Ted Talks: Oliver Sacks – What Hallucination Reveals About Our Minds

by mo on Tuesday, March 29, 2011

We see with the eyes. But we see with the brain as well. And seeing with the brain is often called imagination. And we are familiar with the landscapes of our own imagination, our inscapes. We've lived with them all our lives."

Very engaging talk – fascinating case studies (similar to those presented by Ramachandran) of patients with different neurological disorders, in turn, using anomalies to reveal to us the workings of the mind.

Oliver Sacks: What Hallucinations Reveal About Our Minds, 2009, online video, accessed 6 April 2011, <http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/oliver_sacks_what_hallucination_reveals_about_our_minds.html>. 

Theory Is A Good Idea

by mo on Monday, March 28, 2011

Soar's article helped me to further concretise my own ideas about the role of design theory and the designer – he admits that there is a growing movement of anti-intellectualism, provoked by the fact that in its complex and arcane nature, design theory and semiology has “remained elusive to most people. The main reason for this is fairly simple: its advocates have written in a style that ranges from the obscure to the incomprehensible.” (Soar 2002, p. 133)

British scholar, Terry Eagleton, once pointed out that “hostility to theory usually means an opposition to other people’s theories and an oblivion of one’s own” (Soar 2002, p. 132). Note that the word hostility suggests a sense of avoidance – the seemingly inaccessible nature of design theory means that people actually try to avoid theory that they don't agree with. If they were to debate it on the other hand, it would be another story, because then at least, a dialogue would be in place rather than hostile silence.

What Soar suggests is that we must discuss theories within a framework that engages people, otherwise there is no point to it. As the philosopher Jacques Derrida, once pointed out:

“The one thing that is unacceptable these days – on TV, on the radio, or in the papers – is intellectuals taking their time, or wasting other people’s time…Time is what media professionals must not waste – theirs or ours." (Soar 2002, p. 135)

Placing the problem at hand into our contemporary context: "Everyday life, supersaturated with images and jingles, makes intellectual life look hopelessly sluggish, burdensome, difficult. In a video-game world, the play of intellect – the search for validity, the willingness to entertain many hypotheses, the respect for difficulty, the resistance to hasty conclusions – has the look of retardation." The solution then perhaps, is to find a middle ground with the "common man" and from there, build upon it so that theory is intertwined into their day-to-day life.

Soar, M. 2002, ‘Theory Is A Good Idea’, in Bierut, M., Drenttel, W. & Heller, S. 2002, Looking closer, Allworth Press, New York.


Designing The Real World

by mo on Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Now that we are reaching the end of our design education, I think we find ourselves in a position where we begin to seriously question the role of the designer, and in turn, how we place ourselves within that definition. Admittedly, the phrase “the role of the designer” has been thrown around so much during the past few years that on the outset, it seems to have lost any real meaning – however, this time, it’s different. This time, we want to define this role of the designer not because we have to for some 1000 word design theory essay worth 25%, but because this is what will direct us after we graduate.

For me, the role of the designer lies in their ability to manipulate, to craft visual communications so as to inform and enlighten the general public. Designers have no place in the realm of pure self-indulgence – they must always answer to the often-uninformed non-designer general public. If our designs do not appeal to the public, then the title of “designer” becomes somewhat obsolete.

Robertson’s article poses an interesting term that I have never really applied to the design practise: “Praxis”.

According to Robertson, “Praxis” means practicing “critically and responsibly within the public sphere” (Robertson 2002, p.189).
“In the public sphere, however, praxis necessarily involves others. Praxis may not even exist without others for it is fundamentally exoteric, other-seeking, dialogue…the “real world” is not just private, it is public too; and as such, it cannot be a place governed by self-interest” (Robertson 2002, p.189).

In this way, for me as a designer, praxis is paramount to a successful design. It should speak to the general public, and its conception should be developed in dialogue with the public.

