Meta-tools – A reflexive look at design tools from the perspective of interface design
“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” (Abraham Maslow)
The design processes of many contemporary design disciplines are primarily carried out in virtual spaces using digital design tools. This goes so far that designers often qualify themselves for their work by knowing a particular discipline’s ‘state-of-the-art’ tools. Such design tools provide action spaces in the form of standardized formats and processes. They accelerate the design work, facilitate cooperation, increase planning security, and allow designers to work with materials that would not be directly accessible to them. At the same time, in favor of such strengths, they restrict the possible design results to artifacts of defined classes. They make design problems appear from specifically limited perspectives. They contribute not only to individual solutions but also determine the way that design problems are perceived by their users.
Despite the ubiquity of such design tools and their enormous influence on the contemporary design landscape – and thus on our lived realities – their impact on the design practice remains largely unreflected. This research project proposes a starting point for such a reflection from the perspective of interface design, the discipline that makes decisions about how users (should) engage with systems. From this perspective, design tools can be studied not only as starting points but as outcomes of design processes. The project aims to provide a foundation that (1) enables designers to be more aware of their tools and (2) provides a reflective basis for the conception of new design tools. In my research, this is demonstrated using examples from interface design, namely the graphic design tools used in this field. The central research question is: ‘How do the graphic design tools of interface design contribute to the design thinking and problem-understanding of designers?’
To address this question, I take an experimental approach. Instead of just looking at ready-made design tools, the topic is explored by developing and testing my own small design tools. These prototypical tools are intended to make the inner structures and individual aspects of design tools as tangible as possible. As ‘meta-tools,’ they are simultaneously tools for designing and thinking about tools. Their theoretical and practical reflection is intended to shed light on their modes of action. This gained knowledge will then be made available for practical use.
The experimental drawing tool ‘Bitmap’ reflects the way users traverse digital image formats while interacting with digital design tools.
In the workshop ‘Prototyping tools’ the participants created design systems as physical stamp sets to reflect the use of ready-made elements in interaction design.
In the workshop ‘Surface Thinking,’ participants searched for representations in closed pictorial spaces to reflect on the interplay between materiality and design results.
In the workshop ‘Programming users’, participants used Python to automate digitale design tools to make the limits of interaction tangible.
„Design and the role of tools“, in: Trogemann, G. and Butz, K. (eds.) In the
making. Cologne: Academy of Media Arts, 2022, pp. 113-144.
„Bitmap“, in: Trogemann, G. and Butz, K. (eds.) In the making. Cologne: Academy of Media Arts, 2022, pp. 145-152.
„Surface thinking – The search for meaning in pictorial spaces“, in: Montepulciano Journal – The poetics of making, 2022 pp. 8-20.