Sunday, April 27, 2008

Changing Things.

So, the first thing ‘design for the next guy’ makes me think of is the principle of living with the 7th generation in mind, or thinking about what’s going to make something easier for the people after you. The funny thing about designing for the next guy is that it usually makes designing for yourself a little harder. There are a few ways I can look at design for the next guy:

Option 1: Make everything the same

Today we see this all over the place: for something like building a house, a car, or a computer, people have created standards for things like sizes and energy ratings. This makes things a lot easier for example, when someone has a mouse or a printer you want to use (hurray for USB)! Now, if you want to change things, you can just go buy another version of whatever it is you want that fits into the same place as your old one! This works out pretty well for most people, if you think of ‘next guy’ as the rest of the current population, rather than someone in the future who’s trying to change things. There are a few problems with this though.

As far as manufactured products go, say you wanted to change the way that your computer fundamentally works. Of course, the way we do things now probably isn’t the only (or best) answer. What if you could do it better? Well..honestly, it’s probably not worth it. If I make something amazing that can’t interface with anything else, it’s either going to be pretty useless or it’s going to be a new adopted standard. You can see where this is going..

First, this can work pretty well with a physical requirement, but what about with some kind of a system, like a college? What would doing the same thing that everyone else does mean? Well…it would mean that the faculty are comfortable there in the sense that they won’t need to spend as much time learning the ropes as they would at some place that’s radically different than everywhere else. It would mean that students would more than likely know what they’re getting into when the decide to go there. It would mean that when people working here needed to change jobs, they wouldn’t need to go into hours of explanation about what the place they’ve been working at is, and why it’s legitimate. It would also mean that graduate schools would accept our students, and know by the titles of the courses what they learned.

But what else does this imply? For a place like Olin, this would mean that we’re the same as everywhere else. This would mean that we don’t question the way we do things: we just do them that way because it’s easier. But for something like a college system (something that’s not a manufactured product), how hard is it really to have a different system everywhere? Are there more benefits than drawbacks?

Option 2: Make everything change

What are the benefits for a college to be different? How do you define Design for the Next Guy in the context of something that’s its own internal system?

Well, to start off, Olin has its very own identity. Most schools do. I feel like Olin has a little more of that than most places. Why? We’re new. We’re tiny. We’re redefining engineering (or at least that’s what we say we’re doing). Since I don’t want to end up talking about Olin and what it is for too long, I’m going to bring up a few of the points from President Millers talk:

“Olin College Open Doors”

This was one thing that President Miller kept saying, over and over again. Olin College opens doors. We’re not here to define a future for someone. We’re here to make possible whatever can be made possible. This view is incredibly different than anything I’ve heard anywhere else. But I’m going on with the amazingness of Olin..Let’s change the subject.

I think this quote is most relevant here since it shows how schools and systems can have their own very radical identities, but still work in the world.

Think about the way we define ourselves: What are our values?

One thing that a lot of us complain about at Olin is that not everyone is in line with our set of values. But then, what are our values? Olin was designed to be constantly changing and reinventing itself. I mean, our mascot is the Phoenix. And what’s cool about this is that we don’t just have people here who agree with us. Having all sorts of people here to be committed to the college, but also to push it in a slightly different direction leads to a lot more discussion than there would be if we all agreed all the time. And that discussion leads to a huge questioning of beliefs, which in my mind is much better than just blindly moving forward. If your beliefs can survive that questioning, you know they’re true for you. If not, well, it’s a good thing someone made you question them.

The ability to change our values also does ensure design for the next guy, I think. Olin can become whatever we want it to be. We do have a few rules and guidelines, but this place is incredibly flexible.

Scrap Everything-It all expires.

This reminds me of something from a philosophy class I took in high school. My professor was talking about Buddhist monks, and how every so often they’d make this elaborate picture out of colored sand. Just on the table. And when it was done they’d brush it all away and make a new one again later. It represents how ephemeral everything is. And this works with ideas and systems as well. They’re designed for a very specific time and set of circumstances. And just because they used to work, and work well, doesn’t mean we should keep using them. This doesn’t mean we should get rid of them completely either, but it does mean recreation is a great way to make sure we’re still keeping things within our set of values (or within our newly defined and revised values!)

So What is Design for the Next Guy?

It’s making things changeable. And how do you do that in a massive system? It takes a lot more work, a lot more time, and a lot more effort. But it makes things flexible. It doesn’t mean that something is set in the way it is until someone come along with the drive to change it. It means things are easily changeable and always changing J.


I loved playgrounds when I was little. I lived across the street from my elementary school, and frequently went to play on the playground it had. It wasn't that big, and I got used to it, so when we traveled across town to the other schools' playgrounds it was a big adventure. They were unknown and half of the fun was exploring them. Sometimes we even went to really big playgrounds that schools in other towns had.

Ultimately, what makes playgrounds awesome is that they're a place with no rules, and you have to invent them for yourself.

