Category Social Commentary

Finding Meaning Naturally : An Interview with Jeannette Hanna

Jeannette Hanna is one of the brightest brand strategists I have known in my professional career. We first met when I interviewed for a position at Spencer, Francey, Peters in Toronto. My impression of the company was a smart, laser-focused company integrating organizational design, brand strategy and identity systems. Jeannette had a lot to do with this impression presents herself as thoughtful, infusing intelligence into conversations about the purpose and focus of branded systems. She is also an American that has become a cross-cultural translator between two countries that often are seen as the same (Canada and the United States).

Since the first time we met, Jeannette is now part of Trajectory, a brand consultancy that continues to create sustainable brands in a world of commoditization. Strong intellectual scaffolding around purpose, goals, and actions is what Jeannette thinks and consults about. These efforts led her to co-author Ikonica, A Field Guide to Canada’s Brandscape, the first systematic look Canadian brands and their cultural distinctions. Hanna’s thesis in the book – that culture, commerce and community mores are highly inter-dependent – transcends the Canadian context.

What is it to be human? : Digital tools may provide a series of answers

What is it to be human? Fundamental questions such as these are both simple and complex because it is asking for the fundamental answer for an abstract concept. For many, this question conjures up the role of DNA and the millions of years of evolution that make us who we are today, or conversely the role of our environment and culture that shape us as one node of billions of nodes. To professionals who are involved with these debates, both evolution and environment interplay with one another to define what it is to be human.

Searching for Context : Interview with Sharon Poggenpohl

Sharon Poggenpohl has had a lifelong fascination with design. She is a dedicated educator that has focused her career on working with masters and PhD design candidates in the United States and internationally.

I first met Sharon while attending graduate school at Rhode Island School of Design where she became an advisor on my thesis activities. Her accessible style and genuine interest in collaboration was of great benefit to me, both during school and afterward when I had to collaborate with many disciplines in creating large digital systems.

She taught at Rhode Island School of Design, Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute of Design, and until recently at Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s School of Design. Her experience in teaching and administering both masters and PhD programs gives Sharon a unique perspective on the challenges and potential of design education. Her desire to both understand and create the context for design and support that context through research and collaboration is rarely discussed. Addressing actual empirical behavior — rather than remaining at an abstract rhetorical level is Sharon’s focus. Sharon is co-editor of the recent book, Design Integrations: Research and Collaboration and publisher of Visible Language, one of a few high-standard journals in design.

What struck me about the interview with Sharon was how thoughtful and disciplined her answers were; they reinforced my direct experience with her at RISD and over the years. Design education has been at a continual crossroads for decades and the cacophony of design educational models, skills and outcomes at an undergraduate, graduate and doctoral level feel in many ways insurmountable bordering on a wicked problem. Sharon has very common sense foundations to address the continual problems that degrade the value of design education and how focusing, assembling, editing and delineating educational goals and methods can increase the level of rigor of design programs.

From the Tanagram Archives : Is There an Architect in the House?

Please Note : This post  from the Tanagram Spill blog archives, which was deactivated recently, is being reposted on my blog.

I recently attended the Information Architecture Institute Idea 2008 Conference, October 7-8 in Chicago. The theme of the conference was ” . . . on designing complex information spaces of all kinds.”

What was intriguing about this particular conference was the diversity of people, both in professional and geographic terms. There were graphic designers, interaction designers, technical leads, managers, and oh yes  . . . “information architects.” What was interesting about the attending information architects was that they came from so many backgrounds to become an information architect. There were actual classically trained architects that became IA’s, there were designers that were IA’s and so on.

When Richard Saul Wurman coined the term Information Architect in the late 1980′s, he was an architect that was designing travel books (Access Press) and was trying to come up with a term for designers that create information intensive artifacts. Since we cannot really agree on what the exact meaning of “information” and “architect”, I have come to the conclusion that merging the words into a concept would be difficult. I have hired several IA’s professionally and have come to the conclusion that there is little agreement of what an IA is and even what their outputs are. This was evident at the Idea conference, that there was no attempt in defining the term.

The first speaker was blogger David Armano who spoke on “Micro-Interactions in a 2.0 World.” A well-known and dynamic speaker, David took participants down a very rapid terrain of design, marketing and business through technological innovations. His central premise is that we are moving from passive consumers to active participants through existing social architecture technologies – not custom applications. Since all of our devices are internet enabled, the notion of a traditional browser experience is giving way to smaller more intimate digital apps that do one or two things. We as users cross-link these apps together. He used the term “life streams” to name this process of “engage, enable, and empower” our actions through a model of “usefulness, utility and ubiquity.” David also articulated new digital ecosystems such as the Nike Touch which uses “engagement” of “deposits” and “withdrawls” with several micro-functionalities bundled together. Social networks by their very nature amplify communications and he asked the audience what their “passion point” was.

