Year-Ending 2012

As the year ends, tradition calls for a review of the several initiatives I engaged in during 2012. The exercise entails looking back in time with the support social network activities and more personal logs (e.g. ical, emails) to keep track of gratifying rencontres and significant milestones at the Near Future Laboratory (see last year’s A Few Things the Laboratory did in 2011).

If this year had a mantra it would be: “sketching with data”, an approach to innovate with data I presented in various conferences and institutions from the high-tech cabarets such as Strata in San Francisco; or Red Innova in Madrid to the more cozy settings of the IAAC architecture school in Barcelona. These speaking engagements were part of a polishing phase that reports on the my evolving practice fed by the accumulated experiences on the ground. For instance, I discussed our investigation on the roles of a retail bank in the ‘smart’ city of the near future. Our client had fairly good ideas of the potentials of a real-time information platform. This is the kind of service a bank is extremely familiar with. However, they had limited knowledge on the specific information that could feed and emerge from this kind of platform. As part of our consulting work, we regularly sketched advanced dashboard for participants of the project to explore and interrogate their data with fresh perspectives. The use of the prototypes helped the client craft and tune indicators that qualify commercial activities. This experience still feeds the future bank services and products based on data.

Another gratifying outcome of the work around “sketching with data” was the release in June and November of the alpha and beta versions of Quadirgram (see Unveiling Quadrigram). The product resulted from a collaboration with my friends at Bestiario and responds to the increasing demand of clients to think (e.g. sketch) freely with data. The tool is meant to diffuse the power of information visualization within organizations and eventually reach the hands of people with knowledge and ideas of what data mean. I had the unique opportunity to influence many aspects of the product development and release process (engineering, user-experience, go to market strategy, client/investor/provider meetings) and now proudly sit in the advisory board of the company.

Other fruitful collaborations took place along the year, each of them bringing their unique set of experiences. I am particularly grateful to have joined forces with Urbanscale, Claro Partners, Interactive Things, Lift, Data Side and Pop-up Urbain. While a good share of the work stayed within confidential settings, I reserved efforts for self-started initiatives such as:

  • Ville Vivante: an ‘urban demo’ that took the form of a visual animation and eight posters deployed at the Geneva central station (project led by Lift Conference, in collaboration with Interactive Things).
  • Footoscope: a deciphering tool for football amateurs developed in collaboration with Philippe Gargov of Pop-up Urbain. Its interface provides a perspective on the morphology and tactics of a football team according to raw data on its passing game transformed into indicators and visualizations.

Finally, I kept some quiet moments to contribute to academia with reviews for Sensors, CHI, CSCW and Just-In-Time Sociology, teach a postgraduate course on the design of ‘data services’ and published of the paper New tools for studying visitor behaviors in museums: a case study at the Louvre co-authored with Yuji Yoshimura, UPF and MIT on a follow-up investigation of our hyper-congestion study at the Louvre.

From James Auger’s PhD defense. This quote also sums up…

From James Auger’s PhD defense. This quote also sums up his perspective:

Speculative design effectively facilitates the creation of high-resolution imaginaries of possible destinations - these can then be used to encourage contemplation and analysis on whether this is improved or not. Significantly this can be used to engage a broad variety of audiences.

A patent for an “Internet refrigerator and operating…

A patent for an “Internet refrigerator and operating method thereof” by peeps at LG Electronics:

The Internet refrigerator includes a modem for performing a data communication with remote communication devices through the Internet, a first control section for controlling constituent elements of the refrigerator, a touch panel for producing key signals in accordance with a user’s touch, a second control section for controlling other constituent elements of the refrigerator including the first control section in response to the key signals provided from the touch panel and key signals from the remote communication devices, a display section for displaying necessary information under the control of the second control section, and an Internet connection device for connecting the refrigerator to the Internet. The Internet refrigerator operating method uses internal information of the Internet refrigerator and information from the external communication devices.

