Where the Wild Things Are: Research Paper

Seeking Improvisation on the Open Web Platform

Haig Armen – Emily Carr University of Art & Design
John Maxwell – Simon Fraser University
Kate Pullinger – Bath Spa University

Teaching creativity in digital media comes with its challenges. Obvious questions arise: what is the most effective creative process? what tools should be used? what is the right format? As Maslow’s Hammer reminds us, if you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail; perhaps the challenge is that of perception. In this article we reflect on an experimental digital fiction workshop that took place in the summer of 2014. The workshop aimed to explore the boundaries of digital fiction using open web technology. The article discusses how process and tools forge the pathways and ultimately shape our outcomes. As we work to establish fully digital workflows and widely-adopted tools for creating digital narratives, we inadvertently limit our possibilities and fall into producing the same formats and modes of interaction over and over. In this nascent form, digital fiction requires efforts aimed for the fringes, to explore the boundaries of medium and genre. Today’s software authoring tools are designed for carefully composing and organizing content, not collaboratively improvising to create new forms of content, navigation and experience. Without a better understanding of the materiality of digital media gained through code proficiency and improvising on the form, we are limiting our ability to achieve more sophisticated forms of expression.

The universe of improvisation is constantly being created; or rather, in each moment a new universe is created… At any moment, an event may occur for no reason at all, with no relation at all to the preceding event… In this universe each moment is an entelechy, with both its cause and its end contained in itself.
In June, John Maxwell, Kate Pullinger and I ran a week-long digital fiction workshop hosted by Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC. The experimental workshop was billed as a way to explore collaborative writing and production of digital fiction, inspired and directed by Kate Pullinger, a pioneer of the form.

Inspired by a conversation we had at Books in Browsers 2013 and a mutual admiration of Adam Hyde’s BookSprints , the idea of collaborating on a digital book workshop was born. Apart from gathering people together for an intensive limited timeframe to produce an outcome, this workshop had little resemblance to an actual BookSprint. We liked the idea of creating a framework – planning the activities and the technologies we’d use around creating a piece of digital fiction in a tight, high-intensity collaborative environment.

Setting the Stage
As the Digital Fiction workshop became a reality in the spring of 2014, we prepared by establishing the structure, content and technology for the event. Months before the scheduled workshop John and Haig discussed establishing a structure for the week of the gathering. Yet not knowing exactly what type of people the workshop would attract made it difficult to forge a strict structure. We wanted to bring together a group of interested authors and creators to participate in a real-time collaborative effort, writing and designing a multi-modal work over a short period of time. So we needed to carefully scaffold things to allow our workshop participants to move forward quickly.

John and I saw eye to eye about the kind of tools to provide to our workshop participants. For perhaps the first time in the history of publishing there is a common platform and software ecosystem that is free and open to all. The wildly popular technologies underpinning the Open Web Platform act as an alternative to the specialized, expensive toolsets that have dominated publishing (Linotype, InDesign, even Flash), the open web lets the finely tuned skills and sensibilities of authors, designers, and producers be decoupled from the exclusivity of proprietary tools. We both see Open Web technology as the only probable and preferable way forward.

In the weeks leading up to the workshop, we created a workflow that began with a wiki as a central collaborative writing hub where participants of the workshop were able to write in plain text, markdown, and HTML markup: markdown for formatting text and HTML to specify code for differentiating data types and insert media elements.

The next step was to find a way to generate HTML from the wiki. After a number of attempts John settled on using Pandoc, John MacFarlane’s free command-line tool for converting just about any flavour of markup and markdown. The final piece of our workflow was our target production framework, Caleb Troughton’s excellent Deck.js, a jQuery library designed for slide presentations that proved to be both flexible and extensible. The Deck.js library gave us the ability to create visual transitions from slide to slide, trigger html elements to animate across the screen and control audio/video—all of this, in an elegant, full-screen presentation that was compatible across multiple browsers and platforms.

Our Plan
Our intended workflow was to have our workshop participants begin sketching and storyboarding on sticky notes, index cards and whiteboards, then move onto laptops, from writing in markdown on our wiki to HTML5 via Pandoc. In the wiki, we could write a “script” for each story segment, including not only the text, but the images and audio as well. The wiki allowed everyone in the group to edit, make quick changes, create new segments, and quickly see and click through their results in a browser window.

