Ex Machina

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Masamichi Udagawa and Sidi Moeslinger
Masamichi Udagawa and Sidi Moeslinger Credit: Chris Cassidy
Since New York-based Antenna Design launched in 1997, its work has meandered in and out of the public and commercial realms, overlapped with experiment and art, and blurred the distinctions between product, interface and environment. Its output includes New York City subway cars and ticket vending machines, JetBlue's electronic check-in kiosks, Microsoft VoIP telephone systems and flexible display monitors for Bloomberg. Not to mention art installations in Bloomingdale's storefront windows, interactive exhibits for public arts foundation Creative Time and, recently, a conceptual installation in Turin, Italy involving re-contextualized sand bags.

So, with such a wide range of work, what exactly is it that binds the firm's design practice?

According to founders Masamichi Udagawa and Sigi Moeslinger, it's people. Udagawa and Moeslinger say they can navigate diverse projects because they all begin and end with the user. Moeslinger, a designer trained in industrial and interactive telecommunication design, describes Antenna's seemingly unrelated assignments as, simply, communication design: in all cases, the function can be distilled to the transmission of a certain subject matter to a certain audience through various means; it all starts with sending a signal to the user to establish a dialogue. In fact, the name of the practice, Antenna, as a device that receives and sends out signals invisible to the naked eye, was chosen to embody this principle.

"All the different elements of a design send stimuli and in the head they create this amalgam—that's actually what we're designing in an indirect way," says Udagawa, an industrial and technology designer. "Regardless of medium, we can imagine the feeling users should have, what knowledge or functionality they want to have. From that point, we just need to understand the specifics of each medium."

With its focus on people, it's no surprise that Antenna initiates new projects with anthropology-inspired investigation. When the shop was tasked with creating Microsoft Enterprise IP telephony products (the software company's first voice-over-internet-protocol telephone system and hardware for business users), Antenna examined how people use phones in the corporate setting. The study led to phones with fingerprint-swiping security technology for users who have trouble remembering alpha-numeric passwords that change monthly. Beyond that insight, Udagawa says that Antenna gave the scanners a "sleek" look to win over those who equate fingerprint technology with "Big Brother," and to build in "cool" brand value for Microsoft. The design recently won a 2008 International Design Excellence Award silver medal.

Flexibility Innovation
Flexibility Innovation
Beyond conceiving the physical form of the New York City MetroCard vending machines—touch screens, ticket dispensers, a credit card swipe—Antenna also designed how the transaction is conducted via alchemy of software, hardware cues and human insight. Research showed that half of subway riders were not familiar with touch screens, so Antenna, which picked up a Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award for product design this year, opted to initiate the transaction with the familiar "Start" button, instead of "Touch Screen to Begin" (about half of the people the shop surveyed had no experience with ATMs, one ubiquitous use of touchscreens) Moeslinger likens the process to choreography: there is the machine stage, the challenge of designing the steps of the transaction and, ultimately, the user's engagement.

"From an end user's point of view, they don't care which part is hardware and which part is software," Udagawa says. "They just want to get on the train. So it's very important for the designers to think of hardware and software as integral parts, so it will be an orchestrated solution instead of distinct things just sitting next to each other."

Concept development and research are a team effort at Antenna's Manhattan office. Along with the founders, the company is now home to a product designer, an architectural and interaction designer, and the resident "dot commer," an industrial designer who has worked in interactive media. As for each of the partner's specialties, Udagawa is more inclined toward hardware design and mechanical problems, while Moeslinger attacks interface and interaction issues.

The founders had originally met in San Francisco through the local design community. Before Antenna, Udagawa ran a
Microsoft VoIP Phone
Microsoft VoIP Phone
one-man satellite studio for IDEO Product Development in New York and was a senior designer at Apple in the early 1990s (what he now calls "the dark age of Apple," after Steve Jobs left the company to start platform developer NeXT), where he designed such products as the PowerBook 5300/3400 series. Born and educated in Tokyo, he moved to the U.S. for an MFA in industrial design at Cranbrook Academy of Art, after which he worked in former MoMA Curator of Design Emilio Ambasz's architecture and design office in New York.

Vienna-born Moeslinger—she says the name "Antenna" also works because it's easy to pronounce in both Japanese and German—started at IDEO Product Development in San Francisco after graduating from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. A master's in interactive telecommunications from New York University and a subsequent research fellowship brought her to New York, a city that has formed Antenna's user-centric design perspective.

"Once we moved to New York City and stopped driving, we were more engaged in the public space, just being a resident and also having had the opportunity to work for the MTA (New York City subway)," Udagawa says. "That affected our idea about technology. Technology is not just through the product, it's everywhere. It's changing our infrastructure, sometimes in significant ways, sometimes invisibly."

Antenna's subway project, the post-2000 blue-and-white trains for the Metropolitan Transit Authority with electronic route signage, was its first big effort—and one of its most formative. It took the pair's thinking about the product from a designers' vacuum to the public space where things aren't so orderly. "The understanding of people's misbehavior became as important as designing the intended function," Udagawa says.

Bloomingdale's Storefront
Bloomingdale's Storefront
The shop also seeks to address clients who have become more attuned to the importance of design in building their own brand cred. Take Antenna's recent Bloomberg flexible display (another 2008 International Design Excellence Award silver winner). Its functional conveniences are clear—sleek, rotating dual monitors eliminate unnecessary neck-craning for traders used to shifting across their desks from screen to screen, and also allow them to customize how they take in their data. Outside of function, the streamlined setup is also intended to embody the Bloomberg brand, acting as a "trophy" that communicates modernity, dependability and intelligence—which could be valuable for a brand countering a stodgy reputation.

"Traditionally, brand-making vehicles have been advertising and packaging," Udagawa says. "But companies are realizing that it's very important for their products to carry their brand identity. It has a long-lasting implication. The advertisement ends in 30 seconds, but once someone buys the product, it lives with the customer."

"And there is a potential to really establish a rather emotional relationship," Moeslinger adds.

Even automated self-checkout stations at supermarkets have huge potential, Moeslinger believes. "That machine becomes really important because it's now the face that you engage with," she says. "It shouldn't just be seen as a piece of equipment; it's opportunity to express and communicate that company's brand value. And if you're all about friendliness and empowering your customers, you can't really have a machine there at the end that's a monster you don't know how to use."

As automation becomes a bigger reality and more machines take over routine work and play a more significant role in mediating human behavior and relationship, Antenna sees the future of its business largely in bringing humanity and intimacy into the communication equation. "In one sense, there are many things changing: the individual technologies are changing, the dynamic's changing, the economy is changing." Udagawa says. "But one thing that's actually not changing that much is people," Moeslinger says.

"How people react to that is going to always be our subject," Udagawa says. "The way the object is designed or the way the stimuli are transmitted, these things change all the time. But people will always be there as the ultimate subject."

In society's increasing automation—cell phones, service kiosks, electronic signage—Antenna sees the future of its business. Since Udagawa and Moeslinger imagine a world where customer experience and satisfaction will largely be defined by machines, their designs will be responsible for communicating brands in intimate and immediate ways.
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