Category Archives: Design

The Semantic Web

I think there might be something to this blog thing.

Last night, I put up a blog for our local buddhist group at – I am pretty happy with the way it turned out. Ms. Jill Hadley Hooper did the intro animation and the backgrounds, and we worked together on the layout and design.

I am pretty impressed with WordPress, the blogging, or “semantic personal publishing platform” as they call it, I am using for the Zen Denver site (and this one); there is a remarkable amount of flexibility and scalability; from a design perspective, it is a pretty powerful tool.

It doesn’t get rid of the need to understand html, css, stylesheets, and the like, but it does abstract the content layer from the presentation layer. And it does it for free.

It is certainly a welcome addition to the toolchest for someone interested in contextual (device independent) display of content.

Eyes Wide Open

Two years ago I worked with the American Friends Service Committee to create a three minute movie honoring the dead in Iraq, both American and Iraqi. It’s part of their “Eyes Wide Open” project, where they display a pair of boots for each American serviceperson killed in the war.

I’m very proud of the movie; it’s incredibly moving and was frankly very emotional to work on, probably the most gutwrenching project I’ve ever done. We sorted through hundreds if not thousands of photos, and culled them down to just those that best expresses the pain and suffering of all those who are part of this misguided conflict.

Now, two years later, we are approaching another milestone; very soon, we will pass 3,000 American dead in the conflict. Of course, this doesn’t begin to count the many tens (hundreds?) of thousands of Iraqi’s killed, nor those injured or whose lives have been ruined. I went back and looked at the code of the movie I built (we count the Americans killed), and two years ago the number was 1,400.

I think the most disturbing part of this experience is how little change we were able to effect. I admire the folks at the AFSC for their dedication, and I suppose there is some late (very late) admission that the invasion was a mistake. But the suffering goes on, and gets worse. Our country’s image has been wrecked abroad, and we are still divided at home. The human cost and the financial cost are frankly beyond imagining.

Anyhow, here’s the link if you want to see the movie:

Organic Strategies

Ways in which Content Creation is like Gardening

A few years ago I read a book by Paul Hawken entitled “Growing A Business”, in which he presented his opinions on how best to define a business strategy; as one of the founders of Smith and Hawken, he has a unique perspective based in personal passion and understanding. As I remember, one of his key points is the importance of going with what you know; by choosing an approach that resonates with yourself, you are more likely to connect with others as well.

As a proponent of user-centered design strategies, I find myself asking my clients to walk in their customer’s shoes; often this involves looking outside your organizational structure and taking a look at the experience through fresh eyes. Experience research and prototype testing can help in getting to an optimal approach, but inevitably the content question comes up: where should we put our energies in creating a communications plan to best address the needs of our target audience while working within our limitations as an organization?

As an gardener, I have found myself considering the relationship between the desire to create something wonderful and the need to build a sustainable solution; how do you create a garden (or a website, for that matter) that looks great now, but will also have interest in all seasons and through the years?

And so, I offer the following suggestions for gardeners and businesses:

Work with the Existing Landscape
As you think about what you want to do, spend time considering the existing landscape. What elements do you like? What would you like to highlight? What do you want to change? In business as in nature, there are certain parts of the landscape that provide the basis for everything that follows. Spend some time considering how best to integrate these elements into your plan for change. Don’t be too quick to decide what the best approach is, or you may find yourself boxed into a corner.

Plan for Use
Perhaps the most important decision you will make is how the various areas of your landscape will be used; who will be visiting, and what will they be doing there? If you are expecting a crowd, don’t create a narrow path. Be sure that the thoroughfares are well-defined and any plantings there can withstand the traffic.

Remember your Particular Environment
There are numerous environmental factors that impact the success or failure of your plan; focusing on appropriate solutions will greatly enhance your potential. In the case of a garden, this might involve looking at the weather, the soil, or the amount of sun, in business you need to understand your business environment, your customers, and your message. A gaudy pink flower might be appropriate in one situation, and not in another.

Think Long Term…
A communications strategy, like a garden, is a project that is never finished – it takes a level of faith and trust to begin a project that may take years to reach fruition. Starting a project with a single season in mind is a waste of time, effort, and money.

…but set Achievable Goals
But you can’t do it all at once, so you have to break your project up into manageable chunks. What is the best project to take on this year, and how will it fit in to what I’m going to do next year? Look at the amount of resource you have to apply to the project, consider the benefits, and then make your decision on what you can realistically accomplish.

Choose Maintainable Approaches
In building for the future, you have to consider how maintenance and updates will fit into your plans; you don’t want to put your efforts into solutions that will only work for a short period of time. In the case of a garden, there are structural enhancements that will make your life easier in the long run, though they will increase the cost up front. The same applies to content development.

Prepare the Soil
Any gardener will tell you that it’s easy to put plants in the ground; what takes time is everything surrounding the planting; you have to turn the soil, amend and fertilize, build the beds… Though this takes time, it separates those who take their project seriously from those who just want to put some flowers in the ground.

Learn to Love Chores
And even after the plants get in the ground (or your new website hits the Internet) there is always more to be done. Weeding, cleaning up after storms, preparing for winter, preparing for spring, if you aren’t willing to do the necessary chores you are going to end up with more of a mess than you hoped for.

