Signage Research

Prompt: Go outside and photograph 3 examples of unsuccessful signage and 1 example of a sign you like and post all 4 images to your blog. Choose one of your unsuccessful signs and redesign it. Come to class prepared to present and discuss your examples.

The assignment turned out to be a tricky one. I realized that most of the signages and branding graphics seen outside lie in a gray area, in the sense that they are neither complete failures nor perfect examples of visual design. I liked following graphic very much- it was a board outside a barber shop. It has simple, clear message and minimal graphic that quickly maps to the identity of a barber shop.

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Three examples of unsuccessful signages:

  • I saw this metal cut board at entrance of Hudson County Community College. The sketchy representation of the Statue of Liberty makes it utterly unsuccessful. Looking at this branding as a potential applicant who wants to go to this college, I would seriously question the integrity and quality of education offered here.

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  • NYC subway is a great source of both good and bad signages. The navigation mostly works, but there are little details that are difficult to understand especially to the outsiders who are not aware of the context. Following sign is supposed to represent water pipe access in case of fire, but I could not understand it until I walked up to the signage and saw the pipe access unit below it.

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  • The next one is from a street shop. It presents two messages that create a degree of confusion because of their juxtaposition. Message A is you won’e get loose cigarette in this shop. Message B is don’t smoke here. A and B are simple and direct when seen separately. When placed together, they compete: Does the shop management actually prohibit you from smoking here? Do they sell cigarettes at all?

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I tried to redesign it with following changes:

  • The two messages need to be independent of each other.
  • ‘No loose cigarettes’ can work just fine without a hierarchy of words, and without the exclamation mark.
  • In order to establish clarity, putting text message along with No Smoking signage might help.

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Crown Heights Documentary

Prompt: Make a 3-4 minute documentary on a specific street intersection in New York. This documentary can be about the intersection itself or about a character or group of characters that work or live at this intersection.

I started working on this assignment with Esther and EunJee, and the initial discussion was around different possibilities. We discussed about two neighborhoods- little India and Crown Heights- and finalized on shooting a documentary on Crown Heights as this neighborhood prepares for the upcoming festival of Sukkot. We chalked out a plan to shoot the film and worked on a few initial steps:

How to Make a Documentary Film

1. Writing and Developing an Idea

  • Find a topic that is engaging/that you care
  • Give your film a purpose
  • Research your topic
  • Write an outline

2. Staff, Technique and Scheduling

  • Learn basic film making techniques
  • Get equipment
  • Organize, outline and schedule

3. Shooting Documentary

  • interview relevant people
  • Get live footage of relevant events
  • film establishing shots
  • “B-roll” – footage of important objects, process,
  • historical events-for voice over
  • Dramatic reaction

4. Assembling and sharing

  • Make a new outline for film
  • record a voice over if necessary
  • Think about background music/sound
  • Edit film

 

Writing and Developing an Idea

Find a topic that is engaging / that you care about

Film the cultural division/mix between Jewish  and non-Jewish community in Crown Heights.

Give your film a purpose

Explore the Hassidic community in Crown Heights before the holiday of Sukkot and the reaction of the other communities in the neighborhood to these customs. Try to develop and understanding of the interaction between the communities living in this area.

 

Initial Research

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Write an outline

  • Go to Crown Heights on Sunday morning to film the pre-holiday rush and speak to Hassidic locals about the neighborhood, their community, and the upcomming holiday.
  • Speak to other locals about their experiences living in this hassidic enclave.

 

 

Observations: Automatic Hand Sanitizer Dispenser at Tisch

Prompt: Pick a piece of interactive technology in public, used by multiple people. Write down your assumptions as to how it’s used, and describe the context in which it’s being used. Watch people use it, preferably without them knowing they’re being observed. Take notes on how they use it, what they do differently, what appear to be the difficulties, what appear to be the easiest parts. Record what takes the longest, what takes the least amount of time, and how long the whole transaction takes. Consider how the readings from Norman and Crawford reflect on what you see.

For this assignment I studied the two automatic hand sanitizer dispensers placed near elevators on ground floor on 721 Broadway. Each dispenser is a small unit on top of a stand. When a user places hand(s) below it, it dispenses sanitizer right on the hand(s).

