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Does It Need To Be Designed?

I am breaking my accidental year long hiatus with a post about doing nothing, my favorite pastime.

The reason for my absence is almost exclusively due to the fact that I am in a two-year graphic design program at Seattle Central and am just about to start my second year. Many times my fellow classmates and I will go out to eat and drink at neighboring eateries and drinkeries and jokingly kid about the crappy logos or bad kerning that surround us. Being back in school makes one more aware about the visual communication around town. Though said comments are made in jest, I wonder, is it sometimes better if something is crappily designed or not purposely designed at all? Many times our job is to rebrand companies and websites but I think it is more important to distinguish when it is necessary and when it is arbitrary. For instance, when logos for corporations are redesigned.

hershey's logo
One commenter thought it looked like a literal steaming shit

moo logo

Transferwise logo

Sometimes I think, wait which one is the before again? Is that a really good use of their resources? Probably not, but maybe yes. But honestly, what the hell is the difference? (These were taken from the Brand New site that reviews logos.)

One of the UI/UX instructors at Seattle Central, Erik Fadiman, is the one who made me not only think about design but also the necessity of design. He often says that companies will approach him for what they think is the need of a website. But in some cases do they need a website? Sure he can take their $8,000 and make them a responsive website, but will it really benefit them? Will simply using social media suffice? In some cases like food trucks, yes. E Fad started out more concerned with design and slowly moved to the other side of the spectrum, focusing almost solely on functionality and leaving the appearance to visual designers. I feel myself doing to same sort of leaning, but don’t want to let go of design. Can’t I have both?

So I started thinking about the need (or rather un-need) for design more. But how far can you go with that? For instance, I noticed restaurant websites are always really shit-ily designed and have nothing on them. And you are usually only going on there for the hours, phone number, and/or menu. So isn’t yelp a much better way to access this information instead of being sent to an external website that probably is not responsive? I understand wanting to have cohesive branding so if you could personalize your restaurant’s yelp page a little more, that would be ideal.

My fantasies on how to redesign something has changed to excitement over what does not need to be redesigned. Instead of my first question being “what would I do to change this?” it is now “does this need to be changed?” For example, there is this super cheap taco truck near us:foodtruck2

Is this menu aesthetically pleasing? No. Does it need to be redesigned? No. It is functional. In fact, it’s lack of design is its design. Besides, is there anything more beautiful than four tacos for $5.49?

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Flocking v Differentiation aka why I’m uncomfortable in IKEA

(image from Flickr Creative Commons)

I have a lot of anxiety around IKEA. For starters, it’s always packed full of grubby kids and Noah’s ark styled couples, you know, the kinds that dress alike. Second, they trap you on certain floors and sections, by making you go up an escalator with no way down, urging you to follow the yellow brick road through the store. I’ve solved these problems by never going on a weekend and entering the store through the exit (and first getting a $1 ice cream cone as extra incentive). Seana has already written on IKEA as a sore subject.

My biggest beef with IKEA, however, is that I really like their stuff. I go happily along picking new sheets and pillows and crap and then it hits me that millions of people have all this same crap in their homes. The cool style reinforces your belief that you are a unique individual with good taste but in reality you are unique just like everyone else buying this mass-produced consumer good. This tension has pecked at me for years but I couldn’t put my finger on it until I was listening to an episode of the Planet Money podcast today, Episode 457: Why Pink. In the episode they discuss how fashion trends occur and why copying is so prevalent (embraced even) by the fashion industry. The reason there may be 50 different kinds of denim shirts for sale in 2013, is that we all want to be accepted and fit in (flocking), yet we want to feel unique and like we have our own style (differentiation). Designers offer so many different iterations of what’s in right now so that you fit in, but allow you to select one piece to stand out from everyone else.

(image from Flickr Creative Commons)

I think this tension is most profound in IKEA because of its lack of direct competitors. Really, who else is in the affordable furniture biz. Target maybe? There is no middle market for furniture. The next step up, we’re talking about Design Within Reach and Room & Board, where a couch may go for $5000. Besides antique, vintage, estate sale type situations, the only place to go for affordable designerly furniture is IKEA, and thus the conundrum. There aren’t enough iterations to make me forget that I’m like everyone else, and to fool me into believing I’m a unique snowflake. They definitely have fresh, youthful, clean styles with some variety, yet lots of people I know will have the same exact thing, not a variant, the same exact thing. I walk into a new client’s office. Oh, that’s my coffee table. At my friend’s house, oh I have that rug. It’s too much flocking folks. I haven’t solved the problem of furniture & home goods differentiation, but I’ve identified a new piece of my Ikea-discomfort puzzle. And thus, a win.