Plant for the Whole Year-Round
What happens when the bloom is off the rose? When the snow hits the ground? Many flowers bloom for only a short time, and if you take a limited approach you’ll come to a time when the landscape seems unnecessarily barren. Consider options that add year-round appeal, and focus more on the leaf than the bloom. You may not have the big splash in the spring, but you’ll be happier when the autumn comes.

Serious Play

“A desire to frame dialogue in concrete terms is what led me to use various forms of modeling and prototyping.

In his book “Serious Play,” Michael Shrage calls this ‘Externalized Thought,’ and goes on to say:

“Mental models become tangible and actionable only in the prototypes that management champions… Models are not just tools for individual thought. They are inherently social media and mechanisms.”

Improvement makes straight roads

I am a bit of a mongrel, though perhaps that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. To quote William Blake from “Proverbs of Hell”,

“Improvement makes straight roads; but the crooked roads without improvement are roads of Genius.”

My own background is in performance and storytelling; I started working in interactive media in the early nineties. The addition of interactivity caused me to rethink the nature of telling stories; over time I came to believe that personal stories are the most vital and compelling, but as I began to consider interactivity I was thrown into a world where there was no longer control the way the story is experienced; how do we communicate themes and messages if there is no plot, no defined beginning, middle, and end?

One way to frame this new form of storytelling is to think of it as a conversation between the author and the audience; by its nature a conversation has a spontaneous and uncontrolled feel, and yet it can also be structured and composed. Conversations wander crooked roads, but they are informed by the needs and desires of the participants.

There is a natural tendency among creative people to believe that great work leaps fully formed into the world like Athena from the head of Zeus, but when we are creating complex projects that require interaction both between various team members and audiences, this is a risky proposition to say the least. This is another reason I prefer to frame the design process as a creative dialogue.

A Technique for Producing Ideas

A lot of what I do in my worklife involves helping people to be creative. I think that is why once a year or so I reread a book by James Webb Young entitled “A Technique for Producing Ideas”. The book, based on lectures that Mr. Young gave at the University of Chicago Business School during the 1930s, was initially published in 1940, and has been in and out of print for the past 64 years.

If you’ve never read his little yellow treatise on creativity, I highly recommend it. First of all I recommend it because it provides an excellent approach on how to tackle any creative problem; he outlines a five-step process (which I’ll discuss briefly later) that can be applied to just about any situation. Secondly, it is pleasantly brief; it can easily be read in a couple of hours. And finally, his approach is written in plain and understandable language; he doesn’t get wrapped up in technical or intellectual fancies, but stays focused on his core goal of providing a practical guide to the creative process.

Jim Young, who was born in 1886 and died in 1973, was an advertising man (he worked with J Walter Thompson on and off for the better part of 50 years), but much more than just an advertising man. He had a wide range of interests; his belief was that the broader your understanding of the world around you, the more rich your ability to generate creative thought. He was, perhaps more than anything else, a proponent of curiosity. To quote from the book:

“Every really good creative person in advertising whom I have ever known has always had two noticeable characteristics. First, there was no subject under the sun in which he could not easily get interested from, say, Egyptian burial customs to modern Art. Every facet of life had a fascination for him. Second, he was an extensive browser in all sort of fields of information. For it is with the advertising man as with the cow: no browsing, no milk.”

His five step process for creativity can, with some danger of oversimplification, be summed up in just five words; gather, digest, incubate, ideate, and shape.

First, you must gather raw material, both specific and general – this gathering should be done in as non-judgmental a manner as possible.

Next, this range of information needs to be digested, combined together, mulled over, with time spent considering the possibilities. Webb describes this part of the process as ‘more like listening than looking.’

Third (but only once you have really done your homework), you need to look away from the problem, allow it to incubate, just ‘let it alone.’ Turn to those things that inspire you (art, music, poetry), and you’ll find yourself thinking about the problem constantly.

Fourth, and often in a surprising manner, an idea will occur; perhaps in a moment of consideration, perhaps in a flash, but usually out of nowhere, the process of discovery comes to fruition.

Finally, there is the inevitable morning after, when you have to look at your idea in the harsh light of day. There is a process of refinement, and you must work with patience and openness to shape and develop your idea into something practical.

This distillation of the creative process remains surprisingly pertinent and alive even today, more than 60 years after it was first published. Perhaps part of the reason for this is tied into one of Webb’s core beliefs; he did not believe that there is really anything new in the world, but merely different combinations of the same old elements in different ways.

In my most recent read of ‘A Technique for Producing Ideas’ I was struck by something else that Webb said; in the final chapter of the book, entitled ‘Some Afterthoughts,’ Webb takes the opportunity to elaborate on the importance of language to the creative process. He says:

“ We tend to forget that words are, themselves, ideas. They might be called ideas in a state of suspended animation. When the words are mastered the ideas tend to come alive again.”

He continues later in the next paragraph with:

“ Thus, words being symbols of ideas, we can collect ideas by collecting words. The fellow who said he tried reading the dictionary, but couldn’t get the hang of the story, simply missed the point: namely, that it is a collection of short stories.”

As a person who believes stories are the way we communicate and learn, I think the concepts presented in this book offer an insight into how we can work collaboratively as teams. When a group of people seeks to develop an approach to solving a problem, one key part of the process is finding a shared vocabulary.

In the end, this vocabulary helps in developing and communicating the goals, methods, and results of the endeavor. Without this type of strong underpinning, the project runs the risk of losing track of itself.