John and I worked out extensions to Deck.js to facilitate audio and video triggers at different places, a global navigation system, and some custom effects for builds. The idea was to keep the gory details of the HTML5 production contained in an iterative production pipeline, in order to o facilitate a group of writers working out the story and how to tell it, letting them work through it in an agile, iterative way.
We gathered 12 people in June 2014 for the workshop: Kyle Carpenter, Alexandra Caufin, Jodie Childers, Jennifer Delner, Bob Fletcher, Rochelle Gold, Nicola Harwood, Inba Kehoe, Shazia Ramji, Kaitlyn Till, Jessica Tremblay. They were mostly graduate students and academics, but also writers, editors and photographers.

As Adam Hyde has pointed out, to run a successful Book Sprint you need: good people, a good venue, good food and an experienced facilitator. We had just two of these: a good venue and good people. We didn’t have the budget for catering and we were certainly not experienced at this sort of engagement!. What we did have was 15 hungry people in a room with lots of computers and technology on tap, and paper of all sizes.

Over the space of a week we came together on a storyline, a script, imagery, and ideas for animation and audio. Our workshop goal was to create, experiment and discover new tools, to explore new methods, to collaborate ‘digitally’, to forge new territory. Collectively we called what we created The Last Cartographer, a ‘neo-diluvian’ tale of love and loss, set in near-future Vancouver. By the end of the week-long session, we had a five-part, not-quite-linear narrative, mostly created using text and images, but with audio, video, and animation elements as well. (fig-0-LastCartographer.png – “The Last Cartographer’s opening screen”)

As a separate effort, The Last Cartographer was later further developed by my 3rd. Year design students and I at Emily Carr University of Art & Design in September. There are now 5 versions of the Cartographer story, based on the same story, but differing in visual and interactive treatments.

Working on paper
We liked to say that The Last Cartographer was produced entirely using free open web technologies. That was our intention but the reality is that this piece was produced mostly on paper. (fig-1-Collaborating using paper)

Our participants largely worked on paper, whether on stickies, flipcharts or index cards and whiteboards. They drew and talked, wrote and talked. In fact, probably the bulk of the week was spent sketching on paper. Why? Because paper affords extremely quick, easy, social development of ideas.
(fig-2-cardsorting.jpg – “Moving story fragments around on paper”)

It’s also worth mentioning that the workshop attracted people who identified as writers, not designers, nor coders. But despite that, they mostly produced sketches and storyboards, rather than any amount of text. They thought primarily in terms of a small bit of text in the foreground and a background image, much like a picture book. Where did this model come from? Was it from Kate’s influence via Flight Paths? Or perhaps presenting my work on CBC Radio 3 magazine during the week? Or something else?
(fig-4-sequencing.jpg “Storyboarding, sequencing and visualizing”)

We’ve all read our fair share of picture books. Could this pattern be so ingrained that it seeps into our thoughts of onscreen fiction inconspicuously enabling us to fall into the patterns – the modes of storytelling – that are most comfortable and familiar to us? John and I provided a straightforward production workflow but it wasn’t fluid enough to really allow our writers to work creatively within it. The ideas were being generated outside of the tools.

Jamming it out: The Wolf
In the weeks before the workshop, while John and I were working out how we would scaffold things together, and while we were evaluating frameworks, we threw together a little story about a lonely wolf, using Deck.js. The idea was mostly to test out what we were doing: image, text, placement, backgrounds, masking. John created a few screens, I created a few, John added more, etc. We bounced a story back and forth between us. It was a jam session, akin to two musicians tuning up our instruments and warming up. Between the two of us we have something approaching 40 years of web development experience; we improvised our Wolf story, in markdown, raw HTML, CSS, jQuery, while ‘tuning up’. In contrast, in our June workshop, we improvised using paper: on stickies and flipcharts, in words, in sketches and in arrangements.

With hindsight we are now able to look critically on our Digital Fiction Workshop experience. We see three main points of reflection. First, the role of proficiency in creating digital fiction. Second, how profoundly the tools shape our outcomes. And third, the important distinction between composing and improvising in the context of creating digital media.

The Role of Proficiency
Our workshop participants mostly defaulted to creating on paper and pencil. Although they were all proficient with digital tools, when it came to creating collaboratively, paper simply didn’t get in the way of their ideas and creative process. Paper does a surprisingly good job of enabling fast, iterative idea development—something not lost on designers, nor software developers.

We also put software in front of our writers: easy to use tools like wikis. Yet software only gets out of the way of one’s creative inspiration when you know it intimately. This is something that John and I were able to do, jamming through our improvised Wolf story, because of many years of coding, designing, and web development. Chimero puts it well, “Let’s talk about making tools. The things we make should either reduce pain, increase pleasure, or do some mix of the two.” Yet this was not an experience open to our workshop participants. Fortunately, they found ways around it, photographing their storyboards and sequencing their narratives in a variety of crafty ways that often approached but perhaps never quite reached final resolution.

