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Daniel Stillman

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Posted by Daniel Stillman  |   6 Feb 2013  |  Comments (0)


In my travels, I've seen a lot of crap for sale. Every point of interest has at least one spot that is crammed with some sort of object to entice you, the visitor, to spend money. Invariably, these objects are products. That is...no one is going to try to sell you a bag of Cambodian cotton while you visit a Cambodian temple, expecting you to spin it into yarn and then weave it yourself. They want to sell you a T-shirt, a scarf, a bag...something with immediate, usable value. They have taken the time to turn a material, cotton, into a product—T-shirts. Preferably a T-shirt that announces the awesomeness of your visit, such that you are glad to part with your money.

But many merchants sell their wares in the equivalent of bales and sacks, turning their products back into materials. What I've seen is that products become...well...commoditized. Travelers become numb to them, and there is much, much more supply than demand. What travelers really crave are experiences. Authentic interactions, a great story, a moment with a local; those are the things that travelers really will take home. Experiences can be made into products, of course. Tours, great hotels and restaurants take products and experiences and serve them to consumers in a (hopefully) reliable way.

But the level of entry to these experiences is hard for many locals to achieve. Restaurants take capital, planning and, often, government connections. But with some education, I think there are many ways for locals to enhance their product offerings to differentiate them and improve their connection with their markets. I've seen a few in my wanderings in the last few months. I hope that they can help define the porous boundaries between material, products and services. Exploring these borders can help us all think about the work we do and the services we offer.

While in Bagan, Myanmar, I saw several temples plazas that housed seas of cotton fabric with beautiful, intricate sand paintings. I stopped to admire them...some are based on the amazing designs slowing fading into invisibility on the interior temple walls. Here they are, in bright relief, remade for us! Others are trite design motifs that seem to reappear in various incarnations across many Southeast Asian countries: monks walking in a line with parasols, ladies with pots balanced on their heads. The issue I have, is that while they are putting tremendous effort and skill into their product, their products still look like raw materials. Arrayed across the temple plaza stones, they weigh their fabric down with rocks to keep them from blowing away. Equal thought is not going into the presentation.


I stopped to talk with one of the artists as he gave me his pitch—the sand paintings were durable—you could crumple them in your bag, get them wet even, and they stayed intact. While he spoke, he proceeded to crumple up one of his pieces, and pour water on it! I appreciated that his work might actually make the trip home in my backpack fully intact. On the other hand, I was somehow doubtful all the creases would ever come out. Either way, I feel like his product presentation didn't have the intended effect—I wasn't sold.

Product merchandising is so important...many merchants have a more-is-more approach, stuffing their stalls with products and many multiple versions of products...leaving little to the imagination. Others give their products a bit of room to breathe, and it can have the effect of drawing the eye in, and also elevating the perceived value of the product. Pairing products, or displaying them so I can imagine them in use can be really helpful. While I was walking the side streets of Battambang, Cambodia, I passed this boutique that paired sunglasses with their sweaters.

I felt like the sand artist could take an extra step and help me out—I was going to have to take it home, mat and frame it. They could have some of them framed to help me visualize the right use of his product and guide me towards purchase more easily. It may be a material now—but here it is as a product!


Posted by Daniel Stillman  |  11 Jan 2013  |  Comments (1)

Studio_Aeroplane_Working.jpegStudio Aeroplane hard at work at their Bangkok-based studio. Image courtesy of Studio Aeroplane.

Over the month I spent in Bangkok, I visited three design studios and a fledgling co-working space. All of them were in houses. In New York City, where I have spent my entire creative career, design studios are in spaces...big spaces, long spaces, industrial spaces, tight spaces...but spaces. Office spaces. You make them what you want, but they are fairly raw and often impersonal. Going to a place of design creativity and having it be a home feels very different.

I had been in Bangkok a week and a half, recovering from a month in Myanmar, when I finally met up with some Thai designers. I met Orn from Studio Aeroplane through mutual Facebook friends. Would I be interested in coming to their favorite Isan food stand? They would have to meet me at the subway station and take me the rest of the way...there was no way to really describe the location, tucked under the highway, a block or so from the main road. I've added an edited screengrab in case you're in the area and find yourself hungry.