Robertson references Victor Papanek’s seminal work, Design For The Real World, in which he points out the initquities of useless, low-quality, unsafe, expensive design as it impacts society. For him, “most designers – especially graphic designers – were more committed to designing for other designers than for ordinary people (the “audience”). The real world is poor, uninformed, exploited, disadvantaged, unwired, and home to 5 of the 6 billion inhabitants of spaceship earth.” (Robertson 2002, p.189)

The conclusion is that designers have a social role, if not only just that one role.  Design is a social product that pays testimony to the “basic human ability to help autonomous self-realization.”

As Robertson decides at the end, “This is why I believe more in the real world of design education than the unreal world of professional design. It is way past time for the design profession to get real. Design might well be too important to leave to designers.”

Robertson, A. 2002, ‘Designing the Real World’, in Bierut, M., Drenttel, W. & Heller, S. 2006, Looking closer 5, Allworth Press, New York


Medicine And Art

by mo on Monday, March 21, 2011

When I was in Japan, I went to an exhibition at the Mori Art Gallery in Tokyo that explored the relationship between Art and Design. The funny thing is that when I started researching phantom limbs and the associated visually based therapies that existed to treat the syndrome, I became more aware of the undeniable link between design and science. From that, the thought reminded me of this very exhibition that explored this link between art and science. Lucky for me I had bought the exhibition catalogue book, and came across this concise paragraph that brought it together for me:

“On the basis of their discoveries in medicine and science, people have attempted to counter the effects of disease and injury and to resist death, seeking the secret of longevity. The history of medicine is the sum of all such scientific exploration, innovation, and discovery. Research into the human body has led to accurate and artistic depictions of the body. At the same time, attempts to create depictions of its beauty have continued throughout history, making the human body one of the most important subjects for art. In this way, the body can be seen as the meeting point between medicine and art, and as the point of departure for journeys into these two very different worlds.”

TED Talks: VS Ramachandran on your mind

by mo

I still remember the first time I came across this talk – it was about eight or so months ago. I was sitting at work, putting together some mock ups, listening to TEDtalks to help time pass faster. I don't usually listen to science talks but I was desperate, and Ramachandran's talk was tagged in the "fascinating" section, and at that moment, as I toiled away churning out boring design after boring design, I needed something to "fascinate" me – and fascinate me it did.

"I study the human brain -- the functions and structure of the human brain. And I just want you to think for a minute about what this entails. Here is this mass of jelly -- three pound mass of jelly you can hold in the palm of your hand, and it can contemplate the vastness of interstellar space. It can contemplate the meaning of infinity and it can contemplate itself contemplating on the meaning of infinity. And this peculiar recursive quality that we call self-awareness, which I think is the Holy Grail of neuroscience, of neurology, and hopefully, someday, we'll understand how that happens."

What stuck with me the most was his talk about a patient suffering from phantom limbs, and how he used simple visual illusions to help treat the patient. At that moment, the weight of just how fascinating and astounding the mind is – and in particular the role that vision plays in that.What i felt – and I hadn't felt it in such a long time – was a sense of wonder.

And this feeling of wonder, having stuck with me for the past seven months or so, has manifested into a desire to create designs that leave users feeling just that – wonder. With a new awareness of how vision plays a significant role in our perception of our body self, I felt that as a visual communicator, it is my/our role to foster this awareness amongst the general public through designs that communicate this. Hence why this is the focus of my research project. Enjoy!

VS Ramachandran On Your Mind, 2007, online video, accessed 6 April 2011, <http://www.ted.com/talks/vilayanur_ramachandran_on_your_mind.html>.  


by mo on Sunday, March 20, 2011

Kenya Hara: Designing Design

by mo

Like many others, I am completely in love with Muji, a Japanese brand that sells a wide variety of household and consumer goods, distinguished by its design minimalism, emphasis on recycling, and no-logo or “no-brand” dictum. Having lived in Japan for a year, I’m pretty sure I visited a Muji store at least two or three times a week, just to bathe in its simple design beauty.

Obsessed with Muji, I came to learn about Kenya Hara, the creative director of the brand, and purchased his book “Designing Design” when it first came out (I later found out – i.e. a month ago in a tutorial ­– that it is now out of print, and a mint edition of the book is worth at least a grand haha). Reading what he had to say, it was absolutely awe-inspiring – I came to know Muji in a different light, not by its mere aesthetic but rather, it’s philosophy from which the products and this aesthetic stems.