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Back to School in More Ways Than One

The first back to school was last month. My building had an Artists’ Open House, aptly named “Back to School,” since we live in a school and all. It is always a little scary opening your home up to random people off the street but it was a success for sure! I even sold a copy of our zine — “Growing Up Half Ass(yrian).” Brian showed off his woodworking skills, and I promoted this blog with spiked punch of course.



The second back to school is my graphic design program, of which we just finished the first half of the first quarter. Apparently, I didn’t get enough college the first time around. It dawned on me that has been almost 10 years since the last time I was a freshman in college but only now am I getting the college experience I always wanted. The program of course, is great. The people have cool stories and shoes to match, plus the faculty actually knows what they are doing! But my apartment building also has that collaborative, college vibe as well. Propped up doors with neighbors wandering in for a few beers is not unusual, especially you have a nostalgic record going and the Altered Beast plugged in. Since we are all artists, it gives us the chance to work on projects together.

In any case, better late then never.

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When the hipsters co-opt your lifestyle


“Where did you get this?” Seana’s man-friend says to me, nervously pawing the Klein tools bag that I’m using as a purse. “You didn’t buy it at Urban Outfitters or something did you?”

“No. I stole it from S who bought it at the hardware store.”

He lets out a billowing sigh, “Well, that’s a relief.”

“It’s the hipsters,” Seana whispers, “they’ve taken over everything he’s into.”

It’s true. I look around their loft space, speckled by unintentional hipster goodness. The work boots, home-jarred peaches & pickles, and cans of PBR for starters. The wood working projects, shaggy curly hair (on head and face), and record player for seconds. And Seana isn’t helping, with her zeal for vintage clothing (which she posts on her shop GrandmaISH) and furniture that she has reupholstered with fabrics of teals and oranges harking back to the 60s and 70s.

“It’s bad enough. The shoes, food, drinks that are now all expensive…but not my Klein bags.” He launches into a story about his first Klein tools bag, which was white and glorious. He’ll send me a photo of it later. “They make really nice tools…and bags.” He looks wistful.

I’m not sure, but I think he’s mainly annoyed that his favorite things and areas of genuine interest are now trendy and expensive, meaning less available and accessible for himself. It must be annoying as hell, because he’s not spending his Saturday nights pickling and freezing homemade chicken stock because it’s cute and ironic. My guess is that he does it because that’s how he’s always done it. That’s how his papa did it, and his papa before him. Because hand-made, good quality things are just plain good. I keep thinking about what will happen when the hipsters move on. I mean, they won’t be wearing plano glasses and skinny jeans forever, right? What will happen to the folks whose interests and objects were taken over and then discarded? Will the originators of these trends then be seen as passé? Will the hipster items go back to being cheap or will they become obscure and difficult to find, even more expensive? Should we start hoarding Chucks now? I think they will move on. And when they do, watch out! The hipsters may be out for you and your lifestyle next.

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Growing Up Half Ass[yrian] Zine


The much-anticipated zine is here! Okay, maybe you haven’t heard anything about it, but it is here.

We have compiled some of our favorite blog posts and created a zine about growing up half-Assyrian and half-white. We made some drawings with watercolors based on our childhood photos and rewrote the stories on our grandmother’s typewriter. It was a lot of work but we are so happy with the result!

If you are in the San Francisco area, come to the SF Zine Fest Saturday and Sunday 11am – 5pm.

We would like to thank our beautiful mother, Odette, for her olive inspiration, our Aunt Marlin for her always fun parties and stories, Julia for hide-and-go-seek, Larkin for her beauty, Pam for editing on such crazy short notice, Rachelle and Rochelle for the Assyrian writing help, and our friend Jeff from J & N Printing in Belmont for cutting our pages for free!!!

Buy it here on etsy!