In our talk at Books in Browsers 2013, we spoke about the craft of publishing and the importance of understanding the grain or materiality of digital media. With a better understanding of materiality we are able to craft with nuance in mind. Taking advantage of the idiosyncrasies of the medium, to create more sophisticated forms of expression, forms that are appropriate for and unique to digital narratives.

In the workshop, there was a comfort with exploring and experimenting with characters, setting, themes and plot. This is where most of the improvisation occurred. Our group was less able to experiment with the presentation level with software. We believe that with a stronger understanding of the possibilities that come with digital media and some solid coding skills, our group would have been able to jam out some amazing concepts directly in the digital realm.
Tools & Frameworks
In our workshop we gave our participants tools that we thought would be open and malleable in shaping a digital piece of work. Yet even these loosely connected open web tools implied a very specific way to present content. To move beyond the prescribed way that, for instance, Deck.js wants to be used requires a level of comfort and proficiency with software of that kind. It appears that the tools we chose clearly dictated the type of narrative that would be produced. Many of the commercially available software tools for creating digital books are just as limiting.

My colleague Celeste Martin at Emily Carr University of Art + Design has catalogued the various interaction patterns that a majority of electronic books follow . Each pattern clearly details a style of navigation & content delivery – essential learning for designers with digital books. Yet these rudimentary patterns are directly linked to specific software platforms. Each platform is optimized for a specific interaction pattern and we are not easily able to push beyond the prescribed navigation and content presentation paradigms.
(fig-6-ebook-patterns.png – Celeste Martin’s Book Patterns)

Software can transcend mere utility when it allows its user to simultaneously think expansively while providing abstract constraints that help organize and build mental models. Consider how Jazz musicians use the harmonic structures of standard jazz repertoire as a shared foundation to improvise upon:

Many of the most popular jazz compositions — the standards — are repeatedly transcribed and compiled into Real Books and often used as learning tools. Real Books, as well as their many variations (Fake, Latin Jazz, Jazz Rock and, latterly, iReal Books), provide conventional harmonic sequences and phrase components that are acquired and employed as parts of each new musician’s improvisational complex vocabulary.

Just as Haftor Medbøe explains the importance of creating frameworks for Jazz musicians to build shared understanding and foundational structure for improvisational collaboration. Liz Danzico also described how designers of software could approach improvisation as a goal:

“Just as Miles Davis created a new form of jazz that allowed a new generation of musicians to play beyond themselves, so do we have the opportunity to create frameworks for audiences to create in realtime.”

Apart from iBooks Author, all the other platforms require a dual mode of creation: compose then preview, compose then preview, and repeat. This switching of modes is slow and tedious and makes the tools too opaque. Where as the visual (direct manipulation) tools are the ones that seem to melt away, becoming transparent and allowing for improvised moments. How can we seriously approach creating digital fiction without having (a) a mature, visual, Direct Manipulation toolkit, or (b) ten years or more experience with the code so that you can visualize what your code will produce before you see it rendered? The latter seems to be what experienced web developers do, thinking in code but imagining what appears in the browser. It’s a mode that clearly works, but it seems to limit creative engagement.

Composing & Improvising
Composing, in music, requires that same kind of abstract sense, where you can imagine the orchestra playing the notes you write. In the same sense, coding with web technology requires you to imagine how the browser will render your code. Most of the software we use on our personal computers today are designed for composition not improvisation. Yet improvisation is critical if digital fiction is ever going to be art.

As Alan Kay puts it,

There is the desire of a consumer society to have no learning curves. This tends to result in very dumbed-down products that are easy to get started on, but are generally worthless and/or debilitating. We can contrast this with technologies that do have learning curves, but pay off well and allow users to become experts (for example, musical instruments, writing, bicycles…)

We seem to be always striving to improvise with consumer level software but unable to reach interesting results because those tools support general patterns and conventions rather than the deep engagement that facilitates improvisation. Alan Kay urged us to improvise on the early generations of the personal computer. He wanted us to build our own tools that would allow us to put things together dynamically.

Designer Bruce Mau also suggested we make your own tools in his Incomplete Manifesto for Growth: “Hybridizing your tools in order to build unique things. Even simple tools that are your own can yield entirely new avenues of exploration.”

Creating small open tools for publishers to build their own unique platforms will amplify our capacities, allow the improvisation and fluid ideation that is necessary in creating new works of digital fiction. Even though software companies urge us toward fully-digital workflows, we are reminded that creative people collaborate well using plain paper. We aspire to carry the spirit of improvisation and brainstorming through the entire creative process and not compartmentalize it within the early pre-digital phase of a project. Improvising throughout a project has the potential of introducing media experimentation along with conceptual ideation.
Media researcher Paul Nemirovsky argues, “in order to facilitate this kind of exploration, (1) computational tools must actively participate in the creative process and (2) the interaction framework must allow structural exploration of media. This leads to our main claim: improvisation should be considered a valid and appropriate paradigm for media interaction.”

