Recent studies by psychologists in California and British Columbia have shown that being exposed to nonsensical data improves ability to find patterns. This probably doesn't come as too surprising to most of you (after all, it supports the fact that creative types tend to be explorers, travelers, experimenters, always looking to experience something new), but what if we could prime ourselves to be better at our office design jobs in a way that doesn't require investment in air travel or special equipment? What if all it took to be more analytical and synthetic in our work was to read a Kafka story every before as a warm-up?

How we learn in the dark

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A recent visit to Paris's Dans le Noir restaurant got me thinking about visual, auditory, and kinesthetic (VAK) learning styles and what happens when one of the most heavily relied-upon modalities among seeing people is taken away from them.

This restaurant chain (in Paris and London) sells a unique dining experience by removing all light from their dining area and employing legally blind persons as waitstaff. You enter into a (lit) bar waiting area, empty all of your belongings and sources of light (including cell phones) into a locker, order your meal (a set menu with several mix-and-match course and drink options--we chose not to know the actual dishes before we ate them), perhaps enjoy an apertif, and then you're led by your blind waiter through two black velvet curtains to your table, which is in a room so dark that you cannot see your own hand 2 inches in front of your face (though one of my dining companions insisted he could--and later joked that he spent much of the evening waving his hand in front of his face while his mind filled the images in his head). You drink your wine, pour your water, and eat your dinner with a knife and fork completely in the dark. The noise level of the dining room quickly elevates as people who normally rely on vision for so many communication cues are forced to focus their auditory sense on identifying speakers and maintaining conversations; the waitstaff must come in to shush the room periodically throughout the service.

I am a predominantly kinesthetic learned myself, so my first instinct was to feel out my surroundings and understand the size and shape of the table, where the table settings were located, what material the furniture was made of, and how far the wall extended behind and beside me. My eyes instantly interpreted the tactile information into a mental picture of my surroundings, and I used this mental map to "see" the world as dinner went on. As soon as the dinner plates came to the table, there was nothing I could do but stick my left hand into the food and feel for textures, heat, and moisture. Most of the ingredients were eventually recognizable by smell and taste (we later cross-checked with a photo-album menu in the waiting area) but, to quote my fellow contextresponser Enric, "Food should be enjoyed by all five senses." Perhaps we are particularly sensitive to the visual aesthetics as designers, but I realized during this meal how much my enjoyment of food is influenced by visual data--and how this particular meal was less culinarily meaningful to me because I couldn't see the structure and the colors on my plate.

Nevertheless, a trip to Dans le Noir is truly a "walking in someone else's mocassins" worthwhile experience for creating empathy. I'm sure people with other learning styles will have different stories to tell about how they adjust to the darkness.
This post is coming to you from above. WiFi's new dimension: get connected while flying high. And, no, this is not a medical marijuana joke. I am blogging from my flight back from Boston to San Francisco from seat 13C, Virgin America flight #...who cares, I'm online. So far, I've skyped with my work colleagues, caught up on some work emails, got on HuffPo, paypal'ed a friend. What better to do on a flight than pop open your laptop and take care of some errands?

So Virgin America takes one of the first steps and offers onboard WiFi. At first, I am elated. I can get online and make this 6 hr flight go by a LOT more quickly than trying to sleep or listen to my iPod. Then I imagine more and more people with their laptops on the plane, kind of a scary thought, but then I imagine the tiny netbooks now and I'm less anxious.

Back to the WiFi. I am impressed.

Signing up was a charm. Finally, an airline who gets experience design. From the boutique-hotel style check-in to signing up for WiFi in a jip, this airline is getting my attention. I appreciate the screens on the back of the seats, but full-on access to the interweb is my cup of tea.
Most people who know me would characterize me as fundamentally an honest and upstanding person. I've broken very few laws in my life and suffer from a torturous amount of guilt any time I feel like I've wronged someone. True, I run the occasional stop sign on my bicycle when there are no other vehicles in sight, but on the whole I'd say I'm a law-abiding citizen who has no intention of cheating others and would immediately attempt to right the situation if I felt I had.

You can imagine how frustrated I am, then, when the ill-conceived experience design of Caltrain ticketing labels me a criminal for forgetting to validate my 8-ride pass a couple of times. Now, the first time I got a citation was a fluke: I'd never used an 8-ride pass before and didn't even know what it meant to "validate" the ticket, much less when and where to do it. My assumption had been that the Caltrain official would stamp or punch one of the rides on my ticket as he made his rounds through the car. Instead, the official unforgivingly cited me for fare evasion, when anyone who looked at the pass could have plainly read that I'd purchased that ticket exactly 11 minutes before he laid eyes upon it.