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Thinking on Microinteractions

I just read Dan Saffer’s Microinteractions: Designing with details a great, straight-forward approach to thinking about design details in any given user experience design. It got me thinking about my own UX preferences as well as past pleasant and painful interactions. But first,

“What the heck is a microinteraction?” you might be asking yourself. It sounds kinda silly, like a microthought or a micropoop. Not really satisfying, right? But it’s actually a really cool concept. A microinteraction is the simplest, tiniest piece of any kind of human-machine activity. Saffer (2013) calls it, “a contained product moment that revolves around a single use case – a tiny piece of functionality that only does one thing.” For example, you “slide to unlock” your iPhone. Your iPhone unlocks. That’s a microinteraction.

The good ones are hard to recall since they’re so small and mundane. If it’s a good one, chances are it’s unmemorable. It just works. The bad ones are way easier to remember because they make one feel desperate, frustrated, anxious and are an obstacle to our main goal. They might take time to resolve, and sometimes spoil the whole experience of using a product or service.

While reading this book, which is chock-full of great examples, both the good and the bad, I tried to think of my own experiences.

I’m going to start with the good, since, as I mentioned earlier, they are way harder to think of.

Pleasant microinteractions:

  1. Google Now automatically sending me driving directions (and estimated time of arrival) to my home, work, and any address I look up, across devices. Nice and easy. I don’t even mind when it guesses wrong because it doesn’t cost me anything (wrong meaning I look up an address but am not actually going there and it pushes the directions to my phone anyway). I remember the first time I found the ETA to my work one morning, like a little gift. I love it.
  2. Turning off the alarm on my droid. This one is not obviously good. You have to swipe left to snooze, and swipe right to turn it off. This is hard for me to remember when I first wake up (even though I’ve been using it for over a month), and trying to remember which is which actually helps wake me up. So, mission accomplished, I guess.
  3. Using the shortcut to open the camera app on my iPod Touch. Next to the “slide to unlock” there is a camera icon which I can grab and slide upwards to open the camera app. That way I don’t have to unlock the screen, find the camera icon, click on it, etc. I can’t remember when I first noticed this and I’m still not sure if everyone has this option, or if it “figured out” that I use the camera a lot. Who knows, but it is good.
  4. Seeing if someone else is already editing the Google Drive file I’m in. I don’t enjoy all aspects of editing in Drive, but I like being able to see who else is in the file, making it easier to see if someone else is editing at the same time. They appear as a little bright color square in the top right corner of the browser.
  5. I haven’t used this, but my brother tells me that Autodesk’s Inventor program has great tool tips (instructions that appear when you hover over a tool). He says these practically eliminate the need for tutorials. (I wonder, however, do they always appear? Even after the 1000th use? That could be a little annoying, unless it learned how often you use the program and adjusted.)

Stressful microinteractions (these are the easier ones to remember. More dramatic. Not always easy to fix, unfortunately):


