“…this feels like a design problem – design something that works in a display without you having to be there – and it feels like a challenge design courses should be tackling, particularly the interactive ones.”

In his round up of some design shows he went to, Ben’s “grumpy bit” is spot on. I read it both a nod of recognition, and a twinge of stress-memories.

Having been part of installing a large gallery show, as well as putting on my own digital installation, I can safely say: this bit is really hard, and it is really important. It’s not just about turning it on; it’s about keeping it running. Long-term, if it’s a hassle to start, or restart, or you have to restart it too often… eventually, the attendant responsible for that (if there even is one) will get bored.

I learned this once the hard way. That experience definitely informed some of my later work. That’s what this postwhich Matt B reminded me existed this week – is really about: reducing an installation to two steps:

  • It should work as soon as it’s turned on.
  • If it stops working, it should be fixed by turning it off and on again.

That takes the exhibit from requiring technical know-how to maintain to be being maintainable, and even installable, by any attendant. Fingers crossed it won’t fall over; but if it does, it’s a power-cycle away from coming back online.

(This way of thinking is also why, on one of my installations, there’s one LED to indicate that the power is on, and a second to indicate the code has started executing. It makes it easier to confirm when the thing will start functioning.)

Unfortunately, this is often not as straightforward (or interesting) as the rest of the work; it requires building robustness and resilience into the software and/or installation. But the moment you start having to specify lists of software to start in order, or which USB devices to connect in a particular order (so they always appear to your code at the same positions in an array)… the robustness of your project is just gone. And what it leads to is grumpy sighs from tired people in a gallery about digital installations; grumpy attendants or support staff constantly working out what’s going on with it, or putting the ‘out of order’ sign up again.

What that probably means you might have to investigate: all the weird tools at the edge of your chosen platform, like batch files, Applescript, or upstart. How to turn kiosk-mode on in a web browser from a shortcut. How to run things at startup. How to address USB devices by identifiers rather than indicies. How to turn off screen savers / power saving. Etcetera, etcetera.

It’s a tiring part of the last 5% of a project, but it’s almost always the first thing people will see in a gallery space: is your installation working? It might not be part of the design of the thing you’re exhibiting, but it’s sure part of the design of the exhibit – as much as the promotional postcards, the scrapbooks, the placards. Often at graduate shows, exhibits can feel like they’re designed to have the designer there to explain things – but even on a launch night, that’s almost never the case.

When Ben says “design something that works in a display without you having to be there” – well, that’s the default state for an exhibit. On average, you won’t be there. And so that screen, or interactive, or tablet, isn’t just a nice-to-have; it’s a key part of explaining the exhibit (and it might possibly be the exhibit). So it’s worth the effort keeping it turned on.