X.6 November + December 2003
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Digital Citation

Designing a visual 3-D interface

Ina Wagner, Rüdiger Lainer

An ongoing concern of the participatory design community is collaboration with end users in the design of new technology. However, in this debate the work practices of system designers have received little attention. This paper describes the design of an interactive, navigable, three-dimensional world for use by architects. The 3-D Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities, is a visual environment in which multimedia inspirational materials can be placed, stored, and displayed. The materials can then be found and integrated by architects with the flow of their work. The design emerges over time; users can add their own collections of inspirational objects—scanned images, sound, video, rendered 3-D objects—for use by all architects. The 3-D Wunderkammer is a highly attractive, aesthetic object requiring extensive design.1

In designing the 3-D Wunderkammer the design team of architect-users and researchers combined ethnographic fieldwork and joint prototyping with an open planning approach. This approach evolved from an analysis of fieldwork material collected over a period of several years using participant observation. We observed that architectural practice is highly cooperative, conceptual, and complex, requiring architects to organize their work openly and fluently. This paper draws on fieldwork observations during design of the 3-D Wunderkammer and reflects general design practices and methods.

Open Planning Approach

We use open planning as an umbrella term to describe the desire of architects to support and present their work in an open space of possibilities rather than in a set of defined solutions [4, 10]. There are many good reasons for maintaining openness in a design project:

  • Designs are often complex, which makes it difficult to define and fix details of the design in a simple linear process.
  • The designers want to expand the solution space in order to see things differently.
  • At its core, design work is about cooperating with others, mobilizing their imagination.

Openness means that decisions about possible design trajectories are not made too quickly and requires that the various actors present their work in a form that is open to the possibility of change. Among the building blocks of the open planning approach are as follows:

1. Mobilizing a wide range of resources to stimulate the designer’s associations and widen the solution space for a design by using metaphors, analogies, visual material, material samples, music, poetry, and other techniques.

2. Working with placeholders that can represent a design feature that is still in formation, holding it at a stage of incompletion.

3. Mobilizing cooperation through the use of communication objects or persuasive artifacts that are an essential part of the design process.

While developed as part of understanding architectural practice, the notion of open planning also proved useful for the design of the 3-D Wunderkammer.

bullet.gif Mobilizing a Wide Range of Resources—Working with Inspirational Material

The 3-D Wunderkammer took shape as a result of fieldwork in an architectural office. It was inspired by the cabinets of curiosities of the 17th and 18th centuries. These cabinets of curiosity housed collections of heterogeneous objects, featuring "hundreds of icons, alluring apparatus, a multitude of mirrors, maps, charts, drawings, instruments" [8, p. 28] in a way that did not impose order or a particular thinking on the visitor. Visitors used them as an inspirational resource for their work in the arts, the sciences, philosophy, and politics.

The need for a modern cabinet of curiosity was confirmed in our observation of the ways in which architects collect, archive, and search for inspirational material, and how they use these materials for developing, expressing, communicating, and presenting their work. We also observed that architects rely on metaphors and images to describe their work and needs. The Wunderkammer was imagined as a "mind expanding space," which invites its visitors to practice their own combinatorial aesthetics of collage, to "relate the unrelatable" [1].

Developing the visual interface of the Wunderkammer world turned out to be a major research challenge. Our first experimental, architecturally constructed 3-D worlds were too abstract, lacking the kind of rich detail necessary for conveying highly differentiated content. In order to create some richer detail, we brought in an experienced 3-D designer and a graphic designer, at a stage when the functionalities were already fully developed. The aim was to learn together how to use combinations of visualization methods in 3-D design, for instance, collage with painting, linear structures with movement, rendered objects with sketches, mapped textures, or images with exact drawings. Three themes for the design of the Wunderkammer worlds were selected—Skyscraper City, Ocean/Desert, and Industrial Landscape (Figure 1). The first step in designing a world was to mobilize—search for and collect—a great variety of visual examples from film, painting, stage design, and comics, in art books and journals, which were scanned and printed.

In a series of joint design sessions with the architect, graphic designer, 3-D designer, and computer graphics specialist, we talked through the design of these worlds, developing ideas about their content, describing atmosphere and details. The architect produced sketches of each world. The 3-D designer took the documentation of this unfolding conversation, together with the associated visual materials, as a script for his design work.

At the core of these design sessions was the joint analysis of a large variety of examples of artwork. These examples helped the design team enlarge its repertoire of visual languages, to contrast styles, to develop design principles2 and to translate into exemplary 3-D scenographies (Figure 2). While some of the visual examples were a source of inspiration, portraying some of the envisioned qualities of, for instance, atmosphere, as present in color or a special stroke, others were used more directly as design material. One of the virtues of working with visual material—in our case not just pictures but fabrics of images and stories—is that it helps participants to see things differently as well as to arrive at contradictory (or surprising) combinations of concepts, styles, and imagery.

bullet.gif Working with Placeholders

Design work rarely proceeds in a linear, step-by-step mode. It artfully oscillates between prescribing and describing, fixing and opening. A crucial aspect of design is to be able to work with fuzzy concepts and to maintain things at different stages of incompletion. It asks for a conceptual shift from working with fixed elements or solutions to working with placeholders and to look at specifications as partial and preliminary.

