Sunday, May 25, 2008

Information Revolution

Another great digital ethnography from Michael Wesch at Kansas State University. As he puts it, "This video explores the changes in the way we find, store, create, critique, and share information." What skills do we need now and in the future to, as Wesch puts it, "harness, evaluate, and create information effectively"?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

David Macaulay

David Macaulay has been working on a new book. He gave us a guided tour at Art Center's Serious Play conference a couple of weeks ago. It's another book about how things are built / how things work, but this time it's about the human body. I loved the gentle Prismacolor shading in some of the drawings. From top to bottom, conquering the ascent of the nose, of course, the stomach and intestinal system (complete with trucks hauling away the waste), and finally, the bottom end of the spinal cord being lowered into place in the pelvis. This one promises to be another delight.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Fail Early; Fail Often

A couple of years ago I sat in on one of the planning meetings for the 2007 IDSA / ICSID Congress in San Francisco. At one point in the day we assembled into breakouts to discuss various aspects of the project. I joined the one on the story of design in the Bay Area, since I'm a design history junkie.

I remember being fascinated with the tales spun by old Silicon Valley hands like Hugh Dubberly about the culture of risk that has always been strong there. Failure is a badge of honor. If your resume says that you haven't been fired at least once, you haven't had at least a few spectacular bombs, you haven't had at least one venture shot out from under you, you haven't accomplished much at all.

I remember the infamous Dot.Bomb at the beginning of the decade, listening to NPR interviewing people in the Bay Area who had just lost their jobs. No moaning. No whining. They were already working in someone's garage on some new idea.

Fail early. Fail often. Embrace risk.

Re-Authorship of the Body: Amiee Mullins at Serious Play

Aimee Mullins knew at a young age that she was going to be the person who would choose her identity. In John Hockenberry's terms, he and she both have "re-authored" their bodies, taking over their bodies for a second time after, in her case, double amputation and his, an auto accident that left him paralyzed from the chest down. For those of you who have not read Hockenberry's book, Moving Violations, I'd consider it required reading for any designer. This is the second time I've heard Mullins, and though the second time around I found her talk less focused, less inspiring, the conversation at the end with Hockenberry was a treat.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Go Sparks!

And now for something completely different. Allow me a moment of congratulations to LA Sparks' new hire, Candace Parker. She was a joy to watch today as she, Lisa Leslie, and the rest of the Sparks kicked butt (actually, it was more like a hard-won and closely-fought nail biter) over Phoenix in today's WNBA opener. It should be an interesting season.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Second Life at the Art Center Design Conference

Philip Rosedale was a kid who read a lot, got into electronics, then computers, and was obsessed with making things. Wood, electronic—it didn't matter. He thought it would be good to have his bedroom door go up, instead of swing inward. So he cut through the ceiling joists, installed a garage door hoist.... He sees Second Life as a way for people to do things they want to do but may not have the opportunity to. Why do we dream of going into space? It's the illusion that you can begin again. Leave life as you know it behind; transform yourself (ah... but will you be able to do that? or will you find your old self wherever you go?).

Rosedale questions: Why is the impulse to create in Second Life not utopian? Is a virtual world likely to be a utopia? The web is profoundly bottom up. There is a fundamental freedom at the level of the individual. Utopia is top down.

Rosedale comments that there is a lack of cultural fine tuning in Second Life. I notice that, as his slides cycle through, there is a profound ugliness about many of them (not the image at the top, but for example this one, immediately above. I'm just sayin'...). In a future post I will talk about what this reminds me of—the uneasiness that designers have with the awkward creations of non-designers. Shiver. (Or... the sheer exuberance of unbridled enthusiasm exhibited at events like the Maker Faire. I want my Muffin car!) 

The internet is disturbing like electricity was, but it's impossible to ignore. A huge disruptive change that we can't get away from.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Origins of Serious Play, Revisited

Coming June 17th: in celebration of Charles Eames Centennial Year, the Eames Office will host a celebration of the first day of issue for the Eames postage stamps. The event will be between 11 am and 1 pm at the Eames Office at 850 Pico Boulevard, Santa Monica.

