Rough Cuts: Media and Design in Process

Contributed by Kari Kraus University of Maryland
July 28, 2012
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Rough Cuts: Media and Design in Process

Rough Cuts: Media and Design in Process is a collection of 23 “middle-state” artifacts produced by artists, writers, and designers, each of which pulls back the curtain on the creative process. The concept behind the collection is to make visible what Dan Cohen calls the "hidden archive" of notes, sketches, fragments, low-fidelity prototypes, and drafts that are part of the development of a “final” (or sometimes perpetually unfinished or abandoned) scholarly or creative work.[1] The term “middle-state” is borrowed and adapted from The New Everyday’s experiment in producing “a web publication that exists ‘between a blog and a journal,’ also known as ‘middle state’ publishing.”[2] In keeping with the spirit of TNE, most of the contributions to Rough Cuts are short and informal—about the length of a blog entry.

Participants include a novelist, poet, playwright, electronic textile artist, webcomic artist, digital archivist, and game designer, among others. The proliferation of terms they use—some familiar and colloquial, others specialized or newly coined—to label and describe their artifacts speaks to the diversity of the collection: process plate, doodle, script template, after-action report, printed circuit board, tactile notebook, and pre-press original comic book page, to name just a few. By drawing HCI into the orbit of the studio arts, the collection allows us to discern points of similarity and difference across different schools of design. Nicholas Chen, for example, likens the process of “green-wiring”—rewiring traces on the printed circuit board for his electronic reading device—to the act of copy-editing a literary manuscript (Figure 1). And transmedia writer and designer Christy Dena’s interest in documentation “approachability” resonates with long-standing principles of user-centered design in HCI. Conversely, Mark Sample’s “artisanal tweets”—140 character messages inscribed on postcards and delivered via surface mail—subvert reader expectations about the instantaneity of communication in an age of social media. Sample’s project is a reminder that in the arts & humanities, user provocation rather than user satisfaction is often the goal.

Figure 1: From middle-state(s) to classroom-ready units: the PCB Chen used to prototype his e-reading device (left); the device’s processor displaying an image after rewiring (center); working prototypes of the reading slates (right).

One way to think about Rough Cuts is as a repository of metaphors about the creative process.  For Elizabeth Bonsignore, designing an historical Alternate Reality Game (ARG) is akin to weaving the weft of fiction into the warp of history.  For Oliver Gaycken, it’s the act of remediation that’s of interest: Gaycken explains how the groundbreaking use of CGI in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park relied both conceptually and technologically on the prior art of stop-motion animation. At other times, the dominance of one technology threatens to obscure the affordances of another: Jentery Sayers, for example, describes self-consciously distancing himself from print metaphors when “writing with sound.” This, indeed, is the sticky wicket of metaphor: it can usher in bright new ways of thinking, or it can prolong the rut of the old (along these lines, it has been claimed that Sony Corporation temporarily nixed its plans to develop CD technology in the 1970s because the standard 12” diameter of LPs was holding hostage alternative, more commercially viable mental models of smaller laser disks).[3]

There’s another set of metaphors I wish to draw attention to, which revolve around the twin concepts of progress and evolution: we often speak about the “origin” of an idea or the “growth” or “development” of a poem or performance. The tenacity of these developmental metaphors—the near impossibility of avoiding them—is evidenced by the fact that they appear under various guises throughout this introduction, despite my best efforts to root them out. Although such language might at first seem to capture something fundamental about the creative act, it nonetheless favors a success story that belies what can be an intensely discouraging experience.  Discussing the role of frustration in creativity, novelist Shelley Weiner notes how this key ingredient often goes unacknowledged because we tend to prefer a more heroic narrative: "there’s the myth – akin to the fairy-tale of happiness—that inspiration flows unimpeded into the pen or laptop of the true artiste." 