Playgrounds for Adults

Last summer I visited the Ontario Science Center, which features an area called the Weston Family Innovation Centre. While a somewhat vague name, the actual place is a giant room with all types of activities geared at people roughly ages 14 to 22. There's an area to take apart and put together electronics, making your own paper airplanes, comparing friction of different materials, and more. While it's full of "exhibits", most of them are entirely free-form and you have to figure out what you're going to do with it to play. Being presented with a set of tools and toys and having to figure out how you want to combine them is a very different experience than walking through a flat 2D museum.

Similarly, when I visit LEGO stores, I notice that it's just as often parents playing with the LEGOs as kids. Fathers and sons both build little cars out of LEGO and race them down a ramp, or bored parents put things together while their kids run around looking at all the different kits in the store. Opportunity in the form of supplies, but with no specified direction.

What Should I Make?

Lately I have been playing with an Arduino microcontroller. The Arduino sites defines an Arduino as "an open-source electronics prototyping platform based on flexible, easy-to-use hardware and software. It's intended for artists, designers, hobbyists, and anyone interested in creating interactive objects or environments." I borrowed a bunch of electronics parts (LEDs, resistors, a breadboard, connectors, etc) from my friend Brad and have been putting little things together to try out the different functions of the Arduino. So far I have replicated a red-yellow-green traffic light and written some stuff to a SerLCD I had laying around from last semester.

I am finding it lots of fun to make all these little things, but I am just doing it for fun. I have no class project, no goal I am trying to attain, and I don't know what I should make next. I am in a sandbox - what is the next cool thing to build? I'm going to keep poking at different things so I can figure out all of the Arduino's capabilities, but then I will probably bring it all together into some bigger project. Why? Why not.

No Rules, No Requirements

I feel like the major advantage to free form playing with ideas and tools is that everyone can put a different spin on what it is that they are making and doing. Everyone has a unique view on the world, and everyone finds different things fun. Giving people tools lets them do and lets them make. I like this concept, and want to try to figure out how to engage more people in this creative playing and making.

How can we build more sandboxes for "grown ups"?

Friday, April 25, 2008

Who says what Fun is anyway?

A distraction

I know you really want to read this blog post, but here, play this game first.

Google Image Labeler

I'll wait - don't worry about me.

Wasn't that fun?

Congratulations, you just spent your time, for free, improving the quality of Google's image search projects. I bet you don't feel ripped off or cheated at all. In fact, you may have even enjoyed it so much that you played a few rounds. So Google, a big company, is getting you to do work for them by disguising it as a game.

Disguising? They pretty much flat out told you what you were doing.

Who says what's Fun?

Tom Sawyer, that's who.

I think that this concept of turning things normally considered "work" into "fun" is a really powerful idea that can change the way people view certain tasks. Google's Image Label game is one example, and Tom Sawyer convincing his friends that whitewashing a fence is a fun activity - even getting them to pay him for the privilege - is another, but they seem relatively isolated. What are other ways our society promotes "fun is work is fun"?

Look at Toys

Toys are fun, right? We make balls, puzzles, and action figures, and all of these are great "non-work" things to do. But what else do we make?

Oh man, I love chores and yard work! They're the best! I can't wait till I get some free time, I am going to go vacuum every room in my house! While I, as a budding young adult, may not enjoy these activities, the sense of 'helping out' and the fantasy play that children get out of these toys are what make them fun.

Skewed Perspective on Fun?
Ultimately, what I think everything boils down to is a misguided sense that work and fun must be separate activities. People who love their jobs find them enjoyable, and people who don't can't wait to get home to do something else. Notice that retirees tend to play golf and work on hobbies instead of continuing to do what they were doing professionally? This implies that there were things that they wanted to do while working that they didn't get to do. If someone totally completely loved their job, why would they ever leave it?

Make it Fun

Here is a list of businesses that work because the products they produce are fun.

  • Hollywood

  • Music Industry

  • Apple

  • Soap Bubble Companies

  • Board Games

  • Bowling Alleys

  • Laser Tag

When was the last time you got really excited about your thumb tacks, your stapler, or your forks?

What about glow in the dark thumbtacks, those big twisty straws, or bowls with cartoon characters on the bottom?

Make the experience fun.

Continuation- Designer Values

On My Design Notebook:

I never made a blog entry on keeping design notebooks. I just couldn't think of anything to say at the time, as I hadn't kept a notebook yet. I've gotten into the swing of the notebook thing, and I have to say, I'm pretty fond of it. Good for passing notes, good for organizing thoughts, good for writing things down. I have learned I'm much better at thinking of ideas for things I want to do- and not so great at just randomly "desining." So my design notebook isn't like a professional designers would be. Or even like my one from Design Nature was. It's much more just a record of ideas, thoughts, and inspirations.

On Why this entry:

However, that wasn't what I intended to talk about in this blog. This blog is actually just for fun since I have 8+Lecture Credit.

It actually boils down to more- I really like this blog. I end up learning a lot more while writing in it, because it gives me time to think about different concepts and ideas, research what I'm interested in, and get a better idea of what is going on around me.

I like the structure that classes, even indpendent ones, provide for learning in. As such, I'm going to be taking two classes this summer. I also took one last summer. I don't take these classes for any particular reason- though AHS credits so I can worry less about my schedule don't hurt.

