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investigating normal, week 1: thoughtless acts

Last week was Week One of my new course at RISD, Investigating Normal: Adaptive and Assistive Technologies. About half the students are Industrial Design students, grads and undergrads, and about half are in the Digital + Media graduate program.

wide shot of my classroom at RISD: projector screen in front, rows of students at high desks with laptops

We got to know each other, talked about dispositions for designers, and looked at a whole bunch of projects together. I’m anticipating wide-ranging projects from students and looking forward to those explorations. I’ll be documenting here as we go along.

Their short experiment for this week was taken from Jane Fulton Suri’s Thoughtless Acts? Observations on Intuitive Designa tiny little book of images that document all the subtle ways people shift, alter, and adjust behaviors and objects in response to environmental surroundings. Wrapping the tea bag’s string around the mug’s handle to keep it from falling in. Walking on the contrasting pattern on the floor. Hanging a jacket by its hood on a post.

A diptych: a tea mug with the bag's string wrapped around its handle. A man walking on a narrow stripe pattern on the floor.

Fulton Suri collects the conditions that we unconsciously respond to, showing how we exploit the properties of objects and utilize them in unorthodox ways, without really thinking about it. These are the most diminutive moves, and once you start widening your lens for “adaptations,” you see them everywhere.

a young girl on a summer day, sitting on a stoop and holding a soda can horizontally, to cool her forehead.

a woman has hung her sunglasses on the collar of her shirt.

a montage of four thoughtless acts: a woman with a pencil through her gathered hair in a bun; a hammer wedged under a door with its curved head as the anchor weight; pieces of mail lodged between a door's knob and its lock.

an adult man holds a small child's hand, walking side by side. the child walks on a raised wall or edifice, making their hands' height more equal.

A woman uses a waist-high picnic bench to prop her foot so she can tie her shoe. A man reclining outdoors uses his knapsack as a pillow, so he can read his newspaper with support. A roll of painter's tape fits perfectly around the neck of a spray bottle of household cleaner.

Fulton Suri has a loose taxonomy of these adaptations, so I’ve asked students to gather their own this week, and to label them accordingly—or to add their own categories: reacting, responding, co-opting, exploiting, adapting, conforming, and signaling.

the six categories of thoughtless acts, with representative examples.

This week we’ll turn our attention to sensory processing, the autism spectrum, and pressure technologies. We have Brian Mullen, creator of the Vayu vest, speaking as our guest. More to come.

Thoughtless acts image credits: here and here and here.

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