Put a Bird in It

Last month during Design Week Portland, we had a great time taking part in WeMake’s “Put A Bird In It” competition. The challenge was simple: craft a birdhouse to be auctioned off to help support art and music education in Portland’s public schools. Competing against other local artists, makers, and creatives, we got to work, collaborating across disciplines to come up with something inventive, beautiful, and representative of the studio.

We mulled over a variety of concepts, trying to determine how to best reflect Second Story’s culture through this project. We knew we wanted to incorporate the two things at the heart of our work–storytelling and technology–but we had to make sure the technological component was purposeful and practical. Needless to say, we cycled through a lot of ideas.

We sketched, we debated, and eventually we landed on a concept that perfectly represented us as a studio: a birdhouse inspired by a cabinet of curiosities. Brad Johnson and Julie Beeler, Second Story’s founders, have long been interested in these precursors to museums; in fact, the company once made a self-promotional trade show booth based on one. We decided to create a collection of oddities to inspire wonder and pique curiosity–in this case, an assortment of “extinct” animal hybrids, each half bird, half something else. Our tech component would be a microsite, a venue for us to tell some short stories about the creatures we came up with.

Everybody on the team was invited to think about the types of animals that could be represented, coming up with bird names and thinking about qualities associated with the hybrids. We democratically selected 8 final animals to run with: the armadilladee, cheetawk, flamingoat, giraffakeet, ostracamel, owlephant, peacoctopus, and porcupigeon. Inspired by everything from ancient literature to children’s movies to the Portland music scene, we started writing the strange stories of these imaginary specimens.

These short narratives helped inform the appearance of the birds and other items that ended up in the birdhouse. We took visual cues from old zoological engravings we came across in our research, and, once we’d drawn the birds digitally, we printed out the designs and traced them on a light table with a nib pen and India ink to ensure a precise and well-defined illustration quality. The process was slow going, but the results were gorgeous.


Beyond the birds themselves, we filled the birdhouse with all kinds of accoutrements, some inspired by the narratives, others by nature. The objects we didn’t make or find in our neighborhood were bought at craft and specialty stores around Portland.


Our lovely creatures needed a virtual space to live in and tell their stories, so we set to work on our microsite. We decided to go with a parallaxing effect for tablet and web to mimic the 3D layering seen in the physical birdhouse, and the end result is full of color, character, and movement. The microsite can be found at vogelkammer.com (vogelkammer literally means “bird room” in German).


In the end, the birdhouse auction raised $10,000 to help support art & music education in Portland’s schools. Our vogelkammer was in good company– the designs our peers came up were terrific, and no two were alike. The Second Story birdhouse team, consisting of Laura Allcorn, Nora Bauman, Heather Daniel, Joe Carolino, Sam Jeibmann, Norman Lau, Sorob Louie, Swanny Mouton, Dimitrii Pokrovskii, Donald Richardson, Kirsten Southwell, and Filippo Spiezia, could not have been happier to be a part of this event. Collaborative, fun, and, best of all, for a good cause, this project was a true joy.

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— The Birdhouse Team

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Investing in Mentorship: Crafting a Story with University of Oregon Design Students

Sharing skills and knowledge across disciplines is part of our collaborative culture at Second Story, and my generous colleagues lend themselves without pause. This summer, I had the opportunity to extend the studio’s spirit of mentorship by working with a team of product design students from the University of Oregon.

Me (left) with the Melo team

Me (left) with the Melo team

I came to know this team via an article written about Design For America (DFA), a national organization that supports groups of interdisciplinary students as they dedicate a project—without class credit—to a local challenge. I was connected with the DFA team at the University of Oregon. The core team, comprised of designers Mica Russo, Andre Brown, and Madeleine Belval, have spent the last three years researching, testing, designing, and developing an environmental interactive installation catered to non-verbal autistic classrooms. Their project, titled Melo, uses light, sound, and tactility to engage students with their environment and with each other.

At the point where this mentorship began, the team was nearing the final stretch of their project. Their concept for Melo was well defined and in the process of being developed. They had one unanimous goal—to donate and install Melo into four classrooms around Oregon—yet they were still seeking a sense of closure around their project before graduating.

