A learn-by-doing community for creative professionals.


April, 2013

Looking versus seeing

This video about Inge Druckrey is touted by Fast Company as a 40-minute crash course in design thinking…For me it’s about the essence of being patient. We talk about the importance of a powerful research phase (we call it Examine) and how it’s essential to try to differentiate it from a synthesis or analysis phase (that we call Understand). In the very first moments of the video, Druckery says:

You really learn to look… and it pays off, that suddenly you begin to see wonderful things in your daily life you never noticed.

For me, that “seeing” as different from “looking” is the difference between talking to users and understanding a problem space. You can’t just start seeing…you have to start with looking.

It’s worth your time, to be sure. In case you need more convincing, here’s a gem mentioned by the FastCo article:

A particularly thoughtful sequence, one that brings to life Druckrey’s dictum about seeing wonderful things you never noticed, has her narrating a student’s attempt at developing a typeface. Severny lets the student’s capital letter R take up the whole screen, fading from one version to the next as Druckrey narrates the refinements taking place before our eyes. For those who don’t think much about type on a daily basis, it’s a two-minute crash course in “really learning to look” at letters, a glimpse into the interdependent system of angles, connections, and stroke weights that make some typefaces just feel right.

Taxonomy: Open, Closed, Fluid

Taxonomy is one method of abstracting content to help us organize it. I use it all the time to help me categorize and prioritize content – research findings, ideas generated from a brainstorm, anything.

I came across this great article on UX Taxonomies in my reading list backlog and wanted to share it with you all. Taxonomies can help designers organize content, but can also help users find content, involving them in your brand, site or experience more deeply. Below are some great tips from the article!

To get started, think about a card sort.

When it comes to developing the list of terms you will use, a card sort can be a good starting point. Through this usability method, you can learn how users would organize your content and what labels they would assign to each category—information commonly used to inform sitemap development but just as useful when building out a taxonomy.

When you have a taxonomy developing, finding links and connections between your categories can help you serve up additional content:

Relating and reusing content across multiple platforms and site installations. For example, part of your content strategy is to build a stronger connection between your website and your blog, which just happen to be driven by different content management systems. Taxonomy can help. Assuming you’re using the same taxonomy terms in both systems, you can still dynamically relate content using a tool like RSS, pulling relevant blog posts into web pages that are categorized with the same terms.

Taxonomies can be internal or user facing. Both require some consideration:

Keep in mind that implementing or revising a taxonomy can require change management. Choosing well-researched and tested vocabularies can support an intuitive user experience, but may also require some guidance—instructional content on the administrative interface, for example—for content authors and managers. They may be used to using the organization’s internal terms, not the terms site visitors are using when looking for information, to define content.

User-driven taxonomies can help your community feel more engaged and drive deeper involvement:

You may decide that users, not your organization, are going to define how your content is classified and labeled. Take a look at Goodreads, a social network for readers. You start with the simplest of taxonomies: three default bookshelves called “read,” “currently-reading” and “to-read.” From there, you can create and name other bookshelves, or categories, from the basic “science fiction” to the clever “it-was-earth-all-along,” and place books on more than one shelf.

This approach empowers Goodreads to support discovery in many ways. For example, on each book’s page, you can see a “Genres” callout showing how readers most often classified the book.

Card sorting is a great way to start from a user perspective or even for an internal effort. It’s amazing how helpful having a clear, abstracted and networked taxonometric organization for your information can be.

Cosby Sweaters and Constraints

I just reread a long and fascinating article about Bill Cosby’s sweaters…and it made me realize just how many choices and constraints can go into every design decision.cosby

First, there was the personal constraints:

They quickly realized that Cosby, and by extension Dr. Huxtable, couldn’t really be at ease wearing a suit around the house. “Bill basically likes to be comfortable, and in his real life, he’s in his sweats or his PJs,” says Lemire.

Avoiding straitlaced, white-collar attire also made Dr. Huxtable a more dynamic character. “I wanted to get away from the white coat all the time,” says Cosby, “or the blue blazer look, with the khaki pants and the penny loafers.” In contrast, Dr. Huxtable’s sweaters infused the show with a contagious, creative energy.


Then there were technical constraints:

The available camera technology meant that certain patterns and textures had to be carefully avoided. “The show was shot with multi-cameras,” says Lemire, “and back then they had a lot of problems with strobing, so it was very difficult to use certain patterns.” The stockinette stitch, a standard on most sweaters, alternates rows of knitted and purled stitches, which results in a subtle ribbing or stripe effect. The cameras used for “The Cosby Show” made even solid-colored stockinette sweaters vibrate or strobe when onscreen.

And then, more technical constraints:

…the show often relied on close-up shots of Cosby to capture such moments of improvised humor. However, tight shots like these caused problems when matching the scenes from two different takes, as a slight difference in costume positioning would become a glaring mistake.

“Usually you don’t do close-ups on TV, and that’s why we started using sweaters,” says Lemire. “As our bodies move around, the clothes are going to shift between the first and second take. If you have a jacket on, and the shirt collar’s in one spot, it’s going to slide off a little on one side or the other, or it might do something else that didn’t match. Sandrich was a real stickler for things matching, so we just did the sweater thing. I actually sewed his shirts to the sweaters so that nothing moved.”


Really, it made me think of my favorite Eames video. Then again, many things do:



What’s important and awesome about this video is that Eames is awesome. And Funny. Many of his answers are simply “No” or “I wouldn’t” (insert laughing!)

Listen in, about three minutes, when he is asked about constraints.

Q: “Does the creation of Design admit constraint?”

A: “Design depends largely on constraints.”

Q: “What constraints?”

A: “The sum of all constraints. Here is one of the few effective keys to the Design problem: the ability of the Designer to recognize as many of the constraints as possible; his willingness and enthusiasm for working within these constraints. Constraints of price, of size, of strength, of balance, of surface, of time, and so forth. Each problem has its own peculiar list.”

Q: “Does Design obey laws?”

A: “Aren’t constraints enough?”

Constraints are what I would call Step Zero of Doing Design. Eames said that the mark of a designer is their willingness to accept constraints, and to design with them. The producers of the Cosby Show had a lot of constraints to deal with…but instead of working against them, they worked with them, and created a memorable impression on us all!