And would I mind if she invited some other friends of hers, also designers? No. No...I would not mind at all.

Soon I found myself at a table, staring face to face with a well-grilled snakehead fish, his mouth crammed with lemon grass, my mouth crammed with snakehead fish. Around the rickety table were my new Thai design friends. We shared a wonderful meal and plenty of talk about design and the global economy. Over the next weeks, I would visit some of their studios, visit their student reviews and tour their national design center. This was just the beginning.

Later that week I visited Studio Aeroplane. Like many smaller studios, there are a small number of principals and they scale up with freelancers. The principals, Orn and Saranont, are both Thai natives, who met in New York City. Orn grew up in New Zealand. We got connected because she went to my alma mater, Pratt and it is a small world, after all. Orn worked in New York City for several years in Interior Design before deciding to return to her roots with her boyfriend Saranont, who grew up in Bangkok and stayed for his design undergraduate degree. Saranont went to ITP at NYU and worked at Antenna Design New York. It was slightly surreal to be sitting at a down-and-dirty food stall in the backstreets of Bangkok with two designers with such pedigrees. I was thrilled to get invited to their studio...after a few months of traveling I was starved for creative and intellectual company.

Since I'm from New York I'll describe my trip there in New York City equivalents...although there is really no New York equivalent to the experience of getting to their studio. Imagine taking a sparkling above ground subway to Union Square, except that Union Square is somehow on the East River. There I met up with Orn and Saronont and took a tiny boat across the river to the Bangkok equivalent of Queens, getting off on a tiny dock onto the back patio of a new high-rise development, with a pool, nice outdoor furniture and a huge parking lot. The boat is just for people who live in their building. The boatman knows your face. If I wasn't with Orn or Saranont I would have been turned away.


The studio is more than a studio...it's a one bedroom on a high floor, overlooking the city and the river. They can sleep there and sometimes do. The rest of the apartment is filled with books and two computers, the walls filled with printouts of interiors they are working on, and posters from past shows. The colors, the textures, the computer programs, all of it felt like apple pie from my mother's kitchen...comforting, invigorating, familiar. It felt like home in the sense of a familiar feel—it was a design studio, like all other design studios. And it was an actual home. While they didn't live there, they basically lived there. As you can see from their facebook feed, Studio Aeroplane's work is world-class.

The interfaces and spaces they've designed are clean and classic...which has worked against them from time to time. It seems that their clean aesthetic isn't always accepted, as there is a desire to clutter them up or dumb them down...all in the name of making things easier to "get" for average Thai person. I have engaged in similar conversations here in the States. Saranont and I had a good rant about de-skilling people through over-design and the dangers of removing any opportunity for discovery.


Posted by Daniel Stillman  |  27 Nov 2012  |  Comments (6)
When analytic thought, the knife, is applied to experience, something is always killed in the process. That is fairly well understood, at least in the arts... Something is always killed. But what is less noticed in the arts—something is always created too.

-Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I teach design process to people with very little experience in design, at a thing we call the Design Gym. The response from our attendees is always very positive. People, with this new knife of analytic thought, feel excited and energized to go and use it in their lives, to organize their thoughts and to approach their problems in a new way. When I tell other frameworks for non-designers to better understand design, the responses are sometimes controversial.

A few months back, at an Interaction Designer's meetup, I brought up what I do at the Design Gym. A new friend protested adamantly against the idea of process. He insisted that he just got in, rolled up his sleeves, and got the job done. He insisted that he followed no process at all. Plus, he derided process as rigid and no fun. And in one way, he's right: something is killed when you think about and describe what you do. He feels that a certain freedom is killed. But what is created?

One of my friends from Industrial Design school recently had me over to discuss her portfolio as she considered her options for jobs. She's been working at a design-driven consultancy for the past several years as a senior designer... and the feeling is that it's time to start getting ready for the next step. The consultancy she works at doesn't have an explicit process—companies come to them for their brand power and aesthetic. So when showing the story of a project, there are too few pieces around to speak to. There are a few sketches, then some renderings, then the object. Which is a story, after all...but it doesn't speak to the why or the how—the sort of things employers say they love to see in portfolios. I think she realized that this was a problem, which is why she had me over: to help her find and tell her story, through the lens of process.

