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The Koskinen reading brought back some remnants of contemporary art crit that hang out in the back of my brain. Back then (in 2005-6) I was focused entirely on the art critical side of the fence, and had little to no interest in research. The tables have turned, though, and now I am occupied entirely by research, with only fringes of practice remaining. So, this reading in particular helped me get in touch with my roots, so to speak.

I am especially interested by the conclusion of this set of book chapters in relation to designed objects, including (but not limited to) mass communication through the designed form. Koskinen, et al. quotes Dunne:

“The designer becomes an applied conceptual artist, socializing art practice by mobbing it into a larger and more accessible context while retaining its poten­tial to provoke people to reflect on the way electronic products shape their experiences of everyday life.”  (p. 96)

It is this perspective of “applied conceptual art” that is a bit difficult for me to reconcile, as I’m sure was intended in the original text. In working toward a definition of what might be considered within this category, as opposed to “pure” conceptual art or “pure” designed objects, making finer distinctions is necessary, however. Later in the reading, Koskinen, et al. regards a primary criterion to be the ability to mass produce an object, whether or not an object is necessarily destined for that future. This is where the differentiation starts to break down for me, as some artifacts could be misconstrued at one end of the continuum or the other based on this factor. Let me explain a bit more, since maybe I have a different working definition of “mass produced” than the author might. We can look at contemporary artifacts like the iPhone that are so complex that intensive hand assembly is necessary—mass produced, but also requiring individual attention and a modicum of craftsperson skill, at the least. But we can also turn to items that might seem impossible to mass produce at first glance, but might be able to be automated if market forces dictated. Much of this differentiation seems to be temporally located and subject to market forces.

So I get back to the setting that Dunne imagined, with a large institution like the MOMA facilitating mass communication of design ideas, either in a self-curated or externally-curated sense. Maybe it is because I have been working with the idea of design precedent for my final paper, but it seems like the presence of designed artifacts is the key attribute that is important here. And while museums are great at extending this knowledge base, in certain areas, other methods of mass communication already seem to be meeting similar or intertwined needs. I think immediately of the design annuals I have on my shelf, or in a more dynamic sense, the design section on my Flipboard. While these do not meet the requirements of physicality required by some artifacts, they do meet the stated goal of mass communication, and facilitate further work as a source of precedent.

In looking at this “applied conceptual art” from a designer’s standpoint, it seems like we could categorize many of the interactive themes found on the web and through other digital devices in the past couple of decades as stringing from a web of precedent. And like in Bolter & Grusin’s theory of remediation, the source is almost impossible to track, but clearly change has happened. The Koskinen, et al. article seems focused on the initial artifact that has the potential to start the design conversation, but one could look at the relationship in an opposite manner, understanding design trends by what artifacts (or confluence of artifacts) seemed to shift design practice. To me, this is the real locus of social and physical change, which can be seen through the lens of design practice.

I am currently in the process of expanding my pre-writing topic for my final paper, and would appreciate any thoughts/criticisms as I think through the positioning of my topic.

In brief, I am exploring the role of published design precedent in my primary field of instructional design. Most historically-aware design fields include a strong publishing history—think of logo reference books, design annuals, and the like—all chronicling designs that have been done, which has the potential to inform future designs and designers. The way I am envisioning this precedent within the lens of this course is as the medium through which readers and the designer (who presumably wrote the precedent brief) negotiate a shared view of their user and of their artifact.

The diagram below shows one way of viewing the reader/designer relationship, and their potentially shared but potentially disconnected views of the user and the artifact based on their horizon and their specific socio-cultural context. I am viewing the area in the middle, where there is a potential to communicate a shared user and view of the artifact as a fusion of horizons, which could indicate one possible use of precedent. While this demonstrates a “best case” communication scenario, I’m not convinced that this fusion is always necessary for the design precedent to be useful, or even always beneficial.

In my second (and related) diagram, the disconnectedness of the horizons (and potentially lifeworlds) of the user has the potential to result in a different, non-shared view of the user and artifact between the reader and original designer. This lack of shared context may still result in opportunistic connections for the reader as they approach other designs, and could form a helpful type of backtalk to question or support their existing notions in their design process. Unlike most forms of academic literature, where a shared understanding of key terms and outcomes is critical, this form of design knowledge, seen as separate from scientific knowledge, relies on flexibility of communication and intention through the mediation of reader and designer made possible through thick description, failure analysis, and a rich description of the designer and design context.

