Is designing sculpting? Or scripting?

As an industrial designer, I had so far worked on artefacts as spatial creations. I sculpted rather than scripted my outcome! The focus was on the quality of artefact as an outcome, at least till I started taking interest in game design. Games are predominantly temporal or spatio-temporal creations. They are very different from spatial creations. The emphasis is on controlling the outcome by focusing on designing the path. The outcome is a game play (process), a kind of temporal creation that is occasionally supported by the artefacts.

Industrial designer’s dilemma

Industrial designers have expertise in conceiving of artefacts as spatial creations that prompt user actions when used. In the current service design perspective, this has reversed. They are required to visualize and integrate artefacts (hardware) into spatio-temporal actions. Besides, with service design wholeheartedly embracing digital environment, the composition and the expertise within the design teams have changed to include people with marketing as well as coding backgrounds. But to treat this new development merely as becoming more inclusive would not be correct.

I realized that I was ignorant of the temporal aspects. I decided to focus on the issues involved in designing temporal creations and understand the differences. The specific questions that I addressed were,

How do various temporal creations and actions differ from each other? How does one classify temporal creations and processes from design point of view? How different are the spatio-temporal creations? And lastly,

Do industrial designers need new learning to handle creations that have spatio-temporal complexities? If yes, what would it be?

Do I know the temporal and spatio-temporal?

As a first step, attempt was made to differentiate temporal and spatio-temporal creations based on the design strategies used to control the events. This also includes understanding the possible degrees of control on the spatio-temporal outcome in each strategy.

The temporal creations are typically associated with arts, particularly performing arts. We will start the discussion with these. However, as we saw earlier, the temporal creations are lot more pervasive than the performing arts. It is possible to extend the ideas to include exciting as well as mundane events to get new insights into the strategies used in other temporal events. So, events like traffic control, airport passenger management, chemical industrial systems, sports, games and even lawsuits are included. Each of them may reveal new insights. We have so far identified three strategies. (They are no way exhaustive) They are as follows,

Strategy 1: Scripting every moment in time and space

As discussed before, besides the 2D and 3D tangible creations of artefacts, there are two kinds of creations that deal with creator’s vision in time dimension.

a] Dominant temporal events. (as in music. See figure 1). In these, ‘what’ happens or can happen, ‘when’ and ‘how’ is controlled by a central vision;

b] Spatio-temporal creations (as in dance, drama, religious rituals, circus, aircraft landing and army operations. See some examples in figure 2 and 3). The spatial dimension ‘where’ gets added to ‘what’, when’ and ‘how’. Conductor of the orchestra controls spatio-temporal operations in live performances. (See figure 4)

Needless to say that in both types, the central vision controls the decisions.

1 classical music

Figure 1. Temporal dominates in Indian classical music concerts. Though singer’s gesture play a role, listeners often close their eyes to feel and enjoy the music (Source 1)


2 Theatre Indian

Figure 2. Theatre is a spatio-temporal event. The locations and actions of the individual actors are carefully worked out to exploit space. This is further supported by stagecraft. (Source 2)


4 Puja

Figure 3. Religious ritual has a well-planned temporal narratives, with some related spatial actions. (Source author)


3 orchestra 1

Figure 4. Though music is temporal, but orchestra has a spatio-temporal dimension. (Source 3)

The third type that industrial designers are familiar with, include spatial creations of tangible artefacts. Because they deal with taking decisions largely in space than time, they are excluded from this discussion.

In performing arts, the director/choreographer provides the central vision and scripts this into pre-planned minute-by-minute actions. The vision dictates the final desirable outcome and must be in place for the temporal event to shapeup.

Such meticulous planning and crafting is not uncommon in other fields. For example, circus performances are also meticulously planned. ‘When’ ‘what’, ‘where’ and ‘how’ is perfected through practice, rehearsals and some back-n-forth movements during practice sessions. The final temporal outcome is well organized, often precise and looks elegant and graceful.

Meticulous pre-planned and controlled operations are also common in many other important public ceremonies. When very important dignitaries are expected to attend, the spatio-temporal event is scripted minute-by-minute, with little freedom to deviate. Religious rituals are completely driven by the priests, with little degree of freedom to deviate.

