Rachel Strickland

Portable Effects

A Design Vocabulary of Everyday Life

Everybody is a designer in everyday life. Yet we share no common vocabulary for describing everyday design practice, and few would even claim to have a coherent methodology for pursuing it. Through glimpses into human mobile nature, Portable Effects is an interactive video exploration which prompts each of us to consider the design motives and methods that underlie our own daily transactions with ordinary objects.

People's selection and arrangement of the things they take with them-in handbags, pockets, briefcases, backpacks, etc.-form the context of this investigation. Between setting forth in the morning and returning home at night, each person lives nomadically for several hours a day. You can't take everything with you-neither in your backpack nor in your head. Identifying essentials, figuring out how to contain, arrange and keep track of them as you go are instances of design thinking. Understanding the properties and consequences of portability is a way to grasp principles that underlie the fundamental transferability of knowledge from one domain to another. A purse is a physical container, a changing array of interrelated functions, a prosthesis for memory, a haptic "user interface," an information system. The life size lessons of purse design and pocket organization may be adapted to larger and more complex 3-dimensional problems that frame our ephemeral earthly experience.

The Portable Effects project was initiated in 1989 by architect/videographer Rachel Strickland and educator Doreen Nelson, with the support of Apple Computer. In 1993 the National Endowment for the Arts awarded a grant to seed the development of an interactive video database for introducing principles of design practice through the Portable Effects material. The work has unfolded since then under the direction of Rachel Strickland, as a research project of Interval Research Corporation, with the collaboration of the Exploratorium.

The material that Strickland has collected consists of hundreds of candid video sketches and portraits of people demonstrating what they choose to carry in the course of their daily rounds. Viewers can peruse this video collection selectively by focusing on situations, containers, contents, or else pursue more abstract threads such as foresight and hindsight, aesthetics, identity, culture. Families of function may be explored, and styles of organization-how individuals make the most of things or the least of things-or the sense in which carrying one's kit amounts to wearing it. Perspectives are framed by experts in such disciplines as physics, anthropology, mechanical engineering, industrial design, and cognitive psychology, who comment on meanings and implications of portability in the terms of their respective practices.

Rachel Strickland is an architect and videographer working with Interval Research Corporation.