But the 8-hour workday is too profitable for big business, not because of the amount of work people get done in eight hours (the average office worker gets less than three hours of actual work done in 8 hours) but because it makes for such a purchase-happy public. Keeping free time scarce means people pay a lot more for convenience, gratification, and any other relief they can buy. It keeps them watching television, and its commercials. It keeps them unambitious outside of work.
We’ve been led into a culture that has been engineered to leave us tired, hungry for indulgence, willing to pay a lot for convenience and entertainment, and most importantly, vaguely dissatisfied with our lives so that we continue wanting things we don’t have. We buy so much because it always seems like something is still missing.
Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed (via felicefawn)
I’m back after some time in NY + SF. I had a great time zipping all over the place, talking to lots of people about the future of Coastermatic and Think Bigger, Make Better, and came away with lots of food for thought.
After a week back in Hawaii and a lot of deliberation, here’s where I’m at:
Think Bigger, Make Better and the research that went into it is where I want to focus long term. I believe if we can open up to the perspectives of others, and better understand our own, the opportunities for growth are tremendous. From delivering products faster and defining new industries, to getting along better at work and at home, improved conversations can take us far.
Unfortunately TBMB isn’t a business yet, so I plan on spending the next year figuring out what that could mean. To that end, I’m giving a talk about my research on gendered perspectives and Think Bigger, Make Better at Interaction 14. If you’ll be in Amsterdam on Feb 8, I’d love to see your smiling face!
The talk will force me to articulate my ideas + research to an audience of strangers (scary! but good scary). My hope is that after the talk I’ll be able to see which parts resonate with people, and can figure out next steps from there.
I still heart Coastermatic. When Tom and I started Coastermatic back in April 2012, the intention was always to build a business that would support us while we worked on crazier things. While we were naive to how difficult building and growing a business actually is, I still believe this is possible. Swissmiss + Tattly are pretty strong proof of this. Though I don’t have an audience of millions, like she does, I can still work to grow a community around the product I created and the things I believe in.
That said, I need some help with Coastermatic. I’m looking for help with all sorts of things: blogger outreach, sales, design, front end, admin. Everything really.
I’ll come back with a more defined ask soon, but in the meantime, have a think of friends you know that can mix a mean drink and might be interested in helping me out with this fun, scrappy coaster company.
The Shine Theory is an idea posited by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman - in short, if we surround ourselves by smart, successful, fun, crazy cool women, maybe some of that awesome-ness will rub off on us simply by proximity.
Let’s make Ada Lovelace Day a year round thing - let’s shine like the bright stars we are - and find some brighter stars and befriend them - and all make the world a bit of a better, brighter place.
The old, boring elevator speech is dead. Finally. Use these four tips to create a pitch that doesn’t sound like an outdated sales speech.
This summer, I’ve noticed a real tension between what we write online and how we talk to people.
More specifically, the answer to “what do you do?”. On Coastermatic.com, we have to be really quick and to the point. There shouldn’t be any questions when you hit the home page (or when you’re reading the latest blog/tweet/whatever). However, this really doesn’t work IRL.
When I say “I run Coastermatic, and we make instagram coasters” or some variation thereof, eyes glaze over and I feel like shrinking into a small ball and disappearing. FUN!
This post has a few good tips, which I’ll be focusing some energy on before I have to talk to strangers again.
When it’s really hard, you are completely stuck, and you feel like you’re hitting your head into a brick wall, it means that you’re actually really close.
You just have to stop, look at the parts that aren’t fitting (feel free to get meta on this part), and try to understand them as the solution. Then, like magic, your framing of the world shifts, and you find you were sitting on top of the answers all along.
It’s a really hard thing to do though, who wants to admit their model of a particular problem is inherently wrong? We get so stuck in how we see and understand the world, to try and shift it is no easy thing.
After going through it a few times, now I try and visualize it as a map reorienting in my mind. It’s like when you get out of the subway and you’re convinced the direction you’re walking in is north. Then you find out it isn’t and you have to mentally rotate the map in your head of the city.
A few weeks ago Tom decided to leave Coastermatic. We started the project that would become a company in February 2012, and worked on nearly every project together while at grad school. Any projects we didn’t work on together we talked about and contributed ideas to over bike rides back to Brooklyn, shared meals in studio, or beers at Videology.
