Capable of Working Magic

I’m in the process of putting together my final portfolio for my MFA and looking around for ways to communicate my design beliefs, so I’ve been reading a lot more quotes than usual. There are two that have really stuck with me, one that speaks to the sheer delight and amazing capabilities of books and another that speaks to the purposeful nature of design, and I like them so much I thought I’d share.

Carl Sagan
Carl Sagan

The first is from Carl Sagan, an American astronomer, astrophysicist, cosmologist, and author. He clearly had a great passion and respect for the capabilities of science and technology, a deep-seated wonder at our world and the way it works, and an appreciation for books. Those qualities are shown in the following quote, where he describes the incredible power of books:

“What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”—Carl Sagan

That quote just gets me. It really captures how truly incredible books are. I remember thinking a very similar thing (albeit not quite so eloquently) in high school when I was reading Plato’s Apology. Our class was carefully analyzing the subtle points of Plato’s logic, and I remember sitting back for a second and thinking, This guy has been dead for 2,300+ years, more time than I can really grasp, and yet his thoughts are here, today, in this book in front of me. So many people have thought about and debated his ideas for literally millenia, ever since he originally wrote them down. How crazy is that!

And the designer in me today loves Sagan’s description of writing—”lots of funny dark squiggles.” So often people overlook the importance of typography because they take it completely for granted that these black shapes on a page, or on a screen in our case, have a meaning that is decipherable to people. How did a circle become the letter “o”, that can be used next to two perpendicular lines (“t”) to create a word “to” that has so many meanings and helps hold sentences together? It’s amazing, when you sit down and really think about it.

But one thing to remember is that quote by Sagan was from his 1980 tv show and book, Cosmos, when there was no such thing as a Kindle, an iPad, or an ebook. The first personal computer was released by Apple in 1984, and the great wave of technology that has completely changed the shape of reading has all come since Sagan originally described the magic of books.

Cosmos-older edition

So I hope he’ll forgive us if we take the liberty of expanding the meaning of his quote to refer to the many different ways that thoughts are expressed by their authors and conveyed out to the greater world. Today, that amazing ability is accomplished not just by “a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts” but also by screens of all shapes that support ebooks, and really the very many different reading and publishing platforms available, including this post published on the internet via WordPress.

We could argue about whether platforms like Twitter, which allow people to author only very concise “books,” should be included, but if you are willing to admit Hemingway’s famous six-word story (“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”) counts, then I think Twitter must also be included.

You could argue that really what captured Sagan’s imagination and appreciation is the longevity of the thoughts in the form of a book, and how they can connect people from distant epochs, and therefore today’s technology doesn’t count as it will probably not be accessible 2,000 years from now. In fact, its a pretty safe bet that even 20 years from now technology will have so thoroughly changed that many things will no longer be accessible (floppy disk, anyone?). But not all writing has lasted that long, and many authors works have been lost over the centuries. It’s always been a process of saving and passing along only the best works of literature, and that is the same challenge we face today, just with a much larger magnitude of written work.

So I, for one, would like to extend Sagan’s wonder at books and the power of written communication to include the many different innovative forms of ebooks and digital communication popular today.

Paola Antonelli
Paola Antonelli, curator for architecture and design at MOMA

The second quote by Paola Antonelli is related, but talks about design as a whole, and how design is fundamentally about caring how something works, not just what it looks like.

“People think that design is styling. Design is not style. It’s not about giving shape to the shell and not giving a damn about the guts. Good design is a renaissance attitude that combines technology, cognitive science, human need, and beauty to produce something that the world didn’t know it was missing.”—Paola Antonelli

In relationship to books, this mean that it’s all well and good if the cover looks great, but fundamentally what’s important about the design of a book is how the format of the book accomplishes its goal, namely, getting someone to pick it up and be able to read and understand it. To enable what Sagan loves: “across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you.”It means, for ebooks, that all the flashy interactivity in the world is useless, and in fact detrimental, if it doesn’t somehow serve to improve the reading experience.

And this to me is the amazing challenge of design. How do you design something that makes people’s lives better? How do you use the tools of aesthetics, of typography, of color theory, of all sorts of “cognitive science” and “beauty” that Antonelli talks about, and perhaps more than ever today, use the tools of technology to design something that “the world didn’t know it was missing?”

What a lofty, and yet worthwhile challenge! Could a designer ever hope to accomplish anything better than to give the world something it didn’t know it was missing?


Tweeting the AIGA GAIN Conference

This past October 9th and 10th I was lucky enough to get to attend the AIGA GAIN National Conference. This year the two-day affair was held at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, a mere 2 blocks from my school, and I bought student tickets early enough in advance that they only cost an arm, not an arm and a leg.

The official GAIN iPhone App

The schedule kept me hopping—it was a Tuesday and Wednesday, which is when I have a total of 9 hours of classes, but I managed to go to all of the talks, two full classes and half an hour of the third class, and finish my homework! Not much sleep at all in those 48 hours, but I have to say it was definitely worth while. I thought AIGA did a phenomenal job of lining up speakers, and except for the very last session I thought everyone had something really interesting and inspiring to say. So often I’ve heard design speakers who are good, but end up repeating advice that I’ve heard over and over again, or has a story that isn’t particularly engaging or unusual.

