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Saturday, May 8, 2004

David Gresham
David Gresham, former VP of Design at Steelcase and soon to be 2004-5 Nierenberg Chair at CMU, was our final guest for Design Seminar.

The class was basically a two hour master class in industrial design, with the design of chairs and office systems as the subject matter. Some interesting takeaways:

  • Don't lose the human manipulation of forms. How much is the computer causing us to distort our work the same way the camera obscura distorted the work of the painters who used it?
  • The computer does things at odd scales. It's hard to tell perspectives and feels. Do things full scale.
  • The craft of making hasn't caught up to the computer. We need to get past the lure of the technology, its novelty, and get the computer back to a tool again.
  • It's important to set a point of view through shared images on a project. You need a point of inspiration. Art and architecture are great sources of inspiration because of the amount of abstraction.
  • Good clients make good projects.
  • The hardest part about being a designer is knowing in your heart that you've solved a problem, that you have the correct solution, then watching that solution die on the vine due to situations outside of your control.

posted at 03:24 PM in big ideas, special guest stars | comments (0) | trackback (0) | link


Sunday, April 4, 2004

Humility in Design
Marc Rettig was our guest in Seminar week and gave his infamous talk on interaction design history in a teeny little nutshell (3.2mb pdf).

I won't bother stepping through his presentation: the pdf is more thorough than I could be. I highly advise reading it if you haven't already.

Instead, I'd like to note some of Marc's comments that have started to become one of the major themes of this year (having been mentioned by a lot of our guest speakers) and that is on the role of humility in design. Marc mentioned it several times, saying we should embrace the overwhelming sense of confusion that seems to happen on every project because it keeps designers humble. "We're really all making it up as we go along on every project," he said.

Marc doesn't even call himself a designer. He just asks, "What's hard?" and speaks to clients in terms of the problems facing them instead of the practice of design. It's useful to be childlike and just ask questions. "I don't know anything about this project. What can you tell me about it?"

One of the major skills of designers is being able to represent abstractions concretely, so do it and post it up on the wall. Marc is a big proponent of this. Something about making the work physical and posting it changes the conversation and allows everyone on the team to make relationships between the elements of the work.

For Marc, interaction design is all about conversation: between people and systems or between people through systems. It's about creating the languages that make those conversations possible and making the representations appropriate. Through dialog, the product can change. Or people can change.

posted at 10:21 AM in big ideas, design 101, special guest stars | comments (2) | trackback (0) | link


Ethos in HCI
I cut class to attend a lecture that I thought would have something to do with my thesis. As it turns out, it didn't really, but it was interesting nonetheless.

Caroline Miller, a professor of English at North Carolina State, gave a talk on "Expertise and Agency: Transformations of Ethos in Human-Computer Interaction." The essence of her talk (as I understand it) is this: There have been two ways of thinking about HCI: machine control and computational subjectivity, each with a very different ethos.

Machine control springs from a Cold War mentality. It's about speed, efficiency, and containment and its driving force is an Aristotelian logos. Facts are supposed to speak for themselves and expertise is automated. The components of these "expert systems" are a knowledge base (with lots of if/then statements and rules), an inference engine (with forwards and backwards chaining), and an interface. Expert systems transformed logos into ethos. Expertise is the ethos.

Many of these expert systems collapsed in the 1980s. They performed as expected, but according to Professor Miller, there were rhetorical reasons as well as cultural that caused their demise. As Americans lost trust in established institutions and technology, there was less rhetorical appeal of logos. Rhetoric needs pathos and ethos, not just logos. Thus, we began to design computer systems with more computational subjectivity. With pathos.

These "intelligent agents" are rhetorically different than expert systems in that users have a relationship with them. They focus on the establishment of trust and so explain their decisions and make those explanations credible. They have to be social and adaptable, communicating through elaborate interfaces, and they must offer an ethos that offers empathy. Intelligent agents are alive with pathos, not logos, winning favor and always looking for a response. They are friendly, familiar, and sympathetic. And they seek sympathy as well. Professor Miller called this "cyborg discourse" and it requires technique and strategy to design.

posted at 09:42 AM in big ideas, special guest stars | comments (0) | trackback (0) | link


Thursday, March 25, 2004

What's Not Taught
Check out Michael McDonough’s Top Ten Things They Never Taught Me in Design School for a little dose of reality. So many ring so true. Why I'm glad I worked for a bunch of years before going back to school: some these I already instinctively knew.

posted at 04:35 PM in big ideas, cmu, design 101 | comments (0) | trackback (1) | link


Sunday, March 21, 2004

Hugh Dubberly
Hugh Dubberly, former VP of Design at Netscape, was our guest for Seminar last week, discussing the design of systems and systems for design.

Design for Hugh is an integrated activity between three things: software (systems), design (feedback), and learning (models). Models are the things you learn about what you are involved in. They are the tools for thinking about the other things we're thinking about. (Very Rick Robinson.) Design fundamentally involves prototyping, making transient things like models, mockups, comps, and prototypes. Designers are doing more and more abstract prototypes.

Hugh talked about cybernetics (the study of systems that have goals) and its relationship to design. There are four orders of systems. First-order systems are mechanical, self-controlling systems that are about maintaining stability. A thermostat-maintained heating system is the classic example. Second-order systems are about people controlling systems. A steersman controlling a boat is the classic example. Third- and fourth-order systems are complex systems with rules (and outcomes) that are often not easy understood or predicted. A basketball game is an example of a third-order system. The stock market is an example of a fourth-order system.

