Category Archives: School

Things About Which I Am Exciteding.

A few notes before Kate and I dash out the door for spring break.

I am really enjoying the new shows that Phish played last weekend. According to The New York Times, Phish loved Phish circa 1995. I, too, loved Phish circa 1995, and I’m glad that’s the Phish they’re bringing back. And geez, that’s a fast turnaround in getting those shows online! Props to Brian Cash for the find.

I love my SIGG water bottle. It’s obvious they put a lot of work into getting the shape to feel just right on your mouth. The fine smoothness of the threads, the volume of the lip around the edge… kudos.


During the little free time I have each day, I can’t stop playing Zen Bound:


Beast Pieces is the amazing blog of Studio On Fire, a letterpress company in Minneapolis who does work so beautiful it makes me want to drop out of school and sort California job cases all day.


Our group got into CHI, which means our six-page extended abstract will be published at an academic conference. In April we will be traveling to Boston to present our design for WattBot, a home electricity feedback system, in front of some of the most awesomest people in human-computer interaction. Here’s a preview of our poster:


Have a good spring break, ya’ll!

UPDATE: Yup, it is just a coincidence. Our proposed WattBot system is by no means affiliated with Wattbot, a home energy advisor that is available for realz!

Just Another Day In HCI/d

Yesterday we celebrated Jeff’s birthday in his favorite “Hello Kitty Goth” fashion. Binaebi and Emily baked him a pink watermelon Jell-O cake, and Lynn got him, among other things, a pink balloon that said “Princess”. This was in reference to an email that Lynn had sent him once, where she accidentally called him “Dr. Bardzell.” He replied that never, under any circumstances, should anyone call him “Dr. Bardzell.” Further, one could go so far as to call him “Princess Pumpkin” on his birthday, but never “Dr. Bardzell.”

And so, Princess. Meanwhile, Brandon rickrolled Jeff the moment he walked in the door. The entire event was all very experience-y and was definitely “an experience,” as defined by Dewey. Perfectly appropriate for our Experience Design class.


Three weeks ago, I packed up my Subaru and left Minneapolis in one heck of a hurry. It was Monday, we had just been socked by a winter storm over the weekend, and another one was forecasted to hit on Tuesday. Thus, making it back to Bloomington in a timely fashion required that I gracefully duck between competing storm systems. Just as when I drove to Minneapolis for winter break. Just as when we drove to Madison for Thanksgiving.

My plans in Bloomington were about as time-sensitive as they were ambitious. As soon as I arrived home I placed myself under house arrest and spent the next two days writing and typing. Indeed, twelve hours a day I did nothing but write, drink green tea, and draw down the already-vanquished stores of our refrigerator.

Today we learned that all our hard work finally paid off. Our extended abstract paper for the CHI 2009 Student Design Competition got accepted, and we will be presenting at the CHI conference in Boston this April. We spent the bulk of last semester working on this project, and after a series of fits and starts and upsets came upon the idea for WattBot, an energy usage feedback monitor for the home. Enormous thank yous and shout outs to everyone who helped make this possible.

Meanwhile, this semester is off to a strong start. In one class we’re working on designing a new wayfinding/wayshowing system for downtown Bloomington, and in another class we’re getting all philosophical about what “experience” actually means in the context of HCI. I’m also taking a typography class in the School of Fine Arts that continues to blow my mind every day. We sketch letter forms and talk about counters and tittles and finials, and bask in the glow of 46 new Gothams. Tomorrow we will start working in the type shop with real mechanical type, and I will probably pee my pants the first time I open a California Job Case.

On the weekend Kate and I have gotten out hiking at McCormick’s Creek State Park and Brown County State Park, and we are duly impressed with the quality of outdoors available in Indiana. There is some beautiful country tucked into this state, and kudos to Indiana for doing such a wonderful job maintaining their parks and trails. Indeed, we will vehemently defend this bluff country from any west coast douche bag who wants to talk smack.

UPDATE: Yup, it is just a coincidence. Our proposed WattBot system is by no means affiliated with Wattbot, a home energy advisor that is available for realz!

Works Cited

I’ve been running an intellectual marathon for the last four months, but today things have finally calmed down enough to get my wits back about me. After spending Monday and Tuesday under house-arrest writing twelve hours a day, our team has finally submitted our paper for the 2009 CHI Student Design Competition.