This year the theme was social good, so all the presentations revolved in some way about the role that design can play in helping improve society. I noticed a lot of audience members taking notes in some way shape or form, often on ipads or laptops. Since this year I’m the Director of Communications for the AAU AIGA student group, I decided to take my notes by live-tweeting the event under the @AAUAIGA twitter handle. It was actually a lot of fun, especially the interaction with the other tweeters in the audience. It felt like we were having a conversation about the conference, getting opinions and feedback, while it was still taking place.

Below is my twitter stream for the two day conference. It’s a bit long, but there are lots of links to the various projects mentioned during the talks, retweets from other designers who attended GAIN, and some hopefully interesting and insightful quotes from the speakers. Enjoy!

Day 1: Tuesday, October 9th

Kicking off the #GainConference general session! Excited and lucky to have it in our backyard at the YBCA

Continue reading Tweeting the AIGA GAIN Conference

Second Story at DesignSpeaks

AAU’s DesignSpeaks series brought Julie Beeler and Daniel Meyers of Second Story design studio to Morgan Auditorium Thursday night for an interesting and enthusiastic talk on their interactive design work. The talk, like the Second Story studio, brought together an audience from a wide variety of departments and media.

Second Story

That was actually one of the unique and interesting aspects of Second Story’s … well, story. They specialize in interaction design, which involves quite a lot of digital new media and coding, but their backgrounds and expertise varied widely. Daniel Meyers introduced himself and mentioned his background of a degree in architecture as well as, surprisingly enough, Medieval literature. Julie mentioned in one story that one of the developers was nerding out about how to make a project really cool, and said that the coding details were all Greek to her but it sounded good. She elaborated that she had known the basics of html when it was beginning, but it was not her specialty. And she highlighted how it wasn’t just Daniel and herself that had different backgrounds; the whole studio pulled on a wide range of expertise and knowledge of mediums to bring their projects together.

And this was some of the advice they had for students—specialize in something, make it your own, but also know where the gaps in your knowledge lie and use that as an opportunity to partner and collaborate with someone who does know. Daniel said that the edge of your knowledge was where the exploration lay, and they both emphasized that being able to come up with a creative solution involved a range of skill. For them, that often involved innovative technologies that were for many people cutting edge.

They emphasized however that the tool should never get in the way of the experience. The experience should be completely about what is happening for the visitor, and not so much about how it is happening. And they pointed out their talk as a perfect example of that—the computer and projector were an essential medium to display the content of their presentation, but the talk was inherently about the connection between Julie and Daniel as speakers and us as the audience, not about the computer.

Despite being only a tool to an end, their slide show presentation went above and beyond the usual capabilities of a digital presentation. At the beginning of their lecture they put a url up on the screen and directed everyone with a smart phone to please access the site. Anyone who did found themselves on a page with a ring that could be dragged around the phone’s screen, and connected to a data visualization displayed on the projected slideshow. So effectively, the audience could draw and doodle on the slides in real time while the presentation was happening. It lit up the top of the slides with orange squares, yellow lines, and other abstract and visually pleasing simple graphics, and stayed at the top of every slide for the entire presentation. A very simple way to let the audience create and participate in what would otherwise have been only a passive information-consumption experience.

They talked about how important it was to affect the visitor emotionally, or as Julie put it “Hit someone in the heart rather than the head.” They wanted to connect, to make a difference, to inspire the imagination of the viewer. And their enthusiasm was contagious. Julie said that she believed that you could only be truly successful if you were enthusiastic about your work, because that was the only way to create enthusiasm for the visitor.


Ultimately, they love the interactive experience for how it connects people. Julie said that some people feel that technology is isolating, but that she deeply believes it has the ability to connect people. She mentioned a project they did for Ted Talks, and said the best part about it was when the technology inspired so much conversation that the technology itself was abandoned in favor of the human interaction it had initiated.

For Second Story the human element is obviously the reason for existence—every project they do is an attempt to add meaning, to educate, to add joy and play and discovery and imagination and inspiration to the lives of all those who experience their interaction design.

A few challenges they had for the audience in terms of how to think about design (and to help explain what they do and how they think):

  • How can you make an infographic that has a long life span, that won’t become obsolete?
  • How can you integrate media with space; how can you break the assumption that digital media has to operate on a two-dimensional frame?
  • How can you utilize technology that people already have with them, such as smart phones, to enhance their experience of their environment?
  • How can you focus on creating a complete story rather than simply surrounding a visitor with media (“the sports bar affect”: having screens everywhere)?
  • Can you value and utilize the idea of sequencing in any medium that you work in?
  • How can you engage the imagination through the senses?
  • How do you make ideas that last, even in the somewhat ephemeral and constantly changing world of digital media?
  • How can you design intuitive maps, of either space or time?
  • How can you make abstract information more understandable and accessible to the general public?

And two last pieces of advice:

Be self taught, be driven, and immerse yourself in your field. Push yourself to where you want to be.

There will be times when you are discouraged or unhappy with your work, but as long as you care most about having a good final product, you can get through it successfully.