After a few discussions, it was clear that the team had trouble describing this project and their process without extensive depth—so it goes when you have your head down in a project for many years. We decided that our time together would be best served by my helping the team define themselves and tell their story. Using the 2014 IxDA Awards application deadline as a milestone, the Melo team, with participation from fellow UO student Sean Danaher, created a video and written pieces that summarize the project and their last three years of dedication into a concise and thoughtful narrative. Of course, this was no small task, and this effort was running concurrently with the final stretch of development. With a summer full of hard work, and some additional guidance from senior experience designer Norman Lau, senior interactive developer Matt Fargo and interactive developer Chris Carlson, they met their award deadline and are on track to deliver Melo to local classrooms before the end of the year.

Looking back on this experience, I am reminded of the larger benefits of mentorship, both inside and outside of working environments. While designers can be particularly cautious about where they invest their time, mentorship is the most generous way to engage the creative community. If you find you are interested in delving into a mentorship of your own, I have found these practices to be very successful:

Mutual excitement: It was insightful to see the team’s tactics as they charted the foreign waters of programmatic language, visual and written storytelling, and even operating camera equipment. Their confidence, passion, and experimental energy made it exciting to play an active part in their process.

Developing trust: The trust we built together reinforced that neither of us was wasting our time. The team’s expectation for me was to be invested and to care enough to challenge their work to be the best it could be. Similarly, I trusted in the team that they would be motivated enough to reach their goal and have our collaborative efforts realized.

Becoming friends: I believe that friendship is what distinguishes a mentor from an instructor. While an instructor feels a sense of obligation, a mentor has an authentic emotional investment in their mentee’s success—making the end goal of the relationship more than just a grade or pat on the back.

To learn more about Design For America and to sign up to mentor student teams in your community, visit http://designforamerica.com/.

— Kirsten Southwell, Experience Designer

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Everyone Needs a Good Listener: Theater as a Foundation for Interaction Paradigms

The last ten years have changed the way most people on the planet use, depend on and intuit technology. Advances in mobile devices and tablets have changed the expectations of users across the board. We have all learned a new language that continues to evolve; whether a swipe or a two-finger pinch, we demand responses from only slightly varied articulations, responses that are tailored to our needs, whims, and landscapes. It’s future-retail gospel that experiences must be connected, leverage omni-channel strategies, and be personal. And yet, even now, most digital interventions in retail are barely more than a website instantiation wrapped in a kiosk. Every day we’re getting more confident, clever, dare I say, closer to the right balance of technology and service. But we need to do more. In order to get there what we really need to find is a damn good listener.

To really explain what I’m talking about, allow me to revisit my past. My early academic and professional storytelling career took place quite literally on a stage, where there were perhaps a few more make-up and costume changes than my current venture allows. This former life in the theater, however, involved only limited digital expression and certainly no daily computer time, though perhaps just as much coffee. In both worlds, rich narrative experiences began with periods of discovery and conceptual thinking, moved into design and development, and ended with a live release. In the theater, that release just happened to involve live humans delivering each run of the show, but both spheres maintain a similarly iterative dimension. Migrating organically from the performing arts to experience design has allowed me to identify the way a set of common principles, illuminated by a shared library of connections to process and design thinking, has kept me invested in making and allowed me to experience perspectives that are present in so many of the arts.

Working in multidisciplinary teams, like we do at Second Story, I’m always acutely aware that there is much to be gained by looking to other mediums for insight on one’s own. And it has gotten me thinking a lot about my past in theater, this shared library of connections, and how the rich history of performance paradigms might be evaluated and applied to the (comparitively) fledgling field of interactive media. How might we look to a mature and developed art form to inspire the development of this new one? How might these lessons enable us to create enriched interactions that feel intuitive, responsive, and holistically connected to the story they are trying to tell, and more importantly, to experience-craving audiences?

