Recently I’ve gotten into the 99% Invisible podcast. The episodes are really short, and the theme is:
A tiny radio show about design, architecture & the 99% invisible activity that shapes our world.
The host describes it as looking at the thought behind the smallest details that make up the world around us: why a specific column is decorated in a certain way, how toothbrush handles are designed, etc. It’s really interesting–I think to anyone–especially for those interested in design and design-inspired thinking.
Since the episodes are really short, I’ve started at the beginning and am listening to a few each time I hop in the car. One that keeps coming back to the front of my consciousness is called “99% Alien.” Here it is if you’re interested:
The premise of this episode is the design of the living areas on spacecrafts. At first, there was an assumption that they’d reflect Earth-bound spaces, then people began thinking about how we could start from scratch in a zero-gravity environment. Chairs don’t make sense when you don’t sit. Nothing can rest on a table. Drawers are only functional while they’re closed… once opened everything floats away.
So the designers “over designed” the space: all the walls were working spaces like a table top. Velcro and elastic bands abounded to make it easy to hook anything to anything else. You could make use of the walls and ceiling as additional floor space, maximizing the square footage. (Full disclosure: the futurist in me found this idea really interesting!)
Eventually flaws manifested in this design. People really like sitting around a table. If you’re talking with someone who is oriented more than 45 degrees off of you, it’s hard to read lips and expressions, and communication is hindered. Eventually, the living quarters had a “right side up” orientation, and the design included a small table. The podcast described this as a bit of humanity in the alien environment.
Which, to me, is clearly linked to learning spaces and libraries. There is a tendency, when talking about online education, to either try to exactly replicate the face-to-face environment, or to totally start from scratch with the potentials afforded in this new online “space.” Perhaps neither is quite right. I (and most educators) have long thought the replication of face-to-face was incorrect. Online doesn’t do what face-to-face does extremely well. It does other things really well, though, and it makes sense to start from a place of considering what works well online. Perhaps instead of creating vastly different spaces online for learning, we need to focus on maximizing what happens well online while preserving relics of the “real world” to help students orientate themselves and innately understand how to communicate. We can think of it as adding humanity to the online environment. I designed this type of humanity into my own online class, but didn’t think to frame it this way until I heard the podcast. It’s going to be a useful framework for my thinking going forward.
Learning spaces seemed like a pretty obvious analogy to me. “Real life” interior spaces are pretty well established, as are face-to-face methods of instruction. Spacecraft space design is a new frontier, not unlike online learning. (They’re new in the timeline of human events, in any case.) In both zero-gravity space and completely open and flexible online space, there are entirely new ways to consider the prospect of design. In both it’s tempting to take an extreme of traditional design or radically different.
Library space is a bit more of a stretch, but also an interesting parallel. Library space isn’t radically different today than it has been in the past: big buildings, lots of books, work spaces. Libraries are evolving: more collaborative spaces, technology, moving books to make space for people. Even with these changes, we’re not in a radically different space at this point. However, as with many of the futurists in the field, I often think about what the library would look like if we were starting from scratch today. Or, even more interestingly, “what would it look like if we were starting from scratch 20 years from now?”
I can imagine a library in the 20-years-in-the-future-world that looks radically different from today’s libraries. In fact, it might look as unlike today’s library as a floorless/ceilingless living area in a spaceship might look from a living room in a house. So the question is, “how to we maximize the potential in a largely online, collaborative, maker-space world in a library while maintaining the humanity of the users?”
My 2 cents? It probably starts with a lot of design thinking, anthropological research, and conversations with our users. And, frankly, it will take about that long to get the plans and funding in place, so it’s probably not a bad question to be asking today.