Monday, May 01, 2006

interview: Sven Johnson: Designing Information

Following is an interview with Sven Johnson, a visionary designer and old-fashioned problem-solver of the first order. Sven writes at reBang weblog, and some of his work can be seen at the online gallery


W> Hi Sven, and welcome. What sort of projects are you working on at the moment?

S> Howdy. Thanks.

Like many industrial designers I have plenty of projects at various stages of development, so this is a harder question to answer than it normally should be. That said, much of my time for the past few weeks or so has been spent working with another individual on something I can't discuss. Sorry. There's no time line, but I'm hoping we can announce it (assuming we don't crash and burn) within the year.

Unrelated to that effort, as of last week I finished contract negotiations with a recently-formed company and expect to start a project I also can't discuss (it was support to start today, actually). However, I can say that the project came to me not because of my industrial design background, but because of my blogging about related issues. It's a good fit in that there are no conflicts of interest with the previous project and no conflict with my regular design consulting - which is ongoing. It has, however, necessitated that I devote some time gearing up for it.

The third thing that's been on my "To Do" list (and which I recently discussed at length on my blog) is my "protoSat" project. This is a 3D construct inside the Second Life virtual space primarily intended to be a kind of nexus between the real and the virtual where mostly real world-related activity takes place. By that I mean it would function as a place for lectures and discussions, design critiques of real world projects, and so on. A big part of the challenge is figuring out how to make it a profitable or break-even venture, but do so in an open source environment where people don't have to pay for access to the knowledge and by using ad revenue from small, independent companies instead of large corporations. I'm big on helping to democratize online spaces so that's something I'm trying to piece together.

Another project that I've recently started getting back to again is an ecoToroid animation. I'd exchanged emails with Chris Anderson (Senior Editor of Wired online) a few months back after I'd commented on his blog that some of his time-dependent curves seemed to be supporting my ecoToroid concept (The Long Tail curve in 3D about which I'd been previously interviewed). He wasn't understanding the static images I'd rendered and when I suggested an animation might help, he expressed an interest in seeing one. I'd like to get back to that and put it to rest.

In addition I have a couple of kirkyan ideas I'd like to develop. You read the oil spill containment device example on the Wikipedia entry, so there's that idea. I doubt I'll get to the second, a robotic termite building system, but the oil containment concept is something that I could do in short order; similar to how the RadTag was completed.

I've also recently contacted a few people for other projects. One is an indy filmmaker that hangs out on the b-independent website film forum and who is trying to distribute her work. The other is what I call the "PreFab Crab" project by Elizabeth Demaray and which I read about recently on the Inhabitat blog. I've conversed with the filmmaker who is interested, but I've not heard back from Ms. Demaray, which is a shame since I'd like to set up a design competition (similar to what I put together over on the Core77 website) and let a bunch of IDers come up with some ideas. If that doesn't happen, I'll design a few for fun.

There are more things (like some old PDA-watch concept sketches I'd like to CAD up and render, and getting back to reverse-engineering a high resolution model using the OGLE 3D capture tool, the low rez capture and the normalmap), but these are the one's that occupy my mind right now.


W> We've been talking about "kirkyans", lots lately. What inspired you to coin this word and develop the concept?

S> The concept itself is just the stuff I think about on a daily basis. For a very long time I've not distinguished between "real" and "virtual". That's why I've done some of the things I've done (e.g. ripping 3D data from a videostream and converting it to manufacturable data). As for coining the term, to be honest, I was inspired to give the concept a name because I and others have had other ideas which were given names well after the fact. It bothers me that coining a term bestows automatic authority and qualification when there may, in fact, be none. As I've stated elsewhere, it reminds me of what's worst about our patent system where obvious ideas can be claimed. I don't pretend to be at the level of many intelligent people who discuss and debate these things, and so I claim no authority or qualification or ownership to the idea. Instead I assume someone else has had the idea and am merely helping to put it into the public domain for further discussion and, hopefully, development.


W> How much weight does the word "spime" have in the design world in 2006?

S> Basically none. Both Adam Greenfield (author of the new book "Everyware") and I are mystified by the general lack of interest among industrial designers.


W> As you know, I think the concept of the kirkyan may be very useful for libraries. But what I've tried to write about it has so far been abstract -- just pie in the sky. Can you suggest any specific, real-world kirkyan applications for libraries?