Elliott Malkin, an artist from New York discussed “Information in Space.” His passionate and precise presentation went down a very indirect route that got me very excited. His initial metaphor was the hassidic concept of an eruv, or a physical demarkation between a secular world and a religious world using the same space. He referred to this psychographic space as having strong conceptual power for the intended group and for what for most people would not even notice. Unfortunately, I thought he was going to bring the metaphor back to digital technology and social architecture, but instead he discussed using digital technology to create a virtual eruv that could be monitored without rabbi’s going out to check if the eruv physical demarcations were intact. The implications of this metaphor in discussing how a shared space could have unique “functionalities” for different groups at the same time holds great promise.

Jesse James Garrett of Adaptive Path presented “Envisoning the Future of the Web.” They worked with the Mozilla Foundation in exploring the future of web browsers. Their concept is called Project Aurora. Now, when dealing with the future of anything, especially technology, it is difficult since we tend to use established conventions and behaviors and link it to a future that people can understand. Star Trek did it best by taking human behaviors and linking them to technologies that did not necessarily need to describe their inner workings. As viewers, especially hooked viewers, we understood the galactic federation model and the value system of the show to put the expressions and technologies in context.

With the future of a browser, Adaptive Path focused on augmented reality, or the overlay of digital information on the real world where there will be  data abundance and the question will be how to we visualize, focus and manage all of it cognitively and socially. Processing power, storage capacity, bandwith and graphic capabilities of computers will impact how we interact with each other through the digital cloud. “Context awareness,” “natural interaction,” and “continuity” would allow for more natural collaborations. Each of us would have a semantic profile and with geolocation, would allow for very rich interactions between people where ever they are. Two main questions arose from the audience. What was the time horizon of Project Aurora? Jesse stated they had a 10 year window into the future (this would be the equivalent of 40 years in technological terms). He said they had to balance “compelling” with “plausible” in their vision. My view was that their vision was too contemporary and linked to current “plausible” scenarios. The second question was that their concept could be viewed that the browser was an operating system. Jesse made it clear that they did not want to address the operating system vs. browser question, but in my mind the two converge in their scenario.

Chris Crawford a former game designer for Atari presented an interesting perspective on “Linguistic User Interfaces.” His perspective on intelligent systems is that smart computers that could interact with humans using extensive language patterns is not realistic. This is due to the Sapir/Wharf hypothesis that inside the human mind language and reality exist together.

Chris’ interesting take is that with games, a model for a computer to interact with humans is much more manageable since the worlds are much smaller. He further elaborated that software, verbs define the program and is core to the human/computer interface. With most current software, as the verb count increases, accessibility and expectability reduces. 100 verbs is the limit for most users. Chris is currently developing a linguistic user interface (LUI) for programs that can create stories. I found his perspective very compelling.

Alberto Canas, of the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC) presented a surprising presentation called “From Meaningful Learning to a Network of Knowledge Builders.” IHMC has created the popular language mapping program CMAP, which I have on my computer. What was informative about his presentation on CMAP were examples of its application (pun intended). Knowledge essentially are concepts that are linked together with prepositions to make a relationship (this was a wonderfully simple definition). Humans have created written language to describe concepts that cannot easily be illustrated. CMAP are concept maps linked by phrases to form propositions. I already knew this in principle. Alberto then showed the power of CMAP through an ongoing project with the Panamanian government giving school children CMAP to describe their lives. The power of CMAP is that users can link images and web page addresses to their maps and can also link concept maps to other concept maps. They are essentially mini-websites which are non-linear. I will not look at CMAP the same way and believe that its potential is not fully understood by a large cross section of users.

Jason Fried, founder of 37Signals presented a lucid lecture called “Getting Real.” I had not heard Jason speak before, but am a heavy user of Basecamp and a real fan of its simplicity and how reliable it is. Jason is a real visionary and  their development process flies in the face of every convention that most digital consultancies use. They do not “plan” anything, do no “specification” documents, and do not use “actor or personas.” They focus on building things and figure out how to do it over time. Keep things small, use sharpie markers as the finest resolution when sketching ideas, and only have a core set of functions (a simple core).

Part of me was aghast, but I quickly saw the logic to their process. If you are designing for yourselves and then find users, the 37Signals model is perfect. Unfortunately, if you collaborate with clients to define the problem and then facilitate understanding, then the 37Signals model will not work. However (you knew there was going to be a “but”) I totally agree with his concept of “scratching your itch” and doing things with passion.

