Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Then: Design Thinking about Cloud Computing & the IoT in our RISD-ID studio, Fall 2008

Design Thinking is a dynamic process of iterative discovery.  

Design Thinking helps dismantle starting point preconceptions in order to discover and focus the intelligence in the information right in front of your eyes. 

The Appliance Studio that Lane Meyer and I taught at RISD in the Fall 2008 semester offers a case study of design thinking in action. In 2015, it is also an historical document of the last seven years during which time cloud computing, smart networked appliance peripherals and the Internet of Things, or IoT, have gone from being futuristic concepts to an accepted part of our lives. 

We began by considering the category: Appliance. How could we open the Design Thinking process? Perhaps by asking if appliances were gendered? What was the difference between a tool and an appliance?

We began the studio asking: 

"If a toaster is “clearly” an appliance, and a refrigerator the largest one, where does that leave an elevator, electric wheelchair, cell phone, hand drill or vibrator? Are appliances in some way “female” and domestic, while "tools" are just re-labeled "masculine" appliances? If the category of appliances did begin in the 1880s as a way to domesticate the new power source of electricity, what analogies and opportunities can we draw today in our connected world? This studio is concerned with how designers can reconceptualize this product typology.

We will be asking questions like:

  • What social, cultural, and historical conditions gave rise to the appliance as we think we know it? 
  • How can designers use this conceptual insight to redefine the parameters of their participations
  • What are goals for the "new"? To be better? Higher tech? Ecological? Stylish? Subversive? Spiritual? Instructive? Or maybe, eliminated? 
  • What happens when we consider behavior and context more than form? That is, when the focus shifts from designing for the appliance as a stand-alone object, to seeing it perform as an actor in a larger narrative of use? What will appliances look like when they move almost entirely from noun to verb?
  • How are these insights and objectives interpreted into: expression, design approaches, materials, manufacturing, marketing and use?

The studio journey ended in a very different place:

Having studied the past, how do young designers at RISD envision the future of appliances today? The conclusion is clear. One hundred years ago a string of innovative new electrical appliances (from toasters to vibrators to vacuum cleaners) were designed to make use of the new mass distribution of electricity. A century later, we are in a similar moment of high innovation. But the utility the young designers instinctively responded to was “cloud computing”, not electricity. In their near-future scenarios, these designers imaginatively considered appliances as Web 2.0 peripherals - part of the coming Internet of Things (IoT).

What does this mean? “Cloud computing” refers to the time when computation will take place in a centralized “cloud” of data servers to provide a service as ubiquitous as electricity is today. Thus, the appliances we use will become “peripheral devices” that “talk” to the cloud, but won’t need computer hardware to so.

Further, these new appliances will not be toasters and vacuum cleaners, but products that are interactive and respond to emotional as well as physical data. Originally the Internet handled documents, but Web 2.0 refers to the shift toward social network interactions. Already many Web 2.0 Internet applications feed information into the cloud, and reveal us to ourselves as we become human sensors, adapting to and describing social networks and emotional states. 

(For example, this capability is imaginatively revealed in the Web 2.0 project "We feel fine".) When this possibility is coupled with new smart materials that respond to bodily metrics, a whole new range of design possibilities open up. It is a given that we will use gestures of touching the surfaces of our Web 2.0 appliances in order to sort information on demand.

The work of the RISD-ID Appliance Studio student designers reveals a future of networked appliances and smart materials that will provide metrics about our own emotional and bodily condition, and that of others. It is in part a practical world where data from one context is easily transported to another location, and turned into useful information. In other scenarios the students predicted a future of narrative and role playing that cuts to the heart of how we present ourselves to our self, to our partners or to anonymous “others”. Still other projects dealt with light and time, and the tool/nature interface.

We are in the middle of a period of innovation and the future is still to be determined. Personal portable computers did not become widely available until the 1980s. This first decade of the 21st century has brought us a host of hand-held devices. And within another decade each of us will be managing a personal network of 1000 devices, according to a recent European Union study. Who will design these devices in the coming Internet of Things or IoT?

