Making a Moment

As I dive deeper into the lindy hop and swing dance community, I can’t help but get a little meta about it, especially after witnessing the after-party from CBUS6 yesterday. You see, up until this past weekend, I’ve been the sort of community who attends the local events only; weekly and monthly dances.

This past weekend was CBUS6, i.e. the sixth lindy exchange based here in Columbus. It was a fantastic event, made awesome because the planning committee worked hard to make sure there was an equal number of followers and leaders. When the last official dance was over, I was invited to join the remaining locals at a committee member’s house to help eat the leftover food and hang out.

There were hardwood floors perfect for dancing in socks, so even though we had danced all weekend, we got to be really silly and dance like 1980s Cosby, do the mashed potato and the twist, and even the Jump On It dance (via The Fresh Prince of Bel Air).

I got to watch people whom I consider expert dancers talk about technique, which was certainly eye-opening because I don’t know the names to any of the moves that I do on the dance floor when I swing and lindy hop. I’m lucky in that I can pick up moves after a couple of trial runs, so I’ve never really had to take official lessons. Which is about the time the user researcher in me blinked and realized what was going on: I’ve been performing ethnographic research on this community since I joined in late August.

The swing dance community in Columbus, OH is amazing, hands down. The people are welcoming, fantastic dancers who don’t care about your skill level as long as you love to dance as much as they do. I knew there was much going on behind the scenes that I hadn’t access to, being a new member, so man, was it awesome to see these guys at work!

By the luck of simply being present, I got to watch as a new competition couple asked the advice of two veterans about their choice of song, and what they could do with it. Which brings me to the title of this post, “Making a Moment.”

As the five of us sat in a parked car on the side of a residential road listening to the chosen song of the new competition couple, one of the veteran dancers said, “This is a great song. You have the opportunity to have a lot of nice moments.”

I was struck by her choice of words. Moments? I had heard that word used before, in a very similar fashion. When I took ceramics, I made a piece called The Frog Prince. A ceramic masters student at the time walked past me while I was building the piece, complimenting me on the “great moments” I had captured.

 

I love this piece because it has humor. The prince puckers his lips, looking confident and hopeful. The girl, with her lip curled in disgust, leans as far back as gravity will allow before actually falling over. She is so desperate to reject his advances that her hair whips with the force of her movement.

I feel as though in the arts and artistic endeavors such as dance, we aim for making “moments.” The thing is, I’m still not entirely sure how to describe a “moment” to someone outside of the community, be it the ceramic, painting, drawing, or dancing community. Is it something perfectly captured in a sliver of time that triggers something in our minds and emotions? Is it something ephemeral, or is it static? I’m not entirely sure. Having heard this word used in two different, yet possibly related fields, it makes me wonder…

Could I make a “moment” in a website or physical design, i.e. something meant to be used, rather than observed? The moments mentioned earlier put the audience in a passive role: you study the ceramic piece; you watch (and cheer) the competing dance couple.

Perhaps making a moment in interaction design is too much like trying to make an experience, which just rubs me the wrong way. I can’t make an experience, because only the person having the experience knows if they are having an experience, or if they are simply experiencing something in a line of all the other somethings in their day. I can provide an environment which has a collection of variables which may very well lead to an intellectual/emotional/physical experience. But I can’t create the experience.

But it seems I can create a moment, at least with clay. So what is it I would have to do in order to capture a moment using technology as my medium?

Think, think, think…

Binaebi and Advanced Ceramics

Last semester, I took a ceramics class for the first time. It was eye-opening, and helped me learn the one most important life lesson that I still struggle with: how to let go. I am detail-oriented, but can often still see the big picture, except when it comes to my own life. Ceramics is slowly curing me of that fault.

Today, in our first session of advanced ceramics, we were advised to think about why we were in the class. I thought the questions were applicable to why this class is important for me to take as an interaction/user experience designer. So here are my thoughts on the matter.

Why clay?

Clay is a mysterious, moody medium. You never really know how the clay will behave and feel each time you come into the studio. Much is the same for our users as interaction designers. We never know how our users will behave and feel each time they come to our designs, whether they be software, websites, interactive media, etc.

