* About Kinetic Design

This article was originally written for the Industrial Design website, core77.  It was published March 1, 2009 under the title, Kinetic Design and the Animation of Products. Link

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At this point in history, Industrial Design is poised to undergo major evolutionary changes. New technologies, new materials and increasingly sophisticated consumer tastes all demand colossal transformations. Perhaps most exciting among these is the development of Kinetic Design which entails the aesthetic design of physical movement. Through this practice, industrial designers will not just create forms, but choreograph those forms’ movements through space. Kinetic Design will literally open a new dimension for the aesthetic development of physical objects and the world will be richer for it.

At Industrial Design schools around the world, students are being trained to create the objects that fill our lives. Sadly, with few exceptions, today’s young designers are walking out into the world with more-or-less the same tool sets as designers of 60 years ago. One can observe this phenomenon quite readily by perusing the course catalogs of leading design schools such as Art Center College of Design or Pratt Institute. Green initiatives and CAD (computer aided design) related courses comprise the only notable updates to curricula around the world. This is astonishingly meager given the rapidly changing nature of the field itself. The addition of Kinetic Design will help broaden curricula in order to stimulate new thinking and new potentials.

Most Industrial Design firms and departments consist of individuals with various combinations of specifically named aesthetic skills: there are designers who can draw, there are designers who can create foam or CAD models, there are designers who can develop color and graphic treatments, etc. Presently, there is no specifically designated class of designers qualified to decide how products move. Kinetic Designers will soon fill this void.

It is universally understood that rigorous aesthetic control over all the aspects of an object’s development produces more beautiful and pleasing results. Designer Raymond Loewy explained it succinctly saying, “Ugliness does not sell.” Companies would never send their ideas off to market without determining what materials they were to be made of or what color. It follows that Industry should commit this same attention to how their ideas move. The animation of products is at least as important an aesthetic factor as form, color, or material.

In order to meet this demand within the profession, design schools will increasingly need to produce graduates who know how their objects should move. Designers are not just form-givers, they are whole object creators and experience designers. By incorporating the creative and experiential notions of Kinetic Design into their vocabulary, designers will produce more exciting, more unified products, which will in turn lead to greater commercial success. Let’s consider an example.

Designing Movement in 3-Dimensional Objects

When Sony sets out to design a portable DVD player, it commits vast resources to making the product look good. It isn’t enough that the product function properly, it must also appeal to consumer aesthetic tastes. The form, style, and graphics are all carefully designed with this goal in mind. Yet, when the user presses the “eject” button, the case cracks open in an astonishingly uninspired way. If a caveman had to design a hinged box, it would open in exactly the same manner as a 2009 Sony DVD player. For all their aesthetic consideration, that’s all Sony can muster — a dull hinge. Perhaps the disc enclosure could close like a fan, or fold up in some interesting way. Whatever the solution, the DVD player’s sophisticated form should be paired with a similarly sophisticated movement.

A look backwards to jukeboxes of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s reveals a greater aesthetic attention to the loading/unloading of disks. For a nickel, the consumer not only got to hear her favorite tune, but was treated to a lively piece of mechanical theater as a record was spun, twisted, and loaded.

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For $179.99, Sony rewards consumers with a plain old hinge. This disappointing aperture is indicative of an unfortunate dynamic within the world of object creation. Although there are certainly exceptions, physical movement itself is primarily the domain of engineers, and designers are left to make parts and casings. As Bill Buxton wrote in his book, Sketching User Experiences: Getting the Design Right and the Right Design,

“It is just as inappropriate to have an engineer manage the design process as it is to have a designer who graduated from art college be responsible for the product’s engineering details.”

While engineers are vital to making things move, they are not artists, and their lack of aesthetic sensibility ultimately degrades the beauty of designers’ work. Designers must commandeer the designing of movement from engineers.

Lessons from Science Fiction

When the choreography of designers’ forms is left to engineers, the result is usually disjointed. A product’s styling and appearance might speak one language, while its movement and kinetic character speak another language entirely. An illustration that comes to mind is the case of the “fembot,” or female robot from science fiction. If you imagine seeing a beautiful, smartly dressed woman standing in front of you who, when she begins to walk, moves jerkily and mechanically like a robot, it is a giveaway that she is not in fact human but, rather, a motorized impostor. Had this woman moved as her physical appearance would suggest, she would walk naturally and fluidly across the floor, her arms swinging gently at her sides and her hips rotating slightly with each step. Until designers take control of the mechanical dimensions of their products, they are destined to create only fembots. Unity in product design is only possible through the seamless integration of traditional aesthetics with kinetic aesthetics. Imagine how much richer objects could be if they looked like how they moved.

