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Sunday, July 11, 2004

Goodbye, John
Teacher, chef, designer, pioneer, visionary, thinker, and human being extraordinare John Rheinfrank passed away last week. I am sick at heart about it. I was only privileged to be in two classes that John taught at CMU, but they are among the most influential hours I have spent at school. His thoughts on adaptive worlds and what lies beyond user-centered design (a term he hated) changed the way I think about design.

I'd signed up for John's seminar in the fall, and I'm selfishly angered that now I won't be able to take it. I envy Haven and Ian, who were able to get his advice on their thesis papers last year. Ian told that in one two-hour meeting, John gave him the inspiration and ideas that are carrying him forward into his PhD work. Damn it, I want my two hours. But alas, I have to settle for the time I had, which was usually inspiring, but often just fun. And the food. God, the food. Even the food at his wake was better than most meals.

Others have written moving tributes to John and his work. How John lived and designed made you want to work and design better.

If you didn't know John, then I feel worse for you than I do for those of us who did.

posted at 02:56 PM in faculty | comments (0) | trackback (0) | link


Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Farewell, Craig
Craig Vogel, one of CMU Design's most well-known and respected professors, is leaving to head up the Design Research lab at The University of Cincinnati. As he ran the new master's program in product design and taught several innovative and award-winning courses like Integrated Product Development, he will be missed. Especially by those whose thesis advisor he was...

posted at 11:23 AM in classmates, faculty | comments (0) | trackback (0) | link


Saturday, April 3, 2004

The Origin of Theses
The first-year grads had our kick-off (or, really, kick in the ass) meeting about our thesis papers and projects on Wednesday, during which the faculty, led by Director of the Graduate Program Bruce Hanington, urged us to get started with finding topics, project ideas, and faculty advisors, because by the end of the semester, we have to turn in proposals for both parts of our Master's thesis, signed by our faculty advisor(s). This set off a flurry of activity, as people began to scramble to find topics and advisors.

We also saw the general schedule for the deliverables for them next year. It's fairly daunting. The bulk of the paper is supposed to be written in the fall, and presented in early spring. The project should be ready for testing at the end of fall as well. We present the paper to the school in January and present the project next May.

The thesis paper is a 25-30 page essay on a rich design topic in an established area of design. The point of the thesis paper, we were told repeatedly, is not to create new knowledge, but rather to show mastery of a design subject. It's to comprehend, synthesize, and summarize the best thinking around a certain design topic.

If the paper is to show our mastery of the "thinking" part of design, the project is the creation of an object that shows our mastery of the "making and doing" parts, plus documentation of the design process and visual documentation (a poster) of the results.

As it turns out, over the last few weeks (months really), I've been mulling over my thesis paper and project. For a long time, I thought my paper was going to be on Reinventing Products and my project on a system to bookmark physical spaces. But ever since John Rheinfrank's talk on adaptive worlds, I've been very intrigued with the idea of adaptive tools: what they are, how you design them, and how you configure and manage them. Adaptive tools change their form and content based on their interactions with humans and the systems they "live" in. Agents are an example. There's a very limited set of these right now, but in the next decade or so, they are likely to grow exponentially. So it is a good area to explore.

Thus, I've gotten Shelley Evenson to be my thesis advisor for a paper and project about adaptive tools. My paper will be a taxonomy of digital adaptive tools, trying to categorize general types, define some characteristics for each, and begin to outline how they might work as part of an ecosystem. (Some of this, will, of course, be educated guesses since many of these tools are just being created.) Then my project will be an adaptive tool to (get this) manage and configure adaptive tools. How meta.

I'm choosing these theses topics for a few reasons. I think it will be challenging, but not overwhelming. I want to do something forward-thinking. I want to do an application for my thesis project. I'd like to maybe get a paper or two out of it for publication. I wouldn't mind getting a patent or two out of the project either. I think I'll learn a lot from Shelley. And the topic is interesting enough that I doubt I'll have trouble writing a 30 page paper on it.

I'm going to start keeping track of my thesis work on a separate site, devoted strictly to it: adaptivetoolbox.com.

posted at 04:59 PM in faculty, meta, thesis paper, thesis project | comments (0) | trackback (0) | link


Friday, April 2, 2004

Design Quote of the Week
From Dick Buchanan, responding to a student who said she'd only been in design for a few years:

"Design is like California. No one is born there."

posted at 08:13 AM in design 101, faculty | comments (0) | trackback (0) | link


Sunday, March 28, 2004

What's Normal
Karen Moyer gave another one of her infamous lectures: What's Normal. It's a response to when people say, "I just want to type up a term paper or something and isn't there just a little recipe you can give me to make the paper look normal?" So this is how to make general typography look normal.