Tom has been the person I’ve grown with the most over the last 2 years. Through our long conversations or extreme late night work sessions, we helped each other test out and digest all of the new information and ideas that came up while we were at school, and had a lot of fun in the process. I’ve never had the opportunity to collaborate in such an intense way before, and I know that he helped me to achieve a kind of personal growth that I never could have alone.
But now I am alone, which is an foreign and unexpected place to end up after so many conversations about working on Coastermatic and what was to come after, together. There’s no more working and thinking in terms of ‘we’ or even as ‘Coastermatic’. I have to reevaluate what’s important to me, what the trajectory of my life will be without this collaboration at it’s creative core. And all of this is a little scary and overwhelming.
However, there are a couple of things to grab on to, things I know for sure: - I want Coastermatic to thrive, but I don’t want to become a life long coaster saleswoman. - I’m moving to SF to finally live in the same city as Dave.
But that’s about it, for now.
ps. Don’t worry, Tom and I are still great friends. I talked to him today for 2 hours, and he’s thinking through similar questions. Just with a lot less coaster puns.
Took some time to spruce up the blog today, above is a new bio/summary for myself. After spending the entire summer exclusively on Coastermatic, it was nice to do some tashwong.com housekeeping.
In the process, I realized that since I’m not looking for a job there’s no reason to have a portfolio page + resume front and center. Given the space I’m in now (see above), I should be talking about what I’m doing, not showing what I’ve done in the past.
“The fact that something is unsayable, that you are emotionally restricted from saying or even recognizing consciously what your own spirit is struggling with, energizes one’s work. That is exactly where good work comes from. And that’s why you can’t ask somebody to find out what it is they need to do.”—Emmet Gowin (via garychou)
It’s been about 4 months since my last post. I know, far far too long, but I promise to be better. It’d been a pretty crazy summer, promise.
I thought I’d share with you the proposal I just sent in for IxDA14, the Interaction Design conference in Amsterdam this coming February. If accepted, it’ll be my first opportunity to speak at a conference. Exciting!
You’re unique. Just like everybody else. How your perspective is limiting your work and hindering your team.
As designers, we like to pride ourselves on our ability to be empathetic and to know our users, but how does our intrinsic understanding of the way the world works hinder that ability?
As a graduate student in 2012, I set out to explore this idea. Given the still large gap between men and women working in our discipline, I chose gender as a lens to gain an understanding as to how our society encourages different modes of interaction in each of us, and how that might affect our decisions as designers and members of a team.
Over a period of 6 months, I discovered fascinating differences in the ways we use language and storytelling to communicate, as well as distinctive modes of approaching technology. Based on this research I developed a conversational framework called Think Bigger, Make Better to help designers articulate their own perspectives and to bridge the gaps with others.
In my talk, I will dive into these gendered differences and discuss how understanding these modes of interacting with the world can provide us with a framework to uncover new ideas, better empathize with users, and to build stronger relationships between teams at work.
Because to men, a key is a device to open something. For women, it’s a weapon we hold between our fingers when we’re walking alone at night.
Because the biggest insult for a guy is to be called a “pussy,” a “little bitch” or a “girl.” From here on out, being called a “pussy” is an effing badge of honor.
Because last month, my politics professor asked the class if women should have equal representation in the Supreme Court, and only three out of 42 people raised their hands.
Because rape jokes are still a thing.
Because despite being equally broke college kids, guys are still expected to pay for dates, drinks and flowers.
Because as a legit student group, Campus Fellowship does not allow women to lead anything involving men. Look, I know Eve was dumb about the whole apple and snake thing, but I think we can agree having a vagina does not directly impact your ability to lead a
Because it’s assumed that if you are nice to a girl, she owes you sex — therefore, if she turns you down, she’s a bitch who’s put you in the “friend zone.” Sorry, bro, women are not machines you put kindness coins into until sex falls out.
Because only 29 percent of American women identify as feminist, and in the words of author Caitlin Moran, “What part of ‘liberation for women’ is not for you? Is it freedom to vote? The right not to be owned by the man you marry? The campaign for equal pay? Did all that good shit get on your nerves? Or were you just drunk at the time
of the survey?”
Because when people hear the term feminist, they honestly think of women burning bras. Dude, have you ever bought a bra? No one would burn them because they’re freaking
Because Rush Limbaugh.
