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More brainy thoughts: constraints and art teaching

Saturday, June 15th, 2013

Blob of wet clay laying on table. Looks like it has been shaped a bit.

A certain type of exercise is used in the foundation courses of art and design schools to increase the creativity of beginning students. In my own training, I remember that both teachers and we students felt they were effective.

For example: you would have to make a little sculpture while holding the clay under the table surface, so you only had your sense of touch to guide you as you formed it. Another one: you would draw one hand, while not looking at it – just holding it out of your field of view, trying to draw it just by ‘instinct’, feeling what it must look like.

These exercises and their results couldn’t be described within traditional frameworks of learning objectives, rubrics and such. If you asked what they achieved, the answer was usually: ‘They make you more creative’. Or: ‘They increase sensitivity.’

I believe in the value of those exercises. I think they help us to discover and experience basic qualities of the world around us. We then develop the ability to predict, and therefore to see these qualities when we design something. These are fundamental qualities: form, light, smoothness, speed, others.

I’ve often wondered: do the exercises really work? If so, why? And how?


Listening to the Brain Science Podcast interviews with Sandra Blakeslee, Norman Doidge, Edward Taub and others, it occurs to me that these exercises had something in common: they all used constraints to shift input away from the sense we would usually have used. We would normally have sculpted based on what we saw; now we were sculpting something based on what we touched, creating an image in our mind’s eye with input from touch alone. It’s the same with drawing our hand: we would not have had only our sense of the peripersonal space as our input.

Could this have been causing new connections to be made? ‘Re-weighting’ or ‘reconnection’? (As explained by Sebastian Seung.) If so, how? And why did it seem to help us so much in discovering our own, unique signature as beginning creatives?

Another idea: constraining visual processing enables new associations

An acquaintance (professor of neuroscience) explains that these constraints probably facilitate the making of new associations that would otherwise be more difficult (he referred to the work of Gerald Edelman). It has to do with the way the right and left brain function during problem-solving activities. An explanation of the differences between the workings of the left and right superior anterior temporal gyrus in the BBC documentary The Creative Brain: How Insight Works seems to confirm this. From 15:22 to 16:00 min you can see a nice graphic illustrating how this works. At 18:00 min John Kounios explains how this ‘winking’ of the visual cortex facilitates the new connections.

This seems to mesh with my aquaintance’s explanation and support the experience we had as art and design students. Perhaps selective constraint of the visual cortex increases creativity.

Analog memory desk – how to use it?

Sunday, June 9th, 2013

Idea, inspired by Art Glenberg’s experiments with helping kids learn to read (explained in the Brain Science Podcast on Embodied Cognition).

Use this as an eating table with a small kid approaching reading age. Draw a circle where the plate will be, then write a couple words (the food that will be served). Call attention to words, then serve food (same as words). Maybe a way of doing what Glenberg calls ‘mapping the written word to their experiences’?

Metaphors We Live By: a rich resource for makers of infographics

Saturday, January 26th, 2013
book cover of George Lakoff's book Metaphors we live by - with simple geometric pattern as illustration

Metaphors We LIve By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

In the book ‘Metaphors We Live By’, the authors explain that metaphors are so deeply embedded in our thought processes that they shape our perceptions, understanding and behavior without our noticing. While reading his analysis of the types of metaphor, it occured to me that this book is a resource for the creation of infographics.

It’s full of examples in which he gathers together whole groups of common expressions around a specific metaphor.

Consider this example:


Is that the foundation for your theory? The theory needs more support. The argument is shaky. We need some more facts of the argument will fall apart. We need to construct a strong argument for that. I haven’t figured out yet what the form of the argument will be. Here are some more facts to shore up the theory. We need to buttress the theory with solid arguments. The theory will stand or fall on the strength of that argument. The argument collapsed. They exploded his latest theory. We will show that theory to be without foundation. So far we have put together only the framework of the theory.’

