Monday, December 8, 2008

Reducing the Knowledge Gap with Design Methodology

“Assisted by urgent needs for a better understanding of complex problems in medical science and related research, and supported by a progressive manufacturer, it became possible to select themes and to design educational models of some of the more significant structures and processes of life that had been revealed by science in recent years. The primary value of such models - as well as graphic design work preceding and following them - is that they reduce the time necessary for the study and understanding of a science problem.”

Will Burtin in Design Responsibility in an Age of Science, typed manuscript pp. 12-13.

As problem-solvers and distillers of information, designers must now focus their attention on the issues created by easy access to endless information via the internet. The divide between the information rich and the information poor is increasing rapidly–a problem known as the knowledge gap. The theory is that the increase of information in society is not evenly acquired by every member of society: people with higher socioeconomic status tend to have better ability to acquire information (1). Without a practical methodology for creating and processing online content, those on the wrong side of the knowledge gap will be left behind. Making available more specialized information with a means to parse it reduces the time necessary for study of the material–therefore aiding progress in global learning.

Three designers studied this semester provide examples of varied responses to an increasingly information-rich society. Oskar Fischinger attempted to use experimental techniques to create a new art in film, but failed in terms of mass media. Will Burtin was a leader in translating emerging scientific theories to a larger public, using new technologies. And Lisa Strausfeld emphasized the importance of de-universalizing mass notions of “user-friendly” in the computer user interface. The works of these designers are useful to a discussion of mass media versus niche audience.

Emerging tools have always been integral to breakthroughs in design. Oskar Fischinger was a pioneer abstract filmmaker from Germany. After being introduced to the work of Walter Ruttmann by Bernhard Diebold, Fischinger began experimenting with a wax slicing machine, which synchronized a vertical slicer with a movie camera’s shutter and enabled recording of progressive cross sections (2). This and other early work designing special effects for film led to his later ground-breaking films that explored combining animation with sound, like in An Optical Poem (1937). His film Radio Dynamics (1942) was even more conceptually challenging when he used animation in place of sound, allowing pulsing colored shapes to convey rhythm and tone. Fischinger worked towards creating a new language in film with his experiments with the new medium.

Before this, and fleeing Nazi takeover in Germany, Fischinger found work at Paramount in Hollywood. Fischinger was unhappy at Paramount because they did not allow him to work in color and edited his work undesirably. This and Fischinger’s subsequent work with MGM and Disney is an excellent example of how mass media alienates both designer and audience. Due to MGM’s bookkeeping process, he received no profits when he created An Optical Poem. And at Disney, where he worked on the film “Tocatta and Fugue by Bach” for Fantasia, he quit because his designs were simplified and made more representational (3). This dumbing down of Fischinger’s attempt to create a new, high art demonstrates a serious flaw in mass media.

Information designer Will Burtin’s gun manuals for the US Army were painstakingly designed for a very specific target audience - potentially illiterate soldiers. The success of these manuals for the soldiers is important to note because thoughtful information design is integral down to the smallest of niches.

Burtin’s work at Scope Magazine presented new scientific and medical developments to physicians simply and clearly. Through unprecedented integration of type and image, Burtin was able to graphically communicate complex scientific phenomena and theory. By communicating to the niche audience of physicians, Burtin gave them the ability to better treat and communicate with their patients. This was only an early step in his career, as Burtin went on to distill complex body systems into exhibits the general public could understand.

Burtin’s use of new materials was a huge factor in the success of the Cell (1957), an exhibit/model of a human cell magnified one million times. Scientists were only able to see 2D images of cells through microscopes, and Burtin set out to figure out what a cell looked like in three dimensions. Implementing new materials like plexiglass and unique light fixtures, Burtin was able to more accurately communicate the cell abstraction, enabling many people to understand the previously murky emerging field of cytology (4).

His timing was impeccable, as researchers and doctors at the time believed that understanding the anatomy of living cells was key to discovering what ailed them, like cancer. Though no two scientists agreed on what a three dimensional cell might look like, Burtin’s resolution became wholly respected by the medical community.

Cytology was the “in” science of the time, and the public was fascinated with Burtin’s exhibit. His translation of scientific research into a real world model that clearly explained the idea of a cell using brand new materials was immensely successful and did great service to the field of medical research.

In 2005, Lisa Strausfeld and her team (Christian Marc Schmidt and Takaaki Okada) at design firm Pentagram designed a user interface (UI) for a new computer called the “XO”. The XO was the product of efforts by One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), a non-profit organization founded by Nicholas Negroponte.