The CHI conference is kind of a big deal in the research and academic community, and it’s where a lot of the intellectual powerhouses in human-computer interaction like to hang out. Don’t beat yourself up if you haven’t heard of it, though. I have been violently active in the web design industry since 2003 and I went to SXSW three years in a row, and I had never even heard of CHI until enrolling in the HCI/d program at Indiana University.

And this program. Wow. I felt like I was on a reality show for much of the first semester. My mind was destroyed, quite literally destroyed at a few points during the last few months, and let me tell you how great it feels to finally be on the other side. That said, I believe it had to happen. Even given the fairly sophisticated understanding of design I already had upon entering this program, I realize now just how naïve I still was.

So I’m better. Now. I grew a beard, and I shaved it off after it had served its purpose.


In other news, I updated Brainside Out with a new online portfolio, in my quest to fetch coffee and shine shoes as an interaction design intern somewhere this summer. All the old versions still exist, including Terra, Rosco and the old weblog Siskiwit, but I wanted to revamp the whole thing to better reflect where I am right now, and where I think I am going.

The process of building it is a story unto itself, but I can offer the Cliffs Notes version right here, right now. In planning out the portfolio I wanted to feature my work, certainly, but I didn’t want to do so in a cookie-cutter sort of way. I realized that I have worked on a ton of incredibly diverse projects, and the last thing I wanted to do in sharing them was shoehorn this eclectic collection into a standard portfolio template. You know the drill: header, screenshot, description. Lorem ipsum, only with more references to branding and marketing.

It took discipline, but I forced myself to describe each project, and write out the primary content for each before putting down a single line of code. I collected all my photographs, sketches and screenshots. I re-photographed all my sketches, on a day when the low winter sun was shining perfectly through our deck door. I dragged our dining room table into the living room, shined it up with Pledge to bring out its wonderful wood texture, and stood on a chair with my camera photographing paper. Why not a scanner? Because design is deliberate, man.

I created sketches of what I wanted the layout of the portfolio to look like, of course. However, I wanted the design to emerge from the content it would be cradling, not the other way around. Thus, each of my primary projects came out with its own unique layout, as determined by the work itself. Jason Santa Maria’s latest website turned out to be a huge inspiration for me, and while my work can’t hold a candle to his, I can still recognize a real man of genius when I see one.

Better push up your nerd glasses.

The technical underpinnings are fun, and I’ll give ’em to ya even though they hardly define the experience of the website. Brainside Out uses Blueprint CSS for its pixel-perfect grid layout, and it is served up by the lightweight CodeIgniter PHP application framework. I maintain the codebase in a Subversion repository hosted at Beanstalk, which I interact with via Versions for OS X. I wrote all the XHTML and CSS by hand in TextMate, which I will continue to do until someone convinces me that I can do the same work in CSSEdit, only ten times faster.

Cabel Sasser’s FancyZoom made the killer image effects possible. Any other JavaScript wizardry is courtesy of Prototype, if only because no matter how hard I try, I cannot wrap my brain around the documentation for jQuery. Believe me, if I could learn how to do what I needed to do with a 56KB JavaScript framework, I would be all over it.

While the entire site works perfectly in Internet Explorer 7, I had initially hidden all but most the basic Blueprint CSS styles from Internet Explorer 6. I tested extensively in IE7, but since I couldn’t get my standalone installation for IE6 to identify as anything but IE7, I was unable to test compatibility until I configured a fresh install of Windows XP under VMware Fusion. Once that was settled, however, I was startled to discover that nearly everything rendered just fine in IE6. So, for all 7% of you who browse Brainside Out in Internet Explorer 6, you’re welcome.

That said, I did try to fix the transparent PNGs in IE6 using this handy script, but ultimately abandoned said efforts. There were a few isolated rendering glitches, where a normal PNG <img> would stretch to fill the full width of its containing element, and the fix didn’t behave well with FancyZoom. Hey, I tried.

Future work.

So anyway, that’s where all that has been. My time back in Minneapolis over winter break was wonderful, Kate is on her way back from Hawaii as we speak, and our new semester starts in three days.

Let’s make this a good one.

Your Darkest Hour, Part III: Shattered and Healed

In January 2004 I started my job as a phone support jockey for a small web software company. Five days a week, eight-or-more hours a day, I went to a regular job and got a regular paycheck. I didn’t want to give up all my privileges at the mountain, however, including good friends, a season pass and bragging rights, so I continued to work as a snowboard instructor on the weekend.