The creative portrayal

fountainheadMost of what I know about the world I know from movies. From Vietnam to corn syrup, the majority of the factual composition of my brain comes from celluloid, for better or worse. As an Industrial Designer, I’m constantly trying to find simple ways to explain to people exactly what it is that I do, often to blank faces. This got me thinking: how are designers portrayed in the movies? Wider still, how are all creative people portrayed in Hollywood? I think there are a few archetypes, which I’ve outlined below. (I’ve been rooting deep within my cinematic memories for examples, but please get in touch if you know of any more.)

The Writer: Hollywood loves a writer. I would argue there are more movies about writers than any other creative character, perhaps because film is a narrative art. It’s easy for writers to write about writers. Perhaps the best movie about writers is Barton Fink, excellently portrayed by John Turturro, though it also displays many of the tropes of the writer protagonist. The writer is quiet, introverted, often old fashioned – for the longest time, writers used typewriters in movies, long after most had moved to a PC. The writer likes solitude, silence. The writer is tortured: by his publisher, by the deadline, by the characters in his story. The writer is an outsider. The writer is interesting, smart, insightful. There are some excellent movies about writers, from the wild ride of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to the structure breaking American Splendor or Adaptation, but most tend to abide by the well understood rules in the portrayal of a creative writer.

The Inventor: from Rick Moranis in Honey I Shrunk the Kids to Doc Brown in Back to the Future, the inventor is almost always portrayed as a wacky, white-coated character with wild hair, spectacles and chaotic living conditions. A character who is wildly secretive and socially awkward, the inventor is a classic Hollywood anti-hero. I suspect there aren’t many such characters in real life. Most lab physicians, chemical or mechanical engineers I’ve met are calm quiet types, but the social awkwardness is a truism, as is the predominantly male makeup of such characters. (A subset of Inventor is the Mad Professor, from Dr. Frankenstein, to countless Superhero movies)

The Architect: this one’s a doozy. Architecture is a go-to employment for any character who is lovable, creative, yet feels trapped in an urban environment, or in a big corporation. The architect has big ideas, but no-one will listen. The architect carries rolls and rolls of blueprints. The architect visits building sites wearing a hard had, he meets with builders and points at things. The architect is a bland job which is non-polarising for any character who needs to appear employed, without his job becoming an important narrative element. Tom Selleck played an architect in Three Men and a Baby. Do you remember? No of course you don’t, it’s not important, but you did remember that he was lovable, educated, smart and maybe a little creative. Woody Harrelson was an architect in Indecent Proposal, but again, just to make him into the nice guy. Liam Neeson in Love Actually, Matthew Broderick in The Cable Guy, Matt Dillon in You, Me and Dupree… you get the picture. There are movies where architecture and architects play a central role, such as the Fountainhead or Towering Inferno, where the role is expanded, but typically ‘The Architect’ remains a proxy for ‘nice guy’.

The Fashion designer: Want a totally wacky character? Want to add some zing, some spice, some drag queen sass? Then your character is a fashion designer. From the characters in Sex and the City and the Devil Wears Prada, to Will Ferrell’s excellent Jacobim Mugatu in Zoolander, fashion designers are perpetually portrayed as vapid, bitchy prima-donnas. I’ve met a fair few fashion designers and there are definitely some who fit that mold (as excellently lampooned by Sacha Baron-Cohen in Brüno, and the documentary The September Issue perhaps illustrates just how real the stereotype can be), but increasingly fashion designers are smart, sensible business people. Perhaps slightly breaking that mold is Audrey Tautou Coco Before Chanel, which is a little more calm about the fashion industry, but it’s a period piece which focusses more on the love story than the design work.

The Painter: See The Writer, but dial up the internal torture and money worries.