I have carried from the theater into the museum world and on into my present work a growing knowledge and understanding of the importance of space and context in the creation of a time-based experience. To be clear, space matters. Our environment influences our perceptions and emotions more than we may realize. In the theater, with each run of a show, the same stories are told and retold every day in basically the same sequence. Though the speaking of words may be replicated each night, the experience of telling-–of performance–is nuanced and fluid because of the shifting context. The players, the pacing, even the tone of the room and energy of the audience affect the experience. As a performer, you are trained (at least in my experience) to drive the base narrative into your memory and then forget it. To absorb and know the arc, but to live and feel the moments as they happen, to be aware of the fluid space in which the performance takes place. To do this successfully, the performer, above all else, must listen.

Michael Shurtleff, who wrote a book that most actors read at one point or another in their career, said, “Listening is not merely hearing. Listening is reacting. Listening is being affected by what you hear. Listening is active.” Jack Lemmon extends this thought, asserting that acting:

…doesn’t have anything to do with listening to the words. We never really listen, in general conversation, to what the other person is saying. We listen to what they mean. And what theymean is often quite apart from the words. When you see a scene between two actors that goes really well you can be sure they’re not listening to each other — they’re feeling what the other person is trying to get at.

So what of it, in the context of experience design? Well, what if we could enable environments to do just that: listen? Public, commercial, and civic spaces are all rapidly becoming instrumented, but to what end? What if this is the first step to making responsive environments: making places that are smart enough to listen to our visitors implicitly? Beyond surveilling, what if our instruments transcend their “ears,” stop merely listening to what people say, and instead hear what they mean? Be it body language, words, gestures, taps… software and spaces need to evolve. We should strive to anticipate and intuit a person’s needs, especially when that need is to simply be left alone. Responsive places will become both the setting for and a part of the scene; these places will listen to understand motivations and needs and work to meet them.

This thinking is quite embedded in the structure of our software already. Code often will include so-called lines of “listeners,” commands that observe processes and trigger behaviors in software based on these observations. They’re always there. They’re always listening, and they react or shift or manipulate based on what they hear. This kind of listening is quiet, reactive, and responsive. These listeners are behind the scenes, not in your face. Imagine we can begin to populate the world with physical analogues to these software listeners–receptors in the neural network of the internet of things. These sorts of listeners in the wider context of a space can help us to understand people’s needs, so that we can deliver back more meaningful experiences.

In the retail context, this thinking has some obvious applications. Clinique, for example, a brand that has shifted towards an open-sell paradigm in the last few years, has adopted an analogue example of this concept. Though not truly “smart” in the digital sense, the ability for a customer to quite literally wear on their sleeve the level of service they desire is the first step in this evolution toward responsive retail experiences–but I’m pretty sure we can do better. I don’t mean infiltrating a customer’s space, surveilling or annoying them, or collecting data in order to target them with broadcast media. I mean that we need to be smart, reserved even, seeking a balance between digital tools and service. That’s what a great customer experience actually means: educational, inspiring, motivated service. There is a need and room for both digital and human touch points if we do it right, which is where we can look back to the theater. For an actor, it’s not only the listening that is important, it is the performance itself. The word “performance” in the context of theater makes sense, but “authentic response” is probably a better way to say it here, especially where retail is concerned. I want a two-fold experience when I enter a store. On the one hand, I want to be left alone to explore the landscape and confirm or address some basic assumptions or desires, but I also want confidence in those assumptions, or assistance, at the very least, from someone I can trust. I want a salesperson who is knowledgeable and, more importantly, engaged. I want someone whose motivation is authentic. I want to engage with someone who believes in what they are selling, and I want to be inspired.

We need to invest in both sides of this equation in order to really elevate the retail experience. A well-designed experience needs to be about not only the customer but the salesperson as well. They need to deliver similar but separate experiential goals to the person that will be using them or directing customers to use them. The goals of the real-life person need to be differentiated from those of the digital experience, but they must complement one another. No digital tool, no matter how smart, can ever surmount the potential connection between two human beings. I believe technology should empower both the tools and the human pieces of the puzzle.

In the coming months, I’ll dive into this idea a bit further, looking at some competing theories, practices, and ideas on response and reaction in the theatre and how they might be applied in the context of experience design broadly, not only looking at implications for retail.

Until then: Uta Hagen once stated that “the audience is 50 percent of the performance.” Chew on that.

