The Convivial Toolbox

I have just been reviewing my copy of Elizabeth Sanders' new text on generative tools for design research, and it's a home run. Ever since Brenda Laurel published her book (which, though very good and interesting to those who already know how to do research, is not that useful for beginners), I've been looking for a text to use in my courses. Bruce Hannington's Universal Methods of Design (a solid companion to Rockport's earlier Universal Principles of Design) is excellent and I highly recommend it as a reference, but it's not exactly a how-to.

Liz approached me a couple of years ago asking me to contribute a few sidebars to a book that she and Pieter Jan Stappers (from the Delft University of Technology) were writing, and I've been waiting with bated breath for it to come out. I've followed their work for years. In the 70s, Liz, at Richardson Smith, along with Lucy Suchman at Xerox PARC, Jane Fulton Suri at IDEO, and Bruce Archer and colleagues at the RCA, originated the methodology for what we now call design research. Liz has evolved a specialty in co-design practice using generative tools, and it is in this area that I feel the most promise lies for today's designers, so I have been eager to review the book.

It's met my expectations, and I'll be using it in my classes from now on. It lays a foundation of thought to explain generative tools and support their use for participatory design, and then breaks down the methods, the rationales, their use, the analysis of the findings and presentation of results—the whole nine yards, as they say. Fleshed out with real-world examples from 49 practitioners and educators, it's at last the text I've been hoping to see.

The Convivial Toolbox, along with Hannington's Universal Methods of Design, have earned a place on the bookshelf of every designer.


Computer Generated Reflections

When you're shooting cars—or shooting anything, actually, and come to think of it, when you're designing anything shiny, like cars, 
... furniture (my favorite Eames chair, here)

... or vases (I would kill for one of these Zeisel Fig Vases)—
it's all about the reflections. Designers are actually designing the shape of the reflection, in addition to the feel of the shape, on these kinds of products.
The above is a pretty cool car commercial for the Lincoln MKZ that my brother shot recently at the Calatrava museum in Valencia. The car is digital, and the way they mapped the reflections of the building onto the surface is pretty darned cool. Still don't really understand how it was done, even after reading Bill's shooting notes:
This is a Lincoln MKZ commercial I shot for Director Andrew Sinagra at Ntropic. Andrew was also the Visual Effects Supervisor on the project. The car we were selling was so new, it was not available to us at the time of shooting, so we shot a BMW 6-series as the stand-in car on location. The location is the huge Museum of Arts and Science in Valencia, Spain.

Then Andrew, along with Nate Robinson and his crew at Ntropic placed a CGI version of the new car into the various shots. We shot with Arri Alexa Plus, recording the camera pitch & roll, lens focus distance, lens focal length, and lens aperture to the imbedded Alexa shot metadata. They utilized this metadata in post to help fit the CGI components into the shots. We were constantly zooming during the shots, something without the frame-by-frame metadata, would have made the post very difficult to achieve.

We also recorded the light in the environment with a 4mm fisheye on a Red Epic, shooting straight up, mounted on top of another vehicle. After we did each shot with the stand-in car and the Alexa, another crew would drive the Epic camera through the shot to record the reflections that were later mapped back into the CG car surfaces. You will notice that the lens flares that we shot with the Alexa and Epic on location are blended perfectly with the CG car. The Alexa was mounted on a Gemini Crane, mounted on a Porsche Cayenne camera car from Camera Car Industries, with a Filmotechnics gyro stabilized Flight Head.

Things have come a long way since they shot the Dodge "Time" commercial 

which was an early use of digital design. I think it that case, though, the cars were real. I remember visiting the set for this one and saw they had the car mounted in the air on its side, completely masked off with tape (covering the car) so that they could shoot just the outline of the car (later they'd use that mask to strip in background, etc.). It was pretty cool to see a car suspended in mid air, sideways, about five feet off the ground.
But it's also pretty cool to enjoy a great building through the reflections in a digitally-generated car.

Metaphor as key

I've been reading Lakoff's seminal work on metaphor, Metaphors We Live By. Written originally in 1980, the new version has an afterword written in 2003 that alone will floor you. I'd been listening to him on his recent book tour promoting his latest book, The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide To Thinking and Talking Democratic, in which he tells progressives how to frame their ideas, and was reminded that he is one of the noted experts on the subject of framing, and therefore, the use of metaphor.