Every Saturday and Sunday I would wake up early, catch the employee bus, and spend my weekend teaching kids how to snowboard. This went on for two months, where I would literally work for thirty days in a row before I happened to get a day off. On a fateful day in March it turned out we had too many instructors scheduled for the afternoon, so I finally got to clock out and go riding.

I was ecstatic. When you’re an instructor you’re on the mountain every day, but you’re always limping around the bunny hill and softly cursing under your breath. The opportunities to ride for fun are few and far between, so my friend and I quickly snatched up this rare gift and went straight for the terrain park. I was blowin’ huge and hitting everything, kickers, rails and the like, and I was lining up to throw down some serious air on the spine.

A spine in a terrain park is a very steep jump, perhaps twelve feet in height, that is sharp at the top like a shark’s fin. The intent is that your forward speed gets converted into upward motion. You ride up the launch side, pop nearly straight up in the air, and ride down the landing side. It’s almost like a half pipe, only you don’t need to spin around for your landing.

I was going hard at the spine, giving myself plenty of speed so I could really get up there this time. I hit the launch, but instead of going up I got shot straight out over the flats. Here I am, fifteen feet in the air over completely flat snow, with no transition for my landing. Shit. I waved my arms to reorient my body, “rolling the windows down” as we call it, shifted my weight onto my back leg so I could land the tail of my snowboard first, and hopefully cushion my impact.

The tail hit hard. I felt a snap in my back leg, and my body hit the snow in a sickening heap. I knew immediately that I had broken something, so I crawled to the edge of the run to avoid getting hit by any other errant, irresponsible riders. My friend rode up, and I told her to go call ski patrol.

I sat and waited for fifteen minutes, feeling like an idiot. The patroller showed up, and he packaged me in a yellow tarp on an orange sled, and dragged my sorry ass off the mountain. At the mountain clinic they x-rayed my leg, and sure enough I had broken my fibula, right at the top of my snowboard boot. The boot acted as a fulcrum, and my leg became a doomed see-saw.


It wasn’t a bad break, but it was enough to put me on crutches for eight weeks. I was done for the season, done at the mountain, and done with anything outdoor-related. The management at the mountain was understanding, and no doubt stoked that I broke myself off the clock so they weren’t financially responsible. They offered to reassign me as a yurt attendant, serving dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets to four-year-olds. I turned them down, as I already had a job and didn’t need the extra work. I wanted my knuckle-dragging friends. I wanted the free season pass. I wanted the social scene. Without snowboarding, though, all I wanted was to be left alone.

In a matter of moments I had gone from being incredibly busy and active in the outdoors, to being a bored shut-in. My roommate affectionately called me “Gimp”. At least I think it was affectionate. Just a few weeks prior I had bought a new car with a manual transmission. With my cast I sure as hell couldn’t operate a clutch, so every day I limped to work on my crutches. My co-workers bought me a bag of frozen corn. Forcing myself to remain inactive was one of the most difficult things I have ever done, and I knew I needed to find a new activity to stay occupied and keep my mind busy.


I decided to learn web design. All of it. I redesigned my personal website, and then I redesigned it again. And again. This was back during the CSS renaissance, when Doug Bowman, Eric Meyer, Jeffrey Zeldman, Dan Cederholm and Dave Shea were all actively inventing the techniques that we still use today. It was a very exciting, but also very frustrating, time to be a web designer. We still had to support Internet Explorer 5, and there were a few times, especially in regards to whitespace parsing errors, where I nearly jumped out a window as a result of that damn browser. Nevertheless, before long I was rarely answering telephone calls at my job, and instead carving up Photoshop comps into beautiful tableless XHTML/CSS.

I was so irrationally stubborn about working at the mountain that it took something as extreme as bodily injury to make me withdraw from that gambit, and to understand that working myself to the literal breaking point wasn’t a healthy way to live. I realized that if I depended not on my brain, but on this frail little body for my livelihood, that it could all be stolen from me in an instant. I knew I needed to do some intellectual investment in myself, and I used this new free time to refocus my priorities and crawl out of the trenches of phone support.

Indeed. The leg would heal, and it would be a beautiful summer.


End Part III. Review Part I or Part II.

Your Darkest Hour, Part II: Salvation

When I said that all I wanted to do for the winter of 2003-2004 was work as a ski town bum, I wasn’t being completely forthright.

