Authenticity in new media

XVII.5 September + October 2010
Page: 16
Digital Citation

The design of serendipity is not by chance

Liz Danzico

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Technology can aid efficiency—it can prevent us from getting lost, make locating the nearest restaurant easy, help us avoid inconvenient traffic, and eliminate the wait time between physicians and patients. Yet aided by apps and served by services, we leave little up to chance. We seek out the specific. We cut out needless words. We know that less is more. And therefore, we've adopted technology to aid us.

But we know that with this efficiency may come drawbacks: People may be less exposed to chance or less inclined to try new things; behavior may be planned such that there are no discoveries or surprises. Technology may be increasing the opportunity for specificity, but is it decreasing our chances for serendipity?

Half of humanity now lives in cities, and in two decades, nearly 60 percent of the world's population will be urban dwellers [1]. Cities are not only growing in size and population, but their very interface is changing. They're being layered with information so we can search, sort, and archive data in a way that makes them endlessly exact. On the other hand, with this exactitude something may be lost.

With more people in urban places than ever before, something else has occurred: Space is a mixture of physical and digital spaces. With guides such as Everyware, Shaping Things, and Digital Ground, we have manifestos for moving forward in these spaces. What role will serendipity play as the layers have the ability to grow increasingly specific, while the possibilities grow with increasing disorder?

back to top  From Serendip to the Present

The term "serendipity" dates back 250 years to a somewhat storied beginning. Horace Wadpole, English writer and politician, committed the word to paper in reference to a fairy tale, "The Three Princes of Serendip." In a 1754 letter, Wadpole coined the term when he described the three princes' adventures near Serendip: "As their highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of" [2]. Falling somewhere between accidental and sagacity, serendipity is synonymous with neither one nor the other, perhaps closest only to "chance encounters."

Chance encounters, by chance, are often present in discovery. Whether they're attributed to Columbus's discovery of America, Newton's naming of gravity, or Nobel's discovery of dynamite, in travel, medicine, science, technology, and inventions, serendipity is often cited as a key factor in the success of the new.

Chance leads to the possibility of new behaviors, new patterns, new ideas, and new structures. It allows people to change their behavior in response to context, in the moment, however fleeting. How might we help recapture serendipitous moments by helping coordinate chance? And what is the role of technology and interaction design? As the power that citizens have with their media grows, so must we grow opportunities for creative exploration, new ideas, and chance encounters.

back to top  By Accident

New ideas, specifically in the area of invention, are commonly inspired by chance encounters. In 1948 Swiss inventor George de Mestral, returning from a walk through the Alpine with his dog, noticed the cockleburs that were stuck to his dog's coat and his own pant legs. When he returned home to study the burs under a microscope, he found the surface contained tiny sticking mechanisms. At the time, he hadn't been consciously planning to invent such a device, but the bur construction reminded him of an alternative for fastening clothing. He had, as it happens, just recently been annoyed by a stuck zipper on his wife's dress. It took six years to work out the details, but in 1957 Velco was patented—a portmanteau of the French words "velour" and "crochet." The former, meaning velvet, refers to the soft tape, while the latter refers to the hooks—the original inspiration for de Mestral. By the late 1950s, 60 million yards were being produced. [3]

Had de Mestral set out to take the walk in search of a "fastener solution," he would have been looking for something different. He hadn't known what he was looking for and therefore left himself open to chance. As designers, we have potential for these moments every day. "Serendipity doesn't simply mean surprise," says Adam Greenfield, who curated a show-case of urbanist iPhone apps at the inaugural FutureEverything festival in May of this year. "Strictly speaking, the word means accidentally discovering something wonderful in the course of a search for something unrelated. The genuine occurrence of serendipity necessarily implies a very powerful order of richness and texture in the world and, to my mind anyway, when you experience it in cities it's a clear indicator of a healthily functioning urban ecosystem." He selected 11 apps from EveryBlock to Foursquare to Museum of the Phantom City that best represented serendipity in their intended use [4].

back to top  Designing for Chance

If serendipity is useful, can we plan for it? (from "sketches" of everyday moments) is a website and application founded by Paul Baron, Craig Mod, and Chris Palmieri that allows its users to look for those moments of strange, serendipitous beauty throughout the day—it sharpens their eyes. It becomes not just a habit, but also a meditation in which countless otherwise overlooked events start to resonate deeply. Users become more sensitive. "Put simply: it makes you more aware," explained Mod in our email exchange.

And its use spans time. Because hitotokis are tied to geography, awareness of moments as connected with space reaches back in time. Hitotoki has caused Mod to walk the neighborhoods of his childhood, for example. Using the software, he's recoded sewer drains and houses and woods; on returning to those spots, he's realized he was carrying rows and rows of mental filing cabinets of experiences. Behaviorally, it's changed the way he's moved though life on that basic level of awareness: "It's pushed me to think deeply about the layers of experience we create living in a city for an extended period of time—how those layers fade; how they overwrite one another."

back to top  On Time

Every place has a story to tell, every neighborhood a history. Locals know not just what is there, but also what used to be there. But what of the buildings and neighborhoods that never were? Can we create a serendipitous relationship with forms that weren't there in the first place?

