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November 26, 2004

Designing Engagement.

It took a (long working) week on the other side of the world to precipitate the gaseous speculations catalyzed by Design Engaged into semi-solid hypotheses.
Not an easy feat, due to the multi-faceted, hyper-stimulating nature of the conference.
I'd say all of my pattern recognition sums up to a single, simple question.

How much structure is really needed to create engagement?

A bit of backtracking is necessary to orchestrate an answer, one that is not too cacophonic that is.
I'll probably fail.

The overall tone of the conference was set by Ben Cerveny's opening presentation, "The Growth of the Soil", a fascinating take on biological analogies between the world of metadata and that of botany.
Genotype and phenotype meet at the level of the encoded rules that make the former inform the latter, and Ben aptly noted that human beings have successfully played with those rules without really understanding them in the first place. He argued for the value of "good enough" (web) services, put to use and lovingly grown into a refined iterative state of evolution.
In the ensuing discussion metadata was identified not only as the humus upon which to implant said software-at-large, but also as the tool that the community of users will wield to make that very software function.
Applications that can be easily repaired even by those totally lacking the technical knowledge required to design them in the first place, think Wikipedia for example.
Ben's line of reasoning (and everybody else's for that matter) was definitely stimulated by the recent success of sites like Flickr and, where user-contributed bit-based constructs are puppeted to dance to the rhythm of hard-bopping metadata.
As you'll see this is where I am heading next.

Time for a question.
How difficult would it be for the amazing people in Vancouver to turn Flickr into
My take is that it would be, well, ridiculously easy.

Because Flickr is not a photo-sharing product, and not even a photo-sharing tool.
It's a bit-sharing platform.
A platform which enables users' behaviors to dissolve into products, to use Dan Hill's own words at the conference (more about this later).

How did I come to that conclusion?
Through, of all things, mud balls.
John Poisson's presentation introduced the group to the world of hikuru dorodango, the (dubious) "art" of rolling mud balls into near-perfect shining spheres.
John used the example in a slightly negative way, to highlight the way Japanese society is arguably based on adherence to seemingly senseless rules (at least for westerners' eyes), even when it comes to children's games.
How could such an activity be considered fun, or creative?
I found myself strangely drawn to this story.
I'll resist the urge to mention Zen rock garden and the endless raking that herds pebbles into ordinate streams as an interpretative key.
I'll instead try to single out the basic reasons that could make mud ball rolling compelling for Japanese kids. As extreme as it might sound I narrowed things down to two concepts: simple rules and social context.
I also cannot help but throw into the equation another theme that surfaced time and again during the conference, summed up by the trite expression "the journey is the destination", which I'll rephrase into "the process is the experience".

Almost ready to cool down the volatile concoction, hope you're ready too.
Here we go.
Humus, metadata, mud balls.
Simple rules, social context.
The process is the experience: only walking the path reveals its true nature.
Hikuru dorodango, western style: Flickr and are mud balls, ready to be rolled into each user's shining sphere of choice, and doing it so socially, so that each mud ball influences those of others.

In other words what if pictures and muddy metadata, coupled with basic rules (read: structure) provided by Ludicorp are simply an excuse to get grown-up kids to play with bits, where the word "play" is used here devoid of its purely ludic connotations?
Back to the starting point: designing engagement.
Flickr and are successful examples of platforms with "just enough" structure to enable growth, platforms that let the emergent behaviors of their users slowly give them peculiar shapes.
Meal Trackers, Narrative Engines: products shaped out of behavior.

The success of Design Engaged was as well based on the same principles.
Great people and just enough structure to have them play comfortably.
We sure did.

I am brought to believe that all of the above subliminally influenced my choices when we were asked to provide three book titles at the end of the conference.
I indicated Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities because I find its concealed, complex structure (from C. Milanini) almost more fascinating than its content.
The book, an incomplete 8X8 checkerboard with the missing town of Utopia at the center (replaced by Bauci, populated by people who spend their time "contemplating their absence") is as much a city in its geometric spatial framework as it is a sequential narrative.
Calvino was part of OULIPO, a French association of writers who believed in the self-imposed adoption of constraints as a means of triggering ideas and inspiration, almost like algorithmic walking applied to writing.
As you might know the role of constrains when it comes to design is an old pet-peeve of mine, thus I could not help but add Calvino's If On a Winter's Night a Traveler to the list, because it's a book about a book where the structure becomes the narration, and possibly also the most memorable creative effort I've encountered so far.
Third in the list was Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard, which epitomizes the "journey is the destination" mantra and also happens to be wonderfully well-written.

And this, at least for a while, might be the last entry inspired and related to Design Engaged.
Then again, you never know.

Posted by fabio sergio | 8:30 PM | permalink


November 16, 2004

Pheromone trails.

Presentations and notes from Design Engaged are slowly surfacing.
The invisibly present, much-missed Anne Galloway has a nice collection of links for your clicking pleasure.
No way you'll miss the next one Anne (because you know you'll need to organize the next one Andrew, right?).

I came back to be swallowed by a professional maelstrom that has me leave for Taiwan later on today, with yet no idea on where I'll be sleeping when I arrive.
That's just a lame excuse to explain why I have not uploaded my (few) photos on Flickr yet.

Not sure how the next week will play out connectivity-wise, I'll just have to wait and see when I land in Taipei.
Again, please be patient, stay tuned.

Posted by fabio sergio | 1:00 PM | permalink


November 15, 2004

From Collision to Convergence.

As promised here's the presentation I gave last Friday at Design Engaged.

