Drawing inspiration

November 8, 1996

Gillian Crampton-Smith reveals how artists in computer-related design are working with engineers to develop software and hardware.

It was clear by 1990 that the increasing miniaturisation of information technology, widespread availability of cheap colour displays and ever-cheaper memory would radically change the computer and electronics industry.

Products began to be used by ordinary people in daily life, not just for work. They were becoming part of consumer culture, bought as much for fashion as function; they needed designing as well as engineering.

It was the right time to reorient the Royal College of Art's computer-related design course towards interaction design, to educate artist-designers to work alongside engineer-designers developing the hardware and software of the future, much as architects work with construction engineers or graphic designers with printers.

We needed to develop a "language" of interaction design, exploring the possibilities of the medium. Compare early film-making that began by drawing from theatre, pointing the camera at the stage, for instance, but soon developed its own artistic grammar.

Interaction design involves designing the experience of interacting with machines, games, exhibitions. Though it draws on many existing design languages (those of graphic design, film narrative, animation) it is different from all of these. The interrelationship of hand, eye and head makes interacting a different kind of experience from looking at a painting, for instance, or watching a film. The challenge was to understand this difference.

We had to invent a way of working that allowed us to model aspects of designs before making them. And we had to forge links with industry, partly for financial reasons: it is hard to support cutting-edge technology on an art-school budget. But more importantly, it was to exchange expertise. Only through connections with industry could we see how the contribution of artist-designers might mesh with the engineering design process.

In 1994 the computer-related design course began a collaboration with Interval Research Corporation, an information technology research group in Palo Alto founded by David Liddle and Paul Allen, one of the founders of Microsoft. Interval agreed to provide Pounds 2.5 million over five years to fund a research studio "to work on topics of mutual interest".

Liddle says of the collaboration: "We get a certain amount of inspiration, the exposure to extremely fresh work, fresh both in the sense of being new and novel, and also in the sense of being somewhat insolent in a challenging kind of way.

"There are very few places set up to do speculative work in a way that you can believe will open up the eyes of your people. We have a lot of good, energetic, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, somewhat scary, aggressive, imaginative people at our place. It isn't that we can't get them; it is that, once they are in our place, well, then they sink down into our little local orthodoxy."

We called the group "The Research Studio" because central to our approach is research through designing and making: using design projects as experiments to test design and cultural ideas. Great designs often emerge from inspiration rather than from analysis, so it is often best to analyse things afterwards.

Our projects are at three different levels, each of which feeds the next. The first is the philosophical level: understanding the process of designing and its effect in society and culture. What does it mean to live in a society that gets ever more of its stimulus from immaterial rather than material things? Is the book dead?

Next is the conceptual level. We use this understanding to explore possible futures through scenarios and prototypes. A recent project, "Monitor as material" with LG Electronics, looked at the way low-cost flat screens might change the domestic landscape. We were not proposing particular products but a different way of looking at electronic products that might inform new product ideas.

The third level is the practical: that of products ready to be made and used, where the context is set and the problem is to design something that works well and to which people respond. This level is usually done through individual consultancy: an installation at the Science Museum is one example.

The studio's creativity and effectiveness depends on the interrelationship of all three levels. Without the more speculative levels, the third, practical, application, becomes thin and tired. We have no difficulty attracting funding for the practical level, and have had modest success in the United States and Pacific rim for conceptual work. But Interval Research, a US company, is the only organisation prepared to fund both the philosophical and the conceptual.

This is perhaps the problem of UK research funding generally. More research funding is being awarded for specific projects where the outcome can be predicted. But there is a danger that there will be little worth applying without some investment in the unpredictable.

Gillian Crampton Smith is head of computer-related design, RoyalCollege of Art.

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