Posts tagged “freshmeat”

The FreshMeat archives

(oo) Fresh                  
 \/  Meat

From 2001 to 2005, FreshMeat was a semi-regular email column about the relationships between business, culture, technology, products, consumers, and so on. As this blog found its voice, it gradually replaced FreshMeat as our outlet for the same sort of commentary.

This is a jump page for archived FreshMeat issues.

4/29/05 – Push to Talk
1/04/05 – Total Recall
7/26/04 – License to Shill
4/05/04 – The More The Merrier
12/23/03 – Pun Americana
6/30/03 – Livin’ La Vida Luxa
5/21/03 – The Houses of the Wholly
2/18/03 – She Blinded Me With Silence
11/07/02 – American Girl, Mama Let Me Be
8/05/02 – Free Agent Irritation
4/06/02 – Get Down Off the Shelf
1/16/02 – The Name of the Game is the Name
12/07/01 – Why The Cleaning Lady Won’t Do Windows
11/21/01 – A Load On Their Mind
11/09/01 – Beaming Up Scotty
10/30/01 – Got Zeitgeist?
10/04/01 – Everyone Remembers Their First Time
9/28/01 – If I Had A Hammer…Would Everything Look Like A Nail?
9/18/01 – Take Pictures, Last Longer!
9/04/01 – Cleaning Up On Aisle 5
8/27/01 – Reading FreshMeat Declared Safe!
8/17/01 – We Love to See You Smile?
8/09/01 – Every Product Tells a Story (Don’t It?)
8/01/01 – Blue Hawaii, or Viva Las Vegas

Note: TurnSignals (PDF) – originally sent out by fax – was an antecedent to FreshMeat.

Brands, blogging, snack culture, and a dilemma

Snacklash is the only thing worth reading in the recent Wired feature on snack culture (summary: lots of shorty-short-short stuff proliferates).

Snack culture is an illusion. We have more of everything now, both shorter and longer: one-minute movies and 12-hour epics; instant-gratification Web games and Sid Meiers Civilization IV. Freed from the time restrictions of traditional media, we’re developing a more nuanced awareness of the right length for different kinds of cultural experiences…Yes, it sometimes seems as if we’re living off a cultural diet of blog posts and instant messages – until we find ourselves losing an entire weekend watching season three of The Wire. The truth is, we have more snacks now only because the menu itself has gotten longer.

This sums up the challenge I’ve been in semi-denial of for a while now. My own output of content. For as content creators, we face the same challenges as well.

The posts here on this blog vary in length and thought and time. I’ve started the Quickies as a channel for passing on a link of interest with one or two key thoughts. And there are the longer pieces every so often that summarize an experience or an issue. If you go back and look at the earlier days of this blog, you’ll see a lack of polish and focus, and a lot less content by me.

Now take a look at FreshMeat. The earliest entries are on par with some of stuff I blog now (longer, more focused), but the later entries are like small theses. They are really in-depth, long, and demanding-as-hell to write, especially when a simpler blog entry is easily produced and delivered.

FreshMeat got longer and more intense, as did the blog. A blog entry now is more substantial than a FreshMeat started out to be. It’s an escalation.

And then there’s an infrastructure issue. FreshMeat originally was an email list, with a web thing as secondary distribution. But running a mailing list is increasingly demanding as customers of an ISP. Most don’t want you doing anything like that; moving an existing set of names to a new host sometimes means that everyone has to opt-in again. I’ve got over 1000 names, granted the list is a bit stale, but I can’t imagine I’d get more than 50% re-registering after 2 years of silence.

I still get asked “when’s FreshMeat coming out?” because people enjoyed it. They may be not the same people who make the commitment to read a blog on a regular basis.

The dilemma, then, to readers here, who have a good perspective on my brand and on content and all that, what makes sense? Should FreshMeat be retired? Integrated into the blog? What should the brand be? If I could send one last email to the 1000 names, what should I tell them?

I’m stuck on this one, and I would love your thoughts! Please!

Overlap, at Adaptive Path

I’ll be doing a brown-bag presentation at adaptive path on Tuesday, entitled The Overlap: Cultures, Disciplines, and Design. I hope this will be the theme of an upcoming FreshMeat, if I can ever get around to writing it!

Steve will raise some questions about whether or not some things are better as unambiguously one thing or the other, or if there’s more richness to be mined in the spaces between. Indeed, will it become essential to live, work, and play in that space?

Cingular sez Keep ban of cellphone calls on flights

Cingular is in favor of banning cell phone usage on airplanes

“‘We believe there is a time and a place for wireless phone conversations, and seldom does that include the confines of an airplane flight,’ Cingular wrote in a June 8 letter to the FAA…’Cingular will encourage passengers to ‘tap, not talk’ – that is, to use discreet services such as text messaging and e-mail as opposed to voice communications in flight,’ the carrier wrote.”

Surprising but pleasing occurrence! For more analysis on this issue, check out my recent FreshMeat “Push to Talk.”

Odd subscription request

I received the following today from someone who was in the process of subscribing to FreshMeat

Hello Steve

I am a consumer of the drink Rev. I’ve tried both the blue and the red and was wondering if this was the official site in order for me to get a hold of you. Please contact me back.

I can only figure they saw my Foreign Grocery Museum

FreshMeat #24: Push to Talk

FreshMeat #24 from Steve Portigal

               (oo) Fresh
                \\/  Meat 

Last night I dreamt I read FreshMeat again
Telephone line, give me some time

The cell phone continues to be a surprisingly
prominent item in our public discourse. The idea of the
phone exists on multiple simultaneous fronts:

– a technology platform for multimedia (i.e., camera
phones and text messaging)

– an economic booster (ringtones, just the latest flavor
in mobile merchandising are big bucks, perhaps even a
legit solution to the problem of music sharing)

– a designed accessory that displays economic and social
status (or at least aspirations thereof) – check out
Bling Kit for cell phones, including Swarovski
crystals, the rhinestones of the new millennium

– a performance item to either facilitate or impede
social interaction (just when we were beginning to get
used to the handsfree users who appear to walk around
talking to no one, the New York Times reports on a
supposedly emerging behavior where people use their
phones to avoid face-to-face interactions, making
like they are talking to someone – but are really
talking to no one)

– a challenge to unstated but powerful social norms (in
one of many examples, a man got out of his car and
punched another driver who was talking on his phone
instead of moving when the light turned green)

This last area is seeing an unusual amount of activity
recently, as the powers-that-be are exploring the
possibility of using cell phones on airplanes. The
airplane is a space that has had strict controls on cell
phone usage, and as changes to those controls are slowly
being considered, the debate is growing. This is fairly
unique in the history of the cell phone – it wasn’t until
they began appearing (and ringing) in hospitals and
movie theaters and concert halls and libraries and
trains and restaurants and classrooms and places of
worship and banks that rules intended to control use
began to appear. Belatedly, signs are posted, threats
are made, and consideration of others is urged. But I
think most of us have given up on reliably avoiding
annoying or disruptive ringing and talking.

Virgin territory – using your cell phone on an
airplane – has now appeared, and the battle lines are
being drawn. If you’ve heard about this issue, you’ve
probably heard some strong opinions being expressed.
If not, when you first consider the possibility of
in-flight cell phone usage, what comes to mind? Being
reachable throughout your trip, or the horrifyingly
likely possibility of a loud-mouthed doofus bellowing
details of his root canal all the way to JFK? I’ll bet
that it’s the latter; the careful balance begins to tilt
between i) the benefit to us for access to the phone and
ii) the cost to us for others having access to their

Of course, there are more players involved than just us
and the doofus in the middle seat. Technologies/products
are part of larger systems, and any changes are going to
impact each element of that system in a different way.
Careful consideration of the different players is
essential to fully understand the drivers for change,
the barriers, and the potential impacts. For this issue,
let’s take a look at who’s who:

A. passengers making and/or receiving calls
B. passengers who are not making or receiving calls
C. flight attendants
D. airlines
E. airplane manufacturers
F. wireless carriers (i.e., Verizon, Cingular)
G. infrastructure players (i.e., whoever enables this
new technological capability)
H. handset manufacturers
I. government

Let’s look at each of them in turn:

A. passengers making and/or receiving calls

There are already phones on board the plane. People can
make calls while flying. Using cell phones would
enable passengers to receive calls. All the features
of the handset (i.e., phone book) would be available.
These are both powerful symbols of greater personal
control. The travel experience often entails a
significant surrender of control, even of the most
basic functions (time and choices of food, sleep
schedules, access to a bathroom), so whatever people
can do to reassert that control will have some appeal.

A parallel example might be the payphone; in
metropolitan areas payphones were ubiquitous, yet cell
phone adoption grew enormously and the payphone
continues to fade away. Individual control over the
device itself triumphed “good enough” access.