  1. Knowing when the Nespresso machine is ready to make coffee. Goal: to make coffee. Rules: 1. Toggle the machine on. Two buttons (which you later press to start the flow of coffee) pulse with green lights. 2. Open slot for coffee capsule. Place capsule inside. Close. 3. Check to see the machine has water. If not enough water, add water. 4. When the flashing green lights turn to solid green, the machine is ready to make coffee. Press either one of the green lighted buttons to start the coffee (the left one, with a small coffee cup icon, is a short coffee and the right one, with a larger cup icon, is long). 5. The machine stops automatically, or the user can press the same button to stop the coffee manually.// Now that I’ve been using this machine for months, most of the ambiguity, such as how short is the short coffee, has become clear. However, the feedback of the flashing green buttons still causes me distress. Most of the time I think it means that it’s warming up the machine (and the water inside). However, if the machine is left on for a while (say after I’ve made one cup and I go to make another 30 minutes later) the lights will flash even though it’s good and warm. Does this now mean that the machine is “sleeping”? Once this has happened, I do not know how to “wake it up.” I push the green flashing buttons. I turn the machine off and then on again. Flashing resumes. I open the capsule slot and close it, which sometimes works (but not every time). Sigh. Sometimes it just takes a couple minutes and then it presumably resets. On top of this, sometimes the flashing is synchronized and sometimes it alternates between the buttons. This drives me nuts. It’s keeping me from my coffee! And it uses the same feedback (flashing green lights) to indicate seemingly different states at different times in the coffee making process (once the machine is first turned on, and after the machine is on for a while).
  2. Entering my TicketMaster password. I never remember my TicketMaster password. Worse, I never remember to try to login first before looking for tickets. I’m always trying to enter my password after I have selected tickets. I enter a password. Password incorrect. I enter another password. Password incorrect. The system locks you out after three tries (I think) so I don’t want to try again. I see the little red clock counting down my remaining time to purchase the tickets. Damn it! I have to click on the “forgot my password” button and reset it, and sometimes I lose my tickets in the process.
  3. Screen brightness on my Android. I swear I have the screen brightness on a setting that makes it adjust based on context. I thought this meant it’d be less bright at night and brighter in the day. For some reason, my screen is blindingly bright at night in the dark. And I’m too lazy to spend any more time figuring it out.
  4. Vibrating home screen “buttons” on my droid. I managed to turn off all other haptic feedback. I hate it. There’s a delay and it slows me down. I don’t need all that feedback. I already have the visual, I don’t need the tactile. It’s annoying. I figured out how to turn it off once I’m in the app menu, but just can’t figure out how to turn it off for the buttons on the home screen. And again, I don’t want to spend any more time on this than I already have.
  5. Picasa photos appearing in my Google searches. Not cool. Picasa used to be my go-to photo storage and sharing service, but I had to stop once it became Google +’s photo tool. I have a lot a lot of problems with Google +, but most upsetting to me is I don’t have reassurance that my photos are only being shared with the people I want to share them with. Even though mentally I can reason that my photos must only come up on my searches, the visual combination of my private photos with public search results is unsettling and makes me want to vomit. I don’t think anyone has fully figured out photo sharing. My mom accidentally shared all her iPhone photos with the Apple TV via iCloud, so that all her photos come up automatically on the screen saver. Why? It’s really not easy to store, tag, sort, and share photos. I take a lot of photos.
  6. Unsubscribing. Period. Wait, I mean, unsubscribing!!! I hate hate hate trying to unsubscribe from email blasts and newsletters once I’m enrolled in them. I hate unchecking that box that subscribes you to newsletters when you register for any new service. I even hate when the default is an unchecked box because it reminds me that such a thing exists. If I want to receive emails from you, I will go out of my way to find you. I promise.
  7. I know this is a stereotypical girl thing, so I hesitate to say it, but turning on my TV. For reals. I have a universal remote that has been programmed for the TV, computer, DVD player, Apple TV, Roku, and it can take minutes to turn on any one of those things. boo.


These may seem like mundane, unsexy UX problems, but they are so so important. An unpleasant microinteraction is a big buzz kill.  So, let’s work on making microinteractions lovely, please.

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Why This Anthropologist Loves (and is frustrated by) Design(-ers)*

*Warning. This is a guise to promote the app, Design School Cheats, which I helped create with the lovely and talented Cara Oba and Kyle Oba of the design shop, Pas de Chocolat. At this time, it would be appropriate to visit iTunes and download it. The first section “LOOK” (like a designer) is free.


Anyway, what was I saying?

I stumbled into design from an already frustrated place. The year is 2007. I had a BA in Fine Arts that was a blast to obtain. I love art, galleries, museums. But had little job prospects outside of secretarial work in galleries and museums. Not that there’s anything wrong with secretarial work. I’m just bad at it. Had I gone to secretary school for 4 months I could have done my job better. So I run back to the university to do a master’s program. In applied anthropology. Using anthropology to solve problems. The trick with applied anthro, is that you have to find something to apply the anthropology to. I went around looking for problems to solve.

And you know who loves solving problems? Yup. Designers.

My prof, who had worked with the chair of industrial design for several years, hooked me up with a design project, working with design students. Which led to another design project. Then another. Pretty soon, I was in the design trenches, brainstorming, post-iting, concepting, ideating (psst, those are really all the same activity).

What’s frustrating about design, where is the rub against anthropology? In broad strokes, Designers tend to

  1. jump to solutions.
  2. make assumptions about who they are designing for and what they do or want.
  3. care more about how a presentation looks than making sure all the words in it are spelled correctly.
  4. be hyper-aware of what’s cool or not, and put effort into making sure that they are on the cooler side.