If you have made it this far, I have broken the cardinal rule of prototyping, in that I am presenting a polished view of a model that is, in fact, quite a work-in-progress. I’d value any feedback to make my presentation or thinking clearer.

I am watching a bit of the “news” coverage for the Academy Awards this evening, and thought the media viewpoint of artifact analysis, particularly surrounding the red carpet and critique of celebrity styling was quite interesting. In particular, I will go through a few of my reflections based on the red carpet critique on E! Network. Initial thoughts that frame this discussion include issues of cultural critique (dress style, appropriateness for event, etc.) as viewed through artifact and authorial analysis. I offer a poor screen capture of the televised coverage to present a more thorough critique:

In these screenshots, we see a unique view of artifact critique. I compare this approach to a more “naturalistic” experience, as you might apprehend a dress like this in physical space. In person, you might notice the individual, the dress, evaluate detailed and full length views, and observe how the dress moves while the subject walks or poses. This video coverage, however, was devoid of this element, choosing to focus on a still photo or still frame of the video coverage, consistently presented as a portrait image that does not fit cleanly into the 16:9 video aspect ratio. I suspect there may be two reasons for this approach, the first being a practical concern—fashion photographers naturally photograph gowns like this using a portrait orientation in a still photographic medium. This approach ensures the optimal view of the dress (or artifact) as seen by the fashion photographer, but does not fit cleanly into the paradigm of TV due to the reversed aspect ratio. The second approach is more consumer driven, I propose—that the viewer can see more detail of a given gown (but not the entire thing!) by matching the width of the portrait image, and smoothly scrolling to view elements of the entire artifact. Interestingly, the TV coverage never offered a full length view of the dresses that is common, even paradigmatic of fashion coverage in online and print media (e.g., E! Online Live Blog).

The second view of this artifact is formed through the junction of the dress (or artifact), the TV commentators (including fashion experts and “everyday” actors), and the viewer. As mentioned previously, the artifact is only viewed in a non-naturalistic way, in segmented form, so the viewer never gets the “whole view” that they might see in physical space. It is questionable which view is relied upon by the TV commentators to make their expert judgement. But in any case, the commentators undergo a classic critique process, investigating the formal qualities of a dress, the correspondence of the artifact to the individual wearing it, the authorial perspective of the dress designer, the curatorial role of the fashion stylist who selected the dress on behalf of the actor, and the cultural milieu in which the dress (and actor/ess) is situated. Also included, in many cases, is a triangulation of referents to other dresses that celebrity has worn in the past (in a positive or negative light) or dresses that are similar in style, color, or design make to the artifact in question.

I think that in a situation like this, which represents an authentic cultural critique, one can see elements of all four contexts: individual, artifact, author, and socio-cultural context.The media viewpoint provides certain constraints to the end viewer’s apprehension of the work, so the individual context in this case is seamlessly (in most cases) curated for the viewer. In addition, the medium serves as another barrier or constraint, which affects the perception of the artifact through the digital medium. A smoothly scrolling view of a dress, seen in segmented form, more naturally points toward an artifact analysis, but negatively or inaccurately (from a naturalistic perspective) affects an individual perspective, in the sense that it is different from a “normal” view of a gown.

Not to hog the blog feed, but I just saw a good bit of expert (and not-so-expert) criticism coming in regarding the new logo for Windows 8. I will abstain from commentary at the moment, but would love to hear what others think. There is a quick summary of expert critique via PC Magazine.

Thanks to Shad for bringing this topic back into the conversation this past week. For whatever reason, with the rise of mobile phone interfaces and a backlash from the clean/modern/utilitarian school of UI design, a move to skeuomorphs has become mainstream in the public consciousness. I remember seeing a bunch of commentary on the web when Mac OS X 10.7 was in development, because many of the primary apps were overhauled to include more textured, real-world components.

