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January 21 2014


Realizing Empathy, Part 1: Art

For as long as I can remember, I’d considered art to be the antithesis of design. But after spending four years studying both the visual and performing arts, I’ve come to recognize how prejudiced this point of view was. I’ve realized that by incorporating art into our lives we can not only develop our own empathy but also rethink the ways in which design can impact the lives of others.

My story begins over a decade ago. From 1999 to 2008 I worked at MAYA Design, taking part in commercial human-centered design projects and research into the future of human-computer interaction. The research, in particular, was fascinating, conducted around the idea that we’d soon be surrounded by trillions of computers of all shapes and sizes, that there had to be a conscious effort to consider how people would deal with such a future.

By my seventh year there, though, I started to feel that something was missing. I didn’t know what, so I asked some of my mentors what I should do. One piece of advice stuck out: Leave behind what you have to explore something you don’t know, something that scares you.

Soon thereafter, a chance encounter with an artist suggested to me that the best way to follow my mentors’ advice was to attend a traditional art school. Her argument went:

  • My undergraduate degree was in computer science;
  • I had zero training in art; and
  • I considered art to be useless bullshit.

As surprising as it was, it seemed to make sense. To be sure, however, I decided to take a couple of night classes at a nearby art institute to validate my logic. I took the classes, and, before I knew it, I was applying for art school.

From 2008 to 2012 I immersed myself in the visual and performing arts programs at both the Rhode Island School of Design and Brown University. Most of my time was spent in the wood/metal shop, the rehearsal room, or the dance studio. What I learned from this experience was that realizing empathy is at the core of the creative process. Moreover, as I reflected on this experience through writing, I began to wonder how we, as designers, can go beyond presenting people with products and services that are “usable, useful, and desirable” and towards empowering them with the choice to become artists of their own lives—exploring who they are, who others are, and how we are all interrelated.

In this three-part series, I’d like to dive more deeply into some of the events that led to my epiphany. Part one (the part you’re currently reading) will explore the direct relationship between making art and realizing empathy. Part two will suggest how, in becoming aware of this relationship, we can develop our own ability to empathize and practice it more deliberately throughout our design practice. Part three will invite readers to share and discuss how we, as a community, might shape the future of design through the lens of empathy.

My prejudice

I’ve met quite a few people who say art is self-indulgent, that it’s a product of “ego.” I was one of them, in fact. I argued that design was good and noble whereas art was not. Why? Because designers practiced empathy. In retrospect, however, this was nothing more than a reflection of my own insecurity and a lack of empathy for artists.

My perspective started to shift during my very first foray into art, in a class called “Drawing From Observation.” There we were asked to draw a nude model. Given my lack of training, what I drew—understandably—looked like crap. Hoping the instructor would teach me how I could do better, I raised my hand and asked the teacher for help. After taking one look at my drawing, though, she told me that the problem was not my technique but that I was not drawing what I was seeing.

Hm? Who the hell was she kidding?! Of course I was drawing what I was seeing! When I protested as to the absurdity of her comment, she simply told me that that was all she was going to tell me. Needless to say, I was frustrated. My drawing looked like crap and, what’s more, my teacher refused to teach me how to draw. What a horrible teacher, I thought. This kept on for several classes. Though I wasn’t going to give up, I was unable to shake the feeling that I had, in fact, missed something.

Then, toward the end of the semester, I had an epiphany: it occurred to me that I’d been trying to fit the form of the nude model into a set of preconceived shapes I had constructed in my head. In other words, I was trying to draw what I thought an “arm” or a “leg” should look like. I was not drawing what I was seeing! More precisely, I wasn’t even seeing the model so much as glancing at him in order to make snap judgements.

This epiphany was just the beginning. Once I realized this, I decided to create a new way of drawing. I let go of my desire to draw familiar shapes and instead made marks of varying darkness all over the canvas. Maybe it was my interest in physics, but I thought: perhaps my perception of “light,” as opposed to shape, will provide a more pure way of seeing.

This felt weird; as if I didn’t know what I was doing. The human figure didn’t show up immediately, but after a while it did:

The first drawing I had ever done that remotely resembled what was actually in front of me.

This isn’t to say that my new way of drawing was the “right” one or that my old one was “wrong;” there are certainly many different ways of drawing. It is to say, though, that when I became aware of my own biases and assumptions, and made a conscious, deliberate effort to choose to see and experience the nude model in a different way, I was then able to create and develop a personally new method of expressing. The method was foreign and strange and, yet, somehow, very natural. It was obvious in hindsight.

To be extra clear, this wasn’t so much a change in method as a change in attitude from which the method arose. When the attitude with which I “saw” the nude model shifted, I began to feel that I was no longer just seeing the “object” of my drawing, but rather that I was embodying his form through the arm I used to draw. That the boundary between myself and the model had blurred. There is a saying in Korean that goes “호흡을 맞추다.” Literally translated, it means to “match each other’s breathing;” figuratively, to “collaborate as one.” That is exactly how the act of drawing started to feel. And it was this ability—to connect with, experience, and see the model in a different way—that fundamentally affected my ability to draw.

Rethinking empathy

If it’s not readily obvious what the connection is between how I came to learn to draw and how we come to realize empathy with people, the following video may help:

When we hear the word empathy, we often make one of several assumptions: that it’s “just” a feeling; that it’s about our relationship to other human beings; or that it’s something that happens to us, passively, like falling in love at first sight. All of these are incomplete.

First, it’s important to distinguish between the words “empathy” and “empathizing.” I use the word empathy not to refer to a feeling, but to the relational potential we have to empathize. (I say “relational” because this potential can vary from relationship to relationship, from moment to moment.) I use the word empathizing, on the other hand, to refer to a period of time in which we feel as though we are embodying or understanding the context of an “other.” (This moment or duration is usually marked by a sense of connection/oneness.)

Empathy as the potential we have to go from point A to B.
Empathizing as a subjective experience made possible by empathy.

Second, empathizing is not “just” feeling. We live in a time where we’re told that there is a clear separation between emotion and reason, body and mind, thought and feeling. While separating these can be useful from a conceptual standpoint (i.e. when treating trauma patients to rewire how they feel in association to how they think), the latest advancements in the embodied mind theory, by the likes of Francisco Varela, Humberto Maturana, Antonio Damasio, and George Lakoff, suggest that these kinds of distinctions are nothing more than false dichotomies. My research suggests that it is far more accurate to talk about empathizing as a form of embodiment.

Embodiment includes sensing, knowing, thinking, and understanding in addition to feeling. It is an integrated mind and body experience. And because empathizing connotes embodiment, it’s subjective; it varies from person to person, from moment to moment, from context to context. It has less to do with what the actual biological or neurological make up of what the “other” is but, instead, is comprised of our perception of that “other.” (This is why many of us can empathize with characters in novels. Some of us can even empathize with plants and/or animals. In fact, excellent low-level programmers will go so far as to empathize with computers, although the term more popularly used in that context is “grokking.”) This means that the quality of understanding that arises from realizing empathy is never perfect (to achieve this would require some objective method of verification, an impossibility for subjective experience).

Third, we often think of empathizing with other human beings as a “natural” process, but it actually depends upon a number of requirements: empathizing with other human beings is only possible if they are sufficiently expressive in their use of language (written, verbal, non-verbal including facial expressions, or gestures), for example. Further, even if the other does a fantastic job of expressing themselves, that expression is no good if I lack the requisite attitude, knowledge, sensitivity, or experience to derive meaning from those expressions. Finally, my ability to realize empathy may be lost if I am simply too stimulated in the moment or lack the peace of mind to derive meaning from my perception.

Realizing empathy is the deliberate process of going from point A to B.

Fourth, while empathy can be realized passively and involuntarily, we can also realize it deliberately. This is precisely how I learned to draw. My ability to draw was not a product of self-indulgence; it was a product of realizing empathy. If self-indulgence was ever involved, it was precisely that which prevented me from learning. The same was true of my relationship to my friend mentioned in the video above. The same is true of conducting user research. Learning, observing, interviewing, and drawing are all different forms of realizing empathy.