The ability to make and receive calls (even if these
passengers seldom or never take advantage of that
ability) is a big win for these folks, although there
has not been a lot of impassioned demand for this from
the public.

Conclusion: benefit of new capability

B. passengers who are not making or receiving calls

The loss of control we experience while traveling comes
not only from the circumstances of travel, but also the
intrusion of other people – who we can not control –
into our lives, spaces, and faces. “The screaming baby,”
“the drunken boor,” and “the snoring fat guy” are well-
established archetypes for comedy routines and reality

A tangible manifestation of the control issue was
obvious in last year’s Knee Defender, a product that
would enable you to prevent the person in front of you
from leaning their seat back into “your” space. The
suggestion here was that you could physically over-ride
the conventions of the airplane (you may lean; you may
also be leaned into) and that was okay. More power to
you, for taking whatever control you could, even at the
expense of others.

Our experiences with others who use their cell phones
around us (during our non-travel times) are poorly
regarded. Anyone reading this can probably come up with
their most recent horror story in less than 5 seconds.
Giving other people the power to further disrespect our
personal space and surrender control over our environment
while traveling seems to be a potential for even more
unhappy traveling (even though there is significant
overlap between group A and group B), and the amount of
public grumbling about this potential bears witness to

Conclusion: cost of annoyance

C. flight attendants

No doubt that any new regulations would require some
sort of new monitoring role by the flight attendants.
Passengers that can do more with more devices now are
more independent and need more attention, i.e., making
sure that cell phones are only on during certain
portions of the flight, making sure that passengers talk
at a reasonable volume or set their ringers to vibrate.
Whatever it is, it’s going to require more work from
them. Perhaps they may benefit from access to their
phones during breaks, but the increase in their work
makes this mostly a loss for them.

Conclusion: cost of extra work

D. airlines

Current airplane phones add two inches to the thickness
of the seatback. Removing those phones would allow more
seats to be installed, or perhaps make room for
entertainment equipment such as the TV screens that
JetBlue offers as standard amenities.

One would also expect that whatever technology enables
on-board cell phone usage would be something they could
charge an extra fee for. It may even be a feature of how
the technology is developed, to provide a fee-for-access
gateway (just like WiFi access at some coffee shops).

The existing phones may remain on board; as long he
boarding process. Already the rules begin to be changed.
Once you get to the seatback card (labeled a “guide to
how to make the world a better place…one flight at a
time.”) you may begin to consider the flight experience
differently. The card reads “Be nice. Attitude is
everything on JetBlue. Kindness, respect and
consideration are the way to a nice flight.” Amusing
graphics that evoke traditional flight safety cards
depict passengers creating a common experience, for
example introducing themselves to each other. Sure, many
of us do that on a plane, but JetBlue takes some
ownership of it, and encourages it, with just enough
humor. Other graphics discourage people from bringing
their own smelly fish on board, or sleeping on the
shoulder of their neighbor, or removing their shoes when
their feet are too pungent.

JetBlue (and some of the other newer, more innovative,
and interestingly cheaper airlines) are rethinking the
entire experience they are creating for passengers. A
fresh look at air travel won’t eliminate turbulence, of
course, but they could easily extend this to help people
manage their behavior. Rather than a turf war over
knees, shoulders, ears, and mouths, creating a common
experience could encourage cooperation, establish new
social norms (and social sanctions rather than punitive
ones) that would allow for polite cell phone usage.
Sure, I’m skeptical too. Adding some verbiage to the
pre-flight announcement and posting a few stickers isn’t
going to do it. A new approach to creating a
relationship between the passengers and the airline, and
between the passengers themselves is the key. The
dinosaur airlines aren’t capable of this (i.e., United’s
Ted is a cheaper United, with better graphic design;
it’s not a re-think of the flight experience the way
JetBlue is).

Two thoughts by way of conclusion here: first, with any
new offering, if we fail to understand the differing
concerns of the larger set of stakeholders, we run the
risk of limiting our success; second, if there is a way
to encourage desired behavior rather than enforce
restrictions on undesired behavior, that may be the way
to greater success. We’re trying this strategy with our
dog, in fact.

This discussion is all about voice. Other work is being
done to enable WiFi on airplanes; presumably the cell
network could also transmit data to allow email or
Internet surfing, but that seems peripheral to the
issues at hand. Laptop users on board airplanes with
high-speed Internet access can now do VOIP (voice-over-
IP, or Internet telephony) but right now that’s a
smaller, bleeding-edge type of user unlikely to have the
type of impact we’re considering.

Is it actually dangerous to use today’s phones on
today’s planes? This is one report that documents
the effects of mobile phones on avionic (isn’t
that a great word?) gear. But other studies have
said it’s not a problem. Hence the complicated
governmental role – between communications (FCC)
and aviation (FAA). Sure, there’s reason to be
skeptical, compare the supposed danger of using
a cell phone at a gas station
, which even led to
proposed legislation in some US states.

See Don Norman’s recent essay Minimizing the annoyance
of the mobile phone – The Annoyance, Irritation, and
Frustration of The Mobile Phone — A Design Challenge

Excerpt: "We are in real danger of a consumer backlash
against annoying technologies. We already have seen the
growth of mobile-phone free zones, of prohibition
against phone use, camera use, camera phones, in all
sort of public and private places. The mobile phone has
been shown to be a dangerous distraction to the driver
of an automobile, whether hands-free or not. If we do
nothing to overcome these problems, then the benefits
these technologies bring may very well be denied us
because the social costs are simply too great."

FreshMeat #23: Total Recall

FreshMeat #23 from Steve Portigal

               (oo) Fresh
                \\/  Meat

FreshMeat is kicking it old school. Don’t you think?
We can remember it for you, wholesale
It’s a common exercise in December to reflect back on the
about-to-expire year, but it can be particularly
challenging to identify the highlights in any category.
Sure, cultural critics produce a raft of best-of lists,
but how easy is it for the rest of us to look back?

We are all exposed to media (or information, or stories,
or whatever you’d like to call it) at an enormous quantity
and at a staggering rate, receiving content from TV,
magazines, newspapers, advertising, blogs, music (radio,
CDs, and MP3s), email and more. So, it shouldn’t be hard
for me to come up with some 2004 list of something, right?
After all, I read two daily papers, more than 125 blog
feeds, and about 10 magazines. I manage two mailing
lists (one about the Rolling Stones and one about user
research), participate in several others, as well as
online discussion forums. I contribute to three
different blogs. I’ve got a handle on the zeitgeist,

Wrong. I can’t remember a damn thing.

What the heck happened in 2004? I can remember the front-
page stuff (crimes, war, politics) but little else. So I
decided to do an experiment: I went to several online
sources – BoingBoing, MetaFilter and Core77
and skimmed their archives of two random 2004 months,
February and April. I used these sites as triggers for
stories that seemed cool when they broke but eluded my
memory by the time December rolled around.

Just those two months amounted to over 150,000 words-and
many, many stories. Most I recognized with a hockey-card
collector’s nod – “seen it; seen it; seen it;” some I didn’t
notice at all at the time (or if I did notice, made so
little impact that I didn’t recognize them months later);
and a few still seemed new and cool. But a bunch of others
stood out as important, had personal resonance for me, and
seemed, somehow, to be representative of the year. So here
we go:

February, 2004:

The Grey Album – the highest-profile mashup, created by DJ
Danger Mouse from Jay-Z’s The Black Album and the Beatles’
White Album

Gay weddings at City Hall in San Francisco

Cingular buys AT+T Wireless

Scientists discover M&Ms randomly dumped into a bowl pack
together much more densely than spheres

Amazon writers caught reviewing their own books positively

Flickr launches

The Dynamap – bringing the power of layered online data to
a printed medium

Howard Stern dumped by Clear Channel

Brian Wilson performs his lost classic Smile, 37 years

Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ released – it does very
very well

Janet Jackson’s breast becomes the most searched-for image
in Lycos

A BBC poll named Apple designer Jonathan Ive as the most
influential person in British culture

Glare from Frank Gehry-designed Disney Concert Hall heats
up neighbor buildings

April, 2004:

Porn stars get HIV

BBC launches TV programs for pets

Roboticist develops swarming traffic-cones

Adbusters launches “Black Spot” sneakers

Legoland starts tracking kiddie visitors with WiFi and

Scary pics of an overweight guy designing his own Tron

Retro 1850s and 1950s appliances

Google launches Gmail

Campbell’s sells Warhole-esque cans of soup as a tribute
to Andy

Burger King’s subservient chicken ad

IKEA founder, Ingvar Kamprad, has overtaken Bill Gates as
the world’s richest man

Academic conference about Wal-Mart

Sony launches a premium brand, Qualia

These are stories about design, technology, culture,
politics, media, and entertainment, all jammed together –
stories that are probably familiar, but that most of us
couldn’t have listed on our own without going back over
some kind of archive. Anyone who took Psychology 101 (not
me) will know that there are different types of memory. In
this case we’re contrasting the memory of recall with the
memory of recognition. We might not be able recall the
names of all our high school teachers, but we could
probably recognize most of them by name or photo. (Of
course, there are some teachers who we’ve blocked from
both recall and recognition due to excessive trauma – but I

Perhaps some of the items listed above provided a frisson
of recognition, a surprise of a forgotten incident, the
pleasure of an interesting experience from the past or a
splash of perspective gained from just a few months’
distance. And you could do your own lists, using the
filter of what tripped your fancy or tickled your funny
bone, and that list might provide some fun for others
around you, but the parlor game would still hold; in this
time of information overload, we seem to need the stimulus
to have the response.