Other books by George Lakoff:
Women, Fire and Dangerous Things

Philosophy in the Flesh

His explanations can help us pick metaphors for visualizations which don’t fall prey to contradictions and ambiguity. If nothing else, it’s fun just to read ALL those metaphors and visualize them.

I’m OK, but your interface is NOT OK!

Monday, December 31st, 2012

Remember this? It was popular in the 70′s, before websites started replacing people. But I think about it all the time (see fig. 1) as I design human-computer interactions.

Book cover - Games People Play by Eric Berne, M.B. Paperback.

Transactional analysis broke down interactions using a three-part model of the human ego. The above explanation is my own rough take on it.

Fig. 1: The diagram on the cover shows (top to bottom) the Parent, Adult and Child parts of an individual’s mind. Berne saw interactions between people as ‘transactions’ in which these parts connect in right or wrong ways to one another. When designing a ‘dialogue’ between your users and an interactive product, it’s worth considering how much of each part of them you’re appealing to. Many of the missed chances I see in my practice are due to a too one-dimensional view of the user. For example, even the most fact-oriented, task-oriented users – medical personnel looking up information on medications – can be put in a better state of mind by a small appeal to the ‘child’ in them – pictograms that show some humor, or the occasional outright playful touch (consider how attached people have become to emoticons!)

Case study: Facebook’s face, seen by three cultures

Facebook recently put a more direct, personal statement into the comment field, in the form of a question addressed directly to the user in English. So instead of ‘type your comment here’, for example, it became: ‘How’s it going, James?’

IMHO, this translates badly to the two cultures I know well enough to judge (Dutch and Russian). The virulent ranting among many of my Dutch friends would seem to confirm this. (See fig. 2).

Collage of comments made by Facebook user, showing hatred for the new 'How are you?' message in the comment field

The above comments by a Dutch user had many, many counterparts among other Dutch users.

Fig 2. Use reacts allergically to Facebook’s Dutch translation of ‘How’s it going?’ She wasn’t the only one.

Let’s visualize the P-A-C diagram differently: as a human face, before we look more closely.(Fig. 3)

Diagram of transactional analysis components Parent, Adult, Child using Eyes, Nose and Mouth of face instead of the three vertically stacked balls.

A new way of visualizing Berne's model: P = eyes, A = nose, C = mouth.

Fig. 3 TA diagram visualized as human face.

So what expression was Facebook wearing for its US users (broadly speaking)? Pretty much an everyday, cordial one (see Fig 4.)

TA diagram of Facebook's 'expression' for its US users.

Facebook's new formula sounds like a pretty nice guy to a US user.

Fig. 4 TA diagram of Facebook, through the eyes of US culture

Here’s what it looks like to my Dutch colleagues, who have an entirely different idea of the importance and place of ‘personal’ conversations (one of the things I like most about Dutch culture, by the way!)

Facebook's expression for Dutch users, expressed in a Transactional Analysis diagram. Big eyes = slightly sinister adult pressuring you; Big nose = intrusive data sniffing; Tiny mouth = unconvincing happy smile.

Facebook's expression for Dutch users, expressed in a Transactional Analysis diagram.

Seen by a Russian, it goes from bad to disastrous. (See Fig. 5) The expression in Russian (‘Chto proiskhodit’, Sergey?’) (What’s going on, Sergey? has an entirely different connotation. It’s what you would expect someone to ask who arrived at work to find large burly men moving all the furniture out of the office. Not to mention the sinister history of decades of intrusive interrogation by authorities.

Diagram showing how Facebook's new folksy language style looks to Russians - like a big, mean organization trying to pressure you into giving it information.

To Russian's, it's time to clear out!

So what’s the lesson in this?

