Monday, October 25, 2010

The Medium is the Exploration: A Tribute to Magda McHale

I was fortunate enough to know Magda Cordell McHale while I was a student at University of Buffalo. I took her class and Magda served as an advisor for my Masters thesis. All these years later, the image of Magda that sticks in my head is her at her desk, writing longhand, pen in one hand, cigarette in the other with the ashes falling on her papers. She would write notes on typewritten pages that had been cut into strips, re-arranged, and pasted onto new pages. This was how she worked, the smoking and the constant cutting, annotating, and re-arranging of words. Her office was elegantly decorated… clean, and sparse save the piles of paper and interesting artifacts from her life. Her desk and credenza were full of journals and copies of articles, each dog-eared and bookmarked with notes. As I sat down, she would hand one to me and ask me to read the part that she had circled. As I was reading, she would smile and raise her eyebrows as if to say, “See what I mean? Isn’t life interesting?”.

If you saw her office you might have wondered, why is she in a school of architecture? An architecture historian’s office might look like this, but she wasn’t even writing about architecture. As I was taking her class, I could tell that she was having a big influence on me, but I didn’t know what it was I was learning. With many professors, you just know. Now I understand “x”… structural engineering, Psych 101, Mandarin… whatever it was you didn’t know when you came in, you knew now. It wasn’t until many years later that I finally understood what I had learned. Since Magda is no longer with us, I feel compelled to share what she taught me and why it makes total sense that this happened in a school of architecture.

I took her class in 1982. Harold Cohen, the Dean at the time, had just started the short-lived Design Studies Program. Don Glickman, the Chair of the new program convinced Magda to teach a class. I don’t remember the name of the class but, in the fall of 1982, the eight or ten of us in the program showed up. The first assignment was a book report. Read a piece of fiction and report on it. Again, why was this being assigned in a school of architecture? I chose Charles Dickens’, “A Tale of Two Cities” because of the title and the, “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” opening. I was taking a couple of classes about cities at the time and thought Dickens might shine a historical light on the subject.

When it came time for us to report on our books, I remember Magda being wide-eyed and smiling as I described some visceral urban details from the early chapters of the book. After class, she asked to see me in her office, the first of many meetings we would come to have. The first thing she said to me in her unmistakable raspy voice and heavy Hungarian accent was, “Prohl”. My family pronounces this as Prole (as in “rhymes with roll”). Magda pronounced it as they do in Germany with a drawn out “o”… the kind with an umlaut over it. As she said my name, I could tell I was in trouble. “Prohl, I know you didn’t read the book.” She was right, I hadn’t. I’ve always been a slow reader. Not wanting to miss any details, I read every book like it’s a textbook. In the process, I tend to miss the second half of a lot of books. As she spoke, her eyes were looking right through me as if to say, “small town kid, straight, untraveled, Catholic school, insightful but na├»ve. Searching for meaning.” She was right about those things too.

Most important for this story however, is our final project for the class. The assignment was simple. Pick a topic, and explore it in any medium you choose: painting, music, photography, whatever. Anything we wanted to do, we could. As any professor will tell you, this kind of freedom is a recipe for disaster. “Give a student enough rope and they’ll hang themselves” as the saying goes. By this time, Magda’s penetrating eyes and stern admonitions had put the fear of God in us so we knew we had to perform. I stuck with my interest in cities. I had been reading some books by Lewis Mumford and an article in the New York Times about the character of cities and urban dwellers. My “History of Cities” class revealed the origins of major cities around the world which got me wondering about the very nature of cities. What made a city a city? How were city people different? So I chose the theme “Cities & Time”. The medium I decided to pursue was poetry. I don’t know why I chose poetry. I’ve dabbled in it from time to time but I don’t think I was writing at the time. I might have stumbled on a book by John Cage, someone I think both Harold Cohen and Magda knew. I remember loving his quote, “Every seat is the best seat in the house”. Ostensibly about theaters and performances it is a wonderful piece of philosophy.

So here I was, writing poetry while pursuing a degree in design. It was a revelation to me that the finished poems didn’t spring forth onto the page in their first draft. I went through many revs of typing, editing, and retyping. It was only through tearing some of them apart and wrestling with the words that I arrived at something that flowed. The most creative parts came in the act of editing not in the initial writing. This reminded me of the process of drawing with tracing paper when you redraw on successive layers of tracing paper until you get something you like. More than once in my life, this process has resulted in the discovery of an idea or concept that was not what I was consciously working on. In this mode, drawing becomes the search not the presentation. This is what happened when I was working on those poems. This is also what Magda’s personal process was all about and what I realized I had learned from her many years later. New ideas emerge from the pasting together of existing ideas and your efforts to make sense of them.

