Lecture Liveblog: 9-4-2007

Liveblog for the 9-4-2007 lecture. No promises that I’ll come back and clean this up, but please comment and continue with the lecture discussions!

Interaction design concerns itself with “the material without qualities.”For all design disciplines, the notion of design material is critical. In many cases, we describe design professions in regards to the materials they work with. Carpenters are described as designers who work with wood, potters with clay, architects with buildings, etc.An example from organizational design. What are the materials of design of the strategic plan for the School of Informatics?

  • Goals
  • Rules and Regulations

Not quite, these goals are shared by many professions. Carpenters have goals and rules.

  • Students
  • Faculty
  • Curriculum

These are closer to the materials used to design the School’s strategic plan.

The similarities and differences between materials help create the different design disciplines. The process for creating a pot and a shelf might be quite similar, but give a carpenter clay and a potter wood and they will not know what to do. Material is central to their design craft. Craftspeople (designers) intuitively know that a deep understanding of the material of design is essential to the discipline.

However, there is a distinct difference in the case of organizational designers and those of carpentry, pottery, etc. Organizational designers work with a material (people, policies, etc) that is often far removed from the materials that the business produces (cars, televisions, health care, etc.). CEOs are almost expected to hop industries during their career as a means to refine their craft of organizational design. However, this is not without some struggle as often times a CEO with an unrelated background to that of their new company is vilified by underlings in the organization who doubt the CEOs ability to manage a corporation without understanding the intricacies of the product (material).

So, what is the material of interaction design and how well do you as a designer need to understand the material?

Is there a differentiation between material and tool? Carpenters may not know the history and physics of the hammer, do interaction designers need to understand computers from silicon chips to iconography?

For carpentry, classifying tools and materials is relatively easy. Wood vs. hammer is well understood. What about a programming language? Where does it fall on the spectrum of materials to tools.

What about the constraints that material and tools place on the designer? Wood can only support so much weight and has a specific temperature at which it burns. Hammers can only apply so much force to a nail before they shatter. What are the limits to computational and information technologies?

What about the recursive nature of tools and materials? For many design disciplines, tools are created out of a new need to refine the material. Developing new tools opens up new possibilities for use of existing materials or allows for the acquisition of new materials.

What does it mean to be a good interaction designer in terms of the material? Design disciplines allow for varied relations to the material. The distance from designer to the material influences the quality of the designed product. Imagine a web designer who publishes a page using Google Pages vs. one who programs HTML directly into a text editor. The one who creates HTML directly is more intimate with the material and seeks a level of precision and control not offered by the Google Pages tool.

Materials and tools of design are shared and iterative. The product of one designer may become the material or tool for another. Every tool brings with it a certain set of features and abilities that influence the what the designer can do with the material. A good designer is extremely careful with their tools. At a certain point of skill, designers require the very best possible tools else they are restricted in their ability to modify the material.

The sign of a good designer is someone who knows their tools and why they need those tools. Alternatively, a really good designer can appropriate almost any tool for their work because they have mastered execution of their craft and can compensate for lesser tools.

Even the “material without qualities” has restrictions and limitations. How do you blend digital and physical materials? What will we learn about the limitations of each through their composition?

If digital products have qualities, how can the material they are produced with have none?


  1. tdbowman

    well done. i am also going to try to record the sessions with my ipod and a digital microphone i purchased for this reason, so i could post the files as podcasts if jeff doesn’t mind…. the audio isn’t great, but it is ingestible. let me know if this might be useful.

  2. marty

    I think that digital products have qualities. It is just that the nature of these qualities is unique in its capacity for malleability, plasticity and constant change.

  3. jeffreybardzell

    I totally want to be ingestible. Please feel free to podcast I590. You might also make Tums available.


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