As Hood River emptied out that fateful fall and all my surf bum friends left town, my life got real slow, real fast. I had a lot of time to ponder, I had just finished reading Zeldman’s Designing With Web Standards and Eric Meyer on CSS, and my experience tuning up the website at our windsurfing shop gave me the confidence that hey, I could probably do this web design thing professionally.

I looked up Portland design agencies. I lived on I researched every single outdoor sports company that interested me, and got into contact with them. By the time all was said and done, I had sent off more than a dozen resumes and cover letters to companies all over the west coast. Given my diverse experience and proven coding skills, I was confident that something would come up.

Nothing came up. All I got for my efforts was a friendly rejection card from Outside Magazine. I still have that card, and I still have my subscription to Outside, even though I’m not part of the Rolex-laden jet-setting adventurer demographic. From the other companies, though? Nothing. Not a peep. Not even an acknowledgment of receipt. Later I learned that this was the game, that perhaps I had an order of magnitude more work to go if I actually wanted to hear a response for someone.

So that didn’t work. Indeed, my life is full of these false starts, where I’m sure that this bearing, this here bearing that I’m holding right now, will take me to land. Many times it doesn’t happen, and I get turned and spun around and forget where I am, and drift lost and listless before bumping into something.

It was only after my brief interlude with this unbroken circle of rejection that I hatched the hair-brained scheme of working at a ski resort. And then it happened. And then I suddenly was employed by a ski resort, subsisting on hot cider and “40% off” fries, but not really working for a ski resort.

Landscaping. Despair. Another downward spiral. A picture of me clutching a McDonald’s apron in my tiny little fist.

I continued combing the Bend Bulletin’s online classifieds, and then without warning something came up. There was an opening for a web support specialist at a software company in Bend, that specialized in website management and targeted email marketing. I visited their website, which turned out to be a horrid face-stabbing mess, but by this point I had already fallen so far that I had no standards left. This company was obviously a spam house, and I was determined to become their new spamming telemarketer.

With these expectations I began filling out their online application form. It started out fine, requesting the usual personal information and job histories, but quickly descended into a carnival of the grotesque. After every submit button I was greeted by a new page filled by a fresh set of forms. This gauntlet of pain was made all the worse by the fact that whatever awful code they were using for their application process, it had disabled the delete key in my web browser.

After thirty minutes of agony, with no indication of how long I had left, I became increasingly snarky. I called them out on the delete key. I insulted their development team. I swore a lot. And damn if after all this they didn’t want me to explain, in detail, “How to build a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.” I refused, I fucking refused, and instead told them how to supercool a can of Guinness. In all seriousness, this is what I pasted into my job application:

Say you want to spend your evening with a few cans of Guinness, because you live in the States and the only way you can get semi-decent Guinness is from a can. Have you ever been discouraged by the requirement that you must chill a can of Guinness three hours before cracking it open? Of course you have. Here’s a bad way to supercool your pint of Guinness, so you can enjoy it in less than an hour.

First live somewhere cold, have it be winter and have snow on the ground. Make sure you are really tired after a hard day at work, and fairly delirious. While still in your house take off your shoes and socks because you’re sick of wearing your shoes all day. Roll up your pants so you don’t get them crusted with snow. Grab a paper grocery bag and some mittens and head outside.

Be sure you have an old tin can of corn to prop the door open, so it doesn’t lock behind you and you need to walk around the entire building, though snow drifts, in your bare feet. Be sure you know how to use the tin can. Go outside, try repeatedly to prop door open, and flee back indoors every time your bare feet get too cold on the ice. When you finally have the door figured out, kneel down and fill the grocery bag with snow. Scamper back inside and dump the snow in your sink. Open Guinness four-pack and dump in snow. Fill sink with water, and turn snow into a superconductive slush.

Sit back and smile. You are a genius.

I expected nothing back, figuring I had put them in their place.

As it turns out, however, the company wasn’t a spam house at all. They were a small seven-person software shop that built web-based content management systems, and offered website development and hosting to regional businesses. They spent all their time working on building websites for paying customers, and ironically invested nothing in their own web presence. Despite their lousy web-facing appearance the company was legitimate, and I got an interview partially because I called them out on the delete key. My complaints had settled an age-old argument in the business, that fixing their delete bug in Opera was a waste of time because no one actually used Opera.

Once I learned about their business I was stoked. Seriously, working for a software startup? Unlimited snacks and soda? I didn’t care if I would be doing phone support for pissed-off customers, this was everything I wanted! Web design! Crazy, creative people! Small company! No hierarchy, no bureaucracy, no bullshit!

