Sunday, October 9, 2011

Design Research: Strategies for Learning About Navigation

I’ve been interested in navigation since I was a child. As a kid, I lived in an apartment building and had an indoor cat (who, poor thing, just wanted to be left alone!). One day, I got off the elevator at the wrong floor and was temporarily confused when I couldn’t open “my” apartment door with my key. Being the budding design researcher, I wondered if my cat was as clueless as I was within a carbon-copy floor plan. So I grabbed the cat and brought him at the end of the corridor to a different floor to see what he would do. The poor animal was scared out of his mind and, to my great satisfaction, ran directly to the door that corresponded to our apartment downstairs.

Fast-forward to today. I am still directionally challenged and often get off on the wrong floor. As such I have come to rely on my iPhone’s map and compass for way too much of my navigation. But, despite the fact that my abilities are no better, I’m still fascinated with the subject.

In reading for my Design Research class project, I’ve discovered that there are two predominant navigational strategies that humans use. The first is a cognitive map that holds the relationship between landmarks in our mind. The other is a route approach, where the individual memorizes a series of cues. According to scientists, most people use one dominant strategy and we’re pretty much evenly split between them. Researchers also found that while the route approach is more efficient, it lacks the flexibility of the cognitive map approach. Also, there are gender preferences—women prefer the route strategy, while men prefer the cognitive map strategy.

How have others investigated human navigation? Others have employed function MRI scanning, used virtual reality maps, and tested recall of landmarks. Some have looked at people we might call “extreme users”  which are people with very poor natural ability, London cab drivers that build a detailed mental map of the complex city over 4 years, frequent players of video games with extensive navigation, and inhabitants of very landmark-poor environments such as the Arctic.

As the London taxi driver video showed, navigation skills can improve with practice, which also means that they can degrade with lack of use. Some are concerned that as we learn to rely more and more on GPS-enabled cars and phones, we will lose the habit of forming cognitive maps and may find ourselves becoming unable to find our way around without them. Relying on GPS also makes us less attentive to our surroundings and may impoverish our sense of place.

Also, I discovered that one measure of a “good navigator” is a person who can give good directions in whatever navigational language they happen to speak, whether by referring to landmarks, compass directions, distances, or street names. A good navigator can also retrace and/or reverse a route easily. Based on this information, I think we may be able to investigate navigation using a pre-existing video game as a task to shadow our participants through. Or we may ask the participants who use wayfinding as their preferred method to navigate to a familiar place but via a new route to see how they switch from one mode to another and what that transition is like—easy, strange, unpleasant, seamless?

In one study, “three groups of participants on foot were asked to find their way to various urban locations. A third of the participants used a mobile phone with GPS capability, another third a paper map and the remainder were shown the route by a researcher before being required to navigate on their own.” This might be an good idea for us to do as well.

Interesting articles:

RoboFox—Furby Meets Ecology

Blade Runner, 1982

Blade Runner is my favorite film. The urban decay, the glamor, the gorgeous replicants than are indistinguishable from humans—and possibly 'better' than us. So I guess it shouldn't have surprised me much when I appropriated some of the more seductive elements from the film for my speculative eco-robot concept.

My idea was also influenced by the writing of Sherry Turkle's latest book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. In her book, Turkle asserts that electronic pets such as Tamagotchsi and Zhu Zhu pet hamsters have primed us to accept the idea of robot companions. Because intimacy is risky, she argues, we are drawn to the promise of friendship without the possibility of betrayal, affection without the possibility of rejection, and love without the possibility of loss—a bargain that robots may be capable of making with us in the near future.

Watch the full episode. See more NOVA scienceNOW.