— Traci Sym, Senior Experience Designer

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Shape of Story

Movie-goers with varied expectations gathered at The Hollywood Theatre earlier this month for Shape of Story, an interactive screening to spark conversation. Visual and interaction designers were curious as the event was among Design Week Portland’s extensive programming. Journalists, multimedia storytellers, and documentary filmmakers were interested in a new and experimental form of interactive narrative. Others came just to watch short films on the polarizing issue of gun rights and gun control. In the end, all in attendance were moved by the power of storytelling and engaged by a moderated discussion.

The audience members at Shape of Story used a smartphone-enabled web application to “tag” moments of emotional impact while watching seven short films. A visualization of their aggregated marks was shown after each short while they submitted comments to contextualize their reactions. The shape of each story and a curated selection of comments were displayed on the big screen during the discussion held after the screening. The crowd feedback helped structure the conversation. With the aid of a facilitator, Shape of Story can transform a traditional movie theater into a dynamic space for dialogue and debate, resulting in a memorable and informative collective experience.


The prevalence of mobile technology in public life is opening up new opportunities to explore storytelling within physical group experiences. Events that bring people together to watch the same screen or stage–scenarios ranging from corporate meetings to concerts, conferences, film, and theater–provide a clear opportunity for mobile interaction and social game play.

In the same vein as previous Second Story lab projects such as TEDxPortland After-Party 2011, Constellation and Real Fast Draw, Shape of Story is another example of how we are “empowering audiences to connect and share” in our “always-on world.”

As a former multimedia editor and a judge of numerous multimedia and photojournalism competitions, I’ve often imagined a tool that was capable of providing insight into the key ingredients of effective and impactful storytelling. What are the rhythms to narrative that emotionally connect with viewers? Chip Scanlan of The Poynter Institute, who writes and edits stories for a living, once told me that his secret to reviewing work was to write his story while reading. He takes note of his feelings moment to moment as he experiences a narrative. By broadening this approach to capture the responses of multiple people in a shared setting where their feedback can be displayed, you can start to visualize the shape of a story as defined by its audience. This feedback can then be used to facilitate dialogue among the respondents and the creators of the media they’re responding to.


We considered a number of technological challenges that were obvious from the beginning, and we adapted and improvised our approach to maximize the potential for engagement.

Challenge: Engaging with a device is disruptive to the overall experience of consuming the narrative.

We limited the level of engagement during the screening to a simple gesture: a tap. We asked the audience to tap the screen whenever the films moved them, bookmarking moments of emotional resonance. An on-screen color shift served as visual feedback to confirm the mark.

Immediately after each short, we displayed its shape of story on the big screen. The film was visualized as a timeline, with diamond symbols identifying the moments marked by the audience. The size of each diamond reflected the number of taps registered during the corresponding part of the film; a large diamond indicated many taps, a smaller one indicated few, and each tap contributed was visualized so every audience member’s voice was heard. To help identify and provide context to these moments of emotional engagement, the diamonds were accompanied by a corresponding thumbnail and transcript excerpt from the film.

Challenge: tapping a simple mark doesn’t give enough information or context.

After each short film, audience members were able to use the mobile app to anonymously comment on what they’d seen. They had three minutes before the next film started to submit their thoughts. A two-person team moderated the contributions, which were displayed on the big screen alongside each story shape after all seven shorts had been screened. These comments from the audience initiated an engaging conversation facilitated by Dave Miller, host of Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Think Out Loud.

Early in our process, we considered giving audience members the ability to comment on specific marks as well as offer a positive or negative value on a sliding scale. We eventually scoped out both features for technical and user experience challenges given our compressed development timeline. Providing rich contextual information to the tapped moments would be valuable and could lead to an extremely interesting visualization. We’d like to explore this feature for future iterations of the web application.

Challenge: the audience will forget or not be motivated to engage with their device.

Engaging with your mobile device is integrated into the experience and not as an add-on feature. Viewing long-form narrative films would definitely be possible with this technology, but designing the experience to accommodate thoughtful and deliberate moments of engagement would be required. Screening seven short films for the app’s debut allowed us to build in moments of purposeful engagement to the design of the evening.