I take them for the same reason I take any class- to learn. (This could be a topic for an entire additional entry...)

I think we should all keep learning and keep this blog to make us think and reflect more- and have good documentation of that reflection.

How this relates to design:

I think that part of being a designer is being very open minded. Being open minded isn't always easy. It can acutally be pretty difficult. It's simple to get set in a mindset of what you do, and why you do it, and keep going in the same direction. It's easy to assume you're right and not question what life is about, or assume that you've covered all of the important factors before making decisions.

So, I'd like to make a heuristic (woo UOCD!) that "Every designer should make sure to take the time to learn something completely different, so they don't forget how to learn." Getting out of your comfort sphere helps you remember what it's like to be someone else- possibly who you're designing for. I'd say that this isn't just a design philosophy for me- it's also a life philosophy. It's adapted out of what my mom told me about what she does in order to keep being a good professor, so that she won't forget that it isn't easy for her students.

What I'll be doing:

I'm going to be taking a clear cut class: Occupational Health. I'm very excited about this class because I think it will be different than what I've covered before. I'm usually of the philosophy that people "aren't working hard enough" or "those factors don't really matter, they should fix them themselves". I hope that this class will give me into health issues related to real people (not unhelpful in my eventual goal of going to medical school).

Secondly, I'm going to be taking an Intro to Women's Studies class. Any of you who have met me know that I'm not really a fan of things like this usually. On the whole I'm much more of the philosophy that extensively discussing gender differences hinders things more than it helps them. However, I do acknowledge that there are real societal gaps between the genders that need to be repaired. In an ideal universe we could remove all bias, values, and indoctrination that people start with in order to have a clean playing field in a generation. Since this will not happen, perhaps I should start thinking more practically about how to limit differences between gender (more specifically I tend to focus on women in math, science, and technology, because that's the field I'm in).

I'm hoping that these classes will also help to shape my views as a designer and refocus how I view the world to be as flexible and adaptive as possible.

Museum Goers: Curious

Answering Erik's Question:
Modularity does effect design. I was actually considering this yesterday- for our software design project, we've very clearly delineated into three sections, that could each be replaced individually, but each set of material is fairly standard. Thus subbing out the scripts to call data would be easy, but the data would still be in a very common MySQL Database. On the other side, making HTML webforms is pretty standard, and they can be easily changed to include PHP or something other language. Any individual piece can be changed without ruining the whole.

I think that modularity allows for iterative design- changing small things and then changing more small things. It seems like a great way to be able to change momentously without having anything be too scary at the time.

What IS Radical interdisciplinary Design?

Diana's speaking with us was interesting- it was the most structured of all of the presentations we have had thus far. It was also the most technical. One of the things that struck me about it was the fact that yes- design can be technical and engineering-y. We'd been discussing about how design tends to be between art and engineering, and this talk reminded me of why it is closer to engineering, from some lenses. The chaos equations are definitely something I regard as highly technical, and math-like, whereas music is an artform. The combination of the two was interesting, and definitely provided a new perspective on design.

At our discussion we also conversed about Artifical Intelligence and how that can also be construed as a type of interdisciplinary design- it's using technical concepts in order to illustrate psychology and other very human factors. By radically interdisciplinary design, were we actually referring to the gap between technical and human factors?

Why Design to be Radically Interdisciplinary?

Do people like it? Is it more interesting? Why? I think one of the things that tends to be appreciated is the "unexpected" and radical interdisciplinary design definintely falls in this spectrum. Why else? Life is radically interdisciplinary- you can't separate how your body works from what you're able to do with it. Your cells have limits, and thus you can only run so fast.

Also, how does interdisciplinary related to integrated? Life itself is integrated, you'll very rarely have someone in the real world come up to say "do this math problem." It's much more apt to be "find a solution this" and along the way you define the math and solve it yourself. It's a question of applicability, and you're sitll involving people along the way. I think the concept definitely ties into User Oriented Design, but also relating different fields. Designing something for a biology start up is different than designing for academia research labs, is different for designing for an elementary school science kit, even if all of them might be working with something basic, like blood testing or DNA.

What types of people find Radically Interdisciplinary things to be entertaining?

Olin students. All I can think about this is the entire war on ICB- and how integrated it should be. As well as how students clamor to take "Materials Science/Stuff of History." People love to learn the context for why they are doing what they're doing- it's motivation. Integrating things makes them both more real, more in the framework of life, and more memorable. Learning math and physics together gives you scenarios to apply the math in. Learning math and physics with a product in mind (antenna, CRT) shows you how and why products people ahve work the way they do.

I think this can more be generalized into "curious people." Curious people tend to want to know why the world works the way it does. These type of people are the kind of people who always want to learn more- taking classes, talking, being involved, going to museums...

So? What next?

Tonight I'm going to an event at the Museum of Science in Boston. The program is basically to help the museum figure out what appeals to adults and how to work with exhibits to keep them fresh and ineresting. My goal for the evening is to somehow spark a discussion about a radically interdisciplinary exhibit...

