Information Design Watch

December 14, 2011, 9:57 am

Game Theory, Starring the Bowerbird

By Henry Woodbury

For some reason I was reading about game theory over on Wikipedia, and followed a link to this:

The Mathematical Cartoons of Larry Gonick / The Bowerbird's Dilemma, panel 1

The Mathematical Cartoons of Larry Gonick / The Bowerbird's Dilemma, panel 2

This is one of the “Mathematical Cartoons” created by Larry Gonick for Discover magazine. There are 11 at the link. Enjoy!

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Comics, Creativity, Illustration

September 27, 2011, 3:29 pm

Theremins, Slot Machines, and Wheels of Destiny: Flexing the UI Design Muscle

By Lisa Agustin

When building a web site or application, the wireframes usually represent the first time functionality and content requirements take visual form. Creating wireframes is both exciting and daunting, much like approaching a blank canvas or piece of paper. Luckily, UX practitioners have a lot to draw from, including user research, best practices, and existing UI patterns.

And yet the typical approaches to rendering a user interface–dropdown lists, calendars for date picking, rollovers and accordions for menus–seem to be lacking in the creativity department. Is this really the best we can do from a design standpoint? How do we infuse our interfaces with innovative approaches that delight and surprise users while letting them get things done?  Mike Heydlauf suggests thinking outside the box by designing within a smaller one. In other words, consider constraints as a creativity aid.

The idea that constraints help creativity is not a new idea, but Heydlauf wants to up the ante by introducing artificial constraints  as a way to “design solutions to problems we might not even have.”  His reasoning:

The point is not to come up with an outstanding solution, but to flex creative muscles and fill our toolbox with ideas that might lead to an outstanding solution to a different problem somewhere down the line. In short, the value is in the journey, not the destination.

To demonstrate, Heydlauf proposes a common “problem” in UI (developing a control for selecting both date and time), introduces not one but two artificial constraints (data input via mouse, and input with only one click), then walks us through a range of possible design solutions (several of which he admits are “truly awful”). It’s a fascinating view into his thought process, especially when he considers “real world” objects as new UI models (hence the title of this post).

This article is a good reminder that innovative solutions are a result of taking the time to explore possibilities and not using the tried-and-true just because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.”  At the same time, though, I’d be interested in seeing this tactic applied in the context of a real project (or is it even possible?): How do we incorporate feedback to ensure our new approach makes sense to actual users? How do we fit exploration into a schedule that meets hard deadlines?

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Creativity, User Experience, Web Interface Design

September 20, 2011, 10:14 am

Game Theory

By Henry Woodbury

Why would scientific experts call on gamers to solve problems in protein folding? Here’s why:

“People have spatial reasoning skills, something computers are not yet good at,” [Dr. Seth Cooper, of the UW Department of Computing Science and Engineering] said. “Games provide a framework for bringing together the strengths of computers and humans.”

The game goes by the name Foldit and is supported by University of Washington Center for Game Science.

When you first start playing the game takes you through a series of practice examples to get you familiar with the manipulations you can apply to a protein chain.

Foldit Intro Puzzle 3 of 32

If you get hooked, you continue to real problems. Already, game-generated models have helped researchers resolve the structure of previously undefined proteins. Researchers are also looking at some of the unfolding sequences used by Foldit players to develop better algorithms for computer analysis.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: 3D Modeling, Creativity, Scholarly Publishing, Social Media, Technology

August 16, 2011, 9:31 am

Making Infinity Personal

By Henry Woodbury

How does one comprehend very large numbers? This is a question for artists and thinkers that we’ve touched on before.

Conceptual artist Roman Opalka made this challenge personal, making his life’s work the painting of integers in sequence:

Starting at the top left of a canvas measuring a little over four by six feet, and using acrylic paint, he used a fine brush (No. 0) to inscribe 20,000 to 30,000 white numerals on a black background in neat rows that ended at the bottom right corner. Each succeeding canvas, or “detail” as he called it, picked up where the previous one left off. As of July 2004, he had reached 5.5 million….

