Visies op vormgeving: the voices of Dutch modernism 1874 – 1940

August 24th, 2013
Book: 'Visies op vormgeving' - image of front cover

The book 'Visies op vormgeving', part 1 by Frederike Huygen

For those who read Dutch, Visies op vormgeving is a collection of letters, magazine articles, memoirs, reports that show how design came to occupy such a powerful position in Dutch society.

My current favorite is Margaretha Verwey’s account of her disastrous job interview at the Girls’ Industrial School she’s been asked to modernize. “Are those children to become no more than servants providing little furnishings in our houses? Or are we women, who will help these girls develop into people who understand their times and fit the century they live in?” They politely reject her, shocked by the modern ideas of this successful, self-made design entrepreneur.

The texts include debates and discussions of ornament, the idea of art as a community service, the role of the artist in advertising, the role of design in creating better dwellings and ways of living, style, and the relationship between client and designer.

Huygen’s selection, thematic organization and explanatory notes enable us to explore early modern Dutch design with its creators as our guides. And last but not least – it’s a beautifully designed book, which makes it even more of a pleasure to read.

Finding things: ideas about cities

June 30th, 2013

In these ‘Finding things’ posts I record the paths by which I found – or didn’t find – things I was looking for online. This is inspired in part by Peter Morville’s great explanation of the ways we find things (in his book ‘Search Patterns‘.)

Diagram from book 'Search Patterns' showing how people search in different ways.

Diagram from Search Patterns by Peter Morville.


Writing presentation to introduce a film made in 1930s Shanghai – looking for information about the cultural tensions / relations between countryside and city, particularly port cities; for examples of designs which embody the state of the city and can act as touchpoints to illustrate the forces at play (economic, social, other)

Searches / finds

Failed search:

Google search gave mainly technical specialized articles, books, policy papers by urban planners of ports. Not useful. Re-formulation of specific queries (cultural history of Shanghai, modern Chinese history, etc.) produces mainly general interest, either too broad, or totally unrelated (antique store selling ancient Chinese porcelain, etc.)

Rich learning search:

Pinterest – search with ’1920′s Shanghai’ reveals a wealth of potentially interesting objects / artefacts. Saved 1920′s women’s fashion page from university course site; postcard image; various images of architectural features which could be ‘touchpoints’ for my presentation. Including:
- Jazz age portraits by Sioma Lifshitz
- publication about graphic design in China in 20′s, 30′s

Learned new terms, including names of streets and buildings and a publication and ‘qipao’, a type of dress.


NODE: NY Times article: Stealth wear aims to make tech statement
Why: I always scan the Tech section of the NY Times, to keep up with developments in interaction and media design

NODE: ‘Internet of dreams‘ blog; mentioned in the article in the context of wearable computing – future-oriented blog.
Why: The article mentions ‘untapped desires’ of people which can become new products; related to my interest in design strategy.

NODE: Re-posted blog post by Witold Rybczynski (in ‘Internet of Dreams’), ‘It’s hard to tell anymore’ about a book containing not only pictures of real building, but extremely realistic CGI renderings
Why: Perhaps interesting for an architect friend.

NODE: Witold Rybczynski’s site
After reading the original post, I notice a Book section; there I find two books that look promising:

Makeshift Metropolis

City Life

In his description of himself, Rybczynski mentions that ‘the artefacts I’ve kept longest include well-used hand tools’. Interesting – shows he may have an appreciation of the way an artefact can also be a ‘node’ revealing much about its historical context.

NODE: Amazon site, with ‘Look inside’ book function

The books focus on American cities, and aren’t quite what I’d hoped, but are definitely useful for non-professionals like me trying to find out more about cities are experienced, planned, perceived.


I once debated someone who believes that ‘traditional journalism’ – the kind of thing done by the NY Times – is dead, replaced by a flood of blogs, articles and various kinds of citizen journalism that is faster, closer to the source and more accurate.

As I ponder the way I found Rybczynski and his books, it occurs to me that this may be the answer. The combination of a heavyweight network of professionals like the NY Times journalists, and personal curation and sharing, is extremely powerful. The point is: when reading the NY Times, I always find things I need to find, whether I’m looking for them or not. And I find them quickly. And of course, the expertise and policies of the journalists guarantee a high level of reliability.

More brainy thoughts: constraints and art teaching

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?

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’?