The Graphic Designer: This is a little more rare, perhaps because it’s less widely understood as a profession. There are characters who work at magazines, and there are characters who work at Newspapers, but actually designing type and layout? Not so much. Halle Berry played a graphic designer in Catwoman, falling asleep at her drawing board. Jessica Lange played a graphic designer in Scorsese’s Cape Fear, at one point discussing how to draw a logo with Juliette Lewis. Generally speaking, the Graphic Designer is simply another ‘Architect’ character: likable, creative and trapped by a corporate life.

The Advertising Creative: An associated go-to character, although displaying quite different traits to the Graphic Designer. The Advertising Creative is a brash, hard working, hard living urbanite. The Advertising Creative is some parts writer (struggling with copy and straplines), some part architect (struggling to remain creative in a corporate world) but crucially is far more business savvy and less likable than most creative characters. Dudley Moore’s Emory Leeson in Crazy People is a wonderful example, as is Kirk Douglas in The Arrangement, and Rock Hudson in Lover Come Back, but the clearest example of the character is Richard E Grant in How to Get Ahead in Advertising. In TV land, the character has been immortalized by Don Draper et al in Mad Men, firmly sealing the traits of the role.

The Industrial Designer: This is very rare, and often strays into Inventor territory. In a movie, if you need a character to create a new product it typically happens in a boardroom, on a whim (see Tom Hanks ‘I don’t get it’ scene in Big). In Elizabethtown, Orlando Bloom plays an Industrial designer who gets fired from Mercury Worldwide Shoes, and Ewan McGregor played a vehicle designer in The Island, but the roles are fairly inert, a typical ‘Architect’ persona, designed to make the character employed without any polarising characteristics.

The UX designer: see ‘Inventor’ but lots more computers (Tron, The Lawnmower Man and Brainstorm are good examples)

So what have we learned? Across the board, characters who have ‘creative’ jobs are considered interesting, from the flamboyance of the fashion world to the intellectual introspection of the writer, Hollywood loves creative characters. Creative characters are well educated, and with the exception of the Mad Professor or the Advertising Creative, they are likable.

What is interesting is which part of the creative process is used for each of the character stereotypes. Writers and Painters are tortured by the pre-creation ideas phase, Inventors tend to focus on the experimenting phase, Architects and Designers are often portrayed tackling the implementation phase, and Fashion tends to focus on the presentation or post creation phase. I’ve called this the Hollywood Design Index.HOLLYWOOD DESIGN INDEXPerhaps that goes some way to explaining public perceptions of each segment of the design industry, and without getting too overblown, it could have a longer term effect on how each industry is understood. Typically the portrayal of designers in Hollywood is a very pale reflection of reality, but then again, the portrayal of soldiers, politicians, lawyers or doctors is no doubt just as clichéd.

Power all around

ipad mini

Weighing in at over a ton, and filling a whole room at Bletchley Park, Colossus was the world’s first programmable computer, used to decrypt the Lorenz Cipher. Since it’s creation over 65 years ago a significant improvement in performance and reduction in size has occurred in computing, Moore’s Law extending well beyond what most considered possible. Take a look at the iPad mini above. The immense computing power of the iPad now exists within that little L-shaped board running along two sides of the diminutive tablet. What’s hard to miss, however is the proportionally huge battery, which occupies around 60% of the entire volume of the product.

There have been huge strides made in the field of power storage (tripling in energy density in the last 15 years, mostly due to Li-ion), but this hasn’t been able to match the pressures exerted by hardware. As a result, cell phones now expire significantly quicker than those of ten years ago. The ongoing power struggle is now a key focus in many mobile tech industries, and there are some very interesting developments afoot.

Whilst batteries will continue to improve in some respects, much time is now being focussed on micro-harvesting, aiming to top up the battery at every opportunity. I once read a ‘statistic’ which claimed that if the impact of every footfall on every sidewalk in New York could be captured, the city would generate enough energy to power itself. Whilst this is perhaps apocryphal, it’s true that the vibrations created by human movement generate significant energy. We’re are perhaps familiar with large scale movement harvesting technologies, kinetic bicycle lights for example, but engineers have recently been able to create micro-harvesters. These work in the same way as any generator, moving a magnet through a coil, but at tiny scales. An array of these tiny top-up engines could easily be fitted into most mobile electronic devices, generating 12µW from a 1cm square device.