There are five frameworks for systems design:

  • Feedback. This is the fundamental model that underlies all design processes and all interaction. Designing for interaction is designing for design (prototyping). Feedback is a cycle that works like this: A GOAL goes to a COMPARATOR which evaluates, then triggers an ACTUATOR which is in an ENVIRONMENT (and can be affected by DISTURBANCES) where a SENSOR sends information back to the COMPARATOR and the cycle starts all over again. You can evaluate designs based on this cycle, to make sure that you have all the necessary components of this feedback framework.
  • Requisite Variety. A framework developed by Ross Ashby. This framework basically means that you need to have multiple responses for different types of environmental disturbances. The designer needs to decide how much variety is needed, based on studying the environment. Teams and companies also need to have requisite variety, so that collectively they possess the knowledge to do things and respond to challenges.
  • Conversation. Based on Shannon and Weaver's communication model, this framework applies the language of cybernetics to conversation. What it basically says is that there needs to be a shared experience (ie language) for communication to happen.
  • Signs. This framework is about semiotics. Everything we design is a sign. Making models is making signs. So designers are constantly wrestling with the notions of the thing (object in the world), the interpretant (idea/model of the thing), and the representamen (representation of the thing). There's a lot of ambiguity and arbitrariness in how these things match up.
  • Design Types. Hugh only briefly mentioned this, but it was about putting objects and systems into a maxtrix of context, meaning/structure, and form.

Models are explained and understood through stories. Stories build models. When you are presenting a model, tell the story of it as you are drawing it. Use the model to tell the story and thus convey your idea.

posted at 09:22 AM in big ideas, special guest stars | comments (0) | trackback (0) | link


Monday, February 16, 2004

Adaptive Worlds
John Rheinfrank, a self-described "trickster," was our guest during design seminar last week, and his topic was adaptive worlds and how to design for them.

John defines a world as a meaningful cluster of activities and objects that form around extended groups of people and that contain multiple, meaningful living structures. Worlds are full of static objects that force us to adapt to them or that we adapt for use. But surrounding the world of static objects are adaptive worlds that contain things that learn, react, respond, do meaningful things, and understand context. They respond to humans by changing shape (ie their form and content) depending on the context of use. We co-create adaptive worlds with these sorts of tools.

In these co-constructed adaptive worlds, people and objects adapt and respond to each other. There is flow (in the Csikszentmihalyi sense), state changes depending on context, and mutual sensing and responding. We co-evolve as dynamic living structures, able to coordinate complex activities, and affect powerful transformations.

Design has slowly moved from user-centered (not for use or meaning) to activity-centered (task-oriented) to ability-centered (both the users' abilities and the product's abilities). "User-Centered" is no longer adequate, because the purpose of objects and systems isn't only to serve the user. The term (and way of designing) doesn't provide for unconceivable, unknown needs. It is about using products in particular ways. Designers need to understand that once a product is launched, users will use them in unexpected ways for unexpected purposes. And as these adaptive tools are launched, more and more the products we design will be out of our control. (Obviously, the ethical implications of this are many.)

So how do you design for adaptive use? In general, you have to build for autonomy, yet retain control over some of the parts. Designers will need to understand the deep structure of their products, but allow the surface structure to be adaptable and responsive. Some guidelines (from a user's viewpoint):

  • Let me do. Make sure the activity is of real value. Let my actions and changes in the resulting array feel as though they have been designed for me personally.
  • Orient me. Give me a journey I can take. Don't steer, just give me a map to help me visualize what I want to accomplish and plan where I want to go.
  • Let me win. Reward me when I accomplish something.
  • Push me. Help me learn. Help me reveal my potential, don't let me get by. Combine doing with understanding. Skill me.
  • Sense and respond. Personalize it for me. Let me feel the artifact is alive. Make its operation transparent like a window.
  • Connect me. Help me make connections with the subject matter or across destinations with other people.
  • Immerse me. Plunge me into the experience. I can't tell the difference between me and it, it is so much a part of me.

A successful design will be one where the experience of using it fits. By engaging users in co-discovery and co-creation of these adaptive worlds, we'll transform their work, their business, their community, and their lives.

posted at 08:47 AM in big ideas, special guest stars, techniques | comments (0) | trackback (0) | link


Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Rick E. Robinson
Rick E. Robinson, former chief experience officer at Sapient and founder of eLabs, visited Studio on Monday and gave a version of the talk he gave at Doors of Perception a few years back about ethnography and things to think with.

The object of research, he said, is to reveal the complex and pass on that information. There are three core parts to ethnography:

  • You go to them. It always happens in context.
  • You talk to them. Talk to the subjects, not read about them.
  • You write things down. Develop a disciplined set of data so that your findings can be passed along and used by others.

The research itself is comprised of four things:

  • A description. Of something: a thing, an activity, a belief, a setting, etc.
  • Interpretation. Not summary, not "insight," not wholly "emergent" either. It is grounded in the subject.
  • Towards an end. Research has to be both instrumental (useful to the people you do the research for) and salient (it has to be to the point).
  • Within constraints. Of site, setting, time, tools, material, solution spaces.

There isn't any one approach or method to ethnography: in fact, making up new methods is part of the interest in doing ethnographic research. You do, however, have to have a plan and go with a hypothesis that you can test. This way, you can engage with (and bring something to) the field; it keeps you motivated. A Hunt Statement is useful here. It details what you are going after, and teh best ones are this compound sentence: We are going after X so we can do Y.

