Forrests and Trees: the problem with pattern recognition

March 15th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Combing through my archive, I came upon this article in the New York Times. Its essential point was that a Brahms score, played by hundred of musicians, contained an error that no one noticed.

A piano teacher heard his student mis-play the piece….when he asked the student to correct the mistake, the student pointed out that he was playing it as written. Most pros sight read – which means they see cues and guess at the rest. That’s why ygu cgn rsad thds semtence.

This is why it’s SO important to have fresh eyes on a project, at key intervals. The eyes of someone who hasn’t been drinking the Koolaid. The eyes of someone with different (or no) assumptions.

On my current project, we had a visual designer on the project from the kickoff, in the sketching sessions, on the client calls. When we (finally) came down to making some mid-fidelity comps, he and I sat at a desk together and made what we thought was best, based on all of our assumptions.

The visual designer was a freelancer…and when the project got extended, we had to let him go on to his next project. One of our internal VxDs came onto the project, and the process of onboading him was so refreshing. Explaining it all, all over again, made me see how silly some of it all was…what was not essential, what could be stripped down. My assumptions, my learning, had backed me into a corner…and a fresh pair of eyes helped pull me back from the trees to see the forest in a new way.

Information Architecture for Hamlet

July 19th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink


I really love the Book Review section of the New York Times. You find gems…and you learn a lot –without reading the book! Ok, so I know that’s probably not the idea. But it’s like a short course on the topic – the overview, some critique, knowledge. In other words, good times.

This article is an interesting approach to informatics and IA, from a literary perspective. Hamlet is obviously the main character in Hamlet…but why? According to the author Hamlet “minimized the sum of the distances to all other vertices” of the network…in other words, he’s at the center of the network. Unfortunately, the network shown above was created by hand – meaning it’s more of an infographic than a data visualization – qualitative more than quantitative, for sure. And the whole point of “distant reading” of books is that there is simply too much literature to read closely. You can read the 200 books associated with the Victorian canon…but there would still be tens of thousands of other 19th century English novels that could illuminate your study…and there’s no way you can read that much, Evelyn Wood be damned.

So…what to do? They did an interesting experiment – researchers fed 30 novels, identified by genre into a machine and had them analyzed by a set of programs – then asked the computer to ID another 6. They were able to pair them all up…but using different means than a human would. The programs used word frequency as well as grammatical and semantic signals. This means that the books are sortable through signals that humans can’t detect.

Data informatics for literary analysis is, then, kind of like a telescope for the eye. And maybe we can have computers chugging away, unaided, to help us do deeper analysis on our literary heritage. Pretty cool stuff.

The coolest part of the review comes from comparing Linnaeus and Vesalius. In IA, sometimes I’m interested in the Taxonomy of things that are new to me – what types of things are there? I don’t think you can really separate that taxonomy from a skeletal structure (the Vesalian impulse) … as soon as I start to identify things, I start to relate them in hierarchical structure – are they really separate then?

9+1 steps to Doing Design

April 14th, 2011 § 3 comments § permalink

Some background. I presented a live version of this post to a beginning thesis class at Pratt. I was tired of showing my own work and wanted to inspire them to get out of the classroom, go into the world, and Do Design. The video above and my 10 slides below are my attempt to do that.

What’s important and awesome about this video is that Eames is awesome. And Funny. Many of his answers are simply “No” or “I wouldn’t” (insert laughing!)

Listen in, about three minutes, when he is asked about constraints.

Q: “Does the creation of Design admit constraint?”

A: “Design depends largely on constraints.”

Q: “What constraints?”

A: “The sum of all constraints. Here is one of the few effective keys to the Design problem: the ability of the Designer to recognize as many of the constraints as possible; his willingness and enthusiasm for working within these constraints. Constraints of price, of size, of strength, of balance, of surface, of time, and so forth. Each problem has its own peculiar list.”

Q: “Does Design obey laws?”

A: “Aren’t constraints enough?”