I've used the idea of Metaphor as a "wild card" in my deck of analytical tools for desgin research for some time. Instinctively, I and my students saw that if we could find the right metaphors that best expressed what we were seeing in the research, we would go a long way toward explaining the essence of what we had learned. For example, one of a team studying the phenomenon of adults playing in kickball leagues turned to me and said, "Kickball is a social filter." I understood him instantly. By choosing to join the kickball team instead of the softball or dodgeball team, one is choosing the type of people one wants to hang out with. Each crowd is different, and we had heard the kickball players saying they "wouldn't be caught dead" with the dodgeball players—a rowdier crowd with fewer brains on board (their words, not mine, so don't start in on me...!). It's easy to see how many of the activities we choose, from sports to knitting, act as social filters.

So we've long asked our students to consider the metaphors in play regarding the topic they are studying. But Lakoff brings depth and scholarship to the discussion, to the point where I'm a bit lost on how to convey to my students the breadth of his work and the many ideas they'd find useful.

Take marriage. To Lakoff, marriage can be a partnership, a journey through life together, a haven from the outside world, a means for growth, or a union of two into a third, larger entity. If one partner sees marriage as a partnership and the other, a haven, we can easilty see that the responsibilites inherent in the partnership frame will be at odds with the relief from responsibility that comes with the haven frame, and a rocky road would lie ahead.

Our research is based on the fact that one person's frame of reference will be different from another's, and it's our business to find out which frame a particular participant might be using. That's why we use the laddering technique in our interviews—to not accept any idea at face value, but to dive deeper into what a person means, as precisely as possible. At the heart of this idea is understanding the metaphors that people use as their operating system.

One of Lakoff's most interesting ideas is that aside from being lenses through which we look at the world, metaphors can offer new meaning. His example is the new metaphor of Love as a Collaborative Work of Art, compared to conventional metaphors of love—as a physical force, a patient (a sick relationship, a healthy marriage), madness, magic, war, a journey, and so on. The new metaphor has what Lakoff calls "reverberations" that can act as a guide: "The metaphor provides an organization of important love experiences that our conventional conceptual system does not make available.... It is work that requires that special balance of control and letting go that is appropriate to artistic creation.... it gives love a new meaning.... it can sanction actions, justify inferences, and help us set goals.... The meaning will be partly culturally determined and partly tied to past experiences."

All of this is potent fuel for the designer, and uncovering this fuel is the job of design research.


Automotive Design History

Some years ago I was asked to write a history of the pickup truck for a client. Some of you might know that I've taught History of ID at Art Center for years, but most of you might not know that, ever since one idyllic summer of 1972 spent in Austin when the place was crawling with excellent restored examples of F100s, 5-window-cab Dodges and early 50's Chevys, I have been a fan of old pickups. So I jumped into the project with enthusiasm.

Then I ran up against the problem with automotive design history. Most of what's recorded is based on what's written in the magazines and reviews (the first draft of history, as always) - long descriptions of engine sizes and performance specs. Nothing about the intent of the designer.

Automotive design is a parallel universe to mine. I was raised as a product designer, and although of late I've been complaining that you can't find a good, detailed case study of product designs these days, it's even more difficult to find an explanation of the problem-solving process within transportation design.

Rant alert...

Compare a 60s-era issue of Industrial Design magazine with its modern-day, on line counterpart and you'll see what I mean. The old version of the magazine was filled with excellent articles describing at length the problem-solving process and rationale. What stands for today's version is a hopelessly shallow serving of visual snacks. (Any designer who complains that our clients don't understand us had better look at this face we show to our public.) 

…end of rant.

It's even more difficult to get a sense of the problems automotive designers are taking on in their work, and how they think when they're solving them. There is no record like the old issues of ID Magazine to fall back on. Almost all of the books in our library (and I'd consider our design library probably the most complete on the West Coast) contain lengthy descriptions of models, dates, and engine performance specs, but precious little on what the designers themselves were thinking at the time.

Automotive designers occupy the next studio over from ours, figuratively speaking, but theirs is a different culture. Different way of talking about problems, and indeed, different problems they are attempting to solve. It is largely an oral process that occurs in the studio crit, and unless you sit an automotive designer down and ask them to backtrack through the decisions they've made, you'll not understand the work they have done.

Here's an example: the Duesenberg SSJ LaGrande Roadster. I was Googling Strother McMinn and came across a quote from him by our Transportation Department chair, Stewart Reed, saying, "Strother McMinn, my esteemed colleague, used to talk about the Gary Cooper Duesenberg (SSJ LaGrande roadster) -- the selfishness about it, with the tight interior and large body, which gave it that attitude." Reed goes on to say that when he was at Chrysler Advanced Design in the 1970s, "the "old-timers" felt that four doors were a stigma, and two-doors represented something a little more sporting, a little less practical. Eliminating as many pillars as possible was part of that philosophy, and designing "a selfish little coupé or roadster makes the car feel proportionally larger, makes it more imposing." 