1. Localization is not the same thing as software translation of a few sentences. Translation isn’t even the same thing as software translation. If it’s critical, use real translators who understand the culture of the readers!
2. People treat computers / interfaces like they were other people (a good place to start reading about this is the research of Clifford Nass . In my experience, the tone of voice and text style has a huge impact (not surprising considering that the tone of voice implies the assumed relationship of product to person). So pay lots of attention to copy! It can mean the difference between users continuing or not.
3. Don’t be scared to experiment, as long as you have immediate feedback. It doesn’t matter if people don’t like Facebook’s new folksy tone of voice – they’ll keep using the product, and they’ll let Facebook know immediately what they think of it, too.
4. Establish open channels for feedback from users, and check them constantly. For one client, we’ve received nearly a thousand tips, questions, suggestions, critique from users – all of which lead to direct improvements. And to 10′s of percentage points increase in unique site visits and time on page. Really.
5. Engage the ‘child’, ‘adult’ and ‘parent’ in people with your product – a tiny bit of childish fun can be a powerful motivator.

Happy new year! May your interfaces all be OK!

Conducting: interactive explanation with 3D graphics and interview (NY Times)

Friday, April 6th, 2012
3D computer graphic representation of orchestra conductor with lines showing path of hands.

From interactive feature in NY Times, graphics in interview with Alan Gilbert.

Another great interactive graphic from the New York Times: Stravinsky’s ‘A soldier’s tale’ performed by a small ensemble. Conductor Alan Gilbert explains the gestures and the connection with the music. To the unprofessional eye, though, it remains a mysterious thing, though – how this seemingly rather arbitrary ‘leading dance’ causes all the musicians’ sound to fall into place.
Note: the use of the 3D waveforms to show the presence and intensity of the different instruments.

Cintiq unpacking party

Sunday, March 25th, 2012

Bought the new Cintiq 2400 HD – recorded Zhenya’s responses, as she unpacked it…

A box as tall as we are - which isn't saying much, but still, huge!

Woman's hand on Cintiq 2400 HD, still in packaging (box).

The Cintiq emerges.

Zhenya drawing on Cintiq.

Zhenya drawing on Cintiq.

Books arrived on Saturday

Sunday, March 18th, 2012
Pile of books, including Dutch poetry, a game with stories on cards, and books about mobile web design.

Saturday harvest of books.

Books that arrived today. Wandered into Egidius again – the print and poem in the window re-awakened my interest in Dutch poetry. No doubt about it – the disappearance of these stores is going to deal a blow to ‘serendipity’. No-one, me included, knows what, if anything, to do about it. Maybe this is a new challenge for interaction design – keeping these shops in existence and helping them flourish.

New York Diaries, in the Author’s Hand

Saturday, February 11th, 2012

Great interactive feature in NY Times, and good thinking by publishers of the book. From the NY Times article:

‘Many individuals have written books about New York City?s past. In a new one, dozens of authors, anonymous and known, dead and alive, collaborate to tell the tale. New York Diaries, edited by Teresa Carpenter, draws together diary entries, official records and even datebook jottings spanning 400 years and weaves them into a rich and unusual history of the city.

What the widely acclaimed book does not provide is a look at the original documents. Working with Ms. Carpenter?s publisher, City Room has gathered images of some of them for viewing online.’

The interactive feature is very well done:


Saturday, December 31st, 2011
Image of spines of three books, the 1973 Vintage edition of Sartre's 'The Road to Freedom'.

The three Vintage editions of 'The Road to Freedom', bought in 1980.

I was 21 when I bought these Vintage editions of Sartre’s ‘The Road to Freedom’ trilogy. Then, I saw in the protagonist Mathieu a hero fighting a lonely battle to keep some measure of freedom. Nine years later, at 30, I saw Mathieu as a coward who failed himself and everyone that mattered to him. The other characters all seemed too flimsy and contrived to take seriously. Now, at 52, only a few bright moments are left intact: the visual resemblance of the scenes of his estrangement from his friends Daniel and Brunet to a Surrealist painting, a few of the dialogues.

I still like the covers.

Vernacular typography: improvised house number

Thursday, December 29th, 2011
House number drawn 6 freehand on old house

House number in Gasthuismolensteeg in Amsterdam.

Kind of interesting: the house painter drew this number freehand.