I have been racking my brain trying to come up with reasons for a ticketing and boarding design that punishes (criminalizes!) honest but forgetful people, but I have yet to come up with a good one, so will offer my critique, propose a new solution and invite the rest of you to share your perspectives....

The problem

The basic reason why the ticketing experience sucks is that there is no consistency in how riders are accountable for these different passes. You can buy a number of different kinds of passes for Caltrain: one-ride passes, round-trip passes, day passes, 8-ride passes, monthly passes, etc., and this is great because different riders have different needs and should have options for the kind of ticket that best suits their riding habits. What's not so great is that, as a rider, you are responsible for remembering different behaviors depending on which pass you happened to have purchased the last time. I purchased a monthly pass for April and all I had to do was get myself to the station, get on my train, and pull out the pass to show the conductor if/when he passed through my train car during that month. Being that my project is finishing up this week and the monthly pass is no longer the best economical choice for me in May, I purchased an 8-ride pass last Friday to use for the rest of this month's estimated rides. Yesterday, I showed up at the Redwood City train station 20 minutes early and passed the time studying for an exam, completely forgetting to validate the ticket and not even realizing I'd forgotten until the official was coming through the train car. I didn't bother arguing with her (she didn't make up the rules, after all) but was doubly pissed off when I later discovered that she hadn't even written "VOID" across one of edge of my pass to validate it and hold me accountable for that ride.

In every other transit system I've ever ridden, there is a single point in the experience at which all riders--no matter what their transit needs or pass types, and no matter whether they swipe or insert or drop coins into a hole--have to provide proof of payment for that ride. On Muni, it's when you board the bus. On BART, on DC's Metro system, on Chicago's CTA, and on most metropolitan public transit systems around the world, it's when you go through the turnstile to get to the platform. Why, then, would Caltrain require some people to do something extra to a ticket they've already paid for before they board the train, when the rest need only to show their ticket aboard the train?

The solution

This is really such an easy problem to solve that I can't believe Caltrain makes it so hard for everyone involved--especially for all those officials who have to deal with pissed-off riders when they issue citations. All 8-ride passes already come with an expiration date, so what is the need for additional validation? I only have 2 weeks to use it, anyway. Call it a 2-week pass, if you want, and charge a little bit more money--but do away with the ride limit. Or, keep it an 8-ride pass and don't make me validate it beforehand if an official is going to pass through my car to check it, anyway; Caltrain officials always carry little tools with them to punch mysterious strips of yellow paper, so it can't be any more work to punch one of my rides as validation.

In the larger scheme of things, Caltrain needs to think about redesigning a better system of ticketing and payment so that it won't need to employ so many grumpy officials to be ticket police. We frequent riders appreciate the service and are willing to pay for the convenience it provides in our life, but everyone could be a lot happier--and things would run a lot more smoothly--if a more considered and use-centered approach to design were applied to the overall experience.

A friend's Facebook status message recently read that she "is really only on FB for about 60 seconds every other day now that the design sucks." Here's why:

1. Feed takes up more screen real estate
Less dense information = more scrolling to ingest everything.

2. Unclear use of grid/column spaces
There are photos on the right, photos in the middle, status/Twitters in the middle, random events ("Highlights") that have nothing to do with me on the top right. What gives? Where is the logic? My favorite part of the screen is the extra white space on either side of the content when I maximize my browser window. Ahhhhhh.....

3. Awkward information hierarchy
Here is why I completely glaze over the rightmost column (aside from the "Highlights," which seems like it should be relabeled "Ads"): because hell if I know that my friend named her new photo album "Living la vida loca," I just know that I like to see Jane Smith's photos, and photos of Jane Smith. Um, it's "social networking" for a reason--make the people the focal point!

4. I have to work harder to get to the stuff I care about
...Therefore, I am less likely to stick around to find it. If Joe Bob is an OCD status updater, I have to read 5 of his status updates in a row before I get to learn something about my other friends. If I "x" him out then I lose all of his status updates. Shouldn't there be a middle ground, like being able to see just his latest status update? Also, don't make me filter people out. Software should be smart enough to track the people who's photos I comment on most, the profiles I visit (read: stalk) most often, and the organizers of events I attend.

5. Redundancy
What's the difference between the "Home" link and "Friends" link on the top nav bar? If I don't pick a drop-down "Friends" option, it appears that it just takes me "Home." Similarly, what's the difference between the "Profile" link and "Joyce Chen" link? We get seven links for the price of five, which in interaction design is not that great of a deal.

