Young designers are lucky. They’ve yet to be squeezed by the trials of studio life and can think freely on pure design ideas. Sarah Frater finds the results are ingenious design provocations, as much about our foibles and failings, our health and hearts, as computer digitry
HUMAN imperfection is not something designers usually include in their creations. All the aesthetically pleasing, functionally sound things they design seem intended for people with rational minds and orderly emotions. Young designer and recent Royal College of Art graduate Alice Wang sees the improbability in all this. She graduated from the RCA’s MA Design Interactions course this summer, and her graduate show included digital work that designs in all our least appealing traits – our competitiveness, laziness, and tendency to fib.
It all started with Asimov’s First Law, explains the Taiwanese-born 24-year-old Wang. ‘That states that a robot may not harm a human being,’ she says. ‘I wondered what generated this anxiety and if existing domestic objects already break this law. While they may not physically harm us, they can do us immense psychological harm.’
The result is Wang’s weighing-scale triptych, White Lies, Half Truth and Open Secret. All three are shop-bought digital bathroom scales, only redesigned to reveal our obsession with our weight, and how we lie about it to ourselves. ‘They’re digital products for how people really are,’ says Wang.
In White Lies, the further back you stand on the scales, the lighter you become. In Half Truth, the display panel is moved to the side of the scale so you can’t see it. And in Open Secret the scale is connected to a mobile phone which then texts the bad news to a friend or partner.
Another of Wang’s ingenious creations is Parktone, a device that measures both the green-ness of your grass and acknowledges our horticultural competitiveness. ‘It a modified Pantone Cue reader,’ she explains. ‘You take colour readings of your grass and compare it to my Parktone card which contains true grass colours of Royal Parks and other green areas in the UK.’
Wang laughs as she describes how she snuck into top venues to scan their posh turf. ‘I got a friend to take the Wimbledon reading,’ she laughs. ‘They wouldn’t let me on to Centre Court.’
Wang has a sense of humour, and understands our human failings, qualities she’s designed in to Tyrant. This aptly named alarm clock is connected to your mobile phone address book, with the former activating the latter when you stay in bed too long. ‘It calls your friends, your mother, your boss,’ says Wang. Perfect Sleep, meanwhile, is a modified clock – a sort of digital hourglass – that you set for the perfect amount of sleep. It then counts down how long you can snooze.
Wang describes herself as a product/interaction designer. ‘I’m hacking existing technologies to reveal something more,’ she says. It’s an approach that has generated considerable interest, with Wang already receiving numerous ‘Where can I buy this?’ e-mails. ‘Perfect Sleep is already in the process of production,’ she smiles.
If there’s a theme running through Robert Corish’s wide-ranging work – and the Central St Martins College of Art and Design graduate is not easy to categorise – it’s visualising the invisible. Most digital and interactive designs bend over backwards to hide the processes that make them work. Users don’t ‘see’ behind the Apple iPhone’s user interface, or the nuts and bolts of the BBC iPlayer. Not seeing is a sign of design success.
Corish is different. His work is all about externalising processes that are not normally on view. Two of his graduate projects, pictured on his impressively designed website, illustrate this idea. Physical Loops, a mechanical device with elastic bands, pulleys and motor, realises ideas of software and sound, while Synthesised Feedback, with its speaker, pen nib and webcam, examines ways of making sound visible and turning the image back into sound. ‘It illustrates composition,’ Corish explains.
‘All art and design is interactive is some way,’ says the 25-year-old Dubliner, who, between his Central St Martins MA in Communication Design/Digital Media and his BA in Fine Art Media at Dublin’s National College of Art & Design, taught 12- to 18-year-olds in one of that city’s grittier schools. ‘I’m interested in building interactive experiences that reconsider abstract or ambiguous processes. I like to challenge routine systems of communication.’
One of his favourite themes is designing mechanisms that transfer the senses, such as his Drawing with Sound machine which gives visual form to music. Normally, we only hear music and see a musical score, but Corish’s design provocations attempt to express each with the other.