Because we now have a record number of women in the Senate … which is a measly 20 out of 100. Congrats, USA, we’ve gone up to 78th place for women’s political representation, still below China, Rwanda and Iraq.
Because recently I had a discussion with a couple of well-meaning Drake University guys, and they literally could not fathom how catcalling a woman walking down University Avenue is creepy and sexist.
Could. Not. Fathom.
Because on average, the tenured male professors at Drake make more than the tenured female professors.
Because more people on campus complain about chalked statistics regarding sexual assault than complain about the existence of sexual assault. Priorities? Have them.
Because 138 House Republicans voted against the Violence Against Women Act. All 138 felt it shouldn’t provide support for Native women, LGBT people or immigrant women. I’m kind of confused by this, because I thought LGBT people and women of color were also human beings.
Because a girl was roofied last semester at a local campus bar, and I heard someone say they think she should have been more careful. Being drugged is her fault, not the fault of the person who put drugs in her drink?
Because Chris Brown beat Rihanna so badly she was hospitalized, yet he still has fans and bestselling songs and a tattoo of an abused woman on his neck.
Because out of 7 billion people on the planet, more than 1 billion women will be raped or beaten in their lifetimes. Women and girls have their clitorises cut out, acid thrown on them and broken bottles shoved up them as an act of war. Every second of every day. Every corner of the Earth.
Because the other day, another friend of mine told me she was raped, and I can no longer count on both my hands the number of friends who have told me they’ve been sexually assaulted. Words can’t express how scared I am that I’m getting used to this.
Because a brief survey of reality will tell you that we do not live in a world that values all people equally and that sucks in real, very scary ways. Because you know we live in a sexist world when an awesome thing with the name “feminism” has a weird connotation. Because if I have kids someday, I want my son to be able to have emotions and play dress up, and I want my daughter to climb trees and care more about what’s in her head than what’s on it. Because I don’t want her to carry keys between her fingers at night to
Because feminism is for everybody, and this is your official invitation.
This is how I’m getting through thesis, by trying (really hard) to be patient with the process. I haven’t blogged much because every time I settle on a plan, I discover that it’s not quite right. Since my last post, where I declared Gendered Interactions didn’t quite work, I’ve had a couple of other interations: cards, and a website.
The cards (3 iterations)
I took the traits I used in Gendered Interactions and applied them to a deck of cards. Each card includes a trait, a definition, and a couple of examples of that trait in context.
The first iteration were hand written index cards. I used them in a user interview last weekend. The index [very messy] cards were effective at facilitating a conversation around different perspectives within the context of an experience design project. My interviewee also pointed out that the cards, when split into 2 groups, made her think of work done by software engineers and that of designers.
Based on the success of that interview, I created a more finished set. These included color coding to make it easier to distinguish between the 2 types of traits. The same interviewee borrowed the cards as soon as they were done and used them in 2 brainstorms. I managed to set up a camera for part of the first brainstorm. After watching footage of the cards in use, it was obvious that the cards were useful for facilitating a conversation in a group. The group members pulled out words they thought related to their project, then used each card to spark a conversation around how their concept was or wasn’t like the trait.
After this iteration, it was apparent that the legibility of the cards made them more accessible to use than the previous prototype and could be used in a group without my presence. However, despite the 10 min conversation they were used in, the cards didn’t spark conversation about the tensions between different perspectives or approach.
For the third iteration, I numbered the cards 1 - 11. The intention was to make it easier to put them in pairs, hopefully prompting conversation around the differences in the traits and the perspectives they represent.
While they did make it easier for me to pair the cards, I found that they prompted more confusion over what the pairings could mean. A few advisors asked me to be more explicit about the intended audience and the specific points of view.
This post is getting a bit long, I’ll save the web concept for next time. Also, if you’d like to print your own cards at home, just drop me a line @tashwong on the twitters.
“He knew the balance between innovation and America’s digestive system. He’s the only artist who was able to, basically, feed babies the most elaborate of foods that you would never give a child and know exactly how to break down the portions so they could digest it. I mean, ‘When Doves Cry’ is probably the most radical song of the first five years of the eighties, because there’s no bass. I heard the version of ‘Doves Cry’ with a bass line—it wouldn’t have grabbed me. Without bass it had a desperate, cold feeling to it. It made you concentrate on his voice. With the bass line, the song was cool. Without it, it was astounding.”—
In a post a couple of weeks ago I introduced Gendered Interactions, a small thesis experiment. My aim was to establish whether I could easily find gendered approaches to interaction design projects. After a week or so of analysing a variety of work and adding to the site, I realized this is not so easy.