In life threatening events, the cost of error justifies the need for meticulous pre-planning.1 In such cases, creators rely on scientific knowledge to develop temporal processes that are supported by technology. This ensures that the outcomes are reliable and consistent. (See figure 5)

5 KSEA_control Tower_Interior

Figure 5: Interior of a control tower for airport. The operator’s actions are supported by technology to get reliable and consistent outcome. (Source 4)

Algorithms used in engineering problem solving are nothing but well researched and validated process codes that meticulously execute temporal and spatio-temporal operations. Representative examples include instrument landing of aircrafts, and process controls on chemical plants.

Temporal events work and deliver when there are well-defined controls and the ways of ensuring that the controls are implemented. Firmer the controls, more predictable are the outcomes. This ensures they are closer to the central vision that generated them. To ensure this, even flexibility is planned! In tourism packages the itineraries are planned hour-by-hour. Flexibility to shop etc. is part of the structure of the long event.

How does one describe such spatio-temporal creations at a broad conceptual level, which would capture most such activities?

In a higher-level description of spatio-temporal creations, the objects and artifacts can be treated as ‘designed spatial elements (or artefacts)’. They operate and/or perform in sync with temporal activities and structure and are perceived simultaneously. Both are important and have designated roles to play in the creation. In performing arts, the differences between the two creations arise, because creator uses his freedom to take decisions like ‘which’ of spatial element comes into action and ‘when’. It is possible that the elements may sometimes dominate the temporal activity and vice versa.

To understand this, contrast the following examples. In army parades, the temporal activities dominate over the individual elements. The identity of individual soldier is suppressed to make them appear as a collective mass to create the impact. However along the timeline in a dance or a drama, the focus often shifts between the individual actors and the collective actions, as well as between two individual actors. This is what spotlight on the stage supports. Such points of focus may keep shifting from time to time.

Is there a lesson in this? Understanding of spatio-temporal events can offer new opportunities to industrial designers. If could focus on learning to conceiving coherent spatio-temporal acts that, together with the artefacts delivering value to the user/audience. Is not this what object ecosystem is all about? Historically, this is something that the education of industrial designers did not include.

This suggests a different approach. If we see designing of artefacts as part of a potential temporal event, we can design the temporal event first and then explore design of artefacts.

Some designers at an individual level are now practicing this. However, it will make a difference if it is built on in-depth understanding of the temporal phenomena. As we will see in future posts, the theories and methods used to conceive and control temporal are very different. It follows that design education should include these theories and processes to create new competencies.2

Strategy 2: Let the people script their path

This is a unique strategy of controlling spatio-temporal actions and events. The central control is defined in form of policies (correct and incorrect behaviour), laws, rules/ guideline and penalties, supported by enforcement mechanisms. The efforts are to get desired outcome indirectly. It does not plan, script and instruct how each participant should behave, unless we refer to policies and laws as higher-level scripts. Number of contemporary temporal events use this strategy. It can be captured as ‘control by framework of constitution, policies, laws, rules and guidelines’. Are not democracies governed similarly?

Representative example for understanding the concept would be the urban traffic control system that generates a spatio-temporal structure for smooth travel for anyone entering the system. Urban traffic is indirectly structured by policies, rules, infrastructure (Traffic signage, street furniture, barriers, markings on the road) and ever-present relatively centralized enforcement mechanism. Everybody is working towards his/her goal of reaching from his/her point A to B, determined individually. All are trying to get through the vehicle maze that they create themselves. Each driver is required to take some autonomous decisions within the framework of overall rules and the surrounding infrastructure.

Policies and rules define how individuals can and cannot act. The system permits limited ‘designed’ autonomy to the participants to make local and legitimate decisions within the conceptual framework. Not following the policies and rules can potentially lead to a breakdown. The process can be captured as,

[Sense current context -> Process + Account for centralized vision, Rules and Controls -> Plan < = > Revise the plan -> Act to create a new context for others to react to]

Compare road traffic in technologically advanced countries with traffic in Asian cities. It explains the idea. Most visitors from advance countries find traffic in Asian cities as chaotic, though technically the rules are in place!(See figure 6 and 7) When acting locally, using a flexibility that is not provided by the framework of rules can be not only chaotic, but also at times dangerous.


