Design and the Elastic Mind: An Interview with Paola Antonelli

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Paola Antonelli is the design curator at the New York Museum of Modern Art and a leading voice in the power of design, shown most recently in her acclaimed 2008 exhibition Design for the Elastic Mind. Antonelli talked to us about how her process for creating an exhibition, the future of design, and how we make people and objects more elastic.

You have organized a lot of succesful exhibitions at MoMA. What is your approach when setting up a new exhibition?

Paola Antonelli

Paola Antonelli

My passion is contemporary design; to look at how people live today and understand from that what’s going to happen the day after tomorrow. I never do science fiction movies, but I like to give some idea of the way we are going to live maybe in two to three years from now.

In order to do so first of all, a theme comes to mind, an idea. An idea is a dollar a pound, and it depends on which one you decide to develop that really makes it worthy of talking about. Let’s say you decide to develop a certain idea, you start to look for examples in the world of design all around the world that supports this idea. Now, when I say the world of design it doesn’t mean just the bona fide designers that get published in magazines. Sometimes it’s products that are already on the market that don’t really have a name attached. But, you know everything that is built is a form of design, so there is a lot to look at. I usually gather a lot of different material and begin to sculpt the exhibit, I usually start with too much and as you really prepare the exhibition certain objects get abandoned and others come to the surface. It’s a process, it really is. In the end it all comes together, but it never is completely finished. When it comes to contemporary design it is best to leave the exhibition slightly unfinished to let the public finish it itself.

When it comes to contemporary design it is best to leave the exhibition slightly unfinished to let the public finish it itself.

One of the strong points of MoMA is the ability to ‘experience’ an exhibition digitally. How far do you want to go with this? How far will this go in relationship to the physical exhibition?

I started the museum website in 1995, because my very first short MoMA was a show about new materials about design. I figured it would be good to have a website. So ever since, I’ve had websites for every show I’ve done. I consider the website a place to archive everything, every website has all the materials and an explanation of all the objects in the show. Progressively it has becomes a place for an experience, and I feel the experience should be different than the show itself.

I don’t see the website as a surrogate or a substitute to the show itself, but rather a space all on to its own. For every show there are three main spaces, one is the gallery space, another is the catalog if you do it, and a third is the website. Each one responds to different laws, and they lead you to different experiences. The website for ‘Design and the Elastic Mind‘ was truly an experience, one that you would either love or hate.  It was completely in Flash – Yugo Nakamura, who is considered to be one of the kings of Flash, was the creative director – and required you to really float around on and explore to experience it in full. It had a personality that was very distinct. It had nothing really to do with the show, even though it contained the same objects though they were organized for the space of the website.

Right now the limit to what can be done on the web is the software. The limits are the crashes and the speed download. So much that we can do more without, I don’t believe in doing virtual galleries. That’s a bad use of the medium. So much is imperfect. We have all tried to do exhibitions on SecondLife, but I’m sorry, it was terrible.

When setting up a new exhibition, how do you try and capture the attention of the audience? How do you lure people into the exhibition?

Design and the Elastic Mind

Design and the Elastic Mind

I don’t know. It kind of comes naturally. There needs to be a good balance, of course you want to convey a certain idea and you hope that the idea will push the whole world a little further and forward. But, at the same time you need to do it with some grace without being too pandering and too heavy. So there are always a little sense of humor in certain objects, some lightness every now and then, even when you have a serious message to convey. Then there is also the idea that you want to show that design is a very creative discipline and that there is playfulness in it and talent, but there is also a lot of thinking and reasoning. And, more than anything, there is a lot of thinking about human beings.

However, people usually like it better when it’s not that abstract, where their lives are not at stake. So one of the best ways to make the exhibition engaging for people is to make them understand that it is about people.  What designs do is they really focus on people’s lives, even when they use the most advanced of technologies. They are the ones that guarantee that these devices actually work for people. It’s a mixture of that and the overall design of the space, ensuring its attractiveness, and the choice of objects. I always compare curators, especially curators at MoMA, to movie directors. It’s as if I was the director and MoMA was the studio. Each director has their own personality. It really has to do with the philosophy of displaying and the philosophy of exhibiting.