Why the human figure?

The specific topic of this advanced ceramics course is the human figurative sculpture, taught by Chris Boger (who is amazing, by the way). Now, ever since I began to teach myself to draw in elementary school, as well as the drawing and physiology classes I took in high school, I’ve always been interested in the human form. I’m especially interested in the human form as a means to communicate. For example, the way I’m sitting communicates something about my mood, how I feel about the people and situation surrounding me, etc. So much about our lives is about communication—or lack thereof. I’m interested in exploring that channel of interaction through the medium of clay because of the 3D qualities of a finished sculpture. You are able to circle it, analyze it from multiple angles and determine how its message changes depending on the way the light shifts.

We have been encouraged to be inspired by all types of human figures: Disney, anime, sports, politicians, dancers, the medicinal understanding of the human body, the psychological understanding, fashion, etc etc etc.

What do I hope to learn from advanced ceramics?

Woof. This is a tough question. I’ve gone through a lot of changes this past year. I don’t mean to be dramatic when I say 2009 was the worst year of my life, considering I’ve only lived 24 years. As such, I’d like to explore the idea of identity, personal meaning, morals, relationships, and other such abstract ideas through the human figure. What does it mean to love, and be loved? What does it mean to be autonomously happy? How can I possibly portray this through the human figure? Will my human figure be anatomically correct?

So, I suppose what I hope to learn from this class is my thoughts on how people communicate. It will be exploratory, therapeutic, and, most importantly, will allow me to get my hands dirty while working in a larger scale than I’m used to. My figures haven’t been larger than 10 inches tall. In this class, it’s suggested we work in a 3/4 or 1/2 life scale. That’s huge to me, and will be my biggest challenge. I’m looking forward to it.

Making is Thinking

As a mentor for the incoming Human-Computer Interaction Design (HCID) class of 2011, I engage the students in many philosophical discussions. It is the highlight, I feel, of having a mentor relationship with students, because it allows me to reflect upon myself, my actions, my thoughts, and my understanding of the courses here at Indiana University. For instance, in October 2009, I had a conversation with one of my students, where in being completely honest with him, I surprised myself.

The student was asking for advice about electives. He was unsure what he wanted to take, because he wanted to “get the most” out of his experience in the HCID program, but at the same time, was unsure if he needed to expand his artistry background since he was coming from a technical background.

That said, he asked me what elective I took during my second semester, and whether it was something related to HCID. I told him no, the course I took had almost nothing to do with HCID explicitly. I had taken a fiction writing course. After all, “I am a writer, an artist, a designer, an engineer. In that order.”

It boggled his mind that I, being what he considered one of the top performers in my class, did not put “designer” at the beginning of the list of adjectives describing who I am. I replied,

“It works because writing is all about how to express your ideas. If you have an awesome idea, but can’t express it, it doesn’t matter.

“That goes directly back to HCID. My profession isn’t who I am. It benefits from who I am. It doesn’t define me.”

This is my position in terms of design theory, and being a designer. I am a writer, an artist, a designer, and an engineer. My “ability to know” is based on my “ability to construct meaning” from my “experiences” (Smith 2005). I am, in other words, utilizing my previous life experiences to inform my design thinking, as suggested by Krippendorff. Acknowledging that I am a tactile person, that I must be creative with my hands, and that I must have creative outlets in general or I will likely go insane, is imperative to understanding me as a designer.

You see, I believe “thinking and feeling are contained within the process of making” (Sennet 7). The semester I took this design theory course, I was also taking ceramics. This elective, much like fiction, has little to do with HCID explicitly. However, there are implicit similarities that have altered—and improved—my design thinking.

The craftsmanship of Ceramics and HCID

Ceramics was one of two artistic realms that I had not truly ventured into; photography is the other, and I will be taking a course next semester to fill that hole. As such, by entering the course, I was admitting that I was a novice, but that I hoped to develop a connoisseur’s eye toward ceramic design and craftsmanship. At the beginning of the semester, something as simple as making a slab could take me 45 minutes because I was unused to the clay material, which seemed to have a mind of its own. The clay could be too wet, and not hold its form, or too dry, and fall to pieces. The clay could have bubbles in it which, if not found, could result in the sculpture exploding in the kiln.