Figure 6: Because the rules are followed meticulously, the traffic in most advanced countries looks organized. (Source 5)

7 indian road traffic

Figure 7: Asian road traffic looks chaotic to visitors used to regulated and well-organized traffic systems. The rules and guideline are overshadowed by individual goals and actions. (Source author)

For such spatio-temporal creations to function, two things must fall into place.

First, to succeed it expects self-discipline from the participants. Well-drafted laws, rules and penalties are critical, but not necessarily adequate as steps. It demands strong implementation, training and supervision to ensure that the rules are correctly interpreted and followed. That is why traffic system relies on licensing of the drivers.

Second, it is also based on anticipating what other participants are likely to do. There is local sensing and decision-making. I remember an advice of my friend when I was learning to drive. He said ‘If you have to drive in Mumbai, you need to know the intentions of the person who drives the forth car ahead of you. Imagine yourself in that car’.

Such controls are common in contemporary applications. They offer ideal cases for new technology interventions, contributing to running of complex systems. Driverless cars use the central vision, access to the big picture, local intelligence and traffic policies and rules to take the decisions. Car navigation based on GPS too uses these strategies in a limited way.

Networks for electricity supply, transportation or mobile phones could not have become smoother and smarter without tech interventions. The freedom to take some autonomous local decisions differs for every network.

The digital environment not only enforces policies and ensures compliance in implementation, but also does much more. It effectively converts policies, laws and rules into codes. Once authorized, a qualified participant can be part of the system, and that too without being aware of the complete central vision. In fact, by permitting some actions and preventing some others, it allows user to gradually discover the vision. Other than engineering and networking applications, email and social networking sites are examples of digitally coding the processes that allow so many to participate and interact and then slowly understand the vision. The digital environment not only makes execution and supervision smoother, but also allows learning through discovery.

Such an approach is used in design of artefacts too. Take a toy like Lego, which is wonderful spatio-temporal activity. Combination rules are coded in the design of the pieces and can be learnt while playing. So, it comes under this strategy. It has intentional constructs displayed that children can repeat. However, there is one major difference. It allows freedom to create your own constructions that the child can consider legitimate.

Conceptual similarities and differences between strategies 1 and 2

In the two strategies discussed so far, there is a central vision that is conceptualized by the creator/s. The differences are the way it is translated into actions.

In strategy 1, the outcome as well as path are preplanned and ‘designed’ by the creator. In many cases, the actions to the path are scripted minute-by-minute. The creator’s vision is only manifested through the actions of the participating elements, which confirms with the vision and the intentions. The performance functions like an orchestra. The application of the idea goes beyond the preforming arts to technical areas, where the art component is missing.

In strategy 2, the ideal outcome is defined and policies and rules are created to reach the vision. It allows the participants to discover the path within the framework created by the vision. The participant is partly made aware of the central vision and partly encouraged to discover it through repeated use. In this strategy, the central vision dominates, but each authority is delegated a degree of control (from zero to X) in their sphere of activities.

In many ways, the second strategy is opposite of the first. Though these are shown as two independent strategies, they can be visualized on a bipolar continuum, with strategy 1 and strategy 2 occupying the two opposite ends.

The locations along the continuum are prompted by the way the vision or the conceptual framework and the controls are implemented. Towards the strategy 1 end, it is a top-down approach by a single authority operating (like director of a film or dance, conductor of the orchestra, or commander in an army parade) It offers little freedom to the participating elements.

It then goes on to include additional one or more coordinating centralized authorities that control the system. Prime example would be banking transactions on ATM. These coordinated operations are directly controlled by the banking software, but is functionally supported by independent Wi-Fi (email) and mobile phone service providers (SMS). The actions of these parties are immediately visible to the user.

Besides, there are lots of authorities at the backend, who maintain and control the overall operations, such as the authorities which replenishes the currency, manage security services like watchman, cameras at the ATM kiosk and so on. In most product ecosystems, the local actions of the services must work together for a smooth and seamless performance. Digital environment has made this possible. This is where the orchestra analogy fits in aptly, except that it is a virtual conductor. Would these operations get transformed if we use orchestra as an analogy?