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Speaking of science fiction, picture for a moment the props and scenery elements from all the futuristic sci-fi movies you’ve seen in the last decade. Doors don’t just open on vertical hinges, they contract and expand like irises or dissolve like gas. Surgical equipment does not consist of scalpels and clamps, but of articulated mechanical arms bearing lasers. Hand-held communication devices don’t simply flip open Nokia-style, but sprout speaker arms and miniature radar dishes. There is something exciting, attractive and modern about these objects; they speak of novel technologies and revolutionary interface design. Most of these fictional objects use mechanical movement to great effect. Their forms are certainly fine, but it’s the animated life of the objects that enhances them and fascinates the imagination.

While most of these effects portray technologies beyond man’s current reach, many are by no means impossible. Industrial Design’s current capabilities are more than sufficient to create objects that move like the ones we have seen in movies. Manufacturing capabilities, for example, are becoming more diverse every day, while their costs are actually going down. Small parts, moving parts, and complicated assemblies are no longer the cause for dire financial concern they once were. While even a decade ago, complex designs were prohibitively expensive, we see today that businesses are often more worried about the space their product takes up in shipping containers than how much the manufacturing will cost. (Designing an object to collapse in some interesting way can even cut transport costs; if a designer can create a product that collapses to a third of its original size, he’s just saved 2/3 of the shipping cost.)


Hollywood is not the only place to find well designed movement onscreen. Animators and motion designers are also doing powerful and poetic things in two dimensions, like in the above work by Nando Costa of Bent Image Lab or this Toyota Yaris commercial by Tokyo Plastic. Game designers continue to produce magical moving effects, too, like in Jonathan Blow’s console game Braid and the Iphone app Crayon Physics Deluxe.

In many ways, the virtual world is light years ahead of the physical world in terms of kinetic sophistication. The laws of physics are, after all, much more demanding in real life than on a screen. This is not to say that there are not numerous compelling examples of motion in three dimensions as well. Concept designers at BMW made headlines last year with their elegant GINA Light Visionary Model, in which a car’s skin moves in mesmerizing organic ways. Robotics researchers are inventing entirely new moving entities, like robotic pack animals, tentacle arms, and even self-assembling robots. In the field of Augmented Reality, designers are combining 3D movement with motion graphics to create impressive interfaces like this MxR concept.

In terms of how well movement is designed, all of these industries are leaving Industrial Design in the dust. While fantastic movement is easier to achieve in 2D than in 3D, and most of the 3D examples above are just concepts, there is still ample opportunity for Industrial Design to improve the way manufactured objects move. While visual effects designers are bending reality to suit their visions, product designers are producing things like this novelty travel alarm clock:

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The Language of Movement

Before Industrial Design can make objects move in more sophisticated ways, kinetics must be considered as an abstract language. In other fields of human endeavor - such as dance, physics, or puppetry - the language of physical movement has been evolving for thousands of years. Choreography, for example, is singularly devoted to animating dancers’ bodies in new and interesting ways to communicate ideas. There are even different systems of abstract, graphic notation that have been developed to record the complex mechanics of dance, such as Labanotation. Physics originally developed its kinetic computations in order to better hurl rocks at enemy battlements and it is now used to map space-time. Likewise, through attention to the poetics of movement, puppetry has evolved from medieval marionettes to the magic of animatronics.

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What choreographers, physicists, and puppeteers have in common is that they are all able to sketch movements, record their ideas, and talk about them. Design has no such tradition of kinetic notation or vocabulary. While design has many resources with which to address form, surface, and structure, it has no means of effectively developing or recording a spatial event that takes place over time.

Critical Elements of Kinetic Design Methodology

1. A Vocabulary for Motion. Designers must be able to clearly explain and discuss their ideas about movement. To this end, they should borrow openly and freely from every discipline, though at first glance they may seem only remotely related. If choreographers can talk about “transition,” “climax,” and “balance,” so can designers. All of these principles apply to movement in products. If puppeteers can describe a movement as “lumbering” or “stiff,” so can designers. In turn, Design will create its own words and conventions as kinetic sophistication evolves.

2. Methods for Sketching Motion. In order to attack a kinetic problem aesthetically, words alone simply will not do. Designers must be able to model moving concepts. Most practicing designers already have the training and experience to create simple sketches and models of static objects. From there, it’s not that huge a leap to sketch a kinetic model. As long as one doesn’t get too concerned with the engineering/mechanical specifics, a sketch model can contain ample information to communicate an idea. The technical workings of a concept can be developed later.

Fancy hardware or mechanical elements are not necessary for such models and, in fact, can become a hindrance. As long as a sketch moves as it should, it doesn’t matter how it’s made or from what. Dirty, fast, and cheap sketches are usually sufficient to demonstrate a motion concept. One can use simple materials like foamcore, tape, hot glue, and balsa wood. The model itself is not important — just how it moves.

