Process is not a DifferentiatorThere's a slide from Jamin Hegeman's recent UX week workshop that sparked a memory. He shows a diagram entitled "Interaction Design Process" that consists of four steps: Discovery, Definition, Design and Delivery. Then a diagram next to it entitled "Service Design Process" that consists of the same steps: Discovery, Definition, Design and Delivery. I imagine that it's demonstrating an affinity.
But that's also a graphic design process. My first job out of college was at a graphic design studio in Kansas City called D3. The name originally stood for the three partners, but over the years they converted it to "Discover, Define, Design." I also seem to remember "Define, Design, Deliver" floating around the office at some point. Unfortunately it was D3 rather than D4 but the delivery sort of goes without saying when you're dealing with a first-order design studio focusing on print.
The point is, "discover, define, design and deliver" tends to be descriptive of design as a whole and not unique to any particular sub-branch. It's not a stretch to apply it to any of the places I've ever worked; including industrial design studios.
You might almost say that process is not a differentiator.
Design for ServiceIf it seems a little quiet around here it's because I've been redirecting most of my energy toward another weblog that I started about a year and a half ago focused on Service Design. It's been a great way to keep abreast of developments in the service design community and contribute to what I think is an incredibly important facet of human interaction design.
I'll never abandon my obligatory weblog, but for now you'll find me more frequently over at Design for Service. Stop by and say hello!
WiiMotionEarly last year I took some time to dig into the Wii and figure out what makes it tick. I wanted to see if I could prototype my own gestural interfaces. Turns out it's not too difficult. Lots of other people have done the heavy lifting to create bluetooth interfaces between the Wii and all manner of devices—including a Macintosh computer. I found a few different solutions that met my needs and cobbled them together into a system that lets me control iTunes with a Wii controller.
It requires some familiarity with the Terminal to get things up and running, so this isn't for the faint of heart. The A button plays/pauses. Hold down the B button while rocking the controller left or right to select the previous/next song. Swing it left or right to select the previous/next playlist. Tilt it up or down to increase or decrease the volume.
Here's the beta WiiMotion Program (Mac only).
Controlling iTunes is only one example. I wrote the script in such a way that pretty much any Mac application can be controlled with the same basic Roll/Pitch/Yaw gestures. It's possible to recognize much more complex motions too; roll, pitch and yaw are just the easiest to parse.
Realists vs IdealistsI love what this graphic says about realism and idealism. Now I just need one that defends intuition against Cartesian rationality.
IxDA Discussion SiteFor a little over a year now I've been working on my unofficial discussion reader for the Interaction Design Association. It's gone through three different iterations, but as of today it's offically live on the ixda.org website.
Over 2,000 members have created accounts on the new site and nearly 12,000 posts have passed through the system. Here's an overview of the metrics.
Service Design ResourcesA few months ago I decided to finally dig in to the canonical literature on Service Design to get a better sense of the history of the discipline. I went back about thirty years to compile articles from Marketing and Retail Journals, Design Journals and the Harvard Business Review.
To make sense of the piles of reading I kept notes on concepts and examples that reappeared in multiple articles so I could track their progression. I've put those cross-references together into a system to find papers by concept, example, author, journal or decade to make it as easy as possible for others to delve into the research for themselves.
Service Design Research
If you'd like to help fill in the gaps by suggesting other canonical papers, please post them in the comments below.
Imaging the 10th DimensionThey say that a good theory gives you something to think about but a great theory gives you something to think with. By that standard, Rob Bryanton's theory about the existence of ten dimensions is merely good. But the video that explains his theory is still worth checking out. The verbal and visual communication work in harmony, taking us through the basics of the first, second, third and fourth dimensions with which we're familiar, then leveraging that familiarity to lead us into the tall grass before we know what's going on. It's exhilarating to periodically have no idea what this guy is talking about.
Google Street ViewI've been fascinated by the use of photography in wayfinding since well before I began exploring the idea at CMU five years ago. A9's Blockview impressed me back then but Google has absolutely raised the bar with their new Street View version of Google Maps.
A9 was useful for researching my trip before flying out to interview at Cooper in San Francisco. I loved the idea of virtually exploring the city but the static photos always seemed to come up short. I wanted to turn my head and look around while I browsed the neighborhood. Google's done an incredibly intuitive job of allowing you to do just that. Using what I can only assume is technology from the Stanford Cityblock project, they've created essentially continuous VR maps of entire cities.
It's a virtuoso piece of technology but it still suffers from the same flaw as the now defunct Amazon A9. Google Street View is place-agnostic. It's brute force. By focusing on everything, they don't really focus on anything. I can "walk" down practically any street in San Francisco, but other than the roads, nothing seems to be annotated. Go over to 18th and Guerrero. You can spin around and browse all the buildings at the intersection, but you'd have no idea you were standing next to the most famous bakery in the city.
If you already know about Tartine, you can type it into Google Local, and it quickly pops up with all kinds of helpful information, including a link to the street view of Tartine on the map. But that assumes you already know about the bakery. It allows you to find what you already knew was there.
With all the metrics that Google has at their disposal, it doesn't seem like a stretch for them to help people uncover new facets of the city. To support exploration, not discovery.
Notes on EthnographyGrant McCracken runs a site called This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics. Some of the posts can be a little overwhelming--not many people can get away with using terms like diplomatic non-indexicality in their blog--but it's worth it to dig out some consistently good insights.
InfostheticsI'm in awe of the sustained brilliance of infosthetics.com. I stumbled across it a few months ago and they just keep finding mouth-watering examples of data visualization and information design. Skip the RSS feed and jump straight to the content.
Meet NabaztagI'm the proud owner of a small, white, wi-fi enabled ambient rabbit called Nabaztag. It's one of a new breed of smart objects that I'm using to investigate the design properties of calm technology.
One of my frustrations with physical computing is that the output methods seem pretty limited. It's a little disappointing to go to all the trouble of hooking up a sensor to an Arduino prototyping board just to watch a pathetic LED blink on and off. Nabaztag seems like a good way to solve this problem because it's designed specifically for ambient communication. It boasts three independent channels:
- A series of full-spectrum LED clusters
- Two independently positionable ears
- A speaker for streaming mp3s
I've been prototyping different ways to control that output. I started with the ears, since they're the channel that allows the most control. Inspired by Schultze and Webb's Availabot, I hooked up the ears to monitor an iChat account, drooping a bit when people went idle, flattening completely if they were away and then perking back up when they returned.
The lights are a little harder to control. What I've been able to cobble together so far uses the built-in light patterns. The nose lights up whenever I have new e-mail I'm likely to care about. The rest of the lights pulse blue whenever it's going to rain. What I've learned from this is that binary conditions don't make very interesting ambient displays. In San Francisco, the weather isn't variable enough. The only thing I really care about is whether or not I need an umbrella so Nabaztag's display doesn't tell me much. It's basic communication theory; the amount of information isn't determined by how much something does tell you, but by how much it could tell you.
One source of data that does have some linear variability to it is the Muni Metro. There's a system called Nextbus that tracks the trains thoughout the day so it's possible to calculate their rate. Now a series of lights on my Nabaztag blink in tempo, from very slow to very fast, depending on how Muni is running. Muni runs faster in the morning and after work and slow late at night. But it's like that every day so there's not really much information. I also don't care about it.
I put off tinkering with Nabaztag's speaker because the built-in options didn't really seem ambient. Still, there could be something to it, so I finally set up Nabaztag to read Google News RSS headlines in the morning when I wake up. This ended up being more disconcerting than anything. Text-to-speech is hard to get right, and Nabaztag's voice selection pales in comparison to AT&T's natural voices. Every now and then my bunny speaks some random thing to me and since Violet's based in Paris, it's often in French. This is especially fun late at night.
Nabaztag has a built-in microphone and RFID reader so there are some more potential input experiments in store, but what I'm most interested in is finding more complex data to output. There's a nacent hacker community assembling around Nabaztag, trying to figure out what makes it tick so this is just the beginning.
Thoughts on the Nintendo WiiI've been experimenting with the Nintendo Wii off and on for a few months now. It's an amazing system but all the talk about gestural interfaces somehow being more intuitive is completely overblown.
Wii Sports is the only game I've seen that comes close to being intuitive. For just about everything else, it's insane. The party games are the worst, with unique interfaces for each minigame and multiple screens of absurdly complex instruction showing the player exactly how to wield the controller. Without the tutorials it's almost impossible to figure out what permutation of shaking, waving and tilting actually has any effect on the game play.
It wasn't until Dan and I were talking about his cello the other day that I finally put it all together. Playing the Wii is like playing a string instrument. With typical game controllers, there may be a dozen buttons, but they have a clear visual hierarchy that doesn't change. Most woodwind instruments are like that, but with string instruments the interface is more of a continuum. There are an infinite number of variations and that makes them tougher to learn. Same thing for the Wii.
Compounding the problem is the fact that although there are an infinite number of things you could choose to do with the Wii remote, only a tiny subset actually do anything in any particular context. With a regular controller, every button does something but with the Wii the controls are essentially invisible. You're left to blindly flail around for the magic combination that actually does something interesting--like learning to snap your fingers or whistle.
Don't get me wrong. Learning complex interfaces is a big part of the appeal of gaming. I love the gestural system on the Wii. But it's far from intuitive.
On the Importance of FiltersLet's kick the New Year off with a metaphor. Say you have a bucket of rocks, a bucket of gravel and a bucket of sand. You need to consolidate as much as possible into a single bucket. You'll want to start with the larger rocks. Then you'll have room for gravel to fill in the gaps and then sand to slip into the crevasses. If you start with the sand, you'll never get the rocks and gravel to fit.
Right now my reading list is mostly sand. Dozens and dozens of tiny RSS feeds. I just added about 30 anthropology blogs to the mix and that number is only going to go up. This constant stream of news is critical for staying abreast of emerging memes but it doesn't necessarily foster a deeper understanding.
The problem with all that sand is that I only have room for a couple rocks perched on top of the pile. I keep a few books on my nightstand (and really, all around my apartment) that I read roughly in parallel. I'm always adding more books to the list, but what I'm missing is the gravel.
Maybe it's obvious, but that's what magazines are.
I've been reading Print and Communication Arts since college, but my periodical selection doesn't get much more eclectic. That's a problem. Design is a synthesis of Science, Politics, Anthropology, Literature, Art, Architecture, Technology, Business, Culture... My New Year's resolution is to start casting a wider net.
I'm building an initial list based off the recommendations in The Art of the Long View by Peter Schwartz. It's a scenario planning book from the early nineties that discusses research tactics for staying informed in a world before weblogs using (among other things) honest-to-goodness paper magazines.
Some of the publications in that early-nineties snapshot, compiled by Schwartz and his network, along with their comments:
- Discover is a popular science magazine which "has a scoop" now and then.
- The Economist is, in my opinion, the single best source of information about what is happening the world.
- Electric Word (later to become Wired) is about what the new technology means to our lives, from art, business, politics, culture and education, to our personal relationships.
- Foreign Affairs, the mainstream journal of thought about international relations.
- Granta is a book-sized journal from London of unusually perceptive, high-quality writing and thinking.
- Harper's is a relatively mainstream magazine which is very useful for surveying the fringes, because it culls material from unusual sources.
- The New Yorker, amazingly enough, breaks news from time to time in a very thorough way.
- The British New Scientist has an excellent filter. Important science news will often appear here first, while it is still navigating its way out of the fringes.
- I read the New York Times Science Section every Tuesday for its in-depth coverage of three or four important science stories.
- Scientific American is not where I see new ideas, but where I see new ideas moving to the mainstream.
- Technology Review is the best on social consequences of new technology.
- Utne Reader is a digest whose editors scan thousands of small and alternative magazines.
I still occasionally flip through Print and CA, and I'm adding some other design and culture magazines to the mix like I.D., Metropolis, Dwell, Wallpaper and Surface. But there's still plenty of room to grow. What other publications should make it across a designer's desk?
Demise of A9 Visual Yellow PagesWhile I was planning for my research trip this morning I decided to pull up Amazon's A9 Yellow Pages to get some images of my destinations in Chicago and Denver. I was a little confused when I couldn't immediately find the link on A9's home page. It took quite a bit of digging to confirm that it doesn't exist. This is incomprehensible.
A9 Yellow Pages had a huge effect on my thesis research while I was at Carnegie Mellon, and seeing Amazon pull the plug is staggering. I've always thought of the launch of massive web services as a one-way affair. Even the little experiments that Google rolls out on a regular basis get tucked away somewhere, regardless of whether or not they're thriving. This is Amazon for crying out loud. Imagine if Yahoo unceremoniously killed Flickr or Google abandoned Blogger. Sure they're perpetually in beta, but we come to depend on them.
