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Saturday, February 21, 2004

Liz Sanders
Liz Sanders, president of design research firm sonicRim, was our guest in Studio last Wednesday, discussing participatory research.

Research has become involved in all phases of product development over the last 20 years, but particular attention is being paid to generative research; that is, research being done before the ideation phase. Which is to say, at the very beginning of the design process.

Over the last 20 years as well, there has been a change in what we call those who use the products, from customer to consumer to user to participants to adapters, and now, to co-creators. A more participatory culture is emerging, and "ordinary" people are starting to become more creative and express the need to be creative. SonicRim's philosophy is that everyone is creative, and that anyone involved in using and producing products should be involved in creating those products. Their principles are as follows:

  • All people are creative.
  • Everyone has dreams. Everyone can imagine their life in the future, even if that life is difficult to express.
  • People will fill in what is unseen and unsaid based on their past experiences and imagination.
  • People project their needs onto ambiguous stimuli because they are driven to make meaning.

The process sonicRim uses to harness this everyday creativity is:

  1. Immerse subjects into the experience for a week or two to warm them up to the subject and its context.
  2. Use an activity like collaging to activate feelings and memories about past experiences.
  3. Use more abstract methods to imagine a future scenario, to dream about the future.
  4. Use activities like velcro modeling for bisociation and expression of new ideas.

Ambiguity and play allow adults to express things they otherwise wouldn't. That's where making comes in. In research, you need to look at three things: what people say, what people do, and what people make. What people do is good for understanding the present, what is happening now. What people make (with, say, collages or velcro models or drawings) is good for expressing feelings and memories from the past as well as dreams and fears about the future. (What people say falls somewhere between what people do and make.)

You take with you a toolkit of visual and verbal components composed of clip art, words, magazine images, cutouts, shapes, etc. etc. You don't have to explain much when you give people the toolkit--they already know how to express themselves in their own way with the tools. And, importantly, that is what you are looking for: expression of needs, latent or otherwise. The subjects aren't creating designs.

All this stuff encourages people to explore their experiences. Experience is where memory and imagination meet, not just how you feel right now. Innovation requires a full understanding of experience.

This sort of research begs some questions (with Liz's responses):

  • Are designers losing control of the design process? Yes, but we are opening it up to others. We're entering new design spaces where designers let go of their own control to amplify the creativity of others.
  • How much do we want everyday people to drive design? To the extent of their expertise, abilities, and interest.
  • How will the tools and methods for research and design change? They will continue to blur. Research is becoming more creative and design becoming more relevant.
  • If everyone is creative, what is the role of the designer? To amplify the creativity of others. Designers will create scaffolds upon which everyday people will express their creativity. Designers will create more of what Ivan Illich's calls convivial tools: tools that allow users to invest the world with their meaning, to enrich the environment with the fruits of their vision, and to use them for the accomplishment of a purpose they have chosen.

more ››

posted at 01:39 AM in special guest stars, techniques | comments (0) | trackback (1) | 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


Wednesday, February 4, 2004

MAYA Design Methods
MAYA Senior Interaction Designer Heather McQuaid dropped by Studio to talk about MAYA's research methods and, specifically, a case study on the Carnegie Library system. They used a couple of interesting methods that are worth noting:

  • Direct Experience Storyboarding. Three different MAYA researchers took three different ways to get a book from the library. They took pictures of each step in the process and wrote notes, then combined them, writing the notes onto the pictures to provide a storyboard of what was going on, plus commentary.
  • Basic Components. They broke down the library system into basic components, then strung them together into a very general narrative that explained all the activity there. USERS go through ORGANIZERS (space, categorizations, people) to get to MATERIALS/ACTIVITIES in order to USE/PARTICIPATE.
  • Breakpoints. Once they had personas (9 of them total), they moved them through scenarios that interacted with all those basic components, mapping them on a really cool chart to show where the system failed. These spots were called "breakpoints." These became areas of design activity.
  • Tiger Teams. A type of participatory design, where stakeholders in the library system teamed up with MAYA employees to try to design what the ideal library situation should be. Each team made its own experience to correct breakpoints. They were encouraged to think big, then scale down.

All in all, an interesting case study with some meaty techniques to consider.

posted at 05:17 PM in special guest stars, techniques | 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


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


Tuesday, July 15, 2003

Communication v. Design

I'm apparently having the same trouble I had during Photography: emphasizing Design over Communication. In my first assignment (pdf 96k), I spent a lot of time (some 6 hours) playing with the composition of each variation. But what I missed was the communication of the message. Which is pretty stupid considering the first line of the text is, "A great square has no corners." You'd think in six hours of staring at and typing the same message, some of it would have sunk in. Hopefully, my refinement (pdf 30k) is better.

