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Kevin Feng

-- CS student, creative technologist


llustrator, laser cutter, DSLR camera, projector
Spring 2018


“Color in Material Design is inspired by bold hues juxtaposed with muted environments, deep shadows, and bright highlights.”

“The material is grounded in tactile reality, inspired by the study of paper and ink, yet technologically advanced and open to imagination and magic.”

In 2014, Google developed a design language that set precedence to the design of many apps in the Android ecosystem, and to a lesser extent, the Apple ecosystem, today. Google says that material design is a metaphor: “a system for uniting style, interaction, branding and motion under a consistent set of principles”.

In my final exhibition in VIS311: The Photographic Apparatus, I explored how these principles hold up when reverse engineered from screen to physical form and effects created when the principles are disrupted. I was curious to see how the principles respond to being placed in the tactile environment they supposedly came from, and whether they are as natural and logical when captured by a camera as they seem designed on a screen.

The Process

I did a bit of preliminary research on Google’s material design guidelines and took note of some design elements on apps on my Android device. There were lots of details about mobile development and other technical nuances in the guidelines that I did not take many of them into consideration for this project. I mainly focused on the visual interface, with the content from the “Material Design”, “Motion” and “Style” sections of the guidelines, along with a bit of supplemental information from the “Layout” section.

I decided on using acrylic pieces as my material of choice (along with some wood pieces) instead of my original plan of 3D printing after seeing the acrylic collection in the StudioLab maker space’s laser cutting room. The wide variety in colour and properties of the material (opaque versus translucent, solid versus grainy) captured my attention as those were properties I hoped to explore in my work. The acrylic was laser cut to a variety of shapes commonly seen in material design:

To build the physical model, I overlapped pieces on a backdrop of plain and coloured paper. To modify the amount of shadow cast by shapes in some models, I padded the pieces with small bits of paper I ripped up.

For my main photographic apparatuses I used a digital SLR camera and projector. I was hoping for these apparatuses to expose the design guidelines to the physical world and create effects that may not be necessarily prized very highly or is even acknowledged in digital interfaces. Photographically, I tested the extent at which a camera can interpret a 3D model into a flatter 2D material design image that is fit for use on a screen. The camera’s ability to capture a sense of depth using a varying depth of field was something I fiddled around with because I thought it was uniquely mechanical.

In the end, each photo (except for one) violated one or more design guidelines and/or included unusual visual cues that are not present in conventional material design. I hoped for these effects to provoke a sense of humanity, mechanization and overall more tactile empathy. This was my attempt to further challenge the “material” of material design. There is a very strict definition of “material” in the way that it could be implemented, coloured or depicted in motion due to its roots in physics, but yet the term is so broad that people don’t really have a specific focus in mind when it’s brought up, other than perhaps a reminder of their surrounding physical space. Materials in the physical world, of course, are much more than simply pixels or a plane of perfectly uniform, smooth colourful slab on a screen.

The Projector Images

In addition to opaque material, I experimented with some translucent acrylic pieces in front of the projector lens. Google explicitly stated that “input events cannot pass through material”, but by placing non-opaque material in front of the projector, interesting geometric patterns that resemble material design can be created. Although the projection does not directly involve shadows and elevation, the borders of the acrylic imply their presence and the increasing sharpness as the acrylic moves away from the projector and into the lens’s focal range gives the image a different sense of 3D perspective.

The Exhibition

The final exhibition took place in the bottom floor of the Princeton’s Friend Center for Engineering Education. Out of the 10 photos on the exhibition floor, only one of them abides by Google’s guidelines perfectly to serve as a reference. Below are some of the ways I wavered from the guidelines and/or the general accepted appearance of material design:

- Using a slightly textured backdrop instead of a perfectly solid one
- Underglow: material design emphasizes dark, natural shadows. I inserted a pink acrylic strip under a white strip for one of the photos, creating a pinkish glow
- Colour variation: using similar and muted colour pairings instead of bold and contrasting ones
- Depth of field: instead of making everything the same clarity, I sometimes used a shallow depth of field for slight background blur
- Natural materials: I incorporated a couple wooden elements alongside the manufactured ones
- Motion blur: by setting the shutter speed low and moving my setup as I shot it, I introduced a sense of motion to the image without fancy JavaScript
- Translucency in material: passing light through the material via a projector and photographing the projection