Thursday, December 19, 2002

Following up on adaptation and design

The other day I meant to follow up on Fabio's comments. And let me start by saying that I love when other people sum up what I wrote and it makes more sense to me! An experience both amusing and humbling.

I like Fabio's initial characterisation of (shall we call it) flow: "In typical emergent fashion, the [ideas] started to make not more, but different sense." This is a fine place to start as it also conjures the differences between complication and complexity. And his discussion of designers as "humble enablers" is stimulating. Take Naoto Fukasawa: "Good design means not leaving traces of the designer and not overworking the design. If you overdo the design it will touch the beholder's consciousness. I think that when people and things are within the boundaries of consciousness they are at their farthest from heaven." A poetic call, for sure, but as Fabio reminds me the designer is still "a catalyzer of the habits, needs and desires of the user." But I'm not sure what he means here: "That's to say, a design might dissolve in behavior, not necessarily its designer."

It strikes me that designers should indeed hold on to the notion of letting go - of relinquishing absolute (and elitist) control over both the design process and product. I'm a big believer in the power of many (different) voices, but, to me, that doesn't mean rendering the designer invisible. If anything, the designer should be the one who (visibly and actively) follows the entire process from "beginning to end" (we would need to define this, I think, at the macro-scale) and yet remains only one of many voices shaping the whole experience.

Fabio asks: "Could it be that digital technologies and the increasing levels of personalization they have enabled over formerly mass-produced, industrialized products have been silently pushing history back to the early days of friction between art(s & crafts) and (industrial) design?" Yes. And no. First, I think this was a false friction in the sense that "we have never been modern" and such easy dichotomies have never actually been practiced. The key is to illuminate the aspects of these so-called opposing fields that can be put to good use in (re)articulating the creative process and the act of building. Here, we could weave in notions of emergence and adaptation - and of manipulation in the sense of working with one's hands, and of having a hand in one's work.

Fabio continues: "But, I find myself asking, what if customers had been really enabled to change the very principles that help define the product's intimate characteristics and not only its shallowest shell? What if they had been collectively given control over the underlying rules and not just their manifestations? In other words: what if adaptation was just as an emergent quality of personalization?" Yes! And I've got to do some thinking about the ties between this and notions of the visible and invisible, interiority/exteriority, us/other. Slippery.

But I have to admit that I don't understand his comments on systems, parts and wholes... and the connection to adaptation.

Fabio also says there are "potentially dangerous outcomes related to allowing too much freedom either to users themselves or to the system, especially when thinking about physical artifacts. [And] are people ready or willing to take on the increased level of responsibility these changes could bring?" Yes, of course, there may be danger involved - for designers and users. And all of us need to take responsibility for the good and bad. (Force the decision to act.) So what does this have to do with possibility and limits? Fabio puts it in practical terms, but I want to push it a bit.

Is the space of possibility without limits? Who dreams the possibilities? Who creates, sustains and destroys the limits? What is the time of these spaces? Where do we draw the line between use and abuse? Is the beauty of the machine in its breaking-down?

Thanks Fabio.

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