Consider this:

OXO makes several lines of highly popular kitchen implements and accessories, which are characterized by a distinctive pattern of rubber fins on the handgrip, which—the company freely admits—serve no functional purpose. They simply feel good in the hand.

Or this:

A family owned one of those Roomba vacuum cleaner robots. When it required repair after some time, they sent it to iRobot, which offered to send them a replacement Roomba and sell the old one as a refurbished unit. The family, however, balked, saying “It’s part of the family” and wanted the old one back. A robot vacuum cleaner? Okay, then.

These two stories were used to illustrate the relationship between people and objects, and the emotional connections we make to inanimate objects. This relationship underlies the fundamental principles of design—be it the design of a two-dimensional object such as print or the Web, or a three-dimensional object like a vegetable peeler or a robotic vacuum cleaner.

This discussion, part of August de los Reyes’ keynote address, was perhaps just one of the ways that this year’s Graphics of the Americas is taking things “to another dimension.”

The morning keynote session drew about 100 attendees and kicked off the 35th Annual Graphic of the Americas with an intriguing—if discursive and philosophically abstruse—look at the present and the future of our relationship with media, design, and objects.

De los Reyes is principal director of User Experience for Microsoft Surface, “a team dedicated to pioneering natural and intuitive ways to interact with technology.” The bulk of his talk focused on many of the theoretical explanations for how people form attachments with objects, and how “design” (in all its myriad incarnations) elicits emotion from those interacting with the object in question. De los Reyes name-dropped thinkers, philosophers, historians, psychologists, and technologists that included Johan Huizinga, John Locke (not the character on Lost), Daniel Pink, Marvin Minsky, William James and Carl Lange (the James-Lange theory on the origin and nature of emotions), and several others.

Pretty meaty stuff there. And while it would seem that this background should remain relegated to academia (which it was, as de los Reyes pursued these studies as a graduate student at Harvard’s School of Design), de los Reyes made a good case for wedding these concepts to practical applications—otherwise known as products.

The emotional bonds we form with inanimate objects is one of the important aspects of developing interfaces between humans and machines—be it a computer operating system, the physical means by which electronic devices are controlled, or the way in which information is consumed. Ultimately, when we perceive the “output”—or what we hope to get out of a particular relationship with an object (yes, this is starting to sound like dating)—we expect the output to be greater than the input. Our objects increasingly define how we see ourselves and, perhaps more importantly, how we want others to see us.

What this was all leading up to—eventually—was a sneak peak at what Microsoft (and no doubt others) are doing in the area of interactive displays of all kinds. It was based on something that de los Reyes called “The Fifth Element” (no, not the Bruce Willis movie). The principle is this: A “pixel” has one of three possible color components: red, green, or blue. (In the case of print, there are four, and each “dot” can be cyan, magenta, yellow, or black.) There is a fourth element that can be added to a pixel—a sensor that facilitates touchscreen applications. Think of your iPhone or iPod Touch, or even many ATMs, airport check-in kiosks, and so on. The fifth element, one that researchers, engineers, and designers are feverishly building into displays’ pixels, is what de los Reyes calls a “magic pixel,” one that, for example, includes a camera, preferably one that is easy to produce and runs on very low energy. These pixels—all five types—can be combined and embedded in glass and other materials, be they transparent, translucent, or opaque, and installed just about everywhere. Every surface and object can become an interactive digital display.

De los Reyes closed the keynote with a video that to some seemed like science fiction—people moving through the world that is chock full of interactive, touchscreen, digital displays. Walls, windows, desks, coffee mugs—all variable displays that can even interact with other media and storage devices. “Paper” newspapers are bendable and foldable, just like proper newspapers; but are touchscreen displays, and stories can be downloaded from them. None of this is out of the blue; some of us at WhatTheyThink have been writing about these applications for years. But to finally see many of them in action is quite exciting.

The video will be posted on the American Graphics Institute Web site, but as of this writing it is unavailable.

The keynote was the first session in a packed Thursday of educational sessions targeted toward an array of print providers and content creators (the latter via the Cre8 conference tracks). Wide-format printing was well-represented both on the show floor and via a brace of sessions discussing, respectively, new technologies and the business of wide-format.

Steven Schnoll reminded me that in this space two years ago I had referred to him as a “preacher”. This year, he brought his revival tent back to Miami Beach with a compelling session called “7 Deadly Sins in Printing Companies: The Massive Killer of Printers.” Funny; before the presentation began, Schnoll opened with a slide show of “beautiful thoughts,” life-affirming maxims and pictures of flowers with quiet piano accompaniment (actually “As Time Goes By”).

The 7 Deadly Sins that Schnoll outlined were:

  • “selling quality and service are the key to success”
  • “the Internet is my enemy”
  • “thinking an improved economy will bring profits again”
  • “not learning about database management”
  • “not understanding the concepts of cross media”
  • “not becoming a marketing content provider”
  • “offset will reign supreme”

Instead, the key to success will lie in delivering content in a timely manner and in the medium, be it print, electronic, or some combination that the client desires. That is, understanding the changing needs of the client will help restore profitability.

By the way, if you have never seen the dynamic Steve Scholl interact with a room of printers, then you haven’t seen Shakespeare the way it was meant to be played.

The Cre8 sessions covered the gamut of Adobe Creative Suite applications. “Integrating Social Media into Your Marketing Efforts,” presented by Christopher Smith, was a rundown of the channels—such as Twitter and Facebook—that we’ve been seeing all over the place lately. It was an excellent primer for designers looking to get up to speed on these outlets—and understand which may or may not be most applicable for their or their clients’ businesses. The key takeaway of the session was that keeping up with everything that is available in the social media space is well nigh impossible; therefore—and this advice applies to everyone when it comes to social media—the smart solution is to pick a handful to focus on, identifying which the clients’ customers are most active in.

These are just some of the new dimensions we’re exploring at Graphics of the Americas. Tune in tomorrow for day two, including the Brand Protection Conference.