I guess the collective shrug from the rest of the blogosphere suggests that I'm alone in my mourning. The only reference I can even find is over at Searchenginewatch.com
BlockView? They've killed BlockView? It was the best thing A9 had going for it. Of course, none of these features have helped A9 succeed as a search service. It's gone nowhere...As I think more about it, the disappearance of suck.com five years ago is the only thing that comes close to providing a personal frame of reference for such an unexpected demise on the web. How could something so over-the-top cool with no obvious competition just cease to exist? Maybe it has something to do with A9's CEO being scooped up by Google. Here's hoping.
Form Inspires FunctionIn the late 19th century, the architect Louis Sullivan coined the aphorism Form Follows Function. He believed that a building's shape should be determined by its intended purpose, and expounded that "it is of the very essence of every problem that it contains and suggests its own solution." The Bauhaus adopted this fundamental law and carried it into the realm of 20th century product design where it's remained largely unchallenged as a core tenent of design thinking.
One of the essayists in the book Managing as Designing suggests that "form might very well follow function some of the time, but that there's no reason to conclude that it should do so." I've been kicking that idea around in the back of my mind, examining ways to turn form and function on their head. More inside:
What a Difference a Preposition MakesA few months ago, my friend Dan released his first book Designing for Interaction. Today, I came across a site for the similarly titled Designing Interactions. It's a subtle difference, but an important one.
I'm with Dan in believing that we design for interaction, that is, we don't actually create the interactions themselves. We provide a framework for people's experience with their world, a way to help them create their own positive interactions. That nod toward the importance of co-creation is where the two book titles diverge.
All Quiet on the Western FrontEvery summer, output drops off here at obligatory. To apologize for it has practically become a cliché, but this time I have a decent excuse. I've been job hunting for the last couple of months, trying to find the right fit after a good run at Smart Design. Phone screens, interviews, portfolios...
I'll spare you the sordid details. Suffice it to say that I start work as an Interaction Design consultant at Cooper tomorrow morning.
Airfare SatisficingI hate buying airline tickets. It's not really difficult to buy a ticket, but it's almost impossible to buy the best ticket. I always have the nagging feeling that I'm paying way too much. Airfares are based on byzantine sets of rules that fluctuate over time. If you watch them long enough, you can find the best price, but I want to spend minutes buying an airline ticket, not days. What I really need is a better perspective. Something that can log airfares over time and allow me to see trends and easily compare options at a glance. This week I decided to solve the problem. I got as far as deciphering Expedia's URL variables before I remembered the Lazyweb.
Matt Jones coined the Lazyweb principle back in 2002. Basically, if you wait long enough, someone will write/build/design what you were thinking about. Turns out, I didn't have to wait long at all. Today I found a Wired News article about two different sites that are doing exactly what I need. Farecast is pretty impressive. It provides a 75 day history of a particular fare, ala sparklines, along with a prediction about whether the fare is expected to rise or fall in the coming week. Flyspy hasn't really embraced the whole Web 2.0 aesthethic, but it's still a respectable little app. In particular, it automatically compares flights to alternate airports and allows you to easily adjust your travel window to see how it affects the price.
Both sites are still in beta (alpha?) and only scan a limited number of carriers and cities. Still, they show potential; once they launch Expedia and Travelocity will have some catching up to do.
At Least a Quintet is ExpectedMy copy of Beautiful Evidence came in the mail today. Those six words in the introduction made me smile. A quintet! Tufte's information design books are exquisite. I've read them cover to cover countless times since discovering the series my first year out of college. In the twenty-three years since Visual Display of Quantitative Information, his words have become canon.
The experience of reading this book sets it apart. I can still smell the freshness of the ink. It's at once an old friend and an unknown quantity. I'm reading it slowly, page by page, savoring the content and the richness of its presentation. It's things like this that make me thankful to be a designer.
The Flame That Burns Twice as Bright...I hadn't even heard of the Interaction Institute Ivrea when I came to CMU. Three years later, Ivera has all but burned away. Subsumed into the Domus Academy. They had their final show last week. The thesis projects from the final ten grad students are posted over on experientia.com.
Junk Mail FilterOne of my favorite life hacks is the ability to distinguish important mail from mail that I can discard unopened. While I was working on the DMM Transformation Project at CMU, I learned that personal correspondence and all bills or other mail with personal information are required to be sent First-class. Most junk mail uses the less expensive Standard rate. If you look in the upper right corner of the envelope and see anything like "Standard Mail" or "Presorted Standard" (or its abbreviation) then you can safely toss it, regardless of how official the envelope looks.
Unfortunately, most of the domain knowledge I learned on the Post Office project isn't nearly as useful in my day-to-day life. Though if you ever need to know how many attendant bees can be mailed with a queen bee, then I'm your man.
Learning How to LookAs far as I'm concerned, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio has one of the best lines in the 1989 movie "The Abyss."
"We all see what we want to see... Coffey looks and he sees Russians. He sees hate and fear. You have to look with better eyes than that."I love the idea that we can choose to look with better eyes.
Over the past few months, I've been sensing a growing backlash in the anthropology community against the encroachment of designers and design ethnography. It's similar to the tension between trained and untrained designers in the wake of desktop publishing in the mid-nineties. Although there are exceptions, most designers aren't trained anthropologists. I'm certainly not, and even though I've studied research methods at Carnegie Mellon, I still want to look with better eyes.
A few weeks ago, one of the designers I work with asked a slightly disarming question about field observation. "How do you know if you're getting any better at it?" The answer gets at the heart of the whole designer/anthropologist debate, so I've started looking to the history of anthropology to provide a stronger foundation.
For a while now, MIT has been publishing their course materials online, and I came across a syllabus for a semester-long seminar in ethnography and fieldwork. Most of the initial readings are available down at the Stanford library, so I'm starting at the beginning and diving in. It's Design Seminar, all over again.
GoldfingerA company called Colorware is offering a service whereby they completely repaint your pc or iPod. Some of the Apple products look really well done, but I dunno... I'd tear my eyes out if I had to look at a Ferarri Red Powerbook all day.
Part of the genius of Apple's minimalist aesthetic is that it encourages customers to complete the form on their own. To help develop a kinship with the product. I know plenty of people who decorate their computers. Some of my classmates at CMU even knitted little cozies for their iPods.
This just seems odd. It has none of those tribal associations. Instead, it cuts to the chase and prepackages the individuality. (link via biven.org)
$3.28/GallonThe midwest requires a different conception of distance than most of the rest of the country. I grew up in Missouri, and on the day I turned 16, I skipped school to get my license. I had to drive half an hour to go take the test. Most cities with stop lights were at least that far away. College was a two-hour drive on the weekends. In the spring before grad school, I commuted three hours each way to work up at Mizzou and teach at SMSU. Over the past two years, I've relished the 12-hour drive back and forth between Pittsburgh and Dixon.
Still, reading Ilan Brat's "Strangers on a Train" in the WSJ last week gave me pause. There are people in Chicago literally crying about being forced to take public transportation. They're devestated about the loss of what I have to admit seems like a bedrock principle of midwestern culture; our cities are designed around the automobile, and that makes it our right to drive.
I've adapted pretty well to San Francisco. I love my 10-minute bike ride into work. My shoes are well worn, and the Muni or BART take me pretty much everywhere else I need to go. I feel sorry for my Acura though. It feels like I've abandoned a loyal friend.
Unofficial IxDA ReaderFor the past few weeks, I've been working on an unofficial web reader for the interaction design mailing list (ixda.org). I've been reading the list since grad school and even though the ixda list has amazing content, the fundamental nature of e-mail lists makes it difficult to follow everything that's going on without quite a bit of effort. The web reader is an attempt to bring some clarity to the overall conversation and make it easier to cherry pick what's interesting to me.
Now that I've released it into the wild, I've been thinking about why e-mail lists still exist, and what makes them better or worse than blogs.
Yahoo runs a service called Yahoo Groups, which is essentially a mailing list with a web front-end. Not too different from what I've done. I subscribe to a few CMU lists though Yahoo, but they're all low volume. I never check the site; I think of those lists as existing within the world of e-mail, not the world of the web.
Until I built this reader, that's how I thought of the IxDA list. Somehow, a community exists within the pathways of the e-mail universe... reified by the list. But in order to see inside, you have to subscribe. It's free, but it's an explicit decision to join a community. Most blogs aren't like that. You can come and go as you please. Show up, read the posts and leave without a trace. There's no sense of membership.
I considered putting a response form on my IxDA reader so people could post comments directly from the web. It isn't technically difficult to make this thing run exactly like a blog. But for some reason I'm wary of severing the connection between e-mail and the list. Do you lose something without the constant trickle of e-mail into your inbox? Without a digital tether to the community? I don't know.
I haven't read my e-mail for the mailing list in about a month; I've been interacting with it almost exclusively through the web interface. It's become a place for me. As other people jump on board, I'm interested to see how the community evolves.
Mobile ProcessingGot a tip last week that Casey Reas and Ben Fry's open source Processing platform has gone mobile. Processing always seemed a little academic to me but this might be worth looking into. I tinkered around with the language while I was at CMU but as far as I know it hasn't run on mobile devices until now. I still need to explore the potential, but this might make a quick and dirty alternative to Flash Lite for mobile prototyping. Anyone have thoughts on the pros and cons?
The Extended InternetI think Dan's right to be concerned about some of the examples in Adam Greenfield's new book Everyware. It follows closely on the heels of Bruce Sterling's Shaping Things and Peter Morville's Ambient Findability and completes the must-read foundation for understanding the potential impact of pervasive computing.
Ambient Findability has a few more examples that are disquieting:
- At the Baja Beach Club in Barcelona, patrons can buy drinks and open doors with a wave of their hand, compliments of a syringe-injected, RFID microchip implant. Getting "chipped" is considered a VIP service.
- In Portugal, under a government initiative to control rabies, all two million dogs must be injected with radio tags and registered in a national database by 2007. The same technology has existed in the US for a decade.
- In a bid to fight government corruption, Mexico's attorney general and several key staff members have had RFID chips implanted to support tracking and authentication.
- Hospitals are using RFID bracelets to keep track of doctors, nurses and patients. The same technology is being used in prisons to track prisoners and in schools to track students and reduce administrative overhead.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Interaction DesignTechnology is seductive. Whenever there's any free time between projects at the places I've worked, the designers generally focus on learning Flash or Basic Stamp or Processing or some other technology-related skill. When we sit behind a desk for eight hours a day, it's easy to just fire up php.net and dive in. But that's not the only option. What if we turned off our computers? Got out of the office? What if we focused on understanding the people we design for?
Take a long unstructured walk around the city. Talk to strangers. Take pictures. Visit at least one museum. Pretend like you're from somewhere else for an hour. Stop in a park to read Raymond Carver's "What we talk about when we talk about love." (Outloud would be rad, but I leave that up to you.) Go into a music store, find two people who seem completely different from you and buy whatever they are buying. And then end your travels at a friend's house where you tell them the story of your day over a bottle of Bombay Sapphire Gin. The story should last as long as the bottle.I finally decided to take her advice. This afternoon I had a couple hours of free time, so I invited a few of the other designers here at Smart Design to come with me down to Union Square for a little design ethnography. No agenda. No client. Just observing human behavior. Distilling patterns. Learning about Interaction Design.
CabspottingCheck out cabspotting.org. It's one of the visualizations in the Invisible Dynamics initiative at the Exploratorium here in San Francisco. They're basically tracking the GPS signals in the taxis driving around the city and showing their routes. Over time you start to see the structure of the city emerge.
The Dark Side of the Synchronic SocietyDuring a conversation last weekend about Bruce Sterling's concept of a synchronic society, Chad mentioned how the clock and other mechanical devices profoundly changed our perception of time. Since then, I've been thinking about it some more and it occurs to be that electricity has had just as profound an effect on how we experience time, particularly as it relates to communication and dialog.
When humans first invented language, it was immediate. Face-to-face communication. Synchronous. And until we invented writing about 5000 years ago, it stayed pretty much the same. But once we started putting words down on paper, communication instantly became asychronous. Now time could pass between the sender and receiver. Every advance since then has struggled to close that gap.