You see a lot of new forms of design popping up, like ‘critical design’ and ‘green design’. What new form of design appeals to you the most?

“Design for the Elastic Mind” was all about new forms of design. But, the type of design that I’m really interested in is all of them. I love the way designers work with scientists, biomimicry, and nanodesign. I love tissue design, behavioral design, and I’m interested in social design depending on how it’s done. I’m very passionate about informational design and visualization, I think it is one of the biggest avenues for designers in the future. In a way, I’m interested in any form of design that doesn’t start with an object but rather starts with reasoning. A reasoning about how people live and how they could live better in the future.

What, for the coming decade, will be an important influence/change for the way we approach design?

I think more and more it will be not about objects, but rather about other things. Or at least the objects will be in the computer screen. I think the designer that are going to survive are the ones that have studied how to make chairs, but are more interested in experiences, interaction, and interfaces. The next show that I’m working on is about this, called “Talk to Me.” It’s about the communication between people and objects. I really believe that’s what’s going to happen the most.

I also feel that designers will start to be employed more in policy making, and sociology and ethnography. Their knowledge of how people think and behave will be exploited better.

Over the last decade, which product has made the most impact on you and why?

The iPod, which then became the iPhone, really it’s the whole i-suite. I use a BlackBerry personally, but any kind of portable communication device that supports both text and email has revolutionized our life the most.

How do you see the balance between input from users and the brilliance of designers when designing new products?

It depends on the product, because every product requires a different balance. There are some products that are all about how people want them to be: these tend to be open source. There are others where people want the hand, or mind, of designer. They want the signature. It’s becoming more and more thinking before doing, and understanding where the object sits. Let’s say you want to buy a Cabana chair for $10,000, you don’t want your input in it. You want it to be their input only. Instead, you want to customize your Firefox, you want to customize it all by yourself. Your input is in the parts you decide to assemble and all the plugins that you want. So you see, there is a big difference between the functionality and symbolism of the object.

In an article you once wrote that “the figure of the designer is changing from form giver to fundamental interpreter of an extraordinary dynamic reality”. What did you mean by this?

What’s happening is that designers used to be those that made chairs, or those that made posters. Instead, right now they look at the way people live and they try to translate their observations into better products, better interfaces. Objects that are better, more flexible, more adaptable, and more elegant artifacts that we can surround ourselves with. Since people are changing everyday faster, and what’s happened in the past decade is the rate of change has become more rapid, what designers have to do is first and foremost be like anthropologists, or ethnographers. They have to observe how things happen and interpret them as fast as possible in a smart way.

What designers have to do is first and foremost be like anthropologists … observe how things happen and interpret them as fast as possible in a smart way.

In the same article you wrote this beautiful sentence “If design is to help enable us to live to the fullest while taking advantage of all the possibilities provided by contemporary technology, designers need to make both people and objects perfectly elastic” How do you make people more elastic?

People might become more elastic before you make them. But, it’s a matter of open-mindedness and getting people to accept change. The reason people call innovation distributive is because when it’s imposed upon society by the people creating it, they don’t give a damn about the people. They don’t care about the consequences of the innovation, rather they just pass on the innovation to society. Designers try to ensure that innovations are able to be used by people and it speaks the language that the people are familiar with. This is how you make objects more elastic, how you make people more elastic is by making them more comfortable with change as it happens. It’s not a one way street, both people and objects need to have better interfaces.

Interaction 10

If you want to meet Paola Antonelli in real life: she is one of the keynote speakers at Interaction 10. It is the third annual conference hosted by the Interaction Design Association (IxDA). Each year, IxDA aims to gather the interaction design community to connect, educate, and inspire each other. This year it is held in Savannah, Georgia (USA).

Brad Nunnally

Brad Nunnally is a User Experience Design Consultant at Perficient based in St. Louis, MO. Aside from writing, plotting UX world domination, and tweeting a whole bunch , he fills his time playing with his son and dog.

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