My name is Jacob Rader and I’m a design engineer currently living in Austin, TX.

Four years ago I followed a girl to Austin from Tucson where I had gotten my formal education in mechanical engineering and mathematics. While in Austin I’ve spent my time working a wide range of jobs, being exposed to a variety of engineers, craftsmen, artists, and designers.

About a year and a half ago I became dissatisfied with my current job arc, mainly the prospect of spending the next fifty years buried in a cubicle. This started me on an exploration of design topics, from biomimicry to traditional manufacturing techniques – I became especially focused on the processes of ideation and prototyping, methodologies that speak to both engineering and design. This journey has led me to Austin Center for Design. While attending the school I’m hoping to explore the space between design and engineering and find a balance between my two passions.


Reflections

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Recent Blog Posts

 

Sketching

 

Sketching as a conversation with our ideas.

In the cartoon world, a ponderous character’s thought is depicted by a cloud over their head linked to them with a series of disconnected bubbles.  The idea is floating there, precariously tethered; it’s almost as if a strong breeze could just blow it away.  In many ways this is an accurate portrayal of how the creative process can feel.  As we start to create, our ideas feel nebulous; a flux of chaos, disparate and disconnected.  The sketching process can take that cloud and give it structure; it turns the thought bubble into a dialogue where we can actively engage in our ideas.

This dialogue is analogous to our natural sensemaking process.  Sensemaking is our attempt to “order the intrinsic flux of human action, to channel it toward certain ends, to give it a particular shape” (Tsoukas and Chia 2002, p. 507).  Sensemaking is the active conversation we have with the events that we encounter; it’s our ability to take in information, process it, and derive meaning and action from it.

Rather than focusing on the external, sketching provides us a sensemaking process for our own creative flux. When we’re presented with a problem our minds go to work to create this cloud of ideas, populating it with information and attempting to form connections. Facilitated sensemaking turns that abstract concoction into a concrete reality.  This works because sketching forces us to make decisions and apply structure to our ideas.  By externalizing we pass those fragments through a filter of our own experience creating a foundation to build our ideas from.

When we externalize the pieces of an idea through a sketch we’re making a testable “design move” which we’re able make judgements around. This positions us to make further moves that iteratively cycles and builds an idea.  When these “moves function in an exploratory way, the designer allows the situation to ‘talk back’ to him, causing him to see things in a new way – to construct new meanings and intentions” (Schon 1984, p. 132).  Over time, as the idea builds, it begins to form its own set of “likings, preferences, values, norms, and meanings” that the designer can start to judge a design against, creating an active dialogue between the designer and the idea (Schon 1984, p. 132).   A new idea is fragile; it’s easily interpreted and changed.  When we build an idea its fidelity increases and become more resistive to change. In this regard an idea develops a self determinist nature giving it resilience. Sketching forms the foundation and tool of this process.

What makes sketching special in this process is that it highlights other levels of thinking, specifically the visual aspects of our creative process.  Talking through our ideas is our default medium to work in.  Speech is a natural tool for us, but it’s inherently limited by the constraints of its pre-structured nature.  When we sketch we open up the creative process to engage a more complex dialogue with our ideas, one that can explore the visual and emotional aspects of our creativity.

 

Sketching as a shared conversation.

Design thrives in the context of a collaborative environment where sketching becomes the tool to quickly give others access to our ideas. Once an idea is externalized as a sketch it becomes a medium of exchange and a tool of provocation.  Sketching creates an informal, mutable narrative that allows a collaborator room for interpretation and improvisation. Collaborative sketching allows us to asymmetrically explore and share independent design moves that build on a core idea, creating a sum greater than the individual parts.

In the collaborative design process we use sketching to give others access to our ideas while simultaneously provoking them into their own.  Similar to this process, in research we attempt to provoke our participants in giving us access to their experiences and perspective. Here at AC4D my design team attempted to facilitate this process using sketching. The thought being that if structured correctly, sketching could give us access to their our participant’s experiences in a new way.

Through our research around healthcare and medical documentation we were trying to explore the emotional aspects of interacting with the health care system.  To do this the design team devised an exercise where the participant was instructed to draw the emotional journey of her medical recovery.  She was asked to a map that journey on a chart with the axes depicting “sense of emotional control” over time; she further marked the significant moments in her journey with illustrations.