If there is one once they redo the museum, I will be proud.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

A few thoughts on Design for the Next Guy

In his TED talk, Lawrence Lessig talks about creating a read-write culture-- one in which people are free to mash up content they have to make new content. The internet is a primary example of this, though Lessig also quotes John Philip Sousa appearing before congress making the same example with rural choirs and their sheet music. The idea of a read-write culture is sort of fascinating to me. I have always pegged myself as a creator, if anything. But I have not technically "created" anything! --only taken others creations and mashed them up in a way to call my own, from legos to websites. Everything I do is a mix of what others have enabled me to do. But even so, I have found this creation invaluable.

The read-write culture is very deeply tied into Design for the Next Guy. Read-write culture allows for people to make changes to a project or institution, to "edit" it in a way they would like, and have full permission to do so. In a lot of ways, designing for the next guy is similar-- you must design now so as to account for the decisions of the future. And what better way to account for the decisions of the future than to have a very liberal criteria for what decisions are allowed!

If that sets you on edge, you're not alone. I feel as though that's only one half of design for the next guy. The other half is the more conservative side, the type we typically see (I think) in institutions. Whereas open-source projects allow for many writers to write in different ways how they want (to the point of taking the entire project and then going from there in a different direction), institutional design for change, especially when it involves economics (or, I don't know, say, education) must be more wary about these directions.

Institutional DftNG, like the kind we see at Olin, is governed by a few key rules, some of which President Miller explained beautifully: have everything expire, recognize the role of institutional values, etc. In Olin, all things are set to expire at some point, and main segments of the CORe constitution show how to abolish it or the honor code, meaning this extends from the institutional level to the students' level. Institutional values are another interesting story. The MET school in Rhode Island prides itself on its core institutional values, which means that the teacher turnover after four years is well over 10% (maybe higher than 20? I can't remember), simply because every teacher is reviewed, and if they aren't exceeding these values, they're out. Olin could do much the same thing if it wanted or needed, but our institutional values are slightly /less so/. The need to be a continual test-bed for engineering education is tempered by conservative professors wanting to build up resumes that would do them well at any other institution in the US-- and not that we can blame them, but Olin is what it is because of it.

But let's go back to the more liberal, open-source type of DftNG. Here we see particular emphasis placed on lack of ownership. With many internet memes (a great example of read-write culture in action), losing ownership is just what needs to happen to make something skyrocket. The intellectual owners of so many things mashed up into internet memes could have kept their work solely in the original context, but have probably attracted more attnetion to themselves and their work by letting it go. It brings to mind the adage, "if you love something, set it free".

Recall that this would hardly work in institutional DftNG. Olin can't just be "set free"! It must be closely managed, and not everyone who wants to come in and make something of it can just walk off with it. Instead, there are much more tempered methods of changing it for the future. At the same time, it's important to recognize that Olin is also fundamentally built for the next guy. President Miller, somewhat akin to the organizations that let their property go to the internet, knows that Olin will not be in his hands forever. He, unlike the aforementioned, will take much care to make sure it at least goes into the hands of someone extremely capable with it.

One aspect of DftNG that I really wished we had discussed more is modularity. In programming, in which DftNG is often a huge concern, modularity reaches ridiculous levels. Code is often super-easy to implement, and classes are specifically designed to be versatile for any situations one might want them to apply to. At the same time, they're well-commented and completely open-- the owners don't care if you make them a little bit more your own. So, for the next poster, if he or she so chooses, is the question of modularity. How does making something break down into chunks affect how the next user will shape it?

Stigmergy and adhocracy

I'm going to use what I've heard of Pres. Miller's talk as a jumping-off point for talking about something I've been thinking about for a while: adhocracy and stigmergy, and the relationship between them.
Adhocracy is a way of organizing a community effort that allows anybody to assert initiave, control, and leadership at any time (but doesn't compel anyone to follow them). Hierarchies spring up when needed, fall down when not. Actually, all bureaucracies are really ad-hocracies... they just don't advertise that they're socially constructed and that their longevity comes from everyone believing that they're The Way Of Things instead of a malleable system. what I'm calling "adhocracies" here are communities that advertise and make explicit that they are ad-hoc.

Stigmergy is the distributed construction of an artifact where the creators use the construction of the artifact itself as a means of communication - you "talk" about making changes to the thing by actually making those changes to the thing. Wikis are a good example, as are really rough foam prototypes in UOCD, as is a good improv troupe performance.

Stigmergic things are usually constructed by adhocracies, but many exceptions exist - think of a bubble-gum/graffiti wall (stigmergic but not ad-hocratic, since it lacks a cohesive community). Ad-hocracies make stigmergic things by definition, since ad-hocracies themselves are stigmergic (so at the very least, you're talking about changing the structure of your community... by changing the structure of your community.)

I bring these terms up in this very ill-thought-through post because at Olin, I often found myself at a loss for the right words to describe the systems I saw, and wanted to expose more folks to the terminology in case it's helpful.

