I started out this blog writing a post about The Importance of Identity. Growing up feeling lost and disconnected from the people around me, I – like many others – felt it imperative to define myself so as to fit in and “survive.” But “identity,” like many things we think we need, is just a mental construct, created by the perceptions we form about ourselves in the context of our respective communities. And because, as young people, our minds first learn more about our surroundings than they do about our own selves, we’re inevitably set up for an identity crisis at some point in our life. This was mine.

Society is full of paradoxes, and as you learn and grow, it’s difficult to know when to listen and when not. While we are constantly fed messages about self improvement and idealized goals, we simultaneously see that no matter how far we get, there are always more messages telling us that we’re not there yet, not “__” enough. Though we are a society constantly obsessed with running and “moving forward,” we rarely share a clear understanding of where exactly we’re going. Try as we might, it becomes clear that overcoming one hurdle just leads to a dozen more. No matter how much we may find ourselves setting and striving for goals in life, we ultimately find that there just is no end. There will always be people influencing you to do more and be more, to move to the next level, to reach some peak, and just when you think you’ve figured something out, there’s something new telling you that you’re still not there yet. And the reason why is simple: there is no such thing as “there.”

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It’s said that the number one fear is death. It’s also said to be uncertainty. I say it’s both, for different but equal reasons, and there’s a way around them if you can bring them together.

Like pretty much everything in this natural world, there are two extremes, two sides to every story, two ends of a spectrum. Up / down, hot / cold, crest / trough, yes / no, etc. When it comes to people and understanding our fears, we can view ourselves in a seemingly endless number of spectrums: introverted / extroverted, laid back / uptight, mental / physical, etc. But ultimately what these come down to is the internal conflict caused by the difference between how our physical bodies work and how our minds work thereafter.

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Societal structure is based on our individual need to feel special. We want to feel included because of our uniqueness, not excluded. In our historical struggles for power and dominance over others, we are merely looking for an emotional assurance that we matter, that our existence has meaning and that we can exert control over our otherwise chaotic and harsh environment, societal or natural.

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In everything I design, I always find and start at the root of the problem. I imagine everything as leaves on a theoretical tree of infinite branches, each splitting into two extremes and, collectively, forming a massive fractal of spectrums. To really design effectively, one must find the root node so as to see exactly every possible path that may exist thereafter. Often, we try to solve problems quickly and shallowly, tending to stop traversing down the tree too soon, as it were. And this has resulted in the overly complex and superfluous existence we have now, a world in which any desire for simplicity is constantly challenged.

Whatever kind of design you do – product design, interaction design, industrial design, graphic design, architectural design, social design – to be effective, the first place to start is the root of it all: design.

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Clarity of Expression

Oct 12, 2011

All stories have a central theme or focus, and what makes a story good is how all its details work together to illustrate that point. In order to effectively communicate some fundamental idea, the story must be clear. And when it comes to expressing ourselves and our identities, our stories can’t be clear until we understand ourselves. Although social technology has drastically furthered our freedom of expression, it has yet to help us with clarity.

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Great products and services depend on their users having great experiences. But it’s not about what users do or how they do it, but rather why. Why they do what they do, why they keep coming back and why they tell their friends. Social Design explains the why behind these great experiences.

I’ll tell you a quick story. I had never heard of the Strand Book Store in NYC until earlier this year when I was walking around with a friend and she pointed it out to me. She apparently goes all the time and told me I’d like it. And I did. I even bought a new book from an author I like.

With technology today, we can get answers to anything factual right away. I could have looked up on my phone for bookstores in New York just as I could have looked up how to get to the store and if they carry books by this author. But the value of social is when I don’t even know I’m looking for anything at all.

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No One Loves You

Mar 10, 2011

Love is a funny thing. Our culture exploits it, glorifies it and we spend our lives looking for it anywhere we can. But “love” doesn’t actually exist out there and searching may only distract you from the truth of the matter, which is that it’s in you.

No one loves you. No one can. For what you deem as “real” is simply your own perception of the stimuli in the world around you. That perception of the senses leads to body changes that make you feel a certain way. But emotion is really nothing more than purely a reaction to and an awareness of your environment. This unfortunately means that everything you experience is fundamentally subjective and personal to you, no matter how objective it may seem on the outside.

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Brand Devolution

Oct 7, 2010

Good design requires a solid understanding of a core concept or value. No more obvious is this than in branding. If a company’s brand is its core concept, its soul, then its logos and marketing are its voice. And that voice is responsible for communicating the brand.

