In Tel-Aviv to run a day long workshop with students at Shenkar College of Engineering and Design. I set the group, which consisted of 28 visual communication and inter-disciplinary design students, a series of tasks and questions to work on as follows:
1. Design a political lie detector
It seems as if recently political leaders can get away with the public expression of obvious untruths on a grand scale. In Churchill’s famous phrase ‘A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on’. The increased speed at which news spreads around the world compounds the problem.
2. Design a filter bubble burster
The more we post status updates, images, retweets, and texts, the more opaque our personal filter bubbles become, insulating us from any sound beyond own breathing and any sensation apart from our own body heat. Your design will rupture the bubble’s surface letting in alternative views and opinions.
3. Design a respectful listening generator
Perhaps if we genuinely listened to each other in reflective, respectful silence before jumping in with our own interjections, the wilder extremes of trolling and insult would be cleansed from both public and private conversations. Your design will encourage attentive, intelligent listening.
The aim of the workshop was to get the students working together in a way that took them out of their usual methods and habits, to approach design and making in a spirit of unafraid exploration, to generate a large number of working design ideas, and to think about how design as a cultural form has the potential both to critique existing situations and also to transform them. I chose the topics as examples of digital social life phenomena and as a way of drawing attention to problems of political discourse.
Starting with the idea that in order to bring about respectful listening it would be necessary to exclude distractions, this team designed a made a wearable noise excluder in which they could have a direct private face to face conversation. With each participant wearing one half of the talk tunnel the device enforced a specific distance and relationship between speakers. One effect of using low tech materials was the design could be iterated tested, and adjusted easily. A further effect was that people did not feel hesitant to try it for themselves, often a major stumbling block for digital projects. The design was user friendly, playful, accessible and fun to try out. Two possibilities for future development would be 1. to perforate the tube to let some light in, perhaps with information or instructions and 2. to design a version that four or more people could use at once.
This group designed a participative data capture and analysis method. Identifying key words from Israeli President Binyamin Netanhayu’s speeches including ‘strengthen’, ‘Israel’, ‘future’, and ‘security’ they created a simple colour scale with post it notes stuck onto a projection of Netanyahu and asked us to stick our own notes in the correct place while listening to a political speech. The end result was a crowd-sourced information design piece showing the frequency of certain words. The real power of this method however was that it was participative. A group of 20 people all reaching out together to stick post it notes onto the wall creates a sense of common purpose and enforces a group dynamic. There are many possible applications of this method of text analysis, for example community consultation exercises or research output. I was very impressed by the way the group had thought about liveness and the simplicity of the whole situation.
Setting out to design a political lie detector this group thought back to the televised presidential debates of the 2016 US election during which presidential candidate Trump was seen to be blatantly lying to the US electorate. The idea here is that with every lie the speaker tells, their podium sinks further into the floor of the stage until they are no longer visible, with their disembodied voice still audible. Initially the group suggested they would make an illustrated video to express their concept. This desire was widespread throughout the student cohort – they all preferred to create illustrations or screen mock ups over embodied or experiential prototypes. They did respond well however to my insistence that it should be a performative experience. They found a lift, installed a podium, delivered an existing political speech and managed to demonstrate the concept effectively and directly.
In a piece of micro real-world research this group were prompted by observing the ease with which people are led to believe one truth over another. The question they asked participants was related to the various taste areas of the human tongue – bitter at the front, sweet at the sides etc. – an idea now widely debunked. To their credit they went out and filmed a series of videos of people eating different foods and describing where on their tongues they sensed the dominant flavours. As a demonstration of how to engage people in your research question it worked admirably, but of course threw up a series of ethical questions related to conformation bias and desirability bias in interviews. To complete the project it would be fruitful to reflect on how the interviewers themselves framed a certain truth in their formulation of the question.
If we exist in discrete bubbles of individual content, one way of breaking out of them is to intersect with other, similar bubbles. This group made a selection of coloured glasses, exploiting the properties of the additive colour spectrum so that when two people met wearing compatible glasses the colours cancel each other out and they can look each other in the eyes. The low tech nature of the prototype, using clear acetate coloured in with felt pens, meant the effect didn’t quite work but the concept was clearly demonstrated and using a wearable embodied design approach resulted in a playful and participative outcome. Designing a system like this to be fully operational requires access to more sophisticated materials, but for a one day workshop outcome the design worked well.
Reflecting on the necessary conditions for respectful listening, this group designed and demonstrated a live conversation notation system. Using the (superb) Shenkar whiteboard studio tables they created a scenarios in which four people were invited to have a conversation on a given topic, sexism. The designers were each positioned next to a speaker and then drew on the table on front of them while they were talking, erasing and re-drawing with each sentence or phrase. The markings represented duration, volume, and frequency. The work thus contained analysis, performance, dialogue, and information design in a coherent live setting. One aspect to think about here would be to retain the markings in some way, perhaps having them fade away over time as the conversation developed and then ending up with a notational transcript to gain an overview of conversational dynamics.
Overall, the day resulted in some provocative and elegant design solutions. As usual in these kinds of situations, much of the actual work is done in the final 30 minutes but the students responded readily and enthusiastically to the tasks, and adapted admirably to the fact that they would be expected to design, make and demonstrate a fully working version of their idea. So often students resort to models, illustrations, mock ups, and other, what I would call diagrammatic outcomes. Many of the ideas could be pushed further but the real outcomes I believe are process related. Learning how to design for real world situations such as political lies, filter bubbles, and a poisoned political discourse, means testing ideas at full scale, being confronted with the messiness of everyday life and knowing how to adapt to uncertainty, but make the most of knowledge gained in the encounter.