In closing, I’d like to ask you, dear reader, to take some time to think about the connection between the process of me learning to draw and me coming to empathize with my friend. I hope this article gives you enough of a starting point to spark a dialogue in the comments, below.

In the next article I will describe a more explicit analogy between the creative process and the process of realizing empathy, opening up a deeper dialogue around the process of Design.

The post Realizing Empathy, Part 1: Art appeared first on UX Booth.

November 19 2013


Fail Fast, Fail Often: An Interview with Victor Lombardi

Retrospectives are common. You’ve likely conducted one before. But how many companies are actually good at them? How many companies actually have the courage to be open and honest about their own shortcomings? My experience tells me that very few are. And that’s why Victor Lombardi’s recently released book, is so necessary: unlike the ones designers are used to seeing, Lombardi’s stories are full of objective, thoughtful, and insightful commentary.

An award-winning product designer, Victor Lombardi’s had a hand in over 40 different software and internet projects throughout the course of his career. And during that time he’s clearly paid attention to one thing: namely, all of the different ways in which a project can unfold. His new book, Why We Fail, tells over a dozen stories of projects gone awry.

So why do design projects fail? Many reasons. Lombardi attempts to answer the question from a number of angles: product ideation, design, development, and marketing. After reading his book, we brought additional questions to the discussion: How does bias factor in? Or branding? And, on a different level, what can we learn from

Our full interview appears, below. Additionally (as is always the case when we interview an author published by Rosenfeld Media) the publisher has graciously offered to give away a few books to readers. More information on that follows the interview!

Hey, Victor! Thanks for taking the time to chat. Throughout the book, you note a wide variety of places in which cognitive biases might affect an organization (“survivorship bias,” for example, is a perspective that exclusively favors success). Were you aware of bias and its effects from the outset or did you simply start to see bias the further you delved into your research?
I wasn’t expecting to hear about bias when I interviewed people for the book. Maybe that’s because I didn’t think people would open up this way. But they did.

I think it’s good therapy for us to talk through not only what we did during a project but also what we thought and felt. From there I brushed up on my psychology—Max Bazerman’s “Blind Spots” was particularly helpful—to explain the cognitive science behind the issues that led to failures.

Many companies find it (understandably) difficult to financially justify a culture that “embraces” failure. What advice do you have for them?
If senior management rules by ego, believing that the people at the top have the best ideas, then I’ve got nothing to say. They won’t hear my message.

For others, I think the overt message of “fail fast” is actually better framed as “experiment fast.” The most effective innovators succeed through experimentation. They’ve updated the traditional R&D department by stepping out of the lab and interacting directly with customers, running thoughtful experiments, and executing them quickly to learn quickly what works and what doesn’t.

Anyone doing user-centered design is already 80% of the way there. It makes a huge difference just to shift your process towards the scientific method, phrasing research questions as hypotheses and iteratively testing towards them. A key difference is in the results: instead of a lot of usability data to analyze and interpret, you get a true or false result. This makes it much easier to decide what to do next.

I recommend reading up on methods like customer development, lean startup, or by starting with the final chapter of my book.

In chapter four you recount the story of Wesabe and Mint, two startups who approached the financial space from slightly different perspectives. Wesabe suggested that users manually upload their financial data (in the name of privacy and security) whereas automated this task (at the risk of perceived security). Both were minimum viable products, but one failed while the other succeeded. Can you speak a little as to what startups can learn, generally, from Wesabe and’s subtle differentiation?
Wesabe was a useful service with a smart Web 2.0 strategy. Given more time and investment it would still be around. But certain classes of startups are dependent on attracting large numbers of customers in order to attract more investment. chose features and designed them in a way that excelled at attracting customers. They won the competition even though Wesabe was superior in many ways.

But this isn’t true in every case. In the book I cover a broad spectrum of products: startups and mature products; mobile, web, and desktop software; hardware; and services. Different situations resulted in different lessons. I summarize the lessons at the end of each case study.

One of my favorite case studies in the book is Google Wave, in which you suggest that the first sign of trouble was that everyone had a different definition of what a “wave” actually was. Personally, I think this speaks to the strong connection between user experience, semantics and branding. How do we fail in this regard and how might we do better?
The UX field generally is not good at the conceptual design stage of creating new products compared to, say, industrial design or architecture. We fall in love with our first idea, and we can quickly and cheaply move from idea to working prototype—it isn’t natural to stay in the idea stage for a while to explore alternate solutions.

It’s unfortunate that Google Wave failed because the problem still exists. The solution was close. …maybe “Concept Design” should be my next book ;-)

Chapter 7, titled “Do the right thing,” tells the story of Plaxo and, two companies who each decided to employ dark patterns to “better” their business. What other kinds of stories/examples did you consider including in this chapter that exhibited bad behavior?
In cases like I had no doubt the behavior was unethical. Others were less clear cut. Some of the things Plaxo did [ed: such as mass emailing its members’ contacts] that annoyed us back then are now accepted practice. So it’s relative. I decided against including others because there was no smoking gun, so I’ll refrain from mentioning them here as well. If you really want to know, you’ll have to buy me a drink sometime.
Last question! I know it’s a bit premature, but what, if anything, do you think designers might learn from the (highly publicized) failure of
Let’s say we solved for the myriad of political and vendor integration problems that plagued the project. What’s left are some intriguing customer experience issues. One seems to be that a long registration process is required before the customer can view prices of health plans, because the plans and prices are determined by your registration information. I don’t know how they ended up with that design, but the decision to design it this way sounds like a policy decision made around a conference table rather than through a design process that included running experiments.

What you can do if you find yourself in this situation is to acknowledge, out loud, that the goal of not showing prices prematurely is a good one, but the solution of making the customer do a lot of work up front is risky because more people will abandon the process before receiving any value from the site (see Wesabe vs. Mint). To mitigate this risk, you can generate alternate designs, mock them up, and test them out with customers.

Offhand, I can think of a few options:

  • Let visitors browse plans upon arrival and show the range of prices next to each plan to give people a general idea of cost. Then show them the actual prices after registration.
  • Show some realistic content so visitors know what factors will influence the price, like “Sally, a single mother of two in New York will pay $100/month for Plan X which includes benefits A, B, and C.”
  • If just a bit of data is needed to determine price, like state and income, just ask for that data, and require registration later when people are ready to buy a plan.

Thanks, again, for taking the time, Victor! Your book was a pleasure to read.

If you’re as jazzed about learning from failure as we are, I’d strongly suggest entering for a chance to win a copy of your own, courtesy of our friends over at Rosenfeld Media. To enter, simply follow UX Booth on twitter and leave a comment on this post answering the question: What’s your favorite story of design failure (one you’ve witnessed firsthand or otherwise) and what lessons to you think it provides? Rather than pick the winners at random, as we usually do, we’ll work with Victor to pick the three best stories of failure. Their authors will receive copies of the book. Entries must be made by Midnight, PST of November 21st. Good luck!

The post Fail Fast, Fail Often: An Interview with Victor Lombardi appeared first on UX Booth.

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October 03 2013


Digital Literacy, Part 1: Cadence

What does it mean to be literate in a digital age? While our conventional definition implies reading and writing, that definition also pays no mind to new media’s inherent malleability. It’s only by scrutinizing the ends to which our digital creations are used that we’ll come to better understand our ability to effect change via those creations.

It’s has been called a publishing platform and a conversation medium, but it’s also been used as a collaborative encyclopedia, a code playground and a canvas for art. Is there anything the web can’t do? (and should there be?)

After all, analog media was relatively simple by comparison. Everything we needed to know in order to think critically about the written word came down to reading and writing. But the web is different. Not only does it allow us to create new ideas along existing channels – we can post on Facebook and/or Twitter, for example – it also allows us to create new channels altogether, such as Tumblr and Medium. So what does this mean for our conventional definition of literacy?