Pretty things

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This is cute: graphic design inspired by music. My only complaint is the user experience: I don't want to have to click to the next page/song and press Play, although I understand that the former feature could have been purposefully implemented to prevent a listener from missing all of the visuals if he Tabs away listening to the tunes and forgets to for the visuals.

I always enjoy Nicholas Felton's Annual Report and this year is no exception, although I find the triangle pattern obtuse at times and I wonder if there is a way to use such meticulously collected and organized data to tell a more rich and human story?

Making a case for solitude

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Is it just me, or would everyone suffer from a mild panic attack if one of their friends were to disappear from their gChat list for several days without explanation? I recently experimented with blocking a contact from my list and was both amazed and terrified at how quickly that person ceased to exist in my reality. Another friend of mine explained that her company had allowed its employees to use instant messaging programs at work up until last year; suddenly blocked from seeing which friends/acquaintances were online at any given time, she felt isolated and anxious.

In our day and age, connectivity enabled by technology (whether via cell phones, email, instant messaging, etc.) is so widespread that to remove oneself from that network feels unusual and often uncomfortable, especially for the generation of kids who have never known communication without the Internet. In his article titled "The End of Solitude," published in the most recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, William Deresiewicz explores the benefits of solitude and warns against its obsolescence.

He observes that, in our present age, visibility "is the quality that validates us, this is how we become real to ourselves — by being seen by others. The great contemporary terror is anonymity. If Lionel Trilling was right, if the property that grounded the self, in Romanticism, was sincerity, and in modernism it was authenticity, then in postmodernism it is visibility. So we live exclusively in relation to others, and what disappears from our lives is solitude."

What benefits does solitude provide? The impetus for and concept of solitude has changed throughout history. During the Romantic period, the practice of solitude is seen as critical to achieving sincerity: "the belief that the self is validated by a congruity of public appearance and private essence, one that stabilizes its relationship with both itself and others." In modernist society, solitude was seen as a refuge from the city and the masses. "But we no longer live in the modernist city, and our great fear is not submersion by the mass but isolation from the herd. Urbanization gave way to suburbanization, and with it the universal threat of loneliness. "

But Deresiewicz distinguishes between loneliness and solitude: loneliness is the negative experience of solitude, or the state of being alone with oneself. As with all things with which we are unfamiliar, "the less are we able to deal with [solitude] the more terrifying it gets."

What we lose by losing solitude is, "first, the propensity for introspection, that examination of the self that the Puritans, and the Romantics, and the modernists (and Socrates, for that matter) placed at the center of spiritual life — of wisdom, of conduct. Thoreau called it fishing "in the Walden Pond of [our] own natures," "bait[ing our] hooks with darkness." He argues that "no real excellence, personal or social, artistic, philosophical, scientific or moral, can arise without solitude" but admits that "Solitude isn't easy, and isn't for everyone." It's can be both impolite and unpopular.

What place does solitude have in our current society? Do you agree with Deresiewicz's position on the value of solitude? To me, I see the practice of design as an apt metaphor: we need to strike a balance between collaboration and teamwork, and individual focus and intuition, to create great work. In the same way, everyone can participate more successfully and authentically in a visible world if they periodically withdraw to re-examine who they are and what they want from it.

As a final thought, and to play Devil's Advocate: Do these same philosophies and values apply to more interdependent cultures, such as in Latin America and Asia? An American friend living in China once suggested that, whereas Americans will crave the solitude of hiking in wilderness areas far away from any sign of civilization, the Chinese appear to have no such desire. Most of the remote trails he took while hiking through national parks in Western China inevitably led him to incredible vista points that turned out to be fully accessible by tour bus, where his walking meditation would be interrupted as groups of Asian tourists descended to take photos before traveling on to the next lookout. Could our estrangement from solitude as a result of connectivity shape American/Western culture to become more interdependent?
O3b Networks, O3b stands for Other 3 billion, aims to provide cheap internet access to the remote areas of the globe by 2010. Backed by Google, Liberty and HSBC, O3b is setting up a satellite network to connect the three billion people who currently don't have internet access. In most of the Western world, internet access came as the natural next step in communication technology, we already were enjoying the benefits of TV, telephone, newspapers and what not. These countries, however, will be catapulted into a global information society most of its inhabitants never knew existed.

I can only begin to imagine the impact this will have on these societies. Lack of connectivity and information access are a huge issue in these parts of the world - just think disaster relief, health care and all its related issues like birth control and aids prevention, access to education, access to (alternative) news sources, and most importantly, having the tools to communicate and to organize. Literally, I can see a world of opportunities opening up.

