Spring 2012: v.08 n.01: CAA Conference Edition 2012
Artists’ Machines: Postdigital Design Education for the Real World
Ashley John Pigford
University of Delaware, Newark.
The term postdigital has been used to describe an evolution in the way people perceive and use digital technology, from an abstract relationship established by the digital revolution of the late twentieth century, based on one’s interaction with a mouse, keyboard and display screen, to a deeply human-centered, direct and simplified relationship, based on intuition and common sense. Our postdigital society is not concerned with processing speed and programming. We want technology to be extensions of ourselves – to do what we want, when we want it, and without complication. Postdigital technology is developed to adapt to the way people use it, sometimes offering multiple ways of doing the same thing, rather than people being forced to adapt to the way it is designed to operate. Further, postdigital technology is not relegated to exist behind the ‘glass’ of a computer screen; it is increasingly embedded into physical things—a part of our corporeal experience of life—creating a fully sensual experience that is greater than the sum of its technological parts.
As a new generation of people grow up in a world mediated by digital technology, digital media become implicit in the paradigm with which that generation understands and contributes to our ever-increasing global culture. Children born today are becoming indoctrinated into a postdigital ethos as children born in the early twentieth century were to the industrial revolution. My parents, representing the post-industrial paradigm, implicitly understand and accept that machines and mass production mediate our lives. My child, evident by how quickly he took to the iPad™, will grow up in a world that is heavily mediated by discrete, human-centered digital technology and will not know life without the human-computer interconnectedness of the internet. The children of today will have even more opportunities to shape the digitally-mediated, global society of tomorrow, and embracing the postdigital paradigm is essential for a student of design if he or she is going to design solutions and experiences for the next generation of “users.”
A designer’s role in the shaping of our culture and society is without question—consider how intrinsically commercial art has affected human values over the last few decades, (I want my MTV!). However, design schools cannot continue to educate designers for a culture and society of the past. Schools needs to embrace the postdigital ethos of today’s students and provide them with not only applicable skills to serve the creative industry, but a fundamental understanding and a working knowledge of the relationship between humanity and digital technology. This education must be a cornerstone of their studies in any design discipline; it must be deeply connected to one’s creative process, if one is to make any significant contribution to the human experience.
In this paper I present why I believe it is important that physical computing be taught as a fundamental education of digital media for a student of design, to prepare young people to take an active and participatory role in the shaping of our postdigital society. My position is illustrated with the results of teaching a course I created called “Artist’s Machine” at the University of Delaware. This hands-on, experience-based learning art course introduces students from across the university to electronics, open-source software and hardware and an interventionist’s approach to creative process. I developed this course as an evolution of my research in design education (specifically graphic and interaction design), and advanced digital systems to serve society’s ever-increasing need for left-brain lateral thinkers who can apply a creative process to whatever “real-world” challenge they are faced with. This, I believe, is the ultimate goal of any design education.
An Interventionist’s Approach to Digital Media
The availability of well-documented open-source hardware and software has led to the proliferation of a D.I.Y. approach to solving problems across the technological and cultural spectrum. Specifically, the creation of the Arduino electronics prototyping platform and Processing programming language, supported by a vast, online code-sharing community, has simplified and accessorized digital technology and electronics—empowering creative people to take digital technology into their own hands and serve their own technological desires (Pepperal and Punt 2000, 7).
The first assignment of my course introduces students to the D.I.Y. approach and open source hardware/software by having them hack a simplified piece of digital technology: a children’s toy. The process of hacking, in this case, is described as repurposing digital technology to achieve an alternate user experience. Hacking is a significant component of the course curriculum because it offers a behind-the-scenes understanding of what most digital media are: wire, switches, lights, speakers and a circuit board containing an integrated circuit (IC). I explain to students how the IC is essentially the “brain” of the toy and they are going to replace (or augment) this brain with their Arduino, essentially intervening into the toy’s central logic system. As an introductory assignment, the hacking is kept minimal—basically activating the toy’s contact switches with Arduino pins, (via a 4066 analog gate)—yet, through this simple modification students fundamentally alter an experience of digital technology.
The process of hacking a cheap plastic children’s toy is analogous to how a designer operates in the larger context of our postdigital society: as an interventionist between humanity and technology. A fundamental understanding of how digital technology works, combined with an understanding of the relationship humans have with it, allows designers to alter, modify and create new relationships, and therefore affect how meaning is communicated and interpreted through digital media.
