On Thursday the 9th of June a workshop on the topic Im/material traces was held as a part of the workshop series things2things. In total 11 researchers and designers from different professional and geographical backgrounds participated and covered a wide range of expertise on the topic of internet of things.

The workshop was organized by Holly Robbins a PhD candidate at the department of industrial Design engineering at TU Delft and David Derksen a product designer with a strong  focus on natural traces and materialities in his work.

The goal of the workshop was to explore ways that materials and their physical form can express the im/material (digital, algorithmic) qualities of connected objects.

Programme overview:

  • A.Sensitizing: Participants are asked to bring three objects: an analog object with traces, a connected object and an object of daily use.
  • B.Phase 1  //  Material Trace Exploration: Orientation Talk , MATERIAL EXPERIMENTING Workshop Session
  •  C.Phase 2  //  Imagining Connectivity: Creating scenarios using the objects they brought and the game cards against humanity in three groups of participants
  • D.Phase 3  //  Integrating Traces :In three design phases the groups implement different criteria in the beforehand created scenario.
  • E.Wrap Up: Reflection on the day and concluding discussion

A: Sensitizing

Before the workshop the participants had the task to look for different objects and bring them to the workshop. The objects were part of the workshop but also functioned to sensitize the participants. By looking for objects with traces of use participants are  stimulated to look closer at the objects surrounding them and get aware of different traces of use, since traces can be of different forms for example digital or analog, the participants were asked to bring three different objects:

  1. An analog object with traces
  2. A connected object with an computational layer
  3. Any object of daily use


B: Phase 1

Orientation Talk

The workshop started with an introduction of the workshop followed by showing examples of  different traces in different materials. The focus is on copper, wood and leather.Further it is shown how traces are used as a mean in different design objects.

Some examples are:

        • Diptych by Lex Pott
        • Ripening Rugs by Adrianus Kundert
        • Transience mirrors by DD /Lex Pott
        • Tarnish Collection by Daniel Schofield


Material experimenting workshop session

The participants  are introduced to different materials and different ways of treating them to create different traces in an accelerated way. The participants are asked to create a personal library of samples of accelerated traces of use

Different materials and treatments are shown in: 


  • Hard/softwood

Treatments: oil or paint or ink, sanding in different roughness, polishing, sandblasting soft woodbleaching with acid/lemon/etc

  • Copper/ Brass

Treatments: cold patina, polishing, vinegar/polishing or masking, sanding or sandblasting and polishing, sanding / dark oil

  • Leather (thick/fine versions)

Treatments: sanding/brushing, polishing, oiling, scratching, bleaching with acid, sandblasting


C:Phase 2  //  Imagining Connectivity

In phase two the participants were divided into three groups and in the groups played a few rounds of the game cards against humanity. Cards Against Humanity is a game in which parts of statements or sentenceses are left blank and the blanks have to be filled with phrases printed on other cards. The funniest statement wins. After a statement was picked the group chose one or two objects from the library of brought objects and created a scenario around the object.This scenario was presented by each group in a roleplay.


The chosen cards against humanity statement of group 1 was: “The class field trip was completely ruined by the profoundly handicapped.”


The group created a fork that is responsive to touch which is used to feed handicapped people which cannot communicate verbally. The fork has sensors and recognizes when the fed person does not want to eat more. The fork would also detect which food is liked and which food is healthy for the fed person and which is not. Hence the fork would have an influence on the eating behaviour of the people which are fed with it.


Group 2

The chosen cards against humanity statement of group 2 was: “When Pharaoh remained unmoved Moses called down a plague of passive aggressive post-it notes.”


This statement transformed in the scenario of an ‘evaluation machine’ for professors.A student hands in an essay to a professor, the professor scans through it with an ‘evaluation machine’ which was symbolized with a hairdryer. The evaluation is blown out of the hairdryer in form of feedback post-it notes.


Group 3

The chosen cards against humanity statement of group 3 was: “What is the next happy meal: crippling depth!”


