MagSafe power adapter

The Apple MagSafe power adapter achieved the basic goal of a power adapter of connecting my computer to power, but once I saw how it would easily pull out when someone tripped over it, I wondered why it wasn’t a standard feature of power cords for computers to come out easily. It is the kind of feature that is only created when a power cord is tested in the many places people use them rather than in nice controlled conditions. The portability of a laptop created new challenges that were never an issue with desktop computers. The MagSafe made a MacBook portable even while plugged in.

Rediscover Extraordinary in the Ordinary

During my last visit to BAMPFA, I encountered this design space where numerous couches of different colors and shapes were placed on the floor to allow the visitors to move them around to create a different workspace. It was a very fun activity and the readings this week reminded me of this design. When we visit most offices, they layouts are usually static and offer no space for creativity. The initial design of the office will never change. However, this design space encourage people to make changes and new arrangements so they can become more comfortable with the space. Such idea is a bit similar to strangely familiar where the people who experience the ordinary daily objects can make changes to them by creating a new experience with the same set of objects. I think this design allows me to think about things different and force me to think about how other ordinary things in life can be made more fluid so people have more control.

One project that’s similar to such idea is Lego Phone, where people buy components to design their own mobile phone. Even though the project failed at the end but it was still a very fun experiment conceptually.

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Food Court Fountains

When I was having lunch at one of the Walldorf offices at SAP, I noticed a peculiar thing about the food courts there. There was a consistent background buzz of the water fountains which as I would come to know were strategically placed among the tables; a colleague told me that these fountains were engineered in a particular way and served a purpose and I was asked to identify that purpose.

In the middle of lunch, I realized that I could hear absolutely nothing from the table seated just 5 meters away and it also looked like the participants in the conversation there did not restrain their speech level to make their conversation private. I could hear my colleague seated across the table clearly above the background noise of the water fountains and this was something I recalled when I was reading Strangely Familiar by Blauvelt. This also inspired me to think about clever system decisions that solve more than one problem.

The water fountain while an aesthetic and a class value-add to the entire ambience of the food court served an acoustic utility for an interpersonal cause (privacy of speech), an invisible design underneath something very conspicuous. Rethinking seemingly ordinary architectural elements as powerful tools for a social purpose aligns with Perec’s inquiry method.

BB-8 Sphero

I find the Star Wars inspired BB-8 robot toy developed by Sphero to be a delightful example of interactive industrial design. Remotely controlled by a smartphone, it embodies a personality which is both attractive and engaging. The toy is a remarkable feat of engineering, both in terms of industrial design and user experience. As an example, the robot’s head needed to be designed to exhibit even the slightest of movements relative to the rest of the body. If the head were simply fixed atop a rolling ball, the BB-8 would have been unable to convey the same depth or range of emotions to the user. In the end, it was decided to attach the head magnetically in order to allow it assume any position on it’s across the 360 degrees.

Moreover, the BB-8 makes friendly sounds in response to voice commands to the user which help endear it to a person really quickly. For example, when the user asks it to go to sleep, you will find the robot enunciating – in an electronic yet textured voice – no.

In an interview, Sphero’s founder said that this robot was born out of a spherical rolling ball that they had earlier created. But the challenges of creating the BB-8 were unique. To overcome these, he said that they first built a prototype to see how the actual product would behave, and whether it would do everything they expected it to. This immediately reminded me of generative prototyping in the paper by Holmquist. Just like Holmquict discusses, Sphero used a prototype to prove that the technology exists and is fully equipped to support the required interactions. At the same time, they did not let the prototype fool them into a bubble where every problem was solved: there still existed realistic design challenges which Sphero solved while building the actual product.

Sip of conflict

I’m not sure if this example will follow under the category of “industrial design” but it really helped me to look at things differently. Probably some of you are familiar with an iconic exhibit from the Exploratorium, “Sip of conflict”, where visitors are prompted to drink from a water fountain fashioned from an actual (but unused) toilet. The intention of the exhibit is to experience the tension between reason and emotion. What is wrong with drinking water from this fountain? How much does it matter its shape when you know for sure it is as clean as any other water fountain? I have some friends who were not able to do it. They were simply disgusted by the idea, and even watching me doing it made them feel uncomfortable. I feel this goes along with the point made by Sanders where she states that “experience is a constructive activity”, and Buchenau’s et al. assertion that “The experience of even simple artifacts does not exist in a vacuum but, rather, in dynamic relationship with other people, places and objects.” If I would have been by myself at the Exploratorium I might have struggled a little bit with myself before drinking the water, but being with my friends added a whole new level to the experience.