Constraints are what I would call Step Zero of Doing Design. Eames said that the mark of a designer is their willingness to accept constraints, and to design with them. I don’t think this means we can’t change the world. We should, however, know what the world is all about before we decide what we are going to change.

The presentation below has 10 steps…or 9+1, as I like to say.


Step 1: Make something bad.

This is to say: start somewhere. After we’ve understood (or begun to understand) the constraints of the problem, we should start in the middle. Or as my thesis advisor would say:

Mock it up before you Fock it Up.

Truer words were never said.

Step 2: Mix up your Fidelity.

High Fidelity design experiments give higher fidelity results. Low fidelity prototypes give low fidelity results….but you can make more of them. Which way is better? Both!

Or…make a low-visual fidelity high-motion fidelity prototype. Mix it up.

Step 3: Make lots of things.

This is only to say that we should free ourselves to have lots of ideas, good and bad. Pretty straightforward.
How many flowers do you need in a field? Lots. More than you would think. There is no right amount. 17 pieces of flair? Is that the minimum required?

Step 4: Find real people to use those things.

Go outside, test your stuff out. You might learn something.

Step 5: Tell everyone about your passion

For students, this is easier…rope everyone in as your deputy. People will start funneling you ideas (good and bad), contacts and shared enthusiasm. If you share your passion for your project, it can only grow. Finding ways of relating your passion will refine it, make it clearer and sharper. This is storytelling. It’s important!

Step 6: Partner with enthusiasts

When you go into the world, you may be so lucky as to find like-minded souls. Hold onto them. Show them your work and get their opinions. Then take their advice and re-do your work. Then show them again. Since they’re enthusiasts, they won’t get bored of this. That’s good.

Step 7: Design for yourself

Wait…what? Yes…for yourself. After doing all of this, you will hear many conflicting opinions. They are non-reducible to clarity. You will have to be that instrument to weed out what’s important from what is less important. You will have to make choices. Design for yourself, with your values…through the user’s eyes. I call this Empathy.

Step 8: Stop digging

You might be getting tired now. Or is the work getting stale? Is the curve of awesomeness flattening out? When to stop? That’s up to you.

Step 9: Arrange your results, interestingly

Rule one of Information architecture is that organizing information creates new information. Arranging your results in an interesting way will tell you something out them. Organize them by ranked user preference. by size. By preference and cost. Use 1, 2 and three axis sorting methods. Try a few.

Step 10: Lather, rinse, repeat.

You might have learned something from steps 1-9. If you think you’re done, then you actually didn’t learn anything from step 9. If you’re over budget and over time…stop and ship. But if you can…start again at step 1 with what you learned at step 9.

So yeah…that’s all of that. Enjoy and share your thoughts!

What I learned about Sketchnotes

April 8th, 2011 § 2 comments § permalink

So last week I came out to hear the fine gents of Big Blue Gumball talk about the power of visual thinking at Liquidnet. We did many fun things – Pictionary with company names (HP is hard to draw…Apple is easy), improv to a wordless PowerPoint (like Mystery Science theater 3000)…and Sketchnotes.

We watched Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” Speech and drew what we were hearing.  dream1









I ran out of space! So I started on a second sheet.

Lesson 1 – choose the right pen width.

Lesson 2 – Start in the Middle! I think you run out of space pretty fast if you work on the edges inward. Just start. In fact, start anywhere.

My favorite is in my second sketch where the rock of hope is hewn from the mountain of despair, where we can all stand in brotherhood. And the bells of freedom ringing. As Dr. King said:

Let freedom ring — from the mighty mountains of New York.

Let freedom ring — from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.

Let freedom ring — from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.

Let freedom ring — from the curvaceous slopes of California.

It was fun to draw those bells!

I saw some people who were doing this for the first time…they drew a series of vignettes, almost like a hieroglyphics panel…whereas others who has seen the Sketchnotes style went for the “whole page” as a story style. I felt like I was making a very odd political cartoon! But the whole panel style is so satisfying. And it sharpens your listening…it’s a fun way to experience a talk.

