Softballs and Swords: The Personal Style of Prominent Design Figures

Every designer has a point of view. We work relentlessly to articulate it to the design community, and more importantly, potential clients. Each talk we give, book we write and design we touch is another calculated message meant to emphasize our perspective and argue it’s validity.

As a relatively inexperienced designer, I am fascinated by the way that well-known professionals choose to present themselves and craft their public caricatures. Their message and mystique blend as we consider the validity of the messenger. Some designers thoughtfully construct their haircuts and vocal timbre and others craft articles and papers.

On the one side, designers are passionate people. We care about our work. We’re not happy to sit quietly at the assembly line of culture, consuming whatever falls off the conveyor belt. We want to stand up, make some noise, and have a hand in the direction of the things. We are naturally curious and have to find out the answers for ourselves. This is why I think that a lot of designers can be classified as “Brave Knights”.

Brave Knights are driven by their convictions. They write manifestos and laws. Knights are warriors in the board room and assholes in critiques. They shoulder the herculean task of pushing quality through the toxic sludge of corporate culture.

The epitome of the Knight is Victor Papanek. In his book, “Design for the Real World”, he manages to condemn the entire industrial design profession, preaching responsibility and thoughtfulness to a field he sees as out of control. He writes, “industrial design has put murder on a mass-production basis.” He is driven by an unshakable faith and uses his platform to speak in absolutes and with sincere intensity.

Another example is Patricia Moore’s championing of the universal design ethos. Her efforts are heroic: a female designer in a male dominated field, courageously advocating for older and less-able users, and placing herself in physical danger to better understand her users.

Many of the champions of usability and human centered design are Brave Knights. (Jacob Neilsen also comes to mind). But, great designers are also sensitive. They have highly developed skills of empathy. Some designers build their public image around this vulnerability, I dub these “Softball Coaches”.

Softball Coaches are slow to speak. They carefully examine the larger implications of their actions and creations. They are happy to stand on the sidelines. They take a more moderate approach when expressing their theories and dispensing judgement.

Allan Chochinov is a good example of a Softball Coach. He prefaces his “1000 Words: A Manifesto for Sustainability in Design” with “I don’t like the word manifesto. It reeks of dogma and rules–two things I instinctually reject.” And his rules; do no harm, stop making crap, think about the consequences–are innocuous even to the most hummer-driving, meat-eating designers.

I find it difficult to speak in absolutes and naturally lean towards this Softball Coach persona. However, when comparing these two, clearly the Knights are leading the conversation.

I’m reminded of one of my old bosses, Sister Mary Scullion. She is absolutely convinced that everyone must have a clean, safe place to live. Regardless of income, criminal history, or mental state. She is not deterred by the practical implications of such a vision. She simply knows it is right and spends her life sharing her vision publicly and working towards it.

And it’s happening. She successfully lobbies local government and receives support from patrons who believe in her cause and her conviction.

This is what I’m working towards; complete dedication in a worthwhile mission and the fearlessness to shout it from the rooftops.

Design for impact

div class='posterous_autopost'>”Be there and care” – Emily Pilloton (Depth over Breadth: Designing for Impact Locally, and For The Long Haul)

I was reviewing this as part of a class assignment and really liked this article by Emily Pilloton, founder of Project H. A quote from this paper borders on Prahalad's writings, which I admire a lot.

Somewhat, paradoxically however, the majority of social impact projects are focused on demographics in the developing world (and rightfully so, given that the most socio-economically disadvantaged citizens often reside in developing countries), oceans away from the designers' offices. By its nature, designing for communities tens and thousands of miles away makes it nearly impossible to truly understand the intricacies of a problem well enough to even propose potential solutions. Lesson No. 1: Be there, and care (work locally, or move where the work is)

This year, I wanted to do this. I almost applied to be a Kiva Fellow to understand the needs of the social entrepreneurs that Kiva serves by providing microloans. I've always believed that the needs are very significant in such communities and there are great opportunities to create change. I picked AC4D over Kiva this time. But, maybe in the last quarter of the program, I can travel around to be in the middle of where the action really happens.