Ruminations: in the next few posts, I'll be talking about some of the topics covered in Art Center's Serious Play conference this past week. Eames Demetrios had a scant ten minutes to talk about the work of the Eames Office, yet touched on some important themes. First, his bemusement that the world focuses almost solely on the furniture designs of Charles and Ray Eames: as beautiful as the objects are, the ideas behind them are as important. In the lunchtime roundtable after the talk, some seemingly pulled up a chair only because they wanted to know where to get their vintage chairs restored. Demetrios is always gracious in fielding these sorts of inquiry, but steers the conversation to the heart of the matter: the Eames Office ethic, the process, the ideas. A few choice selections: 
The Eameses never delegated understanding.
The design process never ended; the play process never ended.
Eero Saarinen couldn't wait to be an adult, because then he would really be able to play.
Eames' experience bumming around Mexico during the Great Depression: he saw there people who were living a rich life despite having nothing. He learned that he could live on next to nothing and stopped using "making a living" as an excuse for taking a job he didn't believe in.

Here's something that will blow your mind. Most people think there are two versions of Powers of Ten: Rough Cut, created in 1968 for the Association of College Physics, and the later, final version. There are three versions, not two. In 1963 they created a rough sketch of the concept in a simple line-drawing animation without sound, just because they had the idea and wanted to test it to see what sort of camera movement would create the illusion. When the physicists requested the film a few years later, the Eameses had the proven idea ready to execute.  This was typical. They explored ideas they were interested in, and eventually the clients caught up with them.

Note to young designers: were the ideas that captivated the Eameses forms of self expression, or did they spring from other motives? Contrast this with German designer Boris Hoppek, who says, "Everything I do is for myself, I try to do what I like. I am an egoist and get paid for it." Witness his design for Copenhagen's Hotel Fox, which purports to be the "soft-sewn world of a baby's cradle:"

Is good design fashion? Is it timeless? 

Early on, the Eameses realized that the age of information was coming and that designers could have something to contribute. IBM bought a thousand copies of the film that resulted. Though the Eameses were consultents to IBM for the rest of their lives and created out of that collaboration such jewels as the exhibition Mathematica, it came about from a pure motive to explore a noble (and way ahead of its time, I might add) idea.

Friday, May 9, 2008


A few shots of people I ran into over lunch.  Two of my former students who have become regulars at this conference, Alan Mudd and Kenneth Jewell from Continuum, and found them horsing around with Steve Montgomery, who I worked with at Hauser (we go back to the time of the green shag carpet, and later, the office overlooking the pet cemetery, and alas, Hauser itself has gone on to the place where design offices go to die), and who I have been teaching with at Art Center for quite a number of years now.

Gaylon White from Eastman Chemical, always a generous sponsor for conferences and especially design education. Check out their innovation web site. It's got a wealth of information for designers, about designers that they've worked with and interesting applications of their materials. Not your dull engineering site. 

This July, Eastman is bringing together materials guru Chris Lefteri and Art Center students in a designstorm with our Color, Materials, Trends Exploration Lab  (CMTEL) in a special exploration surrounding materials use. 

Gaylon has a talent for finding designers with vision. Case in point, on display at the conference is the eyewear designed by IDEO for the "Collective Vision" project. A couple of my favorites from that project, below:
This one is an elegant play on the veils we used to see on ladies' hats (when we used to see ladies wearing hats).

... and Gaylon wouldn't be able to operate without Anna Laws, his right hand. Here she is in the "room of swag," with a towering pile of Eastman tote bags behind her.

One of the goodies in the tote bags is a bottle of "Y Water," a flavored water designed for kids, package designed by Yves Behar's Fuseproject, using a material developed by Eastman, designed to have a second life as a building toy after they're used.

I think you can tell I've been lagging behind in my posts today, as compared to yesterday. I promise you I'll catch up when I look over my notes later.

Day 3

Hello and welcome to day 3 of the conference. We're watching PechaKucha presentations by eight Art Center department chairs right now. We have altered the format slightly, though (being Art Center), from 20 slides in 20 seconds to a super-charged 15 slides in 10 seconds. A challenge, but worth it.  Above, Environmental Design chair David Mocarski holds forth.