Aradhana Goel of IDEO gave one of the most thought provolking presentations called “Emerging Trends, Design Thinking, Service Innovation.” We have all heard of IDEO and it is one of the most influential innovative firms (along with Pentagram) merging design and engineering. Aradhana was trained as an architect and has only recently become involved with service design. Her perspective on human factors was clear and in alignment with my understanding. What was powerful was her ideas around linking human factors with trend factors. Human factors focus on digging into context, while trend factors find the context. She went on to compare and contrast these two areas and how service design is a logical next step in productizing intangible experiences.

Bill DeRouchey of Ziba Design gave a very direct and engaging discussion on “The Language of Interaction.” His deconstruction of everyday visual clues that we take for granted and their constant reinterpretation and reapplication to other situations was informative, common sense, but insightful.

Overall, there were several key themes that all speakers seemed to focus upon:
1) browsers are giving way to other internet enabled experiences
2) Windows, Icon, Mouse, Pointer system is under stress
3) Transaction is more than money
4) Link several apps, not one killer app
5) Focus on experiences, not just interactions

Upon reflection, I found this conference very fulfilling and reinforced certain convictions, challenged others and provided a very positive mental workout for me (which is what good conferences should do). I would like to compliment IAI for the organization of the conference and the lunches with different groups of people was enjoyable. There were twelve speakers in two days, interspersed with group lunches around the Chicago loop.

The IAI did not go down an exististential vortex of what an information architect is or is not (though it came close at times), which would have been a divisive and somewhat unimaginative exercise. Instead they linked together several strains of interesting ideas and left the participants to decide what it meant to them.

Losing a SmartPhone, but gaining trust in the Cloud

We never really think about losing our smart phone because it is never supposed to happen to us. It seems as if we only have a 5% chance of losing a phone based on most statistics.

I was walking to the train the other day and had my phone on a belt case. As the train approached, I went for my phone and it was gone. At that point my mind experienced a type of parallax effect, where a level of disorientation overtook me.

I decided to retrace my steps back to my home. Part of me was looking at the ground and part of me was mulling over the options of how to best proceed if I could not find my phone. As I approached my home, I kept thinking, “oh, it must be on the steps.” When none of these magical thoughts converted into reality, I decided to act.

I logged into my iCloud account and went into Find my iPhone. It pinged my phone and saw the geolocator find it traveling on a highway away from my home. It prompted me to send a text to the phone which I asked for the person to call my home number for a reward. I then called AT&T to cancel the phone. While I felt great that I could track the phone, it also highlighted the helplessness that nothing could be done about it.

After a few hours, I decided to do a remote wipe of the phone, which worked perfectly. Not having a phone highlighted my dependence on the many applications that I use every day. This heightened my situational awareness as I tried to project on a future using existing information that I did not have.
I walked to a local AT&T store and purchased a replacement phone. After logging into iCloud, all of my contacts, calendars, mail settings and bookmarks appeared within one minute. Walking out of the store, I was able to immediately interact with my data and become productive. When I hooked up my phone to my laptop and synchronized with iTunes, all of my applications were clustered into groups, alarms and third party mail settings configured. Within eight hours my phone was back to the way it was with very little effort.

What this whole empirical experience demonstrated was the credibility of iCloud and that having an integrated digital platform developed by Apple actually exceeded expectations. It reduced my iPhone to a hardware platform that can be replaced (an expensive platform) and that my data and all my customized settings were saved in the cloud and made my new phone my old phone (except now I have a 4S with 4G data transfer).

Maybe we are actually progressing on cloud based storage and retrieval.

Curated Co-Working Environments : The next level

There was a recent story on National Public Radio highlighting the increase in independent workers and their desire to find just-in-time workspaces. Now there is a trend for curated co-working – or vetting independent workers with an eye to create a collaborative culture where a diversity of skills could create new collaborations – and new value.

Since the economy has accepted the increase in perm-temps and temporary workers to augment full-time capacity – four trends have accelerated this move to independent workers:

• increased efficiencies in business and automation has required less workers that can create more output;
• distribution of powerful digital technologies and SAAS/PAAS platforms allows individuals to have access to the same infrastructure as larger businesses;
• the proliferation of broadband networks allows access to these platforms through a number of digital devices;
• the rise of temporary workspaces, both official like Regus, and unofficial like coffee shops

These four trends has allowed for unprecedented flexibility for independent workers to be very competitive and effective and allowed employers to benefit from the experience and out-of-the-box productivity of independent workers to be up and running immediately.

