Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Material world

New materials allow new designs. The Financial Times reported on the Materials Library at King’s College London
Materials libraries are one of the newest and most intriguing manifestations of materials science, which is itself a relatively new term to describe an age-old discipline – the study of the relationship between the molecular structure of materials and their perceptible physical properties, such as hardness, softness, flexibility or brittleness. In the past, the study of materials fell under metallurgy, chemistry and solid-state physics. But in the last half-century, with more new materials being created than in all previous history, their sheer variety – plastics, semiconductors, biomaterials – could no longer be understood merely within the classical disciplines.

Take Aerogel: the world’s lightest solid consists of 99.8 per cent air and looks like a vague, hazy mass. And yet despite its insubstantial nature, it is remarkably strong; and because of its ability to nullify convection, conduction and radiation, it also happens to be the best insulator in the world. Sitting next to the Aerogel is its thermal opposite, a piece of aluminium nitride, which is such an effective conductor of heat that if you grasp a blunt wafer of it in your hand, the warmth of your body alone allows it to cut through ice.

Read the whole article: "A library of the world’s most unusual compounds" by George Pendle.

Thanks to Boing Boing

Photo from Tanakawho's Flickr stream, used by Creative Commons permission

Monday, December 14, 2009

Should design be a policy priority?

Allison Arieff for the NY Times wrote"Designs on Policy"

Design touches all sectors of our daily life, and increasing awareness of that reality can result in tremendous benefit for all. Is design about aesthetics? Of course it is, but that’s just one of its many facets. Design can save time, money and one’s sanity. It can simplify use, enhance enjoyment, and keep us safe and well. I believe the National Design Policy can help to tangibly illustrate design’s value and help to keep it from being reduced to an afterthought, that “denim patch on a satin dress” Beirut is talking about.

Some designers I spoke to are less than thrilled with the whole design policy idea. An architect said emphatically, “Good design needs no spokesperson, needs no voice other than itself.” Yet I’m not convinced that’s always the case. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be living in, as I’ve heard one homeowner describe it, “a house with a Spanish Gothic front”, or driving Pontiac Aztecs through poorly designed intersections, and signing on for balloon payments, among countless examples. Design doesn’t need good PR; it needs to be recognized as essential to good practice. Anything that can help facilitate the importance of design as part of larger systems thinking is a positive.

She writes frequently on design for the New York Times Opinionator section

Thanks to Patrik for suggesting this.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Details matter

Dustin Curtis posts on Disney's sound system.
"To get the original audio system at Disney World to work, engineers simply attached large speakers to several hundred light-posts randomly scattered throughout the park. ... [T]here is actually a minor flaw with this system. Because the speakers are placed on arbitrarily-positioned light-posts throughout the park, the volume of the music slightly fluctuates as visitors walk along pathways. As they get closer to a speaker, the music gets louder, and as they walk away, it gets quieter."

Although no one complained about this, Disney re-engineered the park's sound.
"Today, as you walk through Disney World, the volume of the ambient music does not change. Ever. More than 15,000 speakers have been positioned using complex algorithms to ensure that the sound plays within a range of just a couple decibels throughout the entire park. It is quite a technical feat acoustically, electrically, and mathematically."

Read the whole post at

Photo by Joe Penniston used under Creative Commons

Thanks to Boing Boing

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Monday, November 9, 2009

Downtown Kalamazoo

An hour of observations...

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Egg drop

Lots of great designs today!

See more photos on page 4 of my Facebook album.

On the general topic of designing for impact my faculty colleagues recommended this YouTube NASCAR video.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Pockets contents

While the things we carry in our pockets serve many different purposes, they have many common elements.
1. similar sizes
2. common shapes-- lots of rectangles with rounded corners
3. muted colors-- black, dark brown, greys, dark silver
4. durable materials
5. similar weights
6. smooth surfaces
As a result, a wallet looks surprisingly similar to a phone when both are designed to travel in pockets.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Name sign exercise

A few things we learned:

1. Different solutions exist for the same problem
2. Many things affect legibility
- size
- lettering style (or font)
- color
- line thickness
- contrast
- background
3. Color, shapes, and complexity can be intriguing and can draw the eye
4. There can be a trade-off between aesthetics and readability
5. Quality depends on time, effort, and thought

Friday, September 18, 2009

Design Characteristics

In our first class, we developed a short list of characteristics we could use to evaluate a product.

1. materials
2. sturdiness
3. consistency
4. comfort
5. aesthetics/visual appeal
6. cost
7. production (how easy is it to make?)
8. economy of materials
9. purpose
10. portability

If you want you can see a similar list from last year

Monday, September 14, 2009


Welcome Kalamazoo College Class of 2013!