Media theorist Clay Shirky offers a clue. In his foreword to the the book Mediactive, Shirky provides a media-agnostic definition, suggesting that “Literacy, in any medium, means not just knowing how to read that medium, but also how to create in it, and to understand the difference between good and bad uses.” And this definition, in particular, resonated with me (indeed, I might go so far as to say it should resonate with all user-centered designers who seek to understand what it means to create a “good,” useful web), inspiring an investigation to something I’ve currently termed digital- or “web design literacy.”

In the following three-part series I’d like to share digital litearcy as I’ve come to understand it. In the first part (the one you’re currently reading) I’ll recount a story highlighting some of the web’s more esoteric aspects, the elements that make it similar to – but altogether different from – print. In the second, I’ll briefly discuss the prominent double-diamond model of design thinking and explore how “design posture” might affect our ability to navigate that model. In the third, I’ll point to nascent trends in our profession, ways in which both investigative journalism and teaching might pertain to work that we do.

A design villain

In May of 2009, an interaction designer named Dustin Curtis published an open letter on his personal website entitled “Dear American Airlines” suggesting that the company take a look at his vision of what their future home page might look like:

The difference was profound. Instead of providing users with a cramped, uninspiring sea of text, Dustin placed the booking process – arguably the most important interaction on the page – front-and-center. He even included a photo of island getaway. Few people could argue that he isn’t onto something, so that’s precisely when Dustin decided to turn up the heat, asking American Airlines to “fire [their] entire design team,” who, he added, “is obviously incapable of building a good experience.” He concluded by suggesting that American Airlines “get outside help.”

As those watching the saga unfold later learned – in a response from a designer working at American Airlines named “Mr. X ” – what prohibited American from redesigning its website wasn’t a lack of desire or its in-house talent. No, it was their corporate culture. As Mr. X explained it, the public probably wouldn’t see the fruits of his group’s labor for at least another year simply due to the degree to which teams at American depended upon one another (i.e. bureaucracy). This meant that the company actually had two problems: not only did it have a poorly designed homepage, it also had a poorly designed organization that made it difficult to affect change.

In his most recent book, The Connected Company, management consultant Dave Gray tackles this
problem head on, suggesting that organizations of the future adopt a “podular” structure (not pictured above) to allow for more dynamic problem solving. Illustration copyright © Dave Gray. Used with permission.

In many ways the state of affairs at American Airlines probably came as no surprise to Dustin – or anyone else for that matter. Of course they had a poorly designed organizational structure; why else would their homepage have fallen into such disarray? That’s a fair question and, in fact, it’s probably what led Dustin to publish his open letter. A more prudent question, however (one that apparently nobody thought to ask), is: what should American Airlines have done? Clearly they couldn’t just fire their entire design team, as Dustin suggested. How should they have gone from where they were to where they need to be?

The answer is complex. Readers likely have an idea as to where we might start (stakeholder interviews, anyone?), but none of us could possibly devise “a set of steps to take the company from bad to good” without knowing the way in which American Airlines operates on a day-to-day basis. To begin, we’d ask a whole bunch of questions.

It’s the question that drives us

To better understand how a designer might begin to solve the organizational problems plaguing American Airlines, it’s worth taking a step back and more thoroughly considering the role that Dustin played with regards to American Airlines vis-à-vis the publication of his open letter. There are many ways in which Dustin could have expressed his opinion, after all: he could have called customer support; he could have sent an angry letter (you know, in the mail); he even could have written a Yelp review (customers occasionally comment on websites as part of their business reviews). But Dustin didn’t do any of these things. Instead, he published an open letter, subjecting his inquiry to the web’s seldom-discussed-but-nonetheless-profound political affordances.

A “political affordance” is simply an amalgamation of concepts originating from the fields of social science (politics) and psychology (affordances). Whereas a perceived affordance allows an actor – a person, say – to determine the potential utility of his/her implements by way of what he or she perceives (e.g. the shape of a hammer’s head affords hitting, its handle affords holding, etc.), a political affordance describes someone’s ability to assemble and direct a public – to “call an audience into being” – by way of his/her media.

Political affordances have a profound impact on the way in which we create and consume information. By contradistinction, consider a web designer who places a redesigned version of American Airlines in their online portfolio in hopes that the finesse it demonstrates will garner them future employment. This happens all the time. But while both our hypothetical designer and our actual designer, Dustin, have each presented “alternate realities,” the web’s political affordances greatly magnify the ramifications of the ways in which these designers have chosen to express their respective sentiments. Our hypothetical designer’s message is likely considered “friendly” regardless of its reach. Dustin’s open letter, on the other hand, is almost certainly seen as adversarial precisely because of its reach. Not only does Dustin’s letter call an organization into question, it does so in a way that incites others to feel the same.

Distinguishing between these two modes of presentation might seem superfluous – and, indeed, it would be of less consequence – if it weren’t for the sheer fact that questions lie at the heart of what we do: designers ask questions in order to better understand the boundary between form and function; designers ask questions in order to understand what users want; and designers ask (rhetorical) questions when they present wireframes, prototypes, etc. to their team. (None of these actions is explicitly “at odds” with a system, though. Quite the opposite, in fact; designers generally question things in order to attain a shared understanding.)

In his 2009 TED Talk – incidentally given the same year as Dustin published his
open letter – psychologist and author Barry Schwartz “makes a passionate call for “practical wisdom’ as an antidote to a society gone mad with bureaucracy.” This is a challenge that creative consultants frequently face.

The difference today is that the internet forces us to more thoroughly consider the timbre of conversations we facilitate. When criticism happens in private, organizations and individuals are more likely to be open-minded and develop a sense of wisdom. When criticism happens in public, however, organizations run the risk of appearing non-empathic. Many remain silent.

Ultimately, the preceding line of inquiry raises two, related lines questions pertaining to our design process:

  • What makes a question, itself, “appropriate” or “innocent?”
  • What makes a question, itself, “inappropriate” or “threatening?”

In the interest of expediency, the difference – as far as I can tell – is tact. Tact differentiates our ability to get what we want – be that potential work in the case of a student, or a redesigned organization in the case of Dustin Curtis – and our ability to squander an opportunity. Developing an intuition with regards to tact allows us to prudently plan for change over time. In this way, there’s a certain design to Design: Asking deliberate questions in a deliberate order yields a deliberate result.

Grammatically incorrect

Finally we come to the issue of cadence, or the ebb and flow of ideas.

As with political affordances, cadence behaves drastically different across the digital and analog worlds. Online, the web affords both linear and non-linear narratives. In other words, a designer can either architect a system such that a user sees a predetermined set, or “script,” of screens – a checkout path, for example – or she can make it such that a user can navigate those screens in any order that user chooses. The choice is up to the designer. Offline, things are different. Because “real life” requires that we experience events in a linear order – reading an article (as you’re doing right now) or pitching, selling, and actually producing a design project – Design requires a certain kind of sensitivity to the way in which information is paced.

And, as it turns out, this is precisely the function of grammar. What’s more interesting than the Design-grammar analogy, though, is observing the shift that grammar has made as it’s left the the world of traditional media and entered the realm of interactive media. Consider:

  • One of the most fundamental books in the history of grammar is William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White’s pocket guide to writing called The Elements of Style. Named as one of the “100 most influential books written in English since 1923” by Time magazine, it condenses nearly everything an American-English author needs to know to pace their ideas (outside of words themselves) to a mere 100 pages.
  • Following suit, typographer and poet Robert Bringhurt’s “The Elements of Typographic Style” serves as kind of typographer’s book of grammar. It, too, provides everything a typographer needs to know in order to effectively use type, basic grids, etc. in service of an aesthetic.
  • Finally, comic-book theorist Scott McCloud’s comic book about comics – called “Understanding Comics” – discusses various methods of visual communication. It comprises a kind-of-sort-of “comic-book grammar.”

Star Wars director George Lucas suggests that all forms of art share the same goal: communication. He believes that contemporary educational system should reflect this notion.