They offered me the job.

I was conflicted, though. This was everything I wanted, yes, but this was everything I wanted two months ago. I wanted to work for a web design shop in September, back during my resume bonanza, but now I wanted to be a snowboard bum and live on the mountain. The job was 40 hours a week, and they didn’t want to budge on that. They wanted commitment. The mountain was zero days a week right now, but would become seven days a week over the holidays. Right when the web company wanted to hire me on.

In a matter of days I went from nothing to nobody, to everything for everybody. I accepted the position, worked the holiday season at the mountain, and in early January started my job as a full-time web support specialist. It was bliss. In a matter of months I would find myself working as a full-time web designer, and soon I would be their marketing director.

But first, I needed to break my leg.

End Part II. Review Part I or read Part III.

Your Darkest Hour, Part I


Five years ago, right around this time of year, I was convinced I made the biggest mistake of my life. I had spent the summer working as a gear technician for a windsurfing shop in Hood River, Oregon, which meant I spent ten hours a day out in the blazing sun and nuking wind, building and dismantling rigs for our windsurfing school. It was the perfect dirt bag gig, and exactly what I wanted to do after completing my undergraduate education.



However, as the summer wore on, the shop realized I had other talents besides my bronze tan and rippling muscles. They had a website, yes, and it needed desperate help. By the end of the summer I was working as their full-time webmaster, maintaining their online product catalog and rebuilding their design in XHTML/CSS.

It was a good gig, but come September the town of Hood River really starts to empty out and there isn’t a whole lot to do. Fortunately I had become close friends with the shipping manager of our windsurfing shop, and we kept ourselves entertained throughout the fall by hiking around on Mount Hood and climbing Mount Adams.



Life was good, my job was fine, but I was bored and restless. I didn’t want to spend my winter working in an empty summer tourist town, sitting on my ass in front of a computer. I wanted to work as a rental technician at a ski resort, and despite Hood River’s close proximity to Mount Hood Meadows I didn’t want to work there. I was suffering from wanderlust, and I needed to go somewhere else. I wanted the open road. There was still so much to learn, and Hood River was only the beginning. I didn’t want convenience, I wanted experience.


Thus, in October I drove down to Bend, Oregon for the Mount Bachelor job fair, a one-day event where they hire most of their seasonal employees. I wanted in, and I woke up at five that morning to make sure I would arrive at the mountain early. I reached the town of Bend without issue, but promptly got lost in the Deschutes Wilderness while trying to find the road to Mount Bachelor. I figured it would be well-marked, with big signs and everything, but I was sorely mistaken.

I was lost. So lost. I stopped to talk to some homeless dudes who had been camping out in the woods. They were kind enough to tell me which direction the town was, and I gave them a ride back into civilization. They paid me for my services with ditch weed, which I stuffed in a Leatherman case and threw away.

Eventually I reached Mount Bachelor, but two hours later than I had intended. The job fair was in full swing, and after waiting around for three hours it was finally my turn to interview. By this time all the positions had already been filled, including rental technicians and lift operators, even food court slackers. I was out of luck.

The woman who was interviewing must have seen some potential in me, and she was able to swing me an interview with the managers of the ski and snowboard school. I figured my chances were slim, as I had only been snowboarding for two years. I must have dazzled them with my brilliant tales of working with kids at a summer camp, however, because they offered me a position as a snowboard instructor.

I was stoked. I spent the rest of the day checking bulletin boards in grocery stores and coffee shops, rifling through the Bend Bulletin classifieds, trying to find a place to live. I found a few that would have been absolutely horrible, and one two-bedroom duplex that I thought would be most excellent.

I threw down for the excellent one. Yes. I would be living with a viking.

I had a few weeks between the job fair and actually relocating to Bend, during which I wrapped up all my responsibilities in Hood River and started loading up my car.



I moved to Bend in a snowstorm. The road was so slippery at times that my Mercury Tracer wagon couldn’t even make it up the rolling high desert hills. I was convinced I was going to die.

I didn’t die. I reached Bend, I started my training, and I became close friends with a number of fellow snowboard instructors. We even celebrated Thanksgiving together. Things were good, I was working, I was getting paid, I was paying rent.



And then. Nothing.


We finished our training around the end of November, and suddenly our schedules were open. Damningly open. We were working two, maybe three days a week, for about six hours a day at minimum wage (plus all the hot cocoa you can drink). The mountain made it clear that when the winter holidays finally rolled around we would have plenty of work, but until then we would have to tighten our belts.

