5 product design principles I discovered while trying to make art

I studied sculpture in art school, and been a gallery artist early in my career. Like many, the world of the internet and digital design has taken up most of my time and energy and became my vocation. Art made way for commerce. Hands-on object manipulation turned to virtual clicking, swiping and keyboarding. I was recently inspired to go back and try to make some new artwork. This activity has revealed to me how similar the processes work in both virtual and the physical world. If you are creating in any medium, this may be a discussion of the creative process we all follow, or it could be my own personal approach. If you are in business or managing creative work, I hope to help give a step by step description of how you can use these principles to lower stress and focus on what is truly important to developing something that engages your audience.

Art making is often described as serendipitous. Inspiration strikes, content is created, realized and released. While occasionally true, the reality is much more pedestrian. Art can benefit from usually not needing to change hands, or even involve other people. Product designs are informed of the previous decisions through some artifacts since personnel and skills change. For example, an architect creates elevations or models, engineers create blueprints and structural and finish carpenters folllow each other in creating the final building. Going backward in these processes is dangerous and extremely costly. In the 80’s, however, the Japanese auto industry begin to pioneer ways that downstream problems or opportunities could begin to inform the upstream work without (too) costly results, and this agile or more iterative way of working gathered acceptance.

The building of software, with its easily malleable code continues this iterative process, but design can often come prior to realization and change can still be costly. Design and development of computer or virtual systems have to account for the relative ease at which ideas can be altered. A famous concept is the pivot where the first concept reveals a more valuable, or simpler way to accomplish a goal. Amazing value has been created this way, famously by Instagram that started as a date planning application. Some of the linearity of this process is based on human nature, turning unknowns into knowns, and building upon that knowledge. My process in making my art is is similar to how I design systems, your mileage may vary but where we start and where we end up are how we learn and grow.

1. Begin with inspiration

I have always created sculptures that incorporate light. However the most complex pieces still involved no more technology than bulbs, wires and an on/off switch. I saw the work of Jim Campbell, and thought of how the use of video and processing of imagery was an interesting spin on using light in art and was interested in how I could learn to design with individually adressed LED’s. I also liked how the abstraction of video created something recognizable but alien by removing details and narrative. In virtual work, this is similar to finding a product or service that acts or flows in a way that you like and combining that with another discipline or outcome. Many do not look critically at the services we use, often because when things work, they don’t attract our attention. Look closely at how a service handles interaction, and the decisions they made to offer something valuable or unique. Applying concepts from other disiplines is a good start to coming up with innovative ideas. Banking loan application with Pokemon Go location awareness is an example of an interesting starting point to reimagine a user experience for your product.

The inspiration, artist Jim Campbell

Combining something you are inspired by or frivilous with something useful or utilitarian is a good way to brainstorm something new.

2. Gather resources (resourcefully)

The internet is invaluable to connect the dots. Researching topics can take minutes where it used to take months. I started with Amazon looking for these individually addressed LED bulbs. That, in turn, led me to Adafruit, who I recall was part of the maker movement, Arduinos, and such. They have expanded into an empire of tutorials and products that offer unprecedented and frankly overwhelming choice in options. To get started I needed to get some supporting equipment, soldering irons, multimeters, etc. Before going all out, I kept the investment minimal, with only the bare necessities to create a proof of concept. In the virtual world this is also an issue, to download every platform, every helper library and create a shell with jquery, bootstrap, angular, react. A good rule of thumb is to keep your variables and dependencies at a minimum as you begin the journey. This not only helps to focus, but to understand why each “helper” is necessary to add value to the idea.

I kept the investment minimal, with only the bare necessities to create a proof of concept.

3. Fail fast — iterate rapidly

My first investment was a string of 50 lights, a fadecandy board with a breadboard and some connecting wires for around 40 dollars total. I followed instructions to connect this to my computer. Run a program called processing, downloaded libraries, and connected the wires together, hopefuly in the right order — power, ground, data. And voila, nothing! Hmm, a fault in my wiring, fix, and yes, working! Semi-instant gratification, but now just an expensive set of Christmas lights piled on the desk. I figure out how to play a video and note that the colors are wrong and not sure what lights are displaying what part of the image. I then learn how the server, the config, the setup can be changed (thanks to many tutorials and videos). I learn how the pieces connect together, enough to set up structurally what is under my control and what is not, or at least outside of my comfort zone.