In collage, the raw materials are frequently the work of others. Magda’s husband, John McHale was an artist. His primary medium was collage. According to Wikipedia, John McHale was “a founder of the Independent Group, which was a British movement that originated pop art which grew out of a fascination with American mass culture and post-WWII technologies.” John made several trips to the US after WWII and was amazed at the rapid growth of our consumer culture. Lots of things were changing after the war and John McHale and his contemporaries struggled to make sense of it. As Magda explained it to me, he would collect magazines on his visits to the US, take them back to the UK, and start cutting them apart. He created compositions that combined paint and the magazine images into visual observations and commentary on a changing world.

Magda was also a founder of the Independent Group. As an artist and writer, Magda saw the social impact of John’s paintings and decided that the same process would work for writing. The class she taught and the assignment I described above clearly grew out of her own experience. If a group of painters could extend their creative process beyond the medium of paint, then why couldn’t she help students explore a range of media. Not everyone who goes to school for architecture becomes an architect and regardless of academic discipline, we all have to find the medium that’s right for us.

My medium has migrated from blueprints to wireframes, websites, and interaction design. Like Magda, I am a student of technology. I work in Silicon Valley, the heart of new technology. This is the birthplace of Intel, Steve Jobs, Google, and the iPhone among many others. Here, technology collides with human innovation perhaps more than anywhere else in the world. Most people working here do not consider themselves artists but much of the work would be familiar to John McHale. Blogging combined the concept of personal journals with a public website. Twitter took the concept of blogging and combined it with the short text messaging behavior of cell phones. The iPod changed the world of music forever by connecting the previously separate worlds of mp3 players, desktop software, and online music store.

On the Internet, the term “mashups” refers to efforts that are quite similar to collage. One of the first to gain attention was a mashup of Google Maps & apartment rentals posted on Craigslist. Two separate sources that yielded new value when combined. This was enabled when Google opened up the APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) for Google Maps enabling programmers outside Google to use the maps as a building block for their own creations.

Many people, not just designers, are using the Internet to combine and remix digital content into new forms of entertainment. Jesse Dylan’s famous mashup of Barack Obama’s “Yes We Can” speech into a music video helped get Obama elected. It then inspired the remixed version mocking Senator John Boehner’s “Hell Know You Can’t” speech opposing the healthcare bill. It should be noted that the ability to create these mashups is not a given. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act and commercial interests threaten to prevent this type of experimentation and commentary from happening. Lawrence Lessig has been an excellent spokesperson on this issue. Although a lawyer by training, he believes in the issue so strongly that he has lectured extensively, setup the Creative Commons as an alternative approach, and even argued in front of the Supreme Court on the subject. The Internet is really one big mashup. It needs to remain open so that the Pablo Picassos and John McHales of tomorrow can continue to mix and remix our cultural artifacts.

So this is what I learned from her. Experiment with different media. You might find you’re better at one than you expected. Don’t be afraid to find your new ideas in the mix of existing ones. Whether you are combining words, magazine clippings, or materials in a building, we are all collage artists. Even the city is a kind of collage… the result of many “artists” unknowingly collaborating over generations. Any effort to make sense of the world around us, whether on paper or only in our mind is the making of a collage. This is why Magda Cordell McHale belonged in a School of Architecture. She would have been a treasure in any school or department but I’m glad she ended up in ours.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Giving Thanks

I've never been what would be described as a fan of Pearl Jam but I like their music. Perhaps from seeing him in the Sundance "Iconoclast" series, I've been generally aware that Eddie Vedder is a respected musician. But seeing them perform at Neil Young's Bridge School Benefit last night gave me deep new respect for the man and the group. For those who've never been, the annual concert benefits the Bridge School. The school was started by Neil and Peggy Young and works with severely mentally and physically handicapped kids. The concert is also notable in that the kids are up on stage and, along with their parents and caregivers, form a backdrop to the stage. We've been going to the benefit for the last 4 or 5 years and it is always telling to see whether musicians play solely to the audience or to the kids as well. I've never spent much time with someone that was severely handicapped so I have to confess that I would more likely avoid contact for fear of not knowing how. Among the musicians that I remember paying special attention to the kids are Dave Matthews, Gwen Stefani, and now, Eddie Vedder. Other have as well but these are the ones that made an extra effort. At last year's benefit, Gwen Stefani sang a whole song facing the kids with her back to the audience.