By now the pattern is clear: grammar allows (graphic) designers to better determine the way information is paced in traditional media. Now for the shift. Digital grammars appear much less didactic and much more philosophical. Consider:

  • In 2007 computer scientist Bill Buxton authored “Sketching User Experiences,” in which he described the various ways in which designers might affect change over time. Buxton’s allusion to sketching suggests that the product design (UX design) process might more closely resemble a game of pictionary than a traditional publishing process.
  • In 2008, new-media theorist Clay Shirky released his book “Here Comes Everybody” explaining the potential ramifications of a post-Internet society. While extremely well received, the book also raised a number of important, difficult questions surrounding the internet and collective action (many of them dealing with political affordances).

Again I believe the pattern is clear: whereas the grammars defining traditional media (punctuation, typographic convention, grids, and visual language) helped creators better define the cadence of ideas, the grammar defining digital media is potentially much more complex. Designer Paul Boag’s recent post about the nature of the web sums this up well.

Increasingly you are not having to visit a website in order to find certain types of information. For example, if I want to know local cinema times I can simply ask Siri and she will return just the listings required without ever visiting a website. Equally, if I want to know who the CEO of Yahoo is, Google will tell me this in its search results without the need to visit a specific website.

What does a lack of digital grammar mean for designers, those of us who want to provide the best content for our end users?

The journey thus far

This article’s covered a lot of ground. We began with a question relating the analog concept of literacy to its digital equivalent, asking what does it mean to create and consume the web, to understand its good and bad uses? In search for an answer, we first heard the story of Dustin Curtis’s open letter to American Airlines. In light of that, we discussed the internet’s political affordances and the way those affordances galvanized Dustin’s role in relation to American Airlines. This led us to consider the design of the Design process itself. Finally, we discussed cadence, the way in which grammar affords our ability to control the flow of ideas.

In part two of this series we’ll take an even further step back, using the double-diamond model of design thinking to contextualize our work and the concept of design posture to explain how we navigate that model. Stay tuned!

The post Digital Literacy, Part 1: Cadence appeared first on UX Booth.

August 27 2013


Reimagining the 21st-century classroom

Education in America faces tough challenges. Innovative solutions to these challenges can be found when teachers and students apply service design to the classroom, solving short-term problems while also giving students long-term skills.

The 21st-century, American classroom faces major challenges. The threat of the privatization of schools1), the lack of funding, and the erosion of traditional societal institutions, has forced schools to take on the roles of “priests, psychologists, therapists, political reformers, social workers, sex advisers, or parents.”2 Now more than ever, schools are expected to not only teach children subject matter, but to teach life skills as well.

This, in turn, fundamentally changes the teacher’s role in the classroom. Further, legal mandates for test-based performance evaluation have not only trickled down to the teacher’s workload, but threatened their very job. After all, if a computer can teach individualized math better than a teacher and students get higher test scores, why are teachers needed?3 This threat is most acutely manifest by the proliferation of online courses. Michael Sandel of San Jose State University recently foreshadowed the future of higher education in an open letter to fellow professors stating, “Let us not kid ourselves…administrators at C.S.U. are beginning a process of replacing faculty with cheap online education.”4 For teachers at all levels, overcoming internal and external pressures and continuing to provide fundamental value requires an innovative re-envisioning of the classroom and making it a shared experience, one that cannot be replicated by an automaton.

Teachers must overcome the digital-age metaphor of learning, one which compares the human to a computer, putting knowledge into memory, emphasizing logic and measurable outcomes. Teachers must define their role not as data providers, but service providers. The two-fold purpose of education is to teach students to think critically about their world and, ultimately, to teach them to become good citizens. The Service Design techniques and tools – building empathy, customer journey maps, and prototyping – which originally arose to help businesses ideate on tough, multi-faceted problems, should now be used in the classroom to help teachers re-imagine and co-create the student experience.

Class in empathy

Before starting any service design project, designers work to understand the primary actors in their system – indeed, this is a foundational premise for any human-centered design endeavor.

Despite this, teacher‘s often overlook the classroom‘s primary actors, the students. After all, most teachers reason, “I was once a student myself. How could my students experience differ from our own? Neil Postman, the educational scholar and cultural critic, points out the fallacy in this logic:

Most teachers…teach subjects they were good at in school. They found the subject both easy and pleasurable. As a result, they are not likely to understand how the subject appears to those who are not good at it, or don’t care about it, or both.

Teachers, while well-intentioned, may have trouble empathizing with students struggling to understand the curricula or how it relates to them. As a practice in empathy, Postman goes so far as to suggest that teachers teach a subject they are bad at for a year as a way to gain understanding of how many students might feel in their classroom.

From a service-design perspective, teachers can bring more empathy into the classroom by giving students a voice. What do students like to do? What do students want to learn? A simple interview or class discussion can prove quite enlightening. Even switching roles where the student teaches for a day would prove to be enlightening of the other’s experience for both student and teacher.

The student journey

For further insight, students and teacher could employ another service design tool known as the Customer Journey Map. Customer Journey Maps trace the main actors in a system as they interact with its various touchpoints. This, in turn, helps designers discover opportunity areas that might benefit from creative problem solving.

As a classroom activity, a teacher can guide students in groups through making their own “student” journey map of several different time periods: the student’s experience in the teacher’s class, the school day, the student’s year, or even the student‘s entire school career. Doing so provides the teacher with deep insights about what students do outside of his or her classroom. If History class comes after an English class, for example, there might be an opportunity for cross-disciplinary learning cross-class relevant topics might emerge. Understanding the context of the class and getting insights from other classrooms can lead teachers to discover techniques students enjoy in other classrooms and use them in their own. Teachers may even get tough critique and suggestions on how to improve their own classroom from the stakeholders that really matter, the students.

A student journey map exercise also carries the potential to provide deep insight into a student’s life outside of the school environment: what other challenges do students face that might affect their academic performance? By identifying pain points, students and teachers can collaboratively brainstorm possible solutions, creating the ideal journey map to understand how students might better enjoy their school experience. This exercise places both student and teacher in a design mindset understanding that the classroom setting does not have to remain in the status quo. Furthermore, even if student ideas are not implemented, students will be left with the notion that their voice was important, was heard, and did contribute to the structure of their classroom experience.

Life imitates life

Once the teacher and students have created a new classroom model, they should try it out to see if it works. If it’s a success, great. If it’s a failure, even better. As John Dewey, the great 20th-century philosopher and educational theorist wrote, “Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes.” Furthermore, this trial-and-error mentality cultivates one of the principle purposes of education, critical thinking.

Postman, again, writes:

When we incorporate the lives of our ancestors in our education, we discover that some of them were great error-makers, some great error-correctors, some both. And in discovering this, we accomplish three things. First, we help students to see that knowledge is a stage in human development, with a past and a future. Second…we acquaint students with the people and ideas that comprise “cultural literacy” – that is to say, give them some understanding of where their ideas come from and how we came by them. And third, we show them that error is no disgrace, that it is the agency through which we increase understanding.5

Teachers should encourage the prototyping of an idea and create an environment that allows for failure. This should permeate not only into the ideas and environment that students and their teachers co-create, but also into the students’ ability to jump into new learning feeling comfortable with the possibility of failure.

When students and teachers use service design tools to re-imagine their classrooms they fulfill the key purposes of education: thinking critically and being a productive member of society. Through collaboration and group decision making, students learn what it takes to organize and empathize. This makes them better citizens. By being part of their own classroom’s design, students understand that they have an important voice that can lead to change, skills applicable well beyond the classroom.

Designers think critically, and students and teachers must, too. By using Service Design techniques, teachers learn to better understand their students and their changing role in the 21st-century classroom. Instead of the “authoritarian ruler” in charge of imparting a narrow set of knowledge, the teacher becomes a choreographer, setting up the environment to teach and take into account the whole student. Through the Service Design process, both student and teacher realize that the classroom is a prototype that might sometimes fail but never fails to produce some kind of learning.

