Indaba Inspirations

Living in San Francisco, I’m surrounded by design inspiration from architecture and museums to amazing natural scenery, not to mention the crazy costumes locals love to show off every chance they get. Last week, however I was delighted to be exposed to an even wider range of inspiration 10,000 miles away at Design Indaba 2011 in Cape Town. What makes this conference unique is the breadth of design that it celebrates – visual design, architecture, interaction design, jewelry design, fashion design, social design and more. The common thread of creative problem solving shared by all revealed a wide range of ideas about how design makes it better – whether “it” is the right shape and color to communicate the message or the best way to honor patient dignity or sustainable, affordable use of materials. Here’s a few thoughts on design participants shared:

“Design is an interesting tool to study human behavior.” Luke Pearson
“Where common sense is common practice” Kiran Bir Sethi, (also the tagline for the Riverside Learning Center)
“It’s the art of mind tickling” Hat-Trick

Michael Bierut kicked off the event by challenging delegates to think about how creativity and design can impact the future and a number of speakers showed inspiring examples of how design can make the world a better place. I was forced to play close attention to them as there was no wifi available at the conference center, (I was told it was down, and they were working on it) reminding me I was no longer in the always-online Bay Area.

The first day’s highlight was Francis Kéré, leaping into the audience and using his quirky humor to explain how he involved communities in his native Burkina Faso to help build “breathing” school buildings. Applying the proverb, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime” he developed and adapted local traditions and techniques to construct robust, self-cooling school buildings. His message about understanding your audience and their needs, getting them involved in the process and sourcing local materials and expertise, was met with a standing ovation.


Another architectural treat was Dror Benshetrit unveiling the versatile structural support system QuaDror. He came across the design while playing with forms in his Manhattan studio and began seeing great potential for providing relief housing among other things. It was wonderful seeing such a beautiful and simple solution that could be used to solve the huge housing needs across the world, but also within South Africa, even a few kilometers from the conference center.


In contrast to Mike Kruzeniski’s recent lament about minimal attention to visual design at IxDA ’11 (although our own Nick Myers did represent the practice), the Cape Town conference showcased practicitioners such as Michael Wolff, Dana Arnett of VSA, Richard Hart, the British firm Hat Trick, the inimitable Alberto Alessi and his ovation-worthy overview of the Italian design tradition, and Oded Ezer engaging everyone in his off-the-wall obsession with typography.

In between presentations showcasing beautiful design were excellent examples of how design delivers more than profit. The British Design Council showcased “Design Bugs Out” which produced easy-to-clean hospital equipment and “Design for Patient Dignity” addressing privacy and dignity issues in hospital settings. For these and other examples, emphasis was on research and going out and looking through fresh “design eyes” as David Kester said.


Fashion designer Carla Fernadez approached the creation of her label Taller Flora with fresh eyes and, like Francis Kéré, harnessed local traditions and expertise to create a business supporting fair trade and practicing environmental policies for sustainable practices in the fashion industry. She began by taking time to understand the rich history of Mexican clothing. “I told myself that if I want to teach, I first have to learn.”


Laduma Ngxokolo provides similar opportunities to Eastern cape mohair farmers, who are benefiting from having a guaranteed outlet for their product via his Xhosa-inspired knitwear. His objective to preserve his culture and use local materials resulted in award winning designs. It was good to see a South African designer standing shoulder to shoulder with international icons, eliciting spontaneous applause with his work.


Going from knitwear to software, Mark Shuttleworth encouraged the audience to think big as he walked us through the visual and interaction design update for the Ubuntu open source platform. He showed off what he called “the two harmonious, interconnected, rhyming, counterpoint, visual language systems” needed to give voice to the company and support individual freedom and creativity within the open source community. He also talked about the design work done on notification bubbles that cannot be acted on, to reduce the sense of added work for users and showed off other interface improvements to be released in the coming weeks.


The program was rounded out with a good smattering of entrepreneurs (and a surprising number of ex-accountants) who had achieved success establishing design as a core role in companies. One of the ex-accountants was Robert Wong, Executive Creative Director at Google’s Creative Lab. He shared his personal formula for creative success: S! = Em + Cr (Surprise equals Empathy and Creativity), declared that “whoever wakes up with the most motivation wins” and, after showcasing some great work, ended by telling everyone to “Do epic sh*t!”

The wide range of projects and ideas presented, showing so many ways in which we can make a difference through design, was hugely inspiring. Michael Wolff said it best: “The enemy of all ideas is in fact the idea you are currently with.” He explained, saying sometimes if you have an idea, you become afraid you may never have another one, so you hang onto it like grim death. The best thing to do is to be free to throw ideas away to make sure there is space for new ones. I hope to be back next year to visit table mountain and participate in the growth of design in South Africa.

Image source Coda

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NYC as an interface

New York City
Photo by Delcio G.P.Filho.

The big apple.