The evening was not all about technology, however. We recognize that, as the adage goes, content is king, and we didn’t hold back on confronting a contentious issue head-on. With professor Wes Pope of University of Oregon’s Multimedia Journalism master’s program, we curated a diverse selection of shorts for the screening, all on the topic of gun ownership, gun rights, and gun control. Three powerful short films came directly from Wes’s master’s program course. Filmmaker Skye Fitzgerald of Spin Film contributed an excerpt from his upcoming documentary, Oregon / Divide. Kim Rees from Periscopic walked us through a screencast of U.S. Gun Deaths, their data-rich interactive visualization. We heard an extremely moving radio story by Amanda Peacher from Oregon Public Broadcasting entitled How Gun Violence Has Shaped Three Lives. I also had the privilege of co-producing an interview with The Oregonian’s Jamie Francis on his portrait series Oregonians Talk Guns.

The diversity of content and multimedia approaches empowered us to present many sides of the gun debate. For the event at The Hollywood Theatre, Shape of Story aspired to advance meaningful conversations. By identifying shifts in audience sentiment and offering every viewer the opportunity to participate in thoughtful discourse, the technology has the potential to reframe dialogue about controversial issues to encourage productive discussion.

— Andrew DeVigal, Director, Content Strategy

Video edit by Andrew DeVigal. Cinematography by Kate Szrom, Summer Hatfield, Katelyn Black and Wes Pope.

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To Dot or Not to Dot

A preview of our “100 Years of Design” website in honor of the AIGA’s centennial has recently gone live. The full experience, which will feature additional artifacts, interviews with legendary artists, and more, will be unveiled in January 2014, but the preview includes a design element I find especially charming: the dotless “i” in the “Lato” font chosen for this project.

Internally, we heard two different perspectives on the dotless “i.” Some on the project team were initially uncomfortable with it, others loved it. Not everyone immediately noticed the uniqueness of the font. We were drawn to the fact that such a small detail could foster debate.

This font is beautiful, clean, and elegant. And in the same stroke, it is also powerful and communicative. The goal of the type choice, and of the website design as a whole, was simple: create a minimal frame around the main canvas, leaving the entire scene to the masterpieces, quotes, oral histories, and historical moments selected by AIGA. The ultimate aim of the site is to spark conversation among AIGA’s members and beyond.

Personally, I could not have imagined a more intense, exciting, and challenging first project at Second Story (I joined as a senior interaction designer back in May). As an Italian in Portland, I found it exhilarating to work with so many important examples of American design from the past 100 years. And as much as I admire graphic elements that distract from or discourage exploration–like the grunge typography of the brilliant David Carson, whose speech during the recent Design Week Portland was intoxicating– I also enjoy design that speaks simply and clearly.

Through extraordinary teamwork, we took a minimalist approach to the AIGA website and focused on subtraction rather than addition, letting the art and artists remain at the core of the story we were telling. It was important for us to take away as much as possible while staying true to the project’s purpose. The dotless “i” is a part of that approach.

In the end, what we lose with the dot, we gain in the simple magic of the site’s design. We’re excited to reveal the finished product to the public early next year as we celebrate 100 years of design that connects, informs, assists, delights, and influences us.

— Filippo Spiezia, Senior Interaction Designer

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2013 Design Research Conference

Design Research Conference

Design research is one of those concepts that can have multiple meanings depending on how you want to approach it. I’ve generally considered design research to be any work we do to understand the contexts of our design and the effects and consequences that our design decisions have in the world. The goal of good design research should be to support better design by highlighting the need for empathy, understanding, and responsibility.

I was recently able to hear others speak on the topic at the 2013 Design Research Conference hosted in Chicago by IIT Institute of Design. The organizers decided to center the theme of this year’s conference around the balancing of design forces. How do designers work with or against the forces of ego, empathy, humanity, and technology?

As you might expect from such a broad theme, there was a great diversity in tone and content in the presentations from speakers. There seemed to be a conscious effort to bring in speakers from both practice and academia and across multiple disciplines (including design, engineering, science, and business). In fact, the speakers were so diverse that, in some cases, it took quite a stretch to make the connection back to design research. But perhaps this was a statement in itself, that the field of design research should be recognizing knowledge from other fields to better define its own methods and practices.