Excited about the intersection of service design and the classroom? Curious about how to further apply Service Design in Education? Check out these resources and examples:

Note: Service Design Tools are referenced from


  1. “Secondly, we have seen an increased role for national nonprofit and for-profit organizations in providing educational services, and in acting as self-interested players in school politics.” John Thompson, “Seismic Shifts in Education Policy”
  2. Neil Postman, The End of Education, 143.
  3. Motoko Rich, “Study Gauges Value of Technology in Schools.”
  4. Let us not kid ourselves,” the letter said, “administrators at C.S.U. are beginning a process of replacing faculty with cheap online education.”
  5. Neil Postman, The End of Education, 125.

The post Reimagining the 21st-century classroom appeared first on UX Booth.

July 29 2013


Color Psychology of Logo Design

Anything related to color and psychology tends to fascinate me. Why do certain colors have certain meanings? Why do certain companies choose certain colors to represent their brand? I recently found an infographic that delves into the psychology of why companies choose colors for certain elements of their brand, like their logos. Do you believe white is a representation of peace, that yellow signifies curiosity, or that pink defines innocence? Check out the infographic to learn more about the meanings of certain colors, and why brands use them in their logos.
Are you a big fan of color and want to make a cool infographic to send a message or explain your ideas about color? Create an amazing infographic with these items from Creative Market:

Tags: Philosophy

May 07 2013


Intention vs. Interpretation: What Matters?

Both interaction designers and information architects want to design objects with a singular meaning. It’s a noble, albeit impossible goal. The best we can hope for is to create more consistently meaningful experiences. To do that, designers must better understand the interplay between designer intention and user interpretation: the ways that we can influence – but not dictate – user interpretation.

Consider the design of a voice-based interface. Because users can say what they mean in any number of ways, there are many situations for which designers cannot account – especially in the first iteration. Designers proactively create a set of interactions that users might accomplish, but the diversity of “common” speech patterns prevents a more prescriptive, task-oriented solution.

Clearly those designing voice-based interfaces intend for users to accomplish something. So how might designers shape their interpretation? To better answer the question, let’s examine some problems encountered defining “design” and then borrow some thinking from literary studies. Finally, we’ll explore how these considerations affect the everyday work of information architects and interaction designers.


The word “design” is problematic. Colloquially, we tend to think of design as the purposeful creation of some thing – a physical object, an experience, or even a conceptual argument – whereas etymologically, we can trace “design” back to Latin. There, it connotes purpose, choice, and designation.

If we push the etymological boundaries a little, we might think of it as the deification of an object (de-), or the association with god-like qualities. The designer is an intelligent creator that crafts things according to his/her intention. A final perspective points to the designer as someone who sets meaning elsewhere. Intention is so powerful here that the designer does not even consider variation in interpretation; the designer’s intention is the final meaning.

The problem with all four of these interpretations is that they are incongruous with the principles of user-centered design. User-centered design holds that user experience – to say nothing of designer intent – is the most important element of a design system.


In order to reconcile the disparity between intent and interpretation, it’s useful to borrow from literary critics, those with a long history of interpreting things (albeit from a textual perspective).

In 1946, critics W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley published a paper called The Intentional Fallacy arguing that “[the] intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art.” Instead, they believed that the only reasonable factors that could serve as the basis of critique were direct-textual material (e.g., the work itself), indirect-textual material (e.g., inferences), and contextual material (e.g., history). In other words: a literary text should be judged on its content, its merit, and history’s perception – not intent!

Contemporary HCI researcher Clarisse Sieckenius de Souza stands on the other side of the fence. Working within the realm of semiotic engineering, she sees a direct relationship between a designer and user, one facilitated by a “designer deputy.” To de Souza, a designer communicates intent through an interface. The user then interprets that interface to accomplish certain goals. It’s a one-way conversation.

Although their opinions diverge, both Wimsatt/Beardsley and de Souza’s are both “correct.” How can that be? The former – a critic’s perspective – concerns works of art, whereas the latter – a researcher’s perspective – deals with objects of utility.


For better or for worse, web design provides avenues for both art and utility. There are certainly elements of a bank’s website that are more artistic than utilitarian, for example. And, as such, we need to recognize that the interplay between designer intent and user interpretation is a spectrum rather than a dichotomy.

Don Ihde, a philosopher of science and technology, ruminates on this in his essay The Designer Fallacy and Technological Imagination (2008):

[T]he designer fallacy is ‘deistic’ in its 18th century sense, that the designer-god, working with plastic material, creates a machine or artifact which seems ‘intelligent’ by design – and performs in its designed way. Instead, I hold, the design process operates in very different ways, ways which imply a much more complex set of inter-relations between any designer, the materials which make the technology possible, and the uses to which technologies may be put. Ultimately I am after a deconstruction of the individualistic notion of design which permeates both the literary and technological versions of the fallacy.

Ihde goes on to suggest that the most interesting use cases are the unanticipated ones. Designing a utilitarian system demands a level of intentionality, a very narrow definition of success. Art objects, however, have a more ambiguous aim. They’re designed such that emergent properties create results, which in turn creates more emergent properties, more results, and so on.

As designers, we must accept that intention, at the very least, cannot be the central focus of a successful design output. Any object is always more than merely an object. Context gives it meaning. While our intention may affect the “in the moment” relationship to an object, later examination leaves much more room for emergent meaning creation.


Because meaning created through emergent systems has the potential to regenerate itself ad infinitum, those of us designing experiences must exhibit care for how intentionality effects that meaning thusly created. I emphasize care, here, in a manner close to the way Heidegger might – as for him, concern is not the same as keeping in mind, but rather entails a specific way of being. Interface designers must concern themselves with both intention and interpretation.

Designers create systems of meaning. Artifacts are only physical manifestations of our intent. Once users put those manifestations to use, though, our original intent is no longer relevant. Associated meaning is now part of peripheral thinking about these objects.

Insofar as the designer can influence the creation of meaning after the initial interaction, we must think of the design object not as the end of our process but rather, in a strange sense, only the beginning. No interface – no object whatsoever – is valuable in-and-of itself. Value is derived from user interpretation before, during, and after the interaction.


As the complexity of technological systems continues to grow, designers need to consider novel, long-form approaches to their design problems. Considering both intention and interpretation throughout the design process provides clients a more well-rounded approach, one that blends theory-based hypotheses with practical validation (or invalidation).

To that end, we might consider the following questions:


Giving more consideration to our intentions as designers puts us in a better position to create their manifestations.

  1. What are we assuming?

    Intention is shaped by the assumptions we make. Being aware of these – and working to validate (or invalidate) them – helps ensure that our intentions as a designer do not conflict with those of our users.

  2. What’re our design principles?

    Design principles frame a team’s approach. Enumerating goals, listing requirements, and brainstorming user stories are all statements of intent. Clarifying these helps us focus on defining aspects of the solution rather than better framing the problem.

  3. What does our work affect?

    Even when creating something relatively simple, like a landing page or the information architecture for a small website, the things we design have an impacts far beyond their initial experience. Think in terms of systems. How is the element we’re designing affecting all the other elements in the system?

  4. What else effects our user’s perceptions?

    No design solution is an island. As user-centered design (and the emergence of an experience-driven economy) has successfully proven, solutions conceived without consideration of context rarely succeed.

    Context, especially the boundaries between them, heavily influences interpretation. Knowledge of context helps mediate the ambiguity that different environments create.


The next step – often overlooked – is to examine how users interpret those manifestations; to consider the direct, indirect, and contextual interpretations of our work.

  1. What is the direct textual material we’re designing?

    These are the “content” comprising our interfaces: physical objects, screens, images, buttons, text, audio clues, etc. Look at the actions they afford. Do they match our design intentions?

  2. What is the indirect textual material?

    How do users interpret our objects? What inferences are they making? Are they interpreting the artifacts in the same way as we are? Alternate, unintended interpretations are not necessarily a bad thing; they can often lead to new opportunities and angles.

  3. What are the contexts in which this product is used?

    How are contexts different? What are the effects of these differences? Think about your design object not as a static thing but rather a piece of a larger system of meaning, one that is constantly in flux. Objects are interpreted in vastly different ways according to the contextual spaces in which they exist. Contextually-aware design works to understand the differences between situations—cognitive, geographical, emotional, informational, etc.—and create products that fit within these differences. A thorough understanding of intention and interpretation is necessary to achieve this end.