There is one more argument that Emily makes, which I have mixed feelings about

But design interventions for social impact are most successful when we hold a personal stake in the community. Whether it is the town in which we grew up, or a city we have come to call home, it is in our nature to tend to and to protect what we know and love. 

For design within communities, we must genuinely identify with the community and consider ourselves part of it in order to produce solutions that are informed and long lasting in their impact. Through such empathy, our actions become inherently collective, making more permanent impact.

The take home point of this paper is to be present in the middle of the problem to have any chance of solving it. The problem that can crop up is the feasibility to doing this. How many places can we be in a finite amount of time that has bee granted to us? I think it is important to cultivate thought leaders from these sectors. These people should be the members of the community. They should assume the leadership while we designers become the mere compass to guide them.



World of Jenks

Andrew Jenks is a documentary filmmaker. He’s got a new series on MTV called World of Jenks. Each episode, he spends a week living with some new person to try to get to know their culture and lifeview.

I thought it was interesting in light of our talks about observation, research, empathy, and immersion in our Design Research class, even though Jenks has no design end-goals in mind.

I watched an episode yesterday where he lives with rapper Maino for a week to try to gain some insights into the rap culture. Seems to me Jenks probably got a lot more out of the experience than we do as a tv audience, even though we may glimpse unfamiliar worlds. All the insights gleaned from watching the episode are pretty surface and expected (Maino has many sides to him, he’s a dad too!, the people he grew up with in the projects of Bed Stuy Brooklyn treat each other like a family, he made it out so he’s an inspiration for others because most don’t). I would be interested in the next 50+ layers of insights you’d get actually getting to know someone one-on-one.

Still, I am interested in watching the one where he spends a week with Chad, a 20-year-old who lives with Autism.

I know this is not effective enough to start breaking stereotypes. Is it worthwhile as a starting point? Or does it lend a false sense of “now we know more about this [group of people]”?

Jenks also made a documentary called Room 335 in which he moved into an assisted living facility for senior citizens at the age of 19 for a summer.


I first heard about the stages of Teambuilding from the Boys and Girls Club session at a conference for Central Texas afterschool professionals. They were demonstrating icebreaker and teambuilding games to aid the stages of:

  1. Forming
  2. Storming
  3. Norming
  4. Performing

Wikipedia says this model was first proposed by Bruce Tuckman in 1965, and that there is a Boy Scouts version floating around as well. Read the explanation of the teambuilding stages there.

Observe it in: small groups, emerging start-ups, new classes.

Does it happen with larger organizations, or does bureaucracy stamp out the need to perform as a holistic entity?

Does it happen with online communities?

We’re sort of in and around the “storming” stage at AC4D.

Every group will then enter the storming stage in which different ideas compete for consideration. The team addresses issues such as what problems they are really supposed to solve, how they will function independently and together and what leadership model they will accept. Team members open up to each other and confront each other’s ideas and perspectives.

Right now, we are simultaneously debating personal philosophies, figuring out how we work together as small and large groups, and trying to reach a consensus on our year-long project/client. Stormy. But “conflict” can be good, as you need it to move onto norming and performing. (Think of the groups or meetings you’ve been a part of where everyone tiptoed around each other all smiles, and no one became engaged.)

The Boys and Girls Club facilitators emphasized group reflection (this could take many forms) after each stage as a way to grow and move onto the next stage. They also included a lot of improv and trust games up front during the storming stage. Hmmm…

When 6 means 7…

Last week I went to IKEA to buy a few things for my apartment.  One of the items I bought was a set of dishes.  This set was supposed to come with 6 large plates, 6 small plates, and 6 bowls.  I purchased it, got home and began to unpack.  The IKEA packaging is very tight, and quite admirable in the sense that they really do a great job of minimizing the amount of air they pack.  Very efficient.

This is why I was hilariously surprised when I unpacked this product and found 6 large plates, 6 small plates and 7 bowls.  7 BOWLS!

On the left (above) you see a picture of the packaging, on the right, my pile of dishes)

So what happened here?  IKEA must produce this item in the hundreds of thousands, at least!  I could understand if I were missing a bowl, somehow that seems more probable, but an extra bowl crammed in there!  No way.

