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Friday, November 21, 2003

Hard Choices
People wiser than me (namely 2nd year students Ian Hargraves and Catherine Mulbrandon) have told me that the courses I'm planning on taking in Spring, combined with my teaching Visual Interface, would lead me down the path to ruin. It's too many classes and too much work; everything would suffer.

So. Now I'm faced with the hard choice of choosing which class to drop. Every one of those classes fit neatly into my master plan of taking a mixture of studio/project classes, seminar classes, and raw skills classes.

In my heart of hearts, I know I need Sketching & Modeling class. Badly. So that has to stay. So it's between the other two. One (Time, Motion, and Communication) is one of the classes in the design department and some of my pals are taking it. It's also reportedly a ton of work and in a subject (kinetic typography) I probably won't use all that often once I leave CMU. The other (Reason, Passion, and Cognition) seems very useful and would help fill an essential gap in my knowledge. It, too, is supposedly a good class.


Adding to all this is the fact that I need 180 credits to graduate. Dropping one of these classes puts me at either 39 or 42 units--below the recommended 45/semester needed to graduate. I'm pretty sure it won't be hard to make up come next year, but still.

posted at 06:54 PM in classes | comments (0) | trackback (0) | link


Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Very odd Seminar class today on a very odd topic: topics (topi, or locus, or commonplaces or proper places).

There are very few writings about topics; a lot of people don't see them as useful. Almost anything can be turned into a topic, and that's part of the problem: they are difficult to define.

Up until now in Seminar, our readings and discussion have been about constructing meanings and arguments. But topics are about the opposite: they are about destabilizing for the purpose of invention. Topics are about breaking the fixed meaning of things to look at them in new ways, about turning the commonplace into the novel. Topics are all about asking, "What happens if...?"

There are four master places that just about everything falls into: Things, Thoughts, Words, and Deeds. By shifting something from one of these places into another (looking at a Thing like a chair as a Word, for instance), it allows us to get a new perspective. As Kenneth Burke says, we gain perspective from incongruity. Designers often have many of these places (topics) from which to view the world.

Dick cautioned us that using topics can have harmful psychological effects. When you start to go down those paths, you can lose your way. It opens the door to chaos and madness. You need some means to get out, and that means is judgment. Judgment is all about viability: is what I'm considering even possible? Not only does the idea have to look promising, it has to look viable. We test viability through prototyping.

Humans want to fix the meaning of things to make them commonplace. We do this by categorization. To invent, you need to turn categories into topics. You do this by emptying the topic of its categorical meaning. You need it to be "finite but unbounded," that is, you need the topic to have a slight sense of category ("a sight contour of meaning") because it still needs to make some sense and continue to function.

Kenneth Burke in "The Five Key Terms of Dramatism" describes this process with a metaphor. You have to sink conventional meanings down to the core to melt them down, find new meaning, then rise it up again, where it cools and stabilizes. You need to get out of the molten middle! In there is total chaos and no meaning. Another thing that typically happens is that you don't get all the way down to the center, and when you again rise up, you have the same meaning and are in the same place. It takes courage to wrestle with the molten.

The point of all this is so that you can see slight changes that can have significance. When you get a problem, search around for its topic, then shift the topic to look for a possibility. Stand it on its head, intellectually or literally. Look at it, as G.K. Chesterton advised, "inappropriately." People may, as Dick warned, "look at you as though you've lost your mind," but this is how we invent.

posted at 11:39 PM in design theory | comments (1) | trackback (0) | link


Tuesday, November 18, 2003

The Design Process
Dick Buchanan offered us some "Dutch Uncle Advice" (whatever that means) and gave an overview of what he thinks the design process is for projects.

1) Vision and strategy. First, you have to understand the governing practices of the organization you are working for and study the surrounding circumstances. Deliverable is typically a brief.

2) Explore the brief. The team has to agree on an interpretation of the brief, lest it take a "drunk-man's walk" around the project. You need to discover what the real problem that will be addressed is and understand the goal of the project. Brainstorming, research, observation, and documentation are the activities of this period.

3) Conception, invention, and judgment. Invent possible concepts and then judge which ones are viable. Make an argument about the solution. In design, "we make our arguments by making stuff." Frequent visualization is the activity of this period.

4) Disposition and evaluation. Once you have an idea, you need to develop it. Take the idea, make prototypes, and test them with users. "Prototype, evaluate, prototype, evaluate, prototype, evaluate until you get it right." The making is important.