System dynamics (particularly human system dynamics), education (particularly things studying informal systems of learning, as in self-studies and unschoolers) and the sociology of hacker cultures (Eric S. Raymond's stuff is classic, if showing its age somewhat, and only giving a freeze-frame snapshot of one possible world of hackers) are other good places for getting this stuff. Epistemology, too - software testing is one weird place where that particular area of study started making sense to me in the context of how organizations like Olin grow and change and move.

I'll also note that sometimes the best thing you can do to encourage "change" and "grassroots involvement" (or whatever you want to call it) is to make these tacit structures explicit. The first procedure in a set of procedures should always be for a way of revising those procedures (see: CORe constitution and "abolish the Honor Board.").

That's it. Hopefully this incoherence will make someone think of something - spout me back something (mallory.chua at alumni) if you'd like to toss ideas like this around.

Elements of Advertising

Ads that Instill Ownership
Advertising once again brought back a concept that keeps surfacing during Vital Ideation- Ownership. Ownership first surfaced during the concept of "sticky ideas" and it makes sense that it would come back during the unit on advertising, because advertising is supposed to be sticky.

The two concepts we discussed were both ones that you could imagine yourself in the situation of. What other types of ads can be sticky? Ads that seem memorable to me are:

1) A flying squirrel ad from the superbowl a few years back. I think 4ish years ago. However, there was a more recent just squirrel ad recently, so no luck on finding a video of it. I think it was just humorous or totally unexpected.

Humorous Ads
2) Those ads that discuss "Real Men of Genious" for a beer company- "I salute you Mr. Taco Salad creator..." I remember these because they're hilarious. I don't in anyway relate to your average beer drinking man.

A few examples:

One that I haven't heard: Notre Dame Fan:

Perhaps they ran it in Indiana where there would be more ownership?

Mr. Giant Taco Salad Inventor:

I have heard this one. It's one of my favorites.

Jorts Inventory:

This one was new to me, too. Maybe they only do this one around fashion people?

Regardless, the ads are hilarious. Youtube "Real Men of Genius" to get more. However, they seem to be funny regardless of who you are. Perhaps this is because they play off stereotypes? Or deal with simple enough items that everyone has heard of them?

They've also made a ton over the last decade:

I've never heard most of these. Perhaps part of their advertising appeal is not flooding a market so you get really excited when one comes on. It makes me want to go buy Bud Light just to show "hey your advertisement is awesome." I think on the whole they have great advertisement- they're the same people who brought us the frogs. Thus humor seems to be a great selling point for Ads.

On the other side, what makes an ad truly awful to hear? I know that there are some ads that I find almost painful to listen to.

Ads that you do not find ownership in
3) One of them is ads for "computer" This ad extols on "how much money are you making? you too can change your life! just take our online skills challenge and if you pass you can pay $30000ish to take our classes and be a Microsoft Certified Professional." The ad makes me angry due to prior context I have- it seems fairly ridiculous to encourage this as a way to learn about computers and change fields. The ad also seems to emphasize a lack of need to work.

Most ads come in on the neutral scale. I'm not sure how much advertising actually effects my purchasing- I tend to inherently distrust it "if you have to advertise, why would I want it?" because good things tend to find their way around through word of mouth by early adopters. I think that might just be part of being young and having friends who like new things.

Ads with a small manipulable piece
4) One neutral, yet memorable ad, was a radio advertisement for Canada. The reason it was memorable wasn't the entire ad content- but simply one little piece. The phone number the ad said one could call for information was "1-800-O-CANADA" This was funny because it led to a conversation including "1-800-O-ELLEN-C" and "1-800-O-GREG-MM" trying to figure out the most ridiculous telephone numbers we could make for ourselves. Past that there was the concept of 1800.coms, so as a viable domain name. As much as this ad didn't give us a sense of ownership- it gave us something vague enough to play with to see where we could take it. So I think being a spring board for more thought also makes a good advertisement.

On the whole I'm still a little skeptical on the advertising front, but it's fun to look at and figure out what elements of ads make them most interesting.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Accessible Technology

A few weeks ago, Olin professor Brian Bingham spoke with us about Art and Engineering. He talked to us about his friend's art project, Ingram Clockworks, and some of the "whimsical engineering" projects he has worked on with his friends.

One of the points that he emphasized was the idea of "communication" and the different vocabularies used by artists and engineers. He pointed out that people don't go to art school to learn how to paint - they go to art school to learn about different frameworks and styles and this underlying language to communicate ideas with other artists. This isn't purely it - you get better at painting by painting, but learning the vernacular of your trade and how you fit into the world it encompasses is an important part of an education.

In the modern day and age, many artists are moving past traditional mediums and into spaces that formerly didn't exist. For instance, check out LED Throwies, which repurposes LEDs into temporary (guerrilla) art installations. Kinetic Sculptures are another genre of art that incorporate technologies like motors and microcontrollers to create a piece that can move on its own, turning a sculpture into something alive. There's one big barrier with these forms of art though - if you're not a technically inclined person, figuring out how to program a microcontroller or wire a circuit can be a tremendous roadblock.

