Talk to Me



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Give an object to a child, and she will look for an on/off switch or a button. Put her in front of a television set, and she will touch the screen, trying to expand the image with her fingers as if handling an iPad. Give her a computer of any kind, and she will know how to make it sing. She was born into an era of intelligent, or at least responsive, objects. But even those who have lived long enough to remember the thrill of the mechanical typewriter have become adjusted to our interactive world.

Teddy bears, medicine bottles, radios, MP3 players, and entire homes give feedback on their status (on, off, sleeping, online, off-line), on how much they are consuming, on how they are feeling, on what is happening nearby and far away, on whether or not we have accomplished the tasks they set for us. They do so by winking, lighting up, blinking, changing color, displaying urgent messages in text and diagrams, sometimes even speaking out loud.

In this section we explore objects, interfaces, and systems that are not just communicative and interactive but also have personalities. Some are conceptual—such as Kacie Kinzer’s Tweenbots , which demonstrate New Yorkers’ irrepressible impulse to help anything or anyone that seems to be lost, even if it is a cardboard robot carrying a little flag—and others functional and functioning, such as the interfaces for the ATM at Barclays or the MetroCard Vending Machine.

At home, in the office, or on the road, we are surrounded by specialized companions and expressive pets. Some live in our multifunctional devices, like Yann Le Coroller’s Talking Carl in our smartphones, while others are autonomous, demanding to be seen and heard from their own bodies. By integrating old-fashioned objects such as books and cuckoo clock boxes with mobile applications, designers have created a comfortable hybrid of old and new, of physical and digital.

Most of the objects in this exhibition are trying to find the design language that will best embody the new balance between technology and people. From sensors embedded into our home appliances (and sending information to a wider global network) to tableware that is scarred by age or convulsed by the tension of familial disputes, the expressive range of objects is as limitless as imagination, and no object is ever the same as another.


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With another step up in scale, we move from the communication between people and objects to the communication between people by means of objects. The human body and mind are the central agents and subjects of study in this chapter, expressing and explaining themselves in ways previously unthinkable.

Some of the concepts and prototypes featured here are quintessential products of our time, mixing sarcasm and malaise about interpersonal communication with curiosity and an eagerness to overcome these obstacles creatively. Some alarmists fear that our reliance on digital communication has created a society that, despite exchanging information and thoughts around the clock in blogs and on social networks, can no longer articulate ideas and emotions; several of the design hypotheses that follow were generated to compensate for this inability, whether psychological or physical. At human scale, critical design is at its brightest, with highly conceptual—albeit also highly descriptive—scenarios that explore the possible benefits and probable impacts of new technologies, often using dystopian conditions to heighten the questions’ urgency. From Sascha Nordmeyer’s plastic smile prosthesis for the socially awkward to Gerard Ralló’s range of communication interfaces that address the problems of the socially inept, designers have been quick in pointing out the simultaneous absurdity and poetry of our present condition and of the possible remedies.

Not all the projects are speculative; some are exquisitely pragmatic, and the one prompted by the most urgent conditions is also the most lyrical: EyeWriter—an interface that enables a paralyzed graffiti artist to tag buildings with his eyes—demonstrates that necessity and emergency can give rise not simply to particular solutions for extreme individual cases but rather to breakthroughs for society at large. This is not the only time that an idea developed to address a disability has provided the world with increased abilities. Digital technology follows the same historical rule.

Social networks are obviously critical to any discussion about technology-enabled interpersonal communication, but in a design catalogue, they appear as cause for design, not as subject. Although they so far have been particularly design impaired, they have provided several artists with opportunities for provocative metaphors and visions, as in Hans Hemmert’s platform attachments that make everyone the same height and in the fluid collective game Tentacles.


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Designers search for the meaning of life in their own empirical and suggestive ways. Some narrate life from birth to death—as Jason Rohrer does in his oh-so-short video game Passage—and others zero in on the most minute and mundane moments, such as teethbrushing or procrastinating—as Benjamin Dennel does in his witty poster and David McCandless does in his Hierarchy of Digital Distractions. No task is too menial and no ritual is too unassuming when it comes to a deeper understanding of our position in the universe; relived and visualized, even small gestures acquire a dramatic humanity when elevated by design.

The question of the meaning of life is so enormous and profound—and life itself so difficult to perceive, moving quickly from the endless summers of youth to maturity—that we must rely on synthesis and description, qualities characteristic of visualization design, in order to capture its amazing range. Scientists and statisticians have long used visualization design to make sense of complex behaviors gathered in large data sets; here, designers employ it to help us make sense of the ultimate mystery.

In some cases this daunting task is approached through narrative, such as Christien Meindertsma and Julie Joliat’s gripping bound documentary, PIG 05049, a deadpan investigation of the deconstruction and afterlife of a slaughtered pig. In its apparent lack of ideology, PIG 05049 says more about the inscrutability of corporations, the dangers and nasty surprises lurking in products, the adulteration of consumer society, and humanity’s loss of innocence than any sermon or proclamation would. PostSecret lets us peek into the darkest corners of the human soul. In this mail-based project, people unload their deepest secrets anonymously, expecting neither judgment nor absolution. The haikulike confessions have the power to haunt the readers much as they have haunted the individuals who contributed them.

