Physicality in Design: an exploration

Devina Ramduny-Ellis1, Joanna Hare2, Alan Dix1, Martyn Evans3, Steve Gill2

1. Computing Department, Infolab21, Lancaster University, Lancaster, UK
2. Cardiff School of Art & Design, University of Wales Institute, Cardiff, Wales
3. ImaginationLancaster, Lancaster University, Lancaster, UK

< Devina on the Web > < Jo on the Web > < Alan on the Web > < Martyn on the Web > < Steve on the Web >

The Design Journal, Vol 13 No 1 (2010) pp. 48-76, DOI: 10.2752/146069210X12580336766365

Download draft paper (PDF, 120K)


Both the nature of many products and their process of creation are becoming increasingly digitally mediated. However, our bodies and minds are naturally conceived to interact with the physical, so crucial design information can be elicited by constructing meaningful prototypes. This paper examines how physical materials impact early design through a study that explores how groups with very different materials tackle a common design challenge. The inherent physical properties of the materials and the ways in which designers interpret and manipulate them give rise to subtle patterns of behaviour. These include the ways in which groups move between abstract and concrete discussions, the way groups comply with or resist the materials they are given, and the complex interactions between the physicality of materials and the group dynamics. This understanding is contributing to our research in explicating the fundamental role of physicality in the design of hybrid physical and digital artefacts.

Keywords: physicality; design process; prototyping

See draft paper


  1. Avrahami D and Hudson SE. (2002) ‘Forming Interactivity: A Tool for Rapid Prototyping of Physical Interactive Products’ In Proceedings of the 4th Conference on Designing Interactive Systems: Processes, Practices, Methods, and Techniques, DIS’02, (pp. 141–146). New York, ACM Press.

  2. Baxter, M. (2002). Product Design: A Practical Guide to Systematic Methods of New Product Development (pp. 27-28). Cheltenham: Nelson Thornes (Publishers) Ltd.

  3. Bordegoni, M. and Cugini, U. (2005) ‘Design products with your hands’ In Proceedings of Virtual Concept 2005. Biarritz, 8-10 November 2005.

  4. Branham, R. (2000). ‘Given the radically changing work environment and new worldviews, what kinds of new ‘tools’ do designers need to survive and successfully deal with tomorrow’s design problems?’ In Proceedings of IDSA 2000 National Education Conference. Louisiana, USA.

  5. Buchenau, M. and Suri, J.F. (2000) ‘Experience Prototyping’ In Proceedings of the conference on Designing interactive systems: processes, practices, methods, and techniques (pp. 424 – 433). New York, USA.

  6. Clark, A. (1998) Being There: Putting Brain, Body, and World Together Again. MIT Press.

  7. Dant, T (1999) Material Culture in the Social World: Values, Activities, Lifestyles. Publisher: Open University Press.

  8. A. Dix (2008)  ‘Theoretical analysis and theory creation’ Chapter 9 in Research Methods for Human-Computer Interaction, P. Cairns and A. Cox (eds). Cambridge University Press

  9. Dix, A., Ghazali, M., Gill, S., Hare, J. and Ramduny-Ellis, D. (2009) ‘Physigrams: Modelling Devices for Natural Interaction’ In Formal Aspects of Computing, Springer full paper doi: 10.1007/s00165-008-0099-y from SpringerLink online.

  10. Evans, M. and Sommerville, S. (2007) ‘Seeing is believing: The Challenge of Product Semantics in the curriculum’ In Shaping the Future? 9th International Conference on Engineering and Product Design Education. September 2007,Northumbria University, Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK. 

  11. Gallagher, S. (2006) How the Body Shapes the Mind. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

  12. Garfinkel, H. (1967) Studies in Ethnomethodology, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice- Hall.

  13. Gaver, W. (1991) ‘Technology affordances’ In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems: Reaching through technology (pp. 79 - 84). New Orleans, Louisiana, US, ACM Press.

  14. Gedenryd, H. (1998) How Designers Work – making sense of authentic cognitive activities. PhD thesis, Lund University, Sweden (

  15. Ghazali, M. and Dix, A. (2005) ‘Knowledge of Today for the Design of Tomorrow’ In Proceedings of the 2nd International Design and Engagibility Conference (IDEC 2005). Edinburgh, 6th Sept. 2005.

  16. Gibson, J.J. (1979). ‘The Theory of Affordances’ In R. Shaw and J. Bransford (Eds,) Perceiving, acting and knowing: Towards an ecological psychology (pp. 67-82). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

  17. Gill, S., Loudon, G., Hewett, B. and Barham, G. (2005b) ‘How to Design and Prototype an Information Appliance in 24 Hours – Integrating Product & Interface Design Processes’ In Proceedings of the 6th International conference on Computer Aided Industrial Design and Concept Design conference, University of Delft, The Netherlands.

  18. Gill, S., Johnson, P., Dale, J., Loudon, G., Hewett, B. and Barham, G. (2005a) ‘The Traditional Design Process Versus a New Design Methodology: a Comparative Case Study of a Rapidly Designed Information Appliance’ In Proceedings of the Human Oriented Informatics & Telematics Conference. University Of York, UK.

  19. Gill, S., Walker, D., Loudon, G., Dix, A., Woolley, A., Ramduny-Ellis, D. and Hare, J. (2008) ‘Rapid Development of Tangible Appliances: Achieving the Fidelity/Time balance’ In Hornecker, E., Schmidt, A. and Ullmer, B. (eds.) International Journal of Arts and Technology (IJART) Special issue on Tangible and Embedded Interaction. Vol. 1, No. 3/4 (pp. 309-331). Online ISSN 1754-8861, print ISSN 1754-8853. doi: 10.1504/IJART.2008.022365

  20. Greenberg, S. and Fitchett, C. (2001) ‘Phidgets: easy development of physical interfaces through physical widgets’ In Proceedings of the 14th Annual ACM Symposium on User interface Software and Technology, UIST '01 (pp. 209-218). Orlando, Florida, ACM Press.