Many say it’s the greatest city in the world. Whether or not you agree, there’s no denying it’s an incredibly dense place with an overwhelming amount of people and things to do. Not only are there over 40 million tourists annually, jostling to see the sights and get a taste of the cultural capital but there are also over 8 million people living here ? struggling to manage the tasks of daily living amongst all the tourists. That’s a lot of people with very different goals. How do they all figure it out?

(For those of you not in New York, you might want to consider pressing play for some mood music.)

The usability of cities

I’ve been on the road for the past few weeks and am struck by how some cities are easier to use than others. Since I’m in the business of interfaces I’ve been thinking about it in those terms. Just like software, smaller cities with few features are generally (but not always) fairly easy to use. Once you have a large, complex city with many features ? like NYC ? it gets much more challenging to maintain that ease of use.

New York City is an incredibly powerful interface with multiple entry points and endless features. One might say it has feature bloat. It overloads the senses and it’s not always easy to navigate and understand, yet people learn to use it effectively and often grow to love it.

I love New York

In that way it’s like Adobe Photoshop – optimized for expert users, perfect for their needs once they have taken the time to learn how it works, but very intimidating to novice users. Over 40 million of tourists enter the city each year and have to navigate the New York City ‘interface.’ How do they figure it out? Read More

We cannot accept that behavior

I bought some concert tickets online a few days ago. For once I was online and ready as the tickets were going on sale at 10am.

09:58am ? I clicked through a maze of links to finally arrive at a page where it seemed like I’d be able to buy tickets.

09:59am ? I continually refreshed the page until a “buy tickets” button appeared.

10:00am ? Once it finally showed up I clicked the big friendly button and was taken to a page that required even more clicking around before eventually presenting me with an “add to cart” button. Pressing it presented me with this dialog:


10:01 ? I filled in the form as quickly as possible and clicked “join now.” Then I got this error message:


Paaaaaardon me?!?

I stared at my computer screen for a minute sorta wishing it had a face so I could punch it.

10:02am ? As I sat there feeling frustrated, and a little insulted, all the good tickets were being snapped up by people with one word last names like Smith and Baker. Then I had to decide whether to hyphenate my last name or remove the space, trying to anticipate the consequences of the decision for will-call or credit card payments.

10:05am ? I finally purchased my 2 tickets, using an improvised last name. (I can no longer recall what solution I had to use to make it work.)

Though I managed to get tickets I was very indignant after being told that my last name was unacceptable. Can you imagine going down to the box office to buy tickets and having the guy behind the counter tell you that he cannot accept your name? That seems absurd! (unless of course you’re shopping from the soup nazi) Yet we encounter rude and insulting behavior from interfaces all the time.

Software has replaced people in so many of our daily transactions, from buying concert tickets to shoes and groceries. Computers bring obvious improvements to the table: they can provide instant comparisons, full feature lists and recommend similar items more easily than a person could. In fact computers could make this a fantastic experience by providing a very quick, very flexible way of choosing the right seat at the right price if they didn’t just focus on just automating the analog transaction, but that’s a whole other blog post. Even in this context of database transactions it’s time software started learning some manners and stopped hurling insults whenever we ask it to do something difficult.

If the request is truly impossible, at the very least inform me politely, and tell me what I need to do to make it work. For example, “We’re terribly sorry but our system is unable to deal with spaces in names. If you could please remove it we’ll sign you right up.” That’s probably a bit wordy, but better than “we cannot accept your name” without telling me why, or what I can do to make it acceptable. The best case is for the software to deal with whatever my last name happens to be, fixing the problem for me so that I don’t have to know or care that it’s database can’t accept spaces.

If we want our products to be liked, we need to design them to behave in the same manner as a likeable person.1 Our software should be polite, but more than that it needs to be considerate and take into account our needs and goals.

1 Cooper, Reimann & Cronin. About Face 3. Indianapolis: Wiley, 2007 249-285
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Interaction design for startups: A conversation with Andrew Hoag, founder of is an early stage startup that allows people to coordinate offline social activities with their friends. Founder Andrew Hoag, tired of organizing the “goat rodeo” preceding any event with his friends, found a niche desperately in need of attention, and decided to do something about it. He approached Cooper in April 2008 to work on the design and user interaction for his web-based product.

The people behind

Andrew: We got started 8 months ago and have two full time people and a couple of contractors and outside staff helping us. As for background, I come from the business side, working in enterprise, security and software for 7 years. Most recently I’ve been advising consumer internet startups before launching My technical co-founder is a developer that came from a large travel site, Sidestep, which you may have heard of. For now it’s just the two of us working full time with a bunch of people helping us out.

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Designing time to think

I was busy with production work last week, and in the background I listened to the Google TechTalk by David Levy, “No time to think.” In spite of the title (and my partial attention), it really got me thinking. Levy suggests that we are in an information environmental crisis, that we need silence and sanctuary for creative reflection and engagement. He explains that Nobel Laureate Barbara McKlintock was able to see further and deeper into genetics than anyone had before because she took the time to look and to hear what the material had to say to her. At Harvard, students asked her “where does one get the time to look and think?” They argued that the pace of current research seems to preclude such a contemplative stance.