S> Well, off the top of my head I think e-books that allow every individual to add comments and notes which can then be tagged, searched, and interactively overlaid might be interesting. Imagine if that book had a physical Master and multiple virtual instantiations available to people everywhere through an immersive 3D space (like how Second Life now has virtual books) or through other platforms that allowed them to add their own notes, have them both automatically aggregate and self-distribute and then perpetuate and perhaps even evolve with the original language. It's almost like peer-to-peer knowledge sharing or something. I don't know what you call that. But it's the opposite of one lone researcher sitting in a library and scribbling notes in the borders of a book that will be seen by few, if any, people. And if those scribbles are brilliant insights then the hope, of course, is that the world has access to that thinking. Not when someone discovers it, but in realtime.


W> Why does design matter, and how do you personally define it?

S> Tough questions. I don't regard myself as a hardcore designer, to be honest. I would feel uncomfortable among the "name" designers. I will confess that I don't believe I give it as much thought as many other designers and actually, to be honest, I don't think about what others think about design too often. I've not even really seriously considered these questions before; entries on the Core77 forum are about as much as I've done.

If pressed I'd define design in it's broadest terms. It's not form. It's not just function. It's putting order to disorder maybe. In that way, everyone is a designer. We arrange our home; our CD collections. We determine which clothes fit our idea of who we are and how we want to communicate that sense of self to the world around us. We decide whether or not to separate our vegetables. Or not. We control our worlds. So in that sense, design is about us in relation to everything, and in that way it matters to each of us and thus achieves a level of importance on both an individual and social level.

That might sound deep, but it's really just my way of not being pinned down. Maybe that is, in itself, the best answer.


W> Your RadTag seems more like an "invention" to me than a "design" (and, oddly, it's sort of like a little smart e-pamphlet for radiation damage) -- is there a difference between the two these days?

S> I don't honestly know what an invention is anymore. To be honest, I blame that on a broken intellectual property system even though that's arguably a cop-out. I did consider the RadTag as something potentially patentable, but the truth is the system is not conducive to an individual like me getting the kind of protection afforded to corporations. It's expensive. And assuming I were even awarded a patent, I might then face a corporation intent on simply stealing the idea and forcing me to defend my patent in court. Even if I had a case and lawyers who'd represent me for a percentage, I'm not interested in wasting time defending an idea. So whether it's a design or an invention, for all practical purposes it really makes no difference to me in the end.


W> Most librarians are still heavily invested in the concept of book-as-paper-ink-glue. We're a conservative bunch, by nature, and books have been a hearty medium since before Gutenberg and Caxton and them. As a designer with an eye for shifts in information technology, do you think that the traditional book-object will continue to be viable for the next 500 years?

S> Maybe not in the way it is now, but I think it might have a small community that supports the format and the functionality it provides. There are a number of mediums that have had their obituaries prematurely written. There will be paper books imo.


W> Who's your favorite architect? Designer? Why?

S> I don't play favorites. My favorite architect is the person who designed the home in which I live and provides me shelter. My favorite designer is the person who designed the product I decided to purchase and which makes a mundane task I have to do a little easier.

I think we need fewer superstars and more recognition of the people who do the job day-to-day just like we need more recognition for the people who teach our children and those who do the jobs no one else wants to do. I don't have anything against those who garner accolades and some measure of fame. It's just that I see a greater need to celebrate those working in the trenches.


W> What can designers and librarians do together to make the world a better place?

S> Learn and Teach and help others to do the same.


W> Last one: What kind of projects are you working on for the rest of the summer?

S> I have so many projects I'd like to do but have so little time. Like most people I'd like to write a book. I have film equipment and would like to make a short film. I have an idea for a videogame and would like to program it. I was reading Emeka Okafor's website last week and struck by the opportunity to help fledgling companies in Africa to compete in the global economy. I'd like get back in touch with an organization in Bangladesh and offer whatever services I can provide (I lost touch after 9/11 and the plight of women in SE Asia is often on my mind). I'd like to get more involved in charities and fundraisers. I could go on and on. One simple thing I should add is that I'd like to get my homemade, unleavened bread recipe to come out consistently. Right now it's strictly hit or miss.


Thanks, Sven!


csven said...

"but the oil containment concept is something that I could do in short order"

Just for clarification, a concept is not a solution. The problem is extraordinarily complex and at best I can stimulate the thinking of those people with real expertise and talent.

It's easy for me to dream up solutions. It's difficult work for engineers and scientists to make potential solutions work.

csven said...

Happened to surf through for comments on a "kirykyan ebook" and realized that I can say now that the first project was as described in my comment over on O'Reilly's blog (Link - see my comment).

In addition, the second project was working with Electric Sheep and MTV on their first virtual world project. As it turns out, it received an Emmy this past February(?).

Lastly, there's been some buzz lately about an oil-spill containment buoy concept someone did. I thought that was interesting (though I don't believe sufficient thought was given to some of the practicalities of the proposal; I'm still tempted to crank out my idea).

Anyway, figured I'd add these things to this old thing while I was here.

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