Products, Systems

This syllabus/guide is a sketch of the emergent and mutant sphere of expertise known as Digital Product Design. The following hypermedia syllabus will address four questions of this field:

  1. What is Digital?
  2. What is a Product?
  3. What is Design?
  4. What is next?

Put another way, these four questions may be framed as such: What are our raw materials? What does it mean to crystalize a moment, a sentiment, a slice of culture? What are the systems at play? What are spheres of thinking that will inform the next 20 years of a digital product designer's practice?

Contemporary product design is, for the most part, a broken 'graphics' practice.

Designers working in digital contexts are repeating history long-covered by other spheres of knowledge. 'Basic' textual websites are labeled "Brutalist". Two hundred years of industrialized systems designing has been forgotten. Thousands of years of architecture and planning theory are generally ignored.

One may note the examples above as artifacts of a prior time, but even the future is bland. Our tools are ancient, broken, and static. Our institutions are stuck on 'mockups' and 'animation' as baseline elements of defining a product system. Everywhere you look, we're still designing for the constraints of device screens.

Throughout this syllabus–sketch, we'll be exploring methods to envision and develop a future-aware practice.

Note from Édouard:

This work is open to continual editing and reinterpretation. We are nestled within a mere ten years of the establishment of a modern product design practice, and it's likely things will change, rapidly. Please feel free to contribute via Github, or message me with suggestions.

Structure, Expectations, and Goals:

Structure

While the media contained in this syllabus is accessible in any order, the outline structure reflects an intentional progression of learning. Follow along, or deviate as you like.

Expectations

As you progress along with the readings, consider your individual background. Consider the perspective you bring to the act of creation and the biases you engender in your work. Consider the implication of interfaces as valves and switches of (political) power.

Goals

You should be leaving this syllabus with more questions, with a deeper capability for introspection into your practice. Ideally, you will be leaving with a greater understanding of histories that can inform your practice.

Many Thanks:

This syllabus-sketch was heavily inspired by the following:

What is Digital?

Or, what are our raw materials

It's important to realize the "Digital" in "Digital Product Design" is going away soon. The diffusion of "Real-World Effect" from digital systems, communications, and infrastructure should be more than enough to convince most people the "digital" is "real", or at least physically tangible.

What will it mean to plan and construct "digital systems" 50 years from now? How might we bridge the gap of current expressions of "digitality" and strange new futures in which the blur between digital and physical is total?

The set of readings for this section will cover a baseline knowledge of “the digital” from the perspective of Olia Lialina, a media theorist and artist most known for her work in studying Geocities, a long-defunct network of user-built sites. This section will span her “Vernacular Web” writings, which took 5 years to complete, and take place across a time of upheaval and redefinition across the web.

We will progress into a final essay by Olia about people and their involvement in digital systems, which will flow neatly into a short manifesto against harmful infrastructural-tropes in digital contexts. The ever-smearing blur between physicality and digitality will be explored in an essay about Snapchat face filters,

“Very young children are in fact uncertain whether computers should be counted as alive or not alive, and argue the question hotly, debating the computer's aliveness on the basis of its psychology, intentions, consciousness, and feelings (Turkle, 1984, esp. chap. I ). By age 10, most are sure that the computer is not actually alive. But at this point, some children, like Anne, continue to behave with and talk about the computer as if it were sentient. They brag that it is helping them or complain that it isn't. In this, they are not showing confusion about biology. They do not think that the computer is alive the way an animal is. But it has a "kind of life," the kind of life appropriate to a computer. This is a psychological life.”

— Sherry Turkle, Seymour Papert

What is a Product?

(Or, what are our raw materials?)

“The human is not the centre of everything, but on the same level of everything.”

— Jasper Morrison

“I first encountered Amish-made clothing on a short trip to southern Pennsylvania, and was immediately struck by the warmth of the garments. “What could this be?” I wondered, as I felt the varying textures of patchwork fabric. Overcome with curiosity, I asked some nearby community members about the nature of these clothes, and was surprised to learn that the warmth I initially felt had come from the person who made the garment. It was born out of a deep caring for the person for whom it was made, most likely a family member or close friend. The happiness and love of the creator was tangibly manifested in the end product.
I realized that in order to create a product full of warmth, I myself had to be happy.”

— Hiroki Nakamura

“Many have remarked that our Branca chair for Mattiazzi is beautiful. They run the palms of their hands along its arms and down its legs, marveling at the seamless wood. Yet this wood, its diameter and form, was appropriated from a broom in our workshop. Do people run their hands down the length of a wooden broom and feel touched by beauty? So we ask: When do we come in contact with this quality, and can objects ever really reach it?
Beauty in products, in our opinion, has to do with the unity of material and function. However, there is a spatial dimension that is also very necessary and rarely ever addressed: The product must be experienced within a context that arouses something in us. This “something” happens when we look beyond the thing itself, beyond its own space, to something much bigger than ourselves, without time. Without space around it, the object becomes flat. Context adds an atmospheric dimension of space and time, while the tension or energy between the product and its context makes our minds and souls struggle just enough to raise questions. This is perhaps as close as we could come to describing beauty.”

— Kim Colin, Sam Hecht

What is Design?

(Or, what are our raw materials?)

“I think that it's extraordinarily important that we in computer science keep fun in computing. When it started out, it was an awful lot of fun. Of course, the paying customers got shafted every now and then, and after a while we began to take their complaints seriously. We began to feel as if we really were responsible for the successful, error-free perfect use of these machines. I don't think we are. I think we're responsible for stretching them, setting them off in new directions, and keeping fun in the house. I hope the field of computer science never loses its sense of fun. Above all, I hope we don't become missionaries. Don't feel as if you're Bible salesmen. The world has too many of those already. What you know about computing other people will learn. Don't feel as if the key to successful computing is only in your hands. What's in your hands, I think and hope, is intelligence: the ability to see the machine as more than when you were first led up to it, that you can make it more.”

— Alan J. Perlis (April 1, 1922-February 7, 1990)

What's Next?

(Or, what are our raw materials?)

“I think that it's extraordinarily important that we in computer science keep fun in computing. When it started out, it was an awful lot of fun. Of course, the paying customers got shafted every now and then, and after a while we began to take their complaints seriously. We began to feel as if we really were responsible for the successful, error-free perfect use of these machines. I don't think we are. I think we're responsible for stretching them, setting them off in new directions, and keeping fun in the house. I hope the field of computer science never loses its sense of fun. Above all, I hope we don't become missionaries. Don't feel as if you're Bible salesmen. The world has too many of those already. What you know about computing other people will learn. Don't feel as if the key to successful computing is only in your hands. What's in your hands, I think and hope, is intelligence: the ability to see the machine as more than when you were first led up to it, that you can make it more.”

— Alan J. Perlis (April 1, 1922-February 7, 1990)