  21. Hartman, B., S. Klemmer, M. Bernstein and N. Mehta (2005) ‘ Visually Prototyping Physical UIs through State-charts’ In Extended Abstracts of UIST 2005, ACM Press.

  22. Heath, C. & Luff, P. (1992). ‘Collaboration and control: Crisis management and multimedia technology in London Underground line control rooms’ In Computer Supported Cooperative Work, 1 (pp. 69–94).

  23. Heskett, J (1980) Industrial Design, Thames & Hudson Ltd .

  24. Hutchins, E. (1995) Cognition in the Wild, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

  25. Ilyenkov, E. (1977) ‘The Concept of the Ideal’ In Problems of Dialectical Materialism, (Trans. A. Bluden), Progress Publishers.

  26. Kingsley, S., Baxter, S. and Inns, T. (2005) ‘Educating the Designer for Team Working: An experiment on the effects of Prototyping on teams’ In Crossing design boundaries Rodgers, Brodhurst & Hepburn(Eds) (pp. 315–322). Taylor & Francis Group, London, ISBN 0 415 39118 0.

  27. Landay, J. and B. Myers. (1995) ‘Interactive sketching for the early stages of user interface design’ In I. R. Katz, R. Mack, L. Marks, M. B. Rosson, and J. Nielsen (Eds.) In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 43–50). Denver, Colorado, ACM Press/Addison-Wesley Publishing Co.,

  28. Norman, D (1998a) The Design of Everyday Things. MIT Press, London.

  29. Norman, D. A. (1998b). The Invisible Computer: Why good products can fail, the personal computer is so complex and Information Appliances are the solution (pp. 189. London, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.

  30. Ormerod, T., MacGregor, J., and Chronicle, E. (2002). ‘Dynamics and constraints in insight problem solving’ In Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 28(4) (pp. 791-799).
    Pevsner, N (1991) Pioneers of Modern Design: From William Morris to Walter Gropius, Penguin.

  31. Pierce, J.S., Steams, B.C., and Pausch, R. (1999) ‘Voodoo Dolls: Seamless Interaction at Multiple Scales in Virtual Environments’ In Proceedings of the 1999 Symposium on Interactive 3D Graphics (pp.141-145).

  32. Phidgets Inc.

  33. Potter, N (1969) What Is a Designer: Things, Places, Messages. Studio Vista.

  34. Raizman, D (2004) A History of Modern Design: Graphics and Products Since the Industrial Revolution. Laurence King Publishing.

  35. Ramduny-Ellis, D., Dix, A., Hare, J. and Gill, S. (2007) Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Physicality, Physicality 2007 (2-3 Sep. 2007). Lancaster University, UK, ISBN 978-1-905617-60-9, UWIC Press,

  36. Rakers, G (2001) ‘Interaction Design Process’ In User Interface Design for Electronic Appliances, Baumann, K & Thomas, B (Ed), Taylor and Francis (pp.29-47).

  37. Rekimoto, J. (1996) ‘Transvision: A hand-held augmented reality system for collaborative design’ In International Conference on Virtual Systems and Multimedia (VSMM'96) (pp. 85-90).

  38. Rettig, M. (1994) ‘Prototyping for tiny fingers’ In Communications of the ACM, April 1994, Vol. 37, No. 4 (pp. 21 – 27).

  39. Schön. D. (1983) The Reflective Practitioner: How professionals think in action. London: Temple Smith.

  40. Snyder, C. (2003) Paper Prototyping. Morgan Kaufmann, San Francisco, CA.

  41. Strauss, A. Corbin, J. (1990) Basics of Qualitative Research: Techniques and Procedures for Developing Grounded Theory. Sage Publications.

  42. Suchman, L. (1987) Plans and Situated Actions: The problem of human–machine communication. Cambridge University Press.
    Ulrich, K.T. and Eppinger, S.D. (2003) Product Design and Development. McGraw-Hill, New York.

  43. Verlinden, J.C., T. Wiegers, H. Vogelaar, I. Horvath, J.S.M. Vergeest (2001) ‘Exploring conceptual design using a clay-based wizard of Oz technique’ In G. Jahannsen (Eds.), 8th IFAC/IFIP/FORS/IEA symposium on analysis, design and evaluation of human-machine systems (pp. 211-216), VDI 2001, Kassel, September 18-20, 2001.

  44. Vihma, S (1995) Products as Representations: a semiotic and aesthetic study of design products. University of Arts & Design, Helsinki.

  45. Villar, N., Lindsay, A. and Gellersen, H. (2005) ‘Pin & Play & Perform; A rearrangeable interface for musical composition and performance’ In Proceedings of the 2005 conference on New interfaces for musical expression. Vancouver, Canada.

  46. Wheeler, M. (2005) Reconstructing the Cognitive World: The Next Step. Bradford Books.

  47. Woodham, J (1997) Twentieth-Century Design. Oxford University Press.

  48. Woodward, I (2007) Understanding Material Culture. Sage Publications.

Full reference:

D. Ramduny-Ellis, J. Hare, A. Dix, M. Evans, S. Gill (2010) Physicality in Design: an exploration. The Design Journal, 13(1) pp. 48-76.



Alan Dix 13/1/2010