When data gathering and interpretation are not enough, designers turn to religion. The thoughtful projects at the end of this chapter connect religious practices and rituals with contemporary technology, which is either embraced or rejected. Along with the major religions considered here—Christianity, Islam, and Judaism—designers also consider science, another belief that requires a leap of faith.


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Because of its density and complex infrastructures and systems, the city relies on communication for its own sheer survival. It is an environment of continuous negotiation and navigation, based on codes of behavior that are timeless—the basic laws of human cohabitation—but often unwritten. Rather, these codes demand relentless adaptation and renewal. Politicians are certainly responsible for this delicate, dynamic balance, as are the engineers, experts, and consultants they rely on, but the responsibility lies first and foremost with citizens.

Designers have an important role in this. With their inventions—of all kinds, at all scales—they can enhance clarity, civility, and engagement by involving citizens in maintaining the codes that keep the city alive. Designers can also stimulate the flow of communication that is the vital lymph of the urban organism. This chapter shows the changed role of designers—from creators of form and function to enablers, inspirers, and facilitators—in particular detail.

Using technology, designers enhance a sense of neighborhood, connect us with street life, and put us in touch with our local government, all the while helping us communicate effectively, feel pride in our cities, and find inventive ways to get along, as in the community-forming projects Garden Registry and Southwark Circle. Technology can also help tourists understand new places at a glance, through digital information systems as well as physical ones, and enables authorities to coordinate routine and emergency conditions. But the city can also communicate in a very low-tech and primal fashion, through its views—its ancient projections of civic personality—and (loud) sounds and (pungent) smells. Designers master the high and low with dexterity, bringing them together when human needs call for it.


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Over the course of the 20th century our perception of the world has been changed by momentous technological breakthroughs, among them air travel, telephones, television, satellites, and the Internet. Faraway people and places have suddenly come within reach, if not physically, then via video or audio. The world might seem to have shrunk, but in reality these innovations have progressively added layers of understanding and communication, making that same world deeper, richer with new metaphysical and expressive dimensions. The addition of virtual worlds, such as the myriad sites and artificial environments supported by the World Wide Web, has further diversified our choices for inhabitation, with interesting social and cultural consequences; among the most revealing examples are those that emerge in the so-called God games, video games in which players engage in building new worlds or even new civilizations.

What most of these technologies have in common is the fact that they are based on systems and rely on network connections, just like the natural world, and understanding their design should be and often is a requirement for those building the elements that come together to constitute these physical and virtual worlds, from designers and architects to engineers and television executives. For those who are not willing or able to understand systems but still need access to them, there are interfaces that function as zones of engagement and exchange.

One of design’s foremost directives is to bring technological breakthroughs up or down to a comfortable and understandable human scale. The projects in this category, which deal with both natural and artificial systems at all dimensions, feature efforts to render highly complex phenomena—such as the way trees work, the consequences of global warming, the proportions of the solar system, or the cycles of human migrations—in clear, elegant, and therefore human interfaces.

Double Entendre

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In this world of constant and ubiquitous communication, ignorance is not considered to be bliss, and misunderstandings are dangerous missed opportunities—except when they are integrated in a script as moments of shock and revelation, as interesting double entendres. Still, mishaps they are, and in common parlance they are conversation, even communication stoppers.

The noble goals of harmony, empathy, and true tolerance are why so many people have devoted their lives to helping us understand others, or at least whomever our local cultural conventions consider “other.” History has prepared us for this moment with centuries of war, activism, and progress, however slow, in banishing taboos and embracing diversity. All the important twentieth-century movements of emancipation, equality, and liberation have proceeded in this direction. We also know that we still have a long way to go.

This is why designers, whose focus is always centered on improving conditions for human beings, have become engaged in projects that require not only the classical elements of design education but also basic tenets of cognitive science. In previous chapters we have explored how the Internet and wireless networks have created new layers of complexity and possibility in human communication. Designers are now taking on the communication issues these layers have presented, issues now central to our daily activities: negotiations of privacy and anonymity; the vehemence and violence abetted by the ability to hide behind false identities; the promise of new and unregulated means of expressions, connectivity, and revenue generation, and the responsibilities that go with them.

By focusing on those issues, often with actionable proposals and sometimes with visionary clarity, designers have joined with abandon the ranks of those encouraging cross-cultural understanding. This category contains design solutions for curious humans who want to experience what it feels like to be something or somebody else, whether a bat, a crow, a menstruating woman, a person with a disability, and other kinds of transformers and outliers. The activist efforts of some designers, whose decisive metaphors and statements have the blunt force of manifestos, work toward these simple goals: if not acceptance, at least tolerance; curiosity rather than rejection; a better, more fulfilling, more organic, more just way of living together.