Why, if we’re consuming so many cultural stories, is it so
hard to recall them? Again, those Psych 101 students
will know about the Recency Effect – our inclination to add
weight to the more recent items. (Film studios plan
release dates for award-likely movies based on this
phenomenon; Sideways, released in the fall, seems to have
won a conspicuous number of film awards.)

And the Recency Effect is markedly intense when we try to
sum up the cultural experiences of a large period of time,
say a year. We’ve spent that time primarily consuming
information-not accumulating knowledge – the zeitgeist
database rapidly building, each fresh item reshaping the
slag heap, with the older pieces buried ever deeper below.
Try it yourself: you can probably recall last month’s
cover of ID Magazine (or a similarly relevant industry
journal), but not the one before it.

The notion of consuming media, in a period of history that
serves up so many choices, was recently addressed by Peter
Merholz in his thoughts about “media obesity”. (Indeed,
when does anyone have the time to listen to 40G of music?)
Of course, the tag-team of marketing and technology are
adding ever-more options, increasing the challenge of
ever-keeping up: If you enjoyed Seinfeld when it was
originally on television, and then again when it was in
reruns, you can now own it, so that you are able to watch
at least once more. Oh, and then one more time after that
with the commentary. So in addition to all the new media
experiences being generated from this moment forward,
there are re-released and enhanced versions of media
experiences from last year, from 5 years ago, or from 30
years ago. We’re at a single point in time with a stream
of media bearing steadily down upon us like a NASCAR final
lap, while if we’re not careful we’re going to get pounded
by the reverse commute of yesterday’s content.

And if we consider design, specifically, we have to ask
ourselves whether our contribution to this congestion is
unique in any way, or simply more of the same. Designers
are certainly in the consumption business, and while
design both creates and reflects the cultural stories
we’re considering here, the work is typically tangible.
Sure, “the iPod” sits in the zeitgeist somewhere near
“Janet Jackson’s breast,” but Lindsay Lohan’s iPod is a
concrete, physical, experience-able, designed artifact –
especially for Lindsay herself. And maybe “design
stories” – or “personal experiences with design” – are
a kind of story that is more memorable precisely because
it’s tied to an artifact. These kinds of stories may be
richer, individualized, or recall-able on other levels
(tactile, olfactory), making rapid and effective
connections with memories, emotions and experiences in
ways that that are palpable – indeed, literally physical
– and have an upper hand in providing effective tour guides to
both our collective and individual stories.

So here’s the corollary experiment: I was easily able to
generate (mostly from recall, with little need for
stimulus-recognition) a list of my own design-y
experiences from this past year – experiences that
affected me emotionally and intellectually (either
positively or negatively):

Touching the Bean at Millennium Park in Chicago

Rem Koolhaas student center (McCormick Tribune Campus Center) at IIT

Ontario College of Art and Design’s new Sharp Centre

Cornerstone Festival of Gardens


Bruce Sterling’s opening keynote at the IDSA Western
Region conference

It looks like design can impact an individual’s stories,
pushing past the Recency Effect, lodging in whatever
cranial fissures house the items available for recall. And
what a nice thought that is, looking back at all we’ve
been through and ahead at what’s still to come. Dylan
wrote, “She’s an artist, she don’t look back”, but he also
wrote, “Yer gonna make me lonesome when you go.”

A similar version of this article appears on the Core77
Industrial Design Supersite
. Check it out, with pictures
and everything, here.

FreshMeat #22: License To Shill

FreshMeat #22 from Steve Portigal

               (oo) Fresh
                \\/  Meat

Can’t have any pudding if you don’t read FreshMeat!
We make no mention of the huge bottle of Yoo-hoo beverage
Last month I flew to New York to attend the Licensing
International tradeshow
. If SpongeBob is going to end up
on a box of cereal in the next two years, this is where
that deal is likely to go down.

I had been interested in attending this tradeshow simply
because I saw it on a morning news program (Today, Good
Morning America, etc.) a few years back. I don’t think I
even caught the name of the show, I just remember being
awestruck by the visual impact of the show itself. It was
a colorful chaotic jungle of familiar brands promoting
themselves, with guys in KISS costumes and Strawberry
Shortcake outfits wandering around. I decided to someday
attend this magical event. Eventually I figured out what
the show (and the business itself) was called – licensing!
Expecting a new and fascinating facet of culture, product
development, business, and marketing, I arranged to attend
as a speaker, organizing and moderating a panel on
consumer trends

With a bit of ethnographic curiosity, I set out to learn
more of what this community/practice/business is all
about. Typically, my work starts with products, with the
cultural aspects moving to encompass issues of brand. I
was prepared for a shift in focus, with this show starting
with the brand, but I was surprised to discover that in
licensing one doesn’t even deal with “brands,” but rather
“properties.” I’m sure some brand theorist could explain
the difference and we’d be enlightened, but let’s just
marvel for a moment at the lingo. I think culturally we’ve
internalized the distance between the marketing word
“brand” and the cowboy word “brand” because it is a bit of
an uncomfortable connection. But now the entities in
question are actual things that can be exchanged (or
licensed) rather than simply labels that are burned into
flesh to signify ownership. Fair enough.

The tradeshow was interesting, to put it mildly.
Immediately you see that everything imaginable is
available for licensing. I thought I was prepared for
this, I mean if one more person tells me that Martha
Stewart and Ralph Lauren are brands, I’m going to shriek.
Okay, got it. But the licensing business takes it further.
Did you know that John Wayne and Andrew Weil (the bearded
purveyor of wellness) are both brands, er, properties? I’m
not talking about a conceptual sense of property-ness, I
mean they are owned, managed, marketed and ready for
licensing. Other brands/people/products that are also
properties include: Andy Warhol, Antiques Roadshow, Buzz
Aldrin, Chicken Soup for the Soul, CSI: Miami, Dairy
Queen, National Enquirer, NYPD, Siegfried and Roy, Bozo
the Clown, Village People, Terminator 2, Rocky, and
Shrek 3 (yeah, 3).

And so the tradeshow is overflowing with displays that
showcase known and unknown properties. In some cases the
company themselves will be in attendance (i.e., Nickelodeon
with SpongeBob) and in other cases there are holding
companies and agents with boring neutral names (i.e.,
Equity Management Inc. or IMC Licensing) some of whom have
an amusing combination of properties making up their palette
(Zippo, Mr. Clean, Crayola, Andrew Weil, and Pennzoil in
one case; Midway Games, Terminator 2, Village People,
Musicland Band and U.S. Secret Service in another) and
others with quite obvious specialties (IMC had a booth
touting Jello-O, Kool-Aid, Planters, Oscar Mayer, Kraft,
Tabasco, Manischewitz and others – although it appears
they also manage other licenses, such as the science-
fiction show “Red Dwarf”). And in other cases there are
up-and-coming (hopefully) properties that most of us
haven’t heard of.

It gets more complicated. For example, American Greetings
(the card company) hired the consumer products division of
Nickelodeon (the TV channel) to handle Holly Hobbie for
them. Nick is part of Viacom, a huge conglomerate, and
they have enough horsepower that they can take on business
handling other properties for other groups. It seems like
there was business going in every direction. Property
owners looking to sign up a licensor, agents repping their
portfolios, licensees with products looking for
distributors, and every possible permutation.

But it’s hard to see the dealflow – mostly you just see
people in suits and costumes, and a countless number of
booths. Check out my photos from the show (including scans
of some of the artifacts I picked up) here.
I spent several hours walking the floors with my
colleagues, looking at as much as we could, until we
reached total property burnout. Although this was an
industry show, the tactic was to seduce us as consumers. I
posed for pictures with SpongeBob and Patrick, and Mr.
Peanut, and the Care Bears, and more. I sampled the Krispy
Kremes covered in candy fish-shaped sprinkles (for some
to-be-released film). I grabbed free manga, stickers,
postcards, and peered at the current Lassie. After all
that, here are some of my observations.