In researching for this project, and reading up about phantom limbs, and transposing this in visual communications by framing it with the question “How can design play with and hence make ourselves more aware of our perception of our body self?”, the design philosophies that I came across in Hara’s book came to mind – in particular, the chapters “Making the Ordinary Unknown” and “Haptic: Awakening The Senses”:

Making the ordinary unknown

In this chapter, Hara introduces the idea of “redesign”. The following quote sums it up in one go:

“Re-design” refers to a redoing of the design of ordinary objects. You could call it an experiment, an attempt to look at familiar things as if it were our first encounter with them.”

“Re-design is a means by which to correct and renew our feeling about the essence of design, hidden within the fascinating environment of an object that is so overly familiar to us that we can no longer see it” (Hara 2007, p. 22).

In relating it back to phantom limb awareness and its relation to design, perhaps  I should be focusing on how to re-design an object so that a new experience is created, an experience that is not purely aesthetic, but rather, obliges the user to re-think their body image but in a fun and enlightening manner.

“The 21st century is an age of discovery – of astonishingly fine designs found right in our midst, in our daily lives. We used to design mere stimulation, but now we part ways with that past and look at the ordinary with clear eyes, to yield new thinking on design” (Hara 2007, p. 22).

He ends the chapter explaining why it is that we need design:

“Design is appealing because the process creates inspiration that is engendered by this empathy among human beings in our common values and spirituality” (Hara 2007, p. 24).

Agreeing with this wholeheartedly, I want to ensure that the design development of my final resolution involved users along the way because in the end, this design is essentially intended to be a means through which we come to understand ourselves and hence each other in a universal manner.

Haptic: Awakening the Senses

The word, “haptic” has to be one of the keywords of my research:

“To put it plainly, the term here indicates an attitutde that takes in consideration how we perceive things with our senses. While dealing with shape, color, material and texture is one of the more important aspects of design, there is one more: it’s not the question of how to create, but how to make someone sense something. We might call this creative awakening of the human sensors “the design of the senses” (Hara 2007, p. 68).

The essential point that I am particularly taken by is that this haptic approach to design does not wallow in the past, it does not indulge in nostalgia – but rather, it looks towards the future. Because the future is always there, and as such, provides us with endless possibilities in terms of design.

In researching phantom limbs and placing it within the framework of creating a visual language through which to communicate this by means of design, this idea of “haptic design” is particularly poignant in that it suggests that perhaps in the same way, design can be used to not only “design the senses” but to also “design the way we use our physical body” – so whereas Hara’s objects affect the senses, mine will perhaps focus more so on the physical sense of self.

In particular, his research methodologies are most inspiring, in that there is ongoing dialogue with users and non-designers:

“Take a coffee cup for instance. Any designer would be itching to do a sketch as the first phase of the process. Not for this exhibition. I asked all the participants to start from the point of thinking on how that coffee cup could stimulate and awaken the senses, before ever coming up with an image for its form or anything else” (Hara 2007, p. 70).

Also another way of generating research is to pose almost seemingly irrational questions but to then tackle them so that they become a possible reality:

“A watering mouth is a taste response to sizzling meat. What kind of design can induce the reaction of a watering mouth from all five senses?” (Hara 2007, p. 71).

Finally this following quote was of particular inspiration – the power that the designer has in tweaking elements so that it creates different experiences for the user:

“In the world of design, colour and shape are at the apex. Every time some product with a striking shape or made of extraordinary materials comes along, we’re dazzles. We’re amazed by the metamorphoses that a different shape can give an ordinary utensil. This power to bewitch the consumer at first glance with our solutions is one of the allures of design (Hara 2007, p. 147).

Reference: Hara, K. 2007, Designing design, Lars Müller, Baden, Switzerland

Phantoms In The Brain

by mo

After having watched Ramachandran’s talk on TED, and reading Forrest’s review of Ramachandran’s book, I decided to get my hands on it and read it for myself. Accessible yet at the same time entertainingly esoteric, Ramachandran’s book, “Phantoms in the Brain” provided me with a lot of the groundwork upon which I further developed the research direction of this project.