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I suppose I am quiet comfortable now with the dos and don’ts of the New York City! The interactive technologies in public are different here than what I have seen before in other places. Although it was not altogether a new concept, I found it interesting to see people interact with machines almost everywhere in public. A fascinating observation about cultural differences: In India I do not remember seeing interactive technologies like vending machines in public wherein people pay money and buy food/ tickets: There is always a ‘rational human being’ on the other end, one who could resolve queries, and most importantly guard the system when it is in public. (Makes me think of John Kolko’s “Thoughts on interaction design” where he describes need of a sentient entity, preferably human, to respond to the confused users.)

Another interesting facet of differentiation is the heavy use of electricity to power the interactive systems. This is where the idea of observing automated hand sanitizer came to my mind. The ones that I had used before were all mechanical, the user needs to ‘press’ a bulky mechanical button that dispenses sanitizer as a result of springs and notches and perhaps gears working in the background. When I used a dispenser near elevators on day one at Tisch, it took me hardly a second to theorize the overall interaction; but it was all routed through looking at the dispenser, forming a mental model with the help of visuals that I saw, and memories I had about interacting with similar systems. I was able to understand that there’s no need to press a button, without consciously noticing it. This became clearer when I read Norman’s take on forming models about systems:

“Everyone forms theories (mental models) to explain what they have observed. In the absence of external information, people are free to let their imaginations run free as long as the mental models they develop account for the facts as they perceive them.”

It would be interesting in this context to see someone use this system for the first time, especially when they have no knowledge of what a dispenser is. Unfortunately I was not able to observe such a user, since the placement of the dispenser is not technically in a ‘public’ area. All the users entering the space seemed aware of at least the basic idea of what hand sanitizer is.

Observations

People who used the dispenser were generally sure if they wanted to use it or not. As described above, the space is frequented by regular students, faculty and staff members and it is really a part of daily habit to these users. On basis of whether they used it or not, I could see three broad categories:
Users who interacted with it, no matter what. Mostly these users were females. These people even occasionally made others wait for them while they quickly finished the interaction.
Users who did not use it at all. The majority of these users were males. It’s not the case that they were unaware of the existence of the dispenser— they sometimes read the text on it while they waited for the elevator. But they never interacted.
Users who interacted with the system because they were standing idle nearby, waiting anyway for the elevator.

I found third group extremely interesting, and I think this group impressively contributes to the success of having the dispensers installed right next to the elevators.

Irrespective of what group they belonged to, people took around 5 to 7 seconds to interact when they used the dispenser. Afterwards a very few users stood right in front of the unit while they applied it onto hands, most of them left for the stairs or elevators or just ‘moved aside a bit’ while rubbing it onto hands.

Another interesting part of the unit is a flat black plastic part that projects from behind the unit, and runs a few inches below to form a platform for any ‘unused’ sanitizer that the user choses not to use (or that the user fails to ‘catch’). The other purpose that this projection serves is it defines constraint. It directly communicates the range of operation. As Norman describes it:

“The world restricts the allowed behavior. The physical properties of objects constrain possible operations: the order in which parts can go together and the ways in which an object can be moved, picked up, or otherwise manipulated. Each object has physical features—projections, depressions, screw-threads, appendages—that limit its relationships to other objects, operations that can be performed to it, what can be attached to it, and so on.”

There is a tiny green LED to the left of the unit. It blinks when the unit detects palm(s) and dispenses the sanitizer; but I saw it only when I paid close attention to it as I had to work on an assignment. Otherwise, I am sure I would not have noticed this tiny feedback.

A Response to Hans Haacke’s Condensation Cube

cube

Condensation is a change of state of water from its gaseous form to liquid. It occurs in Haacke’s cube as a result of the interior temperature exceeding the exterior temperature. Water evaporates in the interiors of the cube and condenses on the walls as there is low temperature on the outside. It is interesting to see a commonly occurring phenomenon presented as a work of art, as it opens doors to so many intellectual interpretations.