It seems that many previously dormant properties are back!
Or at least, that’s a common phrase. Holly Hobbie is back!
Trollz are back! Although, in fact, Trollz are an update
of Troll dolls (small toys with long stiff brightly
colored hair), so strictly speaking they may not really be
back. Fido Dido (mostly known for 7-Up ads in the 90s)
appears to be back, and so are Davey and Goliath, those
earnest clay purveyors of biblical insight.

One surprising pattern was a variety of properties or
artifacts that showed a large number of different
feelings, moods, or attitudes. Sesame Street had a single-
sheet magnet featuring 12 different Muppets with
associated moods – Oscar as “crabby”, Elmo as “ticklish”,
Cookie Monster as “hungry”, Guy Smiley as “smiley”, etc.
and a separate magnet, reading “I’m feeling” that can be
used as a frame to be placed on top of the characters to
display your mood to the world. This was very similar to
the “feelings poster” sometimes used in therapy.

Anther example was Mood Frog who appears without labels,
but has a range of facial expressions suggesting anger,
boredom, nausea, confusion, etc. The Fear’s are, as you
might imagine, afraid of very specific things: dirt,
germs, cooking, flat hair, and veggies. Another line of
products featured a grid of baby faces with a variety of
moods: cranky, quiet, sleepy, happy, poopy, and so on. One
property featured cartoon girls with different attitudes
(I don’t have the specifics, but something like “The Shy
Thinker” “The Clever Go-getter” etc.) that presumably
tapped into something that the target audience could
identify with. I guess “The Breakfast Club” (a film that
segmented high school kinds into tidy parcels like The
Jock, The Nerd, The Criminal, The Princess, and The
Basketcase) lives on in one form or another.

Choosing a mood is already a mode in current products and
features, especially online. For example, Moods on (a blogging site popular with the younger
crowd) offers the following default set of choices
(inviting you to add more as needed): accomplished,
aggravated, amused, angry, annoyed, anxious, apathetic,
artistic, awake, bitchy, blah, blank, bored, bouncy, busy,
calm, cheerful, chipper, cold, complacent, confused,
contemplative, content, cranky, crappy, crazy, creative,
crushed, curious, cynical, depressed, determined, devious,
dirty, disappointed, discontent, distressed, ditzy, dorky,
drained, drunk, ecstatic, embarrassed, energetic, enraged,
enthralled, envious, excited, exhausted,
flirty, frustrated, full, geeky, giddy, giggly, gloomy,
good, grateful, groggy, grumpy, guilty, happy, high,
hopeful, horny, hot, hungry, hyper, impressed,
indescribable, indifferent, infuriated, intimidated,
irate, irritated, jealous, jubilant, lazy, lethargic,
listless, lonely, loved, melancholy, mellow, mischievous,
moody, morose, naughty, nauseated, nerdy, nervous,
nostalgic, numb, okay, optimistic, peaceful, pensive,
pessimistic, pissed off, pleased, predatory, productive,
quixotic, recumbent, refreshed, rejected, rejuvenated,
relaxed, relieved, restless, rushed, sad, satisfied,
scared, shocked, sick, silly, sleepy, sore, stressed,
surprised, sympathetic, thankful, thirsty, thoughtful,
tired, touched, uncomfortable, weird, working, and

Similarly, IM (instant messenger) and web forums both
offer a huge set of smileys (or emoticons) as this
screenshot from the IM program Trillian suggests:

The thrust of this multiple-mood approach seems to be two-
fold: first, just like a line of toothpaste with multiple
flavors and features, we can find the one that suits us
best, and second, the display of so many different
feelings at once appeals to a certain vain sense of our
own emotional complexity.

Elsewhere at the show, girls with attitude were prominent.
This movement got a lot of press earlier this year when
David & Goliath (not the churchgoing boy and dog, but a
clothing company) caused controversy with a clothing
displaying slogans such as “Boys are Stupid – Throw
Rocks At Them” (read more here)

We saw attitude (the very cute Dog of Glee encouraging
you to “have a nice day buttface”) and mean girls galore.
“Angry Little Asian Girl” and “Emily the Strange” were two of
my favorites (probably because I had the opportunity to talk with the
artists and creators of the property, get a sense of who
they were and what their characters were about for them).

A lot of characters involved cats. Some were swanky
princess type cats, skinny, with a Parisian posture,
perhaps with a tiara. Some were emotional (“Sad Kitty
speaks for everyone who has ever experienced heartbreak,
disappointment, and the general hardships of life. Sad
Kitty cries the tears of all mankind!”) while some
companies offered a huge range of cat properties to suit a
variety of moods and attitudes (The Grinning Cat, Blue
Mood Cats, Tribal Cat, Three Hip Kittens, Flower Cat, Rain
Poodle, Art Cat, The Guitar Cat, Tropical Kitty, Dead
Kitty, and Lucky Cat all come from a San Francisco company
called Tokyo Bay).

The aesthetic of Japanese anime is a powerful influence,
with many different animated characters that typically
have flared legs, short bodies, big heads, big eyes, and
sometimes rather adult physical development. Homies and
Mijos come from da ‘hood. Previously infantile Troll dolls
are now sexed-up Trollz. Petz includes Catz and Dogz. And
there’s something called “Rock Hard Fairies” which claims
that “Fairies Just Got Cool!!”

Another tactic was to anthropomorphize whatever hadn’t
previously been given the breath of life (or big cartoony
eyes). We saw an elevator car and Doggy Poo, to name but

And finally, some properties were cool and funny simply
because they were foreign and literally didn’t quite
translate. A whole segment of the floor was operated by
the Korean Culture and Content Agency featuring Big Ear
Rabbit (“The Fundamental Concepts is the adventurous
travel by the boys with complex in their individual
surrounding with Big Ear Rabbit, Roy who is centered with
them and the boys are finding out their good point rather
than their own demerit. This is the story telling method
to be estimated by the boys themselves in the process of
hearing the story clearly, but is different from the
direct story telling method that the esteemed fathers told
their children the instructions.”), Ayap (“Dews in the
cave gathered into the magic bead for a thousand years,
and he was born there…He is good and pure. When he drinks
dews collected in the magic bead, his power rises a lot so
that he can help other people who are at a crisis. He
likes diverse kinds of sports. His is a sport-mania.”) and
JaJa (“She is the girl who always goes on a diet. We’re
trying to develop ‘A diet characters’ mainly for the ages
between 17 to 30, young females who strongly want to be
healthy and beauty. Providing a pleasant infotainment
contents throughout funny diet stories.”).

It’s not clear what lessons there are to be learned here –
no matter how many interesting, creative, and resonant
properties I encountered, I left the tradeshow muttering
about “too much crap.” It was overwhelming. Perhaps the
lessons could be found by looking at patterns over time:
what properties survive, what clever licensing deals get
struck (will there be John Wayne pet food? Or Homies
tampons?), and how do the established brands like Sesame
Street and SpongeBob evolve over time to stay current. In
order to assess those types of things, I may have to go
back next year!

My photos (including scans of handouts) from the Licensing
show are here.

FreshMeat #21: The More The Merrier

FreshMeat #21 from Steve Portigal

               (oo) Fresh
                \\/  Meat

People, put your hands together now for FreshMeat!
There’s a party in my mind and everyone’s invited
At the dawn of the eighties, I looked towards my imminent
ritual transition to manhood – my Bar Mitzvah. My
preparations began with the acquisition of a portable
tape recorder (used for listening and practicing the
Torah portion I would eventually chant). My friends and I
immediately put this device to use, creating fake radio
programs, with interviews, songs, commercials, and
closing credits. The post-modern media parodies of
National Lampoon and Saturday Night Live were well-
established at that point, but not to a 13-year-old. To
us, presented with a new enabling technology, pretending
to be on the radio seemed the natural thing to do.

These new technologies continue to appear. Within recent
memory, some products that put previously unachievable
professional-grade abilities in the hands of ordinary
people include video cameras, desktop publishing, teeth
whitening, home theater, hairstyling products, and home
dry-cleaning. Further, consider some of the brands that
offer “professional” as part of their promise: Hummer,
Jeep, Viking, Thermador, SubZero, Bosch, Nikon, and Smart
and Final.

In our culture there is a growing interest in trying to
be like the professionals. As consumers, we’re interested
in how business is done. The popular press reports the
amount of money that a new movie makes in its opening
weekend. Advertisements (most recently Dell) profile the
product designers, user researchers, usability testers,
and others who are behind the scenes for the products we
buy. Many of the ubiquitous reality-TV shows are simply
pulling back the veil on a previously hidden process
(MTV’s Cribs documents the homes of the famous, Take This
Job- tracks the work activities of people with unique
occupations, Airline shows the minutiae of getting
passengers boarded for an on-time departure, and Family
Plots tells all about a family-owned funeral home). The
boundaries between consumer and producer continue to
blur, a change that was massively accelerated by the
Internet. For more about this, check out The Cluetrain
. Customers (really, fans) of companies form
communities to debate how those companies and their
products should evolve. For example, Google’s social
networking site Orkut includes two communities with over
1000 subscribers: What Should Google Do? and What Should
Orkut Do?

