Category Archives: Heroes

Interaction 11, Boulder, CO. Day 1.

Thought I’d do a quick summary of my favourite two talks from yesterday, which, predictably, were the keynotes by Bill Verplank and Lisa Strausfeld.

Bill is one of the original interaction design guys, like Bill Moggridge and Gillian Crampton Smith, who did a lot of foundational work, particularly in eduction, in establishing the discipline. He worked at Xerox, at IDEO and at Paul Allen’s Interval Research group.

The thing I most enjoyed about this talk was how much it was basically just a chat, an unstructured discourse about the history of interaction design, the importance of artefacts and craft. It stumbled a little towards the end (he never really covered everything he hoped – I wish he’d got into schools a little) but that casualness was compelling.

Rather than use slides Bill sat at an overhead camera, sketching with a conte crayon, creating little charts, arrows, triangular figures.

Bill’s sketchbook

Part of a live sketch of Enactive vs. Iconic vs. Symbolic interfaces.

A few things stuck with me in terms of actual content. The emphasis on building and discovering – working with materials. I loved his phrase “designers put things between people and the world”. He described every interaction as being either a map or a path. He talked about the evolution of interaction design in terms of cognitive “mentalities” (from Piaget) three of which are enactive (given kinaesthetics – “doing” – which we’re born with), iconic (representations – “seeing” – which we learn first) and symbolic (Ax=y – “knowing” – which we aspire to as a tool for thinking). This last he equated with command line interfaces. He tied graphical user interfaces with iconic representations. Lastly, he lamented that we’re missing an opportunity to build truly kinaesthetic experiences.

Lisa Strausfeld spoke in the afternoon. She’s now a partner at Pentagram, but I think of her as one of many talented graduates of Muriel Cooper’s Visible Languages Workshop at MIT. I don’t have any shots of this talk because, after a battle of wills with the facilities people, most of it was in semi darkness to show her work in best effect. She showed a combination of examples of her amazing portfolio, tied to examples of driving philosophies.

Briefly, these were:

  • Design one solution.
  • LATCH – 5 ways of organizing information – Location, Alphabetical, Time, Category and Hierarchy (Lisa added “Network” as a 6th). From Richard Saul Wurman.
  • Find, don’t invent (in the context of solutions she talked about how ideas emerged from finding meaning in data).
  • Engagement, Context, Reference (“ECR” from Curtis Wong). A way of thinking about drawing in people with content.
  • Immersion – people should be IN your designs.
  • Information is the interface.
  • The interface can make the information more engaging.
  • Design a continuous experience.
  • Do one thing perfectly. Repeat.
  • Be the audience.

Here work has an amazing amount of integrity and continuity to it. You can see the lineage all the way from her work at MIT in 1994 (see Information Landscapes) to the recent Pentagram website redesign.


Lebbeus Woods, the architect, has started a series of posts on his notebooks. It sounds like this was a practice he went through and “finished” at some point, before moving on to other ways of working. That’s a little disappointing and goes against what I see as a lifetime practice. Still, I guess that depends on what activity replaced this form of sketching. Probably another form of sketching.

I loved this quote:

“Notebooks are portable. They can be kept secret, or published. Technically, they are simple to make. Pen and paper. The hand, eye, and thought. Freed from any sort of burdensome apparatus, thought becomes more agile in confronting itself.”




Lebbeus Woods’ fantasy world

Lebbeus Woods has started a series of fantasy entries on his blog, tied to his beautiful sketches. The first is about a city built into rocky crags, the City of Earth. His prose style reminds me of H.P. Lovecraft, for some reason, creating a slight atmosphere of foreboding, that I’m not sure was intended. Maybe this is because I imagine the city he’s describing as vacant, abandoned for some reason (the sketches seem to support this). Anyone who’s played Bioshock knows this feeling.

“The particularly mountainous region I first encountered was certainly inhospitable to building. Jagged, rocky ridges were separated by steep chasms rather than welcoming valleys. Yet many large structures had been built. Clinging to the cliff faces, or cut into them, or set into almost inaccessible promontories, the structures were built largely of concrete with much the same color as the rocks. Adorning them were more delicate armatures of iron that were rusty, in much the same manner as industrial buildings I knew well from my own country. From these aspects I reasoned that this was a mining community, one in which the people were primarily engaged in cutting and digging into the earth to extract its hidden mineral riches. As I was to learn, this reasoning was only partially correct.”

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City of Earth is followed by City of Fire.