For sure, I’m going to be doing these exercises with my office group.

AM at the Office: Infographics Barrage

November 24th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

I walked in to find that Nico had sent us all this gem, via Gizmodo:


So naturally I thought of this chestnut from Dan Saffer….which they hadn’t seen yet!


Oh….and I found this on my way there, via Google. I think it’s pretty nice.

good-infodesign-550 I like that in McCandless’ view, interestingness+form+integrity-function=useless. Not sure I agree. Isn’t that art or something? To wit, I just bought these prints from 20X200 (see below). I’m pretty excited to frame them and enjoy their charming beauty…which may, after all, rest in their uselessness. Ok…maybe Chris is right.

1692_artworkimage 1690_artworkimage

ok..back to work.

1847: The beginning of the Modern Era?

August 23rd, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

Heller-01-popup This Sunday I saw the face of modernism, and it was a real blast from the past.

I’ve been showing the images from the New York Time book review around the office and most of the designers say, yeah? And?

And…I show them the date this book was first published: 1847. Gasps ensue. The cover of this book about geometry is shockingly modern, a constructivist’s wet dream, Edward Tufte before he was a twinkle. Take a look at the inside pages, either at NY Times or on Amazon, where it is available for song! The diagrams look like sparklines. It’s kind of breathtaking.

So can we push back the beginning of the modern era, like, 50 years?

CMYK Event at Droog: Tasty

April 5th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink


On the 28th, Tasteologie, the test kitchen of Fork and Design put together CMYK Cocktail at Droog. It was a deeply, deeply enjoyable evening. It’s so rare to focus so cleanly and clearly on your senses…and what’s more, to decide if the green-colored cocktail you’re drinking tastes Blue, as the mixologist intended it to (it didn’t…sorry…it was very green tasting!). Tobias Wong’s clear cocktail that slowly turned red as the teabag infused the vodka and soda was a real revelation. It was a super-pleasurable meditation on color and taste.

The Image above is from the photobooth at the event where they tried to get us all to spell CMYK with our faces. Oh…and we all got dressed up in our favorite CMYK clothes. Good times.  The presentations were amazing and the whole event left me looking forward to the next taste experience from this team.

Back to the Futurists…or “we don’t need any roads”

March 31st, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink


So my education continues. A few weeks back I took a well-deserved trip to the Florida Keys to go kayaking with a 1 day layover in Miami. While my travelling companion hung out with her family in the area, I hit the Wolfsonian, the one not-to-be-missed design destination in the area.

The whole museum is awesome, a wonderful collage of great design objects placed in great context.  You can see above the wonderful contrast between the Deco bronze window frames (from a department store in Buffalo in the 30s), the Italian urns from 1910 and this amazing sculpture from the 1932 Olympic Games in LA by Talcott. And that’s just the entryway.

IMG_1952-1The Italian Futurist section really blew me away…earlier in the museum the immense impact of modern technological change on the modern creative psyche was discussed. Never before had the world – so large and complex, more complex than ever before, begun to collapse into a hum of simultaneity. The telegraph, the airplane, the train…the beginnings of modern humans as a networked brain began then. You could know what was happening around the world almost immediately.

It was that Immediacy that Renato Di Bosso is trying to show in the Aeropainting self-portrait above: Speed, motion, multiple angles and the effort to synthesize an entire experience in a moment. the 1929 Manifesto of Air Painting asserts “the painter can only observe by participating in…speed”. Oddly enough I had the pleasure of meeting a futurist expert the following week…she doesn’t have the AirPainting manifesto on her site…but she has everything else futurist here, if you hunger for more manifestos. And who doesn’t? They are all so definitive and ballsy. To wit:

“With our enthusiastic adherence to Futurism, we will…Totally invalidate all kinds of imitation.”

