What happens when you bridge the digital and the physical? Or rather, how do you come to terms with the limitations that both worlds impose, and how do you materialise the digital as a physical manifestation? Can we learn from the digital and the physical world to create a physical experience that is enriched by the design process?
I'm a strong believer of layered complexity. I like to think that a successful complex design is a result of simplexity. What is simplexity? A simplex object is one that appears intricate but is simple when we understand the process that generated it.
If you've worked with digital modelling, then you know things can get out of control very quickly. To keep things under strict control I chose "slicing" as the key concept for the form-making phase of the project.
Before we get into digital and physical and digital modelling, we need to conduct a simpler study in the two-dimensional world. We're going to establish a clear understanding of what "slicing" is, and how we could represent it visually.
Now we’re talking! Will the act of slicing manifest itself in the same manner physically as it did digitally? Or are there other factors that the static two-dimensional world does not consider? I’ll give you the answers: They’re no, and yes, respectively.
Right, now that we have our models, it's time to head right back to the digital! We're going to take our models and collage them into a real-world environment to understand how they would sit in the real world and different scales.
The next step, we'll be taking a step back to understand our process, and repeat it but this time with more deliberate action.
We'll ask the same question we asked earlier: What is a slice?
A slice can create new forms, and a slice does not need to be a straight cut, it can operate in multiple dimensions at once. A guided approach was taken towards that resulted in the generation of a helicoidal form from one act of slicing. In English: I took a block of foam, twisted it 180°, and I found this sweet surface that I extracted and managed to turn it into a modular unit.
The next step in the process is to take the digital back into the physical and explore various low-level methods of fabricating it.
With the creation of a module, it was important to understand what inherent qualities it contains. So far we have a form, but we need to make sure it has a valid but naturally occurring function that makes this endeavour worth the time and effort.
The initial experiment took the module and applied it to a surface mapping script using Grasshopper. This process allowed me to gain insight on whether or not this extreme form of surface manipulation adds anything to the module, or if it was unnecessary to manipulate the module.
I found surface mapping introduced too many unnecessary complexities to the module, and what it brought to the table was lacklustre. This time the module was used as a building block - Think Legos, but with more twists to it.
We can stack the modules, and now is the time to go back to the act of slicing where now it takes a new role. Slicing here begins to act as a space-forming tool.
The previous experiment revealed inherent qualities the module had that I was pleasantly surprised to have found. Depending on the exact location you slice into the module, you would be able to create spaces with varying degrees of privacy, light penetration, and still allow for effective cross-ventilation (wind flow). The module was conducive to the creation of seamless transitions between a state of intimacy and agoraphobia.
Make It Real
The module looked promising, and it was time to fabricate and bring it to the physical world one last time. Initially, digital means were used but except for the use of 3D printers, it was hard if not impossible to fabricate this module using the CNC routers I had access to. So I chose to build it the good old fashioned way - With my hands and relying solely on analogue techniques.
The previous results weren’t very pretty to look at - but with enough trial and error, I was able to create a module that was faithful to the digital version of the module. The fabrication process was relatively easy and involved three steps only: Cut a mould out of a foam cube, layer the plaster, and separate them.
Unlike digital applications that make use of augmented or mixed reality, creating a physical manifestation of a digital product can become very challenging depending on the technological limitations we might face.
This project was easy to recreate physically because there was clear and easy to follow the design process. If we were to have jumped into the complex from the getgo then we would have a had an unreasonably hard time recreating the final module without specialised machinery.
What does this have to do with experience design? Everything. Imagine working with an incredibly complex application, such as an E-commerce platform. If you start from a top-down approach rather than working with the basics of what makes an E-commerce platform you will create unnecessary complications. If you focus on the simple building blocks and layer complexity (simplexity), then more often than not the interface of the platform will be easy to understand.
Good design is simple and easy to understand. If the design and development process is too complex, to begin with, then the entire process needs to be reconsidered and adjusted.