Haacke emphasized the invisible relations and forces behind the change of state in a system, by comparing the micro-climate factors to the invisible structure by which a society functions. While on one hand the artwork shows how a system goes on without external intervention and demotes a viewer to the role of just an observer, it also involves minute changes that take place because of the viewers. Viewers, by virtue of physical presence in the art gallery, impact the micro-climate around the cube, therefore varying the dew points and temperature differences on the inside and outside of the cube. The artwork thus challenges the typical, cynical notion that an individual’s efforts will never lead to a great social change.

The artwork corresponds to some significant socio-cultural factors from the 60s, such as cybernetics[1]. Self-regulated systems maintaining a steady loop or homeostasis, and on next level considering observer as an implicit part of the system, were discussed to great lengths in the 60s. Algorithms allowed artists and scientists to come up with tangible manifestations of these discussions. Other technologies such as the television set and personalized documentation devices (e.g. Sony Portapak in 1967) allowed curious minds to capture, share and view these experiences. Significant developments took place in architecture too, such as popularization of concept of Megastructures— encapsulation of a city in a single building or a few interconnected buildings. It made a great impact on science fiction writings and movies (e.g. 2001- A space odyssey, 1968).

system

I can relate Haacke’s works (many other systems artworks including the condensation cube) to the simple system diagram above. It is not a finite cause-effect narration that starts from point A and ends at point B; but it is a continual derivation of next states from current factors in the system. Alan Turing in 1948 described his machine as an unlimited memory capacity obtained in the form of an infinite tape marked out into squares, on each of which a symbol could be printed. At any moment there is one symbol in the machine; it is called the scanned symbol. The machine can alter the scanned symbol, and its behavior is in part determined by that symbol, but the symbols on the tape elsewhere do not affect the behavior of the machine. However, the tape can be moved back and forth through the machine, this being one of the elementary operations of the machine. Any symbol on the tape may therefore eventually have an innings[2]. Haacke’s works revolve around the ideas of natural, social systems and their interrelation; and I guess Turing machine provides the base for constructing artificial representations of these systems. In condensation cube the current state of the cube can be thought of as the current symbol on the infinite tape. It eventually determines the next state, or the next symbol on the tape; and hypothetically the system would go on forever.

 


References

  1. Hans Haacke, in conversation with Jeanne Siegel, 1971
  2. Turing Machine

Design Analysis

I clearly remember that I started taking interest in design as a tool that addresses problem solving. After last few years of practice and attempts towards understanding how design as a discipline evolved with time, I am now more curious about the other side of the coin: aesthetics and storytelling. Visual Language Class is therefore a perfect place for having discussions and sensitizing myself to the trends in graphic design, typography, and compositions.

As a response to the first assignment, I analyzed visual design elements in the reward postcards that a player gets on successfully completing subsequent levels of the game Two Dots. It is an award winning addictive game based on a simple theme of connecting dots on smartphone screen, with a narrative that associates this theme to a story of two brave explorers. The postcards are designed by UK based illustrator Owen Davey. The designs are simple, clean and consistent; and exhibit an excellent sense of grid, typefaces and colors. All postcards have a characteristic color palette with low saturation hues, flat design illustrations, and attractive textual elements.

 

twodots
Images from http://www.owendavey.com/Two-Dots-Postcards

 


 

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This postcard makes apt use of elements such as dry leaves and sunglasses, and warm colors to represent ‘The hottest nature around’.

 

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It has clear division of illustrations on upper two-third and text on the lower third of the space, which makes an interesting composition. Helvetica Bold for the secondary text establishes a hierarchy.

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The elements stand out because of the weight of their forms. Identity of a postcard is directly established with the use of a frame around the picture. Contours of the two characters (or two brave dots as they are called in the game) and the leaves are ‘unobtrusive’, and tone down the heat.


 

 

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The use of less saturated colors continues to make an impression! I also like the flat design illustration style that has recently become popular among web designers.

 

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An explicit three column grid establishes an organized structure, and that goes really well with the title ‘Tesla Labs’.

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This postcard has a scientific and somewhat formal look to it because of the serifs. The font used for the text is Clarendon. Unlike the first postcard, this composition has all the text concentrated in the top left corner which leaves plenty of space to capture the narrative through illustrations.

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Use of warm orange stripes creates layers and portrays depth. The first thought I had was ‘There’s something going on inside behind those bars’. The orange space stands out because of the blast and cracks that originate from the suitcase.