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3. Recording Motion. A kinetic concept is only as useful as the record of that idea. In order to effectively analyze, develop, and refine a movement, it must be repeatable. There are a variety of recording methods that allow designers to capture movement and these will vary depending on the nature of the sketch. Sometimes, a series of drawings or photos can capture a gesture. In other cases, a 3D model can be “spring-loaded,” allowing the user to execute and then reset a movement event indefinitely. Ultimately, video is the most natural and effective method to record motion concepts. It might require several takes from various angles to accurately capture what’s going on, but nothing can compare to video for precisely documenting a kinetic model’s movements through space, over time. If a designer creates a model of a new kind of car door, for example, he can use video to help determine how quickly that door should open. Perhaps he tries opening the door at various speeds and analyzes the movements from different camera angles. This will create a useful record of his efforts to design the pacing of that door’s movement through space.

Future Directions and Applications for Kinetic Design

Kinetic Design can be useful in two main ways: first, as a means of improving the way existing objects perform their functions, and second, as a method of inventing and developing new product concepts. In the case of existing products, movement can be an innovative way of adding value or providing a new aesthetic dimension. As for new product ideas, kinetic sketching can be an invaluable tool for generating and refining ideas.

Take, for example, a kitchen faucet. There are thousands of designs available for these objects, and most all of them move in predictable ways. Granted, this is usually the result of catering to people’s familiarity with a traditional interface, but if a new faucet handle moved in a more interesting way, it could be an exciting detail in someone’s kitchen. What if, at The Home Depot, every customer who tried out this new faucet couldn’t stop playing with it because it was so engaging? The sales would reflect the added interest and value. What if it moved in such a beautiful way that people enjoyed their faucets that much more? A humble faucet could improve someone’s life.

Photo courtesy of Kohler Co.

As a means of enhancing products, kinetics can just as easily apply to products that do not presently move. In the following scenario, kinetic design sketching can be used to improve a traditionally static product. A designer is vacuuming his home with a canister style vacuum cleaner using the standard “floor brush” attachment. Everything is going swimmingly until he tries to reach the tight area behind his radiator. He must now stop vacuuming, turn the machine off, and replace the head with the “crevice tool” attachment. When he wants to resume vacuuming the rest of his floor, he has to repeat the process in reverse. That is a big hassle just to clean different parts of the same floor. While traditional design methodology might suggest the designer create a newer, sleeker floor brush head, Kinetic Design techniques could lead to a much more elegant solution. What if the floor brush could change shape to reach behind the radiator? Armed with some paper towel tubes, masking tape and a few tools, the kinetic designer is able to sketch a wholly new vacuuming apparatus.

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While clearly not a fully realized design, this simple 10-cent sketch is sufficient to communicate a relatively sophisticated mechanical solution to a problem. From this starting point, the designer can now set to work developing this concept into a Home Shopping Channel phenomenon! By focusing on the kinetic potential of a vacuum cleaner head, the designer was able to open the problem up to unusual and original solutions. As an enhancing dimension of products, movement has barely been explored. Therefore, virtually any object is susceptible to reinvention through movement.

The second potential of Kinetic Design is as a means to invent and develop entirely new design concepts and markets. Specifically, the creation of kinetic sketch models is a potent way to generate new ideas. By playing and experimenting with materials, bending, cutting, and turning pieces of sketches, new ideas proliferate. From these abstract sketch elements, functionality and purpose implicate themselves organically. There is an innate desire in humans to assign meaning to things, and these abstract kinetic sketches provide a powerful lure for such associations. An aesthetic attention to motion is not only effective as a way to improve existing products - it is potentially valuable as an avenue for invention as well. Consider the following kinetic sketch that combines a hinging motion with a fanning motion:

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Because the sketch is made up of such plain geometric elements, its purpose and scale can be reimagined in countless ways. This sketch could become a new kind of lunchbox. This sketch could become a new kind of PDA. This sketch could become a new kind of portable exhibition booth.

This sketch could become a new kind of makeup compact:

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Transforming and Updating Design

In this growing industry, it is imperative that designers continually update their tool sets to better drive and inspire consumers. Learning to design movement is one way in which designers will make more interesting and beautiful artifacts and spaces. As technology and consumer tastes grow more sophisticated, the objects around us are going to move more. Tiny motors and batteries, new materials, cheap assembly labor, demand for interactivity, and a myriad of other factors all point to the same conclusion - that our material world is poised to get a lot more animated. This grants Industrial Design a juicy opportunity to choreograph the future of man made objects. Where engineers have seen only efficiency-driven mechanical problem solving, designers will add character, life, and desirability.

Because motion is so elemental and so completely unexplored in design aesthetics, there is no limit to how it will be capitalized upon in the future. Kinetic Design will lead to new kinds of architecture, food, and chemical processes just as easily as it will lead to a better DVD player aperture. Once viewed through the lens of Kinetic Design, the world is revealed to be full of lifeless objects awaiting animation.