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Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects

by Paola Antonelli
The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, 2011
208 pp., illus. 407 col. Trade, $35.00
ISBN: 978-0-87070-796-4.

Reviewed by John F. Barber
The Creative Media & Digital Culture Program
Washington State University Vancouver


The purpose of design has shifted, over the last 100 years, from utility, to function, to elegance, and now, in response to affordances of digital technologies, to visualization, communication, information, interaction, future scenarios and projections, scientific inquiry, and interfaces. Design has become a way of constantly connecting the open source movement with a creative network to promote interdisciplinary collaboration. The result is design's new terrain: enhancing communicative possibilities, embodying a new balance between technology and people, and bringing technology to a comfortable, understandable human scale.

Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects, published in conjunction with The Museum of Modern Art exhibition of the same name (24 July-7 November 2011) by exhibit curator Paola Antonelli, with essays by Jamar Hunt, Alexandra Midal, Kevin Slavin, and Khoi Vinh, celebrates this diversity and open-endedness of contemporary design by providing snapshots of nearly 200 projects, including interfaces, websites, video games, devices, tools, charts, furniture, and information systems from personal to global scale.

Building on the shift in design from function to meaning, and with the overlay of twenty-first century focus on social media communication, Talk to Me posits communication as the nexus of contemporary design, the embodiment of the openness and flexibility necessary for embracing diversity and the critical questioning and imagining preferred as the method of inquiry. As Talk to Me demonstrates, designers, beyond giving objects form, function, and meaning, now write the initial scripts that provide a new metaphysical and expressive layer of interaction and communication between people and objects.

Interfaces provide many of the objects included in Talk to Me with depth and dynamism, as well as the ability to communicate in different ways. Some communicate in text, diagrams, or other graphic interfaces. Some seem empathetic, almost telepathic, keeping us company or storing our memories. Some provide sensory allure, with warmth, scent, or texture. Such objects populate our homes, buildings, lives, beckoning with identities or characteristics we find compelling, natural, and meaningful. They contain information beyond their immediate use(s) or appearance(s), yet each one prompts the promise of communication.

For example, interfaces (wristbands and sensors) allow individuals to monitor themselves or be monitored by others at a distance. Some websites are interfaces for publicizing information at different scales, from digital water coolers to WikiLeaks. Any device that can send and receive text can be used for acts of civil responsibility: activating alerts, mapping emergency areas, searching for survivors. And, as we have seen in world events, interfaces can bring government to the individual or the individual to government. Interfaces have been created for Catholic confession and Taoist prayer. Wheat fields provide QR-code salutations for airline passengers flying above them. Many other examples are included in Talk to Me, each one interesting, compelling, and indicative of what lies ahead as design continues to explore how our objects, with their built in radical functionalism and their abilities to inhabit different environments and frames of mind simultaneously will become ever more central to our cultural development.

In addition to the lavish exhibition photographs and curatorial notes, Talk to Me also includes four essays by the designers noted above. Hunt's essay, "Nervous Systems and Anxious Infrastructures" notes that "we are drifting into a new alignment, in both mind and body, with technology that is far more immersive, encompassing and confounding. Surrounded by synthetic voices that talk to us, we are entering an age of uncanny technologies" (48). Midal's essay, "Design Wonder Stories: When Speech Is Golden," speaks to the transdisciplinarity of modern design as it draws from the theoretical bases of anthropology and sociology, as well as its future as a discipline disengaged from functionalism, able to forge a new conception of design and design history. Vinh's "Conversations with the Network" notes that the contemporary digital designer is "charged with engaging the user in conversation through the framework itself. Design solutions can no longer be concluded; they're now works in progress, objects that continually evolve and are continually reinvented. A designer creates a framework for experience, the user conducts experiences within that framework, and through feedback—both implicit and implicit—the designer is expected to progressively alter that experience to reflect the user's usage patterns, frustrations, successes, and unexpected by-products. . . . When an inveterate user of a digital product encounters a new change, she is listening to the object talk to her" (131). Slavin's "Reality is Plenty, Thanks: Twelve Arguments for Keeping the Naked Eye Naked" argues for inventing new ways to see rather than new things to look at, objects with which we can see the world "in ways that we've never known" (173).

Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects, both The Museum of Modern Art exhibition and the its associated catalog, does just this, providing nearly 200 new and different ways of looking at the world through objects or our creation and pursuing a conversation with those objects about what we see.

Last Updated 2 February 2012

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