These days, my approach to design is generally theoretically-motivated, meaning that when I engage in a design activity, it begins with a concept or problem that I am trying to explore or flesh out through design. I would consider this kind of approach to be an instance of practice-based research, in part because I anticipate the work leading to written outcomes as well as performances with the new interface itself. My current Stringtrees project (about which I’ll be presenting a short paper at NIME 2014) is a good example. The idea for the instrument is to explore the balance and distribution of control in a mechatronic musical instrument: How much and what kinds of controls we should to give the performers, and how much and what kinds of controls we should automate?This theoretical basis tends to inform the design process, and to constrain it somewhat. By this I mean that when I get stuck on a problem or am unsure about which direction to go, I refer back to the initial theory or problem in considering how to proceed. This approach can be a bit too constraining at times, because it prevents me from deviating in crazy or unexpected directions, but I think it’s necessary. If I were simply making pieces of art using my instincts or intuitions, I would probably approach design differently, but I don’t have that luxury right now.
On a practical level, I tend to begin with pencil-and-paper sketches. I’m not very good at drawing, but I force myself to sketch out as much as I can in notebooks. (I like to “practice what I preach” and maintain the good habits I try to instill into my students.) I try to consider both the details and the “big picture” scenario of who will be using this instrument, where, and in what context. Physical sketching is also very useful to me, as I’m not the best at visualizing 3-dimensional objects from 2-D representations. I should highlight that pencil-and-paper sketching and physical sketching aren’t sequential steps in the overall design process. They tend to overlap and feed back into one another. I construct physical sketches with whatever materials are at hand: scrap wood, foam core, posterboard, craft sticks, pipe cleaners, instamorph, etc. Usually I try to “pilot” the sensing or actuation scheme I’m thinking of into a physical sketch as a proof of concept. From there, prototypes are built and refined and built and refined, and really, almost nothing I’ve ever done is what I would call “finished.” Some designs are certainly in a state that I would present and perform with, but I think that’s different than “finished.” There is always room for refinement. Even Michel Waisvisz refined The Hands over the years.
For the past few years I have had the pleasure and benefit of being surrounded by groups of brilliant and hardworking students who have collaborated with me on NIME projects. I use the term “collaborate” here deliberately, because I try to give them a voice and a stake in the project. There is of course a bit of asymmetry because the initial idea and problem are is coming from me, but I do give a lot ownership over the direction of the design to other members of the team. We don’t adopt specific roles, and I generally encourage student team members to be responsible for whatever aspects of the project they feel they will make the strongest contribution. For example, I have been working with Simon Alexander-Adams on Stringtrees for the past year. He has become really expert at designing laser-cut parts in Illustrator, and worked out a braking mechanism, the front panel design, and the plectrum-arm, among other things. Actually all of those parts should be plural, because he designed and fabricated several versions of each, which we tried, discussed, critiqued, and refined.