Functional form: thoughts on ’19th-century modern’ and interface design in 2013

March 31st, 2013

In ‘Nineteenth Century Modern’ Herwin Schaefer argues that vernacular and technical design played a key role in establishing the aesthetics that later crystallized in the functionalism of Gropius and others. He also argues that this role was ignored or written out of history by later commentators and analysts, who replaced it with a more heroic interpretation in which enlightened innovators successfully rebelled against Victorian bad taste. In this version, functionalism is the happy end, producing modernist design which was ‘…clear…organic… whose inner logic will be radiant and naked, unencumbered by lying facades and trickeries…’ (Walter Gropius, quoted by Peter Gay in ‘Modernism: the lure of heresy‘).

I don’t know which aesthetic ideas may have influenced the designers of the New Orleans streetcar, but it provided my first vivid experience of functionalist design. There were times when riding it reminded me more of sitting at a sidewalk cafe, than being in a vehicle. You could watch people, even hear conversations from close by, while waiting at a traffic light.

Interior of streetcar: note the white metal ceiling with bare bulbs, the plain wooden seats, the canvas shades: all materials that are their own ornament. Image from:

It’s a 20th-century design, but I suspect it’s the kind of experience Schaefer was talking about, had by people in all walks of life, as they were exposed to the beauty of devices whose form derived from their adaptation to function, especially from the actions they performed.

The machine age may have strengthened the bond between ergonomics and aesthetics which was already present in much practical, vernacular design. Ergonomics – the ‘match’ between a machine or component and its users and environment – became a profoundly determining influence on aesthetics. In Schaefer’s words, a ‘logic of function’ was found which gave these aesthetic qualities to the products of the nineteenth century.

Q: Is there a ‘logic of function’ for virtual interfaces?

As designers of interfaces in virtual environments, we’re confronted with a new transition, the opposite of the one described above: as Dan Saffer points out, the elements in a virtual interface can take almost any form – and often any function – we wish. Functionally speaking, clicking a cartoon bear gives the same result as clicking a picture of a button, faithfully reproduced to evoke the affordances of a real physical push-button.

So is there a logic of function – an ergonomic basis – for our aesthetic design decisions in these interfaces? Here are some first thoughts towards design principles:

1. Let the design reflect the form of the path taken by the user. Interactive media has a unique capacity to register and display the unique individual path taken through a product (current examples include the breadcrumb trail and pearl-growing and social navigation features). Like a handle fits the hand, perhaps the interface can be made to fit ever more exactly to the exact path taken by users through the structure over time. To date, many attempts to ‘personalize’ in this way have been unsuccessful, because they fail in predicting the user’s behavior and hide essential ‘road signs’, often along with the very content users are seeking. But as algorithms and behavior change, can we perhaps do a better job?

2. Watch out for overdecoration in visual metaphors. I hate most ‘skeumorphic’ interfaces (for example, the imitation of the reel-to-reel tape recorder in the Apple Podcast app). They look to me like the overdecorated Victorian designs that modernists rebelled against. (In this, I’m probably already a typical over-50. Younger users with no real experience of reel-to-reel tape recorders tell me it adds a welcome touch of character.)

3. Be sensitive to emerging conventions. The tiny representation of a forgotten type of 3.5 inch disk, as a symbol for ‘save’, seems to be here to stay. And why shouldn’t we cultivate such things as artefacts that connect us with our history?

Victorian interior (image from:

Image of old-fashioned reel-to-reel tape recorder used in Podcast app from Apple.

One I personally hate: the largely useless, visually confusing 'reel-to-reel' metaphor in the Podcast interface.

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

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.

Infographic representation of user test results

January 1st, 2013

Created a neat new way to visualize the efficiency / effectiveness exhibited by small groups of test respondents. The example in this document is based on a real test, but of course the client and organization have been eliminated for reasons of confidentiality.
Now: which one of you wants to create a little app that generates this infographic automatically? I have some suggestions for the player interface :)

Infographic chart showing vertical time line with rectangles representing web pages found during browsing by usability test respondents.

Chart shows vertical time line for each user - each dot is 10 seconds. The green squares are right pages clicked, the red ones are wrong ones.

Here’s an example of a page with results of 7 users. Note how the end points make a neat little graph showing the success rate. In the remarks at bottom, you find an explanation of one user’s behavior, which looked like failure but actually wasn’t.

Example of chart with results of usability tests for seven respondents.

Note how the end points form a graph of the success rate.

I’m OK, but your interface is NOT OK!

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)

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

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.