While  Turkle's book is fascinating—despite my love of sci-fi I've never really given real robots much thought before—I also feel that her anxiety is a little misplaced. Every new technology is (often unintentionally) disruptive—storytelling was displaced by books which were displaced by radio which was replaced by broadcast TV and so on. And each generation is inevitably overwrought about the new trajectory society might take in response to the new tech. My mother worried about the possibly satanic influence of Dungeons & Dragons (anyone remember Tom Hanks in Mazes and Monsters?!) and the evils of Mtv—not exactly technologies, but you know what I mean—while today's parents worry about Facebook, excessive texting, and god knows what else.

While I may be critical Turkle's premise, I am not dismissive. She has done insightful research on how electronic pets manipulate our emotions and blur the cognitive line between animal and machine, alive and not alive. "Technology is seductive when it meets our human vulnerabilities," she writes, "and as it turns out, we are very vulnerable indeed." To see this vulnerability on display, take a look at videos done of elderly people interacting with the Paro caretaking robot seal.

Initially saddened and repulsed by this clunky and hollow substitute for genuine connection, I began asking myself this: When (not if) robotic animal replicants are reality, how could they be used for good? When robots become as beautiful as nature itself, how could we leverage this faux animal beauty to help living creatures? What if Blade Runner's owl was not a heartbreaking eulogy to nature (as in the film) but an bewitching advocate instead?

And that became my concept—a robotic fox that uses its beauty and subtle psychological manipulations to motivate citizen scientists to work toward ecological conservation. I imagine that each replicant animal's physiology connects it to a specific ecosystem (and thus helps other not-so-cute but vital species). For my proposal, I chose the Gray Fox which an animal that used to inhabit San Franciso's Presido. The species is not extinct, but the Gray Fox still symbolizes a loss for the Presidio's ecosystem. In this scenario, the robot would be donated to a university nearby where it would "adopted" by a group of students who would care for it like a Furby. The robo-fox would require a certain amount of "nourishment" in the form of ecological data that the students would need to crunch on a daily or weekly basis. If not "fed" regularly, the fox would alter its behavior to motivate the students. The fox would also act as a data transfer hub by uploading and downloading via proximity computing.

One of the most compelling parts of Turkle's book is her examination of Furby "death." When the toy was released no one considered how emotionally complex a child's attachment to a Furby could be—until one died. Children comprehend that a Furby is not an animal, but because it reacts and changes to suit its owner, it is "alive enough" to them to mourn. In the Nova video, Turkle describes us humans are "cheap dates," meaning that we can be easily tricked by social cues and Darwinian buttons into believing that a machine has consciousness. To capitalize on this powerful emotional trickery, I decided to make the eco-bots mortal. If they are neglected or if their ecosystem dies, they die. Simple. Painful.


Video: Festo's Swimming Penguin Robot 
Video: Festo's SmartBird robot takes off with elegance
Video: Dancing Hexapod Robots
Video: Robot Snake
Video: Hod Lipson builds "self-aware" robots
Video: Rodney Brooks says robots will invade our lives
Video: Swarm robots attack your bookshelf
Video: Robots learn to march / spell, still not capable of love
Video: Quadroped Military Robot--Big Dog
Video: Quadroped Robot--Little Dog
Video: Dancing Robots
Video: Beck's Hell Yes Dancing Robots

Friday, September 16, 2011

Design Writing Class: Robots!?

Our assignment in Leslie Robert's Design Writing class is to write a proposal for a robot to aid in species conservation at the Presidio National Park here in San Francisco. Yes, a robot! At first I was totally turned off by this assignment. While I'm definitely a scifi buff, I just don't believe that most of our big, hairy social problems—including species conservaton—will/can be solved with hyperexpensive technological silver bullets such as robots.

But... as we began discussing the project more in class, my attitude shifted and now I'm really excited about working on my proposal.

As our class's description explains, "the goal of this writing course is to narrow the gap between what we aspire to create as designers and how we discuss our work, and the work of others, in writing as well as in class discussion. The course will emphasize writing praxis." Which means that the purpose of this project is not so much about our idea for a robot but about documenting our design process and honing our ability to sell our ideas.