The gods of breakfast cereal must be watching over me.

On the power and perils of dreams

div class=’posterous_autopost’>”I first saw the site for Disneyland back in 1953. In those days it was all flat land – no river, no mountains, no castles or rocketships – just orange groves, and a few acres of walnut trees” – Walt Disney.

Disneyland to me, summarizes the power of a dream. It was a dream a man had that was literally a castle in the air. It was just an idea – a family park where parents and kids could have fun together, a happy place, something that will keep developing and being added to, an unique amusement park, etc. None of these dreams were concrete. They had no fixed objectives, no details, were very broad, etc. History has several examples of visionaries who shaped futures from thin air. All it started with was a seed of thought that in its original form didn’t even germinate and start to take shape.

Then, and now, one thing has not changed. Visionaries are looked as eccentric and weird people. The culture we live in now has taken a shift and is now the least friendly to people who have grand visions. This is an era where entrepreneurs are encouraged to go after quick money. Investors do not believe in supporting companies that want to build legacy. There are more devil’s advocates these days than dream’s advocates. I was reading Tom Kelley’s “Ten faces of Innovation” and this is what he has to say about a Devil’s advocate –

“The Devil’s advocate gambit is extraordinary but certainly not uncommon, since it strikes so regularly in the project rooms and board rooms of corporate America. What’s truly astonishing is how much punch is packed into that simple phrase. In fact, the Devil’s advocate may be the biggest innovation killer in America today. What makes this negative persona so dangerous is that it is such a subtle threat. Every day, thousands of great new ideas, concepts, and plans are nipped in the bud by Devil’s advocates”.

When I read this for the first time, flashes of visions appeared before my eyes about various people I shared my grand plans of changing the world with. The discussions, advice and the devil’s advocate arguments meant that several ideas never even took shape. The seed got squished before even it could germinate and see the world. This is a peril every dreamer has to deal with. He is surrounded by people who cannot see and share the same vision as he does. Unless, he takes every criticism with a grain of salt and filters out devil’s advocates, the vision will remain a castle in the air that can never be built.

Also, I believe that, the broader and bigger the dreams are, the better the future will be that is created because of the same dream. The quantity of achievements are proportional to the quality of dreams. We need dreamers in today’s world. Not just any dreamer, but the one with the resolve to work his/her way through any hurdles to build the future they believe in. These are the people who will solve climate crisis and poverty. Because these people already are seeing the future that others can not even dream of. To all the entrepreneurs who are reading this and others, “Dream, focus, walk, achieve. Don’t worry about making quick money. Think about writing a few pages in the history. Because, one history is written, it inspires others to follow suit”.</div

Tagging posterous posts

When you send your post through email to, your subject line indicates the post title.
Append your subject with ((tag:…) to add tags automatically to the blog post. For instance…

This blog post had a title: Tagging posterous posts ((tag: useful info, posterous))



{posterous x wordpress} issues

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9;posterous_autopost'>When a wordpress blog is connected to posterous blog (meaning posterous autoposts on wordpress), there is one issue you need to aware of –

If you use posterous to post a lot of images, it might be a really bad idea to connect the wordpress blog with posterous. While posterous is quite smart in managing the pictures by creating a scrollable pane, the autoposting on wordpress dumps all the pictures into the post with a relatively meaningless link “click here to view the entire gallery on posterous”.

Flickr might be better for posting large number of images.



Getting tweet stats

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If someone wants to track their tweet stats, you should check out It is a really neat way to track your tweet count and other statistics. For @ac4d, the students were asked to track their social media scores by aggregating the frequency of tweets, blogposts, videos, etc. Check out the snapshots of my September tweets :)



Want to follow the progress of our students?

We’re starting the third week of classes, and our students are knee-deep in project work and design theory. You can follow their individual blogs to see a bit about the work we’re covering. Design education isn’t just about knowledge acquisition, though; emotional growth and a deep reflection on cultural significance is critical to learning how to think and act like a designer. To formalize this reflection, we ask our students to answer two questions each week: What did you learn? How do you feel?

You can view some of the most recent answers here: