Horizon LED Light from Humanscale. Designed by Michael McCoy & Peter Stathis.

Empathy and Technology at Design Santa Fe

Citing the seminality of Daniel Pinks book,  A Whole New Mind, and averring that being in Santa made her wish to belt out the Atchison-Topeka-and Santa Fe lyric as the train rolled into the Railyards –  Metropolis Magazine editor in chief Susan S. Szenasy opened a panel on Empathy and Technology offering this thought. “What we need right now is creativity, analysis, ideas.”

Speaking to a roomful of interior designers, graphic designers, product designers and architects attending design Santa Fes “design dialogue” at the Farmers Market building on October 1st, the editor stressed but subtly that she doesnt identify dialectic opposition between technology and empathy, but is seeking points of interstice.

“Technology because were so enamored with it shouldnt blind us to the fact that were empathetic human beings,” said Szenasy. Later on, demonstrating moving her thumbs as if texting, she said emphatically, “we are more than this.”

Susan S. Szenasy

Susan S. Szenasy

The moderator and the panel met as front pages nationally were dominated by reports that a Rutgers University freshman had committed suicide after his roommates – using technology sadistically  – had outed his gay sexual encounter after surreptitiously web-camming him in their dorm room. I heard a gay rights activists say on the NewsHour Friday night, that this incidence (and a spate of suicides by young gay men on college campuses) proves that young generations using technology from birth (to death) are not comprehending much less respecting boundaries between public versus private space.

Meanwhile at the Railyards, the techn-empathy presentation by design professionals Rania Alomar, AIA, Michael McCoy and Mary Murphy focused across their work in architecture, industrial design and textile design, respectively – on how technology is furthering considerations of what public space is.

The discussion touched on how new spaces might be conceived, to how they might be built; and which user needs and standards of craft apply. Which virtues of high design or exquisiteness technology-aided design might serve was addressed, if obliquely.  Although mention was made of high-priced construction technologies, the dialogues stressed both new nomenclatures and processes by which design is expressed.

Alomar presented three projects by her firm, RA-DA, of CNC-generated designs. These are computer-aided complex architecture models in virtual space, forms that almost seem to heat-map use patterns or “grow” ideas  for shapes – that might be familiar to mavens who have followed complex patterning in buildings including Guggenheim Bilbao by Frank Gehry, works of Iraqi-born, Priztker Prize-winner  Zaha Hadid, or of the analytically brilliant Neil Denari to whom some of RA DAs work bows.

One key thought Alomar expressed was that space including “field distortion” that allows 3-dimensional space to occur from a flat plane, and “skirt-lift,” might create volumes far too complex for a typical architecture model built in 3-d. (Prompting an anxious audience question about where contractors can go to get educated. Samuel Mockbees Rural Studio, was Szenasys first answer, as she interacted vigorously between panel and audience.)

RA-DAs  "Animal Wellness Center" in Santa Monica, CA

RA-DA's "Animal Wellness Center" in Santa Monica, CA

RA-DAs  “Animal Wellness Center” (above) of dog store chains owned by a Southern California veterinarian (so attuned with canines, “she almost is one,” said Alomar) showed a design principle supporting Temple Grandins work: dogs (like cattle like horses) like narrow aisles and will choose to go down them if offered. Hence the Animal Wellness space had to be designed on two levels. A dogs field of vision created the first, critical dogs eye view level to the design. A humans bi-ped body and binocular vision got addressed in the level above the human waist.

CNC forms animate a frozen yogurt chain in China, called Yogoya, which employed RA-DA conceived “Ruffles,” which she showed as iterations of wall model of the rippled and complex curvy form of the dessert being served.  Asked by an audience member what material the wall had been made of, she allowed that it was “Corian,” the countertop material manufactured in China.

Industrial designer Michael McCoy of McCoy Collection in Denver showed a new LED task lamp he has designed for humanscale (goes on the market at DWR next year). The mention of humanscale and the discussion of the lamps virtues – a ball joint which allows the arm to move freely, a “thin plane of light” – led Szenasy to cite humanscale founder Niels Diffrient as “my God of industrial design.” McCoy was at pains early in his presentation to state the range of his career possibly as a metaphor for how “moving to the mountains” (Colorado) reflected empathy.

Designing with others, McCoys Bulldog chair for Knoll has sold so well that you could line up the chairs a 370-mile span Santa Fe to Denver, he said. Conversely, pointing a few yards in front of him, he demonstrated a step the door chair  (“we made 10 of them”) – reflecting built design at its more conceptual plinth.  In Denver, McCoy said his furniture collection has benefited from expert military-industrial machinists (formerly of Lockheed) who finish the prongs of his incident coattrack, to one ten-thousandth of an inch. “This is how I do things,” McCoy paraphrased his machinist as saying.

The final speaker, Mary Murphy of Maharam Design Studio, wore a navy blue costume that buttoned like a Chinese collar but hung like an elongated pea coat. A textile expert and RISD grad, under Murphys leadership Maharam has developed an extensive textile collection from the super-deluxe and high-quality (including bespoke stripes for Paul Smith) to more popular that allows the company to fund experiments and visionary projects that might be otherwise out of the realm. A presentation that touched on how the 100-plus-year old private enterprise of Maharam still makes textile design the virtue above all led to reflections on the impact of the jacquard loom – an old technology and proof, agreed Murphy and Szenasy – that technology possesses not only profoundly new yet profoundly old interactions with humans who use it.

I sat in my chair during the q-and-a portion listening to other interlocutors. Their questions included: How do designers project sales of product? (A question the panel received with some bemusement, basically answering that others decide that).The best-received question was phrased by Victoria Price who asked about how jobs are going to rebound in the U.S. An answer, offered by Michael McCoy, said that techies and precision craftspeople are going to collaborate for a wave of innovation.Ӭ I hope so.

What I might have asked was, Given how much of new design is communicated and received through media – and how much distrust new media raises for those who create material environments –  what would these designers say is the real locus of empathy of their practice? With the people building the things they are making, with whom they have a human to human relation of explaining? With the “user” whose “user” experience might include being a fan of something on Facebook which she has never encountered? And how do competing design virtues reconcile in an increasingly complex world of making, using, and talking about?


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