There are simple heuristics that you can use to organize your observations, like the AEIOU (Actions, Environment, Interactions, Objects, Users) method and the Think/Do/Use method. There's also a broad range of techniques to gather data: guerilla research, cultural inventories, visual stories, beeper studies, visual diaries, video ethnography, interviews, etc. In a cultural inventory, you are trying to understand the vocabularies of perception: what is it that you see that allows you to create a context and understand cultural structures? Data comes from cultural production; in a cultural inventory, researchers are looking for underlying structures. In interviews, how people express their beliefs, attitude, and knowledge (ie how they tell their stories) is part of the data. Interview questions should be more open-ended than survey questions; you want them to construct stories.

For Rick, the real purpose of research is to create models of thought, which then become "things to think with." These models live between the setting of the research and what needs to be created. They describe something that is fundamentally "other" in a way that people who weren't there but have an interest in it can understand and apply it. Good models are like good art: subversive. Any representation or re-representation always offers the idea that things can be different. Examples of good models are Csikszentmihalyi's "Flow" to describe the optimal experience and Vygotsky's "Zone of Proximal Development."

When creating models, you are trying to make the research visible so that it can be commented on. The model itself doesn't have to be perfect, it just has to be right. Try to let go of the low-level data and just make a story, then slowly add data back in to make an argument for the story. The best models have a long explanatory reach, parsimony, communicative power, and a multi-disciplinary point of view.

posted at 08:27 AM in big ideas, special guest stars, techniques | comments (0) | trackback (0) | link


Sunday, February 1, 2004

Design and Emotion
Design Seminar this week was about design and emotion: how can designers use emotion in the creation of products? Designers generally lack a shared understanding and language about emotion in the context of design.

Emotions form the "basement of experience," to use Jodi Forlizzi's phrase. It is integral to plans, actions, outcomes, and our interactions with products.

There are two types of emotion: emotional responses and mood. Emotional responses are the brief, sharp waves of feeling that cause measurable activity in the nervous system and are attributable to some direct cause. Mood is longer, and free-floating, with a less intense effect. Designers are more likely to design for mood than for emotional responses.

Emotional responses are less representative of the environment and more representative of the self. The opposite is true of mood.

Emotion supports feelings (seconds and minutes), moods (days and hours), and changes in behavior (weeks, months, years). Emotions shape plans, how our future actions might be. They coordinate planned activities with artifacts in the environment and evaluate the outcomes of activities. For example, if you have a terrible experience with a car and associate it with feelings of anger and disgust, you probably won't plan to purchase that car any time soon. Conversely, as Don Norman points out, we think that attractive things work better.

Products support both our functional and aesthetic needs, yielding different emotions. These emotions can change over time, and because they do, humans tend to develop complex relationships with certain products. Emotions affect more than just aesthetics; they can affect everything about a product.

Implications for Design
It's difficult to apply the theories of emotion towards the creation of products. Two forms of data that are currently useful to designers: self-evaluating ("I'm feeling happy") and physiological (heart rate, etc.).

Products can shape emotional experiences in three ways:

  • Stimuli for new experiences. Interaction and sensory stimulation are catalysts for new emotional experiences.
  • Extenders on ongoing experiences. Style, utility, enjoyment and other sustaining qualities extending ongoing experiences. I call this the "cigarette after sex" effect.
  • Proxies for past experiences. Associations with products can form proxies for previous experiences.

There are a lot of issues around designing for emotion. For one thing, it's fairly untested. For another, there's not much methodology for it. Social relationships are ignored, and there's been no examination of whole systems.

This is an interesting area, but without the methodologies or even solid case studies where designers have set about to create specific moods to draw upon, it's tough to put this stuff into practice, except on the highest of levels, which likely most good designers do anyway. This should be a rich area of study over the next couple of years though.

posted at 11:22 AM in big ideas, design theory | comments (0) | trackback (0) | link


Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Design Studies and Design Research
When I think of Design Research, I typically think of user research: observing users in order to build a product for them. But Design Research and its sibling Design Studies, aren't about that. Rather, they are looking at Design through other disciplines such as the social sciences in order to make Design knowledge available to other disciplines and to designers themselves.

Design Research ("an activity in search of a definition" according to Susan Roth) is growing in importance and influence. There are three types:

  • Case-by_case. Looks at individual problems in order to gain insight into problems beyond the individual project. These are often case studies.
  • Applied. Looks at groups of phenomenon to discover design principles. The Tufte books are examples of applied research.
  • Theoretical. A rare form of research that tries to understand basic/first principles of a particular phenomenon. This research tries to put design problems into their broadest context.

According to Nigel Cross, Design resides in people, methods, processes, and products. Thus, Design researchers look at all of those things. Namely:

  • Epistemology: the study of how people design
  • Praxiology: the study of the methods and processes designers use
  • Phenomenology: the study of the products that are produced

Prototypes are a valuable resource for design researchers. Since there is typically little time to reflect and document during the late stages of product development, prototypes are often the only artifacts that researchers have about design thinking. And it is really design thinking they are often after, as a source and formal framework for solving problems.

Design Studies is about interpreting and reflecting upon design activities, looking at them through the lenses of other disciplines. The purpose is to tease out insights, since Design is focused on production rather than knowledge per se. Jeff made the observation that Design Studies is to Design what Film Studies is to movies: a field of study that looks at the people, methods, and products of a group of creative professionals.

posted at 12:50 AM in big ideas, design 101 | comments (0) | trackback (0) | link


Monday, January 12, 2004

The Goal of Interaction Designers
Design Studio professor Shelley Evenson today also offered her list of the type of interactions that designers should strive to create:

  • Compelling. Capture the users' imaginations.
  • Orienting. Help users navigate the (digital) world.
  • Embedded. Becomes a part of the users' lives.
  • Generative. Promises more good things.
  • Reverberating. Makes users say to others, "You just have to try this!"

posted at 08:26 PM in big ideas, design 101 | comments (0) | trackback (0) | link


Wednesday, December 3, 2003

The principles of Design we're used to talking about aren't really principles at all. They are usually methods or rules of thumb about design. They aren't about ethics.

