Ludic Design and “Weird Intimacy”: Reflecting on a Making Process

Posted by on Jul 26, 2013 in making | No Comments

For my last Critical Making project, I wanted to return to the challenge of producing a ludic object that relied on self-effacement as a strategy. To this end, I redoubled my efforts to engage seriously with an open-ended and interpretive approach to design.  As part of this effort, I took time to reflect on the design and building processes I used in my previous projects, in order to understand exactly how I had been approaching my making activities, what the specific results were, and how I might benefit from different processes. By engaging in a more careful reflection on my previous work, aided in great part by the reflection papers that accompanied those projects, it became clear that throughout my first two projects I had been primarily focused on building a technology that worked. My engagement with materials and theory took a backseat to figuring out my build. Perhaps informed by the fact that I were learning how to build electronic systems while also designing objects, I realized that I was generally preoccupied by the challenge of getting  LEDs, motors, sensors, buttons and code to actually do something.  It was only after I had created a fully functioning technology that I would begin to consider the conceptual and theoretical pieces of the project. I realized I would have been better served by simultaneously building and conceptualizing my work, allowing each process to inform the other.

In my first two projects, my methods consisted of working with objects until they worked–until they did something!– and then finding ways to make the designs that emerged fit the assignment prompts. Such a tactic seems to align with a method Daniel Fallman has named research-oriented design (ROD). ROD describes a design approach that is primarily focused on the development of functional products that solve a real-world problem, and is often associated with commercial design practices and processes. While I was in no way developing functional objects, I believe that the design approach I used aligns with the spirit of ROD because my processes were tuned towards building an object that satisfied a particular problem description. I were given a prompt, built a functioning object and found ways to make that object resonate with the various critical information issues I was expected to engage with. While such an approach did not prevent me from productively engage with both the material and theoretical aspects of our designs, in the final analysis I recognize that the production of the artifact had been the primary goal of my process.

Building upon this understanding of how I had approached my previous work, I realized that for my final project I would need a new tactic if I were to even attempt to approach the ludic. Specifically, I recognized that I would have to shift from ROD to a method Fallman calls design-oriented research (DOR). In contrast to ROD, DOR approaches the design process, and its resultant objects as one, among many, conceptual tools for acquiring and developing new knowledge. In other words, DOR uses technology and design as a way to think through and beyond the specific problems that are presented for solution. Within a DOR framework, objects do not need to solve a problem, nor do they even need to function. Rather, they should aid in conceptualization, in theory building, in answering questions and in developing new questions. A DOR approach requires embracing a process that is open-ended and dialogical, involving equally and simultaneously the theoretical frameworks and materials at hand. In other words, DOR methods accord nicely with self-effacing design strategies.

Unlike the previous two projects, where I began with a focus on getting some kind of component or code working, I initiated my final project by establishing some loose guidelines to direct my research and design processes. The prompt for this project was to make a wearable device that makes private information public. In considering what this kind of brief could entail, I realized that I would feel uncomfortable building technology that reveals private information just because I were asked to do so.  I found it ethically challenging to take personal privacy so lightly. As such, my first guideline was ‘don’t share private information.’ Instead, I wanted to trouble the idea of what constitutes ‘private information’ and try to find ways to creatively approach notions of private and public in this context.

Next, based on the experiences of my previous projects, I decided to be as open as possible with regard to the role the technology and the role the participants. I did not want to overcode the object, I did not want to prescribe a particular use or function, nor did I want to be inattentive to the materials used in our build. As such, my second guideline was ‘let the technology push back.’

Finally, I took time to consider the qualities of a wearable device, in order to further unpack exactly what I was being asked to create. At this early stage I recognized that wearable devices always impact on personal movement through space, and that they require duration across time. Given that wearables influence how people move through space and time, I noted that such technologies have a unique potential to influence the ways in which people interact with one another, in both public and private spaces.  Indeed, as Ana Viseu suggests, “[w]earable computers can…be used, deliberately or not, to influence social interaction and behavior.” In brainstorming around notions of private and public, in relation to wearables, I became interested in how such devices might change, affect or trouble conventional notions of familiarity, closeness, and affection. These conversations led to the creation of my third guideline: ‘explore weird intimacy.’

With these three parameters in place I moved forward with testing various sensors and components to see how they might help me to think about sharing intimate moments and creating intimate spaces, in open-ended and ambiguous ways that respect personal privacy.