 

 

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This postcard uses a cool palette, smooth forms and clean text in Helvetica.

 

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I like the way the grid and the negative space are interlinked, as they create a gigantic scale to represent ‘the tallest waterfall’. There is so much happening in the top right corner and a contrast is established with a dry appearance of the bottom left. The upper one-third of the composition is visually heavy and looks to be in motion, as opposed to the lower two-third space which is stationary and monotonous. Same relation is established with the waterfall on the right side and dull, static negative space on the left. Interestingly, on the intersection of windy weather and flowing water are seen the two brave dots, all set for a new adventure. The user, having already gone through some postcards, can clearly see the two characters in this context.

The Story of Water

Danielle and I started working together on an assignment for the Video and Sound class. We planned to make an audio that narrates a story through sound, something that outlines a trajectory from start to end, and the next step was to decide what the story is going to be about. We thought of a number of different elements related to the urban life in New York City- sandwiches, coffee, and water.

The first round was pure hands-on exploration of the Zoom audio recorder. I made a few attempts to record sounds across the tourist places, parks, and in my kitchen when I cooked dinner, and the process was fun. Eventually we finalized on making an audioscape about journey of water in NYC from river to sewage and we decided to included most of the in-between stages such as industrial usage, consumption and waste water treatment. It was great to work with audio inputs from diverse parts of the city. The most difficult yet the most interesting part of the assignment was to edit audio clips using Logic Pro X. We struggled a lot but we also discovered some quite fascinating effects and settings that this software offers.

The journey starts with a peaceful drizzle and goes into exploring sounds of river before the rhythmic industrial tones initiate a touch of manmade landscape.

Switches and LED circuits

Assignment for Week 2 was to work on a creative application for switches and LED circuits. We saw a number of fundamental components and a variety of switches, and I found some of them quite interesting- the magnetic switch, using copper tape as a switch, and the one that is triggered with vibration/ acceleration. An application that I could immediately think of was a circuit embedded in the skipping rope, wherein LED(s) would glow when a user starts skipping. The battery would be somewhere near the grip and the vibrator switch would be somewhere near the midpoint of the rope so that it reaches the highest possible speed when operated. I soon realized that it will involve some complex issues that need sophisticated solutions. For example when the rope gets twisted it might cause problems to the battery housing and connectors running through the rope.

The next idea that I thought of (and eventually implemented): A piggy bank that glows when a coin is inserted into it. I found this nice baseball-shaped money bank in a store and built a LED circuit inside it so that a coin, when inserted in the slit, acts as the switch.

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A baseball-shaped money bank

The circuit diagram is really a basic one: I decided to use two pencil cells (1.5V each) to power two little green LEDs arranged in parallel.

New-Project

The next step was to implement a mechanism that

  1. Acts as a closed switch when a coin passes through the slit, and
  2. Acts as an open switch otherwise.

It looked simple to me in theory, but I had to think of various alternatives before I reached the best choice. First I thought of using multi-stranded copper wires along both sides of the length of the slit, so that both surfaces of the coin brush the strands and hence current flows through the coin. Next I thought of using copper tape instead of strands. And finally I found a handy product that is just perfect for this application: ball pen springs.

So I started working on it with the baseball money bank, tools and components that I could find in my PComp collection, two ball pens and some coffee.

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The material to start with
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Circuit soldered in parts
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Inside the shell: Switch mechanism using springs
Interaction: A coin is inserted
Interaction: A coin is inserted
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LEDs glow!

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Lessons learnt:

  1. Breadboard is a must. I assumed that since I have worked on building circuits and soldering before, I will be able to just ‘figure things out’. However there was a bit of trial and error as I did not have breadboard and multimeter.
  2. Assembling the actual circuit in final housing (baseball shell in this case) needs to be done carefully and thoughtfully to make it stable and long lasting.
  3. When the interaction happens through the switch itself, the switch mechanism should be extremely reliable. It should work for any legit interaction, and should not complete the circuit otherwise. In this application a little fine-tuning was required to adjust the springs so that any coin would work just fine. The space between the two springs needed to be just enough so that any coin touches both the springs as it passes through the slit, yet good enough so that springs stay normally open and don’t make contact with each other accidentally.

