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Talking Tools

Talking Tools

Students, faculty and visiting artists consider the link between digital interfaces and the imagination as part of RISD’s new tool ( ) series.

Panelist Brooks Hagan MFA 02 TX showed the infamous 16th-century RHINOCEROS woodcut Albrecht Dürer created based on a written description of the actual beast as an early example of an interface gone wrong.

This spring’s multidisciplinary tool ( ) forum—conceived by Architecture Critic Joy Ko in partnership with four departments and the RISD Code Studio—continued last week with the second of three open discussions designed to take stock of a range of digital and analogue tools used in creative practice today. Through focused sessions in February, March and April, tool ( ) is bringing together “practitioners pushing the frontier of current modes of artistic and design production, students and academics who integrate learning and teaching with tool-making, and industry players who are developing these tools of trade for widespread use,” Ko explains on the forum site.

The series began in late February with a discussion centered on Artisan-Toolmaker, asking participants to consider the most meaningful, novel, strange or provocative tools they use or only dream about using. Last week’s session on Interfaces<->Imagination—moderated by Assistant Professor of Textiles Brooks Hagan MFA 02 TX—brought together several RISD faculty members, 3D printing expert Duann Scott (who runs the NYC-based consultancy Bits to Atoms) and visiting artist/coder Robert Hodgin 98 SC, who also presented a talk on his groundbreaking digital designs the following evening. Panelists were asked to consider the changing role of interfaces in the world of digital design and how notions of transparency and crowd-sourcing have played into their own creative practices.

Ko kicked off the conversation by noting that the interface-imagination relationship goes two ways and postulated that most users would describe the best interfaces as “seamless” or “frictionless.” While Hodgin immediately concurred, noting that he only notices interfaces when they disappoint him, other panelists disagreed. “A proper interface should introduce a little friction,” Associate Professor of Industrial Design Paolo Cardini maintained, “in order to reflect the relationship between the designer and the user.”

Assistant Professor of Industrial Design Cas Holman pointed out that in the quickly evolving world of digital design, that relationship is in flux. And Scott agreed, noting, “I meet with designers regularly to see how they’re using digital tools and how interfaces can change to meet their needs. The best designers I know are creating their own interfaces.”

In comparing this idea to the analogue notion of jigs and fixtures, Holman joked that she’s sometimes more enamored with the jigs she makes than the objects they’re designed to help fabricate. Digital + Media Critic Evelyn Eastmond MFA 12 DM—a former software engineer who only recently began working non-digitally—noted how critical that kind of ingenuity is at RISD. But Hodgin pointed out the downside: getting distracted from his real goals by the tools he needs to make in order to reach them. “It’s like a painter who gets obsessed with creating the perfect brush and never gets any paint on the canvas,” he quipped.

Panelists agreed that some tools and interfaces completely change the user’s way of thinking. For Cardini, the entire premise of open-source design and unlimited online resources has turned his process on its head. And Hagan said that the visual quality of Nodebox freeware “spoke [his] language and shaped [his] imagination in new ways.”

Holman suggested that regardless of the tools used, the role of the designer is fundamentally changing to that of “meta-designer,” with the end-user in effect becoming the designer. Her goal, she said, is to create designs that set people up for success. “And I never want to include instructions,” she added, noting that “if the client can’t figure out how to use it, I’ve failed as a designer.”

The third and final installment of tool ( ) is scheduled for April 15–16 and will include a multidisciplinary discussion on Place: Applications/Implications.

Simone Solondz

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