Projects such as 21 Balancoires certainly sit to the femme side of the traits list, but other projects can’t be so clearly categorized. Though I only reviewed a dozen projects, it did become clear that most of the more interesting (for me) work exhibited many more femme than butch traits. Noting this made me aware of how subjective the process was, and that the projects I found problematic to review exhibited a mix of traits.
For example, Snapchat has 2 core interactions: one is to create media to share, and the other is to consume that media individually. These could be considered as opposites in terms of how they fit with the scale, but they fit within the app. Therefore, like many things, Snapchat is neither a ‘femme’ nor ‘butch’ product, it exhibits a variety of traits from both perspectives.
While this experiment didn’t go quite the way I expected, I still hold to the same theory as was stated on the about page.
Through this site I’m testing out my theory that gender plays a big role in the way that we understand, interact, and ultimately create interactive experiences. My hope is that by identifying gendered modes of engaging with technology, I can expand the current vocabulary we use to discuss interaction design and find generative applications of gender based research.
My big takeaway is this: Interaction design, like most human interactions, is a complex layering of ideas, process, input and output. I’ve found that you can’t simply have a framework and expect to fit a whole product into it, or hope to find one that conforms to it.
But the thing that worries me is that when trying to project into the future it’s too easy to get caught up in what the Things will be. And it’s too easy to lose the humanity of it. How people ARE, instead of what technology might be. The Now of People.
- commenting on the Future of Things vs The Now of People, and introducing her new project: Tipical.
I discovered Stop the Cyborgs this morning. They are a response to Google Glass and other trends and work to make us aware of the creeping (privacy threatening) trajectories of these technologies.
This quote, from their recent post What’s in a name?, really resonates with the way I’m thinking about my thesis work. Our digital future will be richer if it incorporates more than one perspective.
More generally our argument is that technological systems shape daily life and society. They are not politically or socially neutral but rather encourage and discourage different choices, interaction patterns and ways of being. At the moment there seems to be a view that technology is an external force which follows a fixed trajectory. People claim “You can’t fight the future” by which they mean “One particular possible future“. This view is completely wrong. The direction of technological development is not pre-ordained but rather is shaped by people’s choices. At the moment these choices are being made for us all by a small group of silicon valley people with one particular world view. This again is not inevitable.
It’s been a couple of weeks since my last post, don’t worry though, I’ve been working! For some reason putting aside time to write a blog post seems to elude me. Lots has happened over the last couple of weeks but here’s a couple of highlights:
Over the next month, I’ll be collecting a range of interaction design projects and categorizing them based on how they fall into gendered views of technology. Currently, I’m using this list as the beginning of my framework, which comes from the work of the EDC which I wrote about a month ago.
My hope is that by framing projects in this way I’ll be able to tease out various gendered approaches to interaction design and highlight areas where certain approaches work better than others.
Please check it out and leave comments where I’m being vague, as I’m actively working on ways to better communicate these differing views. Also, if you have any projects you’d like to see added, please send them my way @tashwong.
Stanford’s Gender Innovation project
Beginning in 2009, Stanford’s Gender Innovations project focuses on applications of gender analysis in science, health & medicine, engineering, and environment. They state that these disciplines are not value-neutral, due to the gendered and ethnic exclusions that occurred while they were being established. The purpose of the project is to revise the methods and processes that form the basis of most scientific practice:
to create gender equality;
to enhance creativity;
to stimulate economic and technological development (or business innovation);
Every week I seem to become a little bit more articulate about what exactly I’m doing for thesis. One thing that came up this week is that the act of this articulation is really important - basically, how can I make my thesis accessible to people that don’t live in my brain and don’t think about gender stuff all the time?
To help with this, I’ve put together a thesis hq. It’s a slightly modified view of my blog that displays my thesis related posts, a link to my changelog, as well as the the most up-to-date description of my thesis.
As of today, that description is:
My thesis explores the generative application of gender analysis to interaction design.
What does that mean? At SVA IxD, thesis is a consistent approach to a persistent idea. I think a lot about gendered perspectives.
