Density, Simplicity and Continuity

I am currently working on defining three seminars that lay out a foundation for design education. These courses are not oriented towards the formal and technological aspects of media, but rather focus on the psychological and cognitive questions involved with almost any design work. This is what I came up with:

  • Density: Designing for effectiveness (mostly looking at Information Design)
    Questions involved: How dense can display of information get? How much information can be groked in short time? How can designers organize the attention of recipients/viewers? What do we need to know about cognitive psychology and perception research, to find the best way of communicating visually? How can we identify and build upon archetypes that are available to most humans? etc.
  • Simplicity: Designing for efficiency (mostly looking at Interface Design)
    Questions involved: How can we avoid things getting too complex? Is there an absolute measure to complexity in contrast to an obvious relative measure? Why do we instantly feel products beeing »easy to use«? How can we improve our understanding of the »usage context« when designing things? When do things become too simple and thus do harm instead of help? When does »making things simple« become an end it itself? etc.
  • Continuity: Designing for adequacy (mostly looking at Interaction Design)
    Questions involved: Is there a »psychology of interaction«? Can we learn from the concept of »flow« introduced in psychology for designing interactive systems and services? Can we identify an area inbetween intuition and concious decision making? Do we have the right epistemocogical tools at hand to identify problems in design work in regard to »fluent interaction«? etc.

I plan to sketch out these three topics as being foundation courses – not as a research agenda. You might start from there into any direction within the design profession. One might work on this theoretically, but one might also use any kind of pracitcal design problem or test case to explore the questions raised.

Privacy at stake…?

Bruce Schneier in Wired discusses the challenge that surveillance technology raise for constitutional rights:

Sometime in the near future, a young man is walking around the Washington Monument for 30 minutes. Cameras capture his face, which yields an identity. That identity is queried in a series of commercial databases, producing his travel records, his magazine subscriptions and other personal details. This is all fed into a computerized scoring system, which singles him out as a potential terrorist threat. He is stopped by the police, who open his backpack and find a bag of marijuana. Is the opening of that backpack a legal search as defined by the Constitution? uses visual animations to explain economical and ecological processes. The animations are planned for a common visual code to represent all issues involved with economy and ecology. They have just three types of transaction: yellow represent energy, red represents money and black represents information.

It comes pretty close to what I intended with the seminar called »Density«. In fact the assignments of that seminar started with visualizing the Grandfather Economic Reports by Michael Hodges. But in »Density« the focus was not so much on the visual code, but rather how visual representations allow rapid understanding. These two ideas are pretty close together. But »Density« is exploring the cognitive limits of understanding information in short time.


I had a brief look at study.log. It is a personal information manager (developed with Macromedia Director). It is generally a very interesting concept. But the implementation has issues: there are show stopper bugs, it is very slow you can’t drag & drop objects from the OS layer into the application. Director possibly is not the right way to develop this kind of application.

Thinking about extending the standard GUI with some functionality seems to me a much more promising approach to achieve the goals defined within study.log. And there is a design concept for this already: »Feed me« by Katharina Birkenbach

Generally it is a good question if the visual layer that tools like study.log provide are really helping the user or if they are just visual clutter of limited use. Haystack is another project that is supposed to be a “universal information client”. But Haystack is may be too formal for users need an informal level for creative thinking.


I came across the TiddlyWiki tool. It is some kind of interactive Wiki opening pages with animation once you clicked a link. It is basically just a very clever JavaScript enhanced HTML-page containing the whole Wiki. You save the page (after allowing the script to do so), upload it to a server and you’re done. The JavaScript is huge. But it feels als simple as the whole Wiki principle itself.

The problem with TiddlyWiki: things may appear at unexpected places. I also don’t think that the principle to open new items on top of the column. It’s an unusual way to navigate a site and so it may not be very intuitive. But it’s a very clever idea with a fancy DHTML implementation.

There are server side implementations as well.