Matt Cottam's "Heirloom Electronics"
This past weekend's sold-out Interaction10 conference was attended by an international community of experts in Web, software, mobile device and service design. But rather than an emphasis on technology and interface design techniques, the zeitgeist was decidedly low-tech, with diverse speakers discussing topics including storytelling, drawing by hand and meaning in the context of design.
For a conference (thankfully) without a specified theme, there was an emergent thread of looking ahead by looking backwards. In the case of materials, Matt Cottam of Tellart presented his exploratory designs in "heirloom electronics"—handcrafting devices out of wood, which, unlike our mass produced plastic boxes, gracefully wear and change through their long-term use, gaining keepsake qualities.
A new-old way to engage with our digital photos?
In a similar vein, Richard Banks of Microsoft Research discussed the "future of looking back"—how we might store, organize and retrieve the vast number of digital photos we capture and place online. Conceptual solutions included a nostalgic viewfinder and set of slides that could be boxed on a shelf and viewed offline.
At the greatest extreme, Ben Fullerton of IDEO examined the possibilities of designs that purposefully inhibit interaction between people as an alternative to the information overload of emails, messages and tweets. His comparison of solitude in historical and current contexts recalls a time when one could more pragmatically get away from it all.
The concurrence of these ideas among leading designers might suggest a backlash against the ever-growing technical complexity and scale. But it is also driven by a fundamental human need to be in touch with natural materials and to enjoy time for contemplation and a little peace and quiet.
Downtown Savannah, old-fashioned meeting place for new-fashioned design ideas.
Perhaps, this yearning for the past was reinforced by the Interaction10 conference locations—a group of walkable venues in the heart of Savannah, Georgia, including a restored pharmacy, blacksmith shop and theatre that served as a hub for the event.
Whether this retrospection endures, remains to be seen. Ironically, its success will depend on the thoughtful design and development of technology, so that we can naturally interact with our devices, rather than hide from them.
Rob Tannen is an expert in designing products, interfaces and systems that accommodate the complexities of human behavior and capabilities. He has researched cockpit interfaces for U.S. Air Force, designed trading floor order systems for the New York Stock Exchange, and created touch screen applications for consumer appliances. Rob is Director of User Research and Interaction Design at the product development firm Bresslergroup. He also has a PhD in human factors and is a Certified Professional Ergonomist.