But, what I (especially at first) found frustrating about design, is now why I continue to seek out design work and design partners. Solutions are a way to test theory. Get the idea out in the world and see what happens to it. We can research forever, and not know how to move forward. Gotta jump at some point. Making a presentation look awesome, makes people want to engage with it. If I work with a cool designer, someone who is on the forefront of trends, then I don’t have to look cool all the time.

This is part of the reason why I was interested in co-creating Design School Cheats. Because I am frustrated by design and like to poke fun at designers and design process (like when we say “designers don’t read” – cheat #24). But I tease from a loving place, and I have done a lot of interesting work only because designers make work interesting.

Now, I’m in a haze, not a pure anthropologist, not a designer, but a curious admirer and connector of things and ideas.

If you want to learn more about design, or maybe you are designer that needs a little laugh, check out our fabu app: Design School Cheats. Did I mention it’s free? Also, don’t be startled by the 17+ rating. We mention drinking and smoking and sometimes say “shit” and this makes us debauched.

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Corporate v. Studio Work Environments

This list is going to look pretty stereotypical. Which, you know, it is. But it is also based on my transition from corporate work environments to design studios and consultancies. These differences are so stark, it’s almost laughable. Obviously I prefer the studio style work environment. You can read more about corporate purgatory in a previous blog post here.

The most bizarre work environment that I have experienced was a hybrid of the two. It was a new innovation group within a huge corporation. They hired designers and set up a few tables with macs, and we all worked together openly. But everyone else in the office worked in cubicles. It was the strangest sight to wander through cubicle-land then to arrive at a tiny oasis of openness, nicer looking technology, toys, etc.

Feel free to add to my list, I’m sure there are many more differences:


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The “insights” process is not mystical, but it is creative

The most common output of my work are “Insights.” Yes, capitalized, because that is usually the title of the report or slide deck or presentation or whatever it is that I am producing for a client. I usually do ethnography (“ethnography lite” to real anthropologists or just “ethnographies” to most regular folks in the know). Ethnography is pretty trendy these days amongst design firms, ad agencies, corporate research centers and the like. For the most part, it means going out into the “real” world and discovering something about it that you can use in business. I might have a project about photography for Nikon, for example. I’ll go out into the world, interview 10 people about photography in the context of their daily lives. I’ll observe them on a photo-taking expedition, watch their process, ask questions, and try my hand at photography. I am the learner; the participant is the expert.

After all that, I have maybe 30 hours of video, or 100s of pages of transcripts and notes. Here, we sprinkle some magic dust, say a few magic words, and poof, INSIGHTS appear. But this can only occur after weeks of wading through the research, scanning for patterns, diving deep in particular aspects of the research.

where’s the insight? peek-a-boo!

Both these ideas – that Insights are mystical and that Insights take a long time to develop – are lies. I was chatting with a colleague the other day about our project time line. She was explaining to me how we should have a workshop to share Insights with the client immediately after collecting data.  The purpose of the meeting is so that everyone (clients and researchers) can share their ideas about the research and have a voice in the process. Getting “buy in” you might call it. She says to me, “we kind of know what we want to say right away, even before the research is done.” Having an Insights meeting sooner is ideal because the time consuming part is editing video clips and creating presentations, not the analysis.

So why can’t Insights happen sooner? Clients usually like to believe in the mystical powers needed to “discover” Insights. They are paying good money for these Insights. It should be a hunt. A challenge. Not for the average lay person. With this in mind, we push back our Insights meeting a couple weeks, so that it appears that we’re searching, sniffing them out, hot on the trail, but never quite there.

hmm, what can it mean?
hmm, what can it mean?

I used to think this way, too. That the Insights should be a struggle. They should be reworked and torn apart, put back together again in new ways. You gotta earn it! That’s where our bread and butter is. Discovering something shocking in the research. Something that only we, trained professionals, can see.

research is messy!
research is messy!

However, ethnographic findings are rarely shocking, or even novel. I’m not going to do a photography project and find that most people actually take photographs with their feet. We’ve been designing the camera all wrong this entire time!!