Illustrating ‘numbers’, a seemingly arcane endeavour, is another Corish enthusiasm. He gives them vibrantly colourful form in a project exploring numerical repetition, such as Prime Numbers and the Fibonacci Sequence. ‘Colour adds visual beauty to the less obvious beauty of the sequences they describe. This is very much intended,’ he says. Rarely have sums looked so appealing.
Design to make you think, rather than make you buy, is an idea Revital Cohen has taken to heart. The Royal College of Art Design Interactions graduate, and a winner of this year’s Helen Hamlyn Centre’s Design for Our Future Selves award, describes her work as something to ‘prompt thought, not go into production’.
‘Before the invention of clocks and electricity, we could gauge time by observing the shift of light,’ says the Israeli-born Cohen, who used her graduate show to consider how technology can rob us of our instincts. ‘It’s something we’re much less able to do now, which is why we’re dependent on clocks.’ She also refers to how women are less able to recognise their own fertility, after years of IVF and the contraceptive pill.
‘My Artificial Biological Clock compensates for this increasingly lost instinct,’ she says. ‘It uses an online service to compute information from a woman’s doctor, therapist and bank manager. When she is physically, mentally and financially ready to conceive, the object alerts her attention.’
Another area that the 27-year-old Cohen examined was invasive medical treatments. ‘I began with the idea of guide dogs,’ she explains. ‘If you lose your sight, you get this charming companion to help you – but if you can’t breathe, you’re put in an iron lung connected to a computer.’
Cohen’s solution was a respiratory dog, a rescued greyhound who would normally be put down after his racing days were over. ‘Greyhounds have a large chest capacity,’ she explains. ‘In my project, I imagined fitting a harness that converts their lung movement into mechanical ventilation. The harness is non-invasive and uses the dog’s chest movement to pump a bellows that pushes air into the patient’s lungs.’
Cohen has also developed the idea of a transgenic sheep for dialysis treatment. ‘Unlike computerised machines, assitance animals can establish a natural symbiosis with patients,’ she explains. ‘They’re an alternative to inhumane medical therapies.’
Revital Cohen will exhibit her work at the London Design Festival’s Living Proof event, at the Royal College of Art, Kensington Gore, London SW7, from 19-30 September
It’s often observed that, as the online world expands, real world communities seem to retreat. People somehow know their neighbours less, smile less, and if not exactly shirk human contact then spend ever more time interacting online.
Internet and mobile phone usage figures confirm our digital preoccupations, although no one’s quite sure how worried we should be. Does it matter if we spend all our time on YouTube or Facebook? Jeff Easter has attempted to reveal our indecision, and reconcile our concerns, in his graduate design project at the Royal College of Art.
The Iowa-born Easter, who studied industrial design at Carnegie Mellon before joining the RCA’s Design Interactions Masters programme, has created a simple electronic badge that is both communications device and social bellwether.
‘It’s 5cm2, with a cellphone screen and an Arduino hobbyist micro controller,’ explains Easter. ‘It connects to your cellphone, which talks to the Internet, which then displays in real time the images people are looking at on your Flickr page.’
The image- and video-hosting website has spawned a busy online community, and Easter’s badge extends this virtual world into the real one. As you walk around, people see snapshots of your life, where you’ve been and where you go. Easter says that it’s really no more than a dynamic update on the ordinary badges people wear to supporttheir football team or buy as souvenirs when they go on holiday.
Does he think the online world is a poor replacement for human contact? ‘Well, there are good things and bad things,’ he says. ‘I did a lot of research into how people get support in their lives – from communities and social networks – and into how virtual communities are replacing that.’
Easter emphasises that his badge is simple and cheap, and uses existing technology in straightforward ways. It’s not intended to be a slick piece of gizmo design, and he seems less interested in gadget ergonomics. ‘[Most product designers] put a lot of effort put into the physical and software design,’ says the 29-year-old Easter. ‘But there’s much less thought put into the emotional ergonomics. You wonder what effect these things have on us.’