But it’s not just movement vibrations from the user jogging, or the rocking of a car, these devices can charge due to external vibrations such as noise. We can attach them to the back of screens or run speakers ‘in reverse’ to vibrate in a noisy bar or restaurant and trickle charge the batteries. Clever stuff.


So how else can we harvest little bits of energy? Well there’s obviously solar, and lots of work is underway here, but what about the heat from the sun, as opposed to the photons? Where there is a difference in temperature between two materials, we can grab power due to the Seebeck effect. If you’ve ever left your phone on a sunny table you know just how much heat is available in your devices, so this is a potentially exciting area, energy-wise. Not only that, but one side of the thermopile (see above) could be placed next to your skin (your cheek whilst talking, or in your headphones) in colder or darker environments.

faraday chair

Dunne and Raby made the Faraday Chair shown above in order for people to escape ‘leaking’ radio waves from digital products in their excellent book Hertzian Tales. Whilst this may conjure up images of paranoid, tinfoil wearing hippies, the truth is closer than you might think. Whilst the numbers are small, ambient RF (radio frequencies) are a viable energy source. Energy leaking from GSM or WLAN communication services can be captured and converted into little bits of power. The main issue here is distance and power, you’ll know this from your RFID enabled travel card or cordless toothbrush, that said it’s still considered viable.

Power is all around us, and if we want our devices to do more and last longer we’ll need to find ways to grab it and keep it. Whilst none of these technologies generates enough energy to power a screen based device alone, they will add precious seconds to the life of the battery. That said, outside of the pixel based realm, sensors and micro-devices are also trending toward increased efficiency and smaller volumes. Here may be a case for self sustaining electronics which could be permanently deployed into environments, houses, bodies, anywhere there’s light, vibration, temperature or RF. That’s interesting.

Prototyping session with post-its and cardboard at EPFL

It’s the second year I am teaching the HUM-401 class at EPFL with Daniel Sciboz. The course is about creative processes and tricks employed by designers in their work. Our aim is to show engineers from various areas (IT, biology, chemistry, material sciences, architecture) a different approach than the one they have through various means: short lectures, basic assignments and crits. The first semester is devoted to techniques and methods, and the second semester corresponds to a personal project. This course is extremely refreshing for me as it allows to understand the various frictions between “designerly” of doing. I blogged about this last year here and this new class will have will certainly lead me to new findings.

One of the most interesting moment of the first semester is the prototyping phase (which follows the observation and the ideation series of sessions). More specifically, there is course devoted to “quick and dirty prototyping” that we always try to renew, finding original ways to make students understand the relevance of iterating their ideas via basic techniques. The class starts off with a short intro about the underlying rationale to prototyping:

  • We discuss what we found in the field study conducted at the beginning of the semester, and highlight the categories of findings: problems (pain points, lack of something, bad functionality), expressed or observed needs, constraints (physical, social, cultural), general interaction principles, existing solutions, weird ideas. These findings are presented as starting points for “creating something”.
  • Then we discuss the importance of using tangible material to “test” ideas. The funny part of the discussion here, with engineers, is to make them understand that there is no “silver bullet” and the importance of iterating. I introduce here the notion of “thinging” (Pelle Ehn), the practice of using rough things to decide collectively where to go. Mock-ups or props can be seen as “experience prototypes”, to “understand, explore or communicate what it might be like to engage with the product, space or system we are designing” (J.F. Suri).

The idea that mock-ups to test things not only in talk but also through richer bodily, social and contextualized interactions, is easily grasped by the students but not necessary easy to put in place. This is why we then apply these ideas with two exercises.