Ethics is the study of moral behavior. It is talking about how you talk about moral issues. As science and technology have moved forward, we've begun to understand the consequences of what we do, and those consequences are becoming more far-reaching and more significant.

It's disturbing that no earlier than the mid-1990s ethics was a formal study in design at all. Carl Mitchum in the early 90s wrote "Ethics in Design" which is one of the first writings about ethics in design. There had been lots of discussion about morality (from George Nelson and others) but none of ethics itself. In the article, Mitchum makes the claim that you cannot have a comprehensive theory of design that does not consider ethics.

Design itself can be considered as ethics; the task of design is about navigating the moral dilemmas that we face in our lives. In interaction design, we're looking to promote certain kinds of actions between people. Our fundamental guide should be the quality of those interactions. To be a designer requires principles, because you have to guide what the interactions between people should be. We need to ask ourselves how do we use our talents and to what ends?

Some principles, causes, and values in Design:

  • Good: Affirms the proper place of human beings in the spiritual and natural order of the world.
  • Just: Supporting equitable and ethical relationships among human beings.
  • Useful: Supporting human beings in the accomplishment of their intentions.
  • Satisfying: Fulfilling the physical, psychological, and social needs of human beings.
The first two values have to do with the whole, seeing the big picture. The last two have to do with the parts, the more conventional and more apt to change with the times.

Ethics are how you reconcile the notions of design as a science vs. design as an art. The principles we use should organize our designs and ground us. When buttons are in the wrong place, it is an ethical matter. If we discuss ethics well, we address issues of form, methods, and techniques.

In this era, we have a big problem with Pluralism: everyone holds their own beliefs. Without ethics, the person or group with power, the one holding the gun, wins. And, in the words of Dick Buchanan, "that ain't right." Design allows us to bypass these ideological battles. We are able to hold our personal beliefs but continue to move forward in action via (of all things) projects. Who would have guessed it? But projects are opportunities to circumvent ideological differences in favor of what can be done here and now.

Ethics is all about human decision making, centered around emotions: our desires, enthusiasms, and fears, and Design has been centrally concerned with emotion from its earliest period. Indeed, interaction design is all about emotion: emotion and thought woven together, unfolding over time. "Emotion is the state or capability of having a feeling aroused to the point of awareness." (Dick's definition of emotion) Arousal is form and it develops, as Dewey tells us, over time. The products we make are experiences, arguments as to how we should live our lives, and out of them comes awareness. Emotion makes us aware and awareness leads to decisions. Awareness is ethics, and it leads to actions. What shall we do with our lives?

So why be a designer? It goes back Seamus Heaney's argument about doing poetry: The way something is made ends up having a grounding that goes beyond pleasure to wisdom and connects to the outer world. If we do our art well, its value becomes apparent and we are asked to do more. And in doing (and our core competence, making things), we can change the world.

more ››

posted at 11:33 PM in big ideas | comments (0) | trackback (0) | link


Tuesday, December 2, 2003

Ethics in Design
The final section of Design Seminar is about ethics and principles in design. It is about why we design and how we judge.

There are a lot of reasons to be embarrassed or ashamed to be a designer. We often serve commercial interests. Our stuff is ephemeral and often trivial. It's not an activity for adults. So then why do we do it? What is the redeeming value of what we do?

Seamus Heaney in his Nobel speech "Crediting Poetry" asks the same question about poetry. He's seeking a principle to justify being a poet. Poetry is pleasurable, but it isn't enough. It needs to be grounded in principle.

Principles are what organize. They ground us in organizations and in the world. Principles are values, which are facts, which equal status in the world. It is a fact that people value things. People will die for their values. Navigating remarkably conflicting values is one of the central problems of design.

Caroline Whitbeck in Ethics in Engineering Practice and Research argues that ethics is traditionally regarded as judging something that has already been done. But the bigger challenge and what ethics should be is about the way to act. And that is a problem of design: devising ethical courses of action.

Design itself is ethics. It is all about what is the right thing to do, and not just technically. Everything that is made is an argument about how we should live our lives. The world is filled with competing objects that are arguing amongst themselves for our attention. "Live my way! Live my way!" Deciding where and how to employ the art of design is an ethical issue.

Designers need to be both technically right and compellingly wise. Wisdom is about evaluating and choosing between competing principles. And to be wise is to be aware. And awareness is the passage to action.

posted at 12:32 AM in big ideas | comments (0) | trackback (0) | link


Tuesday, November 18, 2003

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


Thursday, November 6, 2003

Design Research
Ethnography is the study of people as they go about their everyday work for the purpose of connecting deeply with the content and issues that matter to that community. Then you document in a regular, systematic way what is learned and observed so that you accumulate a record of activity. In this way, you gain a deep knowledge and insights into user processes.

there are a range of research methods, but what's important is to use multiple methods to help overcome your preconceptions. You triangulate your findings to get multiple views of what is being observed.

Targets of Observation:

  • activities
  • events (activity sequences that can be bounded in time and space)
  • settings (locations where behaviors and activities relevant to a study take place)
  • behavior
  • conversations
  • and interactions.

Working in groups or pairs is important; if you miss something while, say, writing a note, your partner can catch it. It's also extremely important to decide how you are going to record data before you go in.

