This project started as a material investigation for my Design Methods class, looking into what paper could do and what it could be used for. Basically, what affordances does paper have for interaction designers and how I can add to the understanding we have of paper as a material?
Choosing an Application
I began my research very broadly, too broadly even, considering applications and processes across many fields. At one point I was considering how paper could be used to replace other materials for the purpose of rapidly prototyping items that might not be as readily available. At another time, I was looking into how I might broadly characterize properties of various papers in a way that would be (perhaps) useful to interaction designers. I even began thinking about how paper could be used for something more novel, like a tearable energy absorber, something like a disposable, lightweight, and extremely-long-travel shock absorber.
What emerged from these many areas of research came about by accident. At some point, I used some living hinge patterns cut into paper just to try making some progress on my as-yet-undetermined path forward. I had some expectation of getting insight into how these patterns could be modified to fulfill my paper shock absorber idea, but I soon found that an interesting and readily apparent feature of these living hinge (or “kerf”) patterns cut into paper led to a wholly unexpected and interesting result.
An Interesting Application Appears
Some of the patterns caused a very interesting kind of opening of the paper into something that let light pass through it curiously, and maybe usefully too. My research quickly focused in on just using these paper patterns to manipulate light in an architectural sense, maybe as privacy shades/dividers, lamps, or as directional window blinds that could block a majority of direct light while only partially obscuring occupants’ view of the outside world.
A Problem Also Appears
With this focus of manipulating light, I set out to try many more cut patterns inspired by the successful ones in my first, haphazard test. I immediately ran into my first hurdle. A standard way of creating these repeating patterns for living hinges is to use Adobe Illustrator (Ai). I am maybe better than completely novice at Ai, but it is not a strength or a significant interest for me. The process of creating custom symbols and having them repeat in an arrangement that worked or me was surprisingly difficult. Further, I was finding that the laser cutter would follow unexpected and inefficient paths through my cuts, with a later discovery that there were indeed some artifacts in my pattern. But why? I never figured it out because I decided to lean on my experience with programming in Processing to create a tool that would eliminate the possibility of these strange artifacts and enable me to rapidly try many different patterns in an environment that was comfortable to me and many other makers.
Tool for Interaction Designers
Investigating tools was aways expected as a possible portion of the research done for this project, but I did not expect it to be a major focus. Regardless, I was happy to be bringing my programming skills into a project that I thought would be more analog than most of my recent projects. I searched for other tools that I might use instead of making my own but the existing options I could find were only applicable to Rhino and to Inkscape so I set out to create my own tool. Since much of the original motivation for this project was to somehow help interaction designers I felt that creating a good tool that didn’t seem to have any direct competition would be a great opportunity and interesting thing to build.
Interviews Reveal Insights
My early development of the tool simply created patterns that I could adjust with keyboard shortcuts and then the entire pattern for my test pieces was hard-coded into the program. After doing a couple of interviews with my peers, it became very clear (thanks, hindsight!) that few makers would actually design their entire pattern in Processing so it would be very important to export a pristine file that could be brought into other systems, like 3D modeling programs or even Illustrator. Keeping in mind the goals that I discovered through interviews and my original intent to have this as a tool that could be used within Processing, I decided to pursue an architecture that would provide the core functionality of creating patterns through a plugin and then create an extensive example that would also serve as a generic tool for creating patterns to be used in other applications. This would ultimately allow a user to use the example as a tool to create generic pattern outputs or to design the parameters used in a function in their own program that would place a living hinge pattern into their sketch.
Additional Usability Suggestions
The second round of feedback on the tool led me to understand other features that could make the tool more widely used. Some interaction designers might meticulously create patterns using other tools or software so it would be important for me to allow for importing vector graphics (as SVG) into my tool. This functionality to import SVGs exists in the software but it is only partially developed at the time of writing. The other important feature would be to not rely on unintuitive (at least at first) keyboard shortcuts to “navigate” the design space, so a GUI was developed to include nearly all of the functionality of the keyboard shortcuts.
Presenting The Work
For the final presentation, I put together a demonstration that was designed to show how interesting the paper patterns could be on their own, including how they expand from their initial state; how they could block the directional light by using an LED-illuminated box (instead of a sunlit window because this was in the late evening); how the software tool was related to rapidly creating the dozens of patterns tested; and a couple of rigid materials samples with living hinges to demonstrate the typical use of my software tool.