Focusing on large scale and tactile interactive experiences that engross and envelope the visitor, Philip Worthington (1977-) created Shadow Monsters, a digital version of the traditional shadow puppet, as part of his degree in Interaction Design from the Royal College of Art.
Through a complex interplay of computer graphic and photographic programming, fantastic monsters materialise from the shadows cast by the hands of participants, reacting to and elaborating on their gestures with sound and animation. Wolf-like creatures, birds and dinosaurs are among the characters that speak and squeak as imaginary mouths open and close.
‘Play’ and ‘playfulness’ are words Worthington frequently uses when describing both his work and his approach to interactive design. As the London-based designer says, “it is a platform for experimentation and a space for the imagination to run wild.” His other projects include a digital version of the traditional toy race car track, an online community graffiti network and a colony of digitalised leaf-cutter ants that mimic the behaviours of actual ants as they forage around an interactive tabletop in search of real objects on the surface.
Worthington’s designs inject spirit and humanity into our increasingly technologically driven society. However, interaction designers today are not only concerned with the expressive and communicative possibilities of new technologies but also with their social and cultural consequences. The vision recognition software Worthington has written for Shadow Monsters could have applications beyond growling wolves and squawking birds to incorporate graphical commands for the physically disabled. While exploring all available avenues for his truly immersive and interactive designs Worthington continues to make existing and emerging technologies more meaningful and relevant to our lives now.
Q. When did you first become aware of – and interested in – design?
A. I’d like to say that one day I read an amazing book, or that the work of a particular designer motivated me to pursue this direction, but the truth is that it was never as clearly defined as this.
I pay homage to Lego and other toys like it that let creativity flow rather than prescribing it. I strongly believe in the way open-ended play patterns at an early age can influence a person’s thinking (and would like in time to become more involved in this area of design). I’m sure these things helped, and at one point I’m sure I thought I was going to be a spaceship designer.
Q. Why did you decide to study design?
A. I always liked making things... equally I always liked taking things apart. A split between engineering and art stayed with me through school and it was only after a conversation with my cousin (a PhD in Fine Art) that I decided to give up my place on an engineering degree and try a Foundation in Art & Design.
I spent a year trying everything from sculpture to graphic design. The experience was so inspiring that I continued through a number of courses and institutions. I enjoyed the people, the work, and the way of thinking about things. It started a continuous critique in my head of the things and world around me.
Q. What was the influence of your design education on your work?
A. My design education shifted from pure graphic design, through typography into more mixed-media and interactive work, culminating in large interactive installations at the Royal College of Art. This has all been part of a process that has defined my work and thinking, and I’ve taken elements from every stage with me.
Most things I learned by doing them; experimentation… but in the course of all these courses I met some truly inspirational people (both tutors and fellow students) who have given me something to strive to.
Q. What were your design objectives as a student?
A. To know where I was going. I was always a little jealous of those around me who knew so definitely where they wanted to take their work, seeing clearly the path to get there. As much as I strived to find this in my own work it always seemed a disparate mish-mash of directions. In hindsight I can see a thread of continuity, but at the time I often felt lost. I’m a bit of a perfectionist… I knew I wanted to do it well, but I just hadn’t defined what ‘it’ was.
Q. How have your objectives evolved since leaving the RCA?
A. I now want to try new things. I work in a strange and ill-defined area of design so I’m always looking for a new way in which to apply myself. My objective is to keep evolving.
Q. Which of your early projects was most important in defining your approach to your work?
A. I did a project for the ISTD (International Society of Typographic Designers) Awards in 2000 which was a ‘web-zine’ (or at least that was the buzz word used back then). It was my first experiment with interactive media and a real leap into the dark for me, but it won me first prize and gave me the confidence to try more.
Since then I’ve experimented with many different technologies and materials. I like playing with new things. I have to remind myself sometimes that they’re just the tools, and not to lose sight of the bigger picture. Having said this, “play is the highest form of research”, said Einstein, and I would have to agree as so many ideas have spawned from mucking about with one gizmo or another.
Q. How did the design of the Shadow Monsters project develop?
A. The Shadow Monsters grew from a brief about technological magic tricks. I was looking at optical illusions and Victorian hand shadows particularly interested me as a starting point. The subtlety with which a character could be created was already very magical and I wondered if there was room to experiment with these techniques. Looking back to my own childhood, I remembered the feeling of casting huge shapes in the light of my father’s slide projector, creating monsters and silly animals. I enjoy working with simple intuitive things; playful feelings that touch us on a very basic level.
At the same time I was experimenting with some software for vision recognition so slowly the monsters evolved. At first I made a puppet show with coloured pencils that had hair and eyes... and this slowly grew in complexity until I had a system that could go some of the way to understanding hand posture. The rest is history.
Q. How do you approach the practicalities of design?
A. I have less interest in fanciful designs that could never exist for one reason or another. Well, to be fair there is a place for this sort of work, but I prefer to see things in the real world, really working. I’m quite pragmatic as a designer and one of my driving forces when I have the hard slog of a large block of programming or other arduous task is the thought of seeing it completed. I like the feeling when I can press the button and see things come to life. It makes the work worthwhile.
Q. What are your future projects and plans?
A. I’d like to do something without any computers for a change... perhaps a chair. Hasn’t every designer made a chair? The truth is I’m not sure what the future holds... I’d like to work more with kids. They are my most honest critics, and a demanding audience. I’ve been in discussions with various museums recently. This may be a future direction for me. Time will tell.
Visit Philip Worthington’s website at worthersoriginal.com