What is created when we apply a process? When process is used consciously you have evidence of work for each part of the design process. Those groupings of work help tell the story of the project, and the decisions made at the transition points in the process.


Posted by Daniel Stillman  |  14 Sep 2011  |  Comments (4)


The Scion iQ is a cool and zippy car. The thing is tiny. At 10 feet long, I put it in unimaginable parking spots. At around $15K, it will have a tiny price. And the thing has a tiny, tiny turning radius—it can turn on a 13 foot dime (12.9 according to their marketing materials). While I laughed at the idea at first, when I test drove the car...it really became a talking point. Everyone went out and did donuts in tight alleys during the test drive. It delighted all of us, and we talked about it a surprising amount.

The big idea: It's like a Smart car, but solid-feeling, zippy and nimble. Several people commented that when they turned around while driving, there was the thought "where is the rest of it?" because it really felt like a full-sized car. For a side-by-side totally unplanned comparison, see below.


What did they sacrifice for the size? Obviously, there is no way you can get 4 people and their bags in this. But in contrast with the Smart Car, Scion made a clear choice to make this what they call a 3+1 car. It seats two people and some bags very well. But you can get a third person, behind the passenger side. You lose most of your cargo space (You have to choose one or the other) but you can give a ride to 2 friends. I think it should be called a 2+1 car, but that's just me.

How do they do this? With a quick peek under the hood, we see that they moved the differential in front of the trans-axel, making a longer wheelbase and consequently a larger interior, possible. In the pic below, you can see that the wheels are super close to the front bumper.


Another invisible change is moving the gas tank from the rear of the car to the front, and flattening it out, leaving more room for cargo and people in the back.


Posted by Daniel Stillman  |  23 Aug 2011  |  Comments (5)

origami.jpgImages and review by Daniel Stillman

With 30 years of origami experience, one of my first concerns in reviewing Paul Jackson's newest book Folding Techniques for Designers: From Sheet to Form is the fact that origami is a 3D art. Translating 2D instructions into form is no trivial matter. Like Ikea instructions, origami diagrams are a language into themselves. This book is the distillation of years of teaching this material to design students. To get some practical benefit from it, I would suggest that you spend at least several hours, playing with the forms and techniques introduced here. As part of my review, I've asked my friend and leather jewelry designer Melissa Zook—someone with zero origami experience—to print out some templates, make some folds, and get inspired by the book.


Part One: Why it is Awesome

As soon as I saw this book cover, I was excited. Paul Jackson has been pushing the boundaries of origami for years. As a boy, I geeked out to many of his awesome models—his horse from an equilateral triangle first offended me for its lack of purity (origami was from squares!) but won me over for its elegance. His lidded box taught me how to divide a square into fifths using my eyes and an algorithm. Both were committed to memory at one point in my life. While I loved his representational designs, I was amused and bewildered by his more artistic endeavors that played with form and shadow, but had no legs. More and better representational origami was my main goal, and the goal of much of the origami world. Then I grew up, and so did origami.

Peter Engel's book, Origami from Angelfish to Zen, was the first origami book that blew my mind. It showed me that origami was about form, topology, creativity, dreams and math. And nature is math. So I began to realize that my paper doodlings were pointing at something deeper—something about the real nature of the world. Engel got me reading the work of mathematical biologist D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson and thinking about my own origami designs. Creation was about algorithms, reflection, repetitions, alterations. Nature finds a good nugget of design and uses it over and over again, riffing on it like Jazz. We're all made of cells. Origami is just made of triangles, really, and those triangles can multiply like bacteria across a sheet, creating new organisms as they multiply.

This book is a deep meditation on those cells and all the ways they can be combined and recombined to make forms.

Years ago, Jackson wrote an Encyclopedia of Origami and Papercraft Techniques which showed me the power and breadth of the medium of paper. This book is pushing way beyond that. Paper is just one type of sheet material. Anything thin—leather, metal, fabric—can be explored using these techniques. When you break the plane, you create dimension and form. And the study of form should be of interest to any designer. I think it should inspire the reader to take something good—a sketch, a form "module" if you will—and find out how far it can go, how else it can be applied and transformed.