We are researching the Presidio, which is not only a beautiful park, but also has a rich history and a unique mandate—it is the only national park with a mandate to be financially self sufficient by 2013. Our groundwork will include a half-day fieldtrip to the park next week (I'll post photos to the blog afterward).

In addition to the location-specific visit, we are reading two books in tandem with this project—Alone Together by Sherry Turkle and The Future of Life by Edward O. Wilson. I've only read the introductions and first couple of chapters of these books, but already these authors' ideas have been colliding and merging in my mind in interesting ways.

In our first class, we spent the good part of an hour just discussing how we determine if a thing even is a robot. Is a thermostat a robot? Is a Roomba vacuum cleaner a robot? What about a chess-playing computer game or a Furbie? Does a robot need to be 'smart'? Does is need to move or be anthropomorphic? It was a fun debate with some of us arguing for the 'robot-ness' one thing but not of another and sometimes recanting and switching sides.

We were also asked to watch this TED video by Rodney Brooks.

Form Study Class: Unexpected architectural inspiration

On the way in to the studio today, I saw some gorgeous work tacked up on the walls of the main building. (Sadly, I forgot my iPhone at home so I could not take any photos!)

Architecture students created the work, and from what I could glean from the output, the assignment consisted of photographing a simple action—hitting a tennis ball, kicking a ball, doing a backflip—in about 11 sequential frames and from two different perspectives. The students then mapped changes in position in an abstracted way—representing joints as circles and limbs as lines, or mapping the negative space between the subject's legs and arms, for instance—for each frame and for both perspectives. In the final step, both the photographic set of images are superimposed onto themselves and the abstracted set of images are superimposed onto themselves. I'm not sure what purpose of the assignment served for the architecture students, but the exercise produced many stand-alone 2D forms that were both visually complex and aesthetically stunning.

It's a difficult to explain what these drawings looked like. If you can, imagine a blend of the frozen figures in Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending Staircase and in the photographic locomotion studies of Eadweard J. Muybridge, with the more abstract lines of Jules Marey's man in black velvet.

Although CCA's Design MFA is touted as a 'transdisciplinary' program, time pressures and structural constraints inevitably keep disciplines apart. But today, because the building's main 'knave' is used by many departments for critiques, I was lucky to be able to catch a glimpse of something from another field that I can incorporate into my work.

Here are some additional (loosely related) links:
Men of the Enlightenment
Cubism and Futurism
Beautiful—Then-Gone by Martin Venezky

Monday, August 29, 2011

Imagining a brighter future

A fascinating article on imagining a less apocalyptic future for ourselves by Peter Lunefeld, graduate Media Design professor at Art Center College of Design.

Article: Bespoke futures: Media design and the vision deficit

Tullio Crali, Incuneandosi nell’abitato (In tuffo sulla città), 1939. Oil on canvas.
At the Fundación PROA, Buenos Aires.
  MART, Rovereto

Review: Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky

Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected AgeCognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age by Clay Shirky

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Cognitive Surplus is the book that has most deeply influenced my thinking this year.

The premise is simple enough--our society is increasingly spending more time creating and sharing than passively watching. This subtle shift may seem trivial, but Clay Shirky argues that the consequences of mass participation will be anything but. What we are all beginning to be involved (with such activities as posting a book review) is participation, collaboration, and creation on a global scale that has never been matched in history--and the rate of involvement is accelerating!

As an optimist and pragmatist, Shirky presents a vision the future where "consumers" will become "citizens" again and work collectively--if only for a few minutes a week--on both lolcats AND solving society's most intractable problems.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Review: The Social Animal by David Brooks

The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and AchievementThe Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement by David Brooks

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Ultimately the premise and the promise of David Brooks' The Social Animal is not realized. Although I was drawn to the idea of a book that elaborates on current cognitive and social scientific discoveries through a fictional family, the book left me both intellectually unsatisfied and emotionally unmoved.