My belt was already plenty tight, so I began hunting for a part-time job somewhere in town. I applied at a number of places, including a few temp agencies. Eventually I got a phone call telling me to dress warm and show up early in this, this here residential neighborhood, because I had been hired to do some landscaping at a reasonable, non-minimum wage rate.

Damn if I wasn’t going to be doing some landscaping. Because damn. I wasn’t. Every day I would show up at that location. Every day a pickup truck would pull up, the driver would lean out of his window, and tell me that the ground was frozen and we wouldn’t be able to do anything. “Maybe tomorrow it will be warm enough,” he would say. And tomorrow the same thing. Until soon the pickup stopped showing up, and I would simply get a phone call. “Maybe tomorrow.”

It wasn’t all bad. They compensated me for an hours’ work every day, simply for showing up. Really, it was the only time in my life where I got paid for waking up in the morning.

That said, a man cannot live on $12 a day. I wasn’t getting work at the mountain, my leads in town were going nowhere, and rent was due. I had nothing to do, no means to support myself. I clearly remember driving around the Old Mill District in the dark, listening to “Keep it Together” by Guster, thinking I had made the biggest mistake in my life.

I began obsessing over the question of why, oh why, didn’t I take the blue pill? Why didn’t I stay in Hood River, stay at the windsurf shop, enjoy a safe and slow winter of hammering on a website, perhaps get a season pass at Meadows so I could snowboard at my leisure? I thought I had seriously fucked up, and I didn’t know what to do with my useless self. I was bored and listless. Rudderless. Ironically I started sending off emails to my undergraduate professors, inquiring about graduate school. That didn’t happen. At least not yet.

It sucked. It sucked hard, but I didn’t give up and I decided to stick it out in Bend for a few more weeks. Like Marty said in class yesterday, sometimes your darkest hour can turn out to be your brightest moment. True greatness can come from tremendous psychological struggle. Indeed, salvation did eventually come, and it turned out to be more than I could have possibly imagined.


Salvation came in the form of a spam house.

Then it came again, in the form of a broken leg.

And these all turned out to be good things.

End Part I. Read Part II.

What’s all this, then?

I came into this program thinking I had a pretty good understanding of what design is. Design isn’t just the way a product or interface looks, of course, but how it works. Design isn’t just about efficiency or economy of motion, but the way an object makes a user feel when using it.

Design is user-centered. Design should remove pain points, but even this goal sets the bar too low. Design shouldn’t simply remove pain, but create joy. Design is about your users, not you. Design should induce a sense of flow. Your product, whatever it may be, should make your users feel like they’re kicking ass.

Good design is deceptively simple. It’s not done when there is nothing more you can add, but when there is nothing more you can take away. Be ruthless. Kill your darlings. Get rid of everything that is not absolutely necessary, and then remove some more. Prune, prune, prune. If you’re not crying, you’re not cutting deep enough.

Omit needless words. Eliminate verbiage.

Break of Day

These were all concepts that I took to be self-evident as I entered this program. I had already taken down heavy draughts of the design Kool-Aid and I was thirsty for more, so imagine my surprise when I was given nothing. I was frustrated when our initial projects centered around running focus groups, conducting ethnographic research, and building cultural probes. When it finally came time to “design” something, like an updated version of Google Reader, we were told to spend most of our time not actually designing, but finding our core argument. When it came time for evaluation, the professor cared more about our “core” than about the innovative concepts we developed. Honestly, we might as well have designed nothing, and simply gone up in front of the class to present some vaporous idea.

My annoyance with the program extended beyond class, too. I volunteered to help redesign the HCI/d website, and even after a month working on the project we still haven’t designed anything. We interviewed students and had a series of agonizing meetings where we defined the goals of the site, and only now have we started sketching anything that resembles a website. Like, the goal of the site is pretty obvious, right? To recruit prospective students. I could have figured that out in, like, five seconds on the can. Why did this require a month’s worth of meetings?

Why did this require a month’s worth of meetings?

For me, it all started coalescing during the IDEO presentation last Friday, when Tom Stat began dispelling the myth of the lone creative genius. He shared a number of innovative design ideas that completely upended their respective markets, including Amazon, Tivo and Netflix. These ideas did not fall fully-formed out of the brain of a genius. Amazon did not burst, clad in armor and brandishing steel, from the forehead of Zeus. Indeed, even if Jeff Bezos was entirely and independently responsible for the original concept, there is no doubt that Amazon underwent numerous revisions, expansions and contractions on its long road from idea to launch.