Up until the 20th century, written messages could take weeks or months to deliver. Airmail reduced that time to days. Once we realized that we could separate the content from the medium, the telegraph made text-based communication instantaneous (if you discount the operator translation). E-mail delivered on the promise of the telegraph, but preserved an asychnonous quality. Text messaging and chat closed the gap to almost perfectly match the synchronous nature of human speech, doing in text what the telephone makes possible with audio.
The effect of all that has been to eliminate what the historian Daniel Boorstin calls the therapy of time and the therapy of distance. Because we can communicate with anyone from anywhere at anytime, we expect to. And people expect it of us. We have less time to reflect. Less time to process information. We struggle just to keep up with our voice mail and manage our inboxes. In Shaping Things Sterling addresses why a society so focused on time and microhistories is desirable and in fact necessary, but the implications are still disquieting.
Guerilla WayfindingSomeone's been stenciling orientation on the sidewalks coming out of the subway in New York City. It's a nice spatial annotation idea apparently inspired by a post over at backspace.com. Reminds me of war chalking.
Understanding AgencyI've been thinking a lot about the concept of agency in interaction design. It's an issue that comes up every time people start talking about the future of computing. The Apple Knowledge Navigator from the late-eighties is a pretty good example of the digital butler concept. It's a long-standing goal, but it's never really taken off. Is this a problem of technology? Even if we could throw maximum computing cycles at the problem, would people really want a computer with that kind of autonomy?
To get at that question, I've been thinking about the assignment of agency in real life. Some things are trivial. For example, most people have no qualms about asking a total stranger to push the button for their floor on an elevator. And we also don't mind taking on that chore when asked. It's an effortless assignment of agency with little obvious risk.
A little way up the scale is the idea of a minor asking someone else to buy cigarettes or beer. This is more socially nuanced. First of all, it's illegal. There are issues of trust involved requiring both parties to take a nominal risk. The money involved and the severity of the consequence are low enough that it's still socially viable in a way that probably doesn't scale up to, say, buying drugs. What's interesting here is that it's still largely ad hoc. You might have an older brother who buys you beer, but that's not actually his job.
Farther up the scale is valet parking. I remember having a problem with handing over my keys at the parking garage in KC. It's a much bigger risk. Regardless of what kind of car you drive, it's a pretty expensive piece of hardware to hand over to a stranger. I still never opt for valet parking unless it's required. It's my car and I don't really believe they can drive it much better than I can.
Finally, there's the concept of service qua service. Here, agency is built into the offering. Think brokerage or realtor. Complex or time-consuming tasks that we're not really qualified to do. For agency to work we require expertise on the part of the agent. We have to trust that they do it better than anyone.
As designers, we've got to solve the problem of instilling and communicating expertise in a convincing way for computer agents to take off; it's a human problem of trust, but the technology isn't nearly there yet. That doesn't mean we abandon the concept of agency, it just means that we refocus our efforts on people, not computers. Services are all about convincing people to abdicate their agency to experts. Figuring out how to do that is what Service Design is all about.
The Shark WhispererGarr Reynolds of Presentation Zen made the comparison a while back that weblogs are like sharks. They have to keep moving or they die. It's an apt metaphor.
Obligatory has stagnated over the past few months, largely because I've been aclimating to San Francisco, but also because until now this weblog has been primarily a one-sided conversation. People e-mail me about posts from time to time, but this blog was conceived as a broadcast of my thoughts. It's been that way from day one; simply a way to spare people the constant e-mails about every little innane thing that crosses my mind.
But weblogs need to be more than that. I've grown to understand that weblogs are really about conversations. The comments are the most interesting part of some of the blogs I read. Without them, this was really half a blog. So here's a new experiment. Obligatory comments. I'm still tweaking a few things, but hopefully it'll be enough to get me back in the saddle.
FogI came to San Francisco ill-prepared for perpetual fog. My experience with fog growing up involved seeing it occasionally in the fields peacefully awaiting the morning sunrise. This fog is different. It's malevolent. It's fog that means business.
Some places in the city rarely get fog, but during the summer most neighborhoods are ensconced in it. I live in Hayes Valley, which sits right on the boundary between fog and no fog. It's the first thing I see when I look out my window in the morning and I can see it roll across the city after work, making everything clammy and cold. This weekend, the fog inexplicably cleared away. I don't understand the principles that govern fog here, but I didn't stop to ask questions. Instead, I took the opportunity to bike down to Golden Gate Park and bask in the rare sunshine. Just a clear day with sunshine and trees and the wind at my back.
On OntologiesWhile I was home over the summer, I found a new article over on Clay Shirky's site that resonated with me, and it stuck in the back of my mind. Ontology is Overrated.
Zeroing InFrom the moment I walked in the door at CMU, I started building a mental list of design firms. A snippit of conversation here, a glimpse of website there. Over the course of two years I developed a pretty broad picture of the top players in Design, but it was still mainly on the surface. Halfway through my second year, I started visiting as many firms as I could to get a feel for their cultures up close. New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Seattle, Boston, Pittsburgh... Rochester... I had a total of 15 interviews, some at design firms and some in-house. I had some good interviews and some bad ones, but the experience turned out to be a vital part of my education.
In the end, my decision boiled down to four companies. After some serious soul-searching, I made the jump, packed up the U-haul and headed cross-country to start work as an interaction designer at Smart Design in San Francisco. I'm incredibly excited about the move and the new job. More soon!
This Space Left Unintentionally BlankI guess it's time to write a bit about on why I haven't posted anything in a while. The last few months of grad school were killer. I spent most of the time focused on the very real challenge of keeping my head above water. When it gets down to crunch time, meta-activities like blogging go right out the window. Once graduation roled around, I was only too happy to get away from technolgoy for a while. Over the next few days, I'll post a bit about what I've been up to during my hiatus.
Wayfinding DemoThe bulk of my last semester at CMU was devoted to building and testing my wayfinding project. The concept was fleshed out by Christmas, but making it work was another story. Plenty of late nights working in Flash and struggling with the limitations of anemic cellphone processors.
I'm trying to develop a network of geo-tagged images that let visitors find their way visually from landmark to landmark within an unfamiliar environment. I developed a demo of the system for the CMU campus and populated it with images taken by students from the university. I developed and tweaked the design right up through May, when I had students from the University of Pittsburgh come over and test out the design on our campus.
The actual demo is designed for a handheld cellphone, but you can get an idea of how it worked from this online version.
Wayfinding in DesignFor me, the thesis essay requirement at CMU was by far the most intimidating part of the grad school process coming in. A lot of it is just the word, "thesis." It conjures up images of 18th century academics mulling over ancient leather books and discussing Copernicus. A big part of overcoming that initial sense of awe was simply reading through past thesis essays. I spent a lot of time browsing through the stacks over at Baker library getting a feel for what a thesis really is, and also tacitly reassuring myself with the knowledge that every design grad before me had faced down this challenge and won.
Like my project, my thesis essay centers around the concept of wayfinding. Early on, my professor Dick Buchanan encouraged each of his advisees to break our main topics down into three discrete ideas for study. Here's how I approached it:
In my thesis essay, I focus on three key aspects of wayfinding design: place, exploration and understanding. In traditional wayfinding practice, we understand a place by exploring it, by being there. I'm interested in how this occurs. How does an exploration of place lead to understanding? With this question in mind, I investigate the distinction between place and space, and between exploration and discovery. I also articulate four levels of understanding as they apply to human experience, and suggest ways in which place, exploration and understanding are interconnected. Ultimately, I explore the potential for wayfinding to stand as a metaphor for Design itself.
After two years, and much wailing and gnashing of teeth, here's the completed thesis. Wayfinding in Design [PDF 100K]
Pop-up Topographic MapI've been collecting mapping examples since I started my wayfinding research last summer. One of most useful I've come across has been the series of popout maps from Map Group. Today though, Jeong pointed me to a gizmodo article about the mother of all popout maps. It's a popout/popup topographic map of a ski resort in Austria by a company called MountMaps. I really want an animated picture of this.
LOST BANK CARDI got a terse e-mail from CMU this morning telling me that my card was found in the ATM over at the University Center. I've never left my ATM card in any other machine, anywhere, but it's happened twice at the Citizen's Bank ATM here at CMU. I decided to figure out why.
There are actually two Citizen's Bank ATMs side-by-side in the University Center. One has a swipe card reader. The other holds the card until the end of the transaction. I worked at a bank when I was in college, and our ATM was forever eating people's cards, so I'm biased toward the first type of machine. I swipe my card, then put it back in my billfold before I even enter my PIN. If I choose not to print a receipt, I can just pick up my money and leave. Pretty convenient.
Today though, that machine was broken--forcing me to use the other one. Objectively, it works just fine. It even beeps annoyingly until you remove your card. So what's the problem? The PNC Bank ATM around the corner acts the same way, but that machine is consistent in its behavior, so I've never had a problem with it. The Citizen's Bank ATM would probably be okay if it was standing by itself, but for some reason they've installed two machines with radically different card handling schemes right next to each other. It's easy to mix them up.
When I went to pick up my card at the information desk, they pulled out a binder for me to sign. As I looked for my name, I saw dozens of entries with the label "BANK CARD." Citizen's Bank probably doesn't even know there's a problem.
More AcademiaLast weekend, I dug out my slides and looked through CDs to post a compilation of student work from the classes I've taught at SMSU and CMU. Check it out at academia.howardesign.com.
An Academic Discussion of Referencing BehaviorThis summer on the USPS project, we talked a lot about internal vs external references. What it boiled down to was this. The specificity with which we defined a destination was a good cue for how far away that destination was. For instance, if we said, "see standard 708.9.24," it could be interpreted as a more remote destination than just say, "section 24, below."
We based this on how we give directions in real life. For example, when I make lunch plans, I usually only specify the name of the restaurant, not the location. That's because even though there are about a million Subway Sandwich shops in Pittsburgh, there's only one on Craig Street where I work. On the other hand, if I were to give my parents directions to that Subway from Missouri, I'd probably want to include as much information as I could.
I thought about this as I tried out Google's new mapping service. Transparent drop shadows notwithstanding, it's a pretty slick technical achievement. But the isthmus of interaction between the human and the system is everything. And Google Maps falls short in the same way that Yahoo Maps and MapQuest fall short in their frustratingly non-human interpretation of information. The first thing I tried to do with Google Maps was find my way from CMU to the Quiet Storm, a coffee house here in Pittsburgh. I brought up the location and noticed a nifty little direction link built right into the location bubble. I clicked it, which revealed a small text box for the address. I typed 5000 Forbes. Google didn't understand it... So I tried again. 5000 Forbes Avenue. Again, no luck. I had to type 5000 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA before it figured out that maybe, just maybe I wanted to find my way across town.
Java ExamplesLots of amazing examples have been finding their way out of Golan Levin's wildly tangential lectures. Here are a few to check out.
MotivationAmazon's new A9 Visual Yellow Pages is exactly the kick in the head I needed to get back into my thesis project. It's so tantalizingly close to what I'm working on, and it's here now, and it works... really well. At first I was a little depressed that A9 beat me to it, but then I realized that they also got the jump on Google's CityBlock Project at Stanford, so it's not quite so harsh a blow.
After the initial shock of seeing such a robust prototype, the limitation of an automated mapping strategy is starting to become clear. It's a fundamental problem with relying on GPS that Malcolm McCullough points out in Digital Ground. Just because I'm ten feet away from another person doesn't mean that person is in the same office as me, or even in the same company. They could be on the other side of a wall, or on another floor. In Amazon's case, tons of locations have nondescript store fronts, or are above street level. A9 includes the ability to upload new images of a location, but it remains to be seen whether people will or not.
Matt Jones is pretty quick in pointing out the potential for taking this sort of technology off the desktop and into the mobile environment. That's pretty much what I'm doing here at CMU. For my thesis project I'm focusing more heavily on user-submitted images from camera phones and designing the system around exploration rather than discovery, but the basic idea is the same. That on a human scale, people understand pictures of their environment more readily than maps.
LATCH PrinciplesMetafilter has added the ability for people to retroactively tag their old posts, and just like on Flickr a lot of the same tags keep popping up. This prompted a Flickr-style visualization of the tags that maps frequency to point size. Problem is, the Metafilter tags are also ordered by frequency, which makes the tag sizes a little redundant.
This weekend, I played around with an alternative visualization that combines frequency and currency in an alphabetical arrangement.
Moment of TruthToday's challenge? Convert a 25+ page thesis essay and eight months of research into a 10-minute presentation that concisely explains my topic.