But what does it all mean?

The systems we design are becoming increasingly complex. As technology continues to afford new behaviors and incorporate new sets of data, designers have a multitude of potential solutions at hand. Advances – such as context-aware systems, natural user interfaces, and pervasive computing – will change user- as well as designer-behavior. With new intentions and many-more interpretations to consider, designers have a responsibility to re-examine this critical divide.

The post Intention vs. Interpretation: What Matters? appeared first on UX Booth.

January 26 2012


December 09 2011


September 20 2011


Design for Transcendence

Transcendent design takes us above and beyond the initial experience.


Transcendence is simply a word. We have a shared understanding of it, but the context that resonates with me is when design goes beyond ordinary limits to ultimately impact our behavior on a mass scale.

What design has to do with transcendence might strike most people in our community as either pure hyperbole or just the crazy ramblings of a UX designer waiting on an statement of work to be signed (er, maybe it is the latter). After all, as UX designers, it’s hard to imagine our wireframes causing someone to levitate or go through stigmata (though it’s easy for us to imagine a wireframe making someone want to be crucified).

While it’s critical that we target specific behaviors for our design solutions, it’s equally critical that we don’t fixate on those insights—after all, even if they are gleaned from such practices as contextual inquiry, they are ultimately just well founded assumptions. We need to allow for thinking that transcends methodology, something that enables the design to delight anyone who interfaces with it. That’s transcendent design.

Transcendence Enables Meaning

Let’s start with the meaning of the word transcendence. The fact that we have a shared understanding of it but that it connotes something unique to me is not unlike experiences we come across in UX design, or for that matter, any media or art. With all experiences there is an inter-objective reality that serves as a starting point—an agreed meaning between people, but then something happens to meaning where it ultimately evolves into the pure subjective reality of the individual.

Products are uniquely individual to the person using them. Whether that product is as broad as Facebook or as highly focused as a trip booking engine, the meaning is not inherent in the product itself, but in what psychological and emotional connections the individual draws through the product. The “experience” is cumulative, personal and residual. Our jurisdiction as designers can never exceed this space of shared understanding. We cannot make emotional connections for people or instill memories or contexts for them. We can only find the greatest common denominator—a mythic space in which these personal meanings are drawn.

In UX design, meaning can never really exist on a mass level. The significance of something, the ultimate expression of meaning, can only exist at an intrinsic personal level. As UX designers, we can only set the table—and define where that table lives. In other words, we can conceive of an environment for the attendees to have a magnificent dining experience—just not conceive of the experience itself. And we can focus on contexts so that our guests can find their way to the table and have a subjective takeaway, and hopefully return again and again.

In the traditional design processes, the burden of defining the product begins to rapidly encroach on our ability to sketch and experiment. Designers feel compelled to define the known design problem before having the chance to “transcend” towards new paradigms. Product definition can still begin early in a transcendent model but really only spikes after sufficient exploration of all the possibilities.

More than just persuasive design, which focuses on changing individual behaviors, transcendent design would look to identify an experience that can “transcend” the minutia of relativity, and ultimately impact anyone who uses the product. This notion runs almost counterintuitive to our user research sensibilities, which focuses on such audience segmentation activities as identifying contexts, deploying tribal marketing, long tail thinking and so on. The question “who are you designing for?” pervades every experience design thought process for good reason. We must consider these things, but not at the expense of a potentially innovative and meaningful individualized experience.

The design principles that emerge from strategic analysis should only go so far as to maintain focus, but never should they eclipse the possibility for the unexpected to occur. If we adhere to them too closely we may eclipse the ability to transcend the ordinary limits of design. When we give ourselves the latitude of untethered thinking we increase the possibility producing an experiential magic in our products.

This Sounds Scary. Why?

I’ve met many a UX designer who believes there is no mass audience, that experience can never resonate across tribes or psychographics. Within our discipline there is a scientific mentality—we research data, we observe behaviors, we deduce patterns and then we make a recommendation grounded in sound rationale. (Of course, those of us who toil on the agency side know that very few clients are willing to pay for this research).

It’s visually striking, sure, but has it really affected Pepsi’s bottom line?

But these tactics are not meant to be ends. Reaching people in context is a starting point, and their experiences are simply an end point. The body of UX design exists in the broad imagination in between. Yes, you may get socially conscious Gen-Y people to vote on a good cause in a Pepsi Refresh campaign, but what if that campaign exceeds the audience it intended? And it has, which I would say that’s a good thing (whether Pepsi’s bottom line has been impacted is another story).

Transcendent design poses the question to our community: Who are you without use cases and scenarios and personas? Without it we are simply creative. All our deliverables are just tools with which to creatively synthesize the connections between insights into what’s hopefully a vision for new paradigms. We are risk takers; we are people who can balance out our concern for the user with a vision for mass impact.

Transcendent Design Already Exists

Just as we can acknowledge the remote thickets of subjectivity, we can also cultivate the domain of things that bind us together–things that appeal to a common mythology.

Let’s look at a hypothetical family’s visit to the Seattle’s Space Needle. The father may be going because he feels he has to hit the major landmarks of a short trip with his kid. He’s stressed out with the child’s whining about needing a bathroom, his head buried into his Lonely Planet Guide so he can find how to get to it. His child may have other goals; he may be thinking, “Why do I have to go to that strange looking tower in the sky? It looks ugly I’d rather go to Gymboree or Disneyland.” (UX designers reading this should already thinking about how to reach these people in their contexts.)

When the family gets to the top of the Space Needle, something happens; some great democratizing force of tranquility. The majesty of a panoramic view of the sparkling Puget Sound renders them silent. The father may be thinking about how he’s so happy he can afford to treat his children to travel experiences. He may be feeling simply grateful. His child may be marveling at human engineering. He may be thinking about how mankind could build such a thing.

Together, they share an experience that has somehow transcended their personal contexts. The designer simply and rightly assumed: create a manmade object that delivers something unique, transcendent and undeniably impressive. Everyone, regardless of their gender, tribe and religion leaves the Space Needle with both a common “experience” and a personal one.

A Transcendent Design Case Study: Netflix

If it’s the common experience that we must focus on, it must be awesome and undeniably original. It must unify and go beyond the expected.

Generally, one could argue that transcendent design in digital media usually involves a UX innovator humanizing a new technology on a mass scale. Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, was an engineer at heart. When he acquired a big late fee for misplacing a video and was afraid to tell his wife, Hastings came up with the idea for Netflix. Certainly, everyone prior to 1998 could relate to this problem. We all rented videos at the video store. And we all had late fees.

Hastings dreamt of a broad design that allowed people to subscribe and order DVDs to return at their leisure. No one, regardless of his context or demographic, could deny the new system was better than the last.

But transcendent design didn’t stop at the inception of Netflix. The company continued to transcend the expected—creating streaming video on-demand for a monthly fee, and by designing a refined recommendation algorithm that allows the product to intelligently suggest titles the user would never have discovered through conventional search.

If Hastings had allowed himself to slog through audience segmentation studies would Netflix have ever been born? Would he have started the company if he didn’t feel on a personal level the problem he was trying to solve? Of course, Netflix is also famous for the personalized algorithms that deliver amazingly accurate recommendations based on user behavior. But this came only after thinking of a disruptive business model that people renting from their local Blockbuster didn’t even think was possible.

As designers, perhaps it’s safe to assume that we are not always that different from each other. If the idea is transcendent enough, focusing on our differences won’t articulate it. Only by looking at our similarities can we find the right vocabulary for a transcendent design.

Bringing Transcendent Thinking into the Experience Design Process

Many UX designers have eclectic backgrounds—we might even be accused of being dilettantes. Where I work, I sit across from someone that used to be an underwater videographer. Across the room, there’s an abstract painter. Almost all the UX designers I’ve met are very interested in human beings and harbor a creative impulse to tell a story through design. Too often, the UX designer is framed to clients as the egghead who comes in after the Creative Director to clean up the design and have it “make sense.” And all too often have I met the UX designer who feels underutilized as a creative partner.

