Since the development of early CAD-applications in the 1960s, digital and analogue design seemed to be strictly separated. Cognitive processes of planning and drawing were located in the studio and on the computer screen, whereas the material production of models and prototypes was located in the workshop. But during the last decade, a wide range of techniques of digital production, especially 3D-printing, became available for both designers and consumers. These techniques caused a »material turn« in digital design. Today, the workshop and the studio cannot be strictly separated anymore. Designers are designing their own tools and platforms which then lead to a new typology of networked artifacts. The paradigm of seriality which had been the origin of industrial production and product design, is not of importance anymore. Designers can change each product from time to time. We can realize unseen shapes of geometric complexity – simulations are becoming almost real on our screens. In his 1965 essay »The Ultimate Display«, computer scientist Ivan Sutherland already envisioned such a fluent transition between digital and analogue. Sutherland was the inventor of the first graphical user interface, namely »Sketchpad« which he developed as his PhD-Project in 1963 at MIT. As he notes, an ultimate display would »[…] be a room within which the computer can control the existence of matter. A chair displayed in such a room would be good enough to sit in. Handcuffs displayed in such a room would be confining, and a bullet displayed in such a room would be fatal. With appropriate programming such a display could literally be the wonderland into which Alice walked.« (Sutherland 1965: 38).
The ultimate display is a screen without constraint, it is a setting in which the user will be able to interact directly with an object. We can only speculate if Ivan Sutherland had already imagined new modes of representation within digital design, in particular Virtual and Augmented Reality – which today are being used by architects and designers more and more as a tool to make their designs seem as ›real‹ as possible. However, 3D-printing, Virtual reality and Generative Design are only the visual expressions of a new way of thinking within design that merges digital and analogue. As Antoine Picon notes, CAD-tools evoke a »new materiality« (Picon 2010: 157) bridging the gap between concept and form, between simulation and product.
The dissolvement of the distinction between analogue and digital has been identified as the »postdigital« lately and further discussed by Felix Stalder, for instance (see Stalder 2016). Stalder identifies the postdigital as a transition that effects society as a whole. ›Postdigital‹ in this context, doesn’t mean that we have overcome digital technology. We rather translate digital thinking and strategies into other parts of daily life and work. In design, this would be the use of Open Source-strategies for hardware, e.g. the development of desktop 3D-printers by a community of makers. Stalder mentions the production of references, community and network as crucial elements of a »culture of digitality«. As he points out, design gains more and more importance as the discipline of digitization par excellence.
The prospect of a ›wonderland of postdigitality‹ raises a lot of questions for design. As the open source design process, for instance, depends on a distribution of knowledge on platforms, between individual workshops and community spaces such as fablabs. Old distinctions forming our idea of design become precarious or obsolete. We can no longer decide whether an organizational system such as a design studio is a singular entity or rather meandering through other digital processes and organizations (see Latour 2006: 539). Are our desks and workshops extensions, respectively mere expressions of the digital? Do the artifacts we are producing (such as models, prototypes and products, but also systems and modes of communication) have any meaning as independent entities without digital applications? How can we define design without authorship in the context of Open Design? Can we still call design ›design‹ if the paradigm of seriality is obsolete?
When talking about contemporary design processes, we are trying to grasp uncertainty and complexity, we want to name the different media involved in the process. We are trying to identify the different actors involved in the network of interactions. We want to describe the beginning and the end of the process. The fact that these questions must remain unanswered is already in itself an expression of the nature of postdigital design.
In my intuition, the discourse around postdigitality in design would benefit form a third term besides the digital and analogue, namely the interface. The concept of the interface could help to frame the complexity and multi-layeredness of contemporary design processes. It is not to be understood as the surface of the screen, but as a more general concept of interaction with artifacts, tools and methods of communication.
Designer and design theorist Gui Bonsiepe, who was part of HfG Ulm and who later worked on the Cybersyn project (a prototype of the internet that was supposed to connect public enterprises) under Salvador Allende has published a book on the interface in 1996. Here, he develops a first approach towards the interface as an entity which is neither a tangible object nor limited to a screen. He emphasizes : »[…] the interface is not a thing, but the dimension in which the interaction between body, tool (artifact, both tangible and signified artifact) and action goal is articulated. […] The interface opens up the tool character of objects and the information content of data. […] Interface turns mere availability – in Heidegger‘s terminology – into Zuhandenheit.« (Bonsiepe 1996: p. 20).
In my project, I pick up Bonsiepes idea of the interface and Heideggers Zuhandenheit by discussing projects within postdigital design which particularly deal with the development of the interfaces of design tools. Sutherlands »Sketchpad« where an artist or designer could interact with the program by using a light pen is a very early example of such an interface design for designers. Contemporary examples would be the works of the Belgian design studio Unfold who have developed a set of digitized measuring tools that directly influence the model on the screen (Digital Calliper, 2014) or a virtual pottery wheel connected to a ceramic 3d-printer (L’artisan Electronique, 2010) as well as more »industrial« examples such as Berlin glasses manufacturer Mykita who is implementing 3D-scanning methodology into the opticians’ processes of making 3d-printed glasses fit to a user’s face (Mylon, since 2010). Furthermore, Gui Bonsiepe has already provided me with materials on his research in the Cybersyn project that also contains idea for an interface beyond the mere screen.
As professor at Muthesius Academy of Arts Kiel I am teaching design theory within the master program interface design since April 2017. Together with our guest professor Matylda Krzykowski, a curator and journalist, I am have been developing an exhibition concept (»Muthesius Parallax«) that translates a concept of contemporary web design into an installation. We are using the image of the so-called »parallax-effect« which enables multi-layered imagery and dynamic interaction within a one-page layout. Furthermore, I have been developing 3D-printed furniture as inhouse-designer at 3D-printing startup BigRep in 2015 as well as a number of workshops about making and bricolage at different art schools in Germany since 2013.
Bonsiepe, Gui (1996): Interface. Design neu begreifen, Mannheim.
Latour, Bruno (2006): Sozialtheorie und Erforschung computerisierter Arbeitsumgebungen, in: Bellinger, Andrea; Krieger, David (Eds.): ANThology. Ein einführendes Handbuch zur Akteur-Netzwerk-Theorie, Bielefeld.
Picon, Antoine (2010): Digital Culture in Architecture. An Introduction for the Design Professions. Basel/Boston/Berlin: Birkhäuser.
Stalder, Felix: Kultur der Digitalität (2016), Berlin.
Sutherland, Ivan: The Ultimate Display (1965), Proceedings of IFIP Congress, pp. 506-508.
Lecture at the conference of the German Design Research society on the material turn in digital design.