All of my testing, prototyping and sketching led me to use a digital distance sensor attached to an LCD screen. I liked the idea of creating a wearable device that was responsive to objects and experiences in close proximity, and that shared information in small, quiet ways. I also liked the idea of programing messages for the LCD that would stand-in for private information. I did not want to have my object reveal anything in particular about the body, experience or feelings of the person wearing it.

image-5While I were testing and developing the technical aspects of this project, I was also thinking about how to conceptualize my wearable. Through my prototyping process I realized that the specific form my wearable took, and where it sits on the body, would have a significant impact on function, use and meaning. For example, a wearable that sits on the head has very different effects and affects than one that sits on the wrist or at the shoulders. Similarly, a cuff assumes different meanings, attachments and uses than a glove, or sleeve. I needed to carefully consider where this technology would be worn. Additionally, I came to appreciate the significant challenge posed by making a technological object that is actually wearable. Finding ways to making rigid, flat and sometimes-clunky components sit comfortably on the body is not an easy task. In order to address all of these concerns, I continued testing materials, prototyping objects and sketching ideas. It was only through engaging in all of these activities at the same time, in engaging in a DOR research process, that I was able to finally land on a device that satisfied all of the parameters we had established.

image-1My final project emerged as a hooded cap with an LCD screen and distance sensor mounted just below the mouth of the user. When a participant comes within ten centimeters of the sensor, the LCD turns on, a timer starts and a message is displayed for 5 seconds. If the participant continues to stand close enough to the user to keep the sensor on, a second message displays for 10 seconds. If the participant continues to stand close enough to keep the sensor on, a third message displays for 20 seconds. This process continues, with the time between messages doubling, through three more messages. If either the participant or the user looks away or moves away from each other the LCD resets, and the process begins anew. The messages that cycle through the display are all short phrases pulled from artworks by Barbara Kruger. As an artist whose practice specifically interrogates social performances, and studies the construction of public and private identities, Kruger’s work seems particularly well suited to explorations of “weird intimacy.” Moreover, phrases from her work often hail a “you” or a “we” (e.g.,  “your body is a battle ground” and “are we having fun yet?”) and create ambiguity around who is being addressed in the interaction, the user, the participant, or both.

imageI named this object The Chaperonea reference to the verb “to chaperone,” and its etymological root, the medieval hooded cape called “a chaperone.” I liked the idea of creating a wearable that referenced an existing type of garment, and implied a particular kind of social relationship. The duties of a chaperone are to convey their charge through space, to watch over their charge for a specified duration, to monitor who their charge interacts with and how they interact. Ultimately, a chaperone’s duties involve monitoring and correcting the public performance of identities. In doing so, chaperones build, reshape and/or reinforce social codes and conventions. I were intrigued with the idea of my wearable technology drawing on existing cultural conceptions of chaperoning to think about the performance of public identities. I wanted this project to subtly bring into conversation notions of performance, spectatorship, autonomy, power and control, without explicitly having to build those things into the project.

I believe that I achieved this end by simply requiring a too-close-for-comfort (less than 10 centimeter) physical interaction between user and participant. Indeed, by pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable public behavior, of who it is acceptable to be physically close to, and the character of intimate moments, intimate spaces and intimate places, I believe that my project has the potential to bring what David Phillips calls “non-normative play” into the experience of public space. Moreover, by deliberately invoking an unconventional understanding of private information, the messages and timer that this project interposes between participant and user has the potential to reflect back on each individual’s private experiences, and inform their public performances of identity, in many indeterminate ways. Indeed, I believe that this project could be characterized as ludic, and as embracing self-effacement because it enables what Gaver calls “…wide-ranging conversation with the circumstances and situations that give it rise.” Through a play with social codes, The Chaperone asks users and participants to experience, endure and reflect on what happens when we poke at normative behavioural conventions, when we make the strange familiar, when intimacy gets weird.


Fallman, Daniel. “Why Research-Oriented Design Isn’t Design-Oriented Research: On the Tensions Between Design and Research in an Implicit Design Discipline.” Knowledge, Technology & Policy 20, no. 3 (September 27, 2007): 193–200. doi:10.1007/s12130-007-9022-8.

Gaver, William. “Designing for Homo Ludens, Still.” In (Re) Searching the Digital Bauhaus, edited by T. Binder, J. Lowgren, and L. Malmborg, 163–178. London: Springer-Verlag London Limited, 2008.

Kruger, Barbara. Barbara Kruger. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999.

Oxford English Dictionary. “‘Chaperon, N.’.,” n.d.

Viseu, Ana. “Simulation and Augmentation: Issues of Wearable Computers.” Ethics and Information Technology 5, no. 1 (2003): 17–26.

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