What's in a name?

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[Disclaimer: I used to work at MetaDesign and am still friends with many of the people who work there. I am also still friends with many of the people who left MetaDesign for Ammunition.]

Some of you have already heard my rant about this, but I've calmed down from my initial shock and would like to engage in a civilized discussion about the legality and integrity of Ammunition's decision to showcase on its new website all of the projects that Brett Wickens and Matt Rolandson led while they were Creative Director and President, respectively, at MetaDesign. I counted at least ten projects for which the client had actually hired MetaDesign, not Ammunition, but which are currently displayed in Ammunition's portfolio in addition to having already been on MetaDesign's portfolio for the last several months/years.

Now, it would be one thing if Wickens and Rolandson showcased these projects on their own personal websites; Adobe did, after all, hire Wickens and MetaDesign to design its CS1 and CS2 packaging. It did not, however, hire Ammunition, and while Ammunition attempts to give credit to MetaDesign via a small rollover link at the bottom of each project page, I still find this misleading or, at the very least, confusing.

I do not purport to have the slightest inkling about what kind of legal contracts were agreed to between the parties involved. Perhaps it is perfectly legal to cite projects in this way, especially since Ammunition founder Robert Brunner came from Pentagram, which operates more as a collective of design teams each led by a principal and each managing its own client accounts than as a single design unit. (When Brunner left to found Ammunition, he took his whole team at Pentagram--and ostensibly his clients--with him.) Perhaps this is the same situation that causes confusion over who designed the first Apple mouse in 1980. At the time it was Hovey-Kelley Design, but David Kelley later merged his company, David Kelley Design (I'm still unclear as to whether this is the same legal entity as Hovey-Kelley Design or a subsequent incarnation of it), with three other firms to create IDEO. So did IDEO create the first Apple mouse if Hovey and the other original team members do not and potentially never have worked there?

Even if it were technically legal (with the appropriate credit citations), is it fair? What is integrity when it comes to design, given that so many products are the result of teamwork and designers are so fickle when it comes to firm loyalty? Wikipedia defines integrity as "the quality of having a sense of honesty and truthfulness in regard to the motivations for one's actions." Another definition describes it as "adherence to a code of values; utter sincerity, honesty, candor; completeness." Honesty seems to be a big player here, and perhaps that is why I still feel uneasy about the way Ammunition has represented MetaDesign's work, even though I can convince myself that it could be totally legal. If Ammunition were a person, I can picture him walking around in borrowed clothing and taking all of the credit when others compliment his sense of style, while anyone who bothered to look at the tags would find someone else's initials stitched into them.

When has something like this happened in the past, and how have people reacted to it?

How does a design firm brand itself if its identity is really just a collection of different brands associated with its principals and their past alliances?

Designing a Better Brand


Adapted from HOW Magazine.

A prospective client asks you, "I've heard of you guys. Tell me about your firm."
You give the wrong answer: "We're a full service integrated design firm serving a wide variety of clients."


Describe your positioning in:
-a sentence
-a paragraph
-a page

Decide what you're not
Standing for everything = Standing for nothing
Goal: not to appeal to a larger number of clients, but fewer.

Go beyond awareness
Name awareness does not equal brand equity

Discover your brand
It's already in your company in the form of natural strengths and core competencies

-What kind of clients have you been most successful in attracting?
-What types of assignments have you completed over the years?
-In what areas do you have superior knowledge or expertise?
-What do you do particularly well, perhaps better than most firms?
-What do you most enjoy doing? What do you hate?
-What target audiences have you come to know and understand?
-What distribution channels do you know best?
-What methods, approaches or philosophies is the firm known for?

Connecting value and audience
1) What value do we provide?
2) Who do we deliver value to?
3) How do we deliver it?

Differentiating position:
"We offer [your service] for [your market] by [your method]."

(This is hard because it involves giving something up)

Criteria for strong positioning
Authentic: an honest reflection of what the firm is capable of. Plays to the firm's strengths. Can have aspirational aspects, but only if the firm has the firepower to deliver on the promises.
Exclusive: It excludes as many prospective clients as it includes.
Polarizing: Appeals to only limited number of clients. It may even inspire controversy.

Match position with practice
"What needs to change in our organization for us to bring our brand to life in everything we do?"
Answer reflected in:
-place of business

Socrates said: "The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavor to be what you desire to appear."

Goal of successful branding: Be everything to somebody, not something to everybody.