Meeting with Designer James King

Paola and I met with speculative/critical/experimental/wonderful designer James King while he was in New York—he is based in London.  It was great to get caught up on what he has been doing since his contribution to Design and the Elastic Mind two years ago. James’s work in biotechnology and interaction design is really interesting, and we especially liked the E. Chromi project that he realized with fellow designer Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and Cambridge University’s iGem Team (International Genetically Engineered Machine competition, a unique showdown between synthetic biologists held yearly at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts).  You can read all about it on the website, but to summarize: James and Daisy worked with students of synthetic biology at Cambridge to envision future uses for a biological technology that they have developed—colorful E. coli bacteria that can be engineered to react to chemicals in the human body.

The E. chromi cycle. Image courtesy of James King and Daisy Ginsberg

For example, a test subject would ingest a drink with the E. Chromi (their re-named organism) in it, like a probiotic shake.  The bacteria would react with chemicals in the GI tract, and turn a certain color if there is disease or infection present.  The output of the body would then signify what is going on inside–in other words, the color of the patient’s feces would signal what state of health the patient is in.  To get this concept across, James and Daisy developed a Scatalog—a collection of samples that presented the potential applications of E. chromi in immediate terms.

The Scatalog. Image courtesy of James King and Daisy Ginsberg

So how does color-changing bacteria fit in with Talk to Me?
Good question!  It would be a little creepy if the end result was actually “talking to us” in this specific case. What we are looking at here is how the designers allow us to access complex networks and systems and make results immediately understandable—what could be more complex than the inner workings of the human body?  How do we apply this new technology of color-changing E. coli? The designers are able to make all of this immediately comprehensible to anyone—the interaction of the E. chromi organisms with the patient’s system present an immediate response that fits in with the visualization category of Talk to Meseeing is understanding. And what could be more understandable than colorful, ahem, “output”?

Scatalog Samples. Image courtesy of James King and Daisy Ginsberg

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