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LOOP: AIGA Journal of Interaction Design Education
June 2003 Number 7


Improvisational Design:
Continuous, Responsive Digital Communication

Peter Esmonde

Improvisational Design: Continuous, Responsive Digital Communication by Suguru Ishizaki.
The MIT Press, 2003. 155pp.



T he web approaches the end of its first decade—but nobody has written a cogent, inclusive, succinct theory of communications design for interactive media. Anyone suggesting such a design theory is bound to generate considerable kinetic activity: if nothing else, colleagues will run for the exits as the unfortunate writer spins her wheels.
      Such actions would be understandable, given the Herculean nature of the task. A theorist of dynamic design—which is defined in part by continuous changes in information content and recipient attention—would need to master HCI, cognitive psychology, anthropology, temporal media and design methodology. The theorist would also need to aggregate learnings from varied fields including interaction design, contemporary architecture and performance. The enormity of the challenge is daunting.
      Yet this is precisely the task that designer and academic Suguru Ishizaki has set for himself. Ishizaki recognized that traditional visual design approaches held limited relevance for digital communication issues. His search has yielded Improvisational Design, a slim volume that deftly articulates a generative design theory and provides a conceptual framework for structuring solutions to dynamic design problems. With a view to establishing contextual parameters for collaborative agents, Ishizaki boldly proposes a model and metalanguage for dynamic communication design.
      Ishizaki seems well-suited to his endeavor. He received his masters and doctorate at the MIT Media Lab before joining the Communication Design faculty of Carnegie Mellon University; he is currently a senior staff engineer at QUALCOMM. Much of his research has focused on digital communication design, specifically kinetic typography and interactive dynamic mapping. An extension of Ishizaki's 1995 doctoral thesis, Improvisational Design is persuasive, provocative and fascinating because of both its insights (which are considerable and impressive) and its limitations (which are numerous).
      The author adopts the pragmatic perspective of an interaction designer tasked with developing a problem-solving methodology. After citing relevant foundation works, Ishizaki proposes a descriptive model, defines its goals and salient components, presents case studies and closes with succinct reflections and suggestions for further research.
      From the outset, Ishizaki recognizes that any model of dynamic design must deal with continuously changing information, a variety of temporal presentation capabilities and shifts in the recipient's intention. After proposing a model that defines design solutions as an emergent behavior of a group of design agents, Ishizaki focuses on how best to define these autonomous agents' activities, strategies and temporal forms within an evolving context. The author deliberately limits his purview, focusing on design problems best addressed by homogeneous agents in a non-hierarchical organizational structure.
      Ishizaki's theoretical work rests on solid foundations: he cites pioneering systems design thinking (by Herbert Simon, Donald Schön, Horst Rittel, et al), multi-agent systems research by Singh, Hickman and Shiels and a wealth of other sources. To fashion a conceptual framework that emphasizes the temporal nature of activities and strategies, the writer draws on studies of improvisational performance.
      Such an approach seems straightforward, rational and considered. Yet Ishizaki limited understanding of improvisation in performance (e.g., dance, jazz) and time-based media (e.g., film, video) hinders him. He thinks more like an engineer than a director. Hence, in Ishizaki's lexicon, an expression is merely a set of actions that represent information; a composition is defined dryly as the emergent result design agents’ dynamic activities. By viewing “improvisational design” strictly from the point-of-view of computational implementation, the author severely limits his model's potential.
      In fact, Ishizaki shies away from communications design's more thorny (and fascinating) issues. Given his familiarity with Simon, Rittel, Buchanan, et al, the author's gloss on systems design process is alarmingly simplistic. Also curious, the “ill-structured”, “wicked”, cross-media problems remain outside the scope of his investigations. He defines “scale” only in quantitative terms (e.g., size of dataset, number of agents and agent types) without addressing problems of system complexity. Ishizaki's design model conveniently assumes that cooperative homogeneous agents operate within a single field and medium (e.g., dynamic news display, geographical information display).
      Though Ishizaki emphasizes that a communication system is inherently dynamic, he assumes that the message contained within a design “artifact” or “information element” never changes. He doesn’t seem to recognize that, in dynamic design, ways of meaning often shift over time and context. In improvisation and time-based media, meaning frequently resides not within a single design element but in its continually shifting relationships with other elements. In this context, Ishizaki’s lack of consideration for metaphor in Improvisational Design comes as no surprise. (In contrast, essayists as diverse as architect Bernard Tschumi and designer Jessica Helfand have used montage theory to explore how juxtaposition generates meaning.)
     There is much to admire in Improvisational Design. Clearly, its insights are informed by years of practical problem-solving in communications design, and the book's arguments are always supported by clear theory. Dr. Ishizaki is an intelligent, circumspect and conscientious writer who points out both the possibilities in and limitations of his dynamic design model. He also exhorts researchers and academics to investigate, expand on and challenge the work.
      The book will certainly reward close reading. Anyone concerned with kinetic typography, rapid modeling or dynamic single-field information mapping should read Improvisational Design. Interaction designers, students of HCI, software engineers and even composers will discover many fascinating and relevant insights in its pages. Yet contemporary systems designers facing more complex problems (e.g., cross-platform, cross-systems design issues and/or questions surrounding organizational design) may find Suguru Ishizaki's careful theory and model beautiful but of limited utility.

Improvisational Design
Improvisational Design
by Suguru Ishizaki













...the “ill-structured”, “wicked”, cross-media problems remain outside the scope of [Ishizaki’s] investigations. He defines “scale” only in quantitative terms... without addressing problems of system complexity.


Peter Esmonde writes from San Francisco.

LOOP June 2003 Number 7