I ran into Eames Demetrios again, and he showed me his new book, hot off the press, of quotes from Eames in several languages. I am thrilled. It contains two of my favorites, "The best you can do by Tuesday is a sort of best you can do," bringing to mind the short stop-action film the Eames Office whipped together over a weekend because Charles never liked to show up empty handed (he was scheduled to appear on a TV show early the following week), and my other all-time favorite, "Innovate as a last resort," which always can be counted on to shock my students. What? Eames? The innovator, saying that? Yes indeed, grasshopper. Innovate as a last resort. Why use a wild new process / technology / idea when there is an existing one that will do the job as well? To do so would be doing something new for "newness'" sake. And to paraphrase another of my all-time heroes, Eva Zeisel...

... many times when a designer creates something different solely for the sake of doing something different, the result can be actually quite hideous. Eva is a strong advocate of the playful search for beauty, and maintains that in instead of continually searching for novelty, designers should value the search for simple variety. Her life's work is testament to the fact that creating variety is a noble occupation.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Writing what you don't [already] know

After the last session, the conference broke up into hands-on studios (Art Center's Heidrun Mumper-Drum leads "Nuts to Butter: a Sustainable Design Exercise," above). There were places to create, learn, build, and play. I joined the writing workshop led by author Irene Borger. Here's what I learned: The creative process is a fertile and dangerous place. A liminal state. It has the attributes that anthropologists would characterize as ritual. In traditional rituals, elders protect the neophytes as they pass through the experience. For this reason, creativity requires a protective "container" in which to take place.

It also requires the right attitude, one of openness and non-judgement, as you would want to find in brainstorming. We talked about Flow, about Csikszentmihalyi (see the book list at right).

After spending some time discussing the nature of the protective environment and attitude required, Borger led us through a very simple exercise that had amazing results. She asked us to name three things we had created, and taking one of those, to create a "clustering" exercise around it. This was very much like a mind map, but without the link lines.

Then she read us "One of the Lives," a poem by W. S. Merwin, which begins with the line, "If I had not met the red-haired boy whose father had broken a leg parachuting into Provence to join the resistance..." and continues in a long winding thread to tell a story. Borger asked us to take that starting phrase, "If I had not..." and write about the topic we had chosen in one, unbroken session of about 10 minutes.

The clustering exercise set the stage in the mind and when we turned to the actual writing, we all scribbled non stop. When it came time to read, we were astonished. I came away thinking that it was nearly impossible to not write a compelling story using this exercise, and when we heard one story after the other read, it was fascinating to see how, though each of us started with the same original phrase, our stories were different.

So here are the tools:

Attitude (tolerate delay of closure on a problem)
Protective Container for the process (time, space)
Clusters (both of which are divergent tools)
Breaking the task into smaller units
Focusing devices (both of which are convergent tools)
Fun (this was the Serious Play conference, after all)

Two bonus tools for expanding a part of the writing:
Deepening: take any word and dig into it. In the phrase "the name was already taken," for example, "What I mean by taken is..."
What I don't remember: ask yourself what you don't remember. This might take you somewhere.

And there you have it.


You've heard of Aerogel, or frozen smoke, as it's sometimes called. In addition to other magical properties, it makes a wonderful substance to project images on. There was a small display showing this at the conference.


How to describe the jump rope (yes, jump rope) team? I can't. I notice that none of the other blog sites had video of them, so I whipped out my camera and caught the tail end of their performance. It's a lousy video, and they were slowing down, but I think you get the idea. To see the trailer for Helen Hood Sheer's documentary of this phenomenon, click here.

Here is my lousy video. Keep in mind that at this point in the performance, they were moving at about half-speed:

The Origins of Serious Play

I ran into documentary filmmaker Eames Demetrios in the hallway and we talked about how difficult it's going to be for him to decide what to show in his upcoming presentation. Eames is the grandson of Charles Eames, and has a lifetime of knowledge about the work of Charles and Ray Eames. We both were saying that at every design conference we attend, during half the presentations we're reminded of something the Eames Office did back in the day. And when it comes to Serious Play, the Eameses invented it. Well, it will be interesting to see what he decides to show. Will it be his film, A Gathering of Elephants? Part of the Eameses' Powers of Ten? We talked about a clip of Demetrios' own documentary, 901: After 45 Years of Working, that shows the dismantling of the Eames Office after Ray's passing. There were towers made with xylophone keys that play tunes as a ball falls downward through them. We talked about what Stuart Brown said about the connection between play and the ability to problem solve. The essential aspect of play is a lack of an ulterior motive—if you've got a purpose in sight, you don't have play. One of the first tasks a new hire at the Eames Office might be given was to rearrange the keys in the xylophone towers to create a new tune. They took their play seriously. 