The design innovation is in exploring an alternative position on the continuum, visualizing appropriate design responses and supporting them with a business case. In the earlier post, SBI tiny case was presented. (Link) Standard banking operations follow strategy 1 with complete top-down central control. The initiative in rural scenarios looked for the new location on the continuum by allowing limited local decision-making and dispensing with complete central control.

Following points are worth noting about the continuum.

a] In most creative fields, particularly those with a strong roots in art, tend to be at the strategy 1 end of the continuum.

b] The shift of location on the continuum is based on the degree of control that you want the individual participants to have. Lesser the control the more you move away from strategy 1.

c] Many contemporary spatio-temporal creations are a mix of these two strategies by different degrees. Don’t the driverless cars display a clever mix of the two strategies? Also, army operations are planned meticulously and belong to strategy 1, but in action must allow for field level developments to make some local corrections. Local variations mean slightly shifting them away from the strategy 1 end, towards the opposite direction. Similarly, navigation through GPS is also a mix, but with a large tilt towards strategy 1.

So far we focused on the central vision that defines the outcome. We also focused on the two strategies that create and either control the process and a path to an intended outcome or allow participants to do it.

But do all temporal creations have a vision of the outcome and demand a fixed and desirable outcome? Can the control be left to the participants?

There are unique temporal creations that use some elements of strategy 2, but with major twists. There is a clear temporal structure that is controlled by the rules. Each participant acts autonomously within the framework of these rules. The outcome is designed to remain largely uncertain. These are temporal creations where there is no intention of either predicting the outcome, or of controlling the path. This is the basis of strategy 3.

Strategy 3: Scripting the conflict                                                                               

On the face of it, it looks similar to strategy 2, but there is an interesting twist. What happens along the timeline and the path it takes is left to the participants to script. The actual goal is to create conditions for a ‘designed conflict’ to emerge as the event progresses. The participants accept a clearly stated framework of rules in their actions, but each action is motivated by his/her interest and often works against the interests of participants on the ‘opposite’ side. Even the idea of vision is different.

Games are a prime example in this group. They have clearly spelt out laws and rules. As hardware, games have number of intentionally designed tangible items deployed. But, the actual gameplay is a temporal event controlled by the rules. The process and the progress are based on how each player is able to exploit the rules to create legitimate actions. With more than one player and each trying to act to maximize his/her benefit, the new and unexpected game states continuously emerge with every action of the player.

9 game 1


8 game 2

Figure 8 and 9: Hardware used in the games has a spatial dimension, but the actual gameplay is temporal event. It has beginning, middle and an end. In fact the success of the game is based on how well the gameplay is managed. (Sources author)

The games challenge the players to generate surprising actions, both cerebral and or corporal. Representative examples of dominantly action-oriented games would be boxing, tennis, football, T20 in cricket etc. There are cerebral games like chess. Interestingly, while the normal traffic control falls under strategy 2, when it is channeled in formula one race, this example shifts to strategy 3.

As in strategy 2, in games the participants take major decisions and act based on the current local context (called as game state) as much as on the awareness of the anticipated dynamic changes in the local context. So, the actions of the players are completely context dependent. That explains why two such games between the same players will not be identical. That eliminates the idea of script and the intended outcome.

There is no central vision that scripts player actions as in strategy 1 and 2. The major difference is that the outcome is designed to remain largely uncertain. Though there is a clear temporal structure that is controlled by the rules, each participant acts autonomously within the framework of rules.

With no central vision guiding decisions, the fate of the game is in the hands of the players. When the players match in their cerebral or corporal abilities, the fate keeps changing along the timeline. Exciting games are those where the direction of the gameplay or its outcome cannot be predicted till the last moment. In fact the actions are intended to ensure that the opponent cannot guess the plan and the future actions. Players may go out of the way to conceal their plan of actions, leaving the opponent guessing. That is why they are deeply engaging to the players as well as to the spectators.