It's rather daunting to stare down a 500 page PIC microcontroller manual, teach yourself how to use a circuit layout program, or learn how to program even a simple software application. These are skills engineers often take for granted, because we like them to start with and we're specifically taught how to do them in school. The 'curse of knowledge' prevents us from seeing things from the other perspective. Earlier today I was digging through Facebook's documentation of its application platform, and if I weren't comfortable with web application programming and markup languages, probably would have no idea what anything meant. This isn't conducive to convincing people to incorporate technology into their works.

So the question is, How can we make technology more accessible for whimsical, artistic applications?

There are some products being developed specifically for this purpose. The Arduino is an open source microcontroller designed to be easy to use for a variety of prototyping applications. Check out this cool light fixture powered by an Arduino. Additionally, sites like Instructables offer step-by-step tutorials to teach people how to put together their own projects. People from all over the Internets post their projects here for others to learn from, building a vibrant community of Makers.

I think it is important that product manufacturers keep their audience in mind. Even if you're making something that you expect to be used in one certain application, how can you keep things open so that other people can easily engage with and build on top of your product? There are many opportunities for visually stunning and beautiful mashups of traditional art and cutting edge technology - we just need to make things easy to use so that artist-engineers can turn their ideas for works into realities and not get caught up on technical snags along the way.

Let people play, and they will make amazing things.


This post is a turn-around from what I've done previously. Here, I'd like primarily to expose some stuff I've found, rather than generate some way of thinking about something. I feel as though advertising is something I know very little about, and one lecture was definitely not enough for me to make an opinion that I could type out for an hour. So, instead, I just googled and tried to come up with some sweet ads. This site had a zillion, so I picked my three (3.5?) favorite. There's four, and two are from the same campaign.

Tide Football Ad
This has some just wonderful graphic art done for it. I love the juxtaposition of the small red blob with the large white one, and I feel like the logo feel is right-on.

World Vision Sex Trafficking PSA
This is pretty intense. I don't think it necessarily is a grammatical sentence, but if you don't pass out by the end, it really doesn't matter anyways. It's certainly bold, but in a non-obnoxious way. Maybe because its message is actually agreeable?

Same message, new medium
The reason I'm posting this one as well is because it utilizes a totally unheard of medium. Now, there's always the problem of reading it as "do not disturb" out of habit, but 10/10 for the idea. I'm curious to think about campaigns that rely entirely on media such as this one.

Penguin Books Success Story
At this point, I can't really think straight. But this is a really good ad, I have to say. Between the allusions, puns, ironies and great graphic work, I feel smarter just reading it. Well isn't that strange. I suppose that's really what they were going for. Maybe I'll feel smarter if I read books printed by Penguin.

What have I learned by looking at a hundred ads and picking the ones I liked best? Well, first of all, they're edgy. Edgy is really an overused word, in my opinion. But then again, about the only non-buzzword we actually mention in vital ideation is "ideation". And "ecomimicry", but we made that one up. Go figure. Anyhow, edginess comes in many forms, and it's a fine line between tasteful and tasteless. However, because those lines for each individual don't match up, it certainly seems in a firms best interest to design somewhere along an average edginess for an average audience.

Ah, well now that I've spent an hour doing this post, I feel like I could go on for another hour. Perhaps some other time...

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Designing for Olin College?

So our most recent speaker, President Miller of Olin College, was speaking to us about “Design for the Next Guy.” This actually ended up meaning “planning large organizational structures.” Planning large and flexible structures is extremely difficult. One of the things I’ve been thinking about as a result is the balance between creating a structure that maintains itself, doesn’t need much change as people come in and out, and creating a structure that changes with the people that are involved but still maintains its overall characteristics or mission.

I think the advantages to something that dynamically changes is less needs for huge improvements at once because they are made in minor amounts over time, and additionally, something that will be able to maintain itself even as context changes.

One of the things about Olin is that we’re supposed to be dynamically changing with individuals who come in and out of the school, and also in order to create a “best practices” of engineering. Yet I’ve been here for two years and feel like despite being involved I’ve only had incidental effect on the overall direction of Olin. I feel like being here without making a serious mark on the culture or educational plan means that you could’ve had a similar experience at another institution. I chose here to be part of a culture of change, and not to just learn how to be an engineer.

This got me thinking on the topic of how to actually enact change, and how to make the most of your time at a given place, or institution. For me, this is crucial for having a worthwhile experience. This is not just another lens for me- this is in a way, “my lens.” Next year I’ll be taking a Leave of Absence to refocus my direction here at Olin and enable me to find my place in the big picture of change- how to design for the next group of students who come through with different ideas about life, how to design for future faculty- be they innovative or traditional, how to design for inclusivity rather than exclusivity, and how to design to make Olin College fulfill its founding precepts.

For me as a designer, design can be more about a system and interactions and enablement, rather than just about form or aesthetics. In the scheme of engineering to art, design is in the middle, and I think closest to a type of “system engineering” than most other types.