5) Delivery. Present your results. Oral and written presentations and prototype demonstration.

6) Implementation. This is a distinct design problem in itself. The product has to work within the organization, so the organization has to adopt the idea. "A cool idea," Dick reminded us, "don't mean shit. It has to be made." This is all about stewardship of a product within an organization. Sometimes, this is best accomplished by someone outside the organization. "Sometimes you have to hear things from a guy with a briefcase from out of town."

Steps 2-5 are the literal/narrow/traditional view of design, while steps 1 and 6 are new, and are the more expansive view of design today. Various firms and designers specialize in each of these steps.

posted at 12:48 AM in design 101 | comments (2) | trackback (0) | link


A Definition of Design
Even though he claims we're getting past the definition problems in the field, Dick Buchanan offered us his formal definition of Design:

"Design is the human power to conceive, plan, and realize products that serve human beings in the accomplishment of any individual or collective purpose."

This a formal definition, meaning it is fairly rigorous and also fairly dry. There are other, descriptive definitions that are more lively: "Design is making things right." --Ralph Kaplan. "Design is the glimmer in God's eye." --Anonymous, etc.

Dick cautioned us that no definition is going to bring us closure on the big issues of design, however.

posted at 12:01 AM in big ideas | comments (0) | trackback (0) | link


Monday, November 17, 2003

End of Fall Semester '03 Work
By my reckoning, I have the following due in the next three weeks:

  • A paper for Seminar, in which I am supposed to have an idea what my Master's thesis will be about.
  • A new project for interface class: Rich Emotional Communication, based off the the work done by the Project on People and Robots. Basically, create an emotional communication device.
  • The final piece for the Unconscious Competence project.
  • A revised (shortened) version of the Illegibility project (and an accompanying process book).
  • A Flash presentation system for my Computing in Design class.

I am going to be seriously busy.

posted at 11:28 PM in projects | comments (0) | trackback (0) | link


Methods of Design Invention Readings
Seminar readings around Practicing Interaction Design.

  • "Introduction: The Five Key Terms of Dramatism" and "The Four Master Tropes" by Kenneth Burke from A Grammar of Motives
  • "Creativity and the Commonplace," by Richard McKeon from Rhetoric: Essays in Invention and Discovery

posted at 10:26 PM in readings | comments (0) | trackback (0) | link


Spring '04 Classes Scheduled
I got up at 6 a.m. this morning to register for my Spring classes. I have two required classes, Design Seminar II and Design Studio II. Normally in my program, I would have a third required class, Research Methods for Human-Centered Design, but I've done a fair amount of this in my professional life so I was able to petition the graduate committee and get exempted from it.

So I basically had two electives open to me. I wanted badly to take Game Design, but it is being taught away from the main campus and it would have interfered with Studio, so unfortunately that will have to wait until next year. Instead, I'm taking one of CMU's signature courses, Time, Motion, and Communication, taught by Dan Boyarski. Another design class I'm taking is a mini (that is, only runs half a semester) called Sketching & Modeling. I need all the help in that area I can get.

Rounding out my schedule is a class in the School of Social and Decision Sciences called Reason, Passion, and Cognition. All about how and why people make choices. I thought it was important to take at least one class this year that wasn't strictly-speaking Design, although with a three word title like that, it almost could be.

These plus the class I'm teaching should make for a very jam-packed couple of months. Then again, for all the trouble and expense of being here, I want as much out of this place as I can reasonably pack in in two years.

posted at 10:06 PM in classes | comments (0) | trackback (0) | link


Three Weeks Left
Where does the time go? In three weeks, I'll be a quarter through with grad school. Damn, it does go fast and furious.

posted at 09:41 PM in classes | comments (0) | trackback (0) | link


Sunday, November 16, 2003

Über Alles
I've thought a lot recently about something Graduate Student Assembly president Matt Cronin told us at orientation: the importance of having allies. I've become convinced that graduate school would be hellish without a set of peers with whom you can blow off steam, complain to, roll your eyes at, eat lunch with, have drinks with, spread gossip, admire and trust.

It's very interesting to watch these circles of allies--cliques some might say--form. To be honest, I'm not sure what allies a person to other people. Is it a similar approach to life? A mutual level of respect? Similar senses of humor? It's hard to say.

When John Maeda was here, he compared grad school with a vending machine that sells life-long friends. I hope it's true.

posted at 11:03 AM in classmates, student life | comments (0) | trackback (0) | link


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All straight lines circle sometimes. - The Weakerthans