You should always start with body copy and then base the titles, subtitles, and captions/footnotes/marginalia afterwards. It's most important that the body copy be legible.

Here's the things to be aware of:

  • Alignment. Flush Left/Ragged Right is more legible than Flush Right and Justified. Only justify with a longer line length and only use Flush Right sparingly and never for body copy.
  • Rivers. Rivers are formed when the white spaces between words seemingly line up and form a "river." Avoid these.
  • Line Lengths. You want to apply the Goldilocks Principle to line length: not too long, not too short, but just right. Forty characters (about an alphabet and a half's worth of letters, spaces, and punctuation) is about the absolute minimum you'd want for body copy. Short line lengths: 40-55 characters. Longer line lengths are 75-90 characters. You generally want something in the middle range: 55-75 characters.
  • Font Size. The best typical font size for body copy is 10 point. (sometimes 11).
  • Leading. Leading, the vertical space between lines, is 20 percent additional of you font size. Which for body copy, typically means +2 points. So 10pt font has 12pt leading, 11pt font has 13pt of leading, etc. One exception to this is very small type (below 8pt), which needs more leading to make it more legible.
  • Line Length : Leading Ratio. The most important thing for legibility (for black type on white paper anyway). Optical Grey is how dense the type appears on the page. You generally don't want to have lines of text without enough leading. More leading makes the optical grey lighter. The longer your line length, the more leading you have to have to add. For body copy, add +3 or +4. Perversely, the same hold true with short line lengths, where you should add +2.5, +3, or +4. Never more than +4 though.
  • Font Choice. The difference between the thick and thin parts of letters in certain fonts like Bodini make a lot of "sparkle" that make then less legible. You need to add more leading to compensate. Also: the ratio of the Cap (the top of a capital letter) to the X Height (the top of a lower-case x) makes a difference. The bigger the ratio, the less leading you need to add because there is a lot of space already designed into the font face.

posted at 10:32 AM in design 101, faculty, typography | comments (0) | trackback (0) | link


Monday, September 15, 2003

Assumptive Worlds

Dick Buchanan is still in Australia, so for today's Seminar guest lecturers, we had Shelley Evenson and John Rheinfrank teaching us. Shelley is a new faculty member at CMU and John, is her husband and business partner and former Master Stategist for Sapient.

Ostensibly, today was about Dean Barnlund's article, "Communication: the Context of Change," but we spent a lot of time talking about lots of other stuff as well. But first, the article.

Barnlund's main point is that every human has a unique view of the world that is constructed inside. Meaning comes from us: we provide the meaning to the world. Our beliefs about the world are only challenged (or reinforced) by talk or by argument. It's only through conflict that deeply held beliefs can be changed. It's only through conflict that we can grow.

Barnlund is all about empathy: seeing how other people think. To me, he's like the father of user-centered design. You examine how people think of things (conceptual models) and build towards those. Knowing the users goals would be right up his alley.

He's also about the importance of dialog in communication: making sure that communication goes both ways, between things. It's important to create an atmosphere where this sort of dialog can take place.

He's also a big fan of groups and group thinking as a way of problem solving. And while there is value in groups, sure, some of his reasoning is dubious at best.

Launching off from the reading, we talked a lot about metaphor. Metaphors are used to systematically construct a rolling notion of reality. They are good in that you don't have to explain much (a whole world can be conjured up easily), but also bad ( can trap you into a way of thinking). If you want to think differently about something, shift the underlying metaphor. Marketing was used as an example. Marketing language is all about warfare: campaigns, targets, etc. But instead, think of it as landscaping: growing an audience, plowing a field, etc. There are three different types of metaphors: Orientational ("the peak of his life"), structural ("coming out of a coma"), and ontalogical ("let's combat inflation").