Clearly the design of appliances as Web 2.0 peripherals in the new age of cloud computing is an opportunity of great magnitude for industrial designers. If we look to the past and the historical analogy of mass electrification, we discover that the form language of electrical appliance design was in large part determined by the electrical engineering industry and sheet metal manufacturing companies that had staked out this new market. 

And so we need to ask: what industry will move in to develop the future of Web 2.0 peripheral devices? Will these products be defined mostly by cell phone companies, like Nokia’s morph and lifelog project? Or computer software and hardware companies, like Microsoft and Apple? Or can we approach the problem another way? What do RISD’s young industrial designers see?

2008 RISD-ID Advanced Studio on Appliance Designco-taught by Nancy Austin and Lane Myer.

Students + Final Project:
  • Amy Su - Shared Heartbeat Appliance
  • Andrew Bui - New Interactions for Time, Light, and Nature Appliances
  • Arthur Harsuvanakit - A Good World Appliance
  • Ashley Schwebel - An Apt Appliance
  • Bam Wipop Suppipat - Emotional Safety Appliance
  • Crystal Soares - Stored Rest Appliance
  • Joo Lee - Combined Appliances
  • Meng Le - Small friends for Big Appliances
  • Michelle Lee - Light Pattern Home Appliance
  • Soomi Lee - Sex Play
  • Tal Yehoud - Interactive Elevator Appliances
  • Toomi Moilanen - Coffee4U Appliance

Lane Myer on visualizing Design Thinking as a Process

Lane Myer on “Four Mythical Approaches to a Project. Or Investigation” (November 08, 2008)

1. You Start. You hope to Finish.
No need to identify a Middle. You just work.

2. You Start with a feeling of LOTS OF TIME. Then suddenly you feel TIME IS RUNNING OUT and you push to “finish”.  Again, there is no middle. It is more about a feeling of time as a substance you have to push through, and then it is gone/over.

3. There is a Beginning. Middle. An end.
They are discrete doors you pass through and you do not or cannot cycle back into the earlier steps. It is a linear sequence of clear-cut steps.

4. Like #3, but with a Cyclical Method that allows constant investigation from beginning to middle to end to new beginning.

These “Four Mythical Approaches” can each be visualized as follows:

1. Start ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Finish


3. Begin. Middle. End.

4. Research Phase-----Development Phase-------Presentation Phase------Research anew
It is a cycle you never leave for life.

Question, research, explore


Form an opinion,
Make connections.

Communicate with others in a context.

Presentation – not as icing on cake but response to question: does this segment of research satisfy you with what’s at hand?

Visualize this process constantly to help the cycle of question/opinion/point of view.

So. This process is active and external to the mind. At every step you need to visualize the investigation, the connections developed, and the best way to communicate to others.

It is a mistake for people to think the Start to Finish process is going to take place all in their mind and then suddenly find external form. In fact, it is a disaster to work this way.

Discovery is fun. Ask: What do you need to do to make the next discovery and get the question advanced?

Use the right tool. 

In this way you have a path that never ends, but which is constantly communicating to yourself and to others.

This is about the process of doing and communicating. It does end up accomplishing a lot, but a primary need to focus on the end mission of “Accomplish” can get in the way. Method #4 takes the panic out.” It is not possible to do it all in your head. You must have a process for dealing with the middle in the best, fun way.

Nancy Austin 2008 talk at Yale on
 “Appliances as Performance Peripherals in the New Age of Cloud Computing," 

Yale University Material Culture Lecture Series (December 4, 2008). 
[Archive of talk coming soon.]

Lane Myer at Nancy Austin's Site Specific Installation on
RISD history, October 2008
It was a booked semester! Nancy Austin spoke on RISD history in Florence Oct 12, 2008.
[See the TLS Feb. 27, 2009: 15.] And also the RISD student-led initiative, "What We Do".
She also taught a Critical History of Industrial Design alone for a final time to 70 global students.
See RISD ID History

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