The term ‘gender’ refers to the socio-cultural process that forms our understanding of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’. It’s why some may find it odd that grown men enjoy watching My Little Ponies. It’s not that men, biologically, aren’t able to watch My Little Ponies, it just it seems like they’re not supposed to like it. Here’s a quick video about these so-called 'Bronies'.
Gender affects the way that we interact with the world. There are ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ modes of doing lots of things, including language use and understandings of technology. I think that understanding the differences between these perspectives can give us a new framework for designing engaging interactions.
This has been a big question in the thesis discussion for the last couple of weeks. Driving me a little crazy, and its valid one. In the spirit of publishing things that aren’t polished, here’s part of a wrap up I sent to my thesis advisers this week:
On Sunday, I had a big talk with Rachel Liebert, a very good friend of mine who’s done lots of work within the gender + psychology space. Rachel suggested that perhaps my thesis isn’t creating a product, but is actually the act of becoming a femme interaction designer, and the documentation of that act. It’s kind of meta, but it feels like the right place to start. Jerri and I previously had a conversation about how this needs to be a personal project. The act of becoming a femme interaction designer will probably lead to the production of something, it’s just too soon to tell what that will be.
It’s been floated a couple of times that I should redesign certain products/services from a femme perspective, but this has never really sat right. Through talking to Rachel, we worked out that this would in fact be kind of a butch approach - taking something and reshaping/fixing it - and that most products are probably made from a butch perspective anyway, so no amount of makeover will really make them different. Kind of like lipstick on a pig.
What needs to happen next is that I have to define what femme interaction design is and start finding examples of it. For the last of week or so, I thought I’d create some magical model and that would lead me to some crazy innovative new way of design. Chatting with Rachel made me realize that that’s totally not how it’ll work - the femme pov has existed long before any of us, so there are/have been people doing work with this perspective already, they are just not highlighted as such. An applicable project, which I saw at Interaction 13, was Kate Hartman's Nudgeables, which allows you to discretely nudge a friend from a short distance, perhaps to rescue you from an awkward conversation. The iPad + iPhone are arguably pieces of femme technology, as they are meant to act as windows to connect you to information and people, the physical features of the devices are designed to be invisible.
I’ve been thinking about perspectives in design for a while, but I until yesterday I’ve lacked the ability to comfortably articulate what I mean. So far I’ve used “feminine”, "traditionally marginalized", "female", "women", and "under-represented" to express the type of perspective I feel is missing from interaction design. The problem with all of these words is that they all carry a lot of baggage - they victimize, exclude, illicit value judgements, etc, etc. This has posed a big problem with figuring out how to narrow my topic focus, since starting from a point of victimisation seems to reinforce certain types of systematic oppression.
Last night, I watched Cornelia Brunner's talk, 'On Girls, Boys, and IT Careers', where she expertly jumps this hurdle. In her research, which began in the 70s, she has consistently found 2 gendered ways of imagining technology. She points out that gender is socially constructed, not biologically assigned. To make this distinction clear, and to avoid confusion, she uses the terms “butch” and “femme” when describing her findings. Through this decoupling, it becomes A LOT easier to talk about the distinctive differences between these 2 views, without dragging it into a conversation about stereotypes.
Here’s her breakdown on the two different perpectives:
"A femme perspective on technology sees it as a tool that helps you do something better or more easily, or that connects you. Facebook is an example of a femme technology. It allows you to share ideas and moments with your friends and family and stay connected.
A butch perspective on technology is that it gives you this enormous power to transcend the limitations of time, space, and the body. Airplanes are a butch technology.”
So, now that I can be clear about it:
For my thesis, I’m interested in uncovering modes of ‘femme’ interaction design.
It’s been a while since I’ve written a solid thesis post, so here goes.
Since the thesis retreat, my head has been in a few different places. I’ve proved to myself, beyond a reasonable doubt, that turning up the volume on marginalized perspectives in design is what I need to be working on. I’ve also spent time with the fact that this is a wicked problem, and that I’m now in for what will likely be a very bumpy and intensely personal road from here.
Carving out a small part of this issue to work on for the next few months is going to be scary, and difficult. At the moment, it feels like whenever I focus in on something I can come up with a laundry list of reasons not to do it, or why that particular issue is impossible to overcome in such a small time. It’s an interesting form of paralysis that’s a fun mix of thesis stress, cultural conditioning, and plain old procrastination.
