Monday, July 30, 2007

Delft De-constructed

Two shots of the Tulip sculpture and fountain in the courtyard outside the Disney Concert Hall in LA. The entire sculpture is composed of the shattered fragments of blue and white Delft pottery. The petals of the fountain appears a bit heavy as you approach it but the real joy of the piece is when you realize what its composed of. There is a fractal quality in the tiny floral details of the pottery itself contrasted by the sharp, angular edges of the fragments and then the soft, curving forms of the larger fountain.

Although not evident throughout the sculpture, I really like the places where typographic fragments appear near each other in Picasso-like compositions.

The only bummer is that I think I remember hearing on a tour that to make the sculpture, Delft started with perfectly fine pottery and then had them shattered. I would have though that they would have plenty of seconds, or pieces that had already been chipped, broken, or otherwise compromised. To me, it undermines the integrity of the piece to know that it started with a bunch or perfect blue and white plates.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Writing and Remembering My Father

It’s my Dad’s birthday today. It’s also been a bit more than 2 years since he passed away. My Dad always enjoyed reading stuff that I wrote and thought I would make a great writer. It is one of the things I’ve wanted to do and one of the reasons I keep this blog. But between my day job and my other pursuits, I am not yet devoting enough time to writing to make a go of it. I have ideas for a book, and thoughts about a column about design and technology but they are just thoughts for now. My Dad was always so supportive of my interests. I’m sure he is proud of what I have achieved so far. Still I can’t help thinking that writing is part of my destiny and that I am letting my Dad down by not pursuing it more. I also wish I had spent more time with him and been better about sharing my thoughts with him... perhaps it would have made writing easier. Miss you Dad.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Remembering George Yu

George Yu passed away this past weekend. George was an architect based in LA. Before striking out on his own, he spent time working for Thomas Mayne of Morphosis. He taught at Sci-Arc. As a designer, what I admired most about George was his belief in the purity of a concept. I suspect that many of designers start out strong in the concept phase. But over the years, the compromises in design for the real world water-down our concepts to the point where they become solutions more than pure concepts. But breakthrough designs require a high commitment to concept and vision. George had an almost child-like excitement about his designs and yet a stubborn-like commitment to keeping them pure. I admire that.

In response to a request, I shared some thoughts about how George used modeling in his design process.

I’m honored to have had the chance to work with George. When George was first diagnosed with cancer, he had been working on the Sony Design Center in LA. I was the lead for the project on the Sony side and worked closely with George for about 18 months. It was at the launch of our Sony office that George was introduced to the head of the Honda Design Studio, which led to his commission to design their Pasadena studio. During the Sony project, George made several study models including one that gave a floor-eye view similar to a reflected ceiling plan. It was appropriate to the project as it was an open ceiling with a number of key elements relating to the ceiling plan. There were a number of repeated architectural elements and George was able to build quick and effective models thanks to digital prototyping tools. We were familiar with these techniques because Sony has always relied on model making to review product designs. Years ago, models were hand made the same way architectural models were. But as digital prototyping tools became available, Sony moved quickly to take advantage of them. These tools significantly raised the bar in terms of what was achievable in a model. It allowed the designers to be more aggressive in their designs because it could be accurately modeled for review and approval by senior management. In the same way, George’s models allowed us at Sony to review and approve higher fidelity prototypes of his design. George was clearly comfortable with the digital prototyping process and had been using it for client work and his experimental projects. He made regular use of these tools at Sci-Arc.

Whereas Sony never prototyped anything larger than a TV, Honda was using the same tools to prototype cars at full size. I think George saw this as an opportunity as soon as he started the Honda project. Prototyping something at full size was the natural next step from working on scale models. A couple of months after the Sony office was completed, I flew to LA and met George for lunch. It was early in the process for the Honda project but he already knew what he wanted to do and had gotten Honda’s approval. I think he was on an experimental cancer drug at the time and was always fighting a cough. I’m sure all the thoughts that come to you when you hear the word “cancer”; had occurred to George but that was not what was occupying his thoughts that day. Instead what I saw was pure joy and excitement. He knew the solution for the Honda Studio was to build part of the office using the same tools they use to prototype cars. He knew this would enable him to build something unique to Honda… something that would otherwise be hard to build and that was not found in any catalog. He was like an excited boy with a new toy and at the same time a passionate designer intent on bending the technology to his creative will.

Many years ago, the Museum of Modern Art in New York did a show on the Deconstructavist movement. The show included drawings by Frank Gehry, Peter Eisenman and Steven Holl among others. One of the things the show made a point of illustrating was the difficulty of both communicating and building the new designs these architects were proposing. Digital design and fabrication seems to be eliminating both of these challenges. Initiating construction now seems closer to hitting the “Print” button on your laptop than figuring out how to communicate it to a builder. I think George learned this early in his career and was working as fast he could to implement it in his work. I only wish he had more time.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Lessons from Africa, Part 2

This is Bi Kidude as she bowed to a standing ovation on the TEDGlobal stage. She is a 96 year-old Taraab singer from the island of Zanzibar off the coast of Tanzania. Bi Kidude could challenge just about anyone’s stereotypes. She is a Muslim woman who smokes, sings, dances, flirts and plays drums. Seeing her perform reminded me that everything in the Muslim world is not as Al Qaeda or the Taliban have defined. There are traditions that survive that are a testament to the richness of the full Islamic culture and the strength of character of women like Bi Kidude. She is considered a national treasure in Tanzania and continues to perform Unyago music and ceremonies that help prepare teenage girls for marriage. Unyago songs speak frankly about the joys of marriage, sex and men but also warn girls about abuse and oppression. Having survived and left two failed marriages and being as strong and independent as she is, one can only imagine what advice Bi Kidude offers.