The point is, “genius” as a generative tool is unreliable, unpredictable, and incredibly risky. The design process, however, is a way that sharp individuals can get together as a team, and come up with highly innovative and destabilizing results. Good design is not an accident. Design is deliberate, conscious, and carries with it values and judgements. Unfortunately for us, design is also a lot of work. I think we’ve all figured this out by now.

And this, this is what I have since discovered as the fatal flaw in my understanding of design. I already knew that design was more than veneer, that it had to be woven into every part of the development of a product. I assumed this knowledge would be my tightly-wrapped cloak, that would shield me from the bitter storm promised by Marty and the second-years. I was already on board, and I figured I would be immune to the destruction.

Boy was I wrong.

When the semester began I was surprised that we started with all this talk about research and observation and insight and reflection. I figured we were just establishing the fundamentals, and that it all would blow over soon and we would finally begin designing things.

As weeks became months, however, and we were still talking about cores and processes, I became incredibly frustrated. I felt dead inside. I was ready to leave the program, this stupid program that has design in its name, where you don’t even design anything. Two months in, not a breath has been wasted on interface design patterns, or user interface elements, or Fitt’s Law, or anything else that one thinks would be covered in a human-computer interaction design program. In fact, one of our courses this semester is an exercise in socratic philosophy, more than anything else.

So where is the design?

All this nonsense, I thought. The sooner we could get this procedural garbage over and done with, the sooner we could get to the good stuff. The sooner we could start designing.

Just recently it all began falling into place in my head. I realized that my conceptualization of design, while perhaps decently sophisticated, was terribly narrow in scope, and included only about the final ten percent of the process. I was familiar with the principles that govern the construction of a design once an idea has been established, but I knew nothing of how to reach that idea.

All this nonsense we have been doing, it is far from nonsense. This is design. Indeed, 90 percent of the design process is informing your final design argument, and yet I was only familiar with that final ten percent. Without a good design strategy, you’ll certainly be able to rush into a design and start building something sooner, but it’s ultimately going to be a weak design with a weak argument. Design is a marathon, and in my hubris I thought I could take a taxi to within 500 feet of the finish line and still claim a fair victory.

This program is obsessed with the process, and not the final product, because the process will ultimately inform everything we will ever design. Ever. If we do not understand these fundamentals, if we have not been immersed in the design process, and if we are not able to abstract these procedures and apply them in different contexts, the world owes us nothing.

I sincerely believe that this program addresses one of the most important things being undertaken in the world right now. This is a complete reconceptualization of what it means to create anything, from products to systems to policies. If humans are to exist in their current capacity for another hundred years, we need to begin informing our actions with deliberate design-based thinking.

Everything is a design problem.

We are learning a mental and procedural framework that will guide the values we hold, and the design decisions we make, for the rest of our lives. That is why this is hard, and that is why this is important.

Hold onto your Awesome

To those who are wondering, no. I am not growing a beard. I am raising a beard. There is a distinct difference between the two actions, in that one suggests passivity, while the other implies a much more active and deliberate process. Remember, design is deliberate.

Raising a beard is not just the absence of shaving, it is the presence of not shaving. Kind of like typography. It’s not really the letters that make up the words, but the space within (and even between) the letters that does. Whitespace. Negative and positive space. Like music. It is the space between the notes that matters. Unless you’re Charlie Parker and there is no space between your notes, and you couldn’t even slide a piece of paper between them because they are so tightly packed together.

But you are not Charlie Parker. You are not one of the most influential jazz musicians ever to live. You could be, though, you could get to that point, and that is why we are here.

Why are we here?

We are here to destroy and subsequently rebuild ourselves. Indeed, as part of this process I have found solace in the beard. Yes, these are the things to which we aspire, to achieve once again this incredible degree of bad-assery.

It took hard work to get there. A lot of hard work. I’m not even sure it can be accomplished in this environment, what without sun and elevation and hauling 70-pound backpacks through the grizzly-ridden wilds of Yellowstone. This is a different environment, with a different definition of bad-ass, but what happens when these worlds collide? Let’s find out. Perhaps we will crash and burn, but by then at least we will know. Zen Dog himself tells us it is not the destination, but the ride, that is important.