Over the last week I’ve been thinking a lot about implicit bias, and was planning on creating a few interactions that express the biases we all hold. One idea was switching the gender of names in several news articles to see if it had any impact on the reader.
My rationale went something like this:
To make better products, we need more diverse perspectives in design.
80% of the people who make websites are male, 87% are white*.
People have implicit bias, which impacts how they view others.
People like to hire people like them.
If I can teach people about bias, I can show them how deeply ingrained certain stereotypes are.
If I can teach ways to overcome bias, then maybe I can change design processes + hiring practices.
Then, I went out for dinner with my good friend Jerri Chou. We talked about my thesis, where it came from, where I see it going. I told her about my plans to make implicit bias more visible, then we got to talking about the opportunity of diverse perspectives. This is something I keep coming back to - If most of our environment (physical + digital) has been designed from a mainstream perspective, what if we shift that view slightly, does it mean that we can rebuild everything? No doubt there are some serious opportunities there, $$ and otherwise.
We discussed an immensely wide range of ‘women-related’ (I need a better phrase than that) topics + issues throughout the evening. Jerri wasn’t all that convinced by my implicit bias focus, and suggested that my project needs to be more personal than that - it needs to solve a problem that I have, fix something that bothers me, help me overcome deeper issues, or reach personal goals.
She’s totally right. I knew that the implicit bias exercises would be interesting, and definitely spark some good conversation. However, this comes with a negative slant - my work would be focused at the ‘mainstream’ designer, saying, “Your perspective is wrong, now here’s how to fix you”. This isn’t what I want.
What I want to say is: “Your perspective is right, now here’s the opportunity” and say it to the large segment of the population that doesn’t hear it enough. Perhaps the best way to do that is to follow Jerri’s advice, acknowledge that I’m part of that large segment, and say it to myself.
I like to refer to the anecdotal story of the Apple Store glass stairs. While visually appealing one unforeseen consequence to their design was the large groups of strange men that spend hours each day sitting under them looking up. As a women, the first time I saw them I thought ‘thank god I’m not wearing a skirt today.’
Such considerations were not taken in designing these stairs, I think it’s probable, if not easily predictable, that in a few years we will see such holes in the design of the web.
“We all have implicit biases that subtly but profoundly affect our expectations of the people we work with. We have all been exposed to and share the implicit bias that women aren’t as good at work as men. And we share a similarly deep bias that men aren’t as good at home as women. These biases are so deeply ingrained in us that we usually don’t realize we have them.”—Spot the sexist in you by Catherine de Lange
This weekend I embarked on a thesis retreat with about half of my class. Friday afternoon, we packed up Min’s car and headed upstate to a house (pictured above) that was just outside of Hudson, NY. Once there, we proceeded to eat, drink, read, talk, and play for the next 48 hours. It was fantastic!
Surprisingly, we all managed to get some solid work done on thesis. Something about the country air + no internet really makes you focus. I got through a lot of reading, and figured out my next line of inquiry.
Last week, I discovered that the term ‘Feminist HCI’ exists and was coined 2 years ago by Shaowen Bardzell. In the same year, there was also a workshop and a special edition of Interacting with Computers in the same vein - both organized by Bardzell and Elizabeth Churchill. Unfortunately, since I go to design school, pulling these ‘science’ papers isn’t quite as easy as I expected. I’m working on it though. (Hit me up if you have a login to Science Direct.)
Fortunately, the extended abstract from the workshop is online. Thursday afternoon, as my mac n cheese was in the oven, I combed through the abstract’s references and downloaded a few papers to read over the weekend. Though I read through 7 or so, these 3 really stood out:
REALizing our messy future, Woodrow Winchester (Interactions, 2010 - pay wall) A response to Churchill’s piece, Winchester brings in his experience working on HIV interventions and discusses the need for design lenses.
Made in Patriarchy, Cheryl Buckley (MIT Press, 1986) Buckely’s excellent piece examines the pariarchal context within which design history frames female interaction with design as practitioners, theorists, consumers, historians, and as objects of representation.
Overall, I was struck by how eloquently others have said what I was trying to say in my last blog post. Essentially, they all very strongly make the case to bring a critical perspective to design.
