My MFA Interaction Design thesis presentation at AIGA National Design Center on May 4th. One year of thesis work summed up in 7 minutes. It’s funny how different it feels to present something versus what a presentation looks like for the audience.
My thesis evolution so far
When I entered my second and final year of grad school I had two main areas of interest; language and health care. I have always been fascinated by how our constructed languages facilitate conversation between people, and how it is a barrier if you don’t share a common language. The semiotics of language is in particular what I’m interested in - how we construct meaning and mental images based on what we sense. The reason why I was focusing on health care is because I feel inclined toward creating something that can help other people, and within health care there are so many outdated models that need designers’ attention. When I decided that I wanted to spend my thesis on designing for blind and visually impaired people, I realized that I found myself in the overlap between these two areas.
I hadn’t really met anyone who was blind or had strong visual impairments up until this point. I realized that I knew very little about what it’s like to live with that disability, and I decided that I wanted to get a better understanding of it. I am curious about how we use our different senses and I think it’s a lost opportunity when solutions are designed exclusively with sighted people in mind. I wanted to think outside pixels and screens. With access to so many new ways of using technology, I was convinced that there are new experiences to be made that include unsighted people better than current solutions do. The market of assistive technology products isn’t very attractive or competitive, and the aids that are produced end up being very expensive.
When I first defined my scope, I wanted to focus on people who lose their vision and how they adapt to relying on their four remaining senses. This is an increasing problem today, due to health related conditions that cause vision loss. I wanted to look closer at navigation, creation and documentation. Some of the questions I asked myself were: How does someone who is blind create new visual images? How much do they rely on visual memory? What is beautiful to someone who is blind?
After I met with John Schimmel who teaches an assistive technology class at ITP, my eyes were opened up to many new directions. He put me in touch with people he knew, and since then I have met with the education director at a computer center for visually impaired, a photographer that did a documentary about blind people and unemployment, the education manager and accessibility advocate at Guggenheim Museum. I also went to the annual convention for NFB, where blind people from all over the country gathered to inspire each other to get more confident and independent.
I’ve started to see that a lot of the solutions that other designers have suggested are just scratching the surface of how to think about designing for visual impairments. Fancy use of braille can make something look like it’s inclusive, but given the fact that less than 10% of the US blind population are braille literate, I think resources should be spent solving the underlying problem of education.
With all these new insights that I have today, I find it harder to decide where my focus should be as there are so many possible directions to go in. On one hand I really want to do something that can assist people directly such as using 3D printing to assist with education for blind. But at the same time, I also think that creating more awareness around how we use our senses and how they map to each other, is something that everyone could benefit from. I have already learned so many new things from conversations with blind people that help me understand perception and so many other aspects of life better.
I know what the sliders are in my case, but I can’t seem to decide where to place my thesis. If I could find a way to both capture all the insights and create some sort of framework that could be helpful for others to use as well, with a few examples of things that I can make and have people test, that would be my ideal thesis at this point. But is it realistic that I can do all of that within the next 5 months?
Immersing myself into the dark
This past Friday I went to Dialog in The Dark to get a better understanding of what it’s like to be blind in New York City. To try this in a safe environment, the audience goes through four rooms that are created to represent different spaces in New York. This involves cobblestones and fountains in Central Park, grocery shopping, a subway ride and the traffic madness at Times Square.
My first reaction when they dimmed the lights down was panic. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to go through the experience without the sensory input that I’m relying on the most in my daily life. I was scared, but a very mirthful guy named Kerry came to introduce himself as our guide and told us to just follow his voice. Kerry gradually lost his vision when he was 18 years old and have been blind for 30 years now.
The tour involved soundtracks of the different environments, smells and lots of objects or surfaces that helped us navigate. We use our mental memory of objects and situations to interpret the exhibition, but I was surprised by how exhausting this was. I spent a great amount of energy compensating with my other senses and in my brain trying to create an understanding of my surroundings. And still, this was in a constructed environment without true dangers.
Kerry still relies on his mental memory from when he could see, but adjusting to the dark was very challenging for him at the time it happened. There are so many new things to learn and ways that you need to restructure your life. Somehow I imagine that your brain must create more connections and that the amplified input from other senses may help you evolve in directions you wouldn’t have otherwise. But it is not hard to understand that people struggle with accepting the change and become depressed.