This seminar will look broadly at design and will meet the K College writing requirement for First Year students.

Here's a brief description from the syllabus:
This course will look at the role of design in the world around us. Our emphasis will be on features, feel and function of design. We will consider why some designs work well and others work poorly. We will think about how and why things are designed in particular ways. We will look at design choices from various perspectives.

The broader goal of this class is to develop and refine skills necessary to succeed in college and beyond. We will work on discussion skills, presentation skills, analytic skills, and writing skills.

If you're curious, you can explore various design topics or look at student blogs from previous years by following the links at the right.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Designing Scientific Posters

Colin Purrington of Swarthmore College has a great page of advice for poster session design.

Unlike a manuscript, posters can (and should!) adopt a variety of layouts depending on the form of charts and photographs. As long as you maintain sufficient white space, keep column alignments logical, and provide clear cues to your readers how they should "travel" through your poster elements, you can get creative. Make your poster creative! As an example (illustrated below), perhaps you might want to demote the unimportant sections (that few people read) to the undesirable real estate at the bottom portion of your poster, freeing up the right-hand column area for your stunning Conclusions. This strategy might be especially valuable for portrait-style posters where the bottom part of the paper almost touches the floor.

Read it all at:

Thanks to BoingBoing.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

"Before Creating the Car, Ford Designs the Driver "

From the New York Times an article on Ford's design for users:

Antonella was the guiding personality for the Ford Verve, a design study that served as the basis for the latest-generation Fiesta. A character invented by Ford designers to help them imagine cars better tailored to their intended customers, she embodies a philosophy that guides the company’s design studios these days: to design the car, first design the driver.

Antonella is the personification of a profile created from demographic research about the Fiesta’s target customer, said Moray Callum, executive director of Ford Americas design.

Ford is using characters like Antonella to bring a human element to the dry statistical research drawn from polls and interviews. Based on psychological profiles, these characters are a more modern version of the “theme boards” that designers once covered with snapshots and swatches of material to inspire a design. They are also like avatars, those invented characters used in online games and forums to symbolize a participant’s personality.

“Invented characters get everyone on the same page,” Mr. Callum said. “Personalizing gives context to the information we have. Sometimes the target demographics are difficult to relate to by, say, a 35-year-old male designer.

“We found in the past that if they didn’t understand the buyer, designers would just go off and design something for themselves,” he added.

See the article at:

[Thanks Patrik!]

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Gettysburg Powerpoint Presentation

See Peter Norvig's classic: The Gettysburg Powerpoint Presentation

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.

See also

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Off Target

Target tries to use design to distinguish itself from Wal-Mart and K-Mart, but good design is more than stocking flashy products. It also means figuring out how to deal with customers in an intelligent manner.

Last December I was picking up a few Christmas gifts at Target, including a bottle of wine. At the checkout, the cashier asked for my ID to show proof of age. I sighed and opened my wallet to show her my license. Why the sigh? For those who don't know me, I'm almost 50 years old and my beard has more white than black in it. It's been decades since anyone could possibly mistake me for being under 21. Anyway, she needed to see identification, so I showed it to her.

But that wasn't sufficient. She told me I needed to remove my ID from the holder. I complied & held up my license.

Still no good.

The cashier needed to take my driver's license and scan it through her computer. I did a slow burn and considered abandoning my selections right there. Why the criminalization of a perfectly legal product? Security theater has trickled down from the TSA to your local discount store.

The difference is that there's no alternative to the TSA if you want to fly. Target, on the other hand, isn't the only place to shop. Wal-Mart, Meijer's, World Market and my neighborhood liquor store have all figured out systems to allow their cashiers to sell me a bottle of wine without recording my personal details. So my frequent trips to Target stopped. It wasn't a conscious boycott, but every time I thought about it I got cranky & decided I didn't need to go to Target.

Today was the first time in over 6 months that I shopped at Target (my daughter needed soccer shorts & we were in a hurry) and I guess I'm still cranky.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

10 Questions with Hartmut Esslinger

Open Forum blog posts an interview with Hartmut Esslinger, the founder of frog design.

Question: Why is it that companies with billions of dollars who can hire any designer or design firm in the world put out such crappy products?