iCalAddress Book

Address Book DetailI was reminded of this conversation a couple of days ago, when I read another article about skeuomorphs that argued that “retro” design was ruining innovation in the UI space (WIRED UK Article). While his argument makes sense from one perspective, I disagree with the substance of the argument as it pertains to criticism of objects in a given space and context. The main issue for this author appears to be the claim that we are “lashing designers to metaphors of the past,” but he fails to give an explanation for how users understand interfaces without the aid of a priori metaphor. While I agree that blatantly copying manifestations of physical objects into digital ones could potentially be problematic, I see less of that than might first meet the eye. It seems, in the two examples that I provided, that the skeuomorphic characteristics are primarily framing devices. That is, these artifacts are presenting an indexical and iconic quality that links them with their physical manifestations (the role of the skeuomorph), but primarily through their window “chrome.” While the bar of the calendar app may appear to be leather, once the user is looking in the primary work area, the interface is clean and spartan. I suspect that these custom UI chromes are actually easier to pick out in a mess of windows, lending an immediate, iconic quality to each application. This iconic link is only strengthened by the use of the skeuomorphic characteristics in areas that would already be “non-live.” You would never be caught starting at the binding of a paper calendar any more than you are distracted by that same element in the digital version (which also clearly includes non-physical objects like the search bar and navigation tools).

Regarding the role of innovation, I believe this is where we need to start looking at the composition of lifeworlds surrounding these artifacts. Clearly, Apple has chosen a strategy that includes quick recognizability of applications through (in part) links to iconic signs. And this strategy appears to work, by-and-large, across a wide range of user profiles and cultures. To spark innovation, it seems that techniques of montage and/or dialectic construction might prove helpful. But I believe that we can never divorce ourselves from the cultural metaphor from which we exist, otherwise, our interfaces will be patently unlearnable to those who don’t share our lifeworld. When technology is constantly changing, the role of learning (and in this case, it could be framed as an instructional design problem) is important, but tools that are immediately understood based on conventions are even more important for the average user.

In a basic application menu, there are two basic sign interactions taking place. The first, and most apparent, is the linkage of the text command and/or keyboard shortcut (the signifier) to the implied action within the application (the signified). Another level, however, might be the interaction between the command text (“New Tab” for instance) and the keyboard shortcut. These serve as joint signifiers and signified, depending on your reading order or preferred interaction style.

We naturally read in rows within an interaction, which makes the former relationship of command shortcut to command text within a line of text possible. The lifeworld of the user is also important, in that a basic understanding of “tabs”, the “command” symbol, as well as the concept of keyboard shortcuts is necessary to understand the interaction content and functionality. Otherwise these could be seen as a set of actions that will take place one the menu item is selected (e.g. the up arrow, command symbol, and letter T could stand for what will happens when I click that item).

The “Command-T” with the command symbol serves as a symbolic, indexical, and iconic sign. Symbolic, because it is an abstract sign; indexial because it serves within a class of command functions; iconic because it resembles the symbol used on the keyboard.

The denotation of the command symbol: looks like a clover. Connotation: the command symbol represents keyboard shortcuts.

-Jeremy White, Colin Gray, Austin Toombs

Rouen Cathedral, Claude Monet

Going off of Kai’s post on the way music and environment are so often linked, my mind went straight to art. I spent a good bit of time in art history classes quite a while ago, but the message of these pieces and their production is an interesting way to look at the issues of directorial or authorial context, and the interplay with the modern social context of the resulting artifacts.

The example I am running with in this particular situation is a series of paintings of Rouen Cathedral that Claude Monet (yes, that guy who is only known, by most accounts, for his ability to paint waterlilies) painted over the course of two years. There are two interesting perspectives that may be interesting to consider, based on our readings and discussion over the past two weeks: the perspective of authorial intent and the actual context of the creation of the artifact, and the perspective of the modern viewer of this series, which is often displayed with only a few of the original thirty paintings in this series.

Author and Context

From an art-historical perspective, this series was painted at the height of the impressionist movement, and was meant to study the changing affect of light and natural conditions on a single subject. While I only include one specific piece here, there are over thirty in this series, which show various vantage points of looking at this cathedral, and the seasonal or contextual differences (along with the continually changing perspective of the artist) that make each painting unique. From the artist’s perspective, understanding of the subject matter is assumed, as the focus is on change over time, both in the perception of the artist and documenting the actual conditions surrounding the cathedral over time. In this sense, there is a specific drive toward Nelson & Stolterman’s idea of the “ultimate particular.” I would propose, though, that in a craft- or art-driven tradition, the “ultimate particular” is almost inescapable, as perceptions of the artist of craftsperson changes over time, and as situational variables change. In this piece, the forces of the impressionist movement, the evolving knowledge of the artist in rendering the scene and applying colors that accurately depicted his perception of the scene, and the change in the actual scene over time all worked to make each piece ultimately unique.