I decided that ten minutes wasn't nearly enough time to fool around with bulleted lists or Powerpoint. Instead, I conceived my visuals as a supporting backdrop [PDF 1.2MB], and spent the time simply talking with the audience about wayfinding. There was a split second near the beginning, when I hit my first completely blank slide... some people furrowed their brows, and my advisor looked truly concerned... but then everything just clicked and it went perfectly. I love it when that happens.
ProcessingAfter a tough decision last year, I've got a second chance to take Golan Levin's Interactive Image course at CMU. I love projects like Flong and The Secret Lives of Numbers, and I'm excited to finally get some insight into that world.
Wayfinding Reality CheckFor about two years now, I've been driving back and forth between Pittsburgh and Dixon whenever I want to visit my family. It's a 12-hour drive, but it's become pretty routine. That's why I was surprised this time to find a five-mile stretch of I-70 completely under water just east of Columbus, Ohio. It made me realize how little I actually understand about what lies between Missouri and Pennsylvania. With the hastily erected detour signage, it was also a good opportunity for exploration.
Of iPods and Christmas MusingsI've been watching my younger brother play with his iPod for the first time and it's got me thinking about Apple's move from a mechanical scroll wheel to a solid-state touch wheel on the 2nd generation iPod, and wondering whether they needed to start with the mechanical scroll wheel to "teach" people the concept of the circular movement. Because that would be pretty cool.
Update: The interaction design mailing list pointed me to a good article that speaks to this point. Of course I'm totally wrong about my hypothesis.
40x50 Inches of Wall SpaceAs part of the thesis project at CMU, we're required to create a mid-year presentation to essentially catch everyone else up to date on what we've been doing all semester. This year, the presentation took the form of a poster. We hosted an open house here in the grad studio and spent some time talking about our projects with classmates and faculty, and a few visitors from outside of the School of Design.
As I worked on my poster [PDF 988K], I realized that an unspoken goal for the exhibition is to force us to synthesize our research and formalize for ourselves exactly where we're going with the project. It's been pretty helpful.
Taking a BreakI spent the holiday at my parent's home back in Dixon. Over the weekend, my brothers and I went into town to play with my Nikon D70. Braving the frigid temperatures, we experimented with apertures and shutter speeds and occasionally stopped to explain what we were doing to incredulous townsfolk. It was nice to step back from school for a while and focus on just enjoying life.
Go West Young ManJust got back from a trip to San Francisco for a combination of job hunting and wayfinding. I enjoyed the trip, and it gave me the opportunity to explore a much different area than I'm familiar with. One convention that particularly caught my eye was that of speed limits painted on the roads around Mountain View. It took me a while to realize that they were speed limits. I've occasionally seen a competing convention that involves road numbers painted directly on the interstate at particularly complex interchanges, and that seems more in keeping with the idea of a label.
A quick search turns up a robust set of pavement marking guidelines right here in Pennsylvania. There are three categories of markings: regulatory, warning and guide. Numbers show up in both the regulatory and guide sections and that's where I think the conflict arises. Imagine if arrows could be used for warning or guide purposes... school crossing over there or US65 goes that way. Oh, and right turn only.
Thesis ReadingsI've been focusing on my thesis essay since summer, and I'm finally starting to make some progress. Like my project, I've been using wayfinding as the subject for my thesis paper. Here are a few of the key readings if you're interested.
The first is a book on cultural geography by Yi-Fu Tuan called Space and Place. I'm also reading Digital Ground by Malcolm McCullough. Next on the list is a small book on colonial America called The Exploring Spirit by former Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin. Finally, and this has been the most thorny, Spinoza's The Ethics, specifically the introductory treatise called On the Improvement of the Understanding.
About, With, For and Other PrepositionsI'm at the About, With and For conference this weekend in Chicago. I drove out Thursday night and spent some time yesterday exploring the city for my thesis project. My professor Shelley Evenson is doing a workshop on conceptual models, and Marc Rettig presented a talk about physical process documentation [PDF 2MB].
All in all it's been a good conference, though a few people have noted that its title is composed entirely of prepositions and conjunctions that are tough to google.
Philadelphia WayfindingI've been studying wayfinding for my thesis project. I'm specifically interested in how we learn new places. After some initial research, I decided that to really understand wayfinding, I needed to experience it for myself. To that end, I drove to Philadelphia this weekend with the goal of just tossing myself into the middle of town with no real map or plan... just experiencing the city and seeing what I could figure out about where to go or what to see.
Philadelphia is a good case study for pedestrian navigation. Every block in the city center has an overview map, along with lists of contextual destinations near the intersections. It's pretty amazing. Within about two hours I felt like I had a handle on the city. It wasn't until Saturday morning that I found out about South Philadelphia... which turned my image of the city upside down.
Here's the problem. All the maps in the city center are oriented to the direction of travel. That's good for following a route, but it played havoc with my overall sense of orientation... probably because I arrived after dark, and didn't notice the discrepancy at first. If South Philly had been plotted on the map, I might have figured it out, but by the time I realized my mistake, it was too late. South Philly is permanently in the northeast corner of the city in my mind, and no amount of mental gymnastics can put it back. Erik Jonsson talks about this problem in a book called Inner Navigation. The lesson? North goes at the top of the map. The top.
The Synthesizers of EverythingRobert Reimann came to speak at CMU this week. Really inspiring. He talked about interaction design in terms of people, not technology. That's refreshing, and a stark contrast with the folks from Google who came out last week.
He cleared up some details about the use of personas in interaction design. Which was helpful, since I think I've been getting them wrong. Reimann had a big hand in popularizing the technique while he was at Cooper in San Francisco. In fact, I learned about personas from Cooper's The Inmates are Running the Asylum. Unfortunately, although the book focused on how to use personas, it glossed over how to actually make them. I think I've got a better handle on it now.
Reimann also talked about some of the differences between an interaction design consultancy and interaction design within a corporation. It's nice to make that distinction as I look to my future beyond CMU.
Speak Up Poster ContestFive finalists are up for review in Speak Up's poster design contest. Head over there by Friday to vote.
They had a huge number of entries this time around and I think that hurt the initial selection process. I'm all for supporting these types of efforts, but I just didn't have time to wade through three pages of 60-pixel thumbnails. I don't even remember seeing some of the finalists during the initial vote. A better strategy might have been to put the entries all on one page, but to arrange them randomly each time the page loaded, so that all the entries had roughly equal visibility over the course of the voting.
Readings from Marc RettigLooks like Marc Rettig has a new reading recommendation blog over at his site. It's still growing, but an interesting book on language and place caught my eye. Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver is also on his list. I picked up a copy from the library earlier in the summer but couldn't really get into it. The book's still sitting on my shelf, so I might give it another shot.
Environmental VisualizationI've been researching different ways to visualize space. From video games to trans-atlantic current charts, there's a lot to dig through. For my thesis, I'm focusing on wayfinding and using Pittsburgh as a case study. There are a ton of different maps of the area, and I've been scooping them up. I've also spent a lot of time up on Mt. Washington, photographing the city, and comparing those views to aerial photographs and images taken at the street level.
During my research over the past few weeks, I've come across some pretty interesting online examples of envionmental visualization that go beyond traditional maps.
- Stanford Cityblock Project
- Michael Koller's Seamless City
- New Zealand StreetScroll
- Chicago Mile-by-Mile
- American Mile Markers
- SimplyDowntown Springfield
Jupiter 0.01bToday Nathan unveiled some new project management software that he's been squirreled away working on down in Springfield. It's called Jupiter. From the tour I took this afternoon, it looks pretty robust. Head over to his site and kick the tires. He's looking for feedback and suggestions.
1000 SignsJeong just pitched a new book my way via Design Observer. 1000 Signs. I didn't realize that the convention of using a red octogon for stop signs has spread worldwide. Wonder if there are any exceptions...
I just picked up another book that Phi-Hong recommended. It's called You Are Here, and has a terrific overview of different approaches to mapmaking. I'm still in the early stages of gathering data for my thesis project on wayfinding. Every little bit helps, so if you come across anything, drop me an e-mail.
VoteI went downtown today to register to vote here in Pittsburgh. I'm a little disheartened at the lack of rigor in the process. I brought along two forms of ID and my current utility bill to prove residence. But apparently the only qualification to register is to find the building... which in retrospect wasn't all that easy.
Of Towing and Street SweepingThey've recently switched the street cleaning here in Pittsburgh from every Wednesday and Thursday to only the second and fourth Wednesday and Thursday of the month. It seems like that should be easier on everyone, but I think it only ends up being easier on the guy who drives the street sweeper.
I constantly have to pin down which day of the week the month started on. Today for example. I'm doing well to know it's Thursday. But for the life of me, laying in bed subconsciously listening for the tow truck this morning, I couldn't decide whether I should move my car or not. Apparently I'm not alone.
It's interesting to me that a real reduction in physical labor is so easily offset by an increase in cognitive effort. Sigh.
How to Fold a ShirtAny sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Apparently so is this. How to Fold a Shirt. It's clear, concise... wow.
What is this "Browser" you speak of?Nice reality check over at kalsey.com that puts the audience for web design in perspective. It's called Why I don't recommend Firefox.
"Most Web users don't know what a browser is...Vocabulary is important. I've been using the computer long enough that I take it for granted that applications and documents are housed in "windows." But I once heard a user call them "boxes." At first, I had no idea what they were talking about, but it's a perfectly logical label if you've never heard them called anything else.
That blue "e" they click on the desktop isn't a browser, it's "The Internet..."
...or maybe it's "Yahoo" if that's what their home page is set to..."
Subservient ChickenAlong the lines of BMWFilms is Burger King's bizarre subservient chicken.
On the surface it seems like a total non-sequitur, until you realize that it reinforces the "have it your way" part of the brand, and is wacky enough to inspire its own little internet meme. The designers did a nice job anticipating what you might want the chicken to do. And within the confines of a living room and the limited visual range of a man in a chicken suit, they can pull off just about anything. I mean, if you tell the chicken to consider the parallels between Spinoza and Interaction Design, who's to say he isn't doing just that?
A New PerspectiveThe weeks leading up to the second year of graduate school are profoundly different. Not nearly as much anticipation. For one thing, I took a year off before coming to CMU. There was the whole application process... the thrill of being accepted. The move cross-country. Exploring a new city. Learning the ropes of Carnegie Mellon.
Now I know what I'm in for. It's still going to be great, but not quite so magical.
Political Poster DesignCedomir Kostovic, my undergraduate design professor, has a great new website showcasing his political poster design. It's a clean and elegant site, and the posters are amazing. His Bosnia design, with a line engraving of an artificially split violin remains one of the most powerful images I've ever seen.
Defending the VillageSomething's wrong with the critical consensus for M. Night Shyamalan's new movie The Village. I usually check the reviews before I shell out my eight dollars. But The Village is getting one- and two-star ratings and I went to see it anyway... mainly on the strength of Shyamalan's previous efforts. I wasn't disappointed.
Enjoying film requires the suspension of disbelief. But people seem to view Shyamalan's movies as some sort of challenge. A game. A battle to guess the plot twists before he reveals them. But struggling to anticipate the turns in the plot is defeatist. It's like jeering at the inevitable boogymen that pop up throughout a haunted house. The point of film is to be entertained, not to establish superiority... either of bravery or of wits.
Much has been made for example of the logical flaws in Signs, involving hydrophobic aliens invading a planet that's 71 percent water. But Shyamalan understands, like Steven Spielberg during the writing of the unlikely climax to Jaws, that if he has the audience in his hands during the first half of the story, they'll follow him no matter where he leads at the end.
He also understands that movies aren't always about plot. Both Signs and The Village are about emotion. That's why they strike such a powerful chord with me. Both films have an ephemeral quality that depends on the darkness and isolation of the theater. Most of the critics seem to be writing their reviews under the harsh light of day.
Fahrenheit 9/11I went to see Fahrenheit 9/11 tonight. It's a powerful movie, but it didn't blow me away like I hoped it would. There aren't any stunning revelations. In fact, if you've been following the news for the last couple of years it's all pretty much in the public domain. I despaired as I left the theater, but I didn't really feel any worse than before I walked in.
Eats, Shoots and LeavesI consider myself a good proofreader, just not quite up to British standards. I scored worse that I'd like on the punctuation quiz over at the "Eats, Shoots and Leaves" website. I apparently err toward too few commas in my punctuation. It's tempting to shrug my shoulders, but that's exactly the attitude Lynne Truss decries in her work. I've been hearing a lot about her book recently. Maybe it's time to check it out.
The Living Room CandidateCheck out The Living Room Candidate, an archive of presidental campaign television advertisements stretching back to 1952. The site includes a brief contextual overview of the presidential campaign for each candidate, and an electoral map showing the results.