I think the main problem is that the protagonists Harold and Erica are flat, indistinguishable from each other, and studied in isolation, which means that they don't meaningfully expound upon the science Brooks is presenting.

By 'studied in isolation' I mean that there is no significant exploration of the shared experience of being a married couple, part of a group of friends, a part of an extended family, or a member of an ethnic group. This is especially problematic in a book where the author's stated intent is to show how embedded we all are in social networks and emmeshed in each others lives.

View all my reviews

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Virtual grocery shopping

We've been exploring ways to tackle problems with design thinking and technology. While doing some research, I ran across this video which I think is a really great idea realized—the subway supermarket. Skip to 0:30 seconds in to avoid the marketing spiel ;0)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

MOMENTUS project

What a wonderful idea—invite a group of visual artists to illustrate the most momentus moments in US history.

One submission will be released every Monday-Thursday through the end of July.

Events yet to be depicted include: Hurricane Katrina, the Oklahoma City Bombing, the Election of Barak Obama, the Moon Landing, and the 2000 Presidential Election. Check it out at:

Friday, June 24, 2011

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Stop-motion animation for Pottermore.com

Harry Potter ebooks have just been released at Pottermore.com and the publishing world is all abuzz. While I'm not a Harry Potter fan—heresy, I know!—I did enjoy the stop-motion animation in the promo video. It reminds me of the wonderful book art of Sue Blackwell.

I've searched for credits for the video, but all I could find is that TH_NK, a UK digital agency, is responsible for the overall creative execution of the website.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Inspiration: Whole Foods' Thrive video

I think this is solid storytelling; its length, tone, narration, and type is just right on. I know I'll watch more of them...

Monday, June 6, 2011

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Process on the brain

I must have 'process' on the brain lately, because everything I chance upon seems to be related to it. So I'm eating lunch and re-reading Making Ideas Happen by Scott Belsky—a  fantastic book on how to drive creative projects to completion. Belsky mentions Jonathan Harris as an example of a creative leader who makes his ideas a reality despite how unusual they are. I decide to google Harris and check out what a "unique hybrid of artist, intellectual, and technologist [...] best described as a storyteller and Internet anthropologist" makes, exactly. As anyone who has spent any time with me will tell you, I'm awful at names—in one ear, out the other. So imagine my dumbfoundedness at realizing that I wrote about Harris just a few days ago :0.

A few clicks later, I find myself at an even-nerdier-than-TED.com-but-just-as-marvelous video archive called Sputnik Observatory. I take quite a few moments deciphering the logo—spoiler: the name is spelled without vowels with letters inverted, go figure!—and then I click on an architect describing the design process of (yes another architect) the infamous Antoni Gaudí.  At different points in my life, I've loved and hated Gaudí's work, but after learning a little about his design process as described by Lars Spuybroek, I now find Gaudí's style much more interesting, if not necessarily more attractive.

hanging model by Antoni Gaudi ( right-side-up and upside-down)

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Comic Sans rages on

I just popped over to Henry Sene Yee's blog to see what he's been up to. Turn out he's been up to some design mischief! Behold his new cover—set completely in Comic Sans. And it looks... well, just great.

by Henry Sene Yee

Inspiration: Joshua Prince-Ramus on "hyper-rational" design process

This is a fascinating peek into the "hyper-rational" design process of the NYC firm REX Architecture. Presenter Joshua Prince-Ramus succinctly outlines the design thinking behind three REX projects—the Seattle Public Library, the Wyly Theater in Dallas, and the Museum Plaza in Louisville, Kentucky.

I found several parts of Prince-Ramus's presentation intriguing. The first was that architects—unlike most graphic designers—produce really long-lived products (Duh! I know.). Architects are charged with not only creating flexible multi-purpose spaces, but also spaces that anticipate future uses that cannot be yet known. How do you develop a structure for media that has yet to be invented?

