Decoding Design

At MoMA, exploring a formula for innovative design: personality plus utility

Posting in Architecture

At New York's Museum of Modern Art, the exhibition "Talk to Me" looks at how designers create objects and interfaces that connect emotionally with people.

NEW YORK -- On a recent sultry Manhattan night, hundreds of people ignored excessive heat warnings for New York City and crowded into the sleek corridors of the Museum of Modern Art. They were there to preview "Talk to Me," a new exhibition of 200 wildly divergent objects, photographs, videos, and Internet projects. The thought-provoking show is meant to illustrate how designers are increasingly creating products that are not only easy to use, but also resonate with people on an emotional level.

The show opens to the public on July 24 and is on view through November 7.

The pieces included in "Talk to Me" range from the absurd, such as a set of oversized prosthetic lips meant to help shy people physically smile (created by German-born designer Sascha Nordmeyer), to the ultra-utilitarian, as in the mobile-phone payment device from Square, the start-up launched by Twitter founder Jack Dorsey.

"I was inspired by how young children today expect every object to have an interactive interface. They look at all surfaces as if they are touch screens. Often, they try to expand what they see with their fingers," said Paola Antonelli, senior curator in MoMA's Department of Architecture and Design and one of the exhibition's organizers.

"But I was also inspired by my own daily experience of seeing everyday objects as if they are animated, as if I'm living in a 'Looney Tunes' cartoon," Antonelli said. "I think back to when I looked at my first Mac Classic computer and thought, 'doesn't it look like a pet on my desk?'"

PERSONALITY TEST

Antonelli admits that designers have long infused products with a sense of "personality" to entice people to use them, with the goal of high sales and customer loyalty. Think, for instance, of Apple's Mac Classic, popular in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It featured a beloved smiley-faced icon that appeared onscreen when the machine booted up, a detail that helped set the tone of Apple's user-friendly design legacy for decades to come.

"What's different now is that designers' general awareness of objects' personalities has changed," Antonelli said. Today, she explained, designers are expected to infuse everything from healthcare devices to airline check-in kiosks with charming details. The goal is to draw us in and keep us coming back to a brand or an experience. It's not enough to make a phone, for example, that works dependably. The phone has to achieve a deep relationship with its user to win in the marketplace.

Successful designers do so by analyzing how their target customers think and behave. In addition, they understand the properties of technologically advanced materials to shape them into fresh products. In 2011, that means marrying extensive research into human behavior as well as the ability to understand how software works, because "the predominant material is software. Today's best designers understand this material and then push software to the limit," Antonelli said.

PLAYFUL AND THOUGHT-PROVOKING, NOT OBVIOUS

That said, you'd expect Apple products to be included in "Talk to Me," but they aren't.

The selection that Antonelli and her co-curator Kate Carmody have put together is much more playful and thought-provoking than it is obvious. Yes, the curators include some corporate examples of today's more "human"-centered design, such as an energy-visualization Web site created by famed design firm Pentagram for General Electric’s ecomagination environmental-awareness and education program. The site translates abstract energy-usage terms such as "kilowatt hours" into easy-to-understand, everyday equivalents such as dollars or gallons of gas.

"Sometimes, people try to separate the worlds of education, art, and commerce, but I believe that today entrepreneurship and creativity go hand in hand," Antonelli said when asked why she and Carmody decided to mix corporate work alongside more experimental pieces.

Many items in "Talk to Me" seem to be works of art rather than examples of traditional design, such as "Analog Digital Clock," a 12-hour video by the Dutch designer Maarten Baas. The reason why the video is so lengthy is because Baas presents what looks like, at first glance, a classic digital alarm-clock interface, with block-like numbers indicating the passing of seconds, minutes, and hours.

But watch the images on the screen closely, and you'll notice that the digits are really hand-drawn painstakingly by an actor in real-time. At a recent preview of the exhibition, several viewers jumped back in shock when they made the realization. (If you can't make it to New York, you can download "Analog Digital Clock" as an iPhone or iPad app for 99 cents on Apple's iTunes App Store.)

POETIC MEETS PRAGMATIC

Other works showcased in "Talk to Me" fall somewhere in between the realms of art and practicality. One surprising piece is an actual New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority MetroCard vending machine, the very same one that millions of New Yorkers have used daily to purchase subway or bus fares since its debut in 1999.

Antenna Design, working with the MTA New York City Transit Team, carefully designed the MetroCard kiosk to allow public transit riders to complete automated transactions swiftly and without much instruction. The designers offered simple, high-contrast graphics and a touch screen meant to attract even technophobes who are accustomed to paying a station booth attendant with cash.

Today, as MTA budgets have shrunk and station booth attendants are rare, the vending machine accounts for the largest chunk of annual revenues generated by the MTA, according to the MTA's latest statistics.

For the show at MoMA, the curators added a creative twist to their presentation of the kiosk, creating a special-edition MetroCard, emblazoned with the exhibition title and a graphic. Museum-goers can buy it in the middle of a gallery (and a few select subway stations), use it for the ride home, and add it to their art collections.

Antonelli said that she and Carmody consciously included many designs that might seem more like art than products to show what intriguing results can occur when designers think on a poetic rather than pragmatic level, with a goal of pushing themselves to innovate.

"Yes, design is defined by thinking about human needs and safety," she said. "But being creative and coming up with new ideas is really important. Having one's mind roam and pursue an absurd goal, along with an awareness of rules and regulations in mind, can remind a designer of what's possible. Even if an idea may seem impossible at first."

Photos: Scott Rudd

Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure