XXIV.2 March + April 2017
Page: 62
Digital Citation

From interactables to architectonic interaction

Mikael Wiberg

back to top 

The fields of interaction design (IxD) and architecture are increasingly intertwined [1]. Architecture is to a large extent produced through the use of digital tools, and digital technologies are increasingly integrated with our built environment. However, these integrations themselves certainly have transformative effects. For example, as the drawing of buildings is primarily done with CAD technologies, the practice of sketching and drawing is also changed. The same can be said about computer-enhanced buildings. Through the integration of digital technologies into our built environment, one physical space can be designed to allow for easy reconfigurations of that space so as to serve many different purposes and activities. As such, digital technologies challenge a core idea in architecture—that the physical environment is hard to reconfigure—and further, that since the physical space both allows for and restricts the social space, it is important that architecture consider the design of the physical environment in relation to the social activity it is intended to support.

back to top  Insights


The blending of these two fields comes with a number of additional implications that can be grouped into categories: technologies for architecture, technology embedded in architecture, architecture as discourse on technology, and architectonic technology. Here I will present these four ways in which architecture and interaction design are meshing and then discuss a major implication of this development: that interaction design needs to shift focus from the design of interactables to the design of architectonic interaction.

back to top  How Architecture and IXD are Increasingly Intertwined

The entwinement of interaction design and architecture has been playing out for some time in a number of ways, from how we use digital technologies and tools for the design and planning of architecture, to how digital technologies increasingly work as integrated elements in the architectures we design.

Technologies for architecture. The first steps toward an overlap of architecture and interaction design might be found in the mid-1980s during early attempts to design computer-aided design (CAD) tools. CAD tools (and other 3D-modeling software, including SketchUp; see Figure 1) allow for precision in the ability to draw, edit, scale, and zoom in on blueprints, and in the ability to work with different layers of blueprints (e.g., to allow for the planning of ventilation and electricity). Not only have there been technologies developed for the planning and drawing of buildings, but most recently there have also been technologies developed for doing architecture. This development includes, for instance, large-scale 3D printers that can “print” building-size structures in concrete, or coordinated drones that can work as swarms to organize bricks into larger building elements. In addition, catalog houses are increasingly produced by industry robots that can put together larger architectonic elements, including doors, windows, and even walls.

Technology embedded in architecture. The second way in which architecture and interaction design are interconnecting involves technologies designed to be embedded into our built environment. While embedded systems as a term has been around for the past 20 years, this area has been fueled by the notions of ubiquitous computing and the Internet of Things (IoT). On a general level, this blend is about how the physical space—from the room to the whole building—can be enhanced through the integration of digital technologies. The potential behind this development stretches from small systems, including “smart thermostats” via initiatives toward the development of energy-efficient buildings, to more large-scale and complex systems, including the design and development of flexible walls (Figure 2), smart environments, intelligent environments, and even smart cities.


Architecture as discourse on technology. While digital technologies can be designed to serve as concrete tools to support the practice of architecture (e.g., in the form of CAD tools), they can also be arranged the other way around, where architecture serves as a metaphor for the structuring of digital technologies. For instance, the popular platform Minecraft allows for the design of architectures within a virtual world in the computer (Figure 3). As another example, Harold Wiltse and Erik Stolterman [2] illustrate how communication tools like instant messaging benefit from a design that rests on architectural principles for managing availability (e.g., the “away” status). And of course the same goes for the design of many interactive systems, where architectural principles of flows, directions, and navigation have, at least on a metaphorical level, influenced concrete interactive systems design (e.g., the forward, back, and home buttons in Web browsers).

Architectonic technology. Perhaps the most literal way in which interaction design and architecture are further connecting can be found in the development and deployment of architectonic technologies. By architectonic technologies, I mean digital technologies shaped and applied as architectonic elements in the construction of buildings. For instance, the use of new so-called smart materials in the design of an architectonic element (e.g., a window, a door, or a wall) with potential interactive capabilities can be called architectonic technology. Figure 4 illustrates one such example, where the glass wall for the entrance to a new building, the Weave, in Umeå, Sweden, is fully transparent during the day but at night serves as an outdoor display (sometimes known as a media facade). In short, an architectonic technology enables some form of interactivity while also serving its purpose as an architectural element.

back to top  On Interaction Design and the Design of Interactables

If we take a look at the wall-size display above the entrance to the Weave, one thing that is striking is that it is indeed wall size. It is not a wall with a screen; the wall and the screen are the same thing. The screen is an inseparable part of the building. When we think about typical interaction design projects, most designs are focused on smaller artifacts. For instance, most Web-design projects remain focused on the stationary computer, the laptop, and the handheld device in terms of screen real estate. Accordingly, the design of wireframes, menus, navigation, and interaction modalities are optimized in relation to that scale. Further, even when it comes to the design of interactive artifacts (including everything from car keys with embedded electronics to smartphones), the typical scale for the design is the object—not the scale of the building. It might be a bold thing to say, but interaction design has to a large extent been about the design of interactive objects—interactables.

