Dan and Steve write: Connecting07 trip report

SP: Connecting07 was quite a global event. I met attendees from Colombia, Turkey, Canada, France, UK and Korea (in addition the presenters who hailed from all over).
There were so many presentations (up to 12 at once) that it led to a complete Paradox of Choice experience; can you imagine a 40 minute presentation about all the other presentations that were coming up?
Steve’s talk up on the big screen

Opening session

Pig party

Despite the less than stellar opening we got a lot of out many of the talks. Here are a bunch of incomplete descriptions and extracted ideas and other thoughts from the whole thing.

Design as Myth Buster: Hans Rosling

DS: I found myself wondering what would happen if the graph were organized to show income disparity within countries. How would North America broken up in this way compare to Europe, Latin America, Africa, etc.?

SP: Check out the animations and graphics he used at Gapminder.com. He showed us that the notion of “third world” and “western” is really a myth; it used to be that “we” had longer lives and smaller families, while “they” had shorter lives and larger families, but if you look at how the numbers have changed, it’s actually much more even (except for Africa). In fact, if you look within any region, you see that each reason maps across the full range. He then showed a similar graph comparing infant mortality to income and demonstrated how “third world” nations are progressing, using these amazing animations. Check out the TED video (presumably similar talk) here.

Space Tourism: Richard Seymour

DS: The animated film Richard Seymour’s company had created to present their concept for space tourism reminded me of how much about design-and especially selling design concepts–can be about seduction. And how this seduction zone is a realm where design and advertising really connect. Richard said it well: “it isn’t technology that leads development-it’s the degree of thrall.”

I think about how many shows there are on television about killers, disasters, interpersonal mischief and conspicuous consumption, and I wonder about whether, at a fundamental level and for the majority of us, being good, doing good and “buying good” can actually hold as much thrall as destroying things.

I really liked what Richard said about developing the space tourism concept and posing the question: “if you had to do it, how would you?” Maybe I’d like to pose the question: if you had to make saving the Earth sexy, how would you do it?

SP: The “if you had to” question reminded me of an exercise lead by some folks from The Beal Institute: each group comes up with a Bad Idea, and then swaps with other groups who try to come up with a new context where it would actually be a good idea.

I thought the video was an offensively testicular animation, filled with shots that lingered lovingly on revving turbines and sweeping wings. It had all the emotion of a Michael Bay film; indeed, the passengers were faceless future robots (but we couldn’t help but notice the sizable chest of one passenger) who delicately unclasp their seat belts in a suggestive hand gesture where fingers flick close to their special place.

As storyteller and an optimist, Seymour was awesome. But that demo was bloated, dated, and offensive. He shared an interesting notion of optimistic futurism that he wants to resurrect in our times, and you can see it in the science fiction of the 50s (especially in the design) versus the darker science fiction of the 00s.

Sleek and Green – Tesla Motors

SP: I was reminded of Method; each organization is focused on creating very desirable solutions that will appeal even if you don’t care about the eco-benefits. It’s a fantastic application of design and a great example of rethinking a problem. No doubt there are other categories waiting for this. This is why I’ve complained before about the push approach to fluorescent versus incandescent bulbs in the home.

Imagining a Future That Works: Alex Steffen

DS: Speaking of the idea of a “one-planet world,” and product sharing as opposed to individual ownership of goods, Alex said “we want the hole, not the drill.”

But how many of us really want the cool drill, too? How many of us are raised and live in a kind of spiritual vacuum that creates the need for some kind of succor, and the space for material acquisition to seed as an addictive activity? Is destructive production and consumption something that can be solved without addressing this “spiritual poverty?”

From Me to You: Designer Connecting to User

DS: Ayse Birsel talked about the need to simultaneously understand the history of an object and forget that history. She gave a great example based on the briefcase-a vestigial sort of portable storage lingering from a time before we carried laptop computers. Her recommendation was to “forget the object and think of what the person wants,” then create a new logic that makes sense based on the current context.

Blurring the Boundaries Between Anthropology and Design: Suzanne Gibbs Howard

DS: Suzanne reminded us that “we can’t possibly be all of the people we need to design for,” and related some of IDEO’s experience using “sacrificial concepts:” early, raw, potentially flawed concepts made visual/physical and used as a medium for creating reaction, response and discussion among users and design teams.