John and Shelley then asked us to shift our metaphor for communication, to instead think of it in terms of learning, both passive and active learning. Wrapping up the article and the discussion was this: You have to design things so that the users can use what is already inside them to figure it out.

posted at 10:00 PM in design theory, faculty | 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 (0) | 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 22, 2003


We had orientation yesterday, where the design faculty welcomed us, the ninth class to have gone through the Interaction Design program and our sister program, Communication Planning and Information Design. There are 14 of us first-year grads: six ID and eight CPID. Ten women, four men.

Orientation was led mainly by Dan Boyarski, head of the Design school, there was a lot of talk about the intensity of CMU and to prepare ourselves for that. He also implored us not to be too hard on ourselves while going through the program: there will be things we're good at and things we'll have to work harder at. And one inspirational message: writing and design together can change the world.

We also got to pick our seat in the graduate design studio and were assigned our assistantships. I got the unusual (for me) assistantship of tech support for the Smillie Lab, the new digital imaging lab. I'm also going to be doing a semi-TAship for Bob Swinehart's Corporate Identity class.

Refreshments were served.

I also managed to crash the HCI program's orientation party last night. Fun fun fun!

posted at 10:34 AM in assistantships, classmates, cpid program, extracurricular, faculty, hci program, student life | 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


Monday, July 14, 2003

Expressive Typography

Week three of Communication Design Fundamentals is being taught by Dan Boyarski, who is also happens to be the new head of the School of Design. The topic is expressive typography: using the characteristics of type to convey emotion, not strictly information (as we studied in week one.

We began by talking about information, however, and we were presented with the following formula:


Data floats around randomly, "like dust." Only when form and structure are added, does it become useful. Information is presented in three ways: 2-D (paper, screen), 3-D (spaces), and 4-D (sequences). Paper has shaped how we organize information, but this is now being challenged by the digital environment. The history of design is really the history of materials. As materials changed, so did design.

When setting a text in type, one method of getting a feeling for it is to speak it aloud. Reflecting the inflections and pauses is one thing that type can do. It's also important when choosing a typeface to think about how the text is going to be read. If it is a book, say, you need to keep the readability of the type in mind. Less contrast with in a type style is easier to read (Garamond is easier to read than Bodini, for example).

Our first assignment is to set an assigned quote in 10pt. Frutiger (one weight only) in a 7" square, horizontal type only. In at least 10 variations.

Strangely enough, my quote is from the Tao Te Ching, a book I have sitting on my desk beside all my design books. The passage I have to set begins, "A great square has no corners." But just before that is a passage I am thinking about now, here in school:

The Way's brightness looks like darkness;
Advancing on the Way feels like retreating;
the plain Way seems like hard going.

posted at 08:37 PM in design 101, faculty, projects, techniques, typography | comments (0) | trackback (0) | link


Monday, July 7, 2003

Introduction to Photography

Week Two of CDF began with a new instructor (Charlee Brodsky) and a new topic: photography. It's reportedly the first time photography has been included as part of this course and it should be an interesting subject to explore.

Photography, Charlee explained, is in one sense easy to study because photographs are a part of our culture. They are used to sell things, to document news, and to document personal history. Photography is "the mind and they eye working together, with some heart thrown in." Photographs "stop time and are a sliver of space," and provide a frame through which to view what is important. A photograph shouldn't show everything however. If it does, Charlee contents, the viewer doesn't ask himself the important questions.

Photography is all about light. Light reveals the subject, lets us make an image, record something.

There are two main ways of representing subject matter: documentary images (which Charlee likened to nouns) and abstract images, which use surface qualities of subjects to make another kind of image. They can be likened to music in that they are more easily described as feelings.

Similar subject matter can be presented in a miriad of different ways. We looked at two views of suburbia, Mark Rader's Scanscape and Bill Owens' Suburbia as an example of this. We also viewed The Best Part of Me by Wendy Ewald and Shopping by Merry Alpern for different styles in portraiture.

And indeed, our first project is in portraiture, where we pair up with a partner to photograph and, in turn, be photographed. First-year CPID grad student Jenni Miehle was my partner and got to endure not only taking photos of yours truly but also my bad Austen Powers impression ("Work it baby, work it! Yeah!") as I took her picture. Here's an outtake (155k) that I'm not using as part of my "best-of" selection for class critique tomorrow.

In software bootcamp, CPID alumnus Matt Mowczko is taking us through the ins and outs of Illustrator this week.

posted at 10:50 PM in classmates, faculty, photography, projects | comments (0) | trackback (0) | link





All straight lines circle sometime. - The Weakerthans