At the end of the tour when the lights were dimmed back to normal again, I knew that I wanted to explore this further.
What is my core?
In order to settle on what I should dedicate my thesis to, I am looking through some of the work I’ve done previously that I feel really represents me and that I enjoyed working on.
This started out as a urban space and branding assignment during my undergrad, but turned in to an exhibition and a series of installations that school classes can explore. The goal was to teach children about architecture and different structures, and I used parallells from animal architecture to make these matters more approachable for both students and teachers. Researching all the material for this project, was incredibly fun. I got to dive down in to a world of amazing facts of things that are going on out in the world, that I don’t think about on a daily basis. Urban life today is very human-centered and developing this broader perspective, was very valuable to me and something I really wanted others to experience.
Encouraging more sustainability without moralizing
Facilitating learning experiences and increase people’s perspective
This project came together based on a deep frustration with seeing how an increased number of rapes in my hometown was paralyzing the people and the feeling of “there must be a way to prevent this”. I did the project as my final assignment for the cybernetics class with Paul Pangaro, so the focus was mainly on creating models of the current system that show where it is broken and to find potential intervention points.
Attacking a problem that few people have tried to solve
Breaking a complex problem into comprehensible pieces
Challenging and hopefully changing people’s preconceptions
This project came out of a potential I saw after moving to New York and living amongst so many people with resources that don’t know their own neighbors. I wanted to develop a service where peers could help each other out with smaller favors. And I wanted this to be about building relationships and not making transactions. Therefore, one of the main challenges was to design this system in a way that people would want to contribute without being paid directly for their time.
Creating relationships between people and foster communities
Encouraging people to use and develop their skills more
Why is everyone making physical products?
Lauren Leto, co-founder of Texts from Last Night and Banters raised this question in last week’s class of Entrepreneurial Design. Our final assignment is to make $1,000, and it became evident that all 14 of us seem to go in the direction of projects involving physical products.
I think the main reason is that the value of objects with a weight and feel is still much more apparent to most of us, which makes it easier to deal with. The way you earn money off of digital products is different. Reading a blog or using social networks is free, and we are moving in a direction where most content is open and people can participate on levels of an experience without being charged. Whereas the value of digital products is measured in currencies like clicks and time spent looking at something, you rarely use a physical object before you have paid for it. To figure out how much money you can make of a digital product, you need a strategy for how to monetize and convert these metric into potential revenue.
I’ve realized that there are other ways to make money than putting up banner ads on your website, as long as you have a big enough number of people using your product. But given the limited time frame, this road seems to be a more unpredictable one to reach the $1,000 goal, than the more traditional sale of physical products. It’s easier to sell umbrellas for one hour and estimate how many you have to sell in order to earn enough money.
But, a higher risk also means higher rewards if you succeed. And the organic way that digital products are spread, has advantages over products that require a cumbersome manufacturing process or hours of hand crafting. Of course there’s a lot of prosperous businesses where physical and digital products overlap. But the biggest takeaway I’ve gotten from entrepreneurs like Lauren Leto and swissmiss, is that building a sustainable framework for a digital product can sustain other side projects. This insight has made me rethink business models, and will become valuable for my further work.
About a year ago, I spent both days and nights making the 18 pairs of shoes for Fam Irvoll’s fashion collection. I had so much fun doing this, and it was a really good break from the work I was doing at that time. While I was sanding what was to become the heels, I was wondering where I would find myself the following year. I knew that I really wanted to go to New York, and I was anticipating letters from the schools I had applied to. One year later, I’m a part of this amazing city and I can look back at the younger me and tell myself that I made the right choice.
Now, I find myself in a new situation where I need to have a one-year perspective. Thesis is coming up. One year from now, I will be looking back at this time when I was standing on the edge of it, before anything was settled. It is a liberating, yet daunting feeling that I don’t know yet what will occupy most of my mind the next 12 months. This time I need to structure the path so that I know I will land my work in time and along the way be able to dive into the parts that is more interesting to me and should represent my work when I graduate. I am looking forward to the unexpected events that will come up and make choices that will take me places I don’t know about yet.
Back to the dusty workshop where I was molding and sanding shoes one year ago. The collection I worked on back then, was for the winter season 2012. Fam Irvoll’s collection was inspired by Madmen, which is blowing up again right now as the new season starts airing this week. A good way to round off the past year and look ahead at a new one.