Churchill’s article sums it up best:
'Designers are not passive bystanders in the production, reproduction, reinforcing, or challenging of cultural values. We actively create artifacts and experiences. We design products with implicit or explicit assumptions about how products will be used and by whom. We mentally simulate the product user who is part of an imagined story of the product in use—these imaginary people are drawn from our everyday lives and usually have a gender, perhaps a shape, size, age and ethnicity. Thus we embed imagined, gendered others into our designs, inadvertently reproducing cultural norms because they seem so “natural.” And so in a chain of reification and reproduction, products are wired in subtle ways that reflect and reinforce existing cultural assumptions.'
She goes on to illustrate where these assumptions have caused serious problems in the design of products, both digital and physical. The most ghastly of her examples are airbags. The first generation of the safety device seriously injured and killed (by decapitation!) many upon its release. This was due to the fact that airbags were initially calibrated for men of average weight and height.
It is incredible to me that a group of talented engineers could somehow forget that women and children are smaller than men, and thus could be greivously injured by their invention. It really speaks to the need to be aware of the perspectives we bring to the table.
I’ve finished the weekend feeling more excited than ever about my thesis. There is a real, if not dire, need to incorporate a critical perspective into our work as interaction designers. My next big question is how? How can I help to bridge the gap between academic theory and professional reality?
I’m changing the focus of my thesis. I’ve been thinking about this for a week now, and it feels right. Previously, I was working with the topic of light. My approach was to question our current assumptions of how artificial light operates and its place in our lives, then find space for new design opportunities within the domain. While this has been incredibly interesting - I’ve learned a lot about the history of light, and built a delightful lamp - I’ve figured out that the lighting part isn’t want’s interesting to me, it’s the approach.
How can we question current assumptions about our environment to find new perspectives and new opportunities for design?
I recently went back and read through a few blog posts from last school year and proved to myself that this is something I’ve been musing over for a while. One project in particular unexpectedly opened me up this as a new line of thought. Back then I said, ”I’ve been thinking of our project as just scratching the surface of something much bigger. We live in a world dominated by products made through a masculine view of the world. What happens if we look through a feminine lens? I have a feeling we’ll find more interesting problems to solve than toilet paper dispensing.” (yes, that project was about toilet paper)
I know that my desire to uncover new perspectives comes from an understanding of how my gender affects my experience of the world. I’m aware that my perspective, as a woman of mixed race, is rare within the field of interaction design and entrepreneurialism. I’m also aware that as a woman of mixed race I face challenges that my white male counterparts don’t. This has been an ongoing a source of great anxiety and frustration in my life. To work through it, I’ve spent a lot of time reading feminist and post-colonial theory to gain a better understanding of how broad power structures work against people like me, as well as participate in activism to raise awareness around issues such as genital diversity.
Since beginning my masters, my focus in this area has become more localized. Instead of concentrating on how these social structures affect people around me, I’ve become acutely aware of the impact they have on me from day to day. There are biases embedded in my environment, in the people I interact with, as well as in my own head. To gain more insight into this I recently read Women Don’t Ask. Instead of being about ways women can ‘fix’ themselves to overcome anxieties, the book is an examination of how our culture strongly discourages women from being assertive on their own behalf. The authors, Linda Babcock & Sara Laschever, systematically deconstruct various layers of our cultural experience to uncover the ways that gender stereotypes are perpetuated, and suggest that by understanding where these stereotypes come from we can work to counteract them.
This book, paired with the recent article by Sara Wachter-Boettcher, have inspired me to think about my experience through the lens of interaction design and shift the course of my thesis. If we can study and understand the oppressive biases built into the systems around us, then how can we take that knowledge and iterate our way to new and better systems? By becoming aware of the water we’re swimming in we can actively construct systems that encourage participation, expose us to new ways of seeing, and open up a whole lot of new opportunity.
Tony has been hanging out at my place over the last few days, he’s my East Village refugee. Over dinner last night, he pointed out that I haven’t clearly explained my rationale for the personal light. He wanted to know why it’s important and what makes it more than just a maker-y thing I decided to do. Our conversation made me decide that I should actually write this down and share it. Thanks Tony!
We live in a time and place where abundant artificial light is fundamental part of our daily lives. At work and at home, lights illuminate our surroundings, helping us see so we can get things done. Our current mode of lighting is powered through a complex grid that delivers electricity to our homes, feeding our light fixtures and power sockets.