But beyond simply acting upon that sense of ownership by
talking about the companies, many people are taking
advantage of new enabling technology (i.e., Photoshop) to
go one step further – to create new “products.” And, with
a distribution channel like the Internet, they can also
share their creation with an enormous audience, just like
the professionals.

Fan-created fiction (or “Fanfic”) is artifact of fandom
in general, but the quantity and breadth of Internet
sources further demonstrates the extent of consumers
acting, literally, like producers. The “Lois and Clark”
Fanfic archive
has over 2300 stories and is updated
regularly. There are other fanfic sites devoted to NYPD
Blue, Law and Order SVU, Felicity, anime characters such
as Sailor Moon, and video games including Max Payne and
Zork. As well as many, many Star Trek sites.

Similarly, DVD Tracks is a site that was set up to host
alternative commentary tracks for DVDs, recorded as MP3
files by ordinary viewers.

For products, specifically, one of the most popular
formats for consumer-developed concepts is the parody. runs a regular forum where
participants create realistic, disturbing, obscene,
bombastic and hilarious product concepts, ads, book
covers, movie posters, and more. Check out this for
fictitious recalled food products like Nestle Boogers, or
this for fake religious toys such as Biblical MadLibs and
Erotic Dreidels.

Some people might look at those pages and groan, grimace
and think “Hardy-har, I’ve seen stuff just like that on
comedy TV shows.” That’s exactly the point! Now, ordinary
folks can create parodies of real products and services
as well as commercial media. Ironically (or
frustratingly, if you can’t handle too much recursion)
this trend was beautifully pegged in a Saturday Night
Live parody ad for computer they called McIntosh Jr.
Using the tagline “The Power to Crush the Other Kids” one
young boy earns the envy of his classmates by printing
out a fake brochure for the “pubic library.” See the ad

Beyond straight-up parodies, we can find people crafting
conceptual visions of the future. Look at this to see
wireless coffee delivery and payphones converted to
clean air dispensers, among other imaginings.

But what probably hits closest to home for many of us are
the proposed design evolutions of real products, created
by regular people. A beautiful iPod watch is here. You
can see 150 other iPod concepts – new form factors, new
finishes, skins, features, and more here.

These people obviously have real passion and enthusiasm
for the iPod. We also find a similar energy with an
eagerly anticipated product update, such as the Nintendo
DS. When the public has no idea what their future object
of desire will look like, fake images begin circulating
to feed that hunger., an excellent site for
information about the latest technology products, has
been soliciting concepts for the Nintendo DS (see some
examples here) as part of their campaign to obtain an
actual pre-release image of the product. They are even
offering a bounty (get the details here) for whoever can
provide this image.

A further variation is the how-to information created by
enthusiasts who not only share the result of their
project, but also publish detailed instructions for
others who may want to duplicate their example. They are
publishing their own designs, and the means for others to
complete that same design. Want to build a lit cityscape
for your kitchen window? See how Ryan Hoagland did it
. Mike Harrison tells you how to build a Nixie Tube
clock here. Physically modifying a PC (or “casemodding”)
has produced a entire subculture of DIY hardware
designers who no doubt are influencing manufacturers like
Alienware. See the process of building a casemod that
looks like an anime girl here, or visit to
see ultra-custom designs like a toaster, an Underwood
typerwriter, a V8 engine and others that evoke futuristic
technogeek wet dreams. The turn-your-Mac-Classic-into-an-
aquarium meme became so widespread that there is an
entire collection of Mac-based aquariums here.

Product designers may have a negative knee-jerk reaction
to all this. Who do these people think they are? Up to
this point, the limited availability of glorious tools
(and training needed to use them) placed this type of
speculative conceptual activity out of the reach of the
masses. Now the technology, if not the ability, is within
reach of millions. But for designers this is really a
“the-more-the-merrier” situation. These new enabling
technologies (i.e., PhotoShop and its brethren) further
the discourse about what is possible, and what is desired
– and that discourse is an essential ingredient in the
work we do for non-fake clients.

For example, consider how user research methods such as
participatory design (also known as PD) explicitly
harness this desire. PD asks regular people to help
design future products. The designers work directly with
users to identify needs, rapidly prototype solutions, and
iterate those solutions on-the-fly. Although some may
fear that bringing non-designers into the actual pencil-
and-paper moments of design may reduce the design to a
mere sketchmonkey, PD is not consumer-led design. The
designer takes the lead, informed by what the users know
best – the problems they have today with existing
products (of a lack of product). People will offer
alternatives to ideas suggested by designers, but the
biggest value for the designer is in understanding the
needs behind that input (i.e., it’s not clear that people
are ready for an emergency fresh air dispenser as
suggested above, but we can see the connection between
that concept and existing products such as the USB-based
personal ionizers that are sold online).

When someone says, “I want a handle,” that shouldn’t be
taken literally. The need being expressed is, “I need an
easy way to carry this device into another room.” The
designer is not simply implementing a wish-list but is
actively translating and transforming. That is what they
do best: act as a magic engine that takes in needs and
spits out wants – in a way that solves the need. No one
really “needs” an iPod watch, but they may “want” one.
Some people want one badly enough to create a picture of
what it would be like!

Participatory design is a significant shift in how we
approach user research – instead of focusing on the
problem we are now working with users to develop the
solutions. Of course, in the process of creating
products, needs, wants, and solutions are often just
proxies for each other as we struggle to articulate half-
baked ideas. But half-baked ideas are artifacts of the
creative process. It’s exciting that these regular people
are already creating partially cooked concepts on their
own, without a client, without a PD session, without a
designer, or a facilitator. For the designer who seeks to
center their solutions in the world of the user, rest
assured that the users are already headed out to meet you

If we ever wanted proof that such a thing is possible,
that everyone really is a designer, we need look no
further than these impassioned expressions of desire to
be involved with products we love.

A similar version of this article appears on the Core77
Industrial Design Supersite
. Check it out, with pictures
and everything, here.

FreshMeat #20: Pun Americana

FreshMeat #20 from Steve Portigal

               (oo) Fresh
                \\/  Meat

Anecdotal evidence indicates FreshMeat causes happiness!
Cute ideas about putting a friendly face on a brand
Recently, I gave a presentation about conducting user
research in other countries (in this case, Japan). I
explained the phenomenon of “kawaii” (cute) – a prevalent
design aesthetic that cuts across age and gender. Most
people will recognize “Hello Kitty” as an example of
Japanese cuteness, but in North America that’s simply a
toy-like brand for young girls. In Japan, many businesses
will use a cute image as the “face” on their organization,
in order to present themselves as friendly, inviting, and
of course, non-threatening.

But kawaii is everywhere in Japan. The police use a kawaii
character as their mascot. Stores sell dustpans, tazers,
and dish brushes that are anthropomorphized with eyes and
a mouth.

Some quick examples here and here.

Anyone designing products, brands, services, etc. for the
Japanese market needs to at least be aware of kawaii,
and so I emphasized this to my audience.

One person spoke up and reminded us of the characters that
western companies created to personify their brands,
especially in the 50s and 60s. (For a great collection
of these mascots, check out the book
Meet Mr. Product: The Art of the Advertising Character

It was a provocative comment, because in my fervor to
describe the ubiquity of kawaii imagery in Japan I had
forgotten about something similar in our own culture. Kawaii
is a powerful style of communication (and perhaps mode of
thought) in Japan, and it manifests itself in many ways,
one of which is cute characters to personify a brand, and
of course, the Japanese are not unique in putting faces on
brands. Point taken.

Later, I began thinking of other ways that we create
inviting brands in our culture, beyond the usual
tools of designing logos, retail experiences,
environments, web sites, etc. I realized that in the
shopping mall we’ve got a new, unique form of
Americana/Canadiana/etc…the pun-brand.