Another was that (in the Seattle Library's case) the role of the designer is not just to involve the client and reflect their needs but also to interpret and re-present those needs back to the client in ways they could not even perceive or articulate. Seattle's librarians saw themselves primarily as media providers, but REX showed them that in fact the majority of their resources were spent on community events.

Seattle Public Library

And a third was Prince-Ramus's emphasis on a team approach. Although architecture suffers more from the perception of a single creative genius than graphic design—both disciplines are realizing that creative teams are not only a growing reality but in many cases preferable to the design auter. To solve increasingly complex problems, we need more smart teams and fewer solitary geniuses.

And finally, Joshua's presentation indirectly supports this idea about storytelling that has been bouncing around in my head lately... Despite a growing trend toward design teams—a single master communicator, an articulate and charismatic individual is more crucial than ever to explain the process and to present/sell its results (especially in 20 minutes or less!).

Wyly Theater in Dallas

Much of Prince-Ramus's presentation is spent debunking the commonly held belief that remarkable buildings are the product of a single master architect's inflexible and ego-driven aesthetic vision. Prince-Ramus insists that spectacular buildings can be the result of a hyper-rational process—a process that involves stakeholders at every stage; focuses on function, flexibility, and other critical parameters; balances different costs; and is team-based and devoid of ego as much as possible. While the design process is the same for all three structures, I feel that the aesthetic results vary widely—I love the Library, am mixed about the Theatre, and absolutely hate the Plaza. Is REX's hyper-rational design superior to ego-driven design even when it produces ugly buildings?

Museum Plaza, Louisville, KY

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Women + Design + Power Tools + DYI = Awesome!

I've written about MakeATX before, and yesterday evening I finally had the opportunity to meet its founders Kristen Von Minden and Eve Trester-Wilson. They co-hosted a great hands-on workshop at Paper Source which included hand-made envelopes, thermographic faux embossing, and a DYI letterpress.

MakeATX has not opened its doors yet, but Kristen and Eve are hard at work on their business plan and connecting with the creative community at events such as Renegade Craft Fair, E.A.S.T., and Blue Genie Art Bazaar. Although MakeATX has already funded on Kickstarter, Kristen said they are still accepting Paypal donations in exchange for membership discounts on their website at makeatx.com.

From their website: MAKEatx will be a member-based workshop where Austinites can pursue their diverse interests and activities independently and creatively. The workshop will be outfitted with a variety of fabrication tools to help you on your way to finishing that creative school, work, or do-it-yourself project you’ve been kicking around:
  • a powerful and versatile laser cutter capable of cutting, etching, and engraving a wide variety of materials up to 36″ x 24″
  • a cnc router/milling machine capable of cutting or carving 3-dimensional files up to 96″x 48″x 8″
  • brand new computers with the latest design software
  • folding machines
  • sewing machines
  • and a variety of shop equipment, technology, and workspace
And for you Austin ladies who just can't get enough of power tools—check out the co-host of last night's workshop, Women.Design.Build  womendesignbuild.org. Their mission is to "instill confidence and competence in women interested in design and construction professions." WDB has monthly workshops, so keep a look out for upcoming events—I might just see you there!

Instructions for constructing your own tabletop letterpress at:  

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Downsizing is an emotional trip

In preparation for my move Austin to San Francisco—or more aptly, from 1,900 to 400 square feet—I've been getting rid of a lot of the stuff I've accumulated over the years.

Downsizing is an emotional trip; I've been surfing waves of nostalgia, regret, boredom, and downright panic. It's just that each object represent something—good intentions, unrealized plans, souvenirs, false starts, utter wastes of money—and it's tough to reduce them to garbage.

