I have just completed a two day workshop with Ian Anderson of the Designers Republic. We got started on thursday with the the task of doing something pointless for an hour, and then presenting it in an interesting way on friday.
Good examples from previous workshops included one student who photographed every single tile of every single bathroom in the building they were working, from this he presented information regarding how many had been graffited or cracked in a slideshow. This task seemed pointless to the student as there was no real benefit in the end, however it might perhaps be useful to a maintenance worker as they could use the data for cleaning or repairs. Another example I quite liked was by another student in Quebec who created a campaign for red balloons - not to save red balloons, or to help fund the making of more red balloons, just simply 'red balloons'. The idea was an interesting and original one which was presented in an entertaining and humorous way, thus answering the task as prompted.
I think primarily I struggled with the simple idea of just jumping up and down on the spot or tapping my finger on the desk for a whole hour as a starting point. I had an agenda from the start of presenting my findings through info-graphics as I have been drawn in by the recent design community's interest in the area. I had some quite odd thoughts such as simply putting butter on my face, framing shots and then taking photos with the lens cap on or watching a film with ear plugs in and a blindfold on. I understand now why it was such a difficult task to settle on one idea as my agenda was for something quite mathematical and monitored but my ideas were abstracted, hence difficult to record in a way that satisfied my interest.
The idea I ran with was to weigh a sheet of paper, saturate it with water and then weigh it again. This seemed a strange and totally pointless task to me, even during discussion with the lab technician (thanks for the cup of tea Jean) who allowed me to use her set of scales, agreed it was indeed a pointless task as I was not performing it under true laboratory conditions.
I spent all day battling with how I was going to present this information, one of Ian's suggestions was that I write a story about a man in a laboratory who weighs paper, then wets it and weighs it again, the point being that the data collected from the pointless task does not need to be the information that entertains or informs during the presentation.
I found this a viable way of answering the brief but that I would not do myself any favors if I simply took his idea, instead I looked at some other angles I could come from such as making an artifact from the wet (now dry) paper or presenting the images I had taken.
I found nothing that I could honestly have confidence in presenting, so instead I thought I would write a song.
Where on earth could I come from, would I sing? would I play my guitar? would I program something? I ran some lyrics through my head, this seemed absurd.
I looked back at the data I had compiled from the laboratory, what if I could write a song using the numbers I had recorded?
I subtracted the weight of each individual piece of paper by its weight when wet, to work out the weight of water I had added in the saturation process. Then I used a software program to create frequencies using these numbers. It sounded pretty awful, I experimented with the time each frequency would play, whether I could replay and mix around the sounds to write a song and if I could layer them up in an audibly pleasing way.
What I eventually generated is an audio/visual info-graphics piece in which the frequency of sound corresponds to the volume of water that was added to the sheet of paper. You may also be aware that the sound resembles that of a dripping tap, a fantastic discovery when I was experimenting with different sound effects for the frequencies.
The feedback from Ian was encouraging, he said it was a highly original idea, a fantastic way of presenting information and he liked that I made the audience sit through over three minutes of the uncomfortable repetitive sound, "the presentation of the film expressed the pointlessness of the idea".
Feedback for the class as a whole was that we struggled getting the point of the pointlessness, we could have been much more lateral in our thinking and seeing some people presenting extra special ideas meant that we could be much more confident and ambitious designers. We were drawn into the pointlessness too much, the brief was more about the presentation not the pointless task itself.
I think the fact that I had like most of the class not answered the brief totally right is not a bad thing, we were subjected to a strict learning curve in terms of truly understanding a brief and it will prove very useful in the future. It's very difficult as design students to answer commercial needs without an agenda of our own in place, especially in the boom of online networking and international awareness of creative individuals, we are constantly trying to break boundaries and innovate when really our role does not require us to do so.
"it's like me saying go out and buy twelve carrots and then you come back with eleven and an aubergine"
Ian says it is always good to do things that are seemingly pointless, it is a great task when you are experiencing creative block, and ultimately nothing is really pointless at all if we pull context into it or present it to someone who it is worth something to.
"if you get a shit brief, really listen to it and ask yourself what is it I have to come back with".