it had to go. Many people gasp at the notion of doing away with books (clothes, yes, electronics, of course, but books—never!) but lets face it, dictionaries (aside from a few luscious grand, old tomes) don't age well. They aren't made for casual browsing, they don't reflect the dynamic nature of language, and they take up a lot of precious shelf space. I hesitated to admit it, but I knew I could manage just fine with an iPhone app or another online lexicon that pulled data from the mighty digital "cloud." Out it went. While I was at it, I wondered what other space saving digital conversions I could make. Could I compress all my CDs to MP3? Could I invest in one of many advertised services for digitizing every last one of my photographs? Where would it end? These thoughts then led me to the line of questioning that keeps designers up at night: "What would life be like in an object-less home?" "What physical artifacts would be spared cloud absorption?" and the grand daddy of all questions, "With more and more of our artifacts being replaced by digital files, when do physical objects matter, and why?"
Though it may often seem like the industrial designer's job is to create a "black box" around circuit boards, the ability to take the complex nature of data and translate it into meaningful form is more important than ever before.
Designers aren't the only ones wrestling with these propositions. In a recent New York Times article entitled, "With Kindle, Can you Tell It's Proust?", author Joanne Kaufman expresses concern over the possibility of physical book collections being replaced by Kindle e-Libraries and comments, "If people jettison their book collections or stop buying new volumes, it will grow increasingly hard to form snap opinions about them by wandering casually into their living rooms." Though the tone of the article is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, it does touch an important nerve when considering the fact that fewer personal artifacts will mean fewer opportunities for deliberate displays of identity and preferences, as well as a less tangible connection to the physical world in general.
With so much of our stuff shrinking, or, like the dictionary, disappearing altogether, the tangible connection we have to our virtual possessions has shifted towards our data management devices. The hard drive is no longer just a computer accessory or emergency backup, but has become the main way that much of our family documentation, virtual identities, and keepsakes exist. It is a salient representation of our digital selves. When asked to name the most important object in the house, many will now respond "my hard drive", as did Wired columnist Michael Calore after a recent screening of the film Objectified in response to the film's "What would you grab in a hurricane?" probe. Furthermore, this data is less about an organized, locally stored set of files, and is turning into a dynamic connection to the "cloud" that is networked data.
Talismans for data
If so much of our personal history is getting compressed into data, and digital imaging, cloud computing, and streaming media have become an integral part of daily experience, being sensitive to the physical presence of these devices is an important responsibility. Creating distinctive, engaging objects that help people manage and understand the nature of data—an imperceptible property that is at once fragmented, modular and flowing—is a new and challenging opportunity. Data-management devices such as routers, hard drives and modems—previously relegated to back corners and spaces under desks—are now front and center, featuring prominently in people's living rooms, desktops and front pockets. No longer the exclusive domain of the cable guy and corporate IT manager, they have become mainstream products that moms and dads buy to display in the home, veritable shrines to the data that is contained within or flowing through them. Previously designed to look benign, apologetic and clumsily invisible, they are now becoming sculptural pieces that warrant a strong presence in the domestic landscape. Though it may often seem like the industrial designer's job is to create a "black box" around circuit boards, the ability to take the complex nature of data and translate it into meaningful form is more important than ever before. More than mere shells for electronic components, they play a totemic role in the home and act as the threshold for rich, emotionally-laden content and timely personal communication.
As designers, we have always been in the "making the invisible visible" business, and it can certainly be said that designing devices such as those described above is nothing new. Objects as diverse as audio hardware, heating appliances and timepieces are the embodiment of fairly intangible concepts, and they have all been formed and reformed countless times through various designers' lenses. During the height of the 80's Cranbrook-led product semantics movement, designers emphasized the use of visual metaphor as a way to craft meaningful forms. Along with abstraction, mapping and, ultimately, storytelling, these techniques have always been part of the process in some way, and designing data objects can be seen as just another application of some of those approaches. What is new, however, is the increasingly important role that this data is playing in our everyday lives.