Answer: Excellent products require more then just a good designer or a good design agency—they require humanistic and cultural vision, courage and discipline in execution. There are two reasons why crappy products are so common: first, most “companies with billions of dollars” don’t want to charter new ways because they are in a defensive setting in order to defend their existing business—and when the billions and the business are gone, it’s too late for change. Second, big companies normally have neither the people nor the processes to innovate and there are no real rewards for taking the risks and efforts required in the endeavor for excellent products. In my career, SONY under Akio Morita was the only big company which rejected the common addiction to mediocrity and went for world-changing innovations. Now they are stuck as well…


Question: If a young person wants to be a great designer, what should he or she do?

Answer: “Design” isn’t a clear-cut talent profession, but one of coordination and catalyst between human needs, science and technology, business and economy, as well as sociology and ecology. The artistic talent required is more of an enabler at the end of rational and emotional analysis as well as strategic conceptualization.

Therefore, it is vital to learn and study as much as possible especially about business, technology and human nature. In the end, there are flavors in design which are more esthetic—see New York Times “Style Magazine”—but design is only relevant when it improves human lives by appealing both to the mind and the heart.

Finally, a young person with the right talents needs to have infinite desire and never give up. I apply a simple test with young students: smash a teapot into pieces and then hand out the glue. Those who rebuild the teapot won’t make it, those who create phantasy animals and spaceships will.

Read the rest of the 10 questions with Hartmut Esslinger

Thursday, March 26, 2009


Wired magazine (March 2009) illustrates Design under Constraint, with examples including cell phone antennae, plastic bottles, and electric cars.

"But for all that we can't do in this static medium, we find enlightenment and wonder in its possibilities. This is a belief most designers share. In fact, the worst thing a designer can hear is an offhand 'Just do whatever you want.' That's because designers understand the power of limits. Constraint offers an unparalleled opportunity for growth and innovation.
Given fewer resources, you have to make better decisions."

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Return on Design

Seth Godin has an interesting post on Return on Design. His four categories:

Negative return. The local store with the boarded up window, the drooping sign and the peeling paint is watching their business suffer because they have a design that actually hurts them. Software products suffer from this ailment often. If the design actively gets in the way of the story you tell or the utility you deliver, you lose money and share.

No impact. Most design falls into this category. While aesthetically important, design in this case is just a matter of taste, not measurable revenue. You might not like the way the liquor store looks, or the label on that bottle of wine, but it's not having any effect on sales. It's good enough.

Positive return
. We're seeing a dramatic increase in this category. Everything from a bag of potato chips to an online web service can generate incremental sales and better utility as a result of smart design.

The whole thing. There are a few products where smart design is the product (or at least the product's reason for being). If you're not in love with the design of a Porsche 911, you would never consider buying it--same as an OXO peeler. The challenge of building your product around breakthrough design is that the design has to in fact be a breakthrough. And that means spending far more time or money than your competitors who are merely seeking a positive return.

Read the rest of his post

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Designing Smell

A story in today's Wall Street Journal was about a product characteristic I rarely consider: its scent. " 'Your home could look clean, but if there's an absence of scent, you don't really know,' says Scott Beal, a Procter & Gamble brand manager for P&G's Febreze air-care line. 'Scent is a signal you've done something.' "

For decades, lingering whiffs of ammonia and bleach in bathrooms and kitchens signaled a freshly scrubbed home. In the 1970s and 1980s, the scent of pine forests and lemon groves gained acceptance.

Now the smell of clean has become a wildly varied bouquet: mandarin-lime detergent, disinfectant evoking "lavender vanilla and comfort," toilet-bowl cleaner in eucalyptus mint. Bleach can smell like a "fresh meadow." A new deodorizer, which hit store shelves last month, promises a "Moroccan bazaar."

Adding new fragrances to products also lets consumer-products makers employ their favorite phrase: new and improved. Scents are "the lowest-hanging fruit as far as new-product innovation is concerned -- you don't have to change a capability or substantiate a new claim."

Some cleaning-products makers have found they can't let their goods smell too pleasant. Clorox bleach, available in fragrances such as fresh meadow, clean linen and lavender, takes care to keep the original bleach scent faintly detectable. "We tried covering it up, and it didn't work -- consumers still want the bleach smell, just lighter," says Michael Ott, director of research and development for Clorox.

Pine-Sol, also owned by Clorox, avoids fragrances that seem too gentle. Current Pine-Sol fragrances include Wild Flower Blast and Mountain Energy.

"The scent experience needs to be aligned with the message you're trying to communicate -- Pine-Sol needs to scream 'power,'" Mr. Ott says. "You'll never have a rose-petal Pine-Sol; that's almost comical."

from "Is the Smell of Moroccan Bazaar Too Edgy for American Homes?" by Ellen Byron.