IMG_1945-1I loved this sculpture by Bertelli from 1933 which is a Portrait of Mussolini. It brings speed, mechanism and dynamism to the idea of the human image. It’s kinda breathtaking.

It really made me think…the world is SO much more collapsed into a near singularity now than ever before…but is anyone trying to express this sense of overwhelmingness? I keep talking to people about  technology in my work and I hear kids in their 20s say that they are turning off facebook, or ignoring twitter…They need a break. There needs to be an artistic response to our modern experience to help us with integration. Maybe we need another futurist manifesto?

The Territory is not the Map: Personas and Storytelling

February 11th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

Thanks to @whitneyhess I went off to learn about Ad-Hoc personas in an ad-hoc way – by listening to 3 (free) minutes of a webinar coming up from Tamara Adlin.

What impressed me most about her pitch was that we ALL have personas or mental models of our users already. And, as Socrates exhorts us, the unexamined persona is not worth having.

Personas can help us guide our products, choose pathways in development, and as Liz Bacon helped me see at #ixd10, we can use these personas to build out detailed scenarios of usage. Personas and scenarios can guide us from strategy through to development, depending on how detailed we want to go. From establishing a shared language and model to building requirements and affordances.

I just presented some of these ideas to my team (who weren’t as lucky to go to Interaction10!) and what I heard was some frustration…Do we have to get bogged down in terminology, language and process? Can we just design?  

When I do a Google search of “California” I get lots of images. Emotional impressions, Vistas, Maps and Shapes.

When we design or tell the story of the design, the real challenge is always jumping from this overarching, thematic view (the “big picture") down to the emotional qualities of the product or service. Maybe.

Some Designers just want to design. I like to think about the themes and the big picture to make sure we all know where we are on the map and where we’re going. Both are important.

What I got out of today is that my team is not homogenous. Some of us have more tolerance for context and themes. Some of us are wary and want to limit the “time wasted” on this aspect and get to real solutions first. And we all have varying mental models of what sorts of people we are designing for. Finding this balance INTERNALLY is going to be a challenge, let alone with the client!

I don’t know how to do this…but with my team, we manage to hammer it out eventually.

IXD10: OMGWTF?! or…I need to process a lot.

February 10th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

Ok. I got back from Savannah Sunday night and have been reeling since then. Obviously, I have to work, too. This is a stopgap post! I need to put more into this.

Saturday night, out to dinner before the big Microsoft party, my mind was a blurry haze of ideas.

Jon Kolko’s image of a lot of DATA turning into (less) INFORMATION through synthesis was definitely where I was. I wasn’t yet at the INFORMATION to KNOWLEDGE moment. And far away from WISDOM.

But the next morning (after a night dancing at the Rockabilly mecca Jinx!) I went to Cindy Chastains’s talk on Storytelling and it ALL clicked for me.

Mike Kruzeniski’s talk on Polemics was really inspirational. he talked about framing dimensions of a project’s experience as mission critical, not through dry P0, P1, P2 priority language, but by characterizing aspects of the system as the SOUL of the system, not to be touched or ruffled. Other features were the heart and the body. The body could be trimmed by engineering, the heart could be altered…but the Soul was inviolate. And this language was adopted by engineering and helped keep the essential intent of the project intact.

Liz Danzico’s talk on Improv touched on FRAMES…in which a set of rules (like a chosen musical scale) allows for play and improvisational interaction. (See my favorite book, Finite and Infinite Games and Steve Portigal’s talk last year here and here (that’s me in the front row!) for more improv goodness).

Mike, Liz and Cindy were all saying the same thing…we can frame debates and guide inquiry through language and creative collaboration. Creating a frame is like setting the ground rules for the game.

Mike said “we aren’t going to talk your language any more. It doesn’t serve us. The game has a soul now, and we want you to respect it!”

Cindy had so much great material in her talk about how to use storytelling techniques to build interfaces that respond to people’s natural ways of hearing, but also how to “chunk” up a complex interaction into recognizable parts to be better analyzed.

Language is really our most powerful tool.

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