If you can't directly observe something, use directed storytelling. Ask the subject to recall specific instances for you ("Tell me about the last time you bought shoes.") If you have props for the subject to use, that's good too.

There are a number of ways to capture your data. Video and audio recording are not recommended. Structured note taking during the conversation works best. If you can't take notes during the research, do it immediately afterwards. Always diagram the environment. Annotated drawings are good.

Features of good field notes:

  • exact quotes with selected words
  • pseudonyms for confidentiality
  • describe activities in sequence
  • no personal judgements
  • capture history or extended context where relevant
  • separate out your inferences, reflections, hunches, and emotional reactions
  • and name of observer, date, time, and place.

It's also good practice to treat your test subjects ethically. Meaning

  • get their informed consent
  • explain the risks and benefits of the study
  • respect their privacy
  • provide remuneration for their time
  • and provide data and research results to them.

Treating your subjects well helps immensely when it comes time for them to adopt the processes or product you've designed.

posted at 10:29 AM in big ideas, design 101 | comments (0) | trackback (1) | link


Monday, September 15, 2003

What is Interactive?

We also started what is bound to be a recurring discussion today: what are the characteristics of an interactive product? Is a poster interactive? A book? Every product designed for people's use?

Personally, I feel that for something to be interactive, it needs to be able to respond to what you are doing in some meaningful way or you are able to affect it in some meaningful way. A book or poster transmits ideas, but I can't transmit anything back. It is the dialog that amkes it interactive.

Strangely enough, we've also been having this argument over on the interaction architects list.

posted at 10:15 PM in big ideas | comments (0) | trackback (0) | link


Tuesday, September 2, 2003


Discussion today on affordances, constraints, feedback, and feedforward as ways of constructing more sensory rich interfaces. Although Don Norman is famous for promoting affordances, it was actually a psychologist named J.J. Gibson who coined the term. He noted that products are just a collection of affordances that help us achieve our goals. When products don't help us attain our goals, the experience is poor. We spend time focused on the product and not on our goals.

Affordances, as Don Norman uses the term, are just clues as to how to use the product. Feedforward goes one step more and suggests that it isn't enough to know that something is, say, a button. It's better to know what the result of pushing that button is. And then, of course, once the button is pushed, appropriate feedback should be given.

Products can have intended and unintended consequences: the metal shell of a refrigerator becoming a communication space is an example of an unintended consequence. Looking at the history of a product can help inspire some interesting ideas. So can looking at a selection of similar products, all mapped to a spectrum of functionality.

We spent a lot of class time today looking at simple mechanical objects and observing how they work: everything from toys to pepper grinders to tools. Then we compared their characteristics to digital ones. The lid of a small trash can that can be slowly opened functions like a slider, for example. Interesting.

posted at 10:23 PM in big ideas, interface design, techniques | comments (0) | trackback (0) | link


Wednesday, August 27, 2003


What you think you know about data is wrong. Or at least, incomplete. That's what we learned in Seminar today, which started with our professor, Dick Buchanan, tossing a metal wrench onto the table with a loud clang.

What is data? It's the evidence of a relationship between two things. We tend to confuse data with fact. Data alone has no meaning. The number 4683 is an example of data. Without knowing anything else, the data is meaningless. Datas are the simples of existance; simple in that they are uninterpreted.

Fact is the interpretation of data. Or, to put it another way, data in context. Facts have meaning. If data are nouns, facts are whole sentences. Only in interpreting and connecting do we find out what is meaningful.

However, when we think we know what the facts are, we tend to limit our world. "If your eyes are too closed, you'll fail to see the possibilities." We can become trapped. We must avoid this at all costs. We need to be conscious and self-conscious about data.

Different people can look at the same set of data and make different interpretations. Be careful of interpretations: they block what we see. When viewing an object, try not to be sophisticated. This will make you very sophisticated. Data can help us focus on an object.

Dick introduced the concepts of Given and Taken. What is given to us is the infinitely rich field of immediate perception. What is taken is a selection of data from that field.

Physical features are not the only, not even the primary, form of data. Data can come from four "realms:" Cosmos (ideas and approximations of things), Environment (function, how it works and in what context), Personal Persepctive (signs and frames of reference), and Things (materials, physical properties). What you feel matters: it's part of the data! In interaction design, what people feel matters.

more ››

posted at 09:48 PM in big ideas | comments (0) | trackback (0) | link


Tuesday, August 26, 2003

So it begins II

Today I started two more classes: Computing in Design and Interaction and Visual Interface.

Computing in Design used to be Intro to Programming for Designers, where they taught the design students the basics of Java. So many students complained about it that this year instead the focus is on Actionscript, the coding language used by Flash. Of course, the day we start class is the day after Macromedia announces a new version of Flash. Oh well. And I just bought my copy like two months ago too. Grrr...

In any case, the class uses Actionscript as a basis to teach us the basics of object-oriented programming while providing us with a tool we'll actually use in other classes and in professional practice. It's being taught by Ian Hargraves, a second-year interaction design student and TAed by Jeff Howard, one of the first-year ID students.

Chances are, I won't be writing overmuch about this class, since, while useful, probably a good portion of what I'm learning about can be learned elsewhere.

My other class was Interaction and Visual Interface Design, taught by professor Jodi Forlizzi. This class is going to be very project-based, with four longer projects and several one-day ones thrown in as "quizzes."

We talked about three trends in design over the last 50 years: a systematic way of breaking down design problems (human factors and HCI), then having users design (participatory design), and the most recent, a combination of user and a designer's knowledge.