I'm bemused by the dancing cartoon characters stumping for Eisenhower and amazed at Johnson's infamous Daisy advertisement. The overall takeaway though is that while today's campaigns look much more sophisticated, their rhetoric is remarkably unchanged.
Smart SearchI don't usually pay much attention to Apple's upcoming OSX releases. Today though, I'll make an exception. Apple's new Spotlight search technology looks pretty cool.
It closely parallels the Smart Search system we designed at CMU last semester for the Microsoft miLife project. Which is a nice confirmation that we weren't just spinning our wheels for five months. We conceived Smart Search as a way to make it easier to find things on a mobile device, but we also recognized that the technology could make things better on a regular desktop. That's what Apple's doing. I'm really looking forward to seeing their implementation.
FireworksI grew up in Missouri. Fireworks are legal in Missouri. Near the end of June, firework signs start popping up every 500 feet or so. It's a mad house. They all compete with one another... offering 2 for 1, 3 for 1, 4 for 1. They basically give fireworks away, but since each firework costs about a nickle to produce, it all works out okay for everyone. Distributors set up huge tents with fireworks displayed like a farmer's market, ready for discriminating families to pick out only the most plump and destructive wares. It's always a lot of fun.
I learned recently that fireworks are illegal in Pennsylvania.
Here's how it works. Fireworks stands in Pennsylvania aren't allowed to sell to Pennsylvania residents. Fireworks stands in Ohio aren't allowed to sell to Ohio residents. Both can sell to residents of the adjacent state. Which is where I found myself this weekend.
Ohio's fireworks stands have all the patriotic charm of a Depression-era bread line. About fifty people with clipboards, crammed into a portable building where the fireworks are numbered and safely restrained under glass. The idea is to mark up the selections on the clipboard and give it to the attendant who actually fills the order from the back room.
I never really appreciated the carnival-like atmosphere of the 4th of July when I was growing up. Now I do... and seventy miles later, I'm ready to celebrate our nation's independence. Have a great holiday everyone!
iPod GenerationI've admired the iPods from afar. Last year though, I saw a few of the grads using iPods to transfer files back and forth between their laptops and the classroom computers.
I had been thinking about an iPod as a replacement for my Powerbook's hard drive, which slowly destroyed itself last month. Apple makes a 40GB iPod, but I'm not sure it's really a permanent storage solution. I waffled back and forth until I saw one of the iPod Minis at Best Buy. Wow. This thing is really nice. The controls are elegant as always, but they've gone a step beyond and integrated the buttons directly into the wheel. And the silver case rounds out an amazingly sleek design for about half the price.
I picked one up today. I think of it as a portable firewire drive that also happens to play music. It's only 4GB, but that's still four times the storage space of my first computer.
Expanding the Definition of Interation DesignDan posted a link to the Signal Orange project on the Interaction Design discussion list earlier this week. The project is a series of T-shirts. Each unique. Each carrying the name and details of one American soldier killed in Iraq.
The project has been taking a beating on the list. Not on its merits. No one else even accepts it as an example of Interaction Design.
In truth, it's not a great project, and I think it's in poor taste, but it is an example of interaction design as we see it at CMU. We're in the minority, so I've been doing my best to back Dan up and evangelize our point-of-view. At this point, it's not going very well.
People and RobotsI'm doing a little web development work for the HCI department on the People and Robots project. It's been a while since I've actually had to hand code a website. A little HTML, a little PHP, a little SQL. It keeps me on my toes.
World War II MemorialWhile we were in D.C., I had the chance to see the new WWII Memorial. I don't know much about the design or construction process, but I'm pretty underwhelmed by the whole thing. It pales next to the stark power of the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial Wall, or the simple majesty of the Washington Monument.
There's too much going on. From the central rainbow pool surrounded by the columns and wreaths and two winged victories, to a series of relief sculptures showing soldiers leaving the farm and preparing for war, it suffers from a lack of focus. The 56 columns each represent the states and territories of America during the second world war. They're ordered in two seperate arcs by the date the territory entered the union and alternating north or south. The organization system is too clever by half, and distracting in its complexity.
But there's a more subtle deficiency that's hard to pin down until you see it in person. The other structures around the capitol mall show an old-world mastery of materials and technique and unfailing neoclassical design. Even the postmodern Vietnam wall celebrates the beauty of its black marble. The World War II Memorial, for all its complexity, looks like it was prefabricated from the Garden Department at Lowe's.
BoondoggleThis summer, I'm working for the School of Design, continuing with the DMM Transformation Project. Four of us are on our way down to D.C. this week to meet with members of the standards team at the USPS. I'm not sure, but this may be what my friend Andy would call a boondoggle.
Grad School CrazinessThe last month of graduate school was unbelieveably insane. Twenty hour days. Papers, projects, proposals, presentations. Then, nothing. After May 15th, I decompressed for about a month. In the very near future though, I hope to fill in some of the gaps here. April is a lost cause, but there were some notable aforementioned papers, projects, proposals and presentations that I'd like to post for May. Check back soon.
SorryThis page left unintentionally blank. Really.
On-Screen TypographyOver the summer, I finally let go of my late-nineties conception of screen typography. As I delved into the anti-aliased world of OSX and XP, I built a series of visualizations to compare different fonts and sizes in a browser rather than in Photoshop or Illustrator.
These utilities were meant for me. They were cobbled together in the Arts and Letters computer lab at MU over the course of a few days. Because of that, I didn't spend much time making the tools robust--or even taking care of niceties like linking them together. Like all my experiments, I dumped them into my "exp" directory. The subfolder paths and filenames were terrible.
Now I realize that it's ALWAYS important to pay attention to these things. You can't anticipate what's going to touch a nerve on the Net. Through a random post on 37signals, my font-comparison utility has been picked up by other blogs and is now far-and-away the largest driver for traffic to my site. After a few months of watching the hits pile up, I finally decided to correct some things.
There's not much I can do about the link (sigh), but I've fixed some cross-platform bugs and expanded the comparison functions. The biggest problem was that most people had no idea that the tool was part of a suite (why would they?), so I've built some navigation to connect the pages. It's gratifying to find designers bookmarking the utility and integrating it into their workflow.
The STFARC PrincipleThis incomprehensible series of signs from Oklahoma is the best example of the STFARC principle I've seen in a long time. STFARC dates back to the mid-nineties, when a local craft store decided to advertise along the road near my parent's home. In a misguided attempt to follow in the footsteps of Burma-Shave, they split their message into sequential signs posted along the side of the road, each showing one letter of the word "crafts". Unfortunately, with all the signs within eyespan it was impossible not to read them left to right--hence STFARC.
It didn't take long for them to realize their mistake and remove the signs. No such luck here. The proprietors of the Oklahoma signs have stubbornly stuck to their sequential plan despite the fact that it's almost certainly impossible to read the signs from a moving vehicle. They've got the feel of a slighly off-balance manifesto. I love that they've obsessively numbered them and erected a little wayfinding post (START FROM OTHER END). As I read through the stream-of-consciousness narrative from left to right, it's hard not to see the parallels to Memento. (Link via Boing Boing).
Online Card Sorting DemoMy team for the miLife project in Design Studio had an assignment over the break. We're into the generative stage of our research, and it's time to test the framework we've been developing. Our basic idea is that people feel more mobile or less mobile depending on where they are during their day. That affects the kinds of activities they can engage in.
In order to better understand this relationship, we developed a deck of cards with pictures of different environments. We've been asking people to arrange the cards in a continuum between those places where they feel more mobile and those where they feel less mobile. After they arrange the cards, we map a predefined set of activities to the environments and note the gaps.
To show you how this worked, I put together this interactive card sorting demo. Our actual cards aren't this small (they're a little bit bigger than a deck of Uno cards), but you get the idea.
Distributed WayfindingEarlier this year, Metafilter spawned a new creation called ask Metafilter. It allows you to tap the collective wisdom of Metafilter's 17,000 members to answer questions you can't find an answer to on your own.
Google is great, but sometimes it comes up short. It usually requires you to know enough about what you're looking for to come up with a decent query. That can be a problem. For example, a few weeks ago, I wanted to buy some Bristle Blocks for an assignment in studio. Trouble was, back when I played with them as a kid, I had no idea that's what they were called. I explained my problem, and within seven minutes, someone posted an answer. Trivial, yes. But helpful to me.
Today though... WOW. I found out just how powerful this thing is. For my thesis, I'm studying wayfinding differences between Europe and America. One aspect of this is city layout. I had read that Paris was built on a radial plan, and New York on a strict grid, but that was about all I knew. So I asked for some help. The response goes FAR beyond anything I was envisioning. The members of Metafilter have absolutely latched onto this topic. Books, maps, websites, newsgroups. It's really beautiful.
I spent about three hours in the library tracking down the books they've recommended. I could probably have stumbled across some of this information on my own, but their personal observations are impossible to recreate. People know a lot about where they live, and Metafilter's members live all over the world. Whether it's a complaint about the organic complexity of Mumbai, or praise about the gridded regularity of Phoenix, it shows the world outside Pittsburgh with a clarity that's impossible to capture in a book.
Spring BreakWe've been on Spring Break here at CMU. I've taken a few days to repair myself, followed by a day of repairing my apartment, then one for my car and my bike. I feel just about back to normal.
Weblog TemplatesAnne Galloway touches on a topic that's been grating on the back of my mind for a while. Weblogs are text-heavy, and most have the same sort of content elements. That tends to promote a similar structure. On top of that, Moveable Type apparently provides a set of default visual templates for blogs that some users never elect to change. As I read more and more blogs, I come across these templates often enough to take note.
Here's the Moveable Type default template:
- Social Beasts
- Imaginary Magnitude
Designing for PeopleRon Kemnitzer, this year's visiting professor in the CMU School of Design, gave the Nierenberg lecture tonight. It's inspiring to see someone dedicated to the idea that Design can be a positive factor in advancing society.
His design philosopy was shaped early on by reading Designing for People by Henry Dreyfuss. It's long out of print, but as luck would have it Peter Merholz is right in the middle of sharing some spreads and commentary from his copy of the book over at his site.
miLife SurveyAs part of my team's research for the miLife project at CMU, we've put together a short online survey. If you have about 15 minutes, I'd appreciate it if you could answer a few questions about mobility and the personal computer.
Rhythm and RandomnessToday I finished my first project for Time, Motion and Communication. It's an exploration of rhythm. I'm playing around with the human tendency to see patterns in randomness. The composition changes each time to watch the movie. The randomly placed pulses reinforce each other and gradually emerge as visual rhythms in your head. Or at least, that's the idea.
Design for MobilityThis semester, I'm working on a team project for Design Studio. Called miLife, it revolves around designing a mobile PC.
My team has a representative from each of the graduate programs here in the School of Design: Interaction Design, Communication Planning and Information Design, and Product Development. It feels like a good mix. We've set up a weblog to track the progress of our research and design--which is where most of my energies have been directed lately.
Since we're required to, we've named our team. After casting about for an idea that at all distinguishes us from the other teams, we settled on m151. It's the sum of the course codes from our respective disciplines (we're the only team with a Masters of Product Development grad). Check out the rest of the teams here.
At the end of the semester, two of the four teams will fly out to Redmond, Washington to present our concepts to Microsoft, who's sponsoring the project. I'm conflicted about this for a couple reasons. First of all, I'm not wild about being required to work for Microsoft, so I'm working through some cognitive dissonance. More importantly though, the competition has established a barely perceivable "us against them" mentality that I'm afraid will start to chip away at the nascent community that developed last semester. I guess time will tell how grounded in reality either of these qualms turn out to be.
Matthew CarterMatthew Carter came to CMU this week to give a lecture and gallery talk about his work. His exhibition over in the Miller Gallery is amazing. Almost forty years of type designs. It includes histories, sketches and production drawings from many of his most popular faces. The precision with which these elaborate drawings were executed is unbelievable. And in rubylith? Forget about it.
He gave a two and a half hour walkaround talk that elaborated on his career as a type designer for Linotype and Bitstream, and briefly discussed his work for Microsoft. The next day, he gave another lecture--this one less esoteric--about the selection of materials for design.
After the lecture, I had the chance to ask him about the design of typefaces for the new onscreen font-smoothing of MaxOSX and Windows XP. He said he had just switched over to OSX (since Fontographer runs best in System 8.1) but that he was impressed with the clarity of onscreen reading as provided by Microsoft's Cleartype technology. Guess that settles that argument.