"From Collision to Convergence" (1 Mb, PDF)
(Or how I learned to stop worrying and watch TV on my mobile phone)

Just as Portable Media Players are getting ready to flood the market, bit-based video streams seep into the liquid crystal displays of our connected mobile devices.
Scattered findings from a born-again viewer playing auto-ethnographer.

Beyond the silly title you'll find scattered thoughts around the fruition of video content on mobile phones...and how Big Brother (the TV show, not the one in the book) helped spark a few ideas on what might work and what might not.
Big Brother? Sparking ideas? Is there nothing sacred left?
In a pinch: don't expect rocket science, just opinions informed by personal experience.

The PDF also includes my notes, providing behind-the-curtain info for those who weren't there.

Posted by fabio sergio | 8:30 PM | permalink


Still (design) engaged.

Late flight back home from Amsterdam, after three fantastic days spent strengthening friendships and creating new ones.
I am suffering from random synaptic bursts, hypertrophic neurons in need of deflation. A pleasant state that had me wake up at 3 AM, Calvino's books haunting my dreamflow.

Thanks from the heart to Andrew and Molly for making it all happen, and to the rest of the gang for making it so special.

More soon (together with my presentation).
Please be patient. Stay tuned.

Posted by fabio sergio | 8:30 AM | permalink


November 04, 2004

Librarians rule.

"The new central branch of the Seattle Public Library isn't a building.
Don't think of it that way.
It's a set of theories, tested and retested, battered about in debate after debate, transformed into conceptual model.
What you see glinting in the sun, on a steep slope in Seattle's downtown is a system of adaptive space, agreed upon long ago and dressed up now in materials and circulation patterns.

"The Making of a Library" (introduction here), from the November issue of Metropolis magazine, is one of the best essays on architecture I've read in a long time.
The reason why that's the case is quite simple: the article is high on process and low on ego, so much so that Rem Koolhaas, often touted as the one mind behind the building, is infrequently mentioned.
Metropolis purposely wanted to highlight that current architecture practices seldom put a single creator at the helm, relying instead on an vast network of collaborators to give space a shape.
I know, the star system would want you to believe otherwise, but that's just because the Wrightean archi-hero is, quite simply, easier to sell.

The thing that struck me most was probably the key role the illuminated client played in the process. Led by Deborah Jacobs the librarians knew what they wanted, and acted accordingly.
First of all they narrowed the roster to a few firms known for their forward-looking practices, Koolhaas' OMA among them.
Then they gave them a design problem to solve.
In one day.
Not the problem at hand, the library, but something different, to evaluate how the teams would react. They even had the architects present the results in public, to see how they would cope with a lively, vocal community.
Now you must realize how inherently unusual this must be for prestigious firms like OMA: being contacted for what you're known to be capable of, to then get asked to prove it.
OMA stepped up to the challenge (others opted out right away, probably in disdain) and won the contract, edging out Steven Holl's studio.
Koolhaas can be hardly associated with the word humility, but that's what this part of the story made the idealist in me think about.

I can't help but imagine that creating a library when your clients are librarians can't be that different from designing a website for information architects.
The first three months would be probably spent defining what a library is.
What's funny is that's exactly what OMA demanded.
They asked to spend the first three months of the project purely doing research.
With the client.

"The architects ... knew they had to establish a common language with their clients.
And so, as is often the easiest way to learn a foreign language, the architects and librarians packed their bags and embarked on a cultural exchange program, to study one another.

OMA went through endless discussions, flew across the world to benchmark libraries new and old, tried to talk the librarians into redesigning the Dewey Classification System (architects like to think big, you know) and finally settled to just wrap part of the building around it (literally), solving critical problems of storage flexibility along the way.
Bruce Mau also lent a hand, turning the Dewey into a signage system.
In case you're curious you can still see OMA's original concept book adorning the pages of the library website.

"[T]he Seattle Public Library is the first project explicitly begun in the way OMA's partners had always wanted to work: research the needs of the client and, based on that research, build a conceptual platform that includes a set of core principles and a list of programmatic requirements upon which the eventual design of the building will stand."

Benchmark, research, make assumptions, test them (mostly with the client in this case), iterate.
Other than direct user involvement it all sounds strangely familiar, doesn't it?

The purely formal outcome of the project won't elicit lukewarm reactions, it will likely delight or disgust.
My humble take is that the building's faceted volume might be too literal a draping of taut glass planes over cantilevered functional masses, but that it offers a convincing mix of functional and structural innovations, pushing materials well beyond their boundaries and trying to address cost-control issues at the same time.
All in all a very interesting story turned solid.

A final pleading note to Metropolis (and to most US magazines for that matter): be kind to your customers' reading flow.
In case you haven't noticed magazines, just like books, are sequential in nature (increasing page numbers should have been a strong hint), and human beings still have a hard time reading two things at once.
Unlike chameleons we are not gifted with independently movable eyeballs.
Please do not embed full articles into other articles, breaking reading patterns and forcing awkward decisions on what strand to follow first.
It's just plain annoying, even when it's meant to suggest a collaborative effort in an article on collaborative effort.
If you still have a hard time believing what I am saying just immerse yourself for a few hours in old issues of Wired, say, 1995, then pick up the latest issue.
You might see the light, just like they did.
Please also stop splitting your articles, forcing readers to struggle to the last few numberless pages just to expose them to the awful ads at the end of your publication.
It's even more annoying than over-complicated layouts.
Thank you.

Posted by fabio sergio | 8:00 AM | permalink


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