Leveraging transcendent thinking is well within our wheelhouse. We are not here to simply solve problems but to imagine experiences for which problems don’t yet exist.

Regardless of the design process, we can integrate questions into our workflow that can help us embark on an imaginative undertaking:

  • What makes this product change the behavior of a mass audience (perhaps something that ties together the various audiences you’ve identified in your user research)
  • What aspect of this product is limited by context?
  • Are we telling a story through this channel that can’t be told more effectively through another channel?
  • If we didn’t create this product, would it matter to the people we’re designing for?
  • What are the archetypal human conditions this product will solve? (i.e. “it will restore love into your life,” etc.)

It’s hard to push for ambition and innovation if the culture of your workplace doesn’t really share those values. But life isn’t about just having a job. If you believe experience design can impact millions of people then push for it any way or work somewhere else. But if we ask these questions we can always move the needle on the UX spectrum closer to innovation and imagination. We can also show that our value is more than in just being brought in to “clean things up,” but to make things that never were.

Advertise here with BSA

August 03 2011


July 26 2011


Using the Power of Subtext for Your Website

If you’re a big film, tv, or theatre buff, you’ve probably witnessed a fair amount of subtext. This principle can be applied to more than just those mediums though! Today, we explore how you use the lens of subtext to look at your website and improve your digital presence by uniting your color scheme with your actual text.

First though, what is subtext? Think about it as the underlying theme or message in a conversation. In film, it can be seen with lighting choices, costumes, a character’s body language and really anything that isn’t apart of the actual dialog. I’ll use the movie Jurassic Park as an example.


In this scene, John Hammond, the billionaire philanthropist and creator of Jurassic park, has already given the guests a tour of the park and talked about how the dinosaurs are created.He’s trying to convince them that the park is ready to be opened to the public and as you remember, the invited guests are experts brought in to verify that the park is safe for visitors. So far, we haven’t seen anything scary in the park - just cute baby dinosaurs.

During the dinner scene, John argues that the park should be open but Dr. Ian Malcolm is against it.

As you can see, while John is making his argument to open the park through his dialog, everything outside of his language is also backing up his point of view. He is dressed in white and outlined in a halo, looking angelic, even god-like, and unquestionably good.

When the camera is on Dr. Malcolm, we not only hear his words countering John’s, but the director has set him up to be the “bad guy” through his black hair, black glasses, black clothes, and even a reddish light behind him. It’s very ominous.

Back again to John and he again looks like a good and benevolent creator. Still haloed with light, he now has his hands outstretched a la compassionate holy man.

When Malcolm counters John’s argument with an irrefutable observation, we see the surroundings echo his despondence - John is no longer haloed, no longer god-like or all-knowing.

In the end, we see Ian come out the winner, wise, thoughtful, ringed with white light.

All of the above are an excellent example of when subtext is used to support the words being spoken in a scene and influencing or heightening our perception of the conversation.

Subtext can also be used to imply a meaning that is the opposite of the words spoken in a scene. An example of this is when a young boy must give up his pet to be free in the wild and yells at the pet, saying he doesn’t love it in order to get it to go be free. His words say, “I hate you” but everything else about the scene says, “I love you.” Make sense?

From Film to the Web

So, how does this apply to a website or color for that matter? I want to take a look at a couple of different websites and look at their text - the written copy on the site - and their background - the colors - and see if the two match up.

After all, if your website’s subtext, through color and design, are subverting the message you’re sending through your written copy, that’s going to leave visitors to your site confused and less likely to find what they’re looking for, which is never what you want as a businessperson.

Subtext Case Study #1

Let’s take a look at a site that gets it right and why.

First, what does the text of this site say, what tone does it portray?

When designing, we needed to convey the professionalism and excellence of Grant’s career combined with the warmth and dedication of his family life. So, every word centered around those things.

Clearly, we wanted the subtext of the site to match the literal text. So, the design and layout of the site suggests the clean, smooth organization of a man in charge of his affairs. The color palette of rich browns, soft creams, and warm, golden honeys speaks to the assured gentle calm of a father who cares not only for his family but his community and his responsibility in making the world a better place.

With text and subtext in alignment, successfully puts across the message we want.

Subtext Case Study #2

Your website should, from first glance to detailed inspection, speak to your core audience. Once you know who that audience is, you can make smart, targeted choices for the text and subtext of your site. By doing that, your site will be more successful at generating the leads that are the lifeblood of small business.

That is precisely the plan of action we implemented for our client Jackson Therapy Partners.

By focusing on Jackson Therapy’s target audience - job-seeking physical therapists - we were able to easily target all text at highlighting the benefits of working through Jackson Therapy.

We then align all that targeted text with the color choices that provide equally important subtext. The text showcased medical benefits, matching 401ks, and retirement planning - and the subtextual color choices shored that up.

Dark blues back up the stability of working with a company as trusted as Jackson Therapy as white signifies clean, professionalism. Lighter blues and blue-greens suggest the fun, energy, and opportunity for travel provided by Jackson Therapy while pale yellow, with its happy tone, complements that message.

Lessons Learned

Whether you’re watching a great film or choosing your company’s website colors, subtext is a powerful tool that can either support or subvert the straightforward surface message that you’re aiming for.

With smart color choices you can be sure your website’s subtext is sending a message that backs up the other content available to your target audience. When all messages are aligned, you can bet your site will be more effective at delivering your message and results.

Rise Above,

July 14 2011


July 07 2011


June 30 2011


June 21 2011


June 16 2011


Simple Reasons Why Some Businesses Failed in 2010

There is a plethora of information out there from former CEO's and case studies about the many reasons why businesses fail or how to avoid failure of your small business, bad color and design is not usually one of the reasons given, but with more and more businesses existing exclusively online, color, design, and UX/UI is an issue for businesses today. It's no longer enough just to have a website. Your website is directly connected to the success of your business, and it needs to be treated as such with frequent updates, quick reactions to changing markets and, especially, the changing demands of your customers.

Today, we look at the color, design of a few companies that failed last year, and the reasons why. These highlighted companies were featured in the The New York Times article, How Six Companies Failed to Survive 2010. While many of the reasons they failed span beyond design an usability it's always a good idea to keep yourself familiar with all the pitfalls of running a business. You can read the full explanations and find out more about each company in the original article on - Mr. Hedlund acknowledges, Mint had a better name and better design and was easier to use.“We wanted to help people,” he said, “but it was too much work to get that help.” -

Gotham Concierge - Tied to financial market, luxury service.

Gotham_Concierge - Focused too much on enhanced functionality and not enough on marketing and getting new users.

"Too much time and money were spent on enhanced functionality, like text-alert reminders about appointments and the ability to turn family photos into refrigerator magnets." -


Large Format Digital - A questionable investment + mortgage crisis.


Petite Palate - Investors were skittish after the market crash + unwilling to make changes to their product, which would have increased the likelihood stores would have carried it.


Classic business fails include poor management, lack of planning, insufficient capital,... but these lists seem to have trouble keeping up with the changing times. Here are few things to consider beyond the basic list:

- Be able to React to Changes, Quickly.

- Don't Compete, Collaborate. - Businessweek

- Solve a Unique Problem. - 7 Reasons My First Business Failed by Neil Patel (Crazy Egg and KISSmetrics)

- Listen to Your Customers.

What are others ways you can avoid failure?

March 10 2011


Review & Giveaway: The Smashing Book #2

Don't go anywhere!!! There's a super fantastic book giveaway after our feature presentation!


Just holding this book makes me go, "ahhh..."

Everyone is raving about the quality of book #2 compared to book #1 (or published media in general). I don't blame them. I almost didn't mention it, because everyone else has, but that was ALSO my initial thought upon receiving my copy of the book. Straight from the box, I instinctively noticed these things in this order:

First, I noticed that I can plop it in my purse, no problem (and I don't carry an overly-large purse!). It's not too heavy or too many square/cubic inches. That's important, because I dread getting a great book, but eyeballing how thick it is sometimes hurts as I rarely have time for reading real books. My arms aren't going to fall off trying to hold it up while I'm laying in bed reading it.

