NESHAN, The Iranian Graphic Design Magazine

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Neshan 40

Editorial column

Digital Technology And The Diversity Of Expression

Michael Renner

My first encounter with digital technology was a shock. In an elective class with the title “Informatics” in high school – it must have been in the late 1970's – we learned to write code in Basic using a terminal connected by a phone line to a mainframe computer belonging to one of Basel’s pharmaceutical companies. The terminal had no screen. The code and the outcome of the program were plotted on paper at the terminal after sending the request to the mainframe through the phone line. I remember the turmoil I caused by adding four zeros to the number one hundred in a program, which resulted in the output of all the numbers from zero to the indicated figure. I was unaware that the increase from one hundred to one million would block the mainframe computer for several hours. As soon as the teacher realized what I had done he became incredibly nervous. Afraid of losing the permission to use the connection to the mainframe computer, the teacher quickly unplugged the phone line to interrupt the processing. 
In the meantime, the usability of digital technology has improved. The Graphical User Interface (GUI), which was first implemented with the Xerox Star 1981 at Xerox Park and successfully marketed in 1984, undoubtedly marks a major step in the success story of digital devices. From then on, Graphic Design – as the term GUI implies – played a major role in connecting man and machine. A subsequent step in the development towards interaction design was the release of early authoring environments such as Hypercard, programmed by Bill Atkinson in 1987. Hypercard allowed the designer to develop simple interactive applications. This innovation empowered not only the programmer but also the designer to create digital tools that allowed users make their own decisions within a given framework. Following this brief summary about technological developments since the 1970's, we arrive at today’s digital communication that began in the 1990's with the commercial use of the Internet. 
During these diverse technical developments, their effects on the role of design and society were discussed from various disciplinary backgrounds. Human Computer Interaction (HCI) became a powerful field of research and development with the participation of computer scientists, psychologists, entrepreneurs and designers. It was an early field of research in which design supposedly played a role. Unfortunately, the visual development of the man-machine interface has not developed significantly since its invention in 1981. This may be credited to the fact that markets cater to the majority and therefore, as Wendy Chung has pointed out, New Media is never new. It is based on the habituation of the masses to which we all belong and therefore a major shift does not take place. In a more optimistic sense, Vilém Flusser claimed in the mid 1980's that new technological developments have the potential to be diverted from their intended use and therefore can create new meaning. For example, while a bed as an object implies reclining, the new devices do not, until today, demand an action in the same sense. There is room for exploration as to how a newly developed hard- or software could be used in a way that generates meaning. The exploration can be done with emphasis on the intended characteristics of the technical innovation. For example, an early exploration of vector drawing programs was conducted to create a typographic ruler [Fig. 1]. This emphasized the characteristic of the digital drawing program as a tool that can repeat the same action with ease and precision as was never seen before. In addition, the speed of digital design tools have the potential to base ones decisions on a wider field of visual variations. As we all know today, that variation becomes quickly repetitive in the context of digital design tools and therefore the decision-making requests also a critical approach to the tool and its implementation.
Today, the broad availability of digital tools, the repetitive preference of them and the increasing communication with images in digital media channels require an intentional, innovative and reflected design attitude more than ever before.
If we digress from the exploration of digital tools with an emphasis on their strengths, we can turn to an approach that deviates from the intended use of a technical innovation. Scripting unexpected feedback loops, triggered by a mouse click on an interface button, can be described as an early critical exploration of the possibilities of interactive design [Fig. 2]. The outcome of such an exploration generates an experience for the user exemplifying the limited feedback that is actually implemented in today’s interfaces. Our digital tools and media channels raise many questions regarding authorship, creativity, leveling of cultural identities, power relations, surveillance and privacy which can be addressed through the outcome of a practical exploration. Unfortunately the creative diversion of the intended use of technical innovation seems to have a minor effect on the strategic market-oriented development of digital technology. We have to keep in mind – as stated above – that the search for deviations of technological innovation is opposed to the marketing strategies aiming to make the devices compatible with a majority of users.   This leads us to another description of the role of the designer in the digital age. In a context in which processes and technologies have become so complex that only specialists can understand a very specific and limited part of them, the design of interfaces enables us to overcome our lack of understanding. Along this line of argumentation, Peter Sloterdijk has described the activity of the designer sarcastically as a charlatan outfitter. From this point of view, the designer is not critically challenging technological innovation as suggested above but is merely a service provider helping to cope with the complexities of daily life. It is from this point of view that the designer is helping to habituate the masses and, unfortunately in most cases, he/she does not even realize it. Even though I have questioned above the impact of the creative exploration of technological innovation on the broad market, I believe that it is the only way to keep our experiences diverse and interesting. The charlatan outfitters are only increasing the repetitive boredom and supporting the habituation of the masses. In retrospect, I am happy to have challenged digital technology in its early stage by changing the number from one hundred to one million and I encourage anyone to do so in order to keep the variety and diversity in our world.

Michael Renner

Michael Renner, 1961, experienced the digital revolution first-hand working for Apple Computer and The Understanding Business in California in 1986, just after completing his education at the Basel School of Design. In 1999 he was named chairman of the Visual Communication Institute at the Basel School of Design (HGK FHNW). From 2005 until 2013 he was member of eikones, the Swiss National Center in Iconic Research. His approach to develop research activities is based on the aim to further develop existing competencies of design. With this approach the creation of images, the design process becomes the central research theme and the methodology. 
He has lectured and taught workshops in Europe and abroad, is on the advisory board of Visible Language, and member of AGI. michael.renner@fhnw.ch

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