Thesis Weeknotes 10 through 14 [crystalise]

After the industry project, I had a week and a bit, and then I went on a trip to north america: 10 days in San Francisco, preceded by a couple of days in Vancouver. No eureka moments, but it was good to be in a new place, a different context, have those braincells be shaken around a bit – several things crystalised in the back of my head while I was away.

Before I left, I was in a bit of a rut. I’d done lots of analysis, reading, understanding. But… now what? Where was my intervention, what was I designing, what was the point of all this? Was I hoping to iron out some grittiness in modern life, fix something that was broken? Where was the interaction design angle? Was it all a load of techno-determinist nonsense, with the best possible outcome to be a strong argument for why I hadn’t done anything? And, from a personal perspective, as a thesis – where was the joy, where was the thing that would make people smile, think it was clever? Where was the poetry in what I was doing – and if there wasn’t any, should there be?

While I was out there, I met with lots of people – some who had taught us, others who had connections of one sort or another with CIID or Ivrea. In some ways it was an opportunity to see studios and companies, make connections. But it was also a great excuse to meet interesting people, discuss design with them, pick their brains as to places I could possibly work in the future and what kind of work I might want to do. Most immediately, though, it meant I had to explain to people what my thesis was and hone something approaching an elevator pitch for it – and in the process, get them and myself excited about it. There’s the old Einstein quote “if you can’t explain it simply, then you don’t understand it well enough” – never was it more fitting.

Anyhow. I read some more. I sat in lots of lovely San Francisco cafes with my sketchbook and my (new) laptop, trying to make sense of all of those questions. A lot of it went back to the very first thoughts Simona gave us when we set out on the thesis: what do we want the thesis project to be, for ourselves?

Before I left, things were very open, but I knew time was ticking – I wasn’t sure what I was focusing on, and I was lacking constraints. Pedestrian crossings, parking ticket machines, and post boxes intrigued me, each for different reasons, but I couldn’t figure out what to do with them. I left with the thought that maybe I’d do a set of three small sketches of services/ideas, rather than focus all my energies on a single one.

Every now and then, I have to remind myself of what was probably the key slide in my midterm presentation, which kicked off the thesis period. Having introduced the areas of ubicomp and urbanism, I stated that I wanted to focus in on something mundane – updated for the 21st century. Take something really boring, and see what we can do with it. So whenever I think to myself… what the hell am I doing, is this really boring. Erm, well – yeah, maybe, on one level. But as part of a bigger picture, maybe it becomes interesting again. There’s something interesting in the mundane, the everyday, that is often ignored and forgotten, especially in a world of design that is always looking for the newest and shiniest.

So for those things that I said had crystalised. My renewed focus is purely on the parking ticket machines, as an example of especially dense connected technological black boxes that seem pitifully underused. What can we do with a box on every streetcorner (ie, has location and a direction) that is networked, contains processing power, a payment system, buttons for input and a small screen, and perhaps most excitingly, a printer (of a reciept, card, or sticker). I mean, surely we as a society can do better than print parking tickets for cars with all that?!

Once again, I’m a bit torn as to whether I should work on just one use, or if the concept – rethinking our use of existing infrastructure – is better served by doing a set, most likely of three separate ideas. I have pages of sketchbook filled with half-baked (and few fully baked) ideas, but I’ll let them settle before sharing them. The key questions, for all or any of them, are twofold: one, what specific questions are openned by choosing each idea, and where/how does user research fit into answering any of those, and secondly, what exactly will be the final outcome and what, logistically, do I need to do to get there in the few weeks I have left. A video requires certain things, a physical model requires others. Maybe some more complex graphics will take time to put together. From now on, time and efficiency is of the essence. With coffee, focus, and some good luck, I’ll get there.

I will still need to get excited by it, even if the object/service/outcome itself is mundane. I’ll just have to remember – it was meant to be mundane, on one level. The bigger story I tell around it is what will define whether I can lift it away from that, and get others and myself excited by it.

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