On Sunday for instance, I had to have a *moment* with a pair of black patent leather Anne Klein stiletto boots. The ones an ex-boyfriend hated but I kept anyway; the ones I put on when feeling brassy; the ones I wore wobbling and cursing all the way from east Austin to downtown for a Day of the Dead parade; the ones that saved my feet from my friend's biting Terrier. I did finally find the gumption to throw them away—but only after I sung them a little song (with sincerest apologies to Julio and Willi):

To all the boots I've loved before
Who traveled in and out my door
I'm glad you came along
I dedicate this song
To all the boots I've loved before

To all the boots that danced with me
Those many nights of ecstasy
You live within my heart
I'll always be a part
Of all the boots I've loved before

The winds of change are always blowing
And every time I try to stay
The winds of change continue blowing
And they just carry me away…

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Inspiration: The art of Nick Cave

Who says contemporary art can't be exuberant?!

I just adore the soundsuit sculptures of Chicago-based artist Nick Cave. His work is beautiful to see—with its intricate construction, vivid colors, and universal Big Bird/Cousin It appeal. But it's also wonderful to hear and to amazing to behold in motion. (I love the fact that Cave used to be an Alvin Ailey dancer because the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is my favorite dance troupe. My parents attended a performance when my mother was pregnant with me—I was a fan in utero!—and I see them whenever they perform in Austin.) This journalist suggests that Cave's work has the potential to induce Stendhal syndrome—had to look that up—and I agree with him.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

What does satire look like?

These are cover ideas for a new project—a satirical novel about corporate backstabbing (literally and figuratively). Featuring deadly fountain pens, metaphorical nudity, slang spewing mobsters, and HR execs gone amuck, this cover should have been easier to design (the tone! the tone!). At the eleventh hour and at the end of a couple of long days, I'm finally happy with the results.

The wickedly barbed typeface used in the top comp is Asteriod Primo.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Small Talks with Woody Welch

Busy, busy! Just got back from Design Ranch and my Small Talks with photographer Woody Welch is coming up tomorrow evening from 6pm to 8ish at 1312 E. Cesar Chavez. Time to buy snacks and drinks and get ready for a fun event on Austin's east side. More details and pics of both to come...

For this e-poster I liked the idea of using abstract eyes intersecting to represent the fusion of the photographer's and the art director's vision. The dark/light diagonal is a subtle nod to the balance of yin yang.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Brenda Laurel: Keynote at IXDA (Interaction Design Association)

A fascinating trip through Laurel's long career in interaction and game design. She currently serves as professor and chair of the Graduate Program in Design at California College of Arts.

Brenda Laurel: Keynote from Interaction Design Association on Vimeo.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Stanford videos on publishing

This is great series of short videos on the topic of publishing from Stanford University. Unfortunately they are not producing any more of them—something about a 'budget crisis', say wha?—but what's in their archive is worth watching.

Topics range from books and magazines to blogging and future trends. I especially liked the videos from IDEO co-founder Bill Moggridge on non-traditional media, from former Wired art director Jeremy LaCroix about the function of the grid, and from author Chris Anderson on Long Tail-style media competition.

Note that SPPC's slogan, "Ideas Transform," is very similar in spirit to TED's "Ideas Worth Sharing." Just sayin'.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

TEDx Austin videos available

Finally! The 2011 TEDx Austin videos are available online here.

It's interesting to see how many times each video has been viewed in the last few days. As of a few minutes ago Robyn O'Brien's talk on the food industry, specifically the health effects of genetically modified foods, is the runaway winner with 12,912 views. Dubbed the 'Erin Brockovich of Food,' O'Brien (author of The Unhealthy Truth: One Mother's Shocking Investigation into the Dangers of America's Food Supply—and What Every Family Can Do to Protect Itself and founder of Allergy Kids Foundation) sees a clear connection between the increase in food allergies/cancer rates and the introduction of genetically modified foods in the late 90s. While I was moved by her presentation, I was less than convinced by the evidence she presented... I will definitely do more research on the subject. But the popularity of her video reflects the strong interest—in Austin at least—on food politics, sustainability, and health.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Coffee table book

Here are some pages from my current project. Just completed the layout today—yay! The medium brown color seen throughout will be a metallic gold ink...