If you stretch the idea, it is possible to include other cases in this category. Look at lawsuits in the courts. The two lawyers view the same crime differently. They develop strategies to win the argument within the framework of rules, laws and precedents. (Rather legitimately exploit them) Though they have all the trappings of a game we don’t view lawsuits as games. This is also true of political elections, at least in India.

Gamification, currently a popular way of engaging customers, uses some of the elements from this strategy. But for the gamification to succeed, you need to avoid direct conflicts and in fact create win-win situations for commercial reasons. That makes it difficult to fit gamification into this strategy.


There are these three strategies available to handle spatio-temporal creations. There may be more that I would have missed. Depending on the problem being handled, it is possible to explore the applications of these strategies for design innovation. More about it will appear in the next post.

Teaching game design made me confront these issues. It showed how ignorant I was when it came to scripting activities in time dimension. It did open my eyes. I also know there is much more that is yet to be discovered.

Who stands to benefit? And how?

The first answer is industrial designers. There are two broad directions to the design discipline in these discussions. The possibilities include, 1] Accessing and exchanging sources of inspirations for designers that are indicated here; and 2] possibility of moving towards a more inclusive version of the design process. In this post, we will conclude with some elaboration of these directions. More detailed discussions will follow in the forthcoming posts.

Who else could benefit? Here is a wild possibility. Explore different disciplines exchanging their root strategies or mixing them. For examples, as industrial designers look towards performing art strategies, the artists could explore the strategies used in handling spatio-temporal creations for their performances. Can performing artists create and control actions through policies and rule? (as in traffic control). Can they create intentionally ‘designed conflicts’ (as in controlling gameplays and lawsuits) to create newer art expression?

Accessing and exchanging sources of inspiration

To understand how to effectively handle temporal issues, it is important to study working of performing artists and other creators of temporal events outside of art. They have the understanding of time dimension and the experience of handling it. It is important to study the process of thinking that these group of creators use in conceptualizing temporal actions. All designers working in projects with dominant spatio-temporal dimensions stand to gain if the sources of inspiration become more inclusive.

Such studies should explore the possibilities of borrowing methods and tools from spatial and spatio-temporal fields and transform them to suit the new design challenges. UX design demonstrated this to a certain extent. It has started yielding results and we will touch this topic in the next post.

Towards a new design process

Historically, industrial designers have conceived artifacts as 2D and 3D spatial creations. The 1970s design methods had a strong tilt towards spatial innovation mostly leading to tangible artifacts or systems. These methods do recognize that the human activities associated with the use of artefacts have a temporal structure. (Such as time motion studies, activity analysis etc.) However, associating temporal tasks using the object as a reference has its limitations. The design of the object can positively or negatively impact the way the human interactions are performed, and that too by default than through conscious decisions. It is bound to prompt temporal activities that are dependent on and constraint by the design of the object.

The contemporary ideas of industrial design are becoming more inclusive, almost pointing towards a need for a conceptual shift. The current focus is on more holistic and efficient ways of delivering value to the users. It is expected to now include emphasis on creating temporal experiences for the customers. The initial design focus on responding to functional issues through the design of artifacts is becoming broader and is shifting to focus on new customer experiences. The dividing line between product design, largely a spatial creations and service design, which is largely temporal experience, is becoming fuzzier. Should it then not lead to a more inclusive version of the design process?

Script and then sculpt process

This change is compelling enough to explore new approach now. There is a case to build a new version of the design process. I have referred to this as a ‘script and sculpt process’. The new approach must a] commit to ‘Designing is to think spatio-temporal’; b] switch the design process sequence; and c] ensure that they together add value to the user/customer.

The new challenges must recognize that the methods and tools used in conceptualizing temporal or spatio-temporal creations are very different. The design profession needs to expand the repertoire of processes and methods to handle temporal and particularly spatio-temporal issues, integrated with the current design process. It demands a design process that also ‘designs’ a temporal activity creatively! It is not as easy as it sounds. More about it in the next post.

What would be the contours of the new version of the design process? Such a process could contain,

a] Developing of central vision of the temporal activity and how the policies and rules can be conceived to resolve or to create conflicts! This is where the mix of the three strategies can come handy.

b] Exploring the implications of different locations on the continuum on the temporal creations. In fact, the continuum can become an innovation tool. And finally,

c] It must work hand-in-hand with the earlier design process used for developing artifact.

