TV is the New Movies

When’s the last time you really cared about a movie? I mean really cared, enough to have a long conversation about its nuances, characters, plot, theme? For me, it’s been a long time–so much so I have a hard time remembering. Maybe Fahrenheit 9/11 and before that…Lost in Translation? My mind struggles to find films that have personal meaning for me anymore. This isn’t to say that I don’t like movies; I do. I just don’t love them much anymore. Which brings me to TV.

I’ve always loved TV–I mean, hell, I did write for TV Guide for two years. But lately, TV has loved us back. It’s gotten better. Television is, dare I say it, the best narrative medium going right now. It’s hit its stride, at least in dramas: The Sopranos, Alias, Lost, Deadwood, Six Feet Under, Desperate Housewives, 24, Gilmore Girls, CSI, Law and Order, Eyes…when in the history of the medium have there been at any given time period so many shows of such high quality on the air? And this isn’t to mention such comedy gems as The Daily Show and Arrested Development, as well as the addictive pleasures of Survivor and The Apprentice?

And now it turns out that not only is TV getting better, it might be making us better too. Steven Johnson’s excerpt from his new book explains:

…to keep up with entertainment like ”24,” you have to pay attention, make inferences, track shifting social relationships. This is what I call the Sleeper Curve: the most debased forms of mass diversion — video games and violent television dramas and juvenile sitcoms — turn out to be nutritional after all.

I believe that the Sleeper Curve is the single most important new force altering the mental development of young people today, and I believe it is largely a force for good: enhancing our cognitive faculties, not dumbing them down.

Ok, enough blogging. I need to go make myself smarter by watching TV.

Spiritual Interfaces

It would be difficult, I think, to argue that humans are simply biological machines, although certainly many have tried. There are things about being human that aren’t easily reducible; we seem to be more than the sum of our parts. Some call this extra something the spirit or the soul. Similarly, life itself seems to either be run by rules that are so complicated as to be incomprehensible or else filled with inexplicable things: chance encounters, falling in love, the beginning and end of life. Human existence also suggests the great mysteries: Is there a God? Why are we here? Is there a purpose to all this? There may not be an answer to any of these, but the questions remain.

We don’t tend to think of religions as products, as things created by humans. In fact, to those who believe their religion is divinely created or inspired, this is probably heresy. But I think this is the case: that religions are, along with some other human products, interfaces to the spiritual or mystical part of human existence.

We need ways of comprehending and reasoning about the unknown. We seem to be wired for this; our brains try to grasp the unknown by comparing it to the known and making a pattern. Cognitive scientists call this schemas, linguists “cross-domain mapping.” We use metaphor to take the abstract (time) and make it concrete (money, thus Time is Money). We take the difficult and abstract digital computer and put a desktop on it so that we can use and think about it.

We do the same thing with the otherwise mystical part of life: we use interfaces to try to comprehend them. Religion is one such interface, although there are many others certainly: music, art, literature, dance, gardening, storytelling, theatre, to name a few. And yes, maybe even design. What are Christian crosses or Jewish stars of Davids or the Unitarian flaming chalices except icons?

All those things are ways of making the ineffable tangible, through things our senses can deal with: sights, sounds, action, words. It is hard to think about death, but it is easier to go to a funeral. It is hard to describe loneliness, but looking at one of Hopper’s lighthouses connects you to it. A few bars of Mozart’s Don Giovanni will give you a language to talk about terror and despair. A visit to your church, mosque, temple, or synagogue will give you a way to think about the divine and/or the sublime. Or to think about thinking about the divine. It’s what we humans do.

New Job

My job search really began in earnest, although I was only half-aware of it at the time, last August at a backyard barbecue in Somerville, MA during DIS when Chad Thornton introduced me to Peter Merholz, who offhandedly asked me when I was graduating. After another meeting with Peter in January, a long talk with CEO Janice Fraser at the IA Summit in March, and finally a day of interviews two weeks ago with most of the rest of the team, I was offered and accepted a job as a senior interaction designer at Adaptive Path. I start about a month after I graduate.

Although AP is a great company with some amazing opportunities and an impressive set of benefits and perks, I did agonize over the decision. I met with some very impressive companies and was even offered a job at some of them. But in the end, you have make your best guess based on the offers you get and hope it works out.

In some ways, it’s easier to design strategies for companies than for your own life. It’s tough to figure out where you want to go, and how to get there. You need, well, an adaptive path to find your way.

Loose Lips Sink Designs

For my interface class, I’m having my students design an adaptive product. I made the mistake the other day of giving my students an example of an adaptive product. Off the top of my head, I used an example of an adaptive kitchen, one that changes its behavior and even physical appearance based on the observed behavior of its users. Guess what half my students are now doing for their project?

I’ve seen this before with clients and even teammates. You mention a half-thought, thinking outloud, and this somehow becomes the solution, at least in their minds. And it is extremely difficult to dislodge once it is latched onto. “Where’s X?” they’ll ask at a review. “X? You mean that thing I mentioned in the brainstorming session?” “Yeah, I thought we were building that.” “Huh?” etc.

I’m not sure what the solution to this problem is, to be honest, except to watch what you say and around whom. Or to just downplay every idea until you are ready and willing to start making those sorts of choices. Always say the three magic words after everything: “Just an idea,” followed by a shrug and a “who knows?” face.

We’re all prone to jumping to a solution. Especially men. But design is a feminine art; we need to resist absolutism and stay as flexible as possible for as long as possible.

The Design Apprentices

Somehow, I’ve gotten sucked into watching the third season of The Apprentice. For those of you lucky enough to not know of this show, it goes something like this: 18 people vie Survivor-style to become the head of one of Donald Trump‘s companies. They do so by competing in business tasks, usually creating a new store or product, like a new pizza for Dominos.

Amazingly, although these are supposed to be some of today’s smartest and most savvy business minds (although some of them clearly weren’t chosen for brains alone), when they get these tasks, it’s amazing that, although most of the tasks are design or design-esque (marketing campaigns), how little design thinking the wannabe Donalds actually do. Last week’s episode, when the teams had to design a line of clothing, was the first time ever on the show that I ever saw anyone actually talk to a potential customer! And this only after the urging of The Donald to do so (although Trump called it “market research”).

Naturally, the team that bothered spending a few hours asking teens (the target customers) what they wanted won the challenge. Because (duh!) they actually knew what the teens wanted (or said they wanted). It’s eye-opening, really, how little these basic (to designers anyway) things are taught and practiced in the business world. Half the time, the contestants don’t bother meeting with the company and finding out anything about it, its brand, its competitors, etc. (Granted, The Apprentice is probably to business what the L.A. Lakers are to lakes.)

This proves the Dick Buchanan’s dictum that the main thing designers bring to the table is a dose of common sense. And I suppose in theory, business people not thinking like designers is good for designers, since we’re often called in to be the problem solvers and product makers. But until there’s a designer in every business (ie never) it’s probably bad for everyone else.