One Laptop Per Child has a very specific target audience–those with low socioeconomic status. OLPC is not only directly confronting the digital divide with their equipment, but also aims to address the knowledge gap that persists once people have the technology available to them. Abandoning the desktop metaphor operating systems like Windows and Mac OS use, Strausfeld’s team developed a completely different type of interface that represents the physical world. Called Sugar, the UI centers around a stick-figure icon that represents the user (7).

The OLPC team used brand-new technologies to inform its decisions. By taking advantage of the laptop’s networking abilities, the design team was able to create a very community-centric, highly intuitive experience for the user. Strausfeld did not follow traditional western notions of what a user interface should be. Those traditions sprung from bureaucratic metaphors and terminology (file folders, desktops), which could be foreign to a child in a developing nation who had not witnessed the evolution of the personal computer in the business office. The interface Strausfeld’s team developed for OLPC was a niche-targeted interface that was designed around universal concepts of common sense.

Mass media is known to target those with higher socioeconomic status (1). As evidenced by Burtin and Strausfeld, by using the approach of targeting niche audiences, one can reach those passed over by mass media. Learning how to find these smaller audiences, talk to them, and participate in their community is a step toward making available the necessary information for them and the public as a whole.

Once these niche audiences are located, we can encourage the creation and concurrent processing (or tagging) of appropriate information. Dealing with information abundance is an approach to addressing the knowledge gap. We must create specialized information aimed at assisting people to overcome educational learning barriers online, and we must parse the information so that it is searchable and translatable.

Websites like Many Eyes (5) and Wikipedia are examples of current technologies encouraging the creation and processing of data. At Many Eyes, one can upload data sets and visualize them. But what is unique is that many eyes encourages all data to be looked at by as many people as possible. This group effort to create data and analyze it allows for potential informational breakthroughs that would previously be impossible before the network that is the internet. Wikipedia operates in a similar manner, allowing any user to upload content but then encouraging any other user to edit, categorize, and filter content. The community polices itself and produces an enormous wealth of reasonably accurate material (6).

Burtin took new progress in science and distilled it visually so more people could understand it. OLPC takes the abundance of information on the internet and presents it through an interface that should help users to gain more meaning from it. The use of emerging technologies by these designers exemplifies their importance. Online, there are several different emerging tools. Online video is quickly becoming one of the most engaging and lucrative mediums. Using new video workflows (like recording podcasts with a webcam), and production methods (like livestreaming), designers are working to make video more ubiquitous and easy to use, and therefore simpler to convey information to others.

Web development is another new advancement designers can use to handle information. Advancements occur every day that allow easier online updates and a wider breadth of information that can be displayed. For example, Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) allows for information to be accessible to more people by separating style and content. Trends in web development are leading to the “semantic web”, which will be a huge leap in dealing with large amounts of information. “The Semantic Web is an evolving extension of the World Wide Web in which the semantics of information and services on the web is defined, making it possible for the web to understand and satisfy the requests of people and machines to use the web content” (8). This essentially means that the web will aid users in finding and using information more quickly and easily than ever before.

An integral element of web development taking shape right now is social media. Social media is a category of internet tools that encourages communication and sharing between creator and audience, and that allows the organic building of communities. The power of the web now lies in the people using it, and social media allows people to make connections with each other to share and filter information.

Emerging and novel uses of technologies available in a now networked world can be used to present and support various approaches to dealing with the knowledge gap. Combined with a focus on specific audiences and information processing, designers can focus on these areas when finding solutions to informational problems.

(1) “Knowledge Gap”. Universiteit Twente. 12/2008 <>.
(2) Moritz, William. Optical Poetry: The Life and Work of Oskar Fischinger. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004. p 195.
(3) Moritz, William. Optical Poetry: The Life and Work of Oskar Fischinger. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004.
(4) Remington, R. Roger and Robert S. P. Fripp. Design and Science: the Life and Work of Will Burtin. Burlington: Lund Humphries, 2007. pp 71-78.
(5) “Many Eyes”. IBM. 12/2008. <>.
(6) “Wikipedia survives research test“. BBC News. 12/2008. <>.
(7) “The Relentless Lisa Strausfeld”. Business Week. 12/2008. <>.
(8) “The Semantic Web”. Wikipedia. 12/2008. <>.


Anonymous said...

A. Re the statement with Footnote 2 - Oskar Fischinger's wax slicing machine experiments were in the 1920s, thus he used FILM, not video, to record.

B. Re the statement with Footnote 3 - the source is listed as Wikipedia, but it is actually from text by William Moritz; see his bios of Fischinger on the Fischinger Archive website.

C. For accurate information on Fischinger, please see the CVM Research pages at

D. The Radio Dynamics and Wax Experiments films are on the Oskar Fischinger: Ten Films DVD, produced by Center for Visual Music, available through:

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jessica mullen said...

@CVM my apologies for any inaccuracies–will promptly correct. thank you for the link!