Just for groans, check out these names of mall stores:

My Favorite Muffin
Once In A Blue Moose
Northern Boarder
The Athlete’s Foot
Foot Locker
Romancing the Stone
The Stitching Post
Between the Sheets
Humphrey Yogart
Close Encounters
The Hotdogger
Banana Republic
Asian Chao
Bare Escentuals
Bead It!
Bubble Gun
Corda-Roys Originals
Sox Appeal
We’re Going Nuts
Deck The Walls
Pops Corn
The Nutty Bavarian
Soul To Sole
Whole Addiction
Time Zone
Finish Line
Site for Sore Eyes

Okay, take a deep breath! Starts to get a little
painful there, doesn’t it? Notice that sometimes
it’s hard to “see” the pun; when the brand has
established itself so well (i.e., Foot Locker)
it becomes a new “thing” rather than a clever
combination of words. It also seems that the
pun-brands that have been more successful are
(relatively) subtle – I don’t ever see Humphrey
Yogart going national (estate litigation aside)
because it’s just too broad. And some pun-brands
don’t work unless you already know what they are
selling (i.e., Whole Addiction is a body-piercing
concern…get it??).

Obviously, being punny is not enough. Like
any face being put on a business, a thoughtful
approach that is executed well and considers the
audience is essential. The Foot Locker brand
consists of more than the name, and it all
works in harmony. And let’s not forget the
Foot Locker mascot, called The Striper! (see
him here)

A great article about kawaii can be found here and there are a ton of kawaii links here.

Nice piece on visual puns in advertising is here.

FreshMeat #19: Livin’ La Vida Luxa

FreshMeat #19 from Steve Portigal

               (oo) Fresh
                \\/  Meat

Finish this 72 oz. FreshMeat and it’s free!
The necessity of luxury; the luxury of necessity?

James Twitchell is professor of English and advertising
at the University of Florida. He also writes wonderful
books about culture, consumption, advertising and so on.
His books are very readable, very provocative and explore
these issues from a myriad of perspectives. Titles include
Adcult USA, The Twenty Ads That Shook the World, and
For Shame
. His latest book, Living It Up: Our Love Affair
With Luxury
has just been released in paperback (although
the subtitle is now “America’s Love Affair With Luxury”).
While he was on vacation in Vermont, I spoke with him by
telephone about his work.

Steve Portigal: I read in your books…you study culture
and develop theories and explain them and integrate all
this stuff, and then you talk about being a professor of
romantic literature, so I was curious when you are at a
cocktail party and you are introducing yourself to
someone, what do you say about what it is that you do?

Jim Twitchell: Well, what I’m interested in is stories.
Most of the stories that people who do what I do talk
about are stories that are under the category literature,
but since the beginning of the 20th century there’s this
new category of stories, and that’s brands. Those are
stories told about objects, manufactured objects. And
it’s clear that that category of story is really what we
know and that the other category of stories, the high art
stories, the stories about ancestry and politics and
abstract concepts, those stories are progressively less

SP: Is that heretical?

JT: I think it’s self-evident! If you ask people to fill
the blank of one of the most famous lines in the 19th
century: “My heart leaps up when I behold a in
the sky” most people of the 19th century, most educated
people would have said “Oh yeah, it’s a rainbow, my heart
leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky.” It was a
very famous line from Wordsworth, but it was also famous
because it had overtones of Christianity and stories from
the Bible, namely that the rainbow was a promise by God
that this wouldn’t happen again. But you couldn’t do that
today. If you asked somebody how to fill the sentence in,
they couldn’t do it. But if you asked them what’s in a
Big Mac, they might very well be able to tell you, two
all-beef patties, special sauce, sesame-seed bun. So
clearly, what we know, what we share, what we’re literate
in is not – it’s self-evident – is not anthologized
stories from the past, but are instead highly repeated
stories of commercial culture. So if you want to
understand the world, you’re probably better off looking
serious at commercial stories, brands, than you are at
this other series of stories which has pretty much lost
their audience.

SP: You don’t dismiss those. In your books you make
reference to The Rake’s Progress and things like that
that are maybe not in the same category of anthologized
works but they hearken back to some of those same eras.

JT: Well, I don’t dismiss them, absolutely not. I mean,
part of me is kind of melancholy that those stories are
being squeezed aside, but melancholy or not, the fact
that has to be dealt with is that we’re living in a world
which is rapidly contracting and it’s rapidly contracting
because simple stories are moving around the world at the
speed of television. And it’s those stories that we
share. I mean, I may have more in common with someone
right now in Tokyo or Johannesburg or Montreal. I may
have much more in common with those people who are buying
and listening to the same stories that I’m buying and
listening to than I do with my next-door neighbor. So
clearly, these stories are simple and they are shallow
and they are ahistorical, but they are also incredibly

SP: Has this approach to stories made it into your

JT: Well, no, because really I teach two very different
subjects. I still teach English Romanticism, and I teach
a course in Advertising in American Culture, and they are
really arms-length studies. So, no. I’m interested in the
Advertising Course, of course, in explaining how
advertising essentially has become modern literature. But
in the English Romanticism course, I don’t say anything
about advertising.

SP: I know from lots of people when they have what seem
to be from the outside diverse pursuits that maybe play
out in very different arenas, like for example your two
classes or your writing, you get them to talk about it
and in their own heads it’s all very much intertwined. Is
that how it is for you?

JT: Yes. In my head they are all part of the same
subject. The subject is: who’s telling stories, who’s
listening to stories and what are the stories about?

SP: I’m curious if you have a sense of purpose in these
books. I noticed that in “For Shame” specifically, it
seemed like the book was almost in two halves, and the
first half was very descriptive of these relationships
between these cultural factors, looking back at history
and seeing how it’s evolving, very much how “Living It
Up” was structured, but towards the end there seemed to
be sort of a, I don’t know, social critic that emerged.
What’s your own sense of your mission, or your goal in
putting these kinds of things out there to the broader

JT: Well, I think you’re right. The first thing is just
to explain it, to show what it is that you think is
there, and then you’re also right, the second part is to
make some observation about it: is it good, is it bad?
And I think in the material world, here probably I am in
the extreme. I am very forgiving, relative to my
colleagues of the world of getting and spending. It seems
to me to be making life better for more people, more of
the time than other supposed improvements in the
condition of being human.

When I was interested in luxury, the one thing that kept
coming back was that almost everything that we take now
as being a necessity comes into the world and is
criticized for being an unnecessary luxury.

SP: In the book you quote Voltaire, as Voltaire mocks
those that made fun of nail trimmers. It’s a great

JT: Just take the simple instrument that we’re using now,
the telephone, which end of the 19th century was
criticized for taking people away from each other. It was
going to ruin community. It was also going to ruin the
lives of women who would not be doing their chores, but
who would be talking on the phone. Now, the phone really
is, thanks to the answering machine, an almost unalloyed
improvement in life. You don’t have to talk on it. It’s
very efficient, and yet, coming in as a luxury, it’s now
a necessity. Ditto almost everything from knee
replacements to the computer. Luxury consumption is a
category that you really have got to be very suspicious
of. Very often what seems to be extraneous soon becomes
an important and necessary part of our life.

SP: I liked how you had some great examples of
advertising in the book, a lot of very contemporary
stuff. I pulled one that I thought was – I pulled it a
long time before I even saw the book – but I wanted to
mention it to you. It’s an ad for Hummer, they probably
have many in this series, but this particular one shows
the Hummer on what looks like a desert floor with a big
blue sky and the copy says “Need is a very subjective

JT: And very often I use that word when I’m trying to
criticize something that you’re doing, and I say “well
you don’t need that.” Very often it’s really something
that I’d like to have but for whatever reason I don’t
have and hence criticizing you for having it.

SP: That’s interesting. That goes back to the Voltaire
thing, he described how people might have been
criticizing others, that they didn’t need to be trimming
their nails, where of course in Voltaire’s time it was
already taken for granted that you would do this. It
makes me wonder, as Hummer’s gone on this campaign and
really pushed their product out there, certainly where I
am you see them fairly frequently on the streets, and I
wonder what the driver is thinking as they drive in that
vehicle and what the rest of us are thinking as they see
them drive by.

JT: Well, I wonder that too, because I know what I’m
thinking is “what an absolute jackass you are to be
driving this ridiculous car.” I have no idea if he is
thinking to himself “Well what a jackass you are for
thinking that I’m a jackass.” But it’s a very powerful
product. It does stir up all sorts of deep feelings.

SP: I share the same reaction. Why do we think that
person’s a jackass?

JT: Well, whatever the meaning of that brand is, clearly,
it’s a story problem for us. The object itself is of
course incredibly aggressive. It’s essentially saying
“Screw you. I’m here, I’m on the road, you move over, you
move away.” I just think it’s such an aggressive object,
and then it has an advertising campaign that is
especially in your face, that I think that is clearly
what makes the reaction to it so strong. It may be also
what makes the allegiance to it so strong.

SP: There was a great article a while ago about how
Hummer owners were feeling during the days leading up to
the conflict in Iraq. I don’t have the article at hand,
but it was amazing and that it kind of talked about –

JT: Bring it on?

SP: There was a patriotism play, that sales were going up
and people that owned these vehicles felt by driving
their vehicle to the mall that they were kicking Arab
ass. Amazing power of that brand.

