Designing Representational Systems

Posted on May 1, 2013 by Anya Ventura

What do you get when you bring together students from across disciplines — from mechanical engineering to materials science to architecture – to make things? This was, in part, the question posed by the new spring course, “Design Across Scales” taught by professors Neri Oxman and Meejin Yoon. Inspired by Charles and Ray Eames’ canonical “Powers of Ten,” the course explores the relationship between science and engineering through the interdisciplinary lens of design.

For their first assignment, students were asked to design a representational system that communicates information. “Representations are – like design itself – acts of translation,” Oxman and Yoon write, “They help us clarify, express and communicate our ideas. Whether visual or material, digital or physical – representations are a highly effective design tool and have contributed to many of the most significant revolutions in human civilization: consider Galileo’s representation of the world that brought about the Copernican revolution, or London’s Tube Map which revolutionized our conception of underground public transportation based on circuit diagrams.”

Any type of information could be represented, and everything was inspiration, from “global warming, dog food, political regimes, silkworms, the state of education, fast-food, poverty, or why butterflies fly.” The resulting projects drew upon a range of tools and methods, both digital and physical, to convey ideas ranging from the weighty to the humorous. In these two examples below, student groups chose to represent the earth’s rising sea levels and an ornithology guide that incorporated audio-visual information about different kinds of birds.

This project, “6039 A.D.,” shows the potential devastating effects of rising sea levels on the physical state of the country and on the movement of large populations over time. Using wood and a laser cutter, students created a 3-D contour map of the United States and flooded it with dyed water to represent this ecological threat.

Taylor Farnham (Mechanical Engineering), Vivian Dien (Materials Science and Engineering), and Alexis Jay Sablone (Architecture)

The taxonomy of birds is a vast and rich collection of information. While traditional ornithological representations show the complexity of connections within the bird genus, these guides do not represent the actual physicality of birds. In nature, birds have a rich multi-sensorial physicality; from the tuneful melodies of their songs to the vast palette of colours in their plumage. Birds of a Feather endeavors to include this natural beautiful physicality of birds in a reimagined audio-visual framework. Birds of a Feather adds a layer of information – visual and auditory – to the pre-existing ornithological system, expressing each of the birds in the species through a dynamic sound and color representation. A simplified palette sampled from the actual plumage of the birds included with the auditory representation provide a more accessible and intuitive approach to a system which only experts usually understand.

Philippa Mothersill (Media Lab), Floor van de Velde (Art, Culture, and Technology), Hunter Guarino (Mechanical Engineering), Kristine Bunker (Mechanical Engineering).


See also: Designing New Tools
Students in the class Design Across Scales invent new tools to make things.