Additionally, “Sip of conflict” helped me to: a) be more aware of the psychological barriers that we impose on ourselves, and how hard it can be to overcome them (even with the help of logic), and b) rethink my assumptions about design (since there are no rules to be followed).

I believe this exhibit to be a very good example of inviting visitors to look at everyday objects in a different way, and challenging our presumptions and relationships with them (precisely the goal of the exhibit “Strangely familiar”).

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Cups and Strange Familiarity

A step back from the high tech innovation world, I found a variety of industrial designed cute cups that are so interesting that customers can’t help paying for the priceless ideas embedded in their design.

The examples below all show various degrees of strange ways to combining two familiar common forms to re-design the traditional form of a cup. More over, every time I experience a different interesting cup, the joy of discovery it’s hidden tricky ideas, and sometimes the feeling to try the strange form of the cup with my own hand holding the cup is very delightful and impressive.

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This cup combines the familiarity of a cat with 2 feet hanging to the cup’s spoon.

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This is an example of cup handler mimicing the void form of human fingers holding a cup.

 

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This is a fun example of how the form of the cup mimics cute animal feet.

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This final example of cup handle mimics a cat’s tail to blend in an interesting visual element, as well as delightful feelings when people hold the handle.

QRing

Andrew Blauvelt’s Strangely Familiar : Design and Everyday life tells about various examples that cover the domains of Multifunctionality, Transforming the everyday, Portability, etc. While going through the examples I could understand that in the world around us, design in everywhere: the tools we use, the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the houses we dwell, etc. One thing that covered all the domains mentioned above and was an everyday design marvel would be the QRing.
Designed by an industrial design major at Georgia Tech, the QRing is basically a piece of jewellery which doubles up as a resting spot for the cue stick. Personally, I love playing 8 ball and an artifact as simple and useful as the QRing aids me during my game. Now, it isn’t as stable as the cue stick stand which may be available at a pool table but the fact that it is so portable that it can fit on your hand all the time while adorning as a piece of jewellery is simply convenient. Secondly, pool is a game that is mostly related to men but the Qring gives an opportunity to women players who find it difficult to take shots to be a pro at the game.
All in all, I would say that QRing is an industrial designed artifact I love that not only meets my expectations but also goes beyond and changes the way I think about a ring.

Details about the project can be found here

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Kitchen Tools and Participatory Consumption

I enjoyed the description of de Certeau’s characterization of  consumption as “not merely empty or passive”, but “contain[ing] elements of user resistance – nonconformist, adaptive, appropriative, or otherwise transgressive tactics” – that becomes “creative acts of their own fashioning.” “By locating such creativity in the user and beyond the conventional role assumed by the designer, de Certeau opens the possibilities of a design attuned to its use, context, and life rather than only its material quality, prescribed functionality, or formal expression.”

I’m interested in objects that ask or lend themselves to such activities, where the designer incorporates flexible affordances so that user acts of adaptation need not be a form of appropriation or transgression. I found it interesting to try to categorize objects according to where they fell on this spectrum, and whether that affected our initial impressions about such objects. Blauvelt describes de Certeau as shifting our attention to “acts of consumption, or use”, away from the historical preoccupation with the means of production, but it is interesting to consider objects that exhibit these co-opting characteristics both in use AND the means of production, etc. in assembly or manufacture. A product, such as a bicycle, a home appliance or a tool, for example, can designed to be fashioned using proprietary parts that can only be contained by one source, or be built in a way such that spare parts are easy to find, modifications/customizations are easy/encouraged and manufacturing/assembly can be easily transplanted to countries adopting the technology or use.

On a slightly different tangent, I’ve been moving homes recently, at different times requiring the purchase of new cookware/utensils. This reminds me of both de Certeau’s “participatory” consumption and the “familiarity of the strange.” A core set of 4-5 utensils lent themselves to a new variety of uses, allowing themselves to be co-opted in different ways or a different variety of dimensions. In a way, the absence of each utensil constrained me and made me more aware of their “absorption into the familiar” – I did not notice their lack until they were absent, and as I purchased each additional tool, the range of preparations expanded significantly. Some tools were clearly more versatile than others, with a sense of diminishing returns as more specialized tools were purchased.

The most versatile “core” tools were:

  • a small pot
  • a frying pan
  • a chef’s knife
  • a bamboo cutting board
  • bamboo spoon

Subsequent tools that expanded the affordances and cooking techniques were

  • a large cover for a pan or pot
  • a deep pan that could be used as a large pot or stir-fries
  • a simple strainer
  • a rice cooker (etc)
  • a toaster

It was surprising to me what a large variety of food that could be prepared with the set of “core” tools, which changed as I went from one to two tools, two to three tools, etc, and different ideas that occurred to me as I obtained additional tools (making pasta with vegetables where I could only make instant noodles before, stir-fries from only fried eggs before, making broth soups with a rice cooker), that were not possible before.