We might ask ourselves how might Stein, Woolf, Vonnegut, Burgess, Burroughs or Dahl have approached digital fiction narratives? How would they have found ways to experiment with media and create experiential narrative structures? It is not until we forge our own tools that allow us to engage deeply and fluidly with media, and meaningfully explore creativity and new genres.


Mineblock Product Design

Design Process

To me, the MINEBLOCK project represents an excellent example of the convergence of a vast number of technical, digital, physical and human constraints. Knowing that being able to keep a close eye on all of these considerations simultaneously was going to be next to impossible, I asked a few friends to help with the product design aspect of the project. I requested Jason Miller’s assistance, he’s a recent graduate of the Emily Carr University Industrial Design program and the talented Afshin Mehin of Woke Design ( who I meet working on the Recon Instruments project and acted essentially in a consulting capacity.
The following article documents our design process and perhaps acts as a bookmark for some of the issues that we encountered along the way. The software for MINEBLOCK went through about six small iterations to get to the point of a satisfactory user experience but the product design, the challenge in this realm was sewing a number of different technologies together to work seamlessly and alleviate end users from difficult configurations, this took roughly 4 weeks. In comparison, the product design which also took 4 weeks went through about twice as many iterations and varied greatly from the original intention. The prototyping of the product was framed by the criteria of Form, Material and Construction, which lead to discussions about final production techniques and cost of labour. The physical prototyping was done in parallel with the software prototyping and sometimes informed each other. In retrospect this was although difficult with a small team, it was clearly the right way to proceed and without the clear interplay between physical and digital the product would not have ended up in such an elegant minimal style.

Early Sketches

– exploring horizontal bottom, vertical and diagonal board placement


The Cube

Since the early days of the project, I was adamant the product reflect Minecraft’s unique visual language in a subtle understated way, the cube was the most obvious form to begin experimenting with. Because the large lego-like perfect cubes were the elemental construction blocks of Minecraft, it seemed only fitting to have the MINEBLOCK reference the same aesthetic. I was set on having the enclosure for MINEBLOCK be wood but was unsure of the size, type and the construction. I believe that there’s an interesting tension or contrast between the digital nature and precision of the Raspberry Pi and the organic materiality of a wooden box.

The size of the Raspberry Pi was one hard constraint with it’s longest dimension being 85mm and secondly with RPi Model B the I/O was one three sides of the PCB and the fourth side had a SD card. One of the questions that came up was, does the MINEBLOCK allow for access to all the inputs and outputs or should it conceal the ones that are not necessary?
For the first physical prototype a lego box was assembled with my 8 year old son to give us a sense of the size of a cube that would contain a Raspberry Pi. Early on, it seemed that a cube would be quite large and was starting to give the impression of an object that is not portable. This would be an issue as one of the key values of the MINEBLOCK is its portable nature.

Lego box

wooden plywood construction

The next prototype was a wooden box constructed of quarter-inch plywood glued together. This ended up feeling somewhat large both in your hand as well as in a backpack or handbag. It became immediately clear that MINEBLOCK should not be a pure cube and convey the sense of cubes in another way.
For more cube explorations see MetaCube Article (written for Tangible Computing Course July 2014)

Flattened Cube

The next round of prototypes took the shape of a flattened cube, all with different types of wood and construction. First we tried laser-cutting side panels with box joints for a simple construction but visually the prototype looked cluttered and rather than referencing the visual world as Lego or Minecraft, its reading was more in the Arts & Crafts realm. Then we tried hollowing out a 2 x 4″” piece of wood to contain the Raspberry Pi and as a group we agreed unanimously about the direction of using a solid block of wood.

CNC (Computer Numerical Cutter) cut flattened cube

Laser-cut and box-jointed

Over the next week we experimented with a variety of ways of hollowing out wood. The first approach was arguably the easiest. Using a computer numerical control (CNC) machine we were able to get a clean accurate cut in the form of the Illustrator file that we provided the operator with. Our first attempt was with soft spruce 2x4x4″ block and cost 6 minutes of time on the CNC ($1.50/min). The second approach was the quickest, using a drill press and Forstner bit (See diagram) to drill 5 holes into the block of wood. Even with the final chiselling to finish/clean up some of the unwanted residue this approach was fast but inaccurate, hard to reproduce and gave us little insight into the actual future production technique. The third approach was to build a template jig to help guide a handheld router with a 1/4″ routing bit. This technique was challenging as each pass of the router was to be 1/4″ maximum which ended up being 5 passes. This technique would not be appropriate for production as it took a great deal of time and it would be extremely difficult to yield consistent results in this manner.