A Lot of Paperwork

Dr. Robert Lang has discovered a way to create patterns for origami from simple stick-figure drawings. His application, Treemaker, is free and runs on all platforms and enables not only the figures you see here (all made of a single piece of paper), but also has enables him to design folding telescopes and mirrors for space exploration, as in this prototype of the Eyeglass, below,  developed for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. 

Day 2, mid-morning

Stuart Brown has studied the play history of murderers and found that from Charles Whitman shooting up the University of Texas campus in 1966 to Seung-Hui Cho's killing 32 at Virginia Tech, "normal play behavior was virtually absent throughout the lives of violent, anti-social men." Play deprivation is a serious thing.

Take aways: hand in search of a brain, brain in search of a hand—this is where play takes place. At a high school in Long Beach, California, it was found that students could no longer solve problems. Looking at their history, it was because they hadn't worked with their hands when younger. Note to self: next time you hire someone, ask them if they've worked on cars / built roads in the dirt / taken apart toasters / sewn their own clothes when they were younger. If they haven't worked with their hands growing up, they will not be able to problem solve, according to Dr. Brown.

Play is born of curiosity and exploration. Rough and tumble play is a learning medium for emotional regulation. 3D play fires up the frontal lobes, the executive center of the brain.

The opposite of play is not work. It is depression.

Neoteny. Remember this word. This is the retention of immature qualities into adulthood. Humans are the most neotenous, the most flexible, the most playful. This gives us a leg up on adaptability. Live and learn.

Serious Play, Day 2

Today opened with George Smoot, winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize for Physics, and Charles Elachi, director of JPL and the president of Cal Tech, showing us the universe. Smoot discussed the ultimate design in nature: looking at the relics of creation, the dawn of the universe, in order to understand the process. Nature's design principles. Elachi presented a number of past and current activities at JPL, along with the magnificent imagery that we've come to love.

Elachi takeaway: wherever everybody else looks, look somewhere else. Look at what everyone is doing; do something else. Don't travel the path, go somewhere else and leave a trail.

My Art Center colleague, Tony Luna, responded in this way: "I makes me feel insignificant, but I also feel the importance of being able to understand the grandeur of doing something good while I'm here. Everything is so transient, but a the same time, I have hope. I've always been fascinated by the universe, and to see Dr. Elachi explain it in everyday terms makes me feel like I belong."

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Art Center Design Conference

This Thursday and Friday I'm going to be blogging from Serious Play, Art Center's third design conference. If it's anything like the last two, it'll be wonderful. This conference created buzz from the outset three years ago and has a devoted following. John Hockenberry will MC as he has done for the last two conferences. Not taking anything away from the stellar list of speakers, but Hockenberry absolutely makes the conference. He ushers us smoothly from one topic to the next, introducing each speaker and chatting with them in an informal session afterward. I don't miss the tired audience Q & A, waiting for runners with microphones to work their way through the audience, and I certainly don't miss dealing with unintelligible—or worse yet, ego-driven—questions from the audience. Hockenberry knows the right two or three questions to ask, and provides an elegant transition to the next speaker.

Highlights that come to mind from years past: Theo Jansen's fantastic creatures, Eiko Ishioka's magical visions, the conversation between Chee Pearlman and Jonathan Ive, and who could forget Sandra Tsing Loh's excoriating stab at the program director of public radio station KCRW? (Note to self: don't fire someone just days before they are to take the stage at a major conference!)

I also look forward to the "play" part of the conference. The first time out, we had palate-cleansing musical interludes by the Ditty Bops, a delightful pair of guitar-and-mandolin-strumming women who periodically treated us to a swinging song. I'm hoping guest program director Chee Pearlman has planned something equally sweet to liven the energy level this year. From her Cheshire-cat smile this afternoon at one of the planning sessions, I think she has.

I took a look at the room as they were setting up this afternoon. There will be the usual cushy ergonomic seats and lounge-lizard dens, same as last year (above), and the stage is at the center of the space, more accessible to the audience. I've already cased the joint and have located a choice spot near a power outlet. I'm ready to go.

Talk to you again Thursday morning....