A placeholder stands for something that is in formation. It may be represented by different kinds of things—a product, an image, an assembly of everyday objects, or a sketch. It may only be defined on a conceptual and metaphorical level. An example of a conceptual placeholder is "Piranesi’s staircase" (Figure 3), an image and metaphor that he used to represent his notion of stairs that superimpose an existing structure on an old building, weaving a new pattern.

Placeholders facilitate communication about something that has not yet been specified in detail. They enable people to focus on the concept rather than on a particular material, product, or constructive solution.

Designing the visual interface of the Wunderkammer is a good example of this strategy. The visual interface of the first Wunderkammer prototype was a highly simplified, symbolic 3-D urban design (Figure 4). It turned out to be sufficiently abstract to avoid early fixations on a specific design and sufficiently telling to allow early experiments with placing objects and navigation. This simple Wunderkammer world was not only a placeholder for something yet to be concretized and further developed, it offered some flexibility for doing so. The 3-D environment consists of a set of virtual reality markup language (VRML) files, which makes it possible to replace a particular world or object with another one.

As the envisaged interactivity was implemented technically, more and more functionalities were developed, and the working prototype was stabilized. Still, the architects continued to perceive the (changing) visual interface as preliminary. Design principles rather than the exact appearance of the Wunderkammer places were emphasized. Fixing a particular version of Industrial Landscape was defined as a preliminary closure of something that had to be held open.

bullet.gif Mobilizing Cooperation—Persuasive Artifacts

Designing a system or application is a collaborative activity. At the heart of the work is the need to share materials and to mobilize support. During the design of the 3-D Wunderkammer, sketches, visual examples, and the prototypes themselves had a crucial role in creating a persuasive way to invite others into a dialogue [5]. Persuasive artifacts are network-organizing devices [3]. They help a design team:

  • Create a common understanding of a design idea or task.
  • Talk about a design in a rich, metaphorical way, supported by images to be pointed at and referred to.
  • Imagine qualities of space and appearance.
  • Act as reminders of design principles, approach, method, open questions, etc. [9].

While producing a sketch of Industrial Landscape (Figure 5), the architect would think aloud, listen to the questions, comments, and suggestions of the others and simultaneously visualize the evolving idea of places with different qualities. In this way, a common understanding of the idea could be created. Being able to point to the sketch, reread the textual annotations, and connect them with visual examples that had been selected as expressive of particular places and qualities facilitated talking about Industrial Landscape. As has been described elsewhere, sketches support individual and collective thinking especially for ideas that are tightly interwoven with activities [6].

Persuasive artifacts are often underspecified. The architects’ sketch of Industrial Landscape provides an example. It outlines places and shapes without describing how they will actually look. This makes the design open to extensions, modifications, and novel interpretations.

Another example is the 3-D prototype designs. The user interface of a prototype is an image, which is open to interpretations and discoveries. It is resonant with multiple voices, inviting participants to activate their imagination. It is incomplete and preliminary, yet very concrete. It is concrete in the sense of being visible and tangible, offering users as well as designers the possibility of manipulating, exploring, and evaluating what has been achieved. It clearly is something preliminary and unfinished—a placeholder of something to be—and gives space to ideas of what to change, how to develop further, including alternative or novel ideas, of how to approach the design. This is consistent with Gaver et al. [2], who argue in favor of ambiguity as a resource for design. They say that ambiguity "provides a frame of reference that allows the use of inaccurate sensors, inexact mappings, and low-resolution displays because it encourages users to supplement them with their own interpretations and beliefs" (p. 8). A good persuasive artifact—if ambiguous, preliminary, or underspecified—invites users and designers to fill in their imagination and to think differently.

Part of the value of multidisciplinary communications around the prototype lies in the fact that all participants can actually see and experience the systems designers’ translation of the design concept and point to things they would like to be different. In one of the first of these sessions the idea of the prototype as a construction site came up and was taken quite literally, with users making suggestions about what they would like to look and feel different. These comments reached from aesthetic judgments to additional things they wanted to do with the Wunderkammer world—for example, to rearrange, add detail, construct, and eventually design their own modules. Screenshots were taken, printed out, and discussed.

For example, working with a young painter created an opportunity to systematically explore the relationships between visual material and environment. His ideas of how to use the Wunderkammer were different from what architect-users and designers had envisioned. He was struck by the possibility of designing his own small, fictitious exhibitions, and he experimented with different ways of arranging his collections (Figure 6).