All the paintings in the series bore the same title, “Opalka 1965/1 — ?.” “All my work is a single thing, the description from one to infinity,” Mr. Opalka once wrote. “A single thing, a single life.”

Starting in 1972, Opalka began taking self-portraits, also in sequence. These have been published in the stunningly crafted book shown in this video:

This is the kind of photography an artist now would turn into a digital animation.

You can see the physical experience that would be lost.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Art, Books and Articles, Creativity, Information Design, Photography

March 3, 2011, 3:38 pm

Where Good Ideas Come From (or How to Avoid Clichés)

By Lisa Agustin

I love a good grid, with its precise measurements both horizontal and vertical.  We’ve blogged about how grids and scales can serve as guideposts for discussing visual design, a subjective and therefore squishy topic.  Now Smashing Magazine offers another take on this, suggesting that mapping clichés to the extremes of a scale can help guide discussions toward an original solution. The article goes on to explore four visual design problems faced by well-known designers, and the process each used to move away from tired, obvious approaches to fresh solutions.  The article concludes with some tips for avoiding clichés which include–ironically–embracing them:

Start by drawing every association you come up with for the subject matter. Draw it quickly, and don’t be critical. At this stage, it’s not about making pretty pictures, and it’s not about evaluating your ideas (in fact, the ability to turn the critical part of your brain on and off is one of the most helpful tricks you can develop). Don’t try to avoid clichés — let them happen. Trying not to think of clichés is like the old joke where someone says ‘Don’t think of a pink elephant.’ It’s best to get them down on paper and get them out of your system. Once you’ve jotted down every association you can think of, take a break, come back and jot down a few more. Then, take a longer break…

While this advice is targeted toward designers, this is also good advice for anyone looking to develop a good idea, since it’s often the bad ideas that yield the good ones.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Business, Creativity, Infographics, Information Design, Visual Explanation

December 20, 2010, 3:04 pm

Flip Book Presentation

By Henry Woodbury

Presentation software does flip book animations. There’s nothing complicated about it. It’s just the way presentations work, if you let them. From 2010, here’s a Google Docs example:

This is beautifully done and encourages the typical trash-talking of Microsoft PowerPoint. And I have to believe that Google Docs’ layout and drawing tools are easier to use than PowerPoint’s truly awful toolkit. But the kernel of this presentation is not in the drawing, but in its 450 slides. With enough slides you can animate anything.

From 2008, here’s a Flash version of an animation we created in PowerPoint for Textron.

In contrast to the Google Docs example, we did our drawing in Adobe Illustrator and imported each frame into PowerPoint from the external application. But as I said before, drawing isn’t the issue. What we really lack is a soundtrack.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Creativity, Information Design, PowerPoint, Visual Explanation

October 28, 2010, 9:31 am

Digital Camera Obscura

By Henry Woodbury

You walk into a dark room. As your eyes adjust, you realize that an image of the outside world appears on one wall; it is upside down, but in true color and perspective. The lens is a small hole in the opposite wall. The entire room functions as a pinhole camera that contains you as well.

Using the camera obscura artist Abelardo Morell projects images onto found surfaces then photographs them using a very long exposure. Here is the Brooklyn Bridge, taken from a Manhattan rooftop.

Morell created the shot by setting up a heavy dome-like tent on the top of the building with a periscope poking out of the top. The image projects down to the rooftop surface.

“It involves a huge amount of work to create something my daughter could make in Photoshop in two seconds,” Morell says. Morell is showing work this month at New York City galleries Bryce Wolkowitz and Bonni Benrubi.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Art, Creativity, Current Events

October 15, 2010, 12:22 pm

What Inspires Designers?

