Designers use digital technology

Ann Landers says you should never blow your own horn. But I do, I do. I like to brag that I’m one of the few writers who has written for both the academic journal New German Critique and the not-so-academic Playgirl. Not to mention The Nation and Total TV. I like to write for different venues and different audiences–and economically it’s a necessity. No doubt because I wear many hats, I’ve been fascinated by “multilingual” designers of graphics or Web sites who are now turning to interior and environmental design. It’s a truism that the professional journey is not always linear, and that the odd twists along the way culminate in a collection ofunusual skill; call them the riches of weirdness. They are particularly evident in designers now applying digital technology to interiors.

These riches were on lush display last fall at the annual American Center for Design’s “Living Surfaces” conference in Chicago. Speakers there showed digitalized interiors: walls turned into media feeds (Lisa Strausfeld of information Art) and ceiling-to-floor-water-falls of computer-generated letters (David Small of Small Design). Others showed mobile environments like portable, convergent, and interactive media centers (Tim Parsey ofMotorola). What struck me was that the creator soft these environments and technologies–give ortake a few industrial designers–had each started their careers in a different place from where they currently stood.

Why were digital-technology designers turning to environmental design, whether for interiors of homes and offices or for creating an environment around a user on the move? Was this quick changing practice economically driven? Were the tech-skilled designers simply fleeing the investment-drained Web? Was it mass personal eccentricity–a kind of creative restlessness? Did they, like me, enjoy working with different groups of people in different venues?

I talked with Lisa Strausfeld, who’d spoken at the ACD conference about the prototype media wall she’s designing for the revamped Penn Station. (Penn Station’s redesign is the work of SOM; the interior graphics are being done by Pentagram.) Strausfeld was trained as an architect but graduated in the early ’90s recession when architectural jobs were few, and she found herself redesigning computer circuitry for Motorola. From there she went to N IT’s Visible Language Workshop and developed software for financial displays. She then began working on an interactive site for Quokka Sports. At Quokka she was drawn to digitalized display technology and the possibility of combining her architectural interests with digital ones. In 2000 she founded Information Art and was assigned work on the Penn Station project.

I expected Strausfeld to say that her departure from Quolda had been partly for economic reasons, since it happened around the start of the downturn in Web investment (spring 2000), but in fact Quokka was prospering when she left, and she was doing fine as a VP there. Although the draining of money from the Internet has no doubt been an incentive to other formerly Web-based designers who’ve change tracks, Strausfeld sees the diversification of roles as technologically driven, too. “Advances in technology have changed our understanding of experience,” she says. To her, convergence design–combining feeds from TV, phone, and the Web–has prompted attention to holistic design, with a focus on the consumer’s environment and behavior.

User-focused design has been the buzz of the last few years. But if the ACD conference was any marker, and I think it was, there’s now a feedback loop that has not only changed the level of attention designers give to user needs but also how that holistic approach reconfigures designers’ roles. Exiting is the specialist; entering is the multifaceted, tech-savvy environmental visionary.

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