[In Their Hummers, Right Beside Uncle Sam, New York Times,
April 5, 2003, By DANNY HAKIM — SP]

JT: Yes, and of course it’s typical of how we now use
commercial objects and their stories as ways to
communicate with each other.

SP: Can you give another example?

JT: Well certainly in all luxury goods, where the brand
display is obviously in the face of whoever is moving
towards you. I’m thinking of Prada or Gucci or Louis
Vuitton. These are all badge goods, but the badge clearly
is saying “I’ve got it, you haven’t.” They’re
demonstration goods. Like the Hummer, they are impossible
to pass by without observing, without reading them.

SP: So a component here is that someone else doesn’t have
it. I think you actually went into this in the book in a
fair amount of detail but your example is bringing it to
life here: “I have this and you don’t.”

JT: What makes it difficult is that there’s very little
that can be generated over, because anything that you
have, I can get some of it too. That is one of the
peculiarities of modern life. If you have a Lexus, I can
go rent one. If you go to Aspen for the season, well, I
can go for a weekend. If you can fly on the Concord,
well, I can upgrade to first class. In other words,
there’s very little in the material world that you can
have that I can’t have. And that’s what makes it all in
some ways – in some strange way – a house of cards
waiting to fall down. How are you going to find something
that everybody else doesn’t have?

SP: You get into these vectors on the “latest and
greatest” or the “hottest” or the “coolest” – there’s a
certain cachet in being ahead of the curve. That same
pleasure in having something that someone else doesn’t
have that luxury supplies, the cool community has that as
well, but they are not consuming luxury to get that, they
are consuming new and undiscovered to get that “I have it
and you don’t.”

Another aspect of luxury that you talked about is this
notion of having bounty, of having more than you need.
Maybe – there’s a lot that we talk about now about
supersizing, the excess consumption at McDonald’s. Do you
think that’s McDonald’s way to offer luxury? You can
afford now more than you need, and yeah your neighbor can
afford that too…

JT: Well, actually where you really see that is not
McDonald’s, you really see that at Hardee’s. Hardee’s,
which is squeezed by Burger King and McDonald’s, is now
coming out with an absolutely overwhelming hamburger,
which very few people can actually eat all the way
through. And that I think you’re absolutely right, that
now becomes surfeit, becomes the way you separate
yourself. This is more than you can handle.

SP: What’s the public display we are making when we
consume or we attempt to consume more than we can

JT: Well that’s a great question. Some of it is just “I’m
worth it.” I’m not so sure that it’s just the public
display, very often I think a lot of that is the
solipsism of thinking that “well, whatever this is, it’s
more than I need” but it’s also a demonstration that I’m
at whatever that level is that doesn’t have to be
concerned about habits confining desire. Some of it’s
ridiculous, clearly.

SP: Habits confining desire.

JT: Well, it’s essentially not observing this as waste,
but observing this as the necessarily overflow of objects
coming my way.

SP: So, even the frame that I’m putting on it, “more than
I can possibly consume,” that’s not necessarily the right
frame of reference.

JT: Well. I don’t know what the right frame of reference
is, all I know is that when you start seeing on menus for
adults, you start seeing children’s meals that have
nothing to do with children but have to do with people
who are not comfortable with that overflow, something
intriguing is going on.

SP: The way that we assess how much and what quantity is
right for us is breaking up.

JT: Yes.

SP: Your descriptions of some of the accommodations in
Las Vegas and the square footage of some of those places
was a great example of “more than we need.”

JT: Yeah, and that’s the story. That’s part of the brand,
is that you take some ordinary space and you luxurify by
expanding it to a point where we think we’ve never seen
it before.

SP: I did some businesses travel at one point last year
where we arrived late at the hotel and they were forced
to upgrade us to a suite, whatever the next level up was.
I was excited and when I got to the room, it was fine. It
had two televisions in different spots, of which I could
only watch one at a time. The distance I had to walk to
the bathroom was astonishing. It was actually
inconvenient, and made me think what bonus did I exactly
get here for getting a “suite.”

JT: And, that’s a function of what happens whenever you
get to a truly interchangeable object, such as a hotel
room. The only way to separate a hotel room is to do
something mildly ridiculous to it. Make the bed
supersized, or in Hollywood, transform the bathroom,
because essentially a hotel room is like an airplane
seat. It doesn’t make any difference if you are sitting
in the seat of United or American Airlines or Southwest,
the seat is all the same. So however you can change the
actual thing, especially if you can make it in the
process luxurious is absolutely crucial in changing the
narrative, changing the story, making the object somehow
different. If you look at how these luxury high-end hotel
chains work you can see whatever that process was that
you went through to get to the suite, it’s an absolutely
central part of their marketing.

SP: Do you think that this is something that companies –
are they becoming more competent in how they handle this?
How is the producer side of this changing?

JT: Something like Marriott will have five or six
different subsets but essentially they are all selling
the same product, but in the path down from Ritz-Carlton
to Marriott to Courtyard by Marriott they take the same
“airplane seat” andifferently. How do
you respond to those concerns or criticisms of the
wastefulness of the efforts we’re supporting?

JT: Oh, I give in. I think it’s true.

SP: Is it an ethical dilemma for you?

JT: No, it’s not. I think it’s self-evident that it’s an
incredibly wasteful process. It has other wonderful
aspects to it, but its ahistorical nature and its
wasteful nature can’t be denied. It has other redeeming
aspects; it’s much fairer than other systems, but why
deny the fact that it’s filled with redundancy and
superfluous objects? It’s true.

SP: If one hotel bedroom is the same as the next hotel
and a lot of resource goes into differentiating those
two, when really all that we need is a room…

JT: Exactly.

SP: That’s fair enough. Are you working on your next

JT: I’m working on a book on cultural branding. On how
universities and other cultural institutions, how they
use marketing techniques to separate themselves.

[Branded Nation: How Americans are Sold Religion,
Education and Art
will be published by Simon &
Schuster — SP]

SP: Is there a continuum that your books are all – is
there a thread that you’re weaving with these?

JT: No, this one seems to have grown out of the previous
one. I don’t know where the shame one came from, who
knows. But the ones on advertising sort of fit together,
and the one on luxury fitted with advertising, and I
guess this one sort of fits with the luxury. Yeah, they
do sort of fit, and then there’s the other part of my
life that makes no connection at all.

SP: What’s the process you go through to determine a
topic and begin to create the content that’s going to be
the book?

JT: I don’t know. I find something that I find intriguing
or difficult and then I just try to think about what is
it about it that everybody seems to be missing. That
essentially is what I do is, I try to find something that
if my colleagues were going to be discussing it, they
would say “ooh – not very complicated, here’s how it
works.” Whenever I find that, that’s when I think “Oh
boy, maybe there’s something here for me.”

SP: What’s your relationship with Columbia Press to go
about doing that? Are they supportive of where you are
taking the next topic?

JT: Yeah, they don’t really care. I get along very well
with them. No, they don’t care.

SP: In “Living it Up” you used a great participant-
observation technique. I haven’t read all of your work,
but that seemed to be something new.

JT: Yes, it was, and I really enjoyed it. Actually going
out and looking at it rather than sitting on my can and
pontificating was a trip.

SP: Well, you did more than look at it – you thrust
yourself right into it. You used your family members as
participants and then had everyone reflect on what their
own experiences were and you described what you were
thinking and feeling when you were considering consuming
or looking at other people consuming. It’s a great
experience, I think, to do those types of things.

JT: I’ve almost got to go, to go out for dinner, but I
hope that I’ve covered some of your subjects.

SP: Yeah, it’s great. Any other comments you want to make
or any questions for me?

JT: No, I think you’ve got it!

SP: I think you’ve got it, I just ask questions!

FreshMeat #18: The Houses of the Wholly

FreshMeat #18 from Steve Portigal

               (oo) Fresh
                \\/  Meat

FreshMeat. It’s free, it’s Fresh, it’s Meat. FreshMeat!
If you build it, they will tell you what they think

At the outset of the house-hunting process, one is
advised to make a list of requirements for the new home,
such as number of bedrooms, neighborhood, size of yard,
and so on. Of course, what is wonderful (and daunting)
about this step is that for a purchase as important as
a house, we may not know what we want (or don’t want)
until we see it.

The process of going to Open Houses and visualizing our
lives and our stuff in that space is enormously powerful.
We are, in effect, evaluating a prototype.

In this evaluation process we will decide whether we
want to buy and live in the specific house we are
visiting, but what else do we learn?