Second, most definitely the quality. Smashing Magazine did not skimp on getting this little ditty published. Quality, stitch-bound, hard cover and hefty pages that produce sharp graphics. It's a nice tight number that you'll probably keep on your desk or prop on a shelf just because it's so pretty.

Third, artwork and graphics, amazing! They seriously couldn't go wrong with using Yiying Lu (yes, forever known as the creator of the famous Fail Whale from But seriously, who can resist that kind of work, I know my three year old can't! What three year old do you know peruses a web and graphic design book with focus and interest? I will admit mine has a great attention span, but still... I'm caught flipping through the pages simply studying the chapter artwork. I have to laugh at myself.

Fourth and last, the cutest little ribbon bookmark comes attached. What a nice little touch! I bet this is the most talked about ribbon bookmark in the history of books. I suppose I will not be lazily dog-earing my new book.

So hands down on the book construction and makeup. Smashing you get a full applause in that area (I think everyone else would agree, no?)!

My thoughts from reading & perusing...

Chapters include:

  1. #1 The Principles of Great Graphic Deisign
  2. #2 Visible vs. Invisible Design
  3. #3 Designing Mobile User Experiences
  4. #4 Sketching, Wireframing and Prototyping
  5. #5 Red Flags (Warning Signs) in Web Development
  6. #6 The Future of Web Typeography
  7. #7 Applying Game Design Principles to User Experience Design
  8. #8 When they Click: Psychology of Web Design and User Behavior
  9. #9 Design Patterns in e-Commerce Websites (Study)
  10. #10 How to Make a Book (Like this One)


I realize that you can make something look pretty dang great, but fill it with garbage. Not in this case. I might be a bit bias because I am a HUGE fan of Smashing Magazine and the fantastic information they continue to provide to the design and web communities.... I will note, however, that the previous Smashing Book #1 seemed somewhat of a letdown to a "few" folks, which has become more prevailiant with Book #2 being such a positive hit and maybe with more of a comeback in the comparisons being made.

My primary area is Design. Both in print and web. And I will openly admit, I'm not ever going to be in the one of the top designers of the world because of this and that - so a book like this is absolutely PERFECT for me. I think anyone who wants a nice review, more insight

What I enjoyed in the first chapter was the correlation between the two, how different and yet similar they are.

"It stands to reason, then, that the process of design involves making deliberate and appropriate graphical choices in order to best communicate the intended message. This applies as much to designing for the Web as it does to designing for print." - excerpt, page 15

What I most enjoyed about this chapter was it's focus on using design effectively and timelessly. When I was reading through the pages of Timeless Thinking - which included talk about simplicity, adding too much gaudy junk (aka ornaments), minimalism, contrast, space and tension... it really brought me back to the basics in art school and working with drawing techniques. Sometimes I feel that I start a project over-designing and after I get that part about needing to impress the client out of my system and go minimal, it never fails to be the winning pick - this chapter was a kick in the pants refresher.

Then I read on to variations of  Type and its effectiveness as well as the role it plays. Overall, a golden chapter to set your path a little straighter or teach you a few things.

"While a good graphic designer works to create an attractive design for the client, a great graphic designer pushes further, striving to understand the  crux of the project's objective. The great designer builds on the various concepts ..." - excerpt, page 44

My other favorite, is chapter 7: Applying Game Design Principles to User Experience Design. What I most enjoyed was the play off of understanding the correlation between the two to make an easier way to think about UX Design. My favorite part starting with the section, The Name of the Game which goes through each of the five key attributes of the "game" of online interaction. It became a fun way to think about UX Design.


In conclusion, I like that the end of each chapter will sum up with a number of useful resources, about the author, some history from that section and even a nice extra Reading List for more in-depth study on a subject if interested - actually, I would have liked more reading resources at the ends of more chapters. I thought that was very helpful and resourceful to place in one area, instead of having to dig back through my dog-eared and highlighted pages and notes to locate a good resource I just know I marked.

I do find that this book is something I will be keeping on my desk for some time to reference and re-reference when my mind is fogged or fighting to go a direction my gut knows I shouldn't.


Are you tired of hearing me blab blab blab about the book? Are you just dying to get your hands on your own copy? Well here's your chance, we have 3 copies in our giveaway!


Contest Rules are simple. This will be a random drawing of three lucky commenters who provide the following information in their comment:

Please provide what your specialty is be it Design Warlord, Freelance Web Designer or Couch Potato... but seriously, I would like to know what you do for money or fun in the relationship to wanting the book in your grubby little paws.

The contest will run from March 10th, 2011 through March 18th, 2011 - Winners will be announced the following week, Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011. Winners will also be emailed via Love Notes on so make sure you turn your notifications ON for both in-site and email so that I can collect your address and get your prize out ASAP. Contest is for users only, so if you aren't a member, get signed up and get commenting!


February 27 2011


The Secrets of Black and White by Becky Blanton

This is a section from Triiibes' 'Color and Form', a freely distributed eBook available to view and download on Scribd or here.

There really is no such thing as color. Color is just the reflection of light, which is why at night things are shades of grey, or black - there is no light to reflect. During the day, or with a flashlight, different substances or objects absorb and reflect different wavelengths of light, making us believe we are seeing color when we're not.

The power of color then is its ability to alter our consciousness, our thoughts, our emotions, our perceptions. White is the presence of ALL color and the absence of all color. Black is the absence of all color and the presence of all color. If you mix all the primary colors - you get black. Yet you cannot mix any pigments to get white, although through additive and subtractive mixing of light you can. Where does the color go? And where does it come from?

Yet, if you need proof that white holds all color then notice a rainbow where moisture acts as a prism, causing the refraction of light to bend light rays and allow us to see each separate color. If you think about it, when you look at the sky without the re-fractional properties of moisture, you're actually seeing an integrated rainbow. It's when the light bends that the curtain is stripped from your consciousness and you *see* a rainbow. It's been there all along. You just couldn't process it. When you hold a prism up, it too provides the key inside "white" and grants us the ability to see beyond all color to a specific color. It's a lot like life that way. The answers to everything are present, but we need something or someone to "decode" the layers for us. The secrets to the universe are held in understanding the properties and possibilities of black and white.

Becky Blanton is a Ghostwriter, Author, Photographer, and Graphic Designer who lives, works and travels around the Country in her white, 1975 Chevy van with her mostly black Rottweiler.

February 21 2011


The Meaning of Color by David Benjamin Kopp - Philosophy

This is a section from Triiibes' 'Color and Form', a freely distributed eBook available to view and download on Scribd or here.

What does this color mean? A scientist informs us that, ultimately, there is nothing "there" except waves of light we call "color".

A robot can identify color - even tell you that the color above is composed of red, green and blue in the proportion: 224, 3, 3.

What a robot can't do is feel how Edgar Robinson felt when he saw a variation of Napthol Crimson for the first time in 1873.

And no scientist can ever discover or predict, how Aamina Badesha will experience the color she creates on her palette tomorrow night.

We humans can assume the roles of both robot and scientist, receiving data and analyzing it. But what we choose to do is much more inter-esting. We let color mean something to us.We let it affect us. Sometimes we communicate that meaning, sometimes we keep it to ourselves, and sometimes, unfortunately, we forget it is there altogether. But for all that science has given us, and it has given us plenty, it can’t give us the meaning of color... try as it might to convince us that the colors of the sunset are really only there to inspire us to procreate.

To experience and create your own symphony of color, buy paint at a local art store, see what colors there are, and bring some home to see what colors you can make. Any color you choose to create will, in all likelihood, be totally unique in the world.If you choose, you can do something with your new color, like give it form, save it as it is, or you can simply look at it and discard it.

David Benjamin Kopp loves doing, making and thinking about things. Mostly creative things. Right now he’s very likely writing a song, making a graphic design or, most likely typing this bio.

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