Poetry in motion

July 10, 2017

A huge part of a designer’s job is to translate abstract qualities into defining physical attributes and product feature sets.

Most products showcase Visual Brand Language (VBL) and color-material-finish (CMF), often overlooking the aesthetics of motion, mechanism, timing, tension and collision. This sounds like more of a skill of art and movie magic, right?!

Recently, a group of fellow designers and I were challenged to stretch our visualization skills. The task? To take poetry and reinterpret lines, rhythm, theme and punctuation as a sequence of actions that trigger a simple conclusion — all while trying to capture the spirit of the lead stanza of William Wordsworth’s poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.”

I wandered lonely as a cloud 
That floats on high o'er vales and hills, 
When all at once I saw a crowd, 
A host, of golden daffodils; 

All of this took place at Shift Design Camp, a self-proclaimed “non-conference” that brings together creative students and professionals for a backwoods design charrette in beautiful North Alabama. This was my first year at the camp run by my fellow Auburn grads, Owen Foster and John McCabe of Aether Learning. I joined as an ignitor, serving as an embedded professional design mind to help steer our team of eight as we worked together on a set of challenges culminating in the design of a Rube Goldberg machine in the middle of the forest. 

We had to react to many natural obstacles: navigating our topography, bug bites, 90+ degree weather and a thunderstorm.

Our biggest requirement was to create eight physical transfers of power combining these into a cohesive mousetrap-like sequence. We began brainstorming not only wacky mechanisms and several show-stopping centerpieces, but how we might translate pace and emotion from words to real-time space. We quickly rallied around a conceptual experience map to give us a high-level plan. It all sounded good on paper, right?

Our next step was plotting out several big-impact moments within our wooded space, these were the showcase impact moments with strong ties to our source poetry. These were followed by many hours of designing connections and evaluating risk and impact of each moment we were designing. This meant lots of compromise, as some super-ambitious ideas we had went through many iterations to discover practical solutions. On top of this, we also had to react to the many natural obstacles surrounding us, namely: navigating our topography, bug bites, 90+ degree weather and a thunderstorm disabling several of our mechanisms two hours before show time!

In the end, I found the real beauty of this exercise was not accomplishing a singular perfect vision, but coordinating the ideas of eight creative minds and allowing all to find ownership within their moments of our 60 seconds of contraption chaos. Eight individual actions that required a fine eye for detail and a balance that left everybody, including ourselves, teetering on the edge until the very end.

Enough talk! See our convoluted flower watering creation for yourself. Click on "View gallery" below and the play button on the photo to see the video. 

Written by Chris Harris.