The only way to learn all of the different pitfalls of the ceramic craft is either to experience them, or watch someone else go through it and learn from their mistakes. By the end of the semester, I could make a slab in ten minutes, without air bubbles, but only because I put so many hours into failing at slab-making at the beginning of the semester.

In this way, I learned that my discipline with drawing, painting, and playing violin could once again be applied to a new forum, ceramics. It is like the architect Renzo Piano said, “You think and you do at the same time. You draw and you make. Drawing… is revisited. You do it, you redo it, and you redo it again” (Sennet 40).

Why do I have this discipline instilled within me? I could have lost my patience when I first trained myself to draw when I was eleven. I could have assumed I would never reach my sister’s potential when it came to painting when she was fifteen and I was seventeen. I could have convinced my mother to let me quit violin when I was fourteen, the way I wanted.

I did not give up any of these times because I am, I have realized while taking this course, a craftsman. I believe in craftsmanship, meaning that I believe in the “enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake” (Sennet 9). I believe in collecting experiences in which I am a connoisseur, in which I have gained the “art of appreciation” (Smith 2005). I want to have the “ability to see, not merely to look” (Smith 2005).

What does this mean for HCID, and my theory of design? Everything. It means that when I learn how temperamental clay can be, I can apply such knowledge to designing an interface. I will never know what sort of “mood” the clay will be in when I make it to the ceramics studio, the same way I will never truly know what sort of “mood” my users will be when they interact with my interface and/or software and/or product designs.

This is what I mean by believing that I am a craftsman, and indeed that all designers ought to be craftsman. By gathering my experiences to look for patterns of behavior from seemingly unrelated events (i.e. using clay as a metaphor for people/users), I am using a “solution” from one field to “uncover new territory” in HCID (Sennet 11). Through my artistry, I have come to realize that “problem solving and problem finding are intimately related” (Sennet 11). By knowing how the clay works, I am able to recognize when a problem is forming, and therefore determine the possible solutions.

What is the moral of the story?

As designers, it is imperative that we recognize the material properties of our craft.

In ceramics, it is to know the material properties of the clay. It means to recognize that by throwing the clay one way, I am aligning the clay particles to slide against one another so it becomes a slab. Or that by pinching the clay, I will eventually create a bowl. Or that if I add enough water to the clay, I will have a clay solution so thin I can paint it in layers, thus achieving a smooth, delicate surface.

In HICD, it is to know the material properties of the people using our design. Who are they? What is their responsibility? What is their main concern when interacting with my design? Do they realize it as such? Will they have varying moods while interacting with my design? Must they have the use of both their hands? Must they have use of all of their senses?

In this way, I am the writer, the author attempting to tease out the concerns of my characters. What are their motivations, and how can I help them? What can I do to get in their way, and is it necessary? Everything to me is a narrative, from working with the clay, to practicing the violin, to walking through a storyboard for a proposed interaction.

This is because I am a craftsman, and thus represent that “special human condition of being engaged” (Sennet 20). I am fully engaged, and so should other designers be. We all ought to learn from the miniscule events in our lives as much as the traumatic ones. We ought to “do good work,” which means we need to be “curious about, to investigate, and to learn from ambiguity” (Sennet 48).

REFERENCES

Design Rationale behind the “Thought Box”


Jay Steele was interested to know my idea behind the bowls + box. After getting an excellent response from the in-class critique, I figured it was a good idea to post my (very informal) design rationale.

The interesting thing about the in-class critique was how my design sparked an animated conversation. Without knowing details, the class was able to abstract meaning by rearranging the bowls with the box, finding interpretations I hadn’t thought were explicit.

My favorite interpretation was the metaphor that each of the bowls had a spout of sorts, so you could, potentially, pour your thoughts from the bowls into the box. Eventually, the box would leak out the thoughts through that side hole… but never overflow the box.

I love it when someone “gets” the design.