Summing up

Industrial designers are equipped to competently handle design of 2D and 3D objects. They are trained for such assignments. However, the context of design has changed now. WDO proposed the definition of design that goes beyond artefacts. (WDO definition)This has radically changed the scope of the design problems that are expected to be handle. The new focus goes beyond products (or offered product in marketing) to include systems, services and experiences.

To the author, the understanding the full implications of the new definition came accidentally, through projects like designing games. Such projects have a hardware component, but mainly demand generating of gameplay along the time dimension. They demand focusing on designing and controlling temporal actions of the participants/users. This is not uncommon in many other design projects, but has often not been the focus of attention. So, this post reflects exclusively on how temporal and spatio-temporal creations are handled and on understanding the nuances and learning from it.

The specific questions that are addressed in this post are,

How do various temporal creations and actions differ from each other? How does one classify temporal creations and processes from design point of view? How different are the spatio-temporal creations?

Rather than lumping all the spatio-temporal creations together, attempt is made to understand nuanced differences between them. The discussions cover wide range of temporal creations, from performing arts to traffic control to industrial control to games. How could these desperately different creations be grouped to make sense?

Conceptual differences and the strategies used to control the spatio-temporal creations were used as basis to group them. Three broad strategies were identified. They were as follows,

Strategy 1: Scripting every moment in time and space

This strategy is common in performing arts, army operations, circus performances, magic shows and other similar events. There is a clear vision at the top. To reach that demands meticulous control on the final outcome. So, the actions are scripted minute-by-minute and many times rehearsed. The outcome as well as the path is painstakingly worked on.

Strategy 2: Let the people script their path

This strategy is the exact opposite. The top defines a vision, but then frames the policies, laws and rules. It also creates a supervisory mechanism, system of penalties (and occasionally rewards) to ensure that policies are implemented and rules are adhered to. While the vision of the outcome comes from the top, the path is left to the individual participants. They are expected to function within the framework of laws and rules. Traffic control functions on this basis. Even governments function similarly. The top level indirectly controls what can and cannot potentially happen. It could be through direct supervision or through technology intervention or mix of the two.

Strategy 3: Scripting the conflict

On the face, this strategy appears similar to strategy 2. It has support of policies and rules in place. Yet, there is no spelt-out vision from the top. The participants are expected to develop their path within the framework of rules, but are encouraged to act against each other, often to win. All games depend on this strategy.

Field and board games are designed to create synthetic conflicts between players with the expectations that players will resolve them as part of play. Paths that the players develop remain unpredictable, because player’s actions are based on the current state of the game and their understanding of the anticipated actions of the opponents. The strategy is least explored outside games and gamification, except lawsuits in the courts that have somewhat similar structure.

The discussion then goes on to identify similarities and differences in the three strategies supported by examples from real world. In all the three strategies, the participants’ decisions are based on the degree of control planned and provided as well as who controls it.

The post concludes by suggesting how the three strategies can be mixed to come up with spatio-temporal innovations. It opens up new sources of innovation, which can now be accessed by designers. It also suggests that we borrow methods and tools from these sources to develop a more inclusive and richer version of the design process for the new age designers. The author calls it ‘Script and then sculpt process’.

Preview of the next post

This post is planned as a standalone overview of the temporal and spatio-temporal event. A more detailed discussion on implications of this thinking on industrial design and design education will follow in the next post.

It will also address the unanswered question,

Do industrial designers need new learning to handle creations that have spatio-temporal complexities? If yes, what would it be?

Notes and references

1  At its peak, the actions are referred as deploying standard operating procedures. This is common in landing of aircraft at short intervals, fire drills and handling situations in crisis. So, whenever possible, these temporal or spatio-temporal processes are well rehearsed.

2  A word of caution. There are some artefacts that do not need extensive physical interactions are not part of temporal activities. They often function efficiently as standalone objects. Forcing new approach may not be appropriate in all cases. It is easier to handle them using traditional spatial approach.

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