Drill Press to hollow out block

RaspberryPi in hollowed wooden block

The final experiment was to return to the CNC machine with our final choice of wood, Birch and the exact depth for hollowing a block. This approach also cost 6 minutes in time and the results were accurate and beautiful. Additionally the machine operator assured us that if you were to do a larger number of blocks you could have them all be hollowed out of one large plank and then cut would be an efficient way to produce a larger production run. This approach was by far the most promising production technique.


CNC prototypes at Makerlabs

Closing the box

We tried a number of ways of giving the box a lid or closing panel. The option that seemed most appropriate was the 1/4″ acrylic bottom plate, which if in a smoked, dark tint would give the impression that the wooden box was floating with a slight drop shadow. Next came the issue of exposing the inputs and outputs of the Raspberry Pi. The biggest issue being birch’s density and thickness not allowing us to laser-cut onto the hollowed block. After many experiments we discovered that the best way would be to laser cut two acrylic panels that would allow for the RPi’s inputs and outputs. These panels could be cut out of the same material as the bottom plate and could be glued together to reduce the number of pieces while still allowing users to be able to access their RPi by only loosening a few screws on the bottom plate.

Large cutouts for RPi I/O

Lasercut tinted acrylic panels

Our MINEBLOCK size changed quite a bit over our process. The final change was to make the cube 105 x 105 x 45mm. Although this was only a 1/4″ smaller than our original cube if felt much better in your hand.




Identity Design

I may have left the brand identity component to the end of this article but it is by no means less important or the one we thought about the least. The were many sketches and ideas for how the visual language would be represented on the MINEBLOCK. Where would the logo sit? How would the block exude a cube visual language? How would it touch on the Minecraft aesthetic in a subtle way. The initial logo had a simple isometrically-drawn cube in it and the idea of bringing that cube into a 3D representation came about.

Initial Logo design

We experimented with quite a few approaches before we decided on one. Here are some of the more successful ones:

  1. laser-cut cube
  2. shallow router indentation of cube
  3. Cube cutout
  4. Acrylic block glued into corner

Lasercut Burned Logo

cube cut out and embossed with router

Final Design

MINEBLOCK with acrylic cube glued into corner

Acrylic Bottom plates in fluorescent colours adds a beautiful glow



Last week O’Reilly Media hosted the Solid Conference in San Francisco I thought I’d post a quick summary of the high level themes that I heard talked about.

I know what you’re thinking, another conference where speakers spit out buzzwords like 3D printing, internet of things, drones, crowd-funding, and so on but I was utterly impressed by the rigour and depth of the presentations and curation of content at O’Reilly’s Solid conference in San Francisco last week. Although anyone looking carefully at design and technology can see that there’s been a steady shift towards the harmonic unity of hardware and software – a merging of digital services and physical products, it is still important to see O’Reilly formalize this shift in thinking and acknowledge the momentum that has gathered at this conference.

1. Hardware and Software are converging

You probably heard this one before, but what does it mean exactly? At Solid many presentations suggested that not only are many of today’s products a combination of physical materials and digital media, but some of the more successful examples of hardware/software hybrids are discovering harmony between digital and physical attributes across objects and services.

2. New Digitial Materiality

Not only are hardware and software merging together but Neil Gershenfield (MIT) and a few others suggest that we’re close to creating new materials that have digital computing capabilities within. It’s difficult to conceive but we’ll be able to turn data into things and things into data. There was a particular quote that I enjoyed by Gershenfield, “There is no machine, the material is assembling itself” when describing their new research project.


Sample of MIT’s Cellular composite material (Image: Kenneth Cheung)

Gershenfield went on to describe a few applications of this new digital material starting with airplanes, then moving to the work MIT is doing with Homeland Security to deploying the material to assemble mountains that act as barriers to hurricanes. Yes, I know, mind-blowing.

3. World becomes an API

As the world becomes embedded with sensors and semi-smart objects networked together we’re able to bind them all together with software. The opportunities become abundant when these devices are interconnected and software APIs allow us to request and push data throughout systems.

4. Designing above the single device level

Probably the single most quoted example at Solid was Nest and it’s easy to see why. The Nest product is a neatly packaged bundle of hardware and software that takes advantage of its network capability. As you add more Nests to your home the value of their service increases. This intentional design perspective is emerging as we move towards creating networked objects.