SP: She told a clean story and told it well

Their method

  • learn from extremes
  • visit natural contexts
  • building deep empathy
  • Discovering latent needs
  • Create prototypes for feedback
  • Considering the holistic experience

She then pointed out that all is not perfect in Human Centered Design. In one case, a sketch on a napkin became the product (with no human centered process). IDEO designers complain they don’t have time to design, and they have to justify every choice. So they added a new step to their process “informing our intuition” and a technique of sacrificial concepts, where they create purposefully extreme concepts…intentionally “wrong” ideas to show to people. The key here is that the research they conduct seems to be about using carefully designed props to provoke; that’s a bit of a change of process for us, where we start off naive and let the data lead us; we don’t have the cultural contrast of having a bunch of designers feeling left out of the process. I agree it’s an effective method and one we’ve used but it seems like this method is very IDEO-specific, and that by leading with a research process that is more exploratory, you can use this tangible prop tool as a way to take that first set of research further. IDEO is a design firm and so their process seems to be to begin designing immediately and they’ve worked their research process around that.

Panel discussion: Connecting people, with Ezio Manzini, Suzanne Gibbs Howard, and Alex Steffen.

DS: There was talk around steering client organizations through paradigm shifts arising out of design research and design work. Ezio suggested making relationships the framework of the engagement, rather than “the world of physical things,” and designing to “stimulate conversation, not to produce”

One of the big challenges of the dance is to weave between and balance these kinds of philosophical approaches with the need to produce concrete results, but as a perspective to guide collaboration, this seems a good approach.

From Applications to Implications: Designs for Fragile Personalities in Anxious Times: Tony Dunne and Fiona Raby

DS: Tony and Fiona also discussed design as a conversation stimulator and a medium for debate, and the need to shift the conversation from “an abstract one to an imaginary one.” They showed their delightful film on robots, in which they created models that were “as far as possible” from what people typically conceive of when they think about robots. The film envisioned a number of “robots” that were simple in appearance, and were each imbued with a particular set of abilities and limitations. The film explored how a person shared space with these robots, and how the machines and the person interacted and effected each other.

Fiona and Tony utilize their concept-stretching to push people to confront preconceptions and rethink unexamined ideas about what a robot is and isn’t in terms of appearance, functionality, and especially in relationship to the human world.

A Conscious Emulation: Connecting and Solving Worthy Challenges with Biomimicry: Janine Benyus

DS: Janine gave a wonderful presentation and set of examples on looking to the “design practice” of nature for ideas on:

  • Sourcing
  • Signaling
  • Shaping
  • Making

Core of Awareness: Naoto Fukusawa

DS: In one of my favorite presentations of the conference, Naoto Fukusawa related short vignettes about how many of his designs came to be. He framed “affordances” as “the random values each situation and environment present to us,” and how, often, he “just finds a good device that already exists” and adapts it to fit into contemporary life.

As Fukusawa-san flipped past the many slides of products he didn’t have time to discuss, my seat neighbor and I remarked on what an amazing body of work he has. I love the melding of simplicity, elegance, humor and surprise in his work.

A Better Experience: Sam Lucente

SP: Sam (VP of Design at HP) articulated the importance of shifting what they deliver from standalone products to “simplified technology experiences” – with an emphasis on simplifying, differentiating, and innovating. They showed a highly produced video (about a hardware interface widget called Q control) that supposedly featured actual usability participants. I’d love to hear how they got those folks to perform so well; they read like actors portraying “regular people” but if they were indeed real “regular people” how they heck did they direct them so well?

The Q Control

Sam showed a concept interface for managing electronic video that was similar to iTunes CoverFlow, allowing you to see the spines of DVD-box-sized images, or the front and box of the same boxes. Interesting to think about an interface that references an actual physical product as it replaces that product; how will that interface evolve in a time when there are no more DVD boxes around?
iTunes CoverFlow

The Art and Science of Measuring Emotion: Laura Richardson, M3 Design

SP: Laura showed an interesting graphic with Emotional Complexity on one axis, and Functional Complexity along the other, with different product categories placed throughout. Laura pointed out that once functional needs are met in a category, then you can start to look at the higher emotional states. By implication, with new technologies, you can posit a vector as the technology and user experience is refined.

Some other data she shared had to do with priming in the purchase process…if someone has a goal to find a good phone, they’ll note the positive aspects of what they come across; whereas someone who is trying to get a “not bad” phone will be primed to notice the negative aspects of any product.

Beyond the Creatives: Managing All Your Talent: Sir Ken Robinson


SP: Sir Ken Robinson was the emotional and inspirational highlight of the event. You can see a similar talk from TED here.
DS: Sir Ken Robinson opened with a riff on Las Vegas that was probably as funny as many of the riffs that take place in Vegas. He’s an extremely skilled speaker. Sir Ken drew a framework around the tendency to think of intelligence and creativity as separate, which he described as a “problem in the ecology of human resources.” The problem being that creativity is not being actively acknowledged, developed and rewarded by many of our current educational systems.