Hacked Toy: Student Work Examples
An Expanded View of Material Exploration as Part of the Creative Process
The Bauhaus curriculum, (see figure below), originally developed by Laslo Maholy Nagy and now deeply entrenched in most U.S. design curricula, begins with teaching students the value of material exploration/experimentation towards developing one’s applicable skills to serve the creative industry. According to the Bauhaus manifesto, “manual experience of materials is essential to the student of design–experience at first confined to free experiment and then extended to the practical workshop,” (Iten, 1963, 99).
Material exploration/experimentation will always be an integral component to a design education that instills in students applicable skills and knowledge about the world around them, yet the world that a Bauhaus-inspired education was designed to prepare students for no longer exists. Considering the dynamic and interactive nature of information and experience that the digital revolution created, students need to consider digital technology as raw material that can be used within one’s creative process.
Digital components, like a lump of clay or a piece of wood, are raw materials with specific characteristics and functions that can be shaped by the hands of a creative person. As Nam Jun Paik famously said, “Some day artists will work with capacitors, resistors and semiconductors as they work today with brushes, violins and junk,” (Rosebush, 1975, 120). Postdigital designers (and artists) consider sensors, switches, motors, speakers, lights and display screens as a kit of parts with which they experiment and ultimately design user experiences.
Input-Logic-Output and what Makes an Engaged Experience?
The way we use digital technology is through some form of interface that receives input and delivers output. Between these two actions is the logic layer, or the program, that translates user input into data, processes it and then translates the resultant data back into sensual (visual, aural, etc.) information for the user. This process of input-logic-output is the creation of a designer that understands the relationship between form and function—between sensation and utility—and knows how to manipulate this relationship to affect meaning.
Some interfaces with technology are highly practical (I push this button and get this thing), yet as technology becomes more deeply embedded into our lives, we expect more human characteristics of technology. We want technology to remember, expect, interpret and entertain, and understanding how to serve this need with explicitly non-human technology is a skill of the postdigital designer.
For the second (and final) assignment of my course, students are introduced to two basic electronic components: the Parallax Ping)))™ Ultrasonic Distance Sensor and a HiTec servo motor. Student are instructed to connect these to their Arduinos and are challenged to experiment with creating a simple relationship between the data produced by the sensor and the controlled output of the servo motor. Students soon realize that these components have a specific function and it is up to them to use coding to create some form of logic that translates the input into output.
Manipulating materials to create an engaging, human experience is analogous to what all designers do as a creative practice. This is fundamental to the creative process. Postdigital designers must not only understand the traditional, analog materials of our lives, they must also understand the digital.
For the Real World
My reference to the title of Victor Papanek’s book Design For The Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change is intentional. In 1971, Mr. Papanek stated; “Design must become an innovative, highly creative, cross-disciplinary tool responsive to the true needs of men,” and “Design can and must become a way in which young people can participate in changing society,” (Papanek, Preface: XXVI). This human-centered, need-based approach to design practice is fundamental to the postdigital reality to which students are now being taught to contribute.
Students need to look at humanity as not only their audience and potential customers, but as the source of ideas to fuel one’s creative process. Students need to ask questions about what people really need, contributing their own life experiences as inspiration, in order to design real-world solutions to problems and situations. This philanthropic approach to design is not intended as a way for a teacher to promote their own ideas or agenda; rather, a human-centered approach to design places the benefits to the human condition as ultimate judge and jury of all steps of one’s creative process, with digital technology created solely to serve this purpose.
My course is, and will always be, in flux. As most teachers do, every time I teach a course I learn how to make it better next time. However, the core curriculum and content of this course is essential for a postdigital designer. I believe that open source programming and electronics (in conjunction with a D.I.Y. spirit) provide a platform for design students to invent new relationships between digital media and humanity and provide an opportunity to contribute positively to society and culture.
Iten, Johannes. 1963. Design and Form: The Basic Course at the Bauhau and Later. New York: Wiley.
Papanek, Victor. 1971. Design For The Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change. New York: Pantheon Books.
Pepperell, Robert and Punt, Michael. 2000. The Postdigital Membrane: Imagination, Technology and Desire. Oregon: Intellect Books.
Rosebush, Judson. 1974. Nam Jun Paik: Video ‘n’ Videology 1959-1973. New York: Everson Museum of Art.