So how can we approach this important design task in a way that's meaningful? Understanding that the data is invisible, yet important, is not enough. In order to really celebrate the poetry of the device and respect the user's emotional connection to it, we need to appreciate the nature of the system and consider the various ways that the movement and structure of data becomes meaningful within the context of everyday life. Here are a few approaches:
Vessels for stored content
Ever since computing tools were introduced for home use, the container has been a widely used metaphor to help illustrate the function of a data storage device. Neil Poulton's LaCie hard drive elevates the black box by turning it into a sleek, glossy, elegant slab, reminiscent of a perfectly cut stone with an unnatural glow leaking from underneath one edge. It has the appearance of something solid and substantial, and the glow is a hint of the life contained within it, but ultimately it celebrates mystery.
LaCie hard drive designed by Neil Poulton
Apple's Time Capsule hard drive embodies the idea of a clean, secure storage box. Its shell is sturdy, flawless white plastic, with a hint of a lid that's sealed. It gives its owner the sense that what's contained with in it will be protected from physical blows or accidental knocks.
Apple's Time Capsule hard drive
A means for organizing modular data
Though the container metaphor touches on an essential aspect of data management, the object can express more about the nature of that data. The Lacie Brick Desktop Hard Drive by Ora-Ïto uses the familiar playful form of a Lego brick to communicate the modularity of data. The semantic is somewhat lost when there is only one hard drive, but multiples stack on one another and serve as a physical manifestation of sets of information.
Lacie Brick Desktop Hard Drive designed by Ora-Ïto
Once upon a time, album covers were a thing to be cherished, and perhaps even fetishized. They gave the listener something to gaze at and embrace while spending time with the record removed and in play. When stored, the albums themselves had an important presence in the home, and served the same role as the book cover to silently announce personal preference and style. With the rapid change in data formats, the number of the albums or even CDs has diminished. Cover art appears on a screen in iTunes as music plays, but there is no persistent artifact that remains after the track's timeline is done. A few music producers have tried to respond to this situation, but the record label Ghostly International's 13 track USB drive for Moss was one of the slicker solutions, with an each elegantly crafted gray toned stick representing a select set of 13 tracks.
Record label Ghostly International's USB compilation sticks for Moss
Collections of fragmented parts
The Lacie Brick is a poetic representation of how well we all wish our data was organized, but more likely than not, it's much more fragmented and, let's face it, disorganized. The LaCie combination USB and Firewire hub, also by Ora-Ïto, is a physical expression of the explosion of elements that our data (and data transfer methods) has become.
Lacie USB and Firewire hub designed by Ora-Ïto
Vehicles for personal expression/identity
Perhaps the most variety in data storage devices comes from those that are used as vehicles for personal expression. The portability of USB jump drives has allowed them to become corporate as well as personal brand carriers, and designers have had fun embedding USB guts into everything from stuffed animals to wooden twigs. One company that is exploring this area with an eye towards creative expression is Mimoco, offering an enormous selection of sculptural miniature characters, featuring their own original designs, as well as those created by independent artists such as Gary Baseman.
MODman MIMOBOT USB flash drive by Gary Baseman
In an interesting combination of music storage, gift, and memento, the MIXA mix "tape" service by created by mN, Manchester-based firm Magnetic North, brings the element of nostalgia into play by referencing the romantic gesture of preparing a "mix tape" for a friend, loved one or crush. Using their online tool, www.makeamixa.com, tape sets can be customized with lovingly selected graphics, and playful stickers that allow each "tape" to become a creative canvas, and encourage the purchaser to give the object as a gift.
MIXA "mix tape" by mN, touting the mantra "undigital your digital"
Though USB jump drives have become small ticket items (a 2 GB USB stick can be purchased for under ten bucks) some designers and manufacturers are showing sensitivity to the importance of the data by embedding them within jewelry to emphasize the precious and personal nature of the data that may be contained within them. German designer Tonia Welter has a line of elegant, handmade bracelets and cufflinks for wearing your digital heart on your sleeve.