The Victorian InternetI remember being intrigued by kottke's plug for The Victorian Internet a few years ago. The book draws parallels between the development of the telegraph and the internet. When I saw it again the other day on zeldman.com, I decided to head over to the CMU library and pick up a copy.
It's a comfortable read. I had no idea that early mechanical telegraphs were actually built across Europe. Huge signalling stations employed complex arrays of levers and flags to transmit coded letters to line-of-sight stations, the operators of which viewed the distant signals through telescopes. In France, where the technology developed, they held on to the idea of a mechanical telegraph well into the electric age.
Dead PowerbookOn the first day of classes last week, my Powerbook died.
After some random freezes, the computer refused to boot up, illuminate the screen or load a CD. This inspired a general level of panic. It's been so long since I've had any problems with my computer that I didn't know quite where to begin.
My old Powercenter 150 (still running perfectly) was back in Missouri under the care of my youngest brother and buying a new Powerbook was out of the question. Long out of warranty, I realized that I've become quite attached to this computer.
So, for the past five days, I've been methodically troubleshooting whenever I have a free moment. I hooked my Powerbook up to my CMU G4 as an external firewire drive and was able to at least back up my files. That eased my mind a bit.
With my Powerbook hooked to a working lifeline, I was able to run Norton DiskDoctor and patch up the software on my computer. Still no good. I swapped out the hard drive for the original 10GB drive. Still nothing. I removed my 3rd party RAM. Nada.
After reading some of the forums on Apple's website and encountering dozens of stories with similar symptoms, I resigned myself to the possibility that my Logic Board was fried. Since I couldn't find a replacement on eBay immediately, I tooled around with some other Apple voodoo--resetting the PRAM and the PMU. This time, I was greeted by three unfamiliar beeps at startup. My computer didn't turn on, but the little sleep LED patiently blinked at me in a series of three short pulses, trying to communicate ala Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Turns out that these diagnostic beeps can range from one to five in number. Three means that no RAM banks passed memory testing. Of course, with my computer in this condition, I wasn't sure whether it knew what it was talking about or not. As a last resort, I carefully removed the 256MB Apple chip that came with my Powerbook and replaced it with the 512MB chip that I had taken out during troubleshooting. I held my breath and pressed the power button.
Success. Last night I put everything back together (except for the bad RAM) and closed the case up. I reinstalled my files and after some initial testing, everything looks fine. My torx screwdrivers and static strip now go back into the closet, hopefully for good.
Information VisualizationGolan Levin is teaching a new class this semester called Information Visualization as Artistic Practice. I was excited when I found out he was coming to Carnegie Mellon. I've written about his work at least twice here on Obligatory.
My excitement was quickly tempered by the realization that I'm already taking Time, Motion and Communication--a signature course here at CMU. It's a huge time commitment, and I sleep little enough as it is. I love being torn between these kinds of choices.
Film CreditsNice visualization of the growing length of end film credits. Link via SVN.
Almost Famous vs SE7EN, RevisitedI've been thinking a lot recently about the impact of sound on design. Yesterday, I decided to revisit the film title comparison I made between Almost Famous and SE7EN a few years ago.
Back then, I noted that the movies used identical strategies to opposite effect. Although I didn't think about it at the time, music played a big part in setting the tone. To explore this concept, I've switched the soundtracks between the two sequences (which are both about two minutes long).
SE7EN: Altered Soundtrack
Almost Famous: Altered Soundtrack
The result? SE7EN reminds me of one time when The Far Side got its caption swapped with Dennis the Menace in the newspaper. The music makes it all seem sort of nonsensical. Like a blissfully naive psycopath. Overall, it's too bizarre to really work.
Almost Famous shows a much more marked contrast. The visuals are neutral enough that the discordant music completely shifts them. Now, the sweet handwritten credits seem more like the 'to-do' list for a serial killer.
Martian Concepts of TimeI hadn't given much thought to the fact that the Martian day is longer than Earth's until I read about the special watches the NASA team had constructed. Also interesting is the social construction of time for Mars.
Audio LandmarksThe trip from Missouri to Pennsylvania takes about 12 hours, and except for a tunnel in West Virginia and a towering roadside cross in Illinois, it isn't too interesting to look at.
To mark my progress, I've begun to recognize the radio stations along the way. Things kick off with 101.1 The River out of St. Louis. Eventually, Real 97.1 fades up just before Indianapolis. If I keep it on the dial long enough, the station transitions into 97.1 Columbus, "the point-one difference." I'm happy to learn that none of these are owned by Clear Channel. Yet.
Anyway, I'm back in Pennsylvania. Ready to take on the new year.
Make-a-FlakeHappy holidays everyone. We didn't have a white Christmas this year, but this bit of Flash goodness almost makes up for it. It's called Make-a-Flake, a quirky little snowflake-maker by Look and Feel New Media in Kansas City. I finished my final paper for Graduate Design Seminar this afternoon. For my thesis, I'm thinking about studying the impact of culture on wayfinding design. This paper is an initial exploration of the topic.
Now that I'm at the end of a string of seven projects, presentations and redos, the experience feels strangely empty. It's as if the semester simply trailed off--without a focused conclusion.
Like most of the other designers, I feel drained, both mentally and physically. If the weather holds out, I'm sticking around for the Design in Motion presentation on Monday, then heading back to Missouri to recharge for a while.
Update: A bunch of designers and MAPW grads got together tonight at the The Church Brew Works here in Pittsburgh. That was the concluding event the semester needed. Also, looks like snow and ice is headed our way for Sunday, so I'll likely take off earlier than expected for the midwest.
EchoTwo assignments down, one to go. Yesterday, my team submitted our final project for Interface and Interaction Design. The brief was to experiment with emotionally rich communication. Our design involved a physical desktop avatar that could respond to a user's emotions and reflect that information back to their instant messaging community.
Our prototype was a small dog called Echo with a webcam mounted inside its nose. Echo is sympathetic to the gestures and expressions of its owner, and responds accordingly with its own behavior.
Digital SundialFound this digital sundial via BoingBoing.net. It's hard for me to wrap my head around exactly how this works. No moving parts, just a series of slots that allow differing angles of sunlight to shine through--forming numbers. It's very, very nice.
4amIt's the last week of classes here at CMU. I've had a project or presentation due every day since Monday. My coping strategy has been to design at night and present during the day. Sometimes I sleep in the afternoon. Sometimes not.
This morning, at about four o'clock, I witnessed a man running around the campus stadium with nunchucks.
I came home after class yesterday, slept till midnight, then got up and came back to school to finish a presentation. I've been here since then. It's seven o'clock (pm) and I just finished my last class of the semester. I have a project, a paper and a process book due next week (none of which I've started) but for now... sleep.
Update: On the way out to my car, I realized that they actually enforce what they call the "5:30 rule". That means that all cars have to be removed from the parking garage by 5:30 am. I've seen signs to that effect, but it's never really been an issue before.
Road TripWhew. I'm back from a marathon road trip to Missouri and a much-needed break. Besides battling time, distance and fatigue, last night I was faced with some pretty sketchy road conditions through most of Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania. I drove past car after car pointed in odd directions on the shoulder with blinkers flailing like beached whales. During the twelve hour drive, I saw two cars execute 360 degree spins off the snow-covered roadway, their brake lights replaced briefly by headlights at sixty miles an hour. It's pretty disconcerting, especially at four in the morning.
CA Interactive AnnualI'm a little embarrassed to admit that this year's Communication Arts Interactive Annual slipped by me unnoticed. I didn't realize it was even out until I stumbled across a copy in the library. I've been archiving the CA Interactive Annuals since I started working at D3, so I couldn't allow this year's annual to get away without a fight. The Barnes and Noble here in Pittsburgh had already cycled through their copies in favor of the November Design Annual but I was able to snag a back issue through CA's website.
DopplegangerYesterday, I bought the extended edition of Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. I've spent a good chunk of the weekend absorbed in the experience of the DVD. The extended edition has over 40 minutes of new footage. Clocking in at nearly four hours, the additions add an unexpected richness to the characters and their motivations.
As I watched the new material, one otherwise inconsequental scene demanded my attention. Looking out over the plains of Rohan, shortly after their reunion, Aragorn discloses to Gandalf that Samwise has accompanied Frodo on his quest into Mordor. Apparently surprised by this news, Gandalf replies, in a bemused sort of way, "Did he? Did he indeed? Very good."
Wide eyed, I was struck by the revelation that for the briefest of moments, Gandalf was channeling Dick Buchanan, my professor for Design Seminar here at CMU. It's absolutely uncanny.
Design ObserverErin writes about a new design blog called Design Observer. My first impression is that the design is clean and perfectly executed. My second impression is that the entries are uncommonly articulate and thoughtfully written. That's a powerful combination for a weblog.
This site belongs on your radar.
Microsoft ResearchJohn SanGiovanni from Microsoft Research spoke at CMU yesterday. He covered a whole slew of emerging technologies, including a particularly cool three-dimensional sketching application for the Tablet PC called 3D Journal. Here's how it works. You draw a sketch of a cube, much as you might draw with the paintbrush in Photoshop. The program recognizes that your two-dimensional drawing represents a three-dimensional object. It then allows you to rotate your drawing in three dimensions, adjusting the perspective and geometry of the actual sketch in real time to show how it might look from the side, or the back. It's jaw- droppingly amazing.
Almost immediately after though, I started to wonder, how useful is the ability to rotate such a simple three-dimensional object? Luckily, the researchers at Cornell who came up with the implementation have developed a pretty robust system. This presentation of their research [PDF 1.1MB] shows some appropriately complex wireframes.
Social Robotic WalkerWe've had an extra week to polish our Social Robotic Walker project from Interface class. One of the problems with our original presentation was the disconnect between the moving arrow and the static viewer. The arrow is supposed to respond to the movements and orientation of the walker, but that's hard to evaluate when the interface is tied to a desktop computer.
Our solution was to create a mobile prototype.
We loaded the interface onto Andy's Powerbook and secured it to the top of a box of paper. Then we strapped the whole thing to the seat of a rolling chair. Using a wireless keyboard, we were able to make the interface respond like a touchscreen, complete with an arrow that moves as if it were being controlled by GPS. We replaced our nursing home photos with some pictures that Dan took of the rooms down the hall from the graduate studio and ended up with a testable prototype [Flash 1MB]. To see how it worked, click one of the locations, then use the arrow keys on your keyboard to fake moving the arrow around.
In order to evaluate our new interface, we recruited some people who didn't know their way around Margaret Morrison hall and sent them off [Quicktime 1.4MB] with the "walker," using the arrows for navigation.
We've made some subtle alterations in light of our findings. For instance, it turned out that people simply don't make the connection that the arrow is an invitation to move forward. Once they understand the rationale, they can easily follow the arrow's directions, but that initiation is a major hurdle.
Submarine TimeWhen I was an undergraduate at SMSU, the design program was about a mile off campus, on the fifth floor of an old AT&T Bell building. The design majors were always getting kicked out at about 11pm when the building closed for the night. We would beg and plead, and sometimes eek out another 15 or 20 minutes, but more often than not we were kicked to the curb, licking our wounds and grappling with our T-squares and SyQuest disks on the way back to campus.
Here at CMU, the design building is open 24 hours a day. While that's been convenient for me, I've started to worry about the rabid work ethic that characterizes the CMU undergrads here. If I show up at Margaret Morrison hall at, oh, say three in the morning, chances are there will be communication design students roaming the halls. And not just one or two. They're right next door to the grad studio, and from the sound of it, whole herds of them are hard at work, whooping and hollering and generally exhibiting the symptoms characteristic of being awake at 3am with access to rubber cement thinner.
This is what it must be like aboard a submarine, with no real "night." Things don't shut down here. After a few months of working around the clock, it starts to feel normal. You start to anticipate people sleeping on the couches, wearing the same clothes from day to day and drifting bleary-eyed through critiques.
New RSS FeedAfter experimenting with RSS for over a year, and enduring some gentle ridicule from my CMU cohorts, I've decided that I need to embrace syndication.
Obligatory is still a hand-crafted affair, and therein lies the problem. I'm not willing to give up that control, but no way do I have time to build my own content management system. However, since I apparently no longer sleep at night, I did find the time to hack together a relatively painless obligatory XML feed for your news readers, featuring human-edited summaries of all the latest content. Enjoy.
HondaNormally, I don't promote corporate advertising. Most of it is schlock.
This isn't. [Quicktime 4.8 MB]
It's the most elaborately conceived game of Mousetrap ever. It's clever, well-executed and only occasionally stretches the laws of physics. Link via playgroundblues.com.