By Lisa Agustin

Perfect link for a Friday: Fast Company’s annual Masters of Design issue features a look at what inspires four of today’s top designers. Armed with a camera, each designer set out to capture sources of inspiration, ranging from pistachio shells and sea foam to traffic cones and subways.  I especially liked Erica Eden’s keen observations about how people (women in particular) move about in the world and the discomforts and annoyances we often take for granted.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Creativity, Design

September 21, 2010, 10:34 am

The Simple Power of a Graphic

By Matt DeMeis

Most of us know about the 33 miners trapped underground in Chile. I came across this infographic created by Newsweek about the 3″ diameter bore hole that is keeping them alive.

So simple, but so incredibly powerful. I love this kind of thing. With a line drawing, we are given a true window into the unbelievably claustrophobic situation these men are enduring.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Comics, Creativity, Current Events, Diagrams, Illustration, Infographics, Information Design, Visual Explanation

July 27, 2010, 3:05 pm

The Asynchronous Barista

By Henry Woodbury

Say you’re a software engineer trying to explain asynchronous processing to people with a general interest in software. You might use Starbucks as an example. Over to you, Gregor Hohpe:

Starbucks, like most other businesses is primarily interested in maximizing throughput of orders. More orders equals more revenue. As a result they use asynchronous processing. When you place your order the cashier marks a coffee cup with your order and places it into the queue. The queue is quite literally a queue of coffee cups lined up on top of the espresso machine. This queue decouples cashier and barista and allows the cashier to keep taking orders even if the barista is backed up for a moment. It allows them to deploy multiple baristas in a Competing Consumer scenario if the store gets busy.

This is a quirky article that introduces a number of programming concepts in an accessible and entertaining way. Hohpe throws in the occasional deep dive — as with the “Competing Consumer” link in the quote — but even there the analogy helps you guess where such a link might take you.

Analogy speaks to shared experience. It provides a way — one way — to turn abstract concepts into visual explanation. I can almost see the coffee cups lined up in front of me.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Creativity, Implementation, Language, Technology

July 19, 2010, 11:11 am

Review, Reuse, Inflate

By Henry Woodbury

One of our favorite design interns, Jonathan O’Conner is on to bigger things. Much bigger.

Billboard Balloon

Last summer Jonathan helped us out with his 3D modeling skills on a 21 inch monitor. This summer, with a team of fellow industrial designers, he is figuring out how to reuse giant plastic billboard sheets.

Check out their blog for a look at their creative process (the multi-colored post-it notes look familiar), brainstorms, technical investigations, and prototypes.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Creativity, Dynamic Diagrams News, Prototyping, Technology

May 25, 2010, 11:16 am

Creative Destruction

By Henry Woodbury

Wired runs a very interesting piece on Pixar and how it, among all Hollywood studios, manages to produce hit after hit. One factor in their success is the stability of their team. Another is their ability to shred through ideas:

Every few months, the director of each Pixar film meets with the brain trust, a group of senior creative staff. The purpose of the meeting is to offer comments on the work in progress, and that can lead to some major revisions. “It’s important that nobody gets mad at you for screwing up,” says Lee Unkrich, director of Toy Story 3. “We know screwups are an essential part of making something good. That’s why our goal is to screw up as fast as possible.”

I really like this framework for the creative process. Creative ideas — in design as well as film making — build from iteration, from critical review and rework. The time to run through this process of creative destruction is the concept stage — “to screw up as fast as possible.” Once you move into production, rethinking costs much more time and money. The importance of concept development is something we always try to communicate to our clients.

But I would add that the ability to respond to criticism starts with the stability and talent of the team. General Creighton W. Abrams put it this way:

The only way to get anywhere with kicking ass is with an outfit that is already good.

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Comments (1) | Filed under: 3D Modeling, Business, Creativity, Technology

July 9, 2009, 12:46 pm

How Do You Describe a Design?