BERLIN USB sterling silver cufflinks by Tonia Welter
Conduits for flowing data
The idea of the data container is an important mental model to help us cope with the lack of tangibility of our "stuff," but what happens when there is no true "location" for our data? With more and more information being stored and managed in a cloud of digital activity, we get the sense that those bits of information that hold our most precious memories are at once everywhere and nowhere. Even though we didn't truly hold or literally manipulate the data in our hard drives, we at least had something to touch and behold to acknowledge the existence of the data contained within them. In the case of larger hard drives, we could even hear the parts whirring around inside, an audible sign of life within the mysterious box, allowing us to imagine that we could tear it apart and stare at some reassuring striations on the shiny material if we so desired. But what of the data that's stored in the cloud and completely separate from the location where it is being accessed? In those cases, it's the hub or modem that will need to translate data activity into something that can be understood by the end user. Though these objects act as conduits, they need not be passive, empty vessels, but rather can represent the flow of data in a meaningful way.
The Aerohive hub is one such object. In a recent interview, Smart Design's Nasahn Sheppard described the challenge inherent in the design process. "It needed to be both present and go away," he explained, "and it needed to communicate status but also fit into the existing infrastructure." Built as a clean, white box, it features an illuminated slice, showing the kind of strata one might see in a piece of plywood. The geometry of the cut gives each layer a glowing light with a slightly different shape and size so it can be recognized at a glance, offering dynamic, ambient information that shows the activity of the data flowing through the device.
The Aerohive hub designed by Smart Design
While glowing light within the object can be expressive of the activity taking place through a hub, other aspects of the form can help to emphasize the movement of important data into the home or office. In this year's iF (International Forum Design Hannover) awards, Chinese manufacturer Huawei had two winning entries where the designer chose to break from convention by emphasizing the cord instead of trying to feign its invisibility. The Playn router has forms that rest on surfaces at 90 degree angles, emphasizing their relationship to the architecture of the existing environment and appearing as somewhat alien parasites that have burst through the walls, bringing bright red data flow with them.
The Playn router from Huawei Technologies Co. by Tobias Berneth, Shane Schneck
Similarly, the Form Quadro ,also from Huawei Technologies, physically manifests the flow of data in a form that appears to drip off corners and shelves in the home.
The Form Quadro router from Huawei Technologies Co. by Design3, Hannover
Though we can study the recent history of data management devices in an effort to gain designerly insight, storage methods and flow mechanisms will continue to be a violently moving target for some time. With the anticipated ubiquity of wireless access points and broadband services, devices for the storage and flow of data will rapidly move off our desktops and into new places in the domestic landscape. We may have digitized our music, books, letters and photographs, but as humans we have always had a soft spot for physical objects.
We can expect these devices to be everywhere, and it is up to us as designers to determine how far into the foreground or background they need to be. They will sit in our living rooms and on or bedside stands, as the new "book covers" that allow colleagues and acquaintances to make the "snap judgments" referred to in Kaufman's article. We will tote them around in bags and proudly place them on tables and desktops when we reach our destinations. They will be in our hospital rooms and supermarkets, in museums and embedded within park benches. We will carefully select them and lovingly wrap them as gifts, and, as the technology becomes increasingly light and small, we will wear them on our bodies as jewelry and quasi-prosthetics.
Since they operate invisibly and are largely free of physical constraints we will need to become more sensitive than ever to the emotional roles they play in our lives. Understanding geographical, temporal and social contexts will be key to creating objects that are meaningful and provide an appropriate level of empathy and engagement. Bringing industrial design and interaction design practices together to collaboratively gather insight about the product's role in context will help designers create holistic products that can gently guide the user past the threshold from the physical world to the digital one. Formal cues from both worlds can link the two together in a visual way to offer critical feedback to translate data movement into something that can be perceived and managed.
Along with the pervasiveness of the media comes the ubiquity of screens and audio devices to output all this great data we've collected. We'll see small screens that tag along with the data devices for previews and quick fixes, along with their larger, infrastructural counterparts that we can plug into on demand. They will surely take a more sculptural role, and it's the designer's responsibility to craft meaningful, relevant artifacts to help us maintain a human connection to what's happening as the data flows invisibly around us.
Carla Diana is a senior interaction designer at Smart Design where she works on a range of products from domestic robots to sentient kitchen appliances. She also maintains her own creative practice to explore the shifting roles of physical forms and digital spaces. Carla studied 3D Design at Cranbrook Academy of Art and Mechanical Engineering at the Cooper Union.
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