This is a pressure we can all relate to. I struggle to find the time to think deep thoughts. Every time I try, I interrupt myself to check my email or text messages, or track the latest news headlines. Randall Munroe over at seems to have the same problem. It seems that my attention span is inversely proportional to the number of “productivity” tools and toys I have. As much as I love it, my iPhone has been the worst thing I could have done for my ability to focus.

Attention span v.s. productivity tools and toys

These days we rarely focus clearly on one thing at a time, multi-tasking from the moment we read the paper on the bus with headphones and coffee en route to work, until we get home and check email in front of the TV while eating dinner. We are constantly interacting with technology devices and information.

Vannevar Bush’s 1945 article, As We May Think, expressed the hope that more powerful tools will automate the routine aspects of information processing, and would thereby leave researchers and other professionals more time for creative thought. But as Levy points out, more than sixty years later, it seems clear that the opposite has happened, that the use of the new technologies has contributed to an accelerated mode of working and living that leaves us less time to think, not more. Levy asks where in our culture we are making time to think, since thinking takes time.

At the end of the talk an interesting comment came from fellow who observed that, in contrast to Sweden, San Francisco has very few public benches where one can just sit down and observe what is. One has to keep moving, and according to the laws if you stay in one place too long, you may be considered to be “loitering.” In our culture, there are few opportunities to be calm and sit down in a public space, unless one is consuming something at a coffee shop or a café. This is something that has been built into the culture and the architecture. We need to rediscover the places that will encourage this kind of thinking and reflection – not only in our physical but also in our digital spaces. Creative thought can’t be rushed, but it can be nurtured.

So how can we nurture creative thought?

Much of the work we do at Cooper involves designing tools to increase productivity and efficiency; to help people to do more, faster, and keep them moving. But are we in danger of making things too fast and efficient, preventing people from spending enough time with the information they need to consider carefully? There are things that computers are really good at — memory work and calculations, for example. There are also things that they are really bad at — cognitive work, subjective decisions and judgment calls. The latter should be left to people, and as designers we need to ensure they have the right information, as well as the time, to come to a thoughtful decision or judgment.

For example, when designing software for tax professionals, we should ensure that the preparer is enabled to spend most of their time interpreting tax laws, rather than filling in line items one by one. Make the easy stuff easy — let computers do what computers are good at — and allow preparers to focus on what they are good at, and what they actually enjoy about their jobs.

Designing with time

We use scenarios to tell stories of ideal experiences for our users. Any storyteller will tell you that timing is an important part of telling a good story and as designers we need to think carefully about time as a design element — it’s just as important as color, type and layout. Dan Boyarski has been thinking about time as a design element for many years. He has been teaching his students to use time for emphasis, clarity or to create new meaning. You can see some examples of the work from his classes here.

Most of these pieces are experimental and entertaining, based on poetry or film dialogs, but the principles at work can be applied to designing enterprise software too. Rather than just making everything faster and more efficient, we need to think about how to get people to focus on the important stuff, without letting minor tasks and busy-work get in the way. We need to design environments where people have the time and space to focus on important decisions. One way to do this is through progressive disclosure; only revealing information when it’s relevant to the decision at hand. Other ways to achieve this would involve presenting information in the right sequence, or placing related information in close proximity to help people to see the big picture. All of this is in service of nurturing the balance between ratio (searching and re-searching, abstracting refining and concluding) and intellectus (thinking; reflection; assimilation and contemplation) — which is Levy’s concluding slide of the talk.

Bench with a view
Photo from Flickr by timparkinson.

It’s really important to take the time to look and to think. Let’s think about how we can design metaphorical benches in our products to encourage people to stop and reflect where necessary. Read More

How good designers can create evil

I’ve been reading Philip Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect and thinking a lot about system design as a result. In his words, the book “is a call for a three-part analysis of human action by trying to understand what the individual actors bring to any setting, what situational forces bring out of those actors, and how system forces create and maintain situations.” It’s a rather sobering piece of work, especially as a designer who earns a living designing interactions and systems. The author challenges the common tendency to attribute human failings to an individual’s inner nature, disposition, personality traits, and character and demonstrates how situational and systemic factors seduce ordinarily good people to commit evil acts.

A large part of the book is dedicated to detailed case study of the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, tracking the transformation of happy healthy college students playing randomly assigned the role of prisoner or guard in a mock prison.

Stanford Prison Experiment
Stanford Prison Experiment guard in uniform, from

The experiment was terminated early because of the astounding and terrifying impact it had on the participants. The students assigned to the guard role became sadistic and the prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress. It was clear from notes and diary entries before, during, and after the experiment that the situational and systemic forces resulted in the students doing things they could never have imagined when outside those force fields. Read More