By Kirsten Robinson

Last week at Dynamic Diagrams we were working on a new exercise to help clients articulate their design personality for web sites. We were brainstorming a bunch of adjective pairs to describe various dimensions, such as warm / cool, simple / sophisticated, industrial / organic.

Then I came across this story in the New York Times, about a whimsical store called Pylones. One paragraph described the design of the store and its merchandise this way:

If you were to secretly dose the celebrated Japanese artist Takashi Murakami with LSD, spin him around in a swivel chair, bounce him on a trampoline, then repeatedly hit him over the head with a piñata, the interior of this store would be his hallucination.

I really liked this description, but I’m not sure how to translate it into an exercise for clients. Mad Libs, maybe?

If you were to secretly dose [famous person] with [controlled substance], [transitive verb] him/her around in a [noun], [transitive verb] him on a [noun], then repeatedly [transitive verb] him/her over the [body part] with a [noun], your web site design would be his/her [type of illusion].

Anyone care to try filling in the blanks?

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Creativity, Design, Language

January 9, 2009, 4:13 pm

A Pattern That Always Fits But Never Repeats

By Lisa Agustin

nyttokolo12

Computer-scientist-turned-designer Asao Tokolo has developed Tokolo Pattern Magnets, which allow you to interlock the tiles to create a non-repeating pattern that still manages to match the edges of a single tile to its adjoining one.   The magnets’ pattern is based on the karakusa, or the Japanese version of the arabesque, which made its way to Japan twelve hundred years ago via the Spice Route. According to the New York Times:

Scholarly papers have been dedicated to the ingenious ways these patterns can be generated and made to interlock and repeat — the fractal geometries of form. What interested Tokolo, though, was the way each tile could have a completely unique shape, and yet be made to link harmoniously to all the others — an unexpected harmony, perhaps, between Western individualism and Eastern collectivism.

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Art, Creativity, Design

March 11, 2008, 9:58 pm

MOMA’s Design and the Elastic Mind

By Lisa Agustin

universcaleAt NY’s Museum of Modern Art, the Design and the Elastic Mind exhibition “focuses on designers’ ability to grasp momentous changes in technology, science, and social mores, changes that will demand or reflect major adjustments in human behavior, and convert them into objects and systems that people understand and use.” The online exhibition features 300 examples of design innovation in several categories, among them Thinkering (“productive tinkering”), Super Nature (technologies based on biological systems), and Extreme Visualization, which includes universcale, a Flash site describing the size of objects in the universe using an “infinite yardstick” extending from a femtometer to a light-year.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Art, Creativity, Current Events, Design, User Experience

February 5, 2008, 11:34 am

Periodic Table of the Imagination

By Henry Woodbury

We’ve seen some unfortunate attempts to use the Periodic Table of the Elements as an organizational metaphor. Here’s a more successful idea — the Periodic Table as communal art project:

2007 Periodic Table Printmaking Project

Organized by printmaker Jennifer Schmitt, the 2007 Periodic Table Printmaking Project brings together “Ninety-six printmakers of all experience levels, have joined together to produce 118 prints in any medium; woodcut, linocut, monotype, etching, lithograph, silkscreen, or any combination.”

Many of the artists are users of the handmade craft commerce site Etsy which features a short article about the project in the current issue of its online magazine: This Handmade Life.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Art, Creativity, Design, Illustration

September 20, 2006, 4:37 pm

How to Generate New Ideas

By Henry Woodbury

Statistician Seth Roberts, “best selling author and paragon of scientific self-experimentation,” is the feature of a link-rich blog post by Tyler Cowen, titled How to Be Happy. What struck me, upon following several links, was Roberts’ interest in idea generation. The “how to be happy” link leads to an unpublished paper titled “Self-experimentation as a source of new ideas: Ten examples about sleep, mood, health, and weight.” Even better is the first section of this paper: Three Things Statistics Textbooks Don’t Tell You (PDF). Roberts writes:

Statistics textbooks usually discuss graphic displays of data, but the stated goal is presentation, not idea generation (e.g., Howell, 1999). This reflects the statistics literature, where sophistication and enthusiasm about graphics usually concern presentation (e.g., Gelman, Pasarica, & Dodhia, 2002; Schmid, 1983). Tufte’s (1983, 1990) lovely books, for example, are entirely about presentation; nothing is said about idea generation.