On day two, Tim O’Reilly drove home the point of user experience becoming a critical component of a usable internet of things. He urges that we think deeply about both the implicit and explicit levels of interactions of networked objects and their systems.

5. Design beyond the Screen

Much like Spike Jonze’s vision of the not-so-distant future (Her 2013) suggests that screens might not be as necessary or desirable as many of the predictions of glass interfaces everywhere may have implied. A number of examples of projects at Solid show inventive ways of interfacing with users using inventive ways of acquiring input through sensors and computer vision and user feedback and communication with LED or sound actuators. I believe Josh Clark’s talk summarized it well:

“We can use new hardware sensors not just to capture data or talk to other devices, but to create new interactions”.

Although I’m unable to attend the Eyeo Festival this year I feel grateful to have been a part of Solid and am pleased to hear that O’Reilly intends on making it an annual event. There was a general feeling of excitement and optimism in the audience and Andrew Crow of GE’s quote sums it up well –

“Rarely do conferences sit on the edge of future possibility like this.”

I strongly recommend taking some time to watch the Keynote talks on youtube:
Youtube playlist of the Keynote presentations


Role Playing at an Intersection

Today I wanted to reflect on my role in the team on the Recon Jet Project. This project is another chance for me to experiment with the intersection between design and development disciplines. As many of us have learned, there are many ways to communicate our intentions and proposed solutions in digital media. One of the greater issues in digital creation is the fundamental difference in how designers and developers communicate and work. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with my contemporaries about the near-misses and train wrecks that have been caused by ill communication between designers and developers. The problem amplifies as companies build design departments and agile development teams that have no way of working together. What do you do if you feel like you’re both a developer and a designer and feel that picking sides isn’t the best way forward?

As with most research, I have more questions than answers. How do we negotiate these differences between developers and designers? Can we start by beginning to understand the differences in perspectives and building a bridge by agreeing upon common language and shared work methodologies?

I’m fascinated by how differently we think and how culture plays such a huge part in how we interpret the world. It’s become one of my favourite dinner conversations at my house, many of the discussions stem from this article that I read about how Americans see the world differently called We Aren’t the World which is based on a research paper called The Weirdest People in the World

I’ve chosen to challenge myself this term by not playing the role of the typical UX designer as this is an area that I’ve spent 15 years practising and teaching. It’s not to say that I’ve learned all there is to know about design, but rather that one of the areas that much of the design industry is still in the dark about is the communication with developers. I would go so far as to say that designers become better at design by learning more about coding and how programmers think.

The way to explore this intersection will be using Lean UX methods. If you’re curious to know more about Lean UX, here’s a great article by Jeff Gothelf, the author of O’Reilly’s Lean UX book:

What are your experiences of negotiating the designer/developer intersection?

Daily Data Visualization

After attending the EYEO conference this year and hanging out with Fire Friends I was inspired to challenge myself to creating a daily data visualization during the month of July. As it happens, I’m in the south of France & London for most of the month and I’d like the visualizations to center around our family holiday. I am working to gather data and images as I go and I’m sure the results will both vary greatly and bring a new perspective on personal data, information design and coding.

You’ll be able to check back with me on how it’s going each day. Although I haven’t given myself a time deadline for each day because well, you know, I’m on holiday.

See the Daily Visualizations here:

Day 01: Jetlag
Day 02: Colour Abstraction
Day 03: Lethargy

If you have any ideas for specific types of visualizations let me know I’ll try them out.

EYEO 2013

This past week Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center has been filled with artists, coders, and interactive intelligentsia from around the world for the Eyeo Festival. What is Eyeo? a media art, interaction and information conference? Is it creative coding? Is it a data visualization conference? Is it design? Storytelling? “Yeah,” said festival co-founder Dave Schroeder, addressing an auditorium, “It is all of those things.”
Now in its third iteration, the festival is four days of talks, workshops, and social interactions that acknowledge technology and art, interaction, and information — and their intersections The projects that emerge from these territories are exciting and seems they are all being shared here. Data is also changing; data is no longer numbers — it’s words, a social media feed, a color, a sensor, a houseplant, or a ship. Access points to data are expanding and processes and tool sets that manage data are evolving, becoming more transparent, and are now open, malleable and ready for us to shape to tell stories .
What happens when possibilities, ideas and community come together? Great design, alternative storytelling, and inspiring theory ensue. Here are five reasons to follow the festival, and its practitioners, as this community grows and continues to leave brilliance in its path.