One point that Ramachandran clarifies from the beginning is that he chose to study such anomalies as “phantom limb awareness” syndrome because it is only through the supposedly “odd” behaviour of these patients that we can “solve the mystery of how various parts of the brain create a useful representation of the external world and generate the illusion of a ‘self’ that endures in space and time” (Ramachandran 1999, p. 12).

Perhaps in this way we can use visual communication and the design of objects to make us more aware of the working of the mind – a timeless fascination of ours – by drawing upon some sort of unexpected variation of what we are accustomed to accept as “normal”.

“To what extent is all this intricate circuitry in the brain innately specified by your genes or to what extent is it acquired gradually as the result of your early experiences, as an infant interacts with the world? Even if certain circuits are hard-wired from birth, does it follow that they cannot be altered? How much of the adult brain is modifiable?” (Ramachandran 1999, p. 20).

One aspect to consider is the idea of “body image” – more so a reference to our mind’s mapping of our body parts and their relationship to one another:

“We have a vivid sense of our body and of the position of our limbs and their movements. Two eminent English neurologists, Lord Russell Brain and Henry Head (yes, these are their real names), coined the phrase “body image” for this vibrant, internally constructed ensemble of experiences – the internal image and memory of one’s body in space and time” (Ramachandran 1999, p. 44)

Can design be manipulated so that it plays with and hence makes us aware of our image of body?

One therapy that Ramachandran conceived to help ease the pain felt by patients suffering from phantom limb pain was the use of what he coined, a “mirror box” – a simple contraption that uses basic visual illusion:

“To enable patients like Irene to perceive real movement int heir non-existent arms, we constructed a virtual reality box. The box is made by placing a vertical mirror inside a cardboard box with its lid removed. The front of the box has two hole in it, through which the patient insets her “good hand” (say, the right one) and her phantom hand (the left one). Since the mirror is in the middle of the box, the right hand is now on the right side of the mirror and the phantom is on the left side. The patient is then asked to view the reflection of her normal hand in the mirror and to move it around slightly until the reflection appears to be superimposed on the felt position of her phantom hand. She has thus created the illusion of observing two hands, when in fact she is only seeing the mirror reflection of her intact hand. If she now sends motor commands to both arms to make mirror symmetric movements, as if she were conducting an orchestra or clapping, she of course “sees” her phantom moving as well” (Ramachandran 1999, p. 46).

Upon reading about this “mirror  box” and the subsequent “amputation” of the phantom limb, I was simply in awe. This sense of wonder for the human body was inspiring – how is it that a simple visual illusion can completely warp our physical and psychological sense of our body self? And seeing as it is was a product of visual illusion, does that mean visual communication and design has the potential to do so as well?

“Now just think about what all this means. For your entire life, you’ve been walking around assuming that your “self” is anchored to a single body that remains stable and permanent at least until death. Indeed, the “loyalty” of your self to your own body is so axiomatic that you never even pause to think about it, let alone question it. Yet these experiments suggest the exact opposite – that your body image, despite all its appearance of durability, is an entirely transitory internal construct that can be profoundly modified with just a few simple tricks. It is merely a shell that you’ve temporarily created for successfully passing on your genes to your offspring” (Ramachandran 1999, p. 62).

As a semi side note, one quote that Ramachandran draws upon as the inspiration of his opening chapter is the one by Marxist writer, J.B.S Haldane:

“The world shall perish not for lack of wonders, but for lack of wonder.”

At the end of the day, the reason why I’ve chosen this to be the basis of my research is so that the end product, the final design resolution, evokes that sense of “wonder” that I first felt when I read about phantom limbs. As cliché and obsolete as styles, movements and trends in design may become, the sense of “wonder” never loses its appeal because I guess that in the end, humans are intrinsically attracted to those things in the world that inspire a sense of pure awe.

Reference: Ramachandran, V.S. & Blakeslee, S. 1999, Phantoms in the brain :human nature and the architecture of the mind, Harper Perennial, London.