Zen Dog also tells us that he is a pirate. If you did not know this then you are not paying attention. You should wake up. As it was once so eloquently put:

“Me and my friends have been too busy sunbathing off the southern coast of St. Bart’s with spider monkeys for the past two weeks, tripping on acid. Changed our whole perspective on shit.” SOURCE (a good HCI academic always cites his sources).

Indeed, I have discovered that this beard, being a physical manifestation of the current broke-ass state of my brain, acts as a feedback loop. I feel gnarly inside, all twisted and confused and somewhat jittery after my twelfth cup of coffee. All this coffee does something to me, physiologically, such that I occasionally must attend to a room with mirrors in which I participate in socially unmentionable activities. This room has mirrors, yes, and I look at myself in these mirrors and there’s this scraggly beard looking back at me. The beard opens its mouth, speaks, says, “I know how you feel.”

Suddenly it doesn’t bother me so much anymore, that my brain has become unhinged and fractured. The beard knows. The beard understands. It is a reflection of my inner state, an admission that yes, it is okay to feel this way. It is okay to be grizzled. This process, this process of becoming, it isn’t a clean process, it is messy and chaotic and frustrating and punctuated with stray bits of food and milk that hang around longer than would be considered proper.

I go zen. I put on my eye patch and ride an innertube down the Namekagon River. Tied to my innertube with a scrap of Finley’s Fine Twine is another innertube, a tiny innertube with a cooler, a cooler filled with ice and water but above all filled with awesome.

This river may or may not obliterate you. Remember, though, that no matter what you do, no matter what happens, hold onto your awesome. Do not, under any circumstances, let that go.

You hear me?

Hold onto your awesome.

Elvis Legs

In the interest of full disclosure, before I became a big-shot graduate student I was something of a dirtbag. I would guide wilderness trips, eat roots and berries, and participate in all sorts of dirtbag activities like frisbee, rock climbing and hacky sack. Indeed, I would also burn Nag Champa, wear hemp necklaces, and buy sarongs emblazoned with cultural symbols that I didn’t understand. I am proud to say, however, that I have never owned a pair of devil sticks.

I’ve been thinking a lot about slacklining for the last few days. Slacklining is a popular dirtbag sport, where you string up a one-inch thick piece of webbing between two trees. You pull it really tight and then you try to walk across it. If you’re really good, you walk across it, spin around, and then try to walk back. If you’re really, really good, you do flips and rolls and stuff. To get this good, however, you will need dreadlocks. A huge knotted mass of dreadlocks.

Slacklining is incredibly difficult when you first try to do it. Humans don’t naturally have what it takes, and even if you have incredible balance you still need to go through the difficult process of learning how to do it. Just standing on the slackline, even less walking on the slackline, can be challenging. During their first few attempts most people have this sort of “Elvis leg” thing going on, where the instant they put weight on their foot it shakes back and forth at an alarming rate. You put your foot on the slackline, you try to stand up, you shake it like Elvis for half a second, and you fall right off. Damn, eh?

Slacklining isn’t very complicated. Indeed, unless you have dreadlocks and are doing backflips and handstands, it’s just walking. Sure, walking on a one-inch surface that is incredibly unstable is very difficult to do, but it certainly isn’t complicated. The path towards mastery is through practice and muscle memory. Whether you’re aware of it or not, as you practice slacklining your brain is analyzing all the small muscle movements in your body. Over time it identifies the “Elvis leg” as an unproductive motion, and your muscle memory moves in to compensate. Before you know it the Elvis leg is gone, and you’re working on your first step. Then two steps. Then you’re going for the other end of the slackline.

It’s hard and frustrating and even I am not that good at it, but if you keep on practicing you’ll continue to unconsciously get better. With slacklining there isn’t a whole lot for your brain to do, but it’s a skill that you begin to internalize over time. In a way, this is how I feel my design education is progressing. It isn’t a perfect analogy, as I would argue that producing designs, especially simple designs, is extremely complicated. However, right now I don’t see any particularly clear path when it comes to solving a design problem, and so I find myself wasting all sorts of time pursuing dead ends.

I’ll spend two hours trying to put together an appealing three-color palette, only to scrap it entirely two days later in favor of something else. All creative design comes in fits and starts, of course, but instead of walking to the other end of the slackline, right now I’m just trying to stand up. Still floundering on my shaky Elvis legs, I have not yet had the practice necessary to eliminate these excess, unproductive motions. In learning the theory and motivations behind HCI design I hope to internalize these thoughts and techniques, and unconsciously weave them into the fabric of my design process.