Here are some of the moments I found most interesting:

In what was my favorite presentation of the conference, Matt Jones, interaction design director at Google Creative Lab, described his team’s work as creating stories of alternative futures. All design is fiction and a big part of a designer’s work is creating belief in one particular story. If you read our previous blog post from content strategist Laura Allcorn, you’ll recognize Jones’s description as similar to the practice of Critical Design. Jones suggested the most powerful presentations of a design are not those that describe far-flung future utopias, where everyone is beautiful and the designed product has somehow created a perfect life drastically different from our own. Rather, convincing design scenarios focus on changing one thing, some small vital detail, and asking what it would mean for us to live in this alternative, but familiar, world. Richard The, an interaction designer on Jones’s team, went on to describe how this storytelling philosophy played out in practice with their work on Google Glass. The majority of their team comes from advertising or filmmaking backgrounds, and he described how film plays a key role in their process. They were making films about the design before the product even existed, in essence using filmmaking as a method for exploring design possibilities.

Rhiju Das, a researcher at Stanford, has been looking at leveraging citizen science in the field of RNA nanotechnology by creating an online game called EteRNA that allows players to design and test their own RNA-based nanostructures. While there have been similar examples of games that used crowdsourcing to solve scientific problems, this is the first in which players are actively and knowingly creating hypotheses and designs that are then actually tested in real experiments carried out by Das’s lab. He proposes a future in which the entire scientific process can be crowd-sourced, all the way through hypothesis, lab testing, and even mini-publications of player findings.

Don Norman talked about his plans to re-release his classic book, The Design of Everyday Things, with updates based on how he feels the field has changed in the 25 years since the book’s original release. One of his big points was his concern over the gap between design researchers and the product groups responsible for shipping a product. He urged researchers to find new ways of making their research findings more practical for use and more easily transferable.

Siobhan Gregory & Linda Pulik posed an interesting challenge to any designers and design researchers who want to do work in “social design,” or the design of products and services in the social sector. They presented a critique of many designers’ claims about the impact of design on social problems, when the typical social design project lacks the rigor and patience necessary to truly become involved with any community. They called on social designers to make greater commitments of time and process and recognize that sometimes design isn’t what is required but rather a human sense of care.

The conference was a great illustration of the diversity that can be found in fields of design and design research. I always find it revitalizing to learn about the different perspectives people have on design and the ways they are applying it to shape the world around us.

— Norman Lau, Senior Experience Designer

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On Light & Lyt

As has been pretty well documented, we recently had the opportunity to work with Intel’s new Galileo development board to create a neat little prototype lighting product/experience for the Maker Faire Rome. The technology story is a compelling one, as it highlights the ways that one of the biggest global players has recognized the significance of Open Source and DIY culture, and the hopeful future that movement represents. Democracy with horsepower is a good thing.

As a person whose exuberant futurism is often tempered by a technology skepticism that borders on luddite, I’m very happy to see that there is real investment flowing into open-ended tools that empower lay-technologists (now we just need to educate young people to be able to take advantage of these tools–which is another blog post). But what really got me excited about Lyt was the product experience itself. Lyt makes any room it’s in totally hypnotizing. It’s funny that tens of thousands of years after the invention of fire, we humans are still utterly captivated by dynamic light.

Light is arguably the principal medium of Architecture, so naturally modulating its qualities in spaces we create is something I think about a lot. For purposes of working, inhabiting, reading–in short, most activities–daylight is technically and experientially superior. But there is also a documented, and intuitive, significance to firelight. It’s around the fire that we tell stories. Firelight is dynamic, suggests motion, teases the imagination, and invites reflection.

I believe that among the many future opportunities that exist in terrestrial lighting (I hate the term “artificial lighting” with it’s negative connotations–photons are photons, how we choose to use them determines the quality of experience that results) is the opportunity to create spaces whose lighting and ambient environment can respond to users’ commands or behaviors, providing lighting conditions that affect occupants similarly to firelight. Nothing will replace the fire (or the sun for that matter) in terms of sheer spectral quality of light, but we can do a lot better than we currently do in the responsive lighting of spaces. Lyt demonstrates this, albeit in a very humble way.

The future might just be bright.

— Daniel Meyers, AIA, Creative Director, Environments

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Storytelling Workshop: Using Fiction and Humor To Confront Emerging Challenges

Last month I had the pleasure of teaching a storytelling workshop to a group of students enrolled in the Collaborative Design MFA program at the Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA).

The students in this program are focused on cultivating meaningful ways to address the emerging challenges of the 21st century: resource depletion, emerging technologies, and climate change, to name a few. They refer to these challenges as ‘wicked problems,’ since they lack a simple or singular solution. It is difficult to grasp these challenges in general since their effects may not be seen for many years.

I was asked to share some storytelling strategies that would help students envision and communicate the complex potential consequences of these ‘wicked problems.’ I felt the best approach to share with them was a method known as Critical Design, a term coined by Dunne & Raby who lead the Design Interactions program at Royal College of Art.

The goal of Critical Design is to create something that makes people think, sparks dialogue, and challenges narrow assumptions. As Dunne & Raby recommend, “The viewer should experience a dilemma, is it serious or not? Real or not? For Critical Design to be successful they [the audience] need to make up their own mind.” 

To accomplish this, you need to figure out a provocative story you want to tell and then choose the medium—object, video, photograph, publication, etc.—that would best help you move people to care about the issue.

How do you begin to weave this emotionally-gripping, futuristic, fictional story? I like to play satirist. Take the problem, what you know of its potential effects, and then start to imagine what else could happen if it persisted. Keep taking that outcome to the extreme and see where it leads you.

Why does this work? I think when you are attempting to introduce someone to a potentially controversial idea, combining fictional stories with humor can be an effective strategy for disarming our defensive intellectual guards.

Stories, and, more specifically, fictional narratives, have a unique way of captivating us. This passage from Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal articulates why fiction is effective in influencing our beliefs:

Fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than nonfiction, which is designed to persuade through argument and evidence. Studies show that when we read non-fiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this seems to make us rubbery and easy to shape.

Humor has a similar neurological effect on us. Last year, a stand-up comedian named Chris Bliss shared why he believes humor can break down our barriers in his TEDx talk “Comedy Is Translation“:

Flight-or-fight releases adrenalin, which throws our walls up sky-high. And then comedy comes along, dealing with a lot of the same areas where our defenses are the strongest—race, religion, politics, sexuality—only by approaching them through humor instead of adrenalin, we get endorphins and the alchemy of laughter turns our walls into windows, revealing a fresh and unexpected point of view.

Armed with this knowledge, the students set out to practice this approach. I asked them to start by reading a current news story. That week’s news brought us articles on lab-grown meat, implanting false memories through optogenics, a recipe for a bird superflu, and a fusion power station. Then, they were to play satirist and contemplate the future implications (especially on humans) of the subject matter of their article. Finally, they were asked to present their fictional story by making an object, mock website, altered photograph, etc.

Within half an hour, both groups grasped the concept and came up with some thought-provoking ideas. One group convincingly pitched a satirical commercial, and the other created a print ad for a futuristic water supply business. I was impressed with their work, especially since this was an unfamiliar way of thinking.

Clearly, solving wicked problems is unfathomably complex and takes incredible effort, but it is encouraging to see such a thoughtful group of motivated students who are dedicating themselves to spreading awareness and enacting change. I am really looking forward to seeing the work this group creates over the next two years.

— Laura Allcorn, Senior Content Strategist

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Report from Siggraph

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This year’s Siggraph delivered again with the best collection of creative artists, engineers and scientists that a conference could attract. The emerging technology wowed us, the presentations inspired us, and we left, as always, with a renewed sense of hope and excitement about the state of the industry.

At the heart of the conference are the papers and courses offered. This year, the ideas and advances presented provided unique insights into the latest graphics technologies and methods used by those in the gaming and entertainment industry. Some of our favorites came from well seasoned Siggraph presenters such as Ramesh Raskar (MIT Media Lab) and his presentation on Femto-Photography, while others surprised us with simple yet powerful new advances in programming libraries such as Intel’s Marco Salvi. These are just two of dozens of amazing presenters that we witnessed first hand.