Electric light is the product of a long evolution in artificial light technology. Now over a century old, it comes to us after candles, oil lanterns, gas lighting, and arc lights. Throughout this evolution, our society has shifted and changed in response to each period of lighting. Each dominant mode of artificial light created a particular framework for the economy, social relationships, understandings of autonomy and control of one’s surrounds, and the relationship to work and productivity.
Right now, electric lights provide the structure that we live within. As I mentioned before, our homes are connected to a grid, which is outside of our control (Hello Sandy!). Inside, the electrical wiring of our homes leads to thinking about light in a particular way - switches and ceiling lights. These overhead are generally found in most rooms and hallways and have 2 modes - on or off.
What does this light do for us? It illuminates a room as we use it. When switched on, it’s brightness allows and encourages us to see everything in the space, it nudges us to finish whatever task is at hand. When it’s off, the room is no longer in a state to do anything (except perhaps sleeping). This is obvious to many, but if we think about light as an affordance - an indicator of the intended use of a space - these binary states speak to a limited understanding of how rooms in our homes can be used. The ceiling light says a room is to be used at a fixed level, or not at all.
This is an insensitive approach to our living spaces - human beings do not live in a binary fashion. Our homes shelter us whilst we are being productive, when we are relaxing, while we sleep, and everything in between. I believe we can make our spaces more sympathetic, more sensitive to the human condition, by examining our relationship with light.
The ‘personal light’ project that I’ve been working on is the first embodiment of this line of thought. This light speaks to a number of issues I’ve been thinking about:
Autonomy. This light is for an individual. It is not fixed to a room or a grid. It is designed to create an intimate space that moves with you.
Productivity. Unlike most lights, this one is not about being awake and working. It acknowledges the drowsy, dreamy state of mind of the night time.
History. I believe that we can look back to previous modes of lighting to find new ways to incorporate it into our lives. The inspiration for this light comes from a Gaston Bachelard quote about the candle (see below).
Awareness. I hope that this light helps to create an awareness of how lighting affects our state of mind. It can show people how jarring standard lights can be, and hopefully open the door to new ideas and questions around place of lighting in our homes.
“Because the candle, a company of the solitude, is above all a company of solitary work. The candle does not illuminate an empty room, it illuminates a book.” - Bachelard
As we seek refuge in Tash’s Williamsburg apartment, anticipating the carnage that’s about to unfold, we look around us at the things that are probably going to cut out – the electricity, the Internet, the phone line. The Blackout of ’77 was nothing in comparison.
For the next 7 weeks I will continue to explore the interplay of light, intimacy and space. My plan is to create several iterations of a ‘personal light’, one that provides only enough light to move around a familiar space. The intention is to create a personal space with light, one that’s sympathetic to a sleepy mental state and/or enhances attention to other senses.
My approach to creating the light will encompass a few areas:
Theoretical The core of my interest right now is investigating what was lost in the transition to ubiquitous light. I see this as a rich space for interaction design. To understand this, I want to learn more about our relationship with light before the industrial age. Key texts: Brilliant, Disenchanted Night, The Flame of a Candle
Practical To build it, I’ll need a solid understanding of electrical and physical computing fundamentals, as well as knowledge around LED lights and various sensors. Key texts: LED Lighting
User Research Once I’ve built a stable version of the light I’ll share it with others to understand if/how it integrates in their day to day life.
I came across this quote today. I find that it really speaks to the way I’m feeling about life, as I try to balance thesis, Coastermatic, work, school, and a little outside of that. Mostly, I can only see as far as the next step, and I’m learning to be ok with that. Just have to trust that it’ll all work itself out in the end.
Last week’s exercise of making something, anything, just to get us into the spirit of making definitely hit is mark with me. The light whales didn’t take me long, but they pushed me into places I wasn’t comfortable - namely, drawing and photography. The prospect of the entire thing made me feel nervous, so I figured I had to do it.
And it was FUN.
The process took an hour or so, which was much less time then I usually spend on thesis related tasks. The outcome: I ended up making these cool drawings that conveyed my ideas, I enjoyed doing it, and a few other people enjoyed them too.
On Monday, Amit asked us what part of our first artifact we were going to keep, and what we’d throw away. I’m going to move away from the whale representations, but I’m keeping the simplicity, fun, and delight that I experienced with the light painting. Lighting is an amazing part of our lives, and we’re lucky enough to be able to take it for granted. As I work through the rest of thesis, I want to be able to keep that sense of wonder with me, and hopefully convey it through my work.