The strange was accentuated for me in an interesting way with their absence – the removal of skins and division into cookable pieces with a tool that allowed the focusing of force, containers that allowed the trapping of water or oil for heating that could be used to transform foodstuffs in very specific ways, flat surfaces (a cover) that could trap moisture to allow different kinds of cooking/heating (sunny-side eggs, slow-boiled soups, vegetables that needed more intense heat). The act of toasting seemed a strange act/ritual that opened up a very specific area of food that other products lent themselves to (fruit toasties, sliced bread), as well as the specific affordances of bread you sliced at home, to divide a loaf into flat sections so you could apply intense heat in both directions in a quick manner to produce crispness and caramelization.

 

When a piece of paper isn’t just a piece of paper

One of the objects that most surprised and delighted me was the program guide to an architectural/industrial design exhibition for Heatherwick Studio at the LA County Museum of Art a few years back. Normally, one goes to a museum or gallery show and grabs a program to hold while walking through the exhibit, only to return it to the docent at the end or toss it carelessly into the trash after returning home. As Blauvelt would call it, this is the “ritual of use.” The guides may reference artworks, may even include reproductions of the art on the walls, but they are just that—reproductions—that no one would confuse with the real thing (no cargo cult there, no one would be duped). A program guide is merely a functional artifact that assists a visitor in identifying and understanding the works of art, which appear on the walls or within the gallery.

But not from this show. When I returned home, I hung the gallery guide on my wall.

Of course, it wasn’t “art” per se, but the experience of obtaining the gallery guide lent it enough emotional heft that I held onto the guide, rolled it like a small poster and cushioned it in my purse on the way home, and later mounted it on my wall. It even traveled with me when I moved from LA to Berkeley.

A printed guide for an art show is an entirely everyday object, so why all the fuss? To begin with, obtaining the gallery guide required work. There was an industrial-sized dispenser, with rolls and rolls of uncut paper guides, which had to be unrolled by hand, with the help of the room-sized dispenser. The docent merely watched as visitors unrolled and trimmed their own guides:

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(photo from http://www.carolinebanks.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/Thomas-Heatherwick-VA-4.jpg)

At the end of that process, you had your own personal gallery guide. It felt like it was meant entirely for you, because you had had ownership in the creation of that single artifact. On the front side of the guide was a summary of the works present in the exhibition. On the back side, a repeating graphic design of the inciting questions that led the studio to create the various works of art/design present in the exhibition. Thus, the guide included both the genesis and output, two ends of the spectrum. It elucidated all parts of the process. In this sense, it gave more meaning to each of the artifacts present in the show; I, as a visitor, had a small sense of ownership over each artifact, because I had an insight into the mental model of the creator. The questions were provocative, but they dealt with aspects of the everyday. Can mistakes in aluminum extrusion create public seating? Can a chair be made completely symmetrical? And so on. This gallery guide, while technically only a long piece of cardstock paper, completely overturned my conception of the limits of program guides and the opportunities for creativity in even the most mundane and quotidian items. Instead of becoming a piece of trash, the guide became a portable reminder of the exhibition, an artistic decoration, and a multifunctional piece of paper—both referential and provocative.

 

* The entire show was fabulous and I recommend you check out Heatherwick Studio’s work, especially two versions of seating: the Extrusion series and the Spun chairs. Two vastly different takes on public seating. Both are beautiful, functional, and amazing, and the studio has work ranging in scale from a handbag to a city park.

Prototyping Mindfully

In the article “Prototyping: Generating ideas or Cargo Cult Designs,” the author discussed the dilemma and limitation of prototyping. In the authors view, prototyping has been a successful and useful tool for interaction designers to foster creativity and to facilitate their design process and discussion with other team members. However, one should be careful in term of over promising the feasibility of these prototypes. In order to prevent having a feature that is not actually feasible in reality, the author recommend the designers to conduct researches about the technologies and their limitations.

In his article, the author argues that while prototyping provides a common focal and discussion point among different team members, over emphasis on the hypothetical features on the prototype could cause illusion to the team members regarding the reality of making these features into an actual product. This false belief of the pseudo feature of a prototype is what the author refers to as a “Cargo Cult Design.” Furthermore, in order to fix this problem, the author proposed that interaction designers should conduct prior researches regarding the background of the potential technologies and their limitations before designing the hypothetical features of a prototype. In this way, while having the discussion with the team, the designers will also have an idea about what’s actually feasible in reality rather than falling into the illusions that everything is feasible. In addition, the author also suggest that in order to prevent a prototype falls into a cargo cult experience, designers should realize that prototyping a helping the team to explore rather than an end product.