Social Robotic WalkerOur third assignment for Visual Interface and Interaction Design was due this week. After rounds of design revisions and a late night on Monday, we finished our Flash prototype and presented on Tuesday.
The design brief was to create a navigation interface for a "Social Robotic Walker." Contrary to what immediately comes to mind, the robotic walker is a fairly benign machine. The students over in the robotics department have been modifying a Sweedish rollator for the elderly so that it can park itself and find its position within a building via GPS.
Our task was to design a touch-screen interface for the walker, so that the user could select locations on the screen, and then be guided to their destination by the computer. Like OnStar, but slower and indoors.
I was on a team with Dan Saffer and Andy Ko. Here's a look at our research and design process [PDF 4MB]. We found a direction for our design fairly early on in the assignment. That gave us time to do several iterations of paper prototypes and user tests before turning to Flash for our final presentation [Flash 1.2MB].
Small Things ConsideredVia Joel's book review, I've been reading Henry Petroski's Small Things Considered: Why There is No Perfect Design. It's been helpful to have another book lying around to break up the readings for Graduate Design Seminar. Petroski's book is a fascinating series of vignettes about the design of objects like cup holders and the paper bag. I'm enjoying it so much that I've tracked down some of his other books. He's written a 448-page book about the invention and development of the pencil that's pretty amazing.
Maeda @ MediaWelcome back. So, up until last Wednesday, I was immersed in a massive project for Graduate Design Studio. Since then, I've been recovering. Now that things have calmed down, I thought I'd write a little about my process.
Our second assignment in Design Studio was entitled "Visualizing Information Space." Each of us was given a book, magazine, website, CD-ROM or DVD that contained complex information. Our task was to visually explain the information space of our artifact.
My artifact was a 450 page book written by John Maeda, who spoke at CMU back in September. Maeda's point of view didn't resound with me at first, so this assignment seemed karmically appropriate. It's changed my mind.
One of my first steps in approaching this problem was to buy my own copy of the book and make some modifications to its interface. Viewing the pages of a book adjacent in space rather than stacked in time helps illuminate its structure and content.
Despite the size of the book, it's an easy read. Less than three hours of material. Basically, it's a picture book. The relationship between narrative and image is interesting. Maeda was very methodical in the way he designed the pace of the book. Each chapter is a perfect multiple of 16-page signatures. That consistency of structure suggested a framework for my digital interface.
Three weeks and over 400 scans later, I finished my visualization. It weighs in at over 100MB and almost certainly violates copyright law, so I won't post the whole thing. Here's a compromise that gives a rough overview of the interface. Click each screenshot to see the next one.
Playground BluesSorry about not blogging much lately. While I'm getting my act together, looks like Nathan has started a proper blog over at playgroundblues.com. Go read it.
Design/HCI BonfireWe had a Design/HCI bonfire tonight at Rich Farms in Whitehouse, Pennsylvania. More than 30 of us showed up to eat s'mores and tour a haunted house. The weather was absolutely perfect. A clear sky, a full moon, and just a touch of autumn chill in the air.
The campfire ignited an arms race among the designers to create the most ingenious s'more-cooking gadget. It's possible (though not practical) to warm a graham cracker, melt some chocolate and toast a marshmellow in one fell swoop.
Ballot DesignIn the wake of the California recall election is this Slate article about ballot design by Jessie Scanlon. The 133 candidate California recall ballot is truly terrible. But instead of bemoaning the current state of affairs, Marcia Lausen of Studio/lab in Chicago has been working to improve things. Since January 2000, when design problems related to the Florida butterfly ballots first emerged into public consiousness, her design proposals have been adopted in Oregon, and have led to changes in Illinois' election code that previously required candidates names to be printed in UPPERCASE bold.
Although it's too late for California this time around, Slate magazine commissioned Lausen, along with California designers Hugh Dubberly and Sean Adams, to create redesign proposals for the recall ballot.
This is a significant example of design with the potential to make a difference in people's lives. Too often design is seen as little more than window dressing. I'm happy to see this angle getting some coverage, even if it is just Slate. (link via whatdoiknow.org)
History of the AlphabetsThese phenomenal animations come from the 'History of the Alphabets' course at the University of Maryland. Eight animated GIFs visually trace the development of modern character sets from their historical sources.
Dictionaries sometimes show the antecedants for modern characters, but in a static form. It's amazing how much more clear the metamorphoses becomes when fully animated. The most complex is the development of the Latin alphabet from the Phoenician.
The nature of these animations inadvertantly demonstrate the perceptual benefits of comparing information adjacent in space rather than stacked in time. The Cuneiform animation shows the development of wedge writing in four steps. Unlike the other animations however, each frame replaces the one before. This is useful for visualizing subtle variations between forms, but prevents us from drawing holistic comparisons between each stage, as we can in the Latin, or the Cyrillic.
School WorkThis week has been crazy. I had projects and presentations due in two of my classes, plus some pretty tough readings in Seminar and group work due for the USPS project. Now that I've caught up on my sleep, I thought I'd post some of the work.
Our first project was a self portrait constructed out of information. Really more of a graphic biography. My solution was a 3'x6' matrix of everyone I went to school with from elementary school, middle school and high school. I mapped activities and friendships [PDF 2.2MB] through those 12 years, and showed the photographic age progression of those classmates who (like myself) stayed in Dixon the entire time. After the project, I constructed a sixteen page booklet [PDF 934K] documenting the process.
Visual Interface and Interaction Design
I worked with a team of students from the Human Computer Interaction (HCI) department to create a series of situationally appropriate interfaces [Flash 1.2MB]. The point was to design an interface that remained sensitive to its environment and its interaction with humans. We concepted three different approaches--one that could be understood at a glance, one that could be understood without vision, and one that could be understood without vision or hearing.
Pop QuizQuick! What's the most common color among international flags? I thought I knew, and even developed a rationale to explain it. After a few days of the question grating on my mind, I researched the matter and found that despite my perfectly logical explaination, I was ever so slightly wrong.
Update: Give up? Out of a sample of 216 international flags, 80 have green, 131 have blue and 156 have white. Red however tops them all at 159 (74%).
It varies a bit by continent. In Africa for example, 76% of the countries have green represented in their flag--their most popular color. White comes out on top in every other continent except Europe, where red dominates slightly.
I thought white was a shoe-in for the most common color, simply from a production standpoint. (White is the most common color in document design simply because paper happens to be that color.) I think I can see how red would be popular as an orectic symbol for blood and unity though. And Africa's affinity for green can probably be explained as a symbol of hope for their environment.
Spatial NavigationSome heartrendingly well-conceived experimentation with spatial navigation can be found over at polarfront.org.
For me, the appeal of spatial navigation is in its minimalism. The design is stripped to its absolute essentials, and the content becomes its own navigation. It's difficult to do this well in two dimensions, as I've learned the hard way. The addition of a third dimension allows the design to scale to a practical level. On the Web, Flash is pretty much the only way to do that.
CSS GeneratorZeldman reports a new online tool from Inknoise that automatically generates cross-browser CSS layouts (including two- and three-column layouts with header and footer). It's a great entry point for learning the techniques involved. In addition to the validity of the code, the application design itself is clean and impressive.
Along the same lines is the slightly less impressive list-o-matic tool for generating Dave Lindquist's CSS-styled unordered list navigation menus.
Punctuation SanityHere's a bit of editorial curmudgeonry from The Slot. Capitialization and punctuation tips for brand names. I've never fully grasped how this works, but it's nice to see a bit of retaliatory sanity against the world of trademarks and lawyers. For example: "The companies and their trademark lawyers want you to duplicate their capitalization. They also want you to use the trademark symbol. They also want you to use the word "brand" and a generic identifier to guard against the loss of their trademarks. Journalists eat Big Macs; McDonald's lawyers might want us to eat BIG MAC® brand sandwich products. Are you going to give in to all of those demands? Do you want your stories to look like press releases?"
Design ReadingsWe've been assigned many, many papers to read for Design Seminar this semester. I'd thought a bit about posting our readings, but Dan Saffer, a fellow first year interaction design grad, is already doing a pretty thorough job over at his site. If you're interested in this sort of thing, check out the listings. They're mostly seminar readings, but a few from interface class and studio sneak in from time to time.
NYC SubwayThe NYC Subway presents links to dozens of subway maps from around the world. Most owe a debt to Harry Beck's abstracted map of the 1933 London Underground. (Link via emdezine)
Communication TheoryThe itensert in cliratiy of peoerctipn diestpe semralbcd lteerts taht's been maknig the rndous on the inetnert teis in nciely wtih aepctss of cmncaoiiotumn tehroy and rdundencay taht we've been siutnydg in Dseign Smaienr.
Hree's smoe asylians of the pmnhoneoen coustery of Languagehat.
Pittsburgh Printing ResourcesWhile I was an undergraduate at SMS, on-campus printing resources were pretty mediocre. As a result, the design students spent a lot of energy ferreting out the best off-campus printers. Typecenter, Lithostat, Springfield Blueprint--we knew where to go to get the best prints, the cheapest service or the quickest turnaround time.
Now I'm in Pittsburgh. Surprisingly, the printing resources at CMU aren't much better than SMS circa 1998. Since I'm separated from the resources I knew then by 700 miles and five years, I've had to start from scratch. I spent this week getting up to speed on the state of the industry. After visiting more than a dozen service bureaus, I compiled this list of Pittsburgh Printing Resources for the rest of the design grads, ordered by print quality.
As an aside--during the past five years, most printers have moved to a filmless workflow. Consequently, finding a Linotronic imagesetter has been unexpectedly tough. The best I've been able to come up with is a 12" wide Linotronic for paper positives. The sales rep I talked to seemed surprised to discover they still had it at all.
Mood BoardsCompleted one of my first projects at CMU. It's an exercise for finding the visual essence of abstract concepts. Here are screenshots of my explorations of Vision, Touch, Place, Movement, Pose, Expression and Sound.
The USPS Transformation ProjectI've joined a team at CMU that's working on redesigning the United States Postal Service's Domestic Mail Manual. For the last three years, a steady stream of CMU graduate students have been reorganizing the fairly inscruitable tome into a series of distilled manuals that present the information in an understandable way. The scope of the project is daunting, and is a great example of the kind of opportunity I've come to CMU to find.
CSS BreakthroughDoug Bowman's tutorial on CSS positioning just fundamentally changed the way I think about page construction. If you build web pages with CSS, you must read this.
Typographic QuizHey! No cheating. This typographic quiz from SpeakUp is tough. I'm afraid I flunked it with 14 out of 30, but before Maria hunts me down and kills me, some of the questions were obscurely trivial (not in the legitimate typographic sense). Also, two of my answers I think should count for partial credit. Give it a try.
Squirrel HillI live in a neighborhood in Pittsburgh called Squirrel Hill. The significance of the name wasn't really appreciated until I started riding my bike again. There's a reason they don't call it Squirrel Plains or Squirrel Meadow, or anything resembling Squirrel Flat Tranquil Place.
There's a difference between riding the mile and a half to Downtown Hall in Springfield, and the mile and a half to Margaret Morrison Hall in Pittsburgh. In the morning, my ride is best summarized as a vertical drop. From time to time, my brakes seem to be a pleasant fiction. The ride back introduces me to gear ratios I hadn't realized existed on my bicycle.
As conditioning takes hold, the commute is beginning to seem plausible. And with gasoline at $1.75 a gallon and no parking available at CMU, I've got an incentive to keep at it.
CMU IntroductionI've survived my first round of classes. Design Studio and Seminar on Mondays and Wednesdays, and Interface/Interaction Design, Human Factors and Computing for Design on Tuesdays and Thursdays. No classes on Friday.
The Design Studio and Design Seminar are at the core of my studies here at CMU. I can tell by the brief exposure I've had to the classes that they're really going to stretch my thinking. We spent half an hour just discussing the potential methods for organizing data. One of my classmates, Cheryl Gach, threw in a sixth organizing principle (random) that broke from Richard Saul Wurman's LATCH approach. Chaos ensued. I've never been part of a group that was interested in discussing theoretical principles of design. It's incredibly exciting.
CMUFirst day of classes at CMU today. Design studio and seminar. I'm unexpectedly exhausted, both mentally and physically. More later.
Pittsburgh TunnelsPennDot re-opened the Fort Pitt tunnel this weekend, eliminating many of the serpentine detours that have interfered with my image of the city. I've lived here for almost a month, but still have no idea where Squirrel Hill is in relation to the rest of Pittsburgh. After two years of construction, I unconsciously expected the new tunnel to be breathtakingly awesome. It's not.