With the object or a thing in focus in terms of scale, interaction design has been about the design and development of interactables that are useful as tools, meaningful, easy to carry around, and easy to use. Accordingly, aspects such as ergonomics and usability have been foregrounded as important design perspectives. As we shift scale—from the object to the building—as a consequence of how interaction design and architecture are blurring, we also need to adjust our focus in terms of what we design.

back to top  Changing Focus: Toward Design For Architectonic Interaction

Architecture operates at a different scale from objects. The scale of an object leads us to think about stuff that we can hold in our hands, carry around, and that we can place somewhere. Buildings, on the other hand, are large-scale structures that typically occupy a specific location for a long time and that we inhabit rather than carry around. We can hold an object in our hand, but we enter a building.

Further, with interaction design at the scale of objects, we have thought about these objects in terms of handheld tools, as assistants, and as functional devices. In many cases the design objective has been to make it work and to make it serve its user. Architecture might also be designed to serve certain purposes, but buildings are typically visited or inhabited rather than strictly used. This understanding of architecture is something architects have good knowledge of, but that interaction designers might need to learn from. As formulated by Sengers et al.:

Imagine a world without architects, where only engineers construct buildings. With a keen eye toward functionality, these engineers would make sure the buildings were sound, but something would be lacking. People would miss the richness of architecture—the designed connection to their lives, history, and culture. The designed experience of these buildings would be irrelevant to their social and personal concept of buildings. Yet this is the world researchers are inadvertently creating with ubiquitous computing [3].

So, as we move toward a tighter integration of architecture and interaction design, we might need to shift our focus away from the design of interactables as interactive, functional tools, things, and devices, toward something I call architectonic interaction.

But what do I mean by architectonic interaction? Well, first of all, we need to think about interaction design at the scale of architecture [4]. This means a shift away from the objects we use toward the structures we inhabit. Further, it is about the design of architectonic elements with interactive capabilities. This means that architectonic interaction design both serves the overall architecture of the building as an integrated architectural element and serves the needs of the people inhabiting the space. In this way, it works with the construction of the building, it presents itself as an interactive technology, and it blends well with the needs of the inhabitants. But foremost, and what lies ahead as the general challenge for doing good architectonic interaction design, is in line with Sengers et al.: to design such interactive inhabitable structures and spaces that enrich our experiences of the architecture, that deepen our connections to each other, and that allow for dwelling, being, and reflection in those spaces. While the ultimate form of the interactable is the lightweight, always-on, and ready-to-use device in the form of a tool in the hand of its owner, the space that allows for architectonic interaction is a place where people can come together and interact with, change, reconfigure, leave marks on, and be affected by the architecture—in short, it is interaction design of places that we can configure so as to feel at home with the technology, the space, and each other.

back to top  References

1. Wiberg, M. Interaction design meets architectural thinking. ACM Interactions 22, 2 (Mar.–Apr. 2015), 60–63.

2. Wiltse, H. and Stolterman, E. Architectures of interaction: An architectural perspective on digital experience. Proc. of the 6th Nordic Conference on Human-Computer Interaction. ACM, New York, 2010, 821–824.

3. Sengers, P., Kaye, J., Boehner, K., Fairbank, J., Gay, G., Medynskiy, Y., and Wyche, S. Culturally embedded computing. Pervasive Computing (Jan.–Mar. 2004).

4. Wiberg, M. Interactive Textures for Architecture and Landscaping – Digital Elements and Technologies. Information Science Reference, 2011, Hershey, PA, USA.

back to top  Author

Mikael Wiberg is a full professor of informatics at Umeå University, Sweden. He has been a chaired professor in HCI at Uppsala University and a research director for the Umeå Institute of Design. His research focuses on the materiality of interaction. He is the author of Interactive Textures for Architecture and Landscaping.

back to top  Figures

F1Figure 1. Screenshot illustrating 3D modeling in SketchUp.

F2Figure 2. FlexiWall, an interactive wall developed in the +Project (left) with embedded electronics including Arduino board and some moving parts (right) that enable the wall to shift shape—bend, curve, etc.

F3Figure 3. Screenshot from Minecraft that illustrates architecture in a 3D world.

F4Figure 4. The facade of the Weave in Umeå with its wall of glass. During the day, it’s fully transparent, but at night it serves as a media façade to communicate information about the building and its events.

back to top 

©2017 ACM  1072-5520/17/03  $15.00

Permission to make digital or hard copies of all or part of this work for personal or classroom use is granted without fee provided that copies are not made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage and that copies bear this notice and the full citation on the first page. To copy otherwise, to republish, to post on servers or to redistribute to lists, requires prior specific permission and/or a fee.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2017 ACM, Inc.

Post Comment

No Comments Found