In a contribution to Rough Cuts that brilliantly bucks the fairytale ending trope, poet Joshua Weiner puts the focus squarely on failure, at one point calling a draft-in-progress an “unmitigated fucking disaster.”  Here success doesn’t feel pre-ordained; the life or death of a poem hangs in the balance. What emerges in the course of Weiner’s commentary is the ability to let brutal self-knowledge guide a process that involves salvaging a few promising fragments and slowly building them back up.   

The artifacts in the collection raise interesting questions about audience: for whom were they originally created, and for what purpose? Many, of course, were intended strictly for personal use. But even among these, there is sometimes a degree of beauty and craftsmanship that seems to presuppose a more public life; an attention to detail that pushes them more toward the cooked than the raw end of the design spectrum, notwithstanding their improvisational qualities. Rita Shewbridge’s tactile notebooks, for example, contain the seeds of an idea that eventually resulted in an interactive storytelling dress. The variegated textures of the notebooks and their riot of colors and material, including mud and thread, give them an almost protean quality, as though they’re beginning to shape-shift into the textiles they inspire. As Shewbridge asks, “Is the art the notebook or is what comes from the book the art?” In other cases, middle-state artifacts were expressly created for someone other than the author. Ken Eklund’s game engine diagram for World Without Oil—the ARG that launched the forecasting game genre in 2007—was made for executives at ITVS, the non-profit organization sponsoring the project. Eklund writes that “Game Engine” is not a diagram he would have ever created for himself since it expresses information that he had already fully internalized; rather it functioned as a boundary object between Eklund and his funders that aided them in communicating about how the game would work.

And what of the ongoing value of the artifacts, once they’ve fulfilled their initial purpose? The very existence of a collection like Rough Cuts suggests they may have potential readers, listeners, or viewers beyond those envisioned by their creators. This, indeed, is the raison d’etre for historical archives, which are premised on the idea that some records have enduring significance that warrants keeping and preserving them long after their creators are done with them. But as Rick Prelinger—moving image archivist at the Internet Archive—soberly observes, this assumption is often “faith-based” rather than evidence-based. “Archives often seem like a first-aid kit or a rusty tool,” he writes, “resources that we find reassuring but rarely use.”

If Prelinger is right, then we ought to ask the same question of Rough Cuts that we would of archives, which is what types of use does the collection conceivably support?  Part of the answer lies with teasing out why we are drawn to middle-state artifacts in the first place. A kind of temporal extrusion, they expose process and remind us that our artifactual and built environments are in a constant state of becoming.  At a physiological level, our fascination is consistent with the workings of the human perceptual system, which continuously extracts temporal information from the world around it—including, paradoxically, from seemingly static objects.[4] Laboratory experiments show, for example, that when we view partially illegible handwritten characters, we rely on knowledge about how those characters were most likely drawn to help us decipher them.[5] And when exposed to similar-looking objects that vary systematically along a continuum—such as a series of rectangles that become progressively thicker or thinner—our memory of the final object will be distorted further along the implied axis of change, a phenomenon scientist Jennifer Freyd has aptly dubbed “representational momentum.”[6] Our cognitive encounters with objects are thus deeply scored by time: we have an extraordinary capacity for mentally reconstructing their past states and projecting their future ones, and we are primed by thousands of years of evolution to seek out evidence of process and transformation. The ability for middle-state artifacts to exert a gravitational pull on our consciousness should therefore come as little surprise.

Figure 2: A progression of rectangles, from thin to thick, recreated after Jennifer Freyd, et al. Lab experiments by Freyd and colleagues predict that individuals will mistakenly recall the last rectangle in the series as thicker than it really is, a form of memory distortion known as “representational momentum.” The same phenomenon has been reported for other types of transformations in a series, including auditory stimuli involving changes in the pitches of a tone (“auditory momentum”).  