One of the aspects of Eyeo that I most appreciate is its brandlessness. Yes, I know, Eyeo itself is a brand, and there are certainly intersections between art, code, and advertising, but “interactive” isn’t limited to the next hot startup, million-dollar app, or the latest service. Eyeo distinguishes itself from other festivals, like SXSW Interactive, for its lack of commercialization and focus on the intelligence of good projects. Eyeo reminds us that art is essential to digital innovation and the ethics of the community prioritizes responsive ideas, creative solutions, and alternative storytelling rather then trying to make a buck. As one panelist joked, “Data visualization artists are kind of the free R&D departments for Ad agencies.” Perhaps a sarcastic side effect, but producing cool work on ones own volition, for me, is a true artistic gesture.

Eyeo 2013 – Kyle McDonald from Eyeo Festival // INSTINT on Vimeo.

Ideas are better when they are shared

Media artist Kyle McDonald finds inspiration in a collective and continual awareness of how and what is released to the ether of the Internet. We only give things half of our attention anyway, so McDonald encourages us to think of projects in small but elegant and sharable terms and calls us to action with tweet-sized proposals for projects to take and run with. His brainchildren, each of them less then 140 characters, include open-ended proposals for the public to realize like “sand-sorting machine to automate sand granule tonalities” or “subtractive modeling in foam with high-frequency heterodyning.” Take these and do with them what you will. Others the artist turns into real artists projects, like a “scattered array of 50 mirror balls reflect light from three projectors, filling a room completely, casting patterns that fill the visitor’s peripheral vision,” which evolved into Light Leaksor “a room full of Sonos speakers that follow you through the space” turned into a interactive installation and collaboration with musicians the XX for their music video for “Missing.”

Eyeo 2013 – Casey Reas from Eyeo Festival // INSTINT on Vimeo.

Software is a relevant art form
Artist and professor Casey Reas offered to dispel the density of software as visual arts medium, as well as the context for viewing and understanding software as art form. A professor at UCLA, Reas articulates that software-as-art arrived as early as the 1970s, and has been ushered out for decades, in tandem with Conceptual Art. Software meets the criteria of an artistic medium as it is both a tool set and matrial. Reas is not only a proponent of this thinking, he developed a series of principals for code that replace the antiquated ‘principals of art’ you may have learned in high school – Unity, Harmony, Variety, Balance – are replaced with computation-specific variables including Repeat, Parameterize, Transform, Visualize, and Simulate. These are not methods of process for emerging software artists, but also by extension criteria by which we can bring clarity to, and critical discussion around, digital art forms.

Chocolate, History Flow (2003). Image courtesy of
Data is not (just) numbers.
Visualization typically happens with numbers; quantitative truths are achieved by objectivity. Fernanda Viegas and Martin Wattenberg of hint.fmask us to consider the subjective truths — what people are thinking, or rather, obsessing about: the data on the periphery of the data. The interesting link between objective and subjective data, and maybe an overarching theme at the conference, is the notion of the self-appointed project. What better example of the self-appointed project than Wikipedia! Viegas and Wattenberg use words with a color-coded ledger as data to uncover the secret obsessions of self-appointed Wikipedian entries, edits, and patrolling, in History Flow (2003). The result is a Missoni-esque pattern in florescent colors only native to hex-codes, riddled with subjective data and human interruptions and vandalism. In a more recent project, the collaborative creates composites from varying discontinuities of digital versions of famous artworks in Reproduction (2011).

Visualizing Painters Lives, All rights reserved by

A short, well-designed story
The “show don’t tell” mantra applies for data-visualization artist Giorgia Lupi, who acquaints us with the notion that stories don’t have to be told with articles or event statements. Storytelling through data mapping allows for retelling of non-linear and layered stories in ways that are clear and in data that can represent reductive, but complete, information. Often constraints — like time, space, and information — are also resources. The founder of Italian data visualization studio Accurat continued to show, not tell, us about the lives and works of 10 abstract painters through clean, well designed diagrams highlighting palette, size and artistic period of masterpieces, as well as love affairs and life events, throughout their career trajectories. The designer is also an advocate of drawing out ideas to visualize as she works, reminding us that the Italian verb for “draw” is synonymous with “design” or “plan.”
This summary is just the tip of the iceberg, EYEO was packed with inspirational moments, sometimes even between the talks and workshops. Try to get there next year, I know I will.

Designing in a Post Digital Era

To understand the notion of ‘Post-Digital’ I have written this short formal essay to represent my perspective on a conceptual exploration I have been on with a few fellow professors over the past year. This is strickly my position in a mental exercise that Vjeko Sager, Duane Elverum and I agreed to participate in and does not reflect our overall group perspective.

The purpose of this essay is to introduce the concept of Post-Digital and suggest ways for people to be creative in a Post-Digital environment. This may be important to anyone interested in how Digital Media has had impact on culture, creation, communication and the idea of property.