– confirmation of some of our earlier assumptions
("See, having a big backyard is crucial…")

– revision of earlier assumptions
("I guess if we had a shower like this I wouldn’t need
to have a separate bathtub fixture…")

– removal or reprioritization of earlier assumptions
("I don’t have to have a side entrance…")

– new requirements for the future house
("Now that I see it, I would love an outdoor barbecue
pit just like this one…")

To do this right, you’re going to talk about it. Out
loud. And that means the people involved will negotiate
these requirements over time, making them more detailed
and more robust. In fact, the conversation will continue
after the encounter with the prototype is over. I hope
you see where I’m headed with this.

Earlier this year I was asked to show consumers a new
home electronics device that was being developed. We
went to people’s homes with this…box. A big, ugly,
weird-looking box. It was the result of clever engineers
working with off-the-shelf parts to create an artifact
that could be experienced. In other words, it really
It turned out to be the best possible prototype for the
research. We explained to consumers that this was
something they’d see in the future, but it wouldn’t look
like this box. The box was so obviously a prototype that
people easily understood that and framed their comments
appropriately, offering up their needs and desires for
this future technology.

I wouldn’t say we were "testing" this product. Rather,
we used the box as a conversation starter. We got
answers to the questions we had formulated ahead of
time (i.e., importance of a proposed feature), and the
consumers we talked to gave us information in areas
we hadn’t even thought about (i.e, not only that they
wanted it installed, but how and where they would install
it). As in the house-hunting example, we confirmed some
of our earlier assumptions, revised others, removed
others, and identified new requirements.

In this situation we had the right prototype for the
type of learning we needed to do. Consider a similar
session where the box itself doesn’t do much of anything
but has a more realistic appearance. Then we might
explore what part of the home it might best fit with,
aesthetic issues, or what parts of the control panel
people would expect to touch.

We can accomplish a lot by selecting the best sort of
prototype to explore the right topics with a customer.
The conventional wisdom seems to be that prototypes are
made to best represent the current thinking about what
the product will do/look like/etc. These prototypes are
the outputs of the typical product development process,
and are not always appropriate for this type of study.
But there are cool ways to explore different options with

In the house-hunting example, it wouldn’t be at all
unreasonable to go look at a multi-million dollar
house (although in the SF Bay Area, that just means
you get a two-car garage – but seriously folks). A lot
can be learned from the "prototype" even if it isn’t a
literal example of what you might choose. In other words,
there’s no way you’re buying that house, but as an extreme
example, it can be very effective in revealing more of
those unspoken assumptions,and clarifying the requirements.
See, there’s real usefulness is being a Looky Lou!

In any product development activity there will always be
"outsider" ideas. Even though there are valid reasons
not to take them all the way to market, those concepts
can be especially effective in sparking the type of
customer dialog that we can really learn from. If people
hate it, let’s discover why, and leverage that insight
in the concepts we go forward with.
In addition to varying the "goodness" of the idea that
you prototype (as in, that’s not a "good" idea, but
let’s get people talking about it anyway), there is also
the realism (or "fidelity") in the way you prototype it.
We often use the phrases "looks-like" and "works-like"

but there’s more to it. Consider how to create layers of
"fidelity." A plain box with no styling can have a nice
color printout of a control panel right on top. Take a
photograph of a person on a plane and put a cartoon
product in their hand. There’s a lot to play with here.
If you saw the (horrible) animated film Titan A.E.,
they made fairly effective use of layers of animation
styles – cartoon faces inside stylized suits with
photorealistic backgrounds.

And consider the dimensions of "fidelity". If you are
concerned with the size of the product, you can use plain
boxes of various sizes. There’s no need to create a variety
of working, realistic designs if you are only concerned with
size (and be sure to bring along a too-small-to-engineer-
at-our-price-point box and a too-large-for-most-users box
and see what customers tell you, and why). Once, I saw an
engineer turn a bottle of orange soda into an excellent
prototype of color and finish. In the moment, it was the
best thing to get the customer to think about how, what,
and why.

If you’re interested in more, check out the work by
Stephanie Houde and Charlie Hill. You can read a brief
summary here, or see their chapter "What do Prototypes
Prototype?" in the Handbook of Human Computer
, 2nd edition, 1997.

And finally, Michael Schrage has written extensively on
how organizations can and should create a "culture of
prototyping. Check out this Fast Company article,
or his book Serious Play.

FreshMeat #17: She Blinded Me With Silence

FreshMeat #17 from Steve Portigal

               (oo) Fresh
                \\/  Meat 

FreshMeat – the official snack of the Zeitgeist
Talk is cheap, and silence is golden.
“Accustomed to the veneer of noise, to the shibboleths of
promotion, public relations, and market research, society
is suspicious of those who value silence.”
John Lahr

First things first: a shibboleth is a word (or phrase, or
form of language) that is used by members of a group to
identify themselves as being part of that group. Fans of
The Simpsons might exclaim “D’oh,” or software engineers
may make middleware references with their sandwiches. The
choice of words indicates something beyond the meaning of
the words themselves. One may (briefly, please!) ponder
what group I am claiming membership in through my use of
shibboleth here.

At any rate, Lahr’s quote nicely encapsulates some
thoughts I have had about silence, spurred on by a pair
of experiences over the past few months. A while back I
was in my first public improv performance. We were all
amateurs, some with many years of experience, others with
a year or less (such as myself). In this performance we
started each scene with one idea (often from the
audience) and proceeded from there with some sort of
structure. What often happened was a scramble to move the
idea forward – everyone speaking at once, with too many
ideas thrown in the first few moments to ever really
solidify into a great scene. Have you ever seen 8-year
olds play soccer? The ball and both sets of kids are a
whirling cloud that moves up and down and across the
field like the Tasmanian Devil. That was us.

But then the next night I saw the Kids in the Hall – a
comedy troupe that has been performing together for a
very long time. After the scripted material had finished,
the audience was clamoring for more. In advance of the
encore, they all walked on stage and thanked us, then
improvised a few jokes before heading off stage to
prepare for the encore. All five of them managed to hold
the stage coherently. Not everyone spoke at equal length
in those few minutes, but at no point did any of them
speak on top of another. It came off as natural and easy,
but it was really quite incredible – grab four people and
try to do that some time.

Where they succeeded and we didn’t-succeed-as-well (for
there are no losers in improv) was in allowing for
silence. Each Kid in the Hall was silent for most, if not
all, of their unscripted segment. What a powerful
contribution they made by not speaking. Yet what a
strange statement to make – that a comedy performer
helped by not speaking – how can that be? We tend to
expect performance to be the explicit utterances, not the
space between them.

But, as the word shibboleth reminds us, there are layers
to communication, and there’s a lot that can happen
without verbalization – posture, gestures, breath sounds,
eye gaze, facial reactions, and more. The Kids in the
Hall were doing all those the entire time – and they were
paying attention to each other. When silent, they were
actively silent – sending and receiving information.

This behavior is crucial in ethnographic research. When
interviewing, ethnographers speak minimally (reviewing
videotapes suggest as little as 20% of the time). Yet,
the interviews are directed and controlled by the
interviewer. Nodding, eye contact, and body language all
support the respondent in providing detailed information.

More tactically, we learn to remain silent for a beat or
two after someone has answered a question. People work in
“chunks” and often there are several chunks required to
deliver a response. Simply remaining silent (and this
does take some practice) and allowing the respondent to
answer in their own time is remarkably effective.

Of course, there is often more than one researcher on
hand. If the first ethnographer remains silent, waiting
for the respondent to continue, the second ethnographer
must recognize that, and also listen silently, rather
than using the opening as their chance to interview. This
collaborative use of silence is something the Kids in the
Hall managed and my improv group did not.

We experience these same challenges in more familiar work
settings – brainstorming, meetings, etc. We work in a
society that judges us primarily by our own contributions
rather than the way we allow others to make theirs. If
the collaborative silence is not a shared value in a
group, there can be a real problem for those who default
to listening, not speaking. We’ve learned how to give
credit to those who utter the pearls, but we don’t know
how to acknowledge the value of those that choose their
moments wisely, that allow others to shine, and that
ultimately enable those pearls.

I don’t propose any solution and I won’t condescend to
suggest “gee, if we each would try a little harder to…”
Indeed, so as to not end on a preachy note, I should
point out a 2002 episode of The Simpsons (DABF05, “Jaws
Wired Shut”) in which Homer’s jaw gets wired shut. He is
physically unable to speak. He does become a better
listener, but most interesting are the positive qualities
the people in his life project upon him. Simpsons
Executive Producer Al Jean said: “When Homer gets his jaw
wired shut, it makes him into a really decent, wonderful
human being.” I don’t know if Al Jean is getting post-
modern on us, but Homer’s internal change, through his
silence, was fairly minor compared to the differences
that other people perceived. For even more on that theme,
check out “Being There” by Jerzy Kozinsky (with Peter
Sellers starring in the film version).

Soundbites from “Jaws Wired Shut” here.


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