“Here, in strata upon strata of volcanic rock, were spaces inhabited by a community of people engaged in some sort of industry. There were dwelling spaces, hollowed out from the dark earth masses. There were machines that captured an eerie form of light different from that far above. There were vast caverns in which I saw entangled, monumental forms that were like fragments of the lucid geometric volumes I had seen in the city above, but here broken into disparate parts and linked together by tendril-like passageways and conduits, creating a vast, indeterminate network, rather than a geometrically coherent form. All of this was revealed by an inner-earth glow, amid a constant, throbbing heat. It soon became clear that the harnessing of heat energy, as a source of motive power, I imagined, was the industry of this underground community.”

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My design book of the year

I was going to recommend Haptic as my book of the year. A beautifully designed book that accompanies an exhibition of design work that toured the world recently, it features the work of Naoto Fukasawa, Shigeru Ban, Jasper Morrison and others who were each challenged to explore the design experiences of senses other than sight (although inevitably this too plays a role). The work is beautifully sensitive, although the book seems very hard to get hold of. I accidentally came across a copy at the RIBA bookshop in London. They seem to sell them online through the Lighthouse in Glasgow.

I said I was GOING to recommend this book, but it’s been trumped by another book which is visually very similar, Designing Design by Kenya Hara. Hara is a very well known designer in Japan, and art director at Muji, the famously minimalistic “no label” brand that sells products primarily for the home. He also organized the Haptic exhibition. His book is far more widely available, and contains not only most of the Haptic work but also design pieces from a variety of other exhibitions, including re-design, an exhibition he organized in 2000. In this event he invited 32 designers to rework established, everyday products.

So the book is full of examples of wonderful product design, in addition to giving a sense of the deep philosopyy and thoughtfulness that drives Hara’s work.

If you’re a fan of Fukasawa, Ban, Morrison or any of these other subtle workers of the design arts then this book is a must have.




Design streams

Thought this was a great find from LifeHacker, about the 2003 keynote by the author Neal Stephenson at USENIX. When he wrote his first novel it was on a “modern” typewriter with a plastic ribbon that would start jamming in Iowa’s July heat. The only way to stop it jamming was to keep writing and writing, creating a stream of conscious experience that helped make the writer more productive.

There’s something to be said for problem solving in design. Keep sketching. Draw the first things you think. Iterate. Draw the ridiculous. Just keep getting stuff down so you get in a mental state where something useful and interesting will start to emerge…



Poetic entry on drawing from Lebbeus Woods.

“Even though I am best known for my drawings, and have spent many years as a teacher of architects, I have never taught drawing. The reason is that each person who wants to draw should devise his or her own way. It makes no sense to teach a method or style of drawing, because drawing is a way of thinking, and it would be wrong to didactically teach a method or style of thinking. Each person must learn from the drawers—and the thinkers—who appeal most to them, and then devise their own ways. Originality—in drawing and thinking—is important, for the same reasons that individuality in all matters of existence is important: it confirms the wonder, and the terror, of the human condition.”

Braun vs. Apple – a little respect

I have no problem with this article drawing some close comparisons between the work of Dieter Rams and the work of Jonathan Ive at Apple. It’s not blatant plagiarism, and the calculator in the iPhone already demonstrated that the respect was there.

“When you look at the Braun products by Dieter Rams—many of them at New York’s MoMA—and compare them to Ive’s work at Apple, you can clearly see the similarities in their philosophies way beyond the sparse use of color, the selection of materials and how the products are shaped around the function with no artificial design, keeping the design “honest.””


Besides which, there’s that thing that Picasso said.

I’ve had my own little theory going that the design of the iPod was inspired by the “boys own” transistor eight pocket radios of the 50s. Maybe I went too far back?


John Maeda

It’s great to get some insight into how some of your heroes think. This slideshow from the New York Times shows the step by step process that John Maeda went through to design a cover for their real estate supplement, Key magazine.

I’m a big believer in the use of intuition, letting your experiences and senses be your guide. Intuition has a down side, which is that in a process-oriented culture following your instincts can make it impossible for others to really understand, or participate in, the design process. But this slideshow has some simple examples where Maeda clearly just made decisions because it looks better. I like that. I like the crappiness but effectiveness of his thumbnail sketches, too. They’re unfinished and raw, leaving plenty to the imagination.


I seem to really pick up on heroes who are information visualizers at heart, and Maeda is another of those. His work is probably some of the more early examples that I ever saw of what he calls kinetic design. This stuff is more commonplace now, but he really pre-dated some of the guys who came later in the Flash scene, like Joshua Davis. His early work of calendars and greetings cards for Shiseido particularly inspired me. Most of his work is available on this site, although I’m having trouble running a lot of it because of Java plug-in issues.