An Audio Walk in Central Park

The CommLab (Video and Sound) class assignment prompted me to go on an extraordinary soundwalk titled Her Long Black Hair by Janet Cardiff.

Central Park is one of the best places that I had planned to visit along with many other attractions around New York City. I visited the park a couple of times in last few weeks when a bunch of friends came to NYC, and it was always a peaceful and relaxing experience. Wednesday’s lone visit, however, made me experience an altogether new facet of the same landscape as I strolled around listening to a story. Well, multiple interlinked stories. Stories that augmented the nature of time and space as they spawned their own plot.

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Image Source: http://phiffer.org/hlbh/
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It just rained and presented a new avatar of the space, with the past and the memories gone with the snow.

The audio started with a cheerful buzz right outside the park and covered a few objects like buildings, trees, and a statue. It established an honest sync between what I saw and what I listened to. It made me recollect at once that NYC has old buildings, trees, monuments and statues; some of them standing for more than a century. That I am standing in the middle of a gathering of artifacts that came into existence long before my generation. I had the same feeling again and again throughout the walk when the audio described how old the pavement and landscape is, and how uncanny the reality of rocks surfacing from the lawn is as they hide old, bloody secrets beneath the ground.

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I had never looked the seemingly simple objects such as rocks and trees from this view. My perspective towards the objects around me was so skewed by this time that I had a strange sense of dread when I arrived near the statue of angel at the Bethesda fountain.

The stories not only gave a parallel dimension to space, but also subtly played around with time. “There are always so many layers in front of my eyes.” At first I thought she is now going to describe what’s happening here right now- the rainy atmosphere and the layers of drizzle, leaves, and tree trunks merging far into the horizon. Whereas after a bit of a pause she said “I saw a man pushing a woman into a car. I saw a boy running down the street. I saw a woman fall to the ground. How can I know what I’ve seen? …The rain has stopped.”

She reaches a point where she lets go the flow of thoughts she had about events that might have occurred. And this connected really well with the metaphor of subsiding rain. Everything just stopped.

I took the walk twice. It was much more interesting to do it the next time as I could observe some little mismatches in the two experiences. For example I did actually see a man reading a newspaper as she described him; and he wasn’t there the first time I walked down the same road. Same happened with a pet, a few kids and a bear in the zoo. When I was almost finished with the walk the second time, I realised that I have a class to attend and I started rushing towards the nearest subway. “Wait for me,” she said in a plain voice, and to me that was the best moment throughout the experience. It took me a while to even realise that I actually stopped for a moment.

In the beginning I was under an impression that the audio will walk me through the environment, the weather and the architectural elements in the park. In reality it engaged me so much into the stories of her experiences that I subconsciously believed that I am a part of the stories. I experienced how beautiful, cruel, passionate and mystic a space could be at the same time.

Thoughts on Originality and Plagiarism

I went through two interesting articles, The Ecstacy of Influence: A Plagiarism and Allergy to Originality, and they present detailed discussions on originality and plagiarism. Jonathan Lethem’s article talks in depth about a number of examples that seem to have appropriated text, audio, video, illustrations etc. from earlier works. It was fascinating to understand his model of influence that he applies to twentieth century art movements that were mostly based on juxtaposition of mediums. Although each of these movements (cubism, Dada, futurism etc.) presented a new take on creation and interpretation of art, these were still ‘based on’ the previous practices in some or the other form of rejection, modification or extreme amplification.

I think we are all programmed to contemplate, behave and create based on our own lived experiences and as such there is no escape from appropriation. Influence can certainly lead to a new dimension; however reaching a new dimension might not be possible without influence of one’s own or someone else’s works. (In this respect the Voynich Manuscript might stand as an original work as long as we are unable to decode it. And interestingly, how strongly influenced our attempts to decode this manuscript are!)

As I went on reading the article I started to think that his views are too cynical- what is the whole purpose of discarding virtually every creation as an attempt of plagiarism, if we can always see an artwork as an outcome of influence, and if we cannot create without influence? On similar lines strikes Drew Christie’s video when the patron ultimately decides to chuck it and asks for a Men in black III ticket. (Paradoxically, the creator claims the video to be original in being un-original!)