Cheng+Snyder, a multidisciplinary design studio in New York City, has worked to merge the hidden stories in architectural forms, the ubiquity of mobile devices, and current place to bring together something that is perhaps both familiar and strange. With iPhones and other mobile devices transforming the way we navigate city spaces, it seems somehow only logical [5].

Its iPhone application, Museum of the Phantom City: Other Futures, shows terrain using a vision from "another future" mapped against the reality of what is. Using architectural visions—from Buckminster Fuller's idea for a dome over Midtown Manhattan to Raymond Loewy's helicopter landing field for Bryant Park—the viewer layers their current experience with the past.

Other Futures asks more questions than it answers, and for that, it's tremendously valuable. On one hand, these juxtapositions help viewers consider the status quo. Is this the best we can do? On the other hand, viewers are provoked to think about the big ideas of the brightest minds from our past. Were they thinking big enough? Can we think bigger, and how have we progressed since? Most important, Other Futures pushes designers to consider what our other futures can be.

Hitotoki forces its users to examine similar questions with current spaces. It's forged a strange new self-relationship that spans time. Once users become aware of moment layering, according to Mod, they often bump into old selves—sometimes pleasant, sometimes awkward. "It shines a light on how much you've changed or haven't. And it makes you consider how you'd experience that same moment at that same spot now," he explains.

back to top  Graduate Serendipity

How much could we design for serendipity? To test out some of these ideas, I took to the streets and recently conducted a three-day workshop at Rhode Island School of Design as part of the Graphic Design Graduate Program's Visiting Designer Lecture Series—an inventive thesis course put together by program director Bethany Johns—with the graphic-design graduate students. [6] The students' charge was to create an interactive product or service that would inspire serendipity for them and their neighbors in the city of Providence. This was their call to seek out and invite the unknown, the unplanned, the unseen. They imagined ways to craft interactions so they could intentionally influence new opportunities for discovery and creativity. In a culture steeped in exact queries, specific interactions, precise retrieval, and masterful customization, they imagined how their community could be made better through chance encounters.

To encourage students to think about chance, we held individual design reviews outside in the city. Each group did a walking-tour design review. Students were to bolster their ideas through scouting an area, observational research, interviews, and their own knowledge. Their goal was to be practical in application yet novel in idea, useful yet delightful, usable yet unparalleled, serendipitous yet approachable. The product and service were to be designed for an audience, and framing the topic were to be considered with the audience in mind.

Throughout the weekend, students were to keep evidence of their studies and observations—photos, videos, and notes—as they would present them in spot crits over the course of the two days. They not only presented their final product or service, but also touched on the process journey they took to get there.

The result of the sprint work sessions was four realizations of chance, from urban games to iPhone apps. Eliza Fitzhugh, Lynn Kiang, and Erika Tarte presented "Arcade," a system and service to bring games to the outdoor parks in Providence as a way of encouraging people to exercise. Another group, Alpkan Kirayoglu, Elise Porter, Marco Ojeda, and Salem Al-Qassimi, presented "Fuego," an iPhone app that promises to take people to new places by participating in a hotter/colder game.

back to top  Chances Are

No product or service can be entirely serendipitous. Because we choose to use a product or service in the first place, we have made a choice, thus eliminating some part of the serendipitous equation. After all, as Louis Pasteur said, "In the fields of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind" [7]. There cannot be Wadpole's intersection of sagacity and accident when choice is involved. There are, however, variations at play all the time. Smart services such as Dopplr, Foursquare, and EveryBlock have designed for chance encounters alongside of exact retrieval so users can have dual experiences. The designers have simply put forth opportunities for people to create their own pathways. It is then up to us to find chance. Chances are, we will.

back to top  References

1. McGuirk, J. "The Urban Age: How Cities Became Our Greatest Design Challenge Yet." The Guardian, 29 March 2010;

2. "The Meanings of 'Serendip'";

3. Petroski, H. Invention by Design: How Engineers Get From Thought to Thing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.

4. FutureEverything Festival 2010;

5. Cheng, I., and Snyder, B. "Museum of the Phantom City."

6. Rhode Island School of Design Graduate Program in Graphic Design;

7. Meyers, M. A. Happy Accidents: Serendipity in Modern Medical Breakthroughs. New York: Arcade Publishers. 2007.

back to top  Author

Liz Danzico is equal parts designer, educator, and editor. She is chair and co-founder of the MFA in Interaction Design Program at the School of Visual Arts. She is an independent consultant in New York, on the strategic board for Rosenfeld Media, and on the board of Design Ignites Change. In the past, Danzico directed experience strategy for AIGA and the information architecture teams at Barnes & and Razorfish New York. She lectures widely and writes for

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back to top  Figures

UF1Figure. Museum of the Phantom City: OtherFutures allows users to browse visionary designs for New York City on their phones. It is a public art project designed by Cheng + Snyder with support from the Van Alen Institute New York Prize Fellowship.

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