My wife and I came away from last night's performance personally touched, not just by Eddie Vedder's talent but what seems to be a deep respect for others around him. He started by dedicating his first song not just to the kids, but to one in particular, Cara. You could tell this brought enormous joy to her. Her face was contorting among several expressions no doubt due to her disabilities but you could tell that what she was trying to telegraph was deep, profound joy. Eddie also thanked "Uncle Neil" for helping to launch Pearl Jam's success. Later in the set, he was joined on stage by some classical musicians most likely from here in the Bay Area. As he was wrapping up for the night, he took to time to thank each of the classical musicians by name. Lastly he thanked the "amazing kids" and "incredible parents" of the Bridge School for inviting him to play, something he has done many times over the years. He then told the audience that, "we think we're doing this for them but really, it ends up doing so much for us."


Of course, one could be cynical and say that he knows what to say or that he was handed a slip of paper with Cara's name and the names of the classical musicians on it. Whether this happened or not, he spoke the names from memory and with sincerity. Eddie Vedder's voice is clearly the dominant instrument of the band. But on several songs I was struck by his sense of timing in remaining silent when you expected him to sing again. With all of his talent on voice and guitar, he could be forgiven if he became the typical self-obsessed, publicity-seeking rock star. Perhaps in part due to Uncle Neil's example, last night Eddie made it clear that he is a man with great integrity and someone who has earned my respect on many levels.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

collaboration: win/win or win/lose?

While looking back on the last six months at my new job, it occurred to me that along with the rise in the level of collaboration with my Marketing, and Engineering coworkers came a feeling of having less control over the design. I was sharing very rough wireframes with the engineers and they were giving me very clear feedback. The engineers had been quite frustrated by the process prior to my arrival on the scene. They felt they were being dictated to and had little say in the design direction. I've always tried to be collaborative but bigger companies have bigger silos so collaboration often means collaborating with your immediate team (in my case among my fellow designers) and then reviewing the design with the engineering and product teams. Design reviews are not the same thing as collaboration.

Now that I have worked on two separate startups and several small product teams, I've experienced what it is like to be part of a small, truly cross-functional team. The benefit to me is that I am often able to see my designs implemented before I've even finished specifying them. Once there is consensus on the direction, the engineers start working on the code even though some details remain open. This was different from my last couple of jobs. But these  small team meetings mean I'm discussing rough designs with engineers and marketers instead of my fellow designers. It also means that I was the only voice representing the interests of design. The bulk of the feedback was technical and marketing. Their feedback also includes thoughts on what they think would most benefit the user but it is still a different type of input than a typical internal design review.

It reminds me of something Tim Barber told me in the early days of forming his design firm Odopod. I was considering hiring Odopod to work on a project for Sony (where I was design director). Tim had just come off a challenging demise to Rare Medium Inc., the web design firm that had grown from its start by three design freelancers in New York City to a firm comparable in size and influence to Razorfish and Sapient. The company gobled up smaller studios in cities where it wanted a presence, (including the San Francisco firm where Tim worked). It was then bought by a company with no presence in the web design space and proceeded to implode. It was a trying time for several amazing creative minds who were there at the time. After a classic Silicon Valley "sabatical," Tim started Odopod with two like minds. They wanted to start from scratch and do things differently. They sought to eliminate the tendancy among design consultancies to "toss it over the fence"... taking elegant but impractical designs and handing them off to the company as "fait accompli". By the time I hired Odopod, they had already worked on several successful partnerships with early Web2.0 companies. What Tim relayed to me about his experience made a lot of sense and cemented my decision to hire Odopod. For Tim, close collaboration meant sharing designs before they really wanted to. It was fine to talk about true collaborations but this was testing their comfort levels. Showing incomplete ideas makes you feel uncomfortable. But doing so inevitably confirms that you're understanding the client's intent (or misunderstanding it) earlier than you would when you work on a design until you feel it's airtight.

So, here I am, six months in and wondering if collaboration is win/lose where you win on collaboration but lose on design control or win/win where the ultimate design will be stronger because of the closer collaboration. Of course I know the answer but we'll have to wait till launch to see what the market has to say.