What is interface design? Interfaces are the "skin between the product and the world it exists in." The skin can be a digital image or it can be an environment, like the inside of Starbuck's, or a physical set of controls like the dashboard of a car. Interfaces offer the user a "story of use." That is: here's how to experience/use me.

We then launched right into our first project: Expression and Physical Interaction. We're going to be looking at physical objects (like, say, an egg beater) and create from them a list of rich interactions that could be applied to a digital context. Then we're going to apply them to a simple scheduling application.

First, though, we're creating mood boards made of images based around various words: vision, hearing, touch, place, pose, movement, and facial expression. We'll use these throughout the course as a sort of pallete to refer to.

Homework tonight: working on my Studio and Seminar homeworks for class tomorrow. So it begins. My life isn't my own any more.

posted at 10:26 PM in big ideas, classes, classmates, faculty, interface design, projects, software | comments (1) | trackback (0) | link


Monday, August 25, 2003

So it begins

Today was the first day of fall semester and, really, the first day of school. Yes, I did CDF in summer session, but today seemed so much more real somehow. Maybe it was that all my classmates were around. Maybe it was the several thousand undergraduates that appeared on campus. And maybe it was just that both professors talked about the experience of CMU and about being in graduate school. Whatever it was, it was an exciting, nerve-wracking day.

My first class was Design Seminar I, which is taught by the former head of the design department, Dick Buchanan. It's a rather infamous class, much talked about by alumni and the second-year grad students. And, three minutes into the class, it's not hard to see why. "I'm here," Dick introduced himself, "to change design in the world. I want to change the way design is taught and practiced." Then he turned to my classmate Jennifer Anderson. "Why are you here?" he bluntly asked. Then he went around the room, asking each person in turn. (My answer, in case you care, was that I want to make the world a better place by improving the tools we use.)

That done, he talked about the difference between undergraduate and graduate study. Graduate study focuses on themes, connecting (and mastering) a set of facts to create an approach to design practice. Graduate students are expected to become leaders of the industry, able not only to create good designs ("good" being defined by Dick as "well-designed and the right thing to do"), but also to discourse on them. Master's students aren't expected in their theses to contribute something new to the design field, but rather to deepen a theme. It is the doctoral students who are more concerned with inquiry into new design areas and research.

Interaction is at the heart of all of CMU's Masters of Design programs, even the new one in Product Development. Something he's obviously going to get into more is that interaction design relates to Poetics (creating emotionally satisfying experiences), while CPID relates to Rhetoric (creating persuasive products). I'd be lying if I told you I knew what that meant right now.

The stated goals of the class:

  • establish a common framework of the concepts of interaction design
  • provide a strategic perspective on the community of practice
  • find our place in the field of practice
  • encourage creativity
Grad students, Dick informed us, can be boring to teach. We have too many things built up inside us that we need to suspend in order to learn. We need to learn how to be inventive. Dick's main goal is "to provide [you with] enough stuff so that you see the world differently."

It's ok, he told us, if this is perplexing. Perplexity is a form of wonder. And when wonder occurs, the possibility for creativity emerges.

We then discussed the History of Design and the History of Interaction. In the 20th century, there were two great fields of design, graphic (symbols) and industrial (objects). About 40 years ago, the language of design began to change and it started to talk about human systems like environments (actions). Then, recently, design has concerned itself with what holds a system together (thought). These are the Four Orders of Design: symbol, thing, action, thought. New things can happen when you think of something outside its order. For example, a table. A table is not a thing. Think about it as a symbol or an action. ("Ceci n'est pas une pipe"?). I'm guessing we'll get a lot deeper into this as well.

Finally, we looked at the following fragment:

Interaction is a relationship between   in the process of   for the purpose of

Broken down, this becomes a series of questions:

  • What is the data we have? What do we look for? What is acceptable data and how do we interpret it?
  • What is it between?
  • How is the connection established?
  • Why? What is its purpose?
And that's where we left off. We have a homework assignment to select any example of interaction design and identify at least three types of data that one could investigate in order to understand or appreciate the design.

Reminder: this is all in the first hour and a half of fall semester.

Went to the on-campus Indian restaurant with Rob and Phi-Hong Ha, another first-year interaction design student. I like Sree's Indian food from the trucks better, I found.

The afternoon class was Graduate Studio, taught by the current head of the design department, Dan Boyarski. Studio is the yin to Seminar's yang. Seminar is mainly reading and discourse. Studio is project based and more nuts-and-bolts.

Dan started by saying that if the faculty don't change us, don't make us students different than what we were before we came, they haven't done their jobs. Grad school can be thought of as a retreat. It's not a smooth journey, however.

We talked about the need to be flexible: the environment we're working in is constantly changing. Often, part of the designer's job is simply to exercise common sense with clients.

Communication is what interaction is. We work with human-to-human communication, filtered through mediums (like computers). It's our job to turn data into meaningful information by providing form and structure to it.

We looked at Richard Saul Wurman's ways to organize data: LATCH. Location, alphabetical, time, category, hierachy. One of my classmates, Cheryl Gach, suggested one more: Random. Combining these ways, the information becomes even more meaningful. It's the designer's job to ask the right questions of the data.

Our first project for Studio is a self-portrait poster using Wurman's categories as the starting point.

Wow, quite a day. It took me an hour and half to get it all down. I can't promise detail like this every day, but today, being the first day, I thought it was special enough to record in detail.

posted at 10:18 PM in big ideas, classes, classmates, cmu, cpid program, design 101, faculty, projects | comments (0) | trackback (0) | link


Friday, August 1, 2003

CDF Week Five Wrap-Up

Hard to believe there is just one more week of class left before summer session is over...

This last week has been fun and an interesting juxtaposition with the previous weeks. The main message of the first four weeks was all about being careful and making deliberate, design-oriented choices. This week's message has been about allowing in the random, the unplanned, the accident.

We spent today applying images to our sketches, black and white via cut up, photocopied photos or in color, via the slide projector. It's amazing I didn't slice the tip of my finger off with my xacto knife. We took photos and I'll try to get them off the server soon and post them.

Next week is information design and I might teach a mini-software-bootcamp session on Dreamweaver and basic HTML. Also next week is when we'll be assembling our Process Books, which collect and make sense of the work we've done over the course of the class. It's what our grade is basically based upon.

posted at 01:54 PM in 3D, big ideas, classes | comments (0) | trackback (0) | link


Thursday, July 31, 2003

Exploring the Accidental

More work on our 3D sketches today. Here's one of mine (click for larger size):

For fun, I took a small movie (344k mpg) of our class hard at work, sticking pins into pieces of paper and foamcore.

Part of what we're learning is how to accept accidents and unexpected things in our work. It's difficult to visualize how things will look in 3D until you try them, until you play with shapes in space. This is tough for people like myself who do all their designing in virtual space or on paper in 2D to accept.

We're also starting to mix images in with our shapes, projecting them with a slide projector and glueing them to the planes. Unfortunately, all my pictures of this look terrible, but the effect is amazing, especially with the slides. Again, it's nearly impossible to determine before seeing it how the images will work with the form. It has to be seen and played with. Play is very important in design.

There was also a field trip to see Pittsburgh Platforms: New Projects in Architecture + Environmental Design and Panopticon: An Art Spectacular at the Carnegie Museum of Art. Both exhibits were well worth seeing, but the Panopticon's exhibit space, with paintings stretching 20 feet to the ceiling and covering every wall, with sculptures and chairs in the middle of the room and growing up columns like vines, was awe-inspiring. You could spend hours there.

I could immediately see why Craig sent us to see the chairs: if you look at them a certain way (ie like a designer), you see that they use the same planes and curves that we are working with on our sketches, just not abstract. (Although some of the chairs are pretty abstract!) They have the same play of axes, the same use of negative space. Nice to see the classroom translating into real world activites.

posted at 04:36 PM in big ideas, design 101, field trips | comments (0) | trackback (0) | link


Monday, July 28, 2003

Forms in Space

This week's instructor is Craig Vogel, Director of Graduate Studies here in the college of fine arts and former president of IDSA. We're learning about 3D objects: how to create and manipulate forms in space. To that end, we're working on one individual project that stretches the week. It's some kind of small sculpture built out of foamcore and paper. We don't know what it is we're building yet, except that some of the pieces are taken from measurements we did of each other's bodies today. Neema got the pleasure of measuring yours truly.

But today's class was a pretty high-level overview of some of the theories, people, and processes of industrial design. We examined two cars, the Aztek and the PT Cruiser, to see why the Cruiser worked (from a design perspective) and why the Aztek did not. Products, it turns out, can be driven from either a quantitative point of view, or from a qualitative point of view. Too often, as with the ugly Aztek, the quantitative has been the driving force. But in the new world of product design, there needs to be a shared understanding of what the engineers (the quantitatives) and the designers (qualitatives) do to create better products. The best products are the ones where all the elements of it work seamlessly together to form a gestalt. Hybrids fuse different perspectives into new gestalts.

In preparation for our fieldtrip tomorrow to Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob, we talked a little about Frank Lloyd's Wright's notion of "Subliminal Mathematics," which is about using underlying, invisible math as a starting point for form.

We looked at the work of notable product designers like the Eames, and Raymond Loewy. Loewy came up with the idea of MAYA: Most Advanced Yet Acceptable, which is the underlying thought behind innovative designs such as the Cruiser. We also looked at Frank Gehry's Bilbao Guggenheim as an example of qualitative design leading quantitative.

Briefly noted was the influence of Japanese design on products and architecture and the Japanese notion of asymmetrical balance.

We also talked about how previously, products were designed for men whose body shapes were in the 50th percentile range as far as shape, height, weight, etc. Now, products are designed with both men and women in mind, ranging down to the 1st percentile of women and up to the 95th percentile of men.

If this entry seems crammed full of stuff (and I've only mentioned half the things that were tossed at us today), it's because the class was as well. As we've seen from previous weeks, it's a trail to get everything in about a topic in only a week.

Tomorrow is our field trip to "one of the greatest and most sophisticated uses of space and form ever made."

posted at 09:08 PM in big ideas, classmates, design 101, faculty, projects | comments (0) | trackback (0) | link


Monday, July 21, 2003

Drawing...I mean, Visualization

This is going to be a tough week for me, I can tell. Why? Because this week is all about drawing. And I can't draw. Yes, I know anyone can draw. But I can't draw well is what I'm saying. And, yes, I realize the irony of getting a master's degree in design and not knowing how to draw a straight line. I'm working on it.

The stated purpose of the class, taught by Mark Mentzer, is to enable us to convey ideas quickly, in both small (napkin) and large (whiteboard) contexts. A quick Google of Mark's name revealed that he taught Terry Swack, who, along with Clement Mok, is one of the big advocates of experience design. Terry had this to say about Mark's teaching in an AIGA interview:

"Mark Mentzer, a drawing teacher at Carnegie Mellon, once said to me, ģIėm going to teach a class called ėDrawing on the Back of a Napkin,ėī which I thought was brilliant because everybody today has ideas that theyėre trying to communicate that are generally complex. Everybody goes to the white board in a meeting or is drawing on a scrap of paper trying to communicate his idea. Itės important for people to feel that itės okay to just be able to draw something quickly to communicate and not be judged on the quality of the drawing. We need to foster the ability to connect the mind to the hand so that one can communicate effectively."

