The relationship between designers and their target audience has traditionally been one of distance and command. We see what we like, we buy it and then we do as the designers want us to with their product. Now that's all changing. A new breed of designers are creating objects that ask us to interact with their creations.
South Korean-born designer Jeongwon Ji says she is, 'primarily interested in creating everyday objects that reflect her own analysis as well as observations on people, urban life, and social change'. A graduate of the Korean National University of Arts, Ji appears to have achieved this with her Spread Light, which puts the user at the heart of the action.
Our ability to manipulate lamps and dimmer switches might be well established but full-on human interaction with ceiling lights is something completely different. 'Light has a sense of movement by itself but in the case of artificial lighting,' Ji says, 'it is merely perceived as a source of illumination and ends up in fixed forms.' She challenges our expectations of this by asking, 'What if human actions can destroy these commonly perceived forms to recreate dynamic and organic movements of light?'
The answers are found within users, who, instead of being in the background of the design experience, now find themselves shifted to the front. You can now increase or decrease your need of light with just one touch. Erwin Zwiers' Claytable from his Leave Your Shape Behind collection is another way that we can get to grips with interactivity.
The squidgy surface of the table encourages us to touch and play with it. Although this is a mainly indoor product, Netherlands-based Zwiers reveals that his inspiration for it came from the outdoors. 'The beach is one of the few places where traces of humans and animals are left behind in the sand - which makes them visible,' he says. 'The Claytable is a form of translation for traces that are left behind. The surface of clay makes the Claytable attractive to play with and shape and therefore evolve,' he adds. For Zwiers the inspiration behind the interactive elements of his products was clear. 'Most of the products you see you are not allowed to touch, you may only look at them. But I like the interaction between the product and the user,' he says.
Interactive design and digital art go hand in electronic hand and nowhere is this more evident than with Troy Abbott's Yoko Cage. Installing an electronic bird in a cage seems like the last word in esoteric self-indulgence but, as he points out, it eliminates the need for cleaning, feeding and allergy risks. For many of us, it would be a step in a virtual world too far, but the Miami based-designer disagrees, saying, 'I am searching for a spiritual side to our digital world.'
Perhaps more useful is the Setu chair designed by office-furniture specialist Herman Miller. It has been created to mould, twist and recline with the body. Without the need of knobs and buttons it is almost an extension of our own bodies. Featuring an aluminium base and weighing in at a mere 9kg, it can be slotted easily into a home or office. This takes interactivity beyond merely a nice little extra or gimmick and makes it central to the user's comfort and enjoyment of the product.
Sometimes, essential interactivity doesn't even have to manifest itself in a technical manner. The hush chair, by British company Naughtone, is also free of knobs and twiddles, but its design works to provide the user with an increasingly modern requirement - the need for privacy. Flared sides that go a step further than most similar chairs will shield you from pesky intruders leaving you free to make that sensitive phone call or read a legal document. Although upright, it is still highly comfortable thanks to a moulded plywood frame and upholstery. If you never thought you could escape at home or the office then the hush chair will be an invaluable asset: it's cheaper than renting a private space.
Interactive design is catching on primarily because it places the user right at the centre of the experience. But typically this has been the opposite of many designers' aspirations. There was a time, not so long ago, when many designers couldn't care less if we felt comfortable in their creations let alone encourage us to interact with them. So why is this shift taking place now? Part of the answer must be down to our wired and inclusive world, which encourages us all to get involved. Whether this is via Facebook, writing a post on a website or leaving our handprint in a table, we all want to be involved. We're all designers now.