I wonder what would happen if the Taliban crossed paths with Bi Kidude. I also wonder where belly dancing fits into the restrictive rules of Islamic fundamentalists. Most of all, I am glad there are women like her to remind me to keep an open mind and not believe everything I see and hear on TV about Islam.

Lessons from Africa, Part 1

In June I went to Africa for the first time. We attended the TEDGlobal Conference in Arusha Tanzania and then climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. I’m hoping to post my Kilimanjaro journal separately but wanted to start by posting a few of the lessons I learned while in Africa. This is the first (of many).

I'm probably no different than most first time visitors to Africa… I brought lots of stereotypes with me. My first realization of this came on our very first morning. We were having breakfast at our hotel, the Ngurdoto Mountain Lodge in Arusha. Initially there were only three or four people at the table (all non-African) and we were marveling at these huge birds walking around just outside the hotel. We later learned that they were Marabou Storks but at the time, all we knew is that they were huge, bizarre and yet somehow charismatic in their ugliness. As we were all staring out the window, two men from Africa joined us and had the same reaction we did. One of them even said, "what the hell are those?" I was thinking that these two guys being from Africa, should know what kind of bird this was but they had never seen them before. The birds are only found in Sub-Saharan Africa and the two men were from the North and South of Africa. On the plane I had read an article titled, "How to write about Africa." by Binyavanga Wainaina. One of the first satirical recommendations the article made was, "always treat Africa as if it is a single country" (ignoring that it is one of the largest and most diverse continents composed of more than 50 countries). So here I was a mere 12 hours later doing exactly what the article warned not to. I suppose its natural to condense your image of a place you've never been to. At least now I am in the position to know what an amazing place Africa is and how much more of it I have yet to see.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The Limits of Control

I'm ashamed to say it but when I wrote my previous post, I hadn't finished reading Adam Greenfield's insightful essay on the false trappings of "experience design". It is a must read for anyone calling themselves an experience designer.

When I was first exposed to the term interaction design, IDEO was doing some consulting work for my group at Sony. Their design solution was great but I remember hearing one of their interaction designers explain that it was called interaction design because they believed in designing, "the way people interact with a product rather than just the interface." This bothered me.

I was an early member of the Experience Design Group at the AIGA. I really enjoyed meeting about what was then a very new concept. There were two general themes to the early discussions… the specifics and practice of design in the related fields of interface, usability and web design, and the expanding responsibilities of the “experience designer”. It was this theme that led some members to talk about designing and controlling the whole experience. I remember debating this with a couple of members. My experience at Sony was reflecting a larger role for design. I was working on several Internet-enabled products that had physical product, user interface and websites/services attached to them. But my experience was more struggle than omnipotent control. Influencing all of these process areas (and co-workers) to arrive at an innovative product was truly a difficult challenge. I had no pretense that my work would control the user’s entire experience as I was too busy trying to influence the internal teams. In the end my primary design goal was that the product be simple and usable.

I’m not sure where I read it but I thought I heard Bill Moggridge (author of the excellent book, "Designing Interactions") describe the origin of the term interaction design as being more about the interaction of various parts of a system rather than the user’s experience. The example I remember is the design of an interface / control panel for a paper copier. The scope of the design brief was limited to the control panel but they quickly figured out that some of the problems they were trying to solve were unsolvable unless they could influence the design of other parts of the system (internal functions, paper feeder, collater, etc.). So what they were really saying is that in order to create a simple user interface, the entire system has to be designed to be simple.

This meaning of Interaction Design is much closer to my beliefs and experience as a designer. In product development (as in life) there are things you can control and things you can't. How people will use a product is not something you can typically control which is why usability tests can be so eye opening. But as the copier example illustrates, there are almost always internal issues to the project that are not under your direct control. So being a good product developer, whether engineer, designer or business person, involves identifying these issues early so you can either fix them or design around them. Years of experience teach you to spot these issues and to collaborate beyond your domain in fixing them. I like calling myself an interface designer because I have significant and tangible impact in that area… even if I sometimes have influence on business issues as well.

It’s important not to get too hung up on semantics. Call yourself an interaction designer or an experience designer as long as you don't take yourself too seriously and think you’re capable
of controlling the complete experience. As Adam has so expertly pointed out, most efforts in this direction end up disappointing the very users we're trying to please. There’s an old Irish prayer... "God grant me the Courage to change the things I can change, the Serenity to accept those I cannot change, and the Wisdom to know the difference." I think that says it all and the author wasn’t even an experience designer.