So this doesn’t answer what I’ll be doing next year, and how I’ll be “designing for the next guy.” One thing I think is critical is a continual review of what’s going on in a big institution if you’re indeed trying to prepare for the future. I think something Leave of Absence aids is that necessary time to reflect. It also is something that is part of the institution- having a group of students outside of the framework is something that could be consistently implemented to help make change in the system. Maybe we can’t be a group that starts the concept of LOA- but we could start it as a way to reform the institution we attend, and we could institutionalize it in itself, to help document adequately, and to have enough success such that individuals continue to do it. Ways we’ve thrown around documenting it do include continuing our design notebooks (particularly as we work with businesses), and writing a blog, or a book. Writing something of this magnitude could possibly expand to encourage students at other schools to attempt similar projects, and possibly make the entire higher educational system more dependent on student reflection and review (I can dream!).

Another way I’ve always regarded being able to change an institution is to accept all types of people who arrive- there is a definite need to balance following the historical concepts and reasons for founding, but also being able to adapt to current individuals. I’ve realized my inherent bias in this area- because I want to stick to founding precepts, while at the same time ignoring those who wrote them in favor of my own specific views, within the bigger picture. It’s most definitely a careful line to walk.

I think one of the ways I have tried to impact Olin in another way is through being the Tour Coordinator this year. One of the advantages to this is that I do a substantial amount of tours myself- with my own portrayal of the benefits of Olin College. This is powerful, particularly as we have more and more external visitors to campus, looking to model off of us, or at least review how different types of engineering education are done. Having a system that is reviewed and taken on my others is another powerful type of designing for the next guy- it leads to peer institutions with similar developments that later leaders can read off of. Another benefit of tours is working with potential future students closely- determining the types of students who choose to come to Olin. These students will be helping to shape the future.

So, in all, two of the critical features for designing for the next person include sustainability and review, as well as accounting for future peers and members.

Toys and the Media

So one of the threads I started musing about after our first toy lecture was the concept of how toys relate to media, advertising, portrayal, and society. Some “toys” are for education rather than for fun, or are some toys for teaching things about society? For instance, one common game amongst children is “house” and people play “house” which I assume helps them learn how to have a house to tend in the future. There are also toys like Barbie, which are controversial because of what they teach, or the expectations that they create in society.

How do societal standards relate to toys?

Every toy you see an advertisement for tends to be flashy and exciting. Think back to old fashioned toys- usually homemade, usually wood, usually not advertised or bought. The things I think of are like stilts, ball and cup games, spelling word blocks, the wood panels you can flip back and forth, etc.

Toys, just like everything else (clothes, cars, houses, kitchens…) have gotten a revamp. It seems like things that used to be viewed as tools, or means to an end, are now viewed more as social symbols. Some toys seem like they don’t entirely have a point. One of the ones I’ve never understood is “Bratz” dolls. Why would you want something that’s supposed to be bratty and obnoxious? There were already so many other dolls in the market before that, and I can’t find a benefit to having a bratty doll. Additionally, some things seem to make a splash and be wildly popular, yet aren’t very far distinguished from other toys.

Take “Tickle Me Elmo”- a toy that seems to be on the news every Christmas as frazzled parents rush through toy stores trying to find one for their child. Why? There are lots of fuzzy toys that make noise. This doesn’t seem to be a particularly unique concept. Is it the fact that it is “Tickle Me Elmo” that makes it so coveted?

I think that it is the case more and more that things, even toys, are valued for being what they are, or for their connotations, and not for how fun they are to play with.

Is there anything the media doesn't touch?

My Attempts at Toy Design

One of the things I noticed during Barry’s talk was everything about toys needs to be appealing. Even the graphic to describe toys (the tetrahedron with colorful axes, and the grid of present toys) were appealing. How has this changed over time?

From the talk we learned that toys are grouped into four different types of play: sensory, fantasy, construction, and challenge. These are all relatively easy types of interaction, with toys not even being necessary. For instance, feeling grass or sand is sensory, playing make believe, fantasy, putting various things together, construction, and challenge can be word puzzles you devise in your own mind. All of these things can be obtained without a toy, so why are toys so crucial? Also, how could you make simple toys more “fun”?

I started from the very simple example of blocks- how could blocks be more fun or captivating?


So I realized that all of these are taking a construction toy, and making it more complex by adding another element. These all add a sensory or challenge type addition to the simple toy of blocks. I don’t know how many of these toys actually exist, but all of them seem like they could be amusing. I think the most fun would be moldable blocks so you could create your own structure (like sand in a somewhat rigid case) that lit up based on interactions with other blocks. Perhaps there could be puzzle cards like in taboo to try to figure out the best ways to have them interact.

  1. Squishy Blocks
  2. Differently shaped building pieces
  3. Blocks like stress balls
  4. Permanently moldable blocks
  5. Interactive Blocks
  6. Talking blocks
  7. Light up blocks
  8. Blocks that light up based on patterns in how you assemble them

I went through a similar exercise with dolls too. I ended up with “Dolls that quiz you for the SAT.”

I’m glad I don’t actually have to make my toys- one of my friends is in the class at MIT. She was in the group doing mechanical toys: ladder robots, now with no ladders, and racing hovercrafts. Both of these toys seem hard to build to me.

