We Are Explorers: MFA Design Thesis | California College of the Arts 2015-2016
How might we inspire public participation in outer space research?
One of the most human of traits is curiosity. Space research scratches the itch people have to discover new places. Space is the final frontier. While reaching space was the aim of many large public projects in the 1950s and 60s and remains a huge part of the public imagination, few people feel informed or able to able to connect with what NASA is doing. In an era of increasing divisiveness, how we imagine solutions and plan our future together as a society is important.
Space research is technical, hard to explain, and moves towards answers slowly. My design thesis focused on how to help the public emotionally and intellectually benefit from pushing space research forward.
I was trying to find successful models for engagement with dense or complex topics and what the characteristics of those models were.
People learn about science in many ways in their everyday lives. I diagrammed the relative pros and cons of several engagement types ranked from highest to lowest effort for the participant.
This map helped me figure out where the sweet spot for scale, impact, and effort was based on the type of experience.
Mapping other experiences by effort and engagement
I compiled a set of experiments, projects, and pieces that I found inspiring and that were speculative, popular, or emotionally compelling. I mapped them to think about the effort involved for the payoff of engagement.
Doing so helped me figure out which might be a good template for a first probe.
I needed to do something that didn’t require me to set up my own museum. The interaction types that struck a nice balance of scale and portability shared the characteristics of:
Reaching people at opportune moments: Introducing people to new ideas requires having people’s attention and multiple exposures. Getting people’s attention at moments when they are waiting or on their way somewhere is better than trying to compete with things they choose to pay attention to. Ad placements follow this principle.
Finding people where they are: Museums are a great place to teach people about new information, but even museums try to connect with a wider audience by finding people where they are. There are more likely to be opportune moments for a larger audience if an encounter happens in their daily lives, rather than waiting for when they are consciously ready.
In parallel with the mapping, I played with the idea of a website that could be a forum for discussion, a creative community outlet for enthusiasts, and place for people to find out about offline space events like eclipses and shuttle launches.
I quickly realized that building a robust, creative community is a ton of work in and of itself, but not something that necessarily answered the questions I had about connecting people to space research.
What did I learn?
An online experience is only reached at an opportune moment if people know to go there. This wasn’t fulfilling any principles and wasn’t a good direction.
Trivia is popular in San Francisco. It seemed like a good moment to get their attention because people come in excited about facts and ready to be social.
I brought a 10-question trivia game to a local bar as a warm up for the bar’s trivia night. In it, two players compete against each other to answer questions about space. I figured because the quiz both had fun facts and encouraged people to do something with their friends, it made maximum use of the moment and mindset people were in.
People played a few rounds and I surveyed the groups later after trivia for what they remembered.
What did I learn?
People thought the space quiz was interesting, but they didn’t remember what they had learned. It wasn’t enough to just get their attention; something about it needed to compel them in a more memorable way.
The solution to grabbing people in a more memorable way was to engage their imagination and focus on imparting a single piece of information.
I designed and printed a series of postcards that people could pick up in places they’d frequent. They could send them to other people and hopefully spread the knowledge around. The postcards were a snapshot of an alternate present or near future in which people were already using space for recreation and profit.
I realized that this idea didn’t follow one of my principles: they didn’t reach people when they were ready to receive information. I leaned harder into the idea of speculative design and concepted taking over billboards in San Francisco with these postcard designs. When people would wait in Bay Area traffic, they could consider the idea of how we could creatively use space.
What did I learn?
While reaching people where they are is all well and good, it also has to be an opportune moment and compel people’s imagination in order to be memorable. These billboards were still pretty intellectual. They weren’t making full use of people’s senses to transport them in a unique and memorable way.
At this point, I added a new principle to these experiments: an experience needs to be immersive and multi-sensory. Engaging people’s senses is also a way to engage their emotions and memory, which made imparting knowledge much easier.
Surrounding people with sensory information
For most people, the easiest sense to engage is sight. Changing the quality and color of light is a quick way to get to their emotions. I started experimenting with how to get people into immersively lighted spaces that would help them feel something about space.
The first thing I tried was a projection of the color of daylight on several exoplanets. There are calculations used to figure out the wavelength (color) of visible light based on the contents of the atmosphere and distance, age, and color of a star. I performed a simplified version of the calculations and hooked up an Arduino to a projector so that people could walk by and see what the light on several Earth-like exoplanets looked like.
What did I learn?
Unfortunately, staring at a blank wall with colored light still requires a pretty big leap of imagination for people to feel immersed. I needed the multi-sensory equivalent of surround sound, so I built one.
Le Voyage dans la Planète Mars
Inspired by the early movie, Le Voyage dans la Lune, I imagined what people might experience on a trip to Mars, the next closest place our species hasn’t been. In order to get them fully immersed, I made a booth that let people turn a knob to see the brightness and color of light for a full daylight cycle on Mars. I used an LED strip for the colors, and took this to a DIY-themed nightlife event at the California Academy of Sciences.
The fun fact? Broad daylight on Mars is pinkish, but at sunrise and sunset, it’s bluish-purple like on Earth.
What did I learn?
While this went over much better and people did retain this fun fact, it had the limitations of a museum in that people had to be at the right place at the right time to experience it.
My final probe met all three requirements:
It met people where they were at a moment
It got that at an opportune moment when they weren’t absorbed in anything else
It was immersive
The project was a speculative proposal for a public art project that turned the inside of buses into larger Voyages dans la Planète Mars. The idea was to light the inside of buses the color and brightness of daylight on Mars for a full daylight cycle.
I wish I had been able to devote more time and exploration to this. It may have been interesting to experiment with these experiences in an elevator or a tunnel as part of a recurring commute where its full impact could be felt.
Learnings and next steps
Unfortunately, it was time to graduate just as I felt I was getting started. I learned a lot about the three principles I discovered, and I see them used a lot in advertising. Advertising, however, is usually not about the public good nor is it about something so complex as space. Had I spent more time figuring out clever ways to evoke emotion and personal connection to the topic, I might have gotten some really good insights into techniques for breaking down a complex concept into little chunks and helping people understand and connect to those pieces.
I am excited to continue an art practice that deals with these same themes. They taught me a lot about how I want to affect change.