One of Prelinger’s proposals for making archives more relevant and vital is for archivists to model active re-use of the materials in their collections—for instance by incorporating vintage footage into their own film documentaries.[7]  Similarly, Nick Montfort puts remixing front and center in his contribution to Rough Cuts, albeit by emphasizing the reader’s agency rather than the archivist’s: his Taroko Gorge poetry generator has spawned at least sixteen reimaginings since he made a javascript version publicly available. Creating mashups and critical responses, however, by no means exhausts the range of possibilities. As design resources, Rough Cuts and other middle-state collections have the potential to inspire new tools and methods for supporting creativity. What might it be like, for instance, to work within a design environment whose interface was governed by something other than developmental metaphors, to hearken back to the earlier discussion? Or an environment that treated mistakes not as flaws to be papered over, but as design primitives whose imperfections enrich creativity? What if HCI labs routinely incorporated user provocation—or deformation—as well as user satisfaction into their methodologies? No less an authority than Donald Norman has advocated for the importance of both: his classic book on emotional design begins with the story of three teapots that sit atop his kitchen shelf:[8]

Figure 3: Norman’s teapots, each emphasizing a different design paradigm. From left to right: reflective, visceral, and behavioral design. 

Norman’s so-called “masochistic” teapot on the left is rendered perversely unusable by the position of the spout below the handle; the Nanna teapot in the middle combines charm and functionality; and the tilting teapot on the right—which involves temporarily leaning the pot backward to steep the tea leaves—is an exercise in studied usability.  Adopting the terminology of reflective, visceral, and behavioral to refer to the predominant design orientation of each, Norman argues that “it is not possible to have a story about design without all three.”  However disparate the teapots seem, taken together they speak to a coherent design philosophy; they combine an applied perspective (the behavioral dimension) with a more playful or provocative one (the reflective dimension).[9] The visceral dimension exemplified by the Nanna teapot brings beauty into the equation as well. 

The role of reflective design in this trio is key: it is what helps us discover fault lines in the objects, artifacts, or systems being explored—the location of a teapot’s spout or the mode of a tweet’s transmission—and in doing so allows us to imagine them otherwise: to see them as alterable rather than immutable; as possibility spaces rather than rigid, inherited structures.[10] It is this dimension of design that allows us to envision ourselves as creative agents of change.

The current incarnation of Rough Cuts is itself intended to be intermediate: it is my hope to expand the collection over time. If you have a middle-state artifact you’d like to submit, email me at I’m particularly interested in artifacts relating to dance, design fiction, or media archaeological practices. 

My thanks to Nick Mirzoeff, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Brian Hoffmann, and Alberto Flores for their help and guidance in seeing this collection through to publication. Special thanks to my terrific co-curator Amalia Levi for her careful eye; and lastly my gratitude to all our brilliant contributors.

[1] Dan Cohen, “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History,” Journal of American History 95:2 (2008)…

[2] The New Everyday: A MediaCommons Project, ed. Nicholas Mirzoeff

[3] Thomas Ward, et al, “The Role of Specificity and Abstraction in Creative Idea Generation,” Creativity Research Journal 16 (2004): 8.

[4] Jennifer Freyd, “Dynamic Mental Representations,” Psychological Review 94 (1987): 427-438

[5] Freyd, “Dynamic” 428-429.

[6] Michael Kelly and Jennifer Freyd, “Explorations of Representational Momentum,” Cognitive Psychology 19 (1987): 373-384. Figure 2 is not a reproduction of Kelly and Freyd, but rather a reinterpretation of Experiment #7, for which the authors provide only small schematic images.

[7] Prelinger, “Taking History Back from the ‘Storytellers’,” 22 June 2009…

[8] Norman, Emotional Design (New York: Basic Books, 2004) 3-6; image appears on page 5.

[9] Norman 5-6.

[10] This cognitive view of creativity is elaborated in Ruth Byrne, The Rational Imagination (Cambridge: MIT P, 2007) 194-196. Byrne adopts the language of “faultlines” and “joints” in reality to characterize the counterfactual process, which she in turn borrows from Douglas Hoftstadter.