SEAD Exemplars: Defying Classification

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 Alex Garcia-Topete
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When Roger Malina invited me to join the SEAD Exemplars project back in August, I thought that the biggest challenge would be finding the elusive exemplars, not the task of giving names and bestowing categories to those exemplars. Never underestimate the power of language and the issues it can create.
Here is some background first: the project of collecting art-science exemplars came as a suggestion from Peter West and Al DeSena at the National Science Foundation (NSF), both of whom wanted to have an exhibit of such works in the NSF’s gallery in Washington D.C. They brought the idea to the SEAD (Science-Engineering-Art-Design) steering committee, to which Roger belongs, and the project was set up. Days later, Roger approached me to work on the project, knowing not only that I would be interested, but that my research interest in art-science collaboration and my background as film festival curator would be valuable for the whole process ahead.
The mission: to collect as many examples as possible of projects that combined science, engineering, art, design, and the humanities and select twenty of the most outstanding ones to be showcased at the NSF gallery. From the start, we knew there would be challenges. Some were obvious and assumed, such as how many exemplars we could actually find (at first there was a sense that we wouldn’t find even just twenty to showcase). The biggest challenge, however, was hidden—developing a taxonomy would be difficult because of terminology and language differences across disciplines, schools, and continents.
Once the call for nominations was sent out by the members of the SEAD committee, we discovered that our first assumption had been wrong: in a few weeks we had collected forty projects and in three months we had collected a hundred, ranging from works of individual artist-scientists to projects involving several institutions as collectives.
The breadth and number of collected exemplars, as well as the submission information and communications with the nominators, revealed the true challenge to overcome—language and taxonomies. Depending on the nominator’s area of expertise, the notion of “art-science” and the term used to refer to it was different, making it at times difficult even to reach an understanding. Just to name a few variations of the notion, some considered it as art at the service of science, others as artists who filed patents, and others as viewing art scientifically. Each notion, of course, had a bias behind it, the two most common being subjugating one domain to the other or being academically rigid about the disciplines involved. And the terms varied even more: Art-Science, ArtScience, STEM, STEMM, STEAM, STEAMM, STEAMMD, SEAD, ArtSci, SciArt, hybrid, T-Shaped, H-shaped… Yet, these all meant multidisciplinary projects.
That matter of language made developing a taxonomy for the projects difficult—and a major issue for the committee when selecting projects for the exhibit. There was much deliberation about what factors to consider: Disciplines? Number of collaborators? Scope of projects? Ultimately, we decided that we were thinking too much like researchers and not enough as curators—after all, the exhibit was meant as an engagement tool for the general public, and that required a different approach. Inspired by current Smithsonian exhibits, we realized that the way to classify the exemplars was to base it upon the purpose and impact of projects, without the jargon of the academic mindset.
In the end, our categories reflect the essence of the different projects: pioneering, exploring, bridging, educating, questioning, engaging, and innovating. Even though most of the projects fall within more than one category, each work has one aspect that stands out easily—its essence, so to speak. With the categories in place, the selection process became a clearer process since we could measure the proportions of each category. In other words, we could quantify the best way to split the twenty spots among the seven categories according to the sample size of nominated projects.
We have yet to finish the final selection and design the exhibit itself. That belongs to a future blog post. For now, here’s the lesson learned thus far: the first step towards any sort of collaboration begins with understanding each other’s language.
The SEAD Exemplars Exhibit is currently in development at and exploring opportunities for a physical exhibition in the near future.
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About the author

Alex Garcia Topete is a writer-filmmaker and film festival curator currently pursuing a graduate degree in Arts & Technology at The University of Texas at Dallas. You can find out more at

Usability Engineering: Improving ARTECA Experience

I work as a UX designer and developer on the ARTECA project from the ArtSciLab.  Every day, I get to think about how to improve the ARTECA interface for our users.  One of the primary ways our team collects feedback from our users is through usability tests, which are run by fellow UX designer Shruthy Sreepathy and myself.  Every month, we bring in someone who has never seen ARTECA before and ask them to navigate through the site, following a set of assigned tasks.  Every time we run this process we discover new potential for improvements.
Recently, I decided to add something new to our usual procedure of testing.  To achieve a better understanding of how our navigation bar elements should be placed, I designed an activity with the purpose of understanding which layout for the navigation bar makes the most sense.
I created a printout on an 11 x 17 inch piece of paper with the basic skeleton of the page (top navigation bar, main navigation bar, main content), but with none of the navigation elements.  For these elements, Shruthy wrote out the names of the links and other navigation items on small, button shaped sticky notes.
After the main portion of the usability test, we closed the browser window and presented our subject with the 11 x 17 printout and the stickies in no order.  With no instructions or other reference, we asked the subject to place the stickies to assemble navigation on the web page that made the most sense to him.  During this process, the subject narrated his thoughts and explained his placement of the different navigation elements.

After running this activity two times, we noticed several patterns that emerged.  Both users expected to see the “Login” and “Register” buttons on the right side of the navigation, which is different than the current navigation which places these buttons on the left side.  Also, both users did not understand the difference between the “Join” functionality and “Register”.  These insights will inform our future designs for the navigation bar.

This activity is one example of a co-creation activity, where the designers work with users to craft designs.  Co-creation activities are a great way to explore how a user thinks, and they are also a lot of fun for us and the user.  Our results are just one data point but we hope to expand this activity and other co-creation activities to gain a richer body of insights for improving our site.  Sound interesting? Sign up here to be part of a future usability test.