They created a box with a lot of strings which represent all online transactions of a user.


D:Phase 3  //  Integrating Traces

In this phase the participants were asked to further develop their scenario by implementing different criteria in three design cycles. After each cycle the groups presented the outcome followed by a short discussion.


Cycle 1 – Criteria:The formation of traces should represent people’s  engagement with the technology in an understandable way


  • Group1 changed the fork into a spoon.By biting on a certain position of the spoon the Eater leaves traces which give feedback which food he likes and which he does not like.In the topic however is a contradiction since cutlery should not have many traces since it should be hygienic: Therefore the idea of the group was to have one base and exchangeable top parts( the part which is put in the mouth) for different people. The individual spoons or fork tops then could be identified by the left traces of the owners. The device has two interfaces, the handle and fork/spoon, with touch points to both helper and patient.
  • Group 2 adapted the evaluation machine to a tool that does not replace the evaluation of the professor but is rather a tool for the professor to give him feedback on his own way of grading.The report is read by professor and then the algorithm scans the report and also gives an evaluation. Then the professor can evaluate his own grading by comparing his evaluation with one of the algorithms.The evaluation on post-its allows a public discussion visible to everyone. Hence the student can give feedback to his grading. The system will become smarter over time.
  • Group 3 created a new object for their scenario, using the ink traces in wood discovered in the morning workshop. The new object is a wooden box which displays the personal data body in ink.Every interaction which leaves a trace online is displayed with ink drops on the wooden box, every year represents one side of the box, so the box would last for 4 years. The group wanted to visualize the data, create awareness and inform users about when and why data traces are left online. The object can attract the users to something (data) they normally are not attracted to.


Cycle 2 – Criteria: People should co-perform the task that the technology performs. Evidence of this co-performance should be a trace.

  • Group1 added that the handle, which is the digital part belongs to the helper he has one handle and can add individual cutlery tops for each patient.
  • Group 2 adjusted the scenario to the perspective of the student. The main goal of a student is probably to get the graduation paper but students also has other goals during their study. Different building blocks stand for different study and personal learning goals of the students  The blocks are the traces, they create a record of the different achievements. It’s a representation of the study process,the technology stands in service of evaluation
  • Group3 adds co-performance by enabling the user  to move the needle which distributes the ink. If the needle is not moved it will always drop the inc at the same place and create a big splash at one spot.Traces are a means to reflect how much data and digital content is created. The responsibility to move the needle confronts the user of its data online. It triggers the users to become aware of the data usage. It does not have to be negative, the data can also show that lot of money was spent, because of a big birthday party or many photos were shared on facebook after a holiday. The device  could trigger the user  to investigate where the bigger ink spots. “The trace is managing you and you are managing the trace”


Cycle 3 – Criteria: Traces should be residual, embedded in the technology itself, and not be ephemeral and disposable

  • Group 1 adjusted the personal handle to a usb stick like handle that carries information about the patients. If the fork it attached to the handle the personal info is accessible to the helper. This information could be a  conversation starting point for the helper and could create opportunities for human  interaction touch points.
  • Group 2 and 3  stuck to the concept of the second cycle, since they saw the criteria already fulfilled

E.Wrap Up

Evaluating the created scenarios led to a discussion revolving around how use traces can aid to understand more complex problems, which traces are desirable and which are not and which role materiality plays in our more and more digital world.

The discussion led to the conclusion that materiality can help to bridge the growing gap between the object and the data, it can aid in understanding complex intangible datasets by providing an interface that is concrete and tangible.

However it is questionable which are the traces that should be visible and given an interface.

Do we want to create more products that aid us in monitoring and tracing our own environment or do we rather create interfaces that help understanding the traces we leave without always being aware of it, such as every click we do online or every payment we do using our bank card.

Where should we as designers position ourselves? Many participants expressed that the focus should be on the design of objects which enable the users to understand their own data bodies online and create awareness of the  traces left by different everyday actions and the impacts they have.

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