Are you a Data Cube?

Since the announcement that Facebook will be going public, there has been a spike in discussions about online privacy and the rights of individuals to protect their personal data or to be protected from some other entities meaning of a persons data trail. This came into focus based on an Austrian student who wanted to get his Facebook data:

“Max Schrems, a 24-year-old law student from Salzburg, Austria, wanted to know what Facebook knew: He requested his own Facebook file. What he got turned out to be a virtual bildungsroman, 1,222 pages long. It contained wall posts he had deleted, old messages that revealed a friend’s troubled state of mind, even information that he didn’t enter himself about his physical whereabouts.” Source

He said upon reviewing his data trail on Facebook “It’s like a camera hanging over your bed while you’re having sex. It just doesn’t feel good.” Source

What is Old is New Again

” . . . we are clinging as never before to the familiar in matters of style and culture.” Kurt Andersen

In an era embracing technological change and where the familiar feels more and more unfamiliar, Kurt Andersen in his article “You Say You Want a Devolution” in the February issue of Vanity Fair describes an unnoticed backstory on our way to the singularity. It is not one of zeitgeists leading society to new forms, ideas and behaviors, but one that keeps eating around the edges of change and repurposing or slightly updating cultural artifacts.

A Thoughtful Explorer : Interview with Victor Margolin

When I was in my early twenties, I set out to create a cosmology. My intent was to explain the relation between the different forces in the world, from the most noble to the most base. Overwhelmed by the hope and expectation that I, a young dropout with a good undergraduate education, might be the one to accomplish what no philosopher in the past had successfully done, I plunged into the vast sea of knowledge and grasped intuitively at straws that held the promise of unraveling the universe’s mysteries
Victor Margolin in the introduction to The Politics of the Artificial


We live in a cacophonous age of ideas, globalism and multi-channel discourse, yet how many enlightened individuals do we personally know? Victor Margolin, Professor Emeritus of Design History at the University of Illinois at Chicago is a prime example of someone who is questioning, exploring, and articulating theoretical and practical dimensions of design within larger social, political and economic frameworks.

I met Victor when I was an undergraduate student in his design history courses at the University of Illinois at Chicago. What made these courses valuable was his rigor, humor, and balancing the showcasing of designed objects and the larger discussions of intentional and unintentional effects these objects had from a social, political and economic perspective. Victor did not teach a streamlined view of design and designers, but the complexity of designing and delving into thoughtful questions and discourse that is rare in today’s design discourse.

His writing is cogent and compelling and he has written, edited, or co-edited written nine books. He was the founding editor and is now co-editor of the academic journal Design Issues, one of the few soundly curated publishing conduits for global perspectives on design since it’s inception in 1984. Victor takes the best of sincere humanism, an unwavering belief that design is important and merges it with a variety of topical areas such as sustainability, service design, and even larger areas of inquiry. One of my favorite books of his is The Politics of the Artificial: Essays on Design and Design Studies, which codified many things I was thinking about, but did not have specific models or concepts for. This book provided me clarity on many levels as both a practitioner and one who is interested in theoretical aspects of design.

While Victor has been retired from teaching for five years, he has not retired from lecturing, editing, traveling and writing. He is currently writing a three-volume World History of Design, which he plans to finish in more two years.
We have been meeting over the years to discuss design and I finally wanted to ask him specific questions and document his responses. Our conversations tend to be convivial, spirited, and focused meandering.

The Twist of Reality

With all the focus around augmented reality, the trend to geolocate and post data layers on top of specific locations is actually only a few years old. Society has embraced these technologies through smart phone applications where your friends, family and social networks tag physical spaces with comments, images, video and other bits of data. A user’s ability to review and modify this content through their feelings and experiences within those spaces demonstrates how powerful this concept has become.

Hollywood and television are seamlessly integrating digital communications environments in which protagonists and antagonists battle it out through encrypted and open networks to achieve their aims. On the edge of these scenarios have been intense discussions if these developments are changing the definition of what it is to be human and if we will be able to control technologies that are supposed to help us.

There seems to be three levels of augmenting human reality:
• the use of external digital networks to help humans with their daily activities
• the use of implanted digital devices and chips inside human bodies to monitor or augment physical disabilities or automate individual need
• the use of quantum computing and complex algorithms to find patterns in complex computational contexts

All three represent a move towards intelligence amplification, extending human cognitive abilities to understand relationships between situations and data patterns. With the rise and increasing dependence on computers, networks and real time flow of data, comes physical and philosophical opportunities and challenges to what makes us human.