Friday, April 11, 2008

A Mash-Up

Our guest speaker for "Ecomimicry", Nina Fefferman, told us about her research into the World of Warcraft "Corrupted Blood" 'virus'. Specifically, as an epidemiologist, the studied the insights that a digital outbreak of a contagious disease could shed onto how social systems (like thousands of gamers) respond to an epidemic. She backed observations about how the real world worked out of a crude approximation of the real world with thousands of players controlled by real people.

In our discussions of Ecomimicry, we talked a lot about how these large social systems online can emulate real social systems. We also talked about how one could intentionally design a system to take advantage of these parallels and behavioral mechanisms that emerge. In the case of online communities, people coming together creates an emulation of the real world. But the opposite is possible - we can create a system that emulates the way people work, without the people.

I did some quick Google searches for demos of particularly neat swam robot behaviors. I came across this site, which seems to be a slightly abandoned page by a research group investigating using the idea of "pheromones" to let the swarm robots communicate and work together toward goals. Insects use pheromones to signal to each other, so this team has taken the idea from the biological space and used it to establish a set of rules about how these robots should all behave. It is this emergent behavior from simple rules that is going to keep pushing what large groups of autonomous agents are going to be able to accomplish.

So here's my idea for a mash-up: Groups of people from all over the world are cool, albeit somewhat limited in their ability to physically affect the same place. Swarms of robots are cool, albeit somewhat dumb. What if we created a system where individual people were able to take control of a swarm robot to accomplish some task? It could be something as useless as "spell out a word" or as complex as "sort these boxes on the factory floor." If you could drop 10,000 robots on a disaster scene and volunteers could drive them around and flag distressed people or dangerous sites, how useful would that be? Nothing can improvise solutions to complex problems as well as the human brain, but it's hard (and expensive!) to get a lot of human brains together in the same place. Amazon's Mechanical Turk does the same things for purely-digital mundane tasks (Is this a picture of 79 State Street?), but imagine harnessing the same mechanism to do things in the real world.

Thousands of people, thousands of robots, useful telepresence work.

Principles of Ecomimicry

"Those were great days to be a night elf"
--Nina Fefferman, concerning the WoW "corrupted blood" outbreak

Ok, so the quote wasn't necessary, but I feel as though it adds to the flavor, since it was from our ecomimicry lecture. Second, despite the post title, I'm not writing a textbook. Instead, I'm going to reminisce, starting with a tangent.

In linguistics, one of the biggest unanswered questions is how to figure out if you're talking about the same thing as someone else. Linguistics is a bit of a funny field, as you can see already, but the point is, we all have different connotations when we come to the table with a word like ecomimicry, which, incidentally, we all made up. So I'd like to add my two cents to its definition.

To me, ecomimicry is the study of large-scale natural systems for application in human engineering. It is quite analogous to the biomimicry of plants and animals. When we look at plants and animals for inspiration, we look at what they do well, and then extrapolate that to human building materials, human construction techniques, and a human mode of understanding. When looking at ecosystems, we look at the same sorts of things. Nature is pretty good at keeping itself in line, and it hasn't been until the last few decades that we've managed a half-decent punch (in the form of 10 billion tons of CO2 per year-- take that earth; we are the champs!).

So what sort of things can we learn from nature? Well, one of the biggest principles, in my opinion, is the large amount of negative-feedback loops woven into the system. For instance, take a forest fire. From a human perspective, that's something that would throw an ecosystem off (and perhaps by some definitions, it does). But wet climates and cool temperatures keep fires relatively at bay most of the time, and if one should break out, its effects will immediately be counteracted by a handful of pioneer shrubs that need have minimal needs for life, and would, why yes, just /love/ to live in the newly fertilized soil. So nature does everything it can to counteract the effect of any major disruption-- or at least in the case of forest fires. Can we similar effects in tornadoes, hurricanes, viruses, etc?

Another theme of ecomimicry, in my eyes, is that of high and low level complexity. In other words, systems often appear extremely complex at one level, but much less complex at another level. Let's take a look at the weather. Yes, the weather is certainly difficult to predict (and that could be a defining characteristic of high/low level complexity), but we know some simple rules that are useful for predicting weather given location, past conditions, etc. For instance, near the water, we'll often have more snow in colder climates, but bodies of water temper weather changes that are more severe elsewhere. Also, in the rocky mountains, it will rain almost every afternoon for a few minutes to an hour or two. In southern India, it will every almost every year for well over a month. Haha.

But at a very low level, there are trillions of smaller systems that make up each part of the weather we normally think about. Whether atoms or molecules, the heat generated by a tree, the heat kept by the sea, or the effects of an undersea vent opening, every smallest thing plays into an incredibly complex system we cannot even begin to comprehend at that level. So we turn to weather as a very large system, where it is governed by "simple rules with unpredictability" (which I would call a trademark of high/low level complexity).

These are some of my thoughts. I'm curious to know what others make of ecomimicry. Undoubtedly, some of it will differ vastly from the connotations the word has in my mind. Any linguists here?, enjoy. I'll leave you with a comment from my friend Nik, who watched the Matrix and understood things in a different way than the writers.

Trinity: Sentinels are killing machines designed for one thing-
Dozer: -search and destroy!
Nik: Way to not know how to count to two, idiots!