Designing Modes for Physical Products

Beyond water management, physical products of all kinds will have the opportunity to adopt dynamic behavior. More than the bimodal scenarios discussed in the last section, products could have multiple, if not limitless, states and modes. Like the shape-shifting ability of the octopus, what if our shoes could “adapt” to different weather conditions, seasonal activities, and social occasions, freeing us to own fewer pairs? If it were raining heavily outside, perhaps your shoes could adapt to be impermeable to water like a rubber boot or perhaps be hydrophobic to drive water away. If it were hot out, the shoe could become structurally more porous to allow your feet to breathe better. Perhaps the color and texture could also change to reflect the context and formality of the social environment. If it were to snow, the sole of your shoes could change texture to provide traction on slick surfaces.

Designing Physical Behaviors in Physical Products

Thomas Heatherwick, principle of Heatherwick Studio, has a distinct body of work along with some other pioneering firms that have begun to explore the unique considerations involved in designing physical design behavior. One of his iconic commissions, Rolling Bridge (2004), a pedestrian drawbridge in London, is unremarkable in its open and closed states, but when it moves, it all changes. Watching the lobster-shell design roll up or unroll is both surprising and remarkable to behold. As design and architecture become more expressively dynamic such as this bridge, designers will need to consider how a structure like this opens, not just that it opens, and how it needs to look or be constructed. You can make a bridge appear friendly and trustworthy in form and materials, but how can the motion of its unfurling build confidence in a user? How can you make the nuances of motion appear friendly or inviting? Could the bridge make you laugh? Could it slowly accelerate, or speed up and then decelerate to a gentle stop?

In the same way that interaction designers create digital experiences that behave in context or brand-appropriate ways (think of the slow, “breathing” pulse of an Apple power indicator light when a computer is sleeping), product designers will also be faced with the opportunity to bring these dynamic behaviors to the physical world. This is where the act of being a physical designer will surely evolve. In designing the personality with which a transition is made between modes, physical designers will have to think more like animators, choreographers, or any other design field involving motion.

One area in which motion plays a critical role today is in the behavioral design of safety lighting, such as that on trains, planes, and emergency vehicles. In the 1950s, the average police car had a single, slowly revolving light indicating engagement in a pursuit — hardly urgent in its behavior and not terribly good at attracting attention. Today, police cars and ambulances use fast moving, abrupt, pulsating LEDs and sound bursts to capture your attention. Beyond the bright lights and loud sounds, it is the motion and transition of these cues that define a behavior suitable for emergencies.

In a recent industrial design studio, I challenged my students to create a piece of safety equipment for bicyclists to help promote better visibility on the road. Of the many different approaches the students took, one concept emerged that I believe forecasts considerations designers will face in the near future. Called the “puffer jackets,” the student envisioned a vest that would emulate the behavior of a puffer fish, which uses physical parts of its body to startle and repel predators. The design proposed electronically controlled mechanics as used in experimental fashion design by Studio XO and Hussein Chalayan. The design would inflate an area of the jacket on command with reflectors, thereby making the cyclist look bigger and more noticeable (this was a short conceptual user experience project). In the ensuing development of this idea, the class reached a significant conclusion: what really mattered in the design was less the visual quality of the vest and more the motion behavior transitioning from a normal state to the attentiongrabbing mode. In a future of dynamic intelligent matter, these kinds of considerations will only continue to grow in importance.

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