I’ve written before about how difficult it is to communicate who you are to people. Everyone is different, everyone hears things differently and everyone expects different things. Thus, it’s not surprising that we have difficulty communicating with everyone. The same is true of brands, except they need to communicate with everyone. So, as a company, if your voice isn’t providing the right messaging – or worse, if your brand isn’t fitting in – then you’d think it’s time for a change.

When companies change their logos, you have to figure that something prompted the redesign, something wrong within the soul of the business. But changing logos is more of a marketing thing; it’s a lot harder to change the core value.

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Designing Objectively

Sep 28, 2010

It’s a common misconception that art and design are one and the same. But although design can be artful, the process behind it is quite different.

Artists engage in the manipulation of a particular medium to produce an aesthetic and personal response. Art is valued for its originality and ability to express an idea. Some people get it, some don’t, and that’s okay. Design, on the other hand, must solve a specific problem relative to a particular user or task, and is evaluated simply by how effective it is at solving that problem. If it doesn’t work, then it failed—period.

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There’s a growing rift between the tech guys and the consumers when it comes to social technology. Tech guys see it one way – open, connected, simple – and the rest of the world sees it another – scary, uncertain, complex. People heavily engrossed in the tech communities have adapted to the change a lot more than the majority of the world. We’re used to having several different social services, check-in products, hundreds or thousands of friends, a constant stream of information flowing to our screens every minute. We strive to build products that make all of this feel simple. But the fact is, it’s not simple. And for the mainstream, it won’t be for a long while.

It’s sort of an accident that I’m in the technology industry. When I was in grade-school, I never did anything technologically related: I didn’t program, I didn’t design websites, I didn’t read articles… I did teach myself the basics of a few Adobe programs, but mainly I used computers like the majority of people my age: I chatted with friends, I wrote documents and I played games. But now I find myself in the center of an industry that frustrates me and feel unlike many of my design colleagues. I’m not interested in the latest tech gadget or a new website or the visual subtleties in the iPhone. I don’t read the blogs online, I don’t make pixel-perfect mocks and I honestly don’t want to have to “check in” on a dozen versions of the same service. I just care about people and want to make things they like to use, especially if it makes them happier and feel more connected. Read more of this story →

I signed up on Facebook almost six years ago and I have now finally reached 1000 friends to whom I’m connected. Well, to be fair, I’ve had 1000 people come in and out of my life: some as friends, some as acquaintances and some as peripheral connections. Either way, this value is solely an indicator of the number of people with whom I’ve felt compelled to connect at one point or another. It is not, however, any indicator of how many friends I have.

We’re very big on numbers in social technology. From connections on Linkedin to followers on Twitter to friends on Facebook, we’ve been made very aware of quantity. And though it doesn’t really mean much, many of us – myself included – have developed a rather unnatural need to accumulate more and more for the sake of growth. Read more of this story →

Storytelling and Focus

Apr 28, 2010

It’s been said that “design is in the details,” and though I understand that mindset, I’ve always seen design as the big picture.

Design for me is not about how something looks or feels. Although that’s important, it’s purely a manifestation or implementation of some broader concept and core emotional value. Personally, I’ve always concerned myself less with the way, say, a button looks and more on why that button is necessary to begin with. The key to design, I’ve found, is focus. In every good story in *any* medium, every detail works together to maintain focus on one thing – story. The difficulty here is twofold: one, being able to create and understand that story and see all the pieces needed to tell it, and two, ensuring that all those detailed pieces are done perfectly so as not to detract from the story. Most people, when they think about design, think about this latter part – techniques to manifest the concept. And because this second part is difficult as it is, it’s even more difficult when the bigger picture story isn’t clear. Read more of this story →

We use a lot of technology daily to keep in touch with friends and family. But while this can be useful, we seem to be at a point where we’re happier spending more time with our superficial online relationships than developing our off-line, real relationships. I think we’re missing out.

If you’ve ever had what has been dubbed as “Mexican Coke,” you’ll probably notice that it tastes a lot better. Why? No, it’s not simply because it’s in a glass bottle vs. a can. It’s because it’s American Coke, minus the corn syrup with real cane sugar instead.

High fructose corn syrup is among the many artificial ingredients that make up much of the food that we consume daily. It’s everywhere, along with trans fat, refined grains and other materials that are so prevalent because they can be easily mass-produced and cost very little.

From food to synthetic fabrics to building materials like particleboard and more, we’ve continually attempted to perfect methods to create artificiality in many mediums for wider distribution and ease of use. And while many of these have had actual positive effects, there seems to be a point at which they stop helping us and start hurting us. Read more of this story →

Acting as an Audience

Mar 31, 2010

Society has imposed an artificial idea of what makes us happy. People who do things for surface value – for what they deem as acceptance, to “seem cool” – share the same motivation as everyone else: to feel heard, loved. But the real love we want is different than what we’ve been lead to believe we want. And because it’s so hard to get that real love, we’ve found it easier to go along with society and stop being real and honest with ourselves and each other.