Although related, I feel this essay discusses the Post-Digital concept in a very different way than James Bridle’s New Aesthetic, which looks at how digital artifacts and glitches can be used as a stylistic movement in design or art. I believe that the concept of Post-Digital should be a deeper dive conceptually than a surface-level glance at how digital tools can influence our design fashion.

Our initial attempt to define ‘Post-Digital’ came by describing what we felt we had lost and found in our experiences with being creative in the digital space. This thought experiment challenged us to think hard about the things we did that were conceptually different before and after we began creating in the digital world.

My first inclination was to say that the Digital era has given us ‘new eyes’. Much like how Charles & Ray Eames gave us a way of thinking and understanding scale and distance in their milestone film, Power of Ten. Some say the digital era has given us the ability to stretch time and space, at the very least it has given us a way to see beyond our normal capacity – magnifying incredibly fine details of images or sound or panning out to ‘see’ how nine Beethoven symphonies plot out over time. The notion of being able to convert something that happens over a great length of time or space into one macro view is a digital one. Although it has been done before we had digital technology, digital culture has brought that type of thinking to the every-day designer or artist.

This brings me to what I believe is the most important aspect of what I have found as a creator in the digital era. The digital world let’s us traverse media seamlessly. When I am creating with digital tools I can live in the moment and improvise without the borders that we have in the physical or analogue space.

In the digital space, everything becomes your raw material for creating. Everything is up for grabs – duplicatable and malleable. Everything can be converted from one medium to another. The boundaries melt away. I’m able to make something out of something else.

The digital medium let’s me convert sound into visual, and visual into sound. My multi-disciplinary tendencies are unconfined and my creative pursuit is unencumbered by artificial constructs. Perhaps digital media is allowing us to be truly multi-disciplinary.

What I believe to be an amazing advantage in the digital realm may also the cause of my greatest loss – my focus. In my teens I played guitar with laser focus and by university I was playing professionally and had gained a mastery of the instrument. The single-minded intensity and desire brought me the level of proficiency and intimacy with the guitar that in turn gave me the ability to express myself in extraordinary ways. Essentially, I am still striving for that same level of self-expression in the digital sphere. Is it even possible or reasonable to have the same aspiration?

Certain aspects of the digital sphere has an intoxicating allure, that tend to splinter focus and encourage tangential exploration. It offers keyword connections, a vast array of choices for any one niche and multple ways of doing the same thing.

Often these tangents bring me back to my original goal with new-found fodder, and sometimes it fragments a project into a thousand pieces.

In the conclusion I’d like to suggest ways of working in the digital space so as to not fracture and dilutes your original goal. Perhaps we should only work in the digital environment when we have to and complete whatever is possible in a physical or analogue way. How would confining part of your process to the digital world effect your outcome? Why would I want to do that? Because I feel that physical expressions in the design world may be an important key for communicating complex ideas and information. Additionally, allowing people to interact with data in a tangible form may help them understand the data in ways we have not been able to do before. But perhaps that’s another topic to be explored in another essay.

Multitouch Screen Design Research Articles

Over the past year I’ve been researching how to design for Multitouch devices after our experience of designing the Beluga Whale exhibit for the Vancouver Aquarium. I’ve pulled what I think are last year’s ten best posts for your enjoyment.

1. 5 Questions for Planning a Multitouch Interface

2. Creating Intuitive Gestures Using Object Orientation

3. Basic Human Factors for Multitouch/Interactive Displays

4. Critiquing James Bond’s Multitouch Computer

5. Indirect vs. Direct Manipulation

6. New Multitouch Interface Conventions

7. The Coming Multitouch Gesture IP Wars

8. Why Microsoft’s Future Vision Will Fail

9. Building an Effective Multitouch Keyboard

10. Why Microsoft is Smart to Open Digital Lifestyle Stores

Alex Steffen Lecture

On September 8th, 2010 Alex Steffen gave a lecture to the public at Emily Carr University of Art + Design. If the name is unfamiliar to you, Alex Steffen is someone you should read about. He edited the book WorldChanging, a 600 page:

A Users Guide for the 21st Century is a groundbreaking compendium of the most innovative solutions, ideas and inventions emerging today for building a sustainable, livable, prosperous future.

Steffen painted a bleak picture of what our world could be like if we continue to misuse it. The talk was filled with memorable little sound bits like “Global Somalia” and “Alligators in the Arctic” and although he described a pretty grim image of the world in 2050 he seemed hopeful that we could change this path that we’re on.

I was able to record his talk on my phone and have posted the full hour lecture just below. Have a listen and let me know what you think.

[audio:|titles=Alex Steffen Lecture]