Unfortunately, by prizing intelligence and not creativity, and by not applying greater rigor to examining outcomes and consequences, “human beings, with our imaginations, have brought the earth to a precipice.” In what was, for me, the best quote of the conference, Sir Ken closed by saying: “it’s not that we aim too high and fail, it’s that we aim too low and succeed.”

Sir Ken’s talk made me think back to a discussion I had last year with my friend Cara about why whenever the future gets “imagineered” in a movie, it’s as a bleak, negative world. Since so many of us seem to be carrying that negative concept of future around inside ourselves, it seems a given that we are likely to actualize it (even if unconsciously or against our own desires).

“Visualize Failure.”

Is our problem not one of execution but of working from a flawed concept? Can we work instead to draw, at a deep and detailed level, an optimistic concept of the future? Can doing so change our trajectory?

SP: The start to any creative process is to “identify and challenge the things you take for granted.” This was a gratifying statement since it confirms what I’ve long held; that the consulting work we do is absolutely creative. I believe that many don’t see it that way; that research is seen as an objective process of collecting data and reporting back.

Sir Ken also acknowledged the five senses (plus the suggestions for what he termed a six “spooky” sense) but pointed out that scientists know of 17 (including temperature and balance); but we have a cultural bias towards that list of five and that it’s hard to get beyond that notion. Indeed, if you are designing for the senses, understanding those other senses seems like a tremendously untapped approach. People who are energized by creativity are usually in love with their medium but those people who don’t think they are creative haven’t found their medium. You have to be doing something, to be applying your creativity in order to really feel it.

From Design To Design Thinking: Tim Brown

DS: “Succeeding within a narrow band based on the bottom line in an outmoded model of industrial production.” This was IDEO CEO Tim Brown’s take on much of the contemporary production economy. Tim eloquently discussed the value to our planet’s survival of working to move from design as a set of tools drawn on by the development process to design thinking as an instrumental set of activities within the process itself.

Design Thinking: The Next Competitive Advantage

SP: Roger Martin gave his usual excellent talk (video of longer talk here, PDF of almost identical slides here, my writeup of the last time I saw him speak here).

Connecting Designers: Mark Dziersk

DS: Mark gave a spirited talk focused on speaking “design” to non-designers, and stressed that the true language of both business and design is English (or German, French, Chinese, etc.). In Mark’s words, “hearing the language of business coming from a designer is like hearing a cat bark,” so keep it simple, visceral, and concrete, and bring the user into the room with the stories you tell.

Visceral Research and Virtual Food

SP: Beth Mosher from RISD is an anthropologist and a designer, and has worked at companies like Smart and frog. She never said “semiotics” but much of the talk was indeed about the signs, or cues, of how food could or should be used. What makes this breakfast? and What makes this barbecue? were the questions she posted at the outset (showing a cereal bar and some potato chips).

She pointed out that historically, people ate pie for breakfast (pre-refrigeration, you’d eat what you had for dinner the night before). This will validate the choices some people I know make in our current era of refrigeration. Beth went through this process of drawing out the antecedents for the breakfast bar (i.e., cereal, jam, toast) and then looking at an 1896 Fanny Farmer cookbook (the first one to use actual measurements and algorithmic recipes) for source material that hadn’t made it into the junk food realm. She then presented prototypes of what snack food might look like based on these meals. I didn’t quite follow what the cookbook had to do with it, or why the specific prototyped solution was chosen or even how practical or conceptual she was being with her solutions.

Too survive, junk food must look tasty, have bright colors, allow easily eating more than you intend (because of an easy interface), and have recognizable references to other foods. I was looking for the “so what” at this point but couldn’t quite get there.

She showed how barbecue and potato salad evolved into barbecue-flavored potato chips (where the flavor moved from one item to another), and then eventually how the chips ended up on a plate with the barbecue (meat) and potato salad. “Flavor migration” was her term.

She then showed concepts for a regional potato chip, such as clam chowder or baked beans and brown bread from New England. Ethnic versions such as pastrami on rye or latkes. The concepts incorporated visual references, such as a flavor printed directly on the chip.

She held up the Hostess cupcake as a placeholder for the memory of a real cupcake (and this tied to the notion of “lack” from homeopathy but I actually never quite figured that out). Discussing manufactured nostalgia led to the best part of the talk — the discussion — where one person pointed out that they had barbecued chips before they had barbecue. I was reminded of Fluff where bakery quality is referencing manufactured snack food. There are obviously lots of vectors to play with in the referencing game.

I was also reminded that designs exist in context — they reference existing artifacts. Just like the dodge and burn tool in Photoshop; of course, the reference is missing for most of us, but it can become its own thing eventually (i.e., glove compartment).

For more, there’s the Core77 wrap up and the flickr pool.

Time to go


About Steve