This forced provocation gave our participant a new framework to re-travel her recovery.  The structure of the timeline and the act of sketching forced her to re-think her recovery as a process, using the key moments as waypoints to guide the rest of the story.  This same structure allowed us, as researchers, the opportunity to explore our participant’s experience while revealing to us the more emotional moments of her recovery.  This process generated a wealth of inspiration and insights that we’ve continually gone back to throughout the design process.

 

Sketching as a conversation with the world.

The creation of an idea involves us traversing the chaotic mess of our creative process, gleaning fragments from this flux and manifesting them into a tangible reality.  It’s a complex process that requires countless design moves that progress us along a non-linear path.  In the end we have a self-resilient idea that only we fully understand. Half the battle of design is creating an idea, the other half is convincing the world of it’s value .

Sketching becomes a tool that allows us to reflect on the complexity of an idea and to come out the other side with something that’s approachable.  It allows us to not only give someone access to the idea but also to a focused view of the process we took to get there; a curated access to our sensemaking process.  In this way sketching shifts from a generative process to a storytelling device.  Just as when you’re building and exploring and idea, a visual articulation highlights the aspects of an idea that can’t be articulated through language, creating a rapid narrative.

Earlier this year my design partner Scott and I applied for IXDA’s student competition.  As part of our application we produced a 3 minute video extolling our design methodology.  It was important for us to share our complex views of design in a way that was easy, fun and most importantly, brief.  We ended up utilizing a format that relied heavily on visual articulations to supplement our verbal arguments.  Sketching became a tool to give the judges a deeper access to our design philosophy. You can see the video here.

Of the liberal sciences, design is unique in its ability to tackle the complexity of human problems.  To do this we need to tools that better reflect the under-defined nature of our creative process.  Sketching is an expressive and human device that gives us a sharp provocation to cut through not only the complexity of own process but also the human problems we’re trying to address.

- jacob

 

References

Tsoukas, H., R. Chia. 2002. Organizational becoming: rethinking organizational change. Organ. Sci. 13(5) 567–582.

Weick, Sutcliffe, Obstfeld. 2005. Organizing and the Process of Sensemaking.Oran. Sci. 16(4) 409-421.

Schön. 1984. Problems, frames and perspectives on designing. Design Studies. 132-136.

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The Special Nature of Ordinary

Ordinary gets a bad wrap.  Rarely do we celebrate ordinary.  Ordinary is the B student, the 3rd place finisher, ordinary is the domestic beer.  But within the ordinary there is something special, especially when we talk about design.  Ordinary is the nature of how we see the world; it is our default state.

Ordinary is often seen as being “not special” and this is a problem for  technologists and designers.  As designers we’re constantly asked to make something that will surprise and delight, but a thing can only be special for a limited amount of time; meaningfulness is a temporary quality.  Let us take a look at the default design example: Apple’s iPhone.  The iPhone was in many ways revolutionary, it changed people’s understanding of interactions with technology. It’s newness, however,  was short lived.  Smartphones have become interwoven in our culture to the point that they’ve reached the state of ordinary.  Rather than appreciating the appropriate and indispensable nature of the technology, we dwell on what’s the next big thing.

In their book “Super Normal” Naoto Fukasawa and Jasper Morrison purpose the concept outlined in the title.  Morrison argues that “The Super Normal object is the result of a long tradition of evolutionary advancement in the shape of everyday things, not attempting to break with the history of form but rather trying to summarise it, know its place in the society of things”.

What they are arguing for is a better understanding of design as something that should be, in its purest state, ordinary.  Ordinary is something special that should be revered.  So the question comes: What does it mean for an thing to be ordinary?

A thing becomes ordinary when it becomes ubiquitous within a group, both in use and cultural acceptance.  In this regard ordinary is a dynamic social quality actively managed through our use and interactions.  As a thing becomes ubiquitous in a culture it becomes ordinary.  We don’t look at everyday objects like chairs or utensils as being special, but at the same time we can’t imagine a world without them; the same could be said of the smartphone. Our collective sense of ordinary is shaped by our experiences over time, so as we learn new things our sense of ordinary changes and evolves.

In this way ordinary can be seen as an evolutionary mechanism in design. Ordinary isn’t a quality designated by a committee or marketing firm, nor do designers get to define what becomes ordinary.  Only through use, over time, will technology reach a state of ordinary and it’s that ordinary use that defines the requirements of the next round of technological development. Technologists can put things out into the world but only through use and cultural acceptance will a thing become ordinary, everything else falls off and is forgotten as evolutionary chaff.