Set aside, for a moment, any bias you might have about car designers, ecological wastefulness, Detroit, the yearly model change, or what have you, and take yourself back to the simple days before the 1973 oil crisis. This tiny gem about the "selfishness" of the car and adjusting the proportions to make it more imposing - this is what I once heard Tom Matano refer to as "visual weight distribution" - that by elongating or shortening the greenhouse, the front deck, or the trunk lid a designer would convey to the observer what the promise of the vehicle was - family mover or "selfish" performance animal, for example. 

The rest of the article, by the way (in Hemmings Classic Car magazine) was about the definition, exactly, of a "Club Coupe" - the other sort of material you'll find if you're researching auto design history. 95% of the lengthy article was about how many doors, how many cubic feet of back seat, how many pillars, and so forth, comprising a Club Coupe - an effort at pinning down a lexicon interesting perhaps to owners of classic cars, but only that one small quote that tells us about the intention of the designers.

This, by the way, is what they call a Club Coupe.

This was better than what you usually get, as in this article about the SSJ Roadster from another site. You'll see what I mean about there being nothing about the design process, other than the automotive engineering / manufacturing and to a certain extent, the marketing.

Automotive design is not a mystery to those who practice it. Some, like Matano, are eminently capable of clearly explaining what it is they do. But no one is recording this. Only occasionally do I come across glimpses behind the curtain - listening in at the Art Center Car Classic, or pinning one of my colleagues down and ask them to 'splain me what's behind a particular design. Which is what I did for the pickup truck project, and it was great fun. 


IDSA Educators' Papers On Line!

I may be revealing my geek side here, but as a past IDSA Education VP (and as such, responsible for putting on two educators' conferences and overseeing the peer review process of the content) I am thrilled to see IDSA's new gallery of educators' papers on line. I've attended these conferences for years and perhaps the best-kept secret in the design world is the IDSA National Education Symposium. Every year I hear something that directly helps either my professional or teaching practice. On the "big stage" of the IDSA National Conference we might see showy keynotes from well-known figures (and if they're designers, that might be a show of their portfolio, and while I'm not complaining, this can be a little ho-hum and nothing-new-here, I'm just sayin'...). The real depth and weight can often be found in the educators' sessions, but these are thinly attended by the main audience. 

Is there a misconception about design education? Perhaps. For as long as I can remember, professional practitioners have complained that design education is slipping, ineffectual, just not preparing students for the so-called "real world." This used to bother me. From my perspective, teaching at Art Center and every year looking at the work of students and educators at schools like Cincinnati, CCS, San Jose State and CCA, I see the opposite. I was told by educators older and wiser than I that this is typical of many designers - the minute they graduate they start complaining that design education isn't the way it used to be when they were in school. To these folks, I'd like to suggest that they visit one of the aforementioned schools and subject themselves to today's packed-full curriculum. The longer they've been out of school, I'd suggest they'd find greater difficulty in handling everything that we ask of students today in these programs.

The heart of the problem might be that most designers don't see the best portfolios. The A students usually have jobs before they leave school. The next rung of students look around a bit, show their work to a few offices, and then get hired. It's the C students - and, unfortunately, graduates of weaker programs - who travel all points of the compass showing their work to everyone, and finding great difficulty getting hired. It is these portfolios that most people see.

There's another truth that might be harsher for practitioners to swallow - the really good students rarely apply to the weaker offices. If your office has a reputation for being a terrible place to work, odds are that there is a parallel universe of great design portfolios that you've never seen. Think that one through before you are tempted to go off about all design education.

End of rant. Back to the educators' papers online at IDSA.

Most of the time, regular attendees of the IDSA National Conference shun the educators' sessions like kids avoiding vegetables. (Could it be connected to the bad view of design education I mention above? Who knows?) But the secret (every parent knows) is to make the educator sessions (and the vegetables) indistinguishable from the regular fare. The last educators' conference I chaired was in Austin, where we experimented with integrating the educators' presentations seamlessly with the rest of the conference. I remember asking someone with a practitioner's badge whether he'd had a chance to check out any of the educators' sessions yet. He gave me a guilty look and mumbled something about needing to go to sessions that had relevance to his work. I said, "That's ok - don't worry about it. By the way, of all the sessions, which have you liked best so far?" He brightened, and named one of the educators' sessions that he'd attended, thinking it was a "regular" session. Touché.

These papers are all archived at the national office, and in the past were intermittently and incompletely available on the web site. I am so glad to see this resource in entirety, finally accessible. 

My congratulations to Kurt Howard, Ben Chisholm, and Colleen Browning, the unsung heros of IDSA's national office staff who are, bit by bit, adding gems like this to the IDSA site. Good job, folks!