Exercise 1: the post-it phone

This design exercise is a common assignment in design schools and I found some inspiration at at CIID about how to apply it:

Students worked in teams of three to imagine new mobile interaction scenarios around a theme/context. Each partner applied a stack of twenty or so post-it notes to the screen of their personal hand-held and draw interface states on each. As the interaction scenario was acted out, the notes were peeled off as the reciprocal actions unfolded.

Our brief was the following:

Form a team of 2 persons. Each team has to imagine a new mobile service based on the results of your field study (observation/interview): a map/orientation app. Using a stack of 15 post-its, you have to prototype the 3 core functionalities of this mobile app. Each post-its represents a screenshot of the graphical user interface (drawn by hand), create a treemap of the User Interface flow and then stick your post-its on top of each others. At least ONE of the feature must be audio!. You have 45 minutes, you will have to present this in front of the class in 5 minutes

That brief is straight-forward the the exercise went well. It’s always hard to have the students role-playing the presentation. Most have the tendency to do a demo (it may be more natural with such an audience) and not to show a real-interaction.

Exercice 2: stickers on boxes

The second exercise uses the marvelous sticker on boxes prototyping toolkit created by Anvil. The materiality of these elements enables to accelerate and improve the sharing and development of ideas in collaborative contexts. It’s a set of cardboard, boxes and stickers (with tons of different shapes, interfaces, logo) for for generating objects that communicate ideas quickly and simply:

The tool currently consists of cardboard boxes in 3 ‘handheld’ sizes, and a sticker catalogue of over 300 different symbols, shapes and icons. From current and past technologies to body parts, we have attempted to make these descriptors cover as broad and comprehensive a range of things as possible. By selecting, arranging and attaching the stickers you can begin to build up a sketch of an object, its potential features and uses.

For this part, the brief was the following:

Same team of participants. Now design a physical mock-up of your project using cardboard shapes and stickers. Create a way to present the use of this prototype in front of the class (role-play). You have 45 minutes, you will have to present this in front of the class in 5 minutes.

See the 5 projects designed by the different groups

Project 1: FYND (Find Your Next Destination)
Context of use: find new places to visit and spatially organize your day.
What it does: the app guides you to the destination you choose (from A to B)

Project 2: Find It Easily
Context of use: during leisure time
What it does: foldable 3D screen on both side of the device, it shows maps and objects’s location

Project 3: To Do Clock
Context of use: daily life/urban environment
What it does: the app allows to create “to do lists” by dragging icons of tasks to a map of the city you are at. The user gets points if he/she gets on time to every places where a todo item is located.

Project 4: GeoCrisis
Context of use: urban street
What it does: a location-based game with a map of where the user is. 3 game modes: survival, capture the flag, and run.

Project 5: Scanline
Context of use: find something (POI, restaurant…) in an urban context
What it does: the service allows to locate you on a map (as well as POIs) by scanning the skyline of the city in which you are located.

Some comments about the activity:

  1. The fact that we had both exercises was a good thing, it allowed to have a final discussion about the relative merits of the two, and the importance of using different types of material to iterate and test ideas in different directions.
  2. The tools themselves lead to intriguing ideas, sometimes in a divergent way (new features enabled by tons of stickers!), or by narrowing down the possibilities (the form factor of the cardboard boxes in the second exercise leads to lots of smartphone app ideas).
  3. Only two students (out of 16) realized they could use the cardboard box as a sort of foldable device!
  4. As usual with such kind of assignments with non-designers, there is a tendency to treat it as fun and almost absurd. This leads to participants using weird post-its or thinking about odd features for the sake of it. This is of course problematic but I think it’s a starting point for a discussion about the difference between having fun creating something (targeted to a certain user) and not making weird choices because it’s simply funny.

Why do I blog this? Debriefing the use of new tools is interesting for upcoming workshops.