CIID 09/10: Wearable and Performative Design

And so to a much easier – and much shorter – post. Sandwiched between the marathon that was User Research and the much needed rest promised by the winter break was  a two week course which was initially described as wearable computing, and by the end had morphed into something called performative design. With COP15 going on at the same time, we were (somewhat inevitably, perhaps) tasked with imagining design responses to a future racked by dramatic climate change.

Working together with Ishac, I created a concept we called ATMO. The video below best describes it, and for more details see the project writup here.

But before you watch it – please remember to take it with a pinch of salt, there are some qualifications coming afterwards 🙂

The concept is fine, but nothing special – to be honest my heart, at least, wasn’t really in it. We were being pushed to develop slightly crazy things, not practical products, and although others found it liberating, I found it kind of difficult. I guess that’s what comes with a background in design which is so very grounded in function, and having a natural instinct towards the rational. Taking a look at the other projects that came out of the course will put it in context. At the risk of being a bit too blunt, I found that our project, and perhaps many of the others too, had a higher than usual level of bullshit. None were meant as “products” in the immediate sense – we had been asked to design provocations, discussion pieces, and that was fine. I don’t know why I felt myself to be so resistant to it, or left so cold by our project afterwards – I loved working on the Ironic Iron, which has even less of a functional aspect to it. I don’t believe design is purely about function. Some examples of critical design succeed in making me both question the fundamental assumptions around design and, sometimes, simply make me smile. And nobody who knows me would accuse me of not asking enough questions or not taking pleasure from long discussions. But for whatever reason, this didn’t do it for me.

Still, other things did excite me. We decided pretty early on that we were going to use the concept as a base for exploring materials, structures, and fabrication – an excuse to play, in other words. Early parts of the course included introductions to techniques used in more traditional textile and fashion design – sewing, stuffing, patternmaking, and so on. Visits to the fashion design department, with their industrial-sized machines and computer controlled looms, not to mention beautiful textiles in the hallway and in progress in their studios were all we needed to want to get our hands dirty.

Conductive thread

Based mostly in the electronics lab – the home of the laser cutter – downstairs, we used pattern cutting to create a form that looks very much like it came from some complex scripted or generative CAD. We experimented with the laser cutter, creating structures using foamboard, later seeing how we could laminate foamboard and textiles. Custom settings were explored; much spraymount and double sided tape were used. A glove-like part of the project  involved assembling different materials, padding, electronics, and conductive thread. Overall the base was unnecessarily large, and the wearable part perhaps a token nod to the course title (“wearable”), but the combination allowed us to explore vastly different materials, fabrication techniques coming from both traditional product design and rapid prototyping and from fashion design, and forms that involved sharp, angular triangles and the softer wearable part – both in terms of tactility (squidgy) and in terms of forms (rounded) and how they might serve different functions and fit together.

Making the video was something new for me. I’ve made videos for projects before – we had a whole course on video prototyping early on at CIID, and I was very happy with the video we made for the Ironic Iron project. But I think this was the first time where the concept needed a video to truly make sense. Those other projects could have been explained with pictures and text, perhaps not as well, but they would have made sense. Sure, a video made them more alive. But ATMO didn’t exist for me as a project until we started shooting that video, and only really came alive once the overlays were added and it was edited. It was also the first time I had shot a video with real camera-work – panning, shifting focus, and the like – which worked well and didn’t feel jerky, cheap, and messy. Well, I hope not, at least. The video is a combination of studio shots and some short scenes shot outside, which we tried to keep as clean and controlled as possible, so that the contrast with the studio wasn’t too great. The overlayed graphics could have had a bit more finesse (they were my work), but I think they tell the story as they need to. The video was done a couple of months after the project itself, and it was interesting to feel how much the project really needed it.

Overall, despite my misgivings about the course, I’m actually really happy with the outcome. Let me know what you think – about the concept, the object, and the video.

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