As children, how we learn about love and how we get it shapes our relationship with it for the rest of our lives. Really, until you go to school, your family is the only group of people able to love you and teach you about it. Then when you go to school – hopefully already in a healthy relationship with love – you learn about a different kind of love called friendship. Developing a healthy relationship with this kind of love does wonders for your personal growth and your ability to adapt as you get older. Read more of this story →

Love By Design

Mar 4, 2010

The term “designer” is pretty broad. I only consider myself one because I’ve found an interest in expressing my theories through tangible mediums. At heart, though, I’m really just a storyteller and my real passion is not for products but for people.

In what I like to call my “spectrum of subjectivity,” I believe people fall on a line between being very objective-minded and being very subjective-minded. Those on the objective side tend to be more left-brained, mathematical and logical in their thinking and those on the other end are more right-brained, creative and emotional. I think most of us fall somewhere between the two extremes, making the majority of us able to communicate in more ways than one. But in the cases where people fall at one of the extremes, I suggest that their ability to communicate decreases in breadth and increases in depth. If you look at the greatest musicians, writers and artists over the centuries, you see a pattern whereby their brilliance and depth of human understanding is evidenced in their work, yet their interpersonal face-to-face relationships suffer. The same is true for the greatest scientists and mathematicians. The latter made strides in understanding how we work; the former in how we feel. If you move along the line to further extremes, I think there’s a threshold whereby you lose the ability to communicate entirely, in any medium, and you just live inside your head, consumed by your own thoughts. Fortunately or unfortunately, we have pills for that now. Read more of this story →

Meeting Expectations

Feb 23, 2010

Every now and then when something in my life goes according to the plan in my head, I get almost a kid-like giddiness and can’t help but laugh.

We as humans do well with predictability. Subconsciously I think it almost reassures us that we’re learning, growing and have developed good heuristics about the world and how it works. When something unexpected happens, depending on the magnitude and context, it can be quite confusing. We want to plan ahead. If it’s raining, you take an umbrella. If you pay your bills on time, you keep your electricity. If you’re gonna be late, you call someone (well, some of you).

Similarly, growing up I didn’t expect people would behave badly or turn me down for a date or make fun of something about me of which I wasn’t aware. But they did and to me, it seemed so out of place that I adjusted my psyche to come to expect such things to happen to me.

Developing stories is the only way for me to make sense of the world and feel comfortable within it. If I can predict what should happen, then anything bad that does occur suddenly doesn’t feel so bad. Rather, it’s as though it’s all part of some bigger plan and will make sense later. Read more of this story →

Being “Yourself”

Feb 5, 2010

When you’re a little kid, you have everything to look forward to. You’re optimistic and excited. Bad things haven’t happened yet. You’re not judged. You’re just surrounded by people who love you. Then you go to school. And it goes downhill from there. Or at least it did for me.

When I was young, I loved engaging in the arts, whether it was singing or dancing or drawing or acting or playing music or dressing up. I did it all. And it was fun. But when I entered school, it was made very clear to me by every other child that I was different. And, as such, I became a subject of ridicule. I was terribly confused. I thought my sensitivity, care and attention to detail would make me naturally accepted by my peers, but instead I seemed very out of place. Read more of this story →

Design, for me, is a personal affair. That’s not at all to say, however, that the design decisions I make are based on subjective opinion. Rather, my thoughts and personal experience have naturally lead me to the design mindset and it’s pretty much everything I am today.

As a child, I took great interest in putting things together, building structures and figuring out how things worked. I was very akin to seeing shapes in everything and describing complex objects as made up of smaller, more recognizable components. But more importantly, I also tended to see or be sensitive to faces in objects and would instantly feel connections that made me very sympathetic and concerned for their well-being. As a result, I often saw plush toys or porcelain figures I had to have and ended up collecting hundreds of them over the years. I grew really attached to characters in stories and movies. I cried when I met Cinderella at Disney World because, I said, “they ruined your dress!” I saved flies and ants that I found in our house. I held little funerals for mice that my cats brought in. I couldn’t throw away so much as a piece of paper with a drawing of an animal on it without feeling guilty. I wouldn’t eat chocolate animals because I saw them as real animals and felt bad. I would even hold onto little pink erasers if they resembled an animal. The only way my parents ever got me to finish items of food was by telling me that if I didn’t eat the last bit, it would be lonely. Read more of this story →