What Roberts found through his own experiments should resonate with anyone who communicates visually:

A major reason for graphing ones data [is that a] tiny fraction of ones graphs will suggest new lines of research.

Or, to repeat his quote of statistician John Tuckey:

The picture-examining eye is the best finder we have of the wholly unanticipated.

When developing visual explanations we think in terms of the information we want to clarify, the story we want to tell, the audience we want to engage. What goes unmentioned is the fact that moving from text and numbers to visuals can change the way we think about our overall concept. Sometimes a visual explanation suggests powerful alternatives for further exploration. Sometimes we realize that the data doesn’t support the stated goals of the project and a new approach is needed.

While our own process model involves extensive research and analysis, we have learned to begin drafting visual ideas as soon as we have any applicable information to work with. Iterative thumbnails and sketches do more than illustrate the research. They themselves are analytical tools that help us (and our clients) steer clear of blind alleys and drive toward more persuasive, innovative visual results.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Creativity, Design, Visual Explanation

September 13, 2006, 12:03 pm

The Magical, Mysterious Design Process

By Lisa Agustin

In this week’s DesignObserver, Michael Bierut muses about how the design process “really” works:

When I do a design project, I begin by listening carefully to you as you talk about your problem and read whatever background material I can find that relates to the issues you face. If you’re lucky, I have also accidentally acquired some firsthand experience with your situation. Somewhere along the way an idea for the design pops into my head from out of the blue. I can’t really explain that part; it’s like magic. Sometimes it even happens before you have a chance to tell me that much about your problem! Now, if it’s a good idea, I try to figure out some strategic justification for the solution so I can explain it to you without relying on good taste you may or may not have. Along the way, I may add some other ideas, either because you made me agree to do so at the outset, or because I’m not sure of the first idea. At any rate, in the earlier phases hopefully I will have gained your trust so that by this point you’re inclined to take my advice. I don’t have any clue how you’d go about proving that my advice is any good except that other people – at least the ones I’ve told you about – have taken my advice in the past and prospered. In other words, could you just sort of, you know…trust me?

While Bierut’s observation is humorous, it touches upon how important it is for design firms to explain what they do in a way that potential clients (presumably non-designers) will understand, even if it does involve an element of the unexplainable. In the end, the process comes down to starting with left-brain activity (e.g., researching and analyzing), mulling over what you’ve learned in terms of business goals and customer needs, and ”transforming” it into a product that will address both.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Creativity, Design

August 24, 2006, 12:28 pm

The Sketching Collective

By Lisa Agustin

I’m in the midst of crafting an information architecture (IA) for one of our projects. At our studio, doing this is very much a collaborative process. An information architect or analyst comes up with the approach, then works closely with the design team to render this visually using an IA diagram. There’s a translation phase, accompanied by a creative back-and-forth on how best to present the desired information structure.

The Bachelor sketchOddly, I was reminded of this process by a fun site I came across: SwarmSketch.com. This is an “ongoing online canvas that explores the possibilities of distributed design by the masses.” A visitor may contribute a single, continuous line to a titled sketch-in-progress, then vote on the opacity of the existing lines of others to moderate their input. The darkness of any given line is the average of its previous votes.

It seemed a bit like passing around an Etch-A-Sketch.

Probably the best part about it is not the process of adding to the online design or voting on others’ inputs, but the ability to see the progress of the drawing over time. (Be sure to view the gallery of previous drawings. At right: “The Bachelor.”)

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Creativity, Illustration, Social Media