Kinetic Design

by Andy Polaine on March 16, 2009

in General

Alongside the surge of interest in gestural interaction, there appears to be a rising fascination with kinetic works too. Some of this comes out of the crossover of interaction designers now being able to relatively easily work with physical computing interfaces like Arduino boards and camera tracking.

But there seems to me to be a fascination with the physicality of objects too. Not in the static sense of product design’s endless fascination with chairs and lamps, but in the way objects move and transform. ‘Kinetic designer’ Ben Hopson, has written a long and interesting piece on Core77 titled Kinetic Design and the Animation of Products in which he explores this discipline.

I’m not sure he can really claim to have ‘created’ the discipline, but he has certainly brought together some interesting ideas and approaches in one place. Much as Dan Saffer has argued in Designing Gestural Interfaces, designers in this area need “A Vocabulary for Motion” and methods for sketching and recording motion:

“What choreographers, physicists, and puppeteers have in common is that they are all able to sketch movements, record their ideas, and talk about them. Design has no such tradition of kinetic notation or vocabulary. While design has many resources with which to address form, surface, and structure, it has no means of effectively developing or recording a spatial event that takes place over time.”

Interaction design does use some elements from these disciplines and many more to describe interactions, but in the end it always comes down to what it feels like. And the only real way to do that is to make a prototype.

“Fancy hardware or mechanical elements are not necessary for such models and, in fact, can become a hindrance. As long as a sketch moves as it should, it doesn’t matter how it’s made or from what. Dirty, fast, and cheap sketches are usually sufficient to demonstrate a motion concept. One can use simple materials like foamcore, tape, hot glue, and balsa wood. The model itself is not important– just how it moves.”

The same is true in interaction design. For me, the question are always, “does this encourage playful interactions?” and “do I feel compelled to keep interacting with/using this interface?” These are intangibles – they are experiences and it is very hard to predict without a prototype. It is also what makes it so hard to describe what I do for a living…

Update: Sarah reminded me in the comments about the DVD player vs. jukebox comparison in Ben’s article. It reminded me of Nakamichi’s famous Dragon casette deck that turned the tape for you:

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Sarah Mitchell March 16, 2009 at 5:52 pm

Nice post, Andy. I loved the article on Core77, I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit since it was published. I think all of these new areas opening up to design consideration area really exciting. I also really loved the comparison of the jukebox record-loading movement to the hinge on our dvd player as an example of how this aspect of design has been very overlooked in recent history.

One comment I have though, as a dancer (recreational, not professional), is that people always reference choreography as a practice that has a notation for movement. My experience is that this is not true – dance has the same documentation issues that we do as designers. There are names for certain positions and movements, but writing them down in sequence does NOT convey choreography, and is usually far too cumbersome to be worth anything. The choreographers I know sketch and document just like we should – with video.

2 Andy Polaine March 16, 2009 at 6:17 pm

Thanks Sarah – Yes, I’m always a bit skeptical about the choreography comparison too. Dan Saffer covers quite a few notation techniques form choreography but ends up saying that most of them are pretty experimental, often not terribly usable and that there is no real standard.

The DVD tray thing is amusing. I know lots of people that bought their CD or DVD player based on the eject mechanism. I interviewed Paul Priestman a while back and we talked about this. He said that these ‘feelings’ of quality don’t have to be expensive at all and that the damper for that eject mechanism probably costs a couple of cents. It’s really just inattentive design when those things are overlooked. I should fish out that interview and put it online actually – he is an interesting guy.

Remember the Nakamichi tapedeck that used to push the casette out and flip it over? I always wanted one of those. They still go for several hundred dollars on eBay.

3 Andy Polaine March 16, 2009 at 6:19 pm

Good old YouTube. Here’s a video of the Nakamichi in action.

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