We did talk a lot about form today in class, about how the overall shape and form of the page prepares the reader for the content therein. Symmetry, as it turns out, is boring. Old skool. Asymmetry is more interesting, more dynamic. Asymmetrical text might be more difficult to comprehend, but it is ok to make the reader work a little bit as long as it isn't too much. You have to know you audience and your content to know which end of the type spectrum you should be working in (pure information (absolute clarity) or expressive work (ambiguity)).

Don't ever just stick something on a page. Everything, every letter, needs to be placed. Do everything knowingly. Things in proximity are seen as related, as a chunk. Every element should be allied to something else on the page.

We talked a little about the design process, how it starts with many explorations. The process is linear, but it is seldom executed in a linear fashion. A tip is to start sketching as early as possible. You can better discuss ideas that are sketched out.

In software bootcamp, our Flash training is coming along swimmingly. We learned tweening animation today, which is a lot of fun to play around with. It's a good introduction before I take the Actionscript class in the fall.

posted at 05:02 PM in design 101, software, techniques, typography | 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


Thursday, July 10, 2003

Text and Image

Our final assignment for this week of photography is an image that either incorporates or resides alongside a piece of text. I've spent a good portion of the last two days trying to find words attached to images: graffiti, signs, bumper stickers, t-shirts, posters, you name it. I could have taken a picture and written a caption, but after looking at Lee Friedlander's Letters From the People in class yesterday, I was interested to see what I could find in the world. If I could find text that provides a commentary or perspective on the image it resided in. So I've been hunting.

I found several very cool signs ("We will not wash laundry with vomit on it") but it was tricky to get the picture to work with the text. All in all, I took about 100 pictures (thank god for digital cameras) and then played around with about 10 of those until deciding on the one I'm most happy with (pdf 344k).

We've talked a lot in class about photographic intent: what the photographer wants to convey via the photograph. Sometimes, like in advertising, this means selling product, or presenting product in a desireable way. Sometimes it is to convey a feeling or a message. It helps to have what Charlee calls "formal skills" (ie. a command of the medium and techniques) so that you know the best ways to approach a subject, how to best present it. (Then again, when doesn't it help to have a command of your medium in doing just about anything?) Some other notes:

  • The real world is often dull, visually. Photographers need to find ways to make the dull exciting.
  • It's hard to make a composed picture look random.
  • It's hard to show relationships between objects in a picture.
  • Repeating texture by itself isn't very interesting.

posted at 08:40 PM in photography, projects, techniques | comments (0) | trackback (0) | link


Thursday, July 3, 2003

CDF Week 1 Wrap-Up

Our introduction to display typography ended today after reviewing the final set of exercises exploring typographic variations. [Note: it is going to be exercises like these, and the accompanying critiques (and hopefully the learning that goes along with them), that will be nearly impossible to capture and document in a blog. But aside from the raw knowledge that you gain in school, this is what you are ultimately paying your money for: the training. This blog is free (for readers at least).] Some notes:

  • Distinctions can be subtle or bold...but shouldn't be too subtle, nor too bold.
  • Using two typographic variables at once can overemphasize text.
  • This from Ian: The "rules" of typography are dependent completely on the context and the content.
  • Karen Moyer recommends finding a set of fonts (around 10) that you use all the time and understand well.

Next week: photography! And in software bootcamp: Illustrator!

posted at 12:53 PM in classmates, design 101, techniques, typography | comments (0) | trackback (0) | link


Wednesday, July 2, 2003

Linespacing, Stroke Weights, and Horizontal Shifts

We continued our Typographic Hierarchy Exercise from yesterday, the purpose of which (I'm postulating) is to train our eyes to see what slight changes in type characteristics do, how they can change emphasis. Indeed, the trick is to make sure the audience can unconsciously (via visualogic) determine what is the most important. By applying individual or combinations of two characteristics, you can see (or start to see in my case) how each affects the type (and thus the message).

A couple of related notes:

  • Without any linespaces, stroke weight changes look odd.
  • The length of a line and its placement on the page help to determine its emphasis ("loudness").
  • The top of a page determines the bottom. The left usually determines the right.

In software bootcamp, our study continues on InDesign, learning about frames and bounding boxes and how to manipulate the two. I'm starting to feel comfortable with the program, three days in. It helps we're using it in CDF class too.

posted at 06:15 PM in design 101, software, techniques, typography | comments (0) | trackback (0) | link





All straight lines circle sometime. - The Weakerthans