Not only does ordinary highlight the useful nature of a thing, it reveals cultural appreciation and acceptance.  We have plenty of methods for measuring usefulness, but cultural relevance is much more difficult to gauge.  Ordinary can provide an opportunity to not only examine the usefulness of a thing but also the softer qualities, things like sentiment and emotion.  By focusing so closely on those things that are the most familiar it introduces an element of strangeness into the design process.  Strangeness can be a powerful provocation providing us a way of teasing out behaviors and patterns that might be normally overlooked.

As a design provocation, ordinary encourages us to focus on the longevity of a thing.  If meaningfulness is a temporary quality then by focusing on the ordinary we’re encouraged to make things that will last.  If a thing is built to be continually useful it provides the user with an opportunity to re-discover and reinterpret it’s meaningfulness over time.  In this way a thing can both grow with us individually and culturally.

Ordinary becomes a lens that highlights the things that are collectively important to us. In a time when cheap, temporary convenience and disposability are primary drivers of innovation, ordinary provides us with the impetus to pursue a more holistic and long-term view of design. Focusing on the special nature of ordinariness we get the opportunity to  better understand what makes a thing truly special.

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Simplicity Through Understanding

Here at AC4D our focus is on understanding and designing solutions for Wicked Problems.  These are social problems that are intertwined and woven into the complexity of our human systems and interactions.  Part of what we’re learning here are methods for cutting though the complexity around these problems.  Ultimately we can’t influence and change a system until we understand it, and really that’s where the heart of simplicity lies.

Simplicity is understanding; whether it’s a complex problem like heath records, or comparatively well defined, like a thermostat. Once we understand the parts of a system we can then design, smart, simple solutions.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been designing a thermostat.  Just as with my team’s research around heath records, building a thermostat is a human centered process.

Each week I iterated on the design and put it out into the world in the form of prototype testing with potential users.  Each of those test users found new issues and illuminated different areas for simplification; only by building this understanding with real people was I able to refine my design.

Below you can see the translation from an existing thermostat concept model, to my first iteration, to my final iteration 

Simplicity in design isn’t really about removing things from your design; it’s about choosing the right things to put in.  By understanding what a person really needs we’re able to directly address those needs, and ignore the superfluous.

In the case of my thermostat, this meant removing all but the basic features: setting the temperature (one for when you’re home, one for when you’re not) and switching between heat, cool, and fan modes.  This simplification allowed me to really play around with the form of the design and focus on how I was communicating with the user.

By constructing a good understanding of the users needs, I was able to focus on the simplicity of my design.  This resulted in a flexible and robust system.  School here at AC4D is coming to a close for the quarter, but I plan on working on this design to bring it to a higher fidelity, rendered version in the weeks to come.

Final Thermostat Wireframes

Thank you, and if you have any questions or comments feel free to contact me at Jacob.Rader@ac4d.com

- jacob

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IxDA 2014

Yesterday, Scott and I submitted our application to the 2014 IxDA Student Competition taking place next February in Amsterdam. You can find our application documents linked below.

The competition is focused on health records in developing nations. We see the completion as an opportunity to explore the work we’re doing around health records through the framework presented by the completion.  Helping people understand their health is a universal problem; without crucial information, how can we make good decisions around our health?  We see compelling parallels as well as important distinctions between our work locally and the global scope of the competition.

While the problem of comprehensive health records is similar across communities, it is inherently wicked in that it’s significantly affected by the values and conventions of each local community the system exists in.  We’ve been looking at health records confined to our community here in Austin, and the system here is linked to the entrenched nature of American healthcare.

The competition offers us the opportunity to take our built intuition around this topic and apply it to a more open problem space; to generate solutions for communities that are, in many ways, still trying to define their system. These communities have their own challenges, but the space is inherently more open to change and new ideas.  In some sense, designing for communities without a robust existing bureaucracy seems like a great opportunity for design to make a rapid, meaningful impact.  We hope that by competing in Amsterdam we’ll generate some valuable insights that could impact both the communities addressed in the completion but also those back at home.

Our application documents:

Application Video

Food & Identity

Firestarting

- jacob
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