The technology and hardware demonstrated at the Emerging Technologies lab and even in the Exhibits this year left us buzzing with fresh ideas and solutions. Disney Research wowed us with their haptic feedback demo, and Microsoft Research provided a live demo of their IllumiRoom which blew us away (it’s one of those things you have to see to believe). My favorite was the simple interactive “TransWall” from Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology which put a new collaborative twist on a reactive touch wall with a transparent display and dual-sided touch interface.

Now we return to our creative efforts in the studio with confidence that the graphics industry is continuously charging ahead and will continue to deliver technology that will be exciting and applicable. We can’t wait to incorporate the technology advances we saw into the experiences we create to inspire others in the same way that Siggraph inspires us.

— Matt Arnold, Lead Integration Engineer

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OSCON 2013

This year, O’Reilly Media held the 15th anniversary edition of their Open Source Convention (OSCON) here in Portland. I first attended the conference back in 2004, and it’s been one of my favorite conferences ever since.

What I’ve always liked about OSCON is the variety of content in one place. Throughout my career, when I’ve needed to pick up a new technology, I’ve frequently turned to O’Reilly’s catalog of books which cover a wide swath of technical topics. OSCON has a similar breadth; you’ll find sessions on programming languages, software development tools and techniques, web infrastructure, user experience, databases, and more. At any given time there are up to 18 of these sessions happening simultaneously, so the big challenge is never finding one that matches my interests but rather trying to decide between 4 or 5 of them.

Over three days, I attended sessions on deployment practices, JavaScript frameworks, user authentication, cryptography, managing development teams, software architecture techniques, text editors… the list goes on. The main limitation on the content is that it has to be related to open source, but my interest is primarily in web development so for me this is not really a limitation at all. Open source software is hugely important to the Web, with many of the world’s largest websites being built on a foundation of open source. The folks who work on these sites love to come to OSCON to share what they’ve been working on and to try to attract interest from potential contributors to the open source parts of their work. As a result, OSCON is a great place to get a quick overview of the state of the art in web development and related tools. Many times I’ve been introduced to a technology at OSCON, only to watch it catch on in a big way and eventually graduate to having its own ecosystem of related conferences: Django, Rails, Node.js… it’s a useful early-warning system for learning about incoming changes in the industry from the people who are driving those changes.

When I first started attending OSCON, a lot of the conversation was around gaining acceptance for the use of open source software in the business world. That is no longer the battle it once was. Recent OSCONs have been more focused on expanding open source techniques and ideals to domains beyond software. For example, this year we heard about:

  • Facebook’s Open Compute project which aims to redesign data center technology from the ground up, from the architecture of the buildings down to the power supplies used in the servers and the creation of open source vendor-agnostic switch hardware.
  • The Open Prosthetics Project which aims to create freely-shareable designs for prosthetics to improve the state of the art and reduce the costs of this technology.
  • Code for America, a non-profit that runs a fellowship program to help city governments create applications to solve their problems and then share those applications as open source with other cities.

In addition to this theme of finding new places to apply open source ideals, the other thing I have noticed in recent years is an increasing sense of maturity in the community. Some examples of this trend from this year:

  • Several presenters addressed the issue of diversity of race and gender in open source and the development community at large.
  • Paul Fenwick and Ed Finkler independently presented sessions on the issue of depression from the perspective of a programmer.
  • Robert Lefkowitz called for the open source community to get more involved in professional organizations such as the ACM.
  • Several keynote presenters identified a growing problem with unlicensed (and therefore unusable) code on GitHub. GitHub announced a new site to help in choosing an open source license (the appropriately named choosealicense.com). During the course of the conference, some 4,600 unlicensed projects added a license.

Although part of me misses the scrappier, more chaotic flavor of OSCON from several years ago, I’m pleased to see the increasing stability and maturity of the community. And it’s very exciting to see open source ideals making their way into some very different industries. What will we be talking about open sourcing at OSCON’s 30th anniversary?

 — David Brewer, Web Technology Lead

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