This week is basically that class. So, yes, of course there is great value in this. Hopefully my lousy drawing won't get in the way of my communicating my ideas. And I spent a lot of time today drawing: lines, squares, and cubes. I'd show you a scanned in example, but I don't want to embarass myself.

Drawing is either of a subject, an of an idea, or of something in-between. When you draw, you should think about what context the drawing will be seen in: close up or far away. In general, a drawing should have a presence at arm's length and at a couple of paces away.

The way you draw a line influences how viewers perceive the line. Lines can convey feeling and line weight is crucial. Darker lines have more emphasis and are seen to be "closer." Lighter lines seem "farther away."

Which segways nicely into depth. There are several ways of creating the optical illusion of depth via visual cues, through projection and perspective. Projection drawing is a mental construct. It allows for accurate measurement of, say, a cube, because the sides are all in proportion still. Perspective drawing cannot be used for measurement. It is a visual construct, designed to look right to the eye. Smaller objects seem farther away. The back of a cube will be skewed. A city in the distance looks tiny, etc. Perspective makes a drawing believable. Often, both types of drawing will exist side-by-side to give the most accurate depiction of an object.

I have to go practice drawing cubes now...

posted at 03:24 PM in big ideas, design 101, faculty, visualization | comments (0) | trackback (0) | link


Friday, July 18, 2003

CDF Week 3 Wrap-Up

We're halfway through CDF. My how time flies...

We talked a lot about the value of critiques, and about the value of design education (for mentoring), today while critiquing our final exercise (pdf 32k). I should mention how we do critiques here (at least in this class). We post several treatments up on the wall, then proceed to go through them methodically one at a time, referring to the others on the wall as necessary. Wallspace is important for critiques. With laptops, you are limited by the number of variations you can show at one time. Wallspace removes those constraints (mostly).

We also looked at the various elements that make up a type face (baseline, serifs, etc.). Strange that, similar to the photography portion of our class, in that we "play" with the things for a week before learning some of the more formal elements of the craft. I wonder if this is deliberate or not.

Picking a type face for a project is a matter of readability, flavor, and context. Different type foundries have different versions of the same type face. Very few type faces are designed solely for the screen.

A nugget of design wisdom: Style is something you build all your life.

Next week: Visualization!

posted at 12:06 PM in big ideas, classes, design 101, projects, typography | comments (0) | trackback (0) | link


Thursday, July 17, 2003


Today's class was spent critiquing our third assignment (pdf 146k), which was the ability to add different weights and sizes to our previous assignment. After being so constrained in previous classes, it was exciting--and not a bit intimidating--to suddenly have more freedom with our typographic choices. It was important, in Dan's words, "to understand that typography is a strict environment."

We talked about signals again. Things that emphasize an element of text. How many do you need to get the job done? Less is always more; it is easy to over-signal something.

posted at 11:36 AM in big ideas, techniques, typography | comments (0) | trackback (0) | link


Wednesday, July 16, 2003


We talked a lot today about composition, the placement of things on a page. Gestures--making broad strokes on a blank page--can help explore the feeling you are trying to capture in type and the placement of your text. Is the movement organic? Mechanical? Loose? Tight? etc. And don't put everything center. Centering is easy. Finding how far off-center you can go, how far towards the edges, is more interesting. Don't be afraid of the edges. But be careful of the ragged right edge of text. Make sure the edges aren't too ragged. You don't want to draw too much attention to that edge for the reader.

When designing, don't throw away your early ideas. They might be cliche, but they might also be the most honest response to the problem.

An underlying grid structure can help organize your page, and can also help build variety within consistant pages.

It's sometimes hard to know when you are done with a project. The end is often simply determined by external forces (ie. a deadline).

During the second half of class, we looked at the work of Bradbury Thompson, an American graphic designer who "helped give definition to graphic design" in the US in the second half of the 20th century. His main contribution was the integration of type and image in advertising and in his "Inspirations" projects for paper manufacturer Westvaco.

posted at 07:53 PM in big ideas, design 101, projects, techniques, typography | comments (0) | trackback (0) | link


Friday, July 11, 2003

CDF Week 2 Wrap-Up

The photography portion of the Communication Design Fundamentals class has ended. I learned a lot in a week, and I think my eye is definately sharper than it was before. We spent most of today looking at photographs: Charlee's, ours, and previous students'. A wealth of images.

The two pieces of wisdom we were left with:

  • The question when looking at an image shouldn't be: is it good or bad? but rather, what does it say?
  • How you choose to compose a photograph reveals a lot about you.

Next week: expressive typography and, in software bootcamp, Flash!

posted at 03:32 PM in big ideas, photography | comments (0) | trackback (0) | link


Tuesday, July 1, 2003

Introduction to Typographic Variables

Today we examined the concept of visualogic: what might not make sense logically, but what makes sense visually. To do this, we're taking a unformatted poster (that has reportedly been used in this exercise for years in the design school) and making changes to linespaces, stroke weights, and flush-left thresholds to make it make sense visually. (First homework!) This involves first analyzing the message and identifying the most important content. From there, the content/text is broken down into labeled parts and a hierarchy of information is determined. Then you look at the micro and macro labels and use them to help in arranging the message visually.

Today's key point: the best typography does the most communication with the least amount of materials.

posted at 05:39 PM in big ideas, design 101 | comments (0) | trackback (0) | link





All straight lines circle sometime. - The Weakerthans