If you’re looking for provocative opportunities for design, look at the boundaries between things. Find those points of intersection between two communities, two professional fields, or two ecosystems. Look in the places we share in common.
These intersections give rise to a vibrant diversity that pushes design practice forward. Second Story has deep roots in this kind of thinking. Our foundations are built in the intersection of design and technology, a boundary space that is well recognized and explored today, but was maybe less so when our company was founded more than 20 years ago. The inherent tensions and mutual inspirations between our designers and technologists are part of what’s driven some of our most inventive and exciting work over the years.
Now, as more digital services and technology are embedded into physical structures and spaces, we increasingly see our work in digital interaction design cross over into another field—the placemaking practices of architecture, landscape architecture, and urban planning. I think it’s important to examine what this new boundary space means for our work because, like the intersection of design and technology, there can be a lot to unpack.
One obvious issue is the gap in concrete skills and technical knowledge. If we want to be part of building physical environments, we should have some capacity in industrial and environmental design. At Second Story, we’ve been evolving the studio makeup to our needs, and our teams now include a number of physical designers.
You can see this on display in our recent work on the Photography Interpretive Gallery at the newly renovated San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Working with the museum, we built experiences that invite visitors to enhance their own visual literacy. They learn about photography’s history, its connection to their lives, and its impact on California as we know it through images and videos from the museum’s collection. What’s more, we were given the opportunity to design both the digital and physical aspects of the experience.
At an industrial design scale, details like the analog dials and buttons that referenced camera controls tied the physical design of our interfaces back to the digital content.
At the environmental design scale, we thoughtfully shaped the interface consoles and fixtures to reflect the larger architectural design features of the renovation, echoing the building’s faceted geometry and clean material palettes.
But coming from an experience design perspective like I do, there is another more nuanced point here that I want to draw attention to. Thinking about placemaking in digital interaction design is more than just a technical matter, more than just a switch from bits to atoms. The concept of place is wrapped up in complex social and cultural issues of community, locality, accessibility, and participation.
And it’s worth calling this out because, for digital folks, a much different narrative can dominate our work. Maybe too often in the world of technology, people, places, and things are framed as resources for us to monitor, standardize, and use at will to carry out functions in ever more efficient and productive ways, anytime, anywhere.
This narrative is powerful in some contexts and at some scales, but when we talk about placemaking, it tends to see as obstacles the very things that make a place worthwhile: diversity, open-endedness, and unique local relationships.
Just think about meandering through your favorite neighborhood, being recognized at your usual haunts, and experiencing the stimulating messiness of the public street. Designing for place needs to involve more than optimization and features, it demands a sensitivity to the dense interconnectedness of people and activities facilitated by an environment.
And while attention to context has always been a hallmark of experience design, what may be different here is the scale at which placemaking occurs. We are moving from isolated devices and interactions to the scale of rooms, buildings, neighborhoods, and cities.
To give a small example, take another look at our gallery at SFMOMA. It sits directly adjacent to the museum coffee shop, a detail that critically informed how we designed the space, not necessarily because the digital elements needed to address the additional functions, but more because we needed to consider how our design would fit appropriately into the larger ecosystem of the surrounding building.
A coffee shop is a place for socializing, for relaxing, and for observing. We recognized that part of the experience of the gallery would have nothing to do with our digital interactives. In the end, we took small measures to accommodate the hybrid architectural programming of the space, by arranging seating into centralized islands and designing minimal digital interfaces that can be interesting from afar and unobtrusive in the periphery. Visitors hopefully feel welcome to just sit, sip their coffee, and watch others use the interactives—or ignore the technology altogether.
It will be a slow evolution to define a common place where our relatively new practice of digital interaction design can effectively intertwine with the centuries-old professions of architecture and urban design. But I’m excited by the potential partnership because it feels challenging and uncharted. Digital designers can and should draw from the deep history of collective theory and approaches on placemaking. And, in turn, we might be able to offer fresh perspective on how digital materials change the way our environments shape—and are shaped by—our interactions.
– Norman Lau, Senior Experience Designer
For a much more detailed meditation on these ideas, check out Malcolm McCullough’s Digital Ground. It’s worth a read for digital designer and architect alike.