With the re-opening of the Fort Pitt tunnel, I've started to realize that while it's not impressive, it is helpful in navigation. I've encountered three tunnels in Pittsburgh: Fort Pitt, Squirrel Hill and Liberty. Each have their own visual and experiencial characteristics. For instance, Fort Pitt tunnel is very bright and only about a quarter mile long. The Liberty tunnel on the other hand is nearly a mile long, and gradually darkens as you approach its center. These cumulative differences in the tunnels (and bridges) help to orient visitors as they criss- cross the city. UPDATE: The detours are back. I have no idea why. Frustration arises not so much from the fact that it's harder to get where I'm going (they plan the detours well, and there's plenty of clear signage) but because the roadways just aren't reliable. I'm too young to remember a time when reliability in the roadway wasn't a given. I expect some form of stability. The fact that the detours keep changing prevents any accurate estimation of travel time or efficiency of route. It also means that driving demands far more attention than normal.
The ImageConfounding the development of a city image is the fact that Pittsburgh is divided by not one but three rivers: the Monongahela, Ohio and Allegheny. So while a riverbank would normally be a strong visual landmark, the shear number and direction of the banks renders them relatively useless for visitors.
New Contact InformationI feel like I'm finally settled in at my new apartment here in Pittsburgh. To make it official, I've updated my contact information with my new address and phone number. I question the wisdom of creating a 421 prefix within the 412 area code, but as long as I never have to transcribe my number again, I'll try to cope with it.
SyndicateMy friend Tyler just debuted his first commercial font design. It's a display face called Syndicate, designed around a letterform he created for his band's logo -- hence the name. Now that it's undergone some nips and tucks, the final face is available through T-26. You can view its genesis at typophile.com. Congrats Tyler.
Visual ClutterOver at BBC News, I stumbled across a story about cameras being used to enforce the speed limit in England. Two police officers from North Yorkshire were photographed speeding in a neighboring district. They successfully challenged the legality of the speed limit signs based on the presence of a proscribed black border. Basically, they're weasels. But it concerns me to hear the other officials in the story utterly discount the impact of the black border. Though the effect in this case is marginal (roll your mouse over the image to see the difference,) the visual phenomenon at the heart of the issue is very real. It's documented more poiniently in this graphic from Envisioning Information.
Design ProcessFound this whimsical visual interpretation of the design process by Speak Up's Armin Vit. Spot on.
Vehicular KinestheticsI've developed what I think is a sense of vehicular kinesthetics. Normally, I drive an Acura Integra. It can get into and out of anywhere a car can go. I know exactly how big its turning radius is and where I can safely parallel park. But for the past 800 miles, I've been towing my car behind a four ton, 14 foot moving van.
I've adapted. It took a while, but I've come to terms with negotiating my way through highway construction with little to no clearance on either side of the truck. I've come to terms with driving 55 miles an hour though a night and a day while never overtaking another soul. I've come to terms with the deference afforded by driving a vehicle that can crush any car on the road.
I understand and sympathize. But I don't miss it. I'm back in my Acura now and it's hard enough to find my way around Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh BoundOn the road again, moving my stuff out to Pittsburgh via Uhaul.
TwinThe Design Institute of the University of Minnesota recently commissioned a font called Twin from the Dutch firm LettError. The face includes 880 character variations and is governed by an algorithim that varies the display along three different axises, Formality, Roundness, and Weirdness. You can play around with the configuration of Twin's display at the Design Institute.
CMU RSS FeedsSeveral of my CMU classmates run weblogs documenting their studies. I've added their XML feeds to my RSS Newsreader.
Apartment HuntingI'm back from my trip, none the worse for wear. It's roughly a 12 hour drive to Pittsburgh, a journey which I opted to make mostly at night to avoid the scorching summer sun.
After getting the lay of the land and touring a half-dozen apartments, I found a nice second floor efficiency in an old Victorian house north of campus. I'm looking forward to riding my bike again on a regular basis. The commute is less than two miles over level ground, so it shouldn't be that bad - at least until we get three feet of snow come January.
Meet and GreetWhile in Pittsburgh, I've been meeting some of the 2nd year grads that are hanging around over the summer, as well as some first year grads that are in the summer Communication Design Fundamentals class. Earlier in the spring we set up a Yahoo mailing list, which was pretty useful for learning about CMU and Pittsburgh in general. It also helped to build community before arriving in person.
To that end, I put together this virtual meet and greet to say hi and learn everyone's faces before the semester begins. It's met with limited success, possibly because many of the grads are gone for the summer, but more likely because the idea of posting a picture online creeps people out more than I anticipated.
Apartment HuntingThis morning, I arrived in Pittsburgh to start looking for an apartment. It probably sounds hopelessly rustic of me, but I was surprised at the selection of stores integrated into the neighborhoods. I suppose Pittsburgh doesn't have the real estate for shopping malls, so instead the usual JCrew and Victoria's Secret properties have set up shop in rows of ramshackle buildings adjacent to Mom and Pop grocery stores. Just seemed a little bizarre.
US Flag CodeI didn't know until this week that there are rules for how to hang the US flag over a street. When you can see the flag from both sides, the US Flag Code specifies the cardinal directions East or North for the union, depending on the direction of the street.
Carnegie MellonSo, what's next? Last August, I claimed to have quit my job at iMarlin in favor of nothing. That's not entirely true. While I've spent plenty of time catching up on old episodes of M*A*S*H, mainly I've focused on researching and visiting graduate schools around the country.
After learning everything I could, I submitted my applications to three different programs. Then, I hoped for the best while working on my contingency plan. The job at Mizzou came along at precisely the right moment. Worst case scenario, I'd have a paying design job. Best case, well...
Things are working out better than I could have dreamed. In August, I start at Carnegie Mellon University, studying Interaction Design in their Masters program. There's an incredible amount of planning to be done between now and then.
Just Your Typical Day at the Office
- 7:00am Arrive at work
- 7:15am Clean out cubicle
- 8:00am Check e-mail
- 9:00am Review color proofs
- 12:00pm Lunch
- 1:00pm Production meeting
- 3:00pm Make text corrections
- 5:00pm Resign from job
LogosI've known about logo.nino.ru for awhile now. It's an extensive EPS logo repository hosted somewhere in Russia. Looks like they've finally got a competitor in the illicit logotype distribution trade. webchantier.free.fr/logotheque/ lacks nino's search widget, but the site more than makes up for it with a cleaner browsing interface and faster page load.
An Analysis of Web TypographyFrom its inception, typography has been about designing for the medium. Hot metal types were designed to compensate for ink bleed in order to leave a clear impression on paper. When photographic composition replaced metal type in the 1970s, typographers found that the new technology reproduced the letterforms too exactly. The quirks of metal type design were no longer suitable.
Though the transition we're going through on the Web is more subtle, the principles are the same. Originally, web designers were forced to use fonts designed for the world of print. Arial, Helvetica and Times were the only options. Verdana and Georgia were both commissioned specifically for the limitations of the screen. When Microsoft released the typefaces in the late nineties, they quickly became the Web standard.
If modern browsers insist on smoothing body copy, one of two things need to happen. Either screen resolutions need to increase, or new typefaces need to be designed to be imminently readable when smoothed at 72dpi. Right now, Lucida Grande is the closest thing we have to a contender on the Macintosh.
The Benefits of Anti-AliasingAs part of my anti-aliasing research, I spent some time surfing other weblogs to see how they tackle the problem. During my search, I stumbled across these articles at daringfireball.net. They're a great introduction to how the OSX browsers (IE5.2, Safari and Camino) handle font smoothing.
A disturbing offshoot of my research was this discussion with Dave Hyatt, a Safari engineer, who claims that the benefit of anti-aliasing small fonts is a subjective matter. Apparently, there's a contingent of people who think that every typeface looks better smoothed, regardless of size.
That frightens me. It's not about whether it looks good, it's about readability. Anti-aliasing was introduced for smoothing display type. It's not meant for low resolutions and small type sizes.
It seems like it would be pretty easy to objectively prove or disprove the merits of anti- aliased body copy with some reading tests that track speed and comprehension.
Web TypographyFor the past few nights, I've been formulating some new rules for typography in the new OSX web browsers. Jaguar is set up to anti-alias everything above 8 pts, and that font smoothing dramatically effects how type appears onscreen.
My system up until now has been to use 12px Verdana for body copy and 10px Verdana for captions. That's not going to cut it anymore. It looks great on MacOS9 and Windows 98 and 2000, but on OSX everything sort of blurs together. Captions are hard to read, and body copy looks too clunky.
The solution I've come up with is two-fold. There's a new sans-serif typeface that's just for OSX called Lucida Grande. It looks much crisper at 10px than Verdana. For regular body copy, I'm staying with Verdana, but bumping the point size down a notch (11px) for all platforms.
I put together a series of utilities for comparing screenshots of the fonts. If anyone has access to Windows XP, I'd like to see how its anti-aliasing stacks up. Here's the app that allows you to change the font selection, along with a way to upload the screenshots.
BugsI love the wireless network on the Mizzou campus. Right now, I'm setting out in the open in front of the bookstore, typing away. It's a beautiful spring night, and while I'm used to insects being drawn to my screen, tonight they seem unusually determined.
I appear to be sitting directly beneath a large lightbulb. Apparently, most of the bugs divebombing me are either already dead, or stunned out of their mind by flying too close to the flame. A hardy few richochet off my computer and immediately scurry beneath the keyboard. Odd.
Squidfingers.comJosh clued me in to Squidfingers.com this morning. It's one of those rare sites that blends precision coding with rich, earthy design. Few websites have the tactile feel of print. Squidfingers does. It looks like it fell out a bin at the antique shop. Lots of goodies to be found.
Fraud UpdateRemember Michael Cox? He's the scam artist I ran into a few months ago on eBay. After paying back about three quarters of my money, he inexplicably skipped town. Turns out, people were starting to come out of the woodwork with similar reports. All in all, the DA ended up filing 14 felony counts of auction fraud and grand theft against the guy.
He turned up two months ago in Riverside, California, running the same scam. The recalcitrant fraudster was promptly arrested and held over for trial. Yesterday, I received word that he pled guilty to several counts of auction fraud. I had pretty much given up on ever seeing that final $358. Apparently, he now has to pay it back as a condition of his probation. Life is good.
WebbiesWebby award winners are online. They're presented, along with the nominees, on a single page to make for easy browsing. Get thee to a broadband connection.
Dog YearsWhat if instead of dogs living one seventh the length of our life, it was the other way around? What if seven human years equaled one dog year? Would we pass down pets from generation to generation? Would they be the companion they are now, or would our constant deaths be disturbing to them? Would they be pets at all, or would the added life experience give them dominance? Or aloofness?
Few animals live much longer than humans. Those that do only exceed us by about fifty years. Trees are an interesting exception. Even though we rarely acknowledge them as living beings, much less sentient, we marvel at their longevity without being threatened by it. Could we view dogs as we view trees? Or would we destroy them?
DiscoveryI've been reading The Discoverers by Daniel Boorstin. It's a detailed investigation of how our views of the world evolved, broken into four segments: Time, The Earth and the Seas, Nature and Society. Acknowledging that common views were once revolutionary is thought provoking, and makes me enjoy wondering all the more.
Rental Car ConventionsFor the past three months, I've been renting a car once a week to relieve the stress on my Acura for my bi-weekly commute to Springfield. Each week, I seem to get a new car. I've probably driven half a dozen different models of vehicle, each with a unique set of controls.
Apparently, there aren't many conventions for designing an automobile cockpit. As I examined the different interfaces, I could only find three controls that remained essentially the same. The first two were the gas and brake pedals. While they sometimes differ superficially in appearance from car to car, their function and placement remain fixed. It's probably mandated by law since it's such an important part of the driving experience.
The other control surprised me. It's the turn signal. No matter the vehicle, the turn signal is always on the left, behind the steering wheel. It's always a stick, never a knob or a button. It's always mapped so that it moves down for left and up for right. That consistency is perplexing.
The turn signal isn't critical to moving a vehicle from point A to point B (some people go their entire lives without using a turn signal). It's hard to believe that the design should be mandated for so insignificant a control. Windshield wipers, conversely, are much more critical in low visibility, and sometimes are necessary at a moment's notice. Yet their controls differ wildly in position and in form from vehicle to vehicle.
Maybe the turn signal just happens to be located in the perfect spot. Anyone know of examples where the turn signal works differently? I'd be interested in hearing about it.
Update: PDF of a similar anaysis of automobile design. Also, a history of automobile design.