Contemporary Context

Most art historians are satisfied to stop with the former explanation of the work, understanding it as a progression of understanding a particular architectural landmark over time, struggling with the application of color and space to capture an impression of light. But I think a contemporary read of these artifacts, now over 100 years old, is also valuable. Many of the original series have been split into different collections around the world, and the variation that is so obvious when they are placed side-to-side (as on the Wikipedia article documenting this collection), are anything but obvious when you see one or a handful of them in a gallery. And this is where a contemporary read of these pieces can tend to distort or misunderstand the original artist’s intent, while also deifying these paintings in a completely new context. The art historian in me would probably decry someone attempting to appreciate these paintings as a simple one-off of an old cathedral. But within the larger social context, I think that “one-off” viewpoint may be as interesting and enlightening as might a side-by-side comparison. Different from a critical standpoint, to be sure, but still quite interesting.

I wanted to expand a bit on the question I asked in class on Thursday, as a way of developing this potential linkage a bit more strongly in my mind. The original question was something along the lines of:

Is the construction or reading of design precedent a form of aesthetic criticism?

By design precedent, I mean any artifact of the design process that might be shared with a Community of Practice (CoP) that surrounds production of similar artifacts. So this might include a book of logos for a logo or graphic designer, or an architectural plan book or project documentation for an architect. The point of reading such materials, from a designer’s perspective, is to serve as knowledge of other “ultimate particular” objects, which ultimately creates a collection of design knowledge (seen as different from scientific knowledge). This design knowledge links the designer to other work, which may serve as negative or positive examples which could be helpful to integrate into their own design process (issues of fixation included, as noted in Cross, 2001). You can see an extreme example of a design brief for the Pepsi “smile” logo here, although most forms of design precedent are not quite this involved.

So getting back to the thrust of this linkage, that the creation of design precedent, including commentary or selection of artifacts is, in itself, an act of criticism. While much of this created precedent is clearly situated in the authorial perspective (as in Riefenstahl’s commentary on the creation of Triumph of the Will), I think there is helpful overlap into other categories of criticism, including social context, predictions of reader/user behavior, and aspects of the artifact itself. So, in itself, I would propose, a detailed chronicle of design precedent touches on all four primary categories of criticism, either predictively or as documentary.

The other perspective on this precedent, however, is the reader’s perspective when actually digesting or “using” this design precedent. In this case, the authorial perspective is still foregrounded, but the addition of the reader’s design perspective and expertise, along with the lens of the current project they may be working on, adds a unique critical perspective to the original precedent and even the original artifact. This is where I think the greatest value might be seen, and within the lens of Cross and others, the reading of this precedent may, in fact, provoke many aspects of design cognition as precedent is read and applied to the foregrounded design problem.


I was interested to see how thoughts on being a novice in critique seem to align quite closely to ideas that are becoming more common in design pedagogy about the role of a novice designer. In both cases, it seems, a more informed view of what have traditionally been called “novices” leads to a more nuanced view of what a “normal” novice looks like. In fact, in design education, a design “novice” has actually become an unhelpful differentiator, mostly because of the increased role of the designer’s background in understanding how they think about design.

So bringing the context back closer to critique, do designers and critics actually share a lot of underlying thought processes and patterns of critique? Even while the designer might use a significantly more internalized critique process than an explicit critic (although this is context-dependent as well). I think there is definitely a correlation between critique and design education, mostly in the development of design judgement (which seems to be a largely critique-oriented attribute), but I’d like to see where other people feel connections might exist. Another divide, which might play into this situation as well is the differentiation in the past century or so between high art and low art, with low art (craft-based disciplines like product design) seen as less important or worthy of respect than high art (fine art). I wonder if this differentiation also plays into what elements are most important in the critique process, at least internally. For “low art,” the cultural perspective (in terms of designing things that are seen by others as culturally valuable) is foregrounded, while in “high art,” structural or formal properties, along with a distinct sliver of the historical-cultural context is foregrounded. No complete thoughts here…just throwing this out there.


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