Not mystical, not shocking. But insights can be exciting, when you turn them into usable tools. Most designers and engineers I know don’t want to wade through piles of research. They also don’t want a boring descriptive account of what occurred. They also don’t necessarily want to be shocked by the research.

oooh, that's how it's done, huh?
oooh, that’s how it’s done, huh?

Designers have specific questions that you can answer based on what people are doing. What are the main points? And what’s the point of what you’re telling me? They want direction. But mostly, they want to be excited to create and build. What this means for ethnographers, is that we can be a lot more creative on our end. Yes, we share the findings in an objective and fair (not boring) way. But we get that part done with quickly. Then we move onto the inspiring part. What do photographs mean and how can we help people achieve their goals? How might people want to do this in the future? We can motivate teams of designers and engineers to create something interesting and usable through playful activities, workshops, and tools that are something between research and design. And we get to participate in answering those questions. We, too, are creative. The Insights process might not be so mystical but that’s OK with me.

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What your notebook says about you

I was scrambling to get ready for my morning meeting last Friday and realized that I was out of notebooks. I had just finished my Creativity Explored one,


which is tiny and noncommittal, the equivalent of a hotel notepad with a cute cover.

I flipped through my red moleskine, just in case there were any blank pages left in that one.


There weren’t. In a pinch, I usually use my agenda book, but my new 2013 one has little room for notes.

(I love paper, if you couldn’t tell by now.)

I’m running all over my parents’ house (which is where I crashed last night) looking for anything to write on, loose leaf paper, backs of envelopes, anything! “They don’t even have computer paper, what animals!” I grumbled, checking the time. At this point, I’m pawing through my dad’s office, which is crazy messy, and come upon these beautiful notebooks in his bookcase. I always forget that he is a bit of a writer himself. “These are really nice. Too nice to steal? Hmm. He does have two, though. And they are both blank.” I rationalize. He leaves for work before 6 (and it’s way later than 6 right now), so I text him to see if it’s OK to steal one. I don’t get a reply. It’s too late. I run out the door, notebook in hand.


This notebook is large, bigger than your standard 8.5×11″ anyway. The weight of the pages is heavy. The backs are blank and the fronts are gridded, with space for project titles, page numbers, and extra bookmarking info. The ink is green.


I like this notebook because it feels like I’m doing scientific experiments. It elevates the importance of the notes, without the pressure to come up with grand conclusions. Experiments fail all the time.

I also like the science-y feel of this notebook because it makes me think of Field Notes on Science and Nature.


I love this collection of famous(-ish) scientists’ notebooks. Scratchings and musings. Its purpose is to share observational notes from the field, ones that usually stay hidden in filing cabinets or personal libraries. And each set is as idiosyncratic as its author. Its contents capture seemingly unimportant, fleeting impressions. Only after many seasons, or even decades, of field research do models start to form and the scientist is able to draw patterns and larger theories about the world around us.

Why does any of this matter? Because your notebook says a lot about you.

First, the notes themselves. Notes are in your handwriting and drawing style. They reflect your view of your environment and interactions, how you receive, interpret, and consider your personal experiences. Mine are rambling and messy, and usually have an expiration date. The more time passes, the less likely I’ll be able to read them.


Second, the notebook format says a lot about your design sensibilities. A yellow legal pad is different than a composition book which is different than a tiny spiral bound book which is different than a sketchbook. You get the idea.


Aaron Draplin‘s Field Notes, for example, are hugely popular among designers (although, I admit I didn’t know what they were before I heard Draplin speak at CCA.) Field Notes are simple, beautiful, and functional by design. They are pocketable.


Yet, the moleskine is still the quintessential designer’s notebook. My buddies at Pas de Chocolat and I go into this more in the app we’re making about design. Stay tuned!

Third, the notebook as prop declares your level of engagement. What kind of attention you are going to pay to the situation you are in. You show up to a meeting and lay it on the table. More often than not these days, it’ll be your laptop. But I find this to be disengaging and a barrier to interaction with the people in the room. I bring a laptop if the meeting is not that important and I want to daze out and check my email.  My old manager had a huge notepad (maybe 11×17, maybe bigger) that really made an impression in meetings. “Whoa!” people would inhale sharply as she opened it in front of them. I couldn’t decide if it was the equivalent of driving a big truck or if it really did help her think. Maybe a little of both.