What’s in a hexabox?

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The California Endowment, the California Biotechnology Foundation, Lybba, and Wondros presented Biohackathon L.A. 2013, an immersive workshop to inspire students about the health and career benefits of STEM education and the life sciences. On behalf of the biohackathon hosts, the principals of design firm CITY/hall fabricated take-home kits for the students—“hexaboxes” that were informed by the experiment contained within them. Lybba is immensely pleased to present this interview with CITY/hall co-founders Jessica D’Elena and Lauren Rosenbloom, to learn more about them and the making of the hexaboxes.

How did the CITY/hall come about?

We've been collaborating since 2007 while Jessica was part of designer Lorraine Wild's Green Dragon Office and Lauren was working with Thom Mayne's Morphosis Architects. Jessica was Green Dragon's lead designer on the fifth installment of the Morphosis monographs and Lauren was her counterpart at Morphosis office. It was this project collaboration that shed light on our mutual interests. Jessica's focus is on graphic and environmental design, while Lauren's is on architecture, art direction, and set design for film. Synergized, they form our multi-disciplinary adventures within the design community. 

What inspired the creation of the hexaboxes for Biohackathon L.A. 2013?

A “recurring curiosity” within CITY/hall efforts is situated in the meaning and metaphor of the building blocks of design—more specifically, between the shared constructs of disciplines (such as biology and graphic design). Fascinated by the canons of design history and flirting with perspectives around the mapping of a human biotechnological future, we see our investigations as forming microcosmic elements to shape a macrocosmic picture. The spirit and intent of Biohackathon L.A. 2013 presented us with the perfect platform to continue this investigation.

The graphic language that emerged from the event's premise implied a visual conversation that human bodies (and others) are "designed" frameworks and conversely, "design frameworks" are living entities with a biological code—both derived from a set of basic forms whose exponential combinations produce an infinite number of unique identities. The letterform and the building have an embedded DNA, as the human DNA sequence are the blueprints for a biological construct. 

Bauhaus thought-leaders deconstructed all design frameworks into the elementary forms: circles, squares, and triangles—the celebrated starting points of art, design and architecture. So too, "bodies" have a building code in the two basic sugars and four enzymes of DNA.

To subtly acknowledge this relationship we determined the container for the biohackathon take-home kit would be six-sided, alluding to the basic building blocks of life itself. From here, the necessary components of the kit seemed to place themselves. An extruded hexagonal shape allowed us to place the pipettor down the center of the box, physically acting as the spine of the structure. The length of the pipettor dictated the height of the box, which allowed us to include five interior hexagonal shaped shelves for the remaining kit materials. 

How were they made, and were there any constraints or special considerations in their creation?

Shelves one and two included six hexagon-shaped coasters (which we've dubbed hexacoasters), which featured illustrated instructions for the students to continue their experiments independently after the workshop concluded. Each coaster also featured various iterations of the graphical language system we had composed for all of the printed matter.

Including a die-cut slit in each of the hexacoasters allowed students to create unique molecular sculptures by inserting the coasters into one another. This, along with the event poster, became a kind of semi-permanent artifact from the event that would remain with the students after the event concluded. 

The third shelf held the six 3cm petri dishes also provided for students to continue their experimentation post-event. Shelf four contained agar powder, and shelf five contained an array of graphical stickers the kids could use to decorate any surface or specifically to place on the lids of their petri dishes.

The graphical branding system developed for the event came literally out of a process of orchestrating, combining, and arranging the basic shapes of design—circles, squares, triangles—and "sequencing" them together in patterns to create an array of biological snowflakes, each entirely unique in its complexity and systematic design, yet all comprised from a basic set of common elements. When placed on the transparent lids of the petri dishes, a wonderful visual conversation about “what’s growing inside” begins to emerge. 

Was the poster similarly inspired?

While the kit, its contents, and all printed matter work as a cohesive system, the poster takes these ideas a step further to include the specificity of the city (in this instance, Los Angeles) as a systematic body made up of a basic set of building blocks and design elements.

We positioned the skyline of the city on the poster to geo-locate the event but oriented the photo on its side. This not only allows viewers, for a moment, to see the city as one would see a representation of a DNA sequence (via the building surface forms, contrasts in shadow, varying building heights, etc.), but it also visually echoes the columns of text on the opposite side of the poster, also intended as a lead-in to the graphical look at a DNA sequence. 

We used a CMYK color palette for obvious reasons: the four primary "enzymes" from which all possible printed colors are derived. In both the title text and DNA graphical snowflakes, the overlay effect of these primary colors reiterates the monochrome from which all plurality and complexity arise. 

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