I mount the lights on a piece of plexiglas to create a grid, which I have to define and map in the software. I crack the plexiglass with poor drilling technique (look up another tutorial on that). I complete dozens of iterations before I can sit back and have something to look at aesthetically, and even then it’s pretty rough. In product design, I get personally involved in this process, collaborate early rather than wait for the final result. As with many things the jouney to get something ‘decent’ obscures how robust the end product is, and how much experimentation is still needed for a good solution. In visual design this is even more problematic as something can look finished, yet contain little or none of the functional elements that will make up the real product. In this early work, I avoided soldering. Avoid making permanent decisions that I couldn’t change or reverse later. In design it’s even more crucial not to settle on choices, but prop things up as best you can to see what will truly be important to the outcome.

The setup that allowed me to kick back and see if there’s any merit to this idea.

In design it’s even more crucial not to settle on choices early on. Prop things up as best you can to see what will truly be important to the outcome.

4. Content is king

There’s a revolution in how creative work is done. More often than not, it’s a collection and layering of several people’s good ideas rather than the lone genius. In art, I am inspired by many, but they also are insipired. By sharing their influences, through writing, video, direct reference, they help others. My next step of finding what information to display was distinctly hampered by my poor programming skills. I could play a very blurry video, but found there needed to be more geometry to take advantage of the low resolution (7×7 pixels is hardly HD). I looked for sites to download video clips (not that common) so took to shooting videos playing on youtube with my phone. After a few attempts I found that this video idea really didn’t work for me. It’s nice in Jim’s concepts, but I needed something different. I then found a script on github that animated an image slowly moving in a loop. I experimented with this single image, much easier to control than a video. Trying different imagery with hard/soft lines, colors, and animation speeds.

With these few (but powerful) variables I fine-tuned a dozen different examples that all created a distinct mood and showed that the concept had some merit, or could be tweaked to provide a variety of opportunities. In digital work, its simlar to finding the variables that change the storage and display of your content. Tone, emphasis and density need to be manipulated to provide a good framework for interaction. As design becomes more componentized, understanding what can be changed and coming up with variants on that theme is key to scaling your concept and approach. Similar to how artists work in sequences, and variations on a theme. There is some room for convention, some for innovation, but the content is the key. Finding out how content connects with your customer needs and how you can maintain that connection over time is crucial.

There is some room for convention, some for innovation, but the content is the key.

5. Context and finesse

The final stage, after a dozen successful experiments gives the confidence to see what elements could be better realized. I’m satisfied with the mounting to clear plexiglas, but get a sheet of white to see the difference. I put on different paper to diffuse the light. I try to figure out how the wires can look a bit less messy, which leads me down the path of mounting, where will this sit? The idea of context, how it fits in the world is similar to the next steps in product design. You have ideas in isolation, take them into the real world. Make a prototype, hand it off to real people and observe how they contextualize it. What do they think it is? How do they think it works? In my piece, I tried to ignore it. Does it attract my attention? I did note how unintentionally it blends with the landscape (perhaps I end up mounting it on a window?) and the pace blends with the soundscape. I get to thinking how to untether it from the computer, so much more work understanding Arduino/Pi/feather and other ways to take the concept and untether it from the wall. Batteries over wall warts. This feeling of showing where it finds a place in the real world, and also what is needed to make it self-sufficient is also that step in product design.

Unintentional but interesting how music and movement come together

Make a prototype, hand it off to real people and observe how they contextualize it. What do they think it is? How do they think it works?

Feature creep

I’m tinkering with this piece, and starting another. As I continue to work there are more and more features I think of adding. Ability to switch the scenes, ability to connect with some outside stimulus to change the scene. Not to mention investing in another method to disconnect from the computer. I think this is also similar to creating a product, our imaginations and desires grow quickly when we see something that vaguely works. If I had a larger team, I would feel compelled to explore all these ideas. I think it’s valuable to end on the simpler scenario. Wait and see. Does this hold up as a good idea once the initial enthusiasm is gone? Often this is called the MVP or minimal viable product. I’m showing the piece to people, getting feedback on what effect it has, is it only good if made more elaborate? Or does the elaboration disguse a lipstick’d pig? This is a subtlety that may require more thought, but it’s reasonable to try and improve, but a waste if that improvement benefits a poor concept.