One of the main results of this experiment in multidisciplinary design comes from our experience with methods that help to keep a design open to novel and surprising solutions. The concepts and metaphors we introduced seek to capture the oscillating between precision and fuzziness that is the essence of designing as a work practice.

We have experimented with the open planning approach as a useful methodology for both architectural work and systems design. At the methodological level, open planning requires organizing work as an informal, fluent process. At the conceptual level the focus is fuzzy concepts, preliminary specifications, and working with contradiction and constraints. In this paper we have used several concepts and metaphors, stressing aspects such as the need for inspirational material, for working with placeholders, and the use of persuasive artifacts in design.

Our emphasis on visual objects—sketches, artwork, the user interface, screenshots—not only deals with the visual-aesthetic nature of the 3-D Wunderkammer; it points to the relevance of artifacts in design work that express, explicate, persuade, coordinate, and expand the solution space [7]. One of the most important features of these artifacts is their incompleteness and their conceptual and metaphorical nature. Connected with this openness is their ability to invite the contributions of others, to stimulate their imagination, to eventually perceive the novel within the familiar, and to jointly take a step further in the design process.


1. Büscher, M., Kompast, M., Lainer, R., and Wagner, I. The Architect’s Wunderkammer: Aesthetic Pleasure and Engagement in Electronic Spaces. Digital Creativity 10, 1 (1999), pp. 1-17.

2. Gaver, W., Beaver, J., and Benford, S. Ambiguity as a resource for design. In Proceedings of ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, CHI 2003 (Ft. Lauderdale, FL, April 5-10, 2003), pp. 233-240.

3. Henderson, K. The Visual Culture of Engineers. In The Cultures of Computing, S.L. Star, Blackwell, Oxford, 1995, pp. 197-218.

4. Lainer, R., and Wagner, I. Offenes Planen. Erweiterung der Lösungsräume für architektonisches Entwerfen, Architektur und BauForum, 196 (Sept.-Oct. 1998), pp. 145-148.

5. Latour, B. Visualization and Cognition: Thinking with Eyes and Hands. Knowledge and Society, Studies in the Sociology of Culture Past and Present (1986), pp. 1-40.

6. Perry, M., and Sanderson, D. Coordinating Joint Design Work: the Role of Communication and Artefacts, Design Studies 19 (1998), pp. 273-288.

7. Schmidt, K., and Wagner, I. Coordinative Artifacts in Architectural Practice. In Blay-Fornarino, M., Pinna-Dery, A.M., Schmidt, K., and Zaraté, P. (eds.), Cooperative Systems Design. A Challenge of the Mobility Age, Amsterdam, IOS Press, 2002, pp. 257-274.

8. Stafford, B. Good Looking. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA,

9. Wagner, I. "Persuasive artefacts" in architectural design and planning. In Proceedings of CoDesigning 2000, (Nottingham, September 11-13, 2000), pp. 379-390.

10. Wagner, I. Open Planning-Inspirational Objects, Themes, Placeholders, and Persuasive Artifacts. In Proceedings of the Colloque Architecture des systèmes urbains (Université de Technologie Compiègne, July 5, 2001), forthcoming.

11. Wagner, I., Kompast, M., and Lainer, R. Visualization Strategies for the Design of Interactive Navigable 3-D Worlds, ACM Interactions Magazine 9, 5 (2002), pp. 25-34.

12. Wagner, I. (ed.) Desarte. The Computer-Supported Design of Artefacts and Spaces in Architecture and Landscape Architecture. Final report. Institute of Technology Assessment & Design, Vienna University of Technology, 2001.


Ina Wagner
Vienna University of Technology

Rüdiger Lainer
Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna

Kate Ehrlich
Collaboration User Experience Group
IBM Research
One Rigers Street, Cambridge, MA 02142

Austin Henderson, Director,
Systems Laboratory Advanced Concepts & Design Pitney Bowes
35 Waterview Drive MS 26-21, Shelton, CT 06484


1 The 3-D Wunderkammer was developed as part of Esprit LTR Project 31870 DESARTE. Its functionalities, the design of the 3-D interface, and its use were described in [1, 11, 12].

2See our paper on ‘Visualization strategies for the design of interactive, navigable 3-D worlds’ (Wagner et al. 2002).


F1Figure 1. View of Ocean/Desert with Skyscraper City in the background.

F2Figure 2. "In between the refinery and the river ... a look into the coalmine—a rocky structure. This is something to shape in 3-D where on one side you see the miners with their lights, on the other side the glittering coal. Here we might use a larger scale."

F3Figure 3. Piranesi’s staircase.

F4Figure 4. A simple placeholder for the visual interface.

F5Figure 5. Industrial Landscape—the architect’s sketch.

F6Figure 6. "I like the contrast between Borromini’s masterly, fine drawings and this computer-generated environment. I was reminded of Peter Greenaway, who in one of his films has paintings and drawings float freely in space."

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