...annnnd he's off! Degree in tow, our ever-intrepid contributor Dave Seliger has set out on his five-week journey from sea to shining sea (and back again) to find the best of American design in what might just be a major turning point in the discipline. Keep up-to-date with all of the adventures on Route 77 by following @DaveSeliger on Twitter!
Day 1: Philadelphia, PA
After surviving the torrential downpour in New England and picking up my first passenger, Nana Asiedu, we headed down to Philadelphia, PA to visit Electronic Ink. I first became aware of Electronic Ink through their 911 dispatch program in MoMA's fantastic Talk to Me exhibit. Since then, I've been wanting to find out more about the company.
Simply put, Electronic Ink redesigns the business systems that allow a company to manage and make decisions based on complex data for industries like finance, energy, healthcare, and logistics. My own mental image of these systems looks something like Windows '98, and that's honestly not too far off for a lot of the products on the market today. Luckily, Electronic Ink has a very design- and design research-centric approach. In fact, everyone I spoke with made it very clear that what sets the company apart from other firms is the extensive client research that goes into every project. Electronic Ink uses eye-tracking to determine how clients use a website and the company even sets up satellite offices with their clients in order to be better embedded in the research.
Jamie Hall of Electronic Ink
On the design side of things, I first spoke with Principal of Design and Strategy Jamie Hall, who "grew up in the corporate world," working for Comcast before he decided to become more involved in the design and business process. "I wanted to understand the true need," said Hall, "versus what the business analyst tells us." At Electronic Ink, Hall leads an interdisciplinary team that "tries to understand where the world is going and to stay ahead of the curve." Hall described that the future of designing more engaging product interactions is based on better understanding the split-second emotional connections we make with a piece of software or a website. These connections can really only be discovered through intensive research not just into how the clients use their business systems, but how Electronic Ink can make clients love their systems.
Meanwhile, Hall described the future of systems in the workplace as becoming more flexible in terms of accessibility and interaction. "We won't be tethered to only one device," said Hall. Instead, business will be conducted across many interchangeable devices, mobile and permanent, resulting in a change of the business environment itself.
Stephen Megargee of Electronic Ink
I also had the chance to speak with Design Director Stephen Megargee, who started his career diving head first into the world of graphic design during the very beginning of the Internet. "In how many lifetimes," said Megargee, "does a new medium come up where people can make a mark?" Before joining Electronic Ink, Megargee spent time in advertising but grew sick of trying to persuade consumers of buying products. Now, however, "we don't persuade anyone of anything—we just make the things they're already compelled to do better." For instance, Megargee described how "an organization's website is their dysfunction made true." You need only look at Verizon's website to see the truth in this. "Our mission," said Megargee, "is to fix this."
One of Electronic Ink's usability labs
Yet many corporations are unaware of their own needs. "There is a much larger market for mediocrity than for excellence in any market," said Megargee. "People in corporations that are making [strategic] decisions have no design management background and are not equipped to make the decisions they're responsible for making." This lack of preparedness is a result of the "failure of the American education system." It is not so much that not every student in America is a designer, but rather that design is not considered as crucial as math or physics or English. "I can have a more intelligent conversation about design with an actuary in Zurich," said Megargee, "than I can with a brand director here." In order to solve this deficiency in including design in American education, we need to both develop a national heritage around design in the United States and encourage businesses to require design management education in MBA programs.
Lastly, "everything is about design." Megargee pointed out that I designed my appearance for the day, I designed my career path, and I designed my road trip, among other things. "The phrase 'by design' is really substituting 'design' for 'intention,'" said Megargee. "It's what we do as humans. We design."
A plea to anyone entering the usability lab
Read on for Days 2 & 3, thoughts on DC and Rihanna, and more...Day 2: Washington D.C.
I stumbled on Boost Labs' website while trying to find something designer-y in Washington D.C. I knew that Boost Labs was a data visualization firm, but it looked like they were onto something a bit more than just cranking out endless infographics.
I sat down with CEO Ali Allage to discuss how Boost Labs came about and where it's headed. Boost Labs emerged from Allage's background in developing engaging visual content that went beyond lifeless words on a webpage. Although the company struggled to find a focus initially, Boost Labs has settled on redesigning information in a more "digestible" way allows consumers to "take in the message for themselves" and for a firm and customer to have a "conversation without having a conversation." Allage gave the example of a car company. An interactive and visual advertisement that lets consumers compare the company's car with competitors' cars would allow the consumer to "engage more in the data" and see why the car is better than the competitors' cars. This is in stark contrast to the consumer merely being bombarded with countless advertisements that show the car driving through some European road.
Boost Labs CEO Ali Allage and Senior Designer Kevin Ingalls
Data visualization is not a new concept, but the corporate world has been slow to adopt it. "People who deal with heavy data," said Allage, "look at data visualization as just 'prettying' up the data." Likewise, the government is "still using words and maybe a single image to engage the public" in policy, ideas, and the dissemination of information. Many companies and government agencies are now jumping on the social media bandwagon, but social media requires "constantly having to talk with the customer." With interactive data visualization, these companies and agencies "don't have to speak." For instance, Boost Labs built the US Census Bureau a web application that allows employees to input massive amounts of data. Any citizen can then use tools on the website to visualize exactly what that census data means for our country. The end goal of Boost Labs' work is to create an environment in which a consumer or client can "gain knowledge without knowing that they gained knowledge."
When Boost Labs takes on a new client, the hardest challenge is that the client often "doesn't know what their data is." The first step in designing data visualization tools is thus to identify what story the client is trying to tell. A "large subset of data" could have anywhere "from 10 to 15 stories." When Boost Labs worked with the White House Initiative on Asian American Pacific Islander populations in the United States, the challenge was to distill the endless amount of data and potential stories into a handful of powerful visualizations that could convey the needs of the populations. Boost Labs helped the White House to determine the big "headlines" for the data set, ones that would convince other government agencies of the populations' needs. For Boost Labs, the future of data visualization is about designing consistently more engaging ways to interact with data online. Excel pie charts and tables are on their way out.
Day 3: Richmond, VA
We stopped by Richmond, VA to visit the BrandCenter at Virginia Commonwealth University. The BrandCenter offers graduate studies in brand strategy, art direction, and copywriting, but also in creative technology. I had the chance to speak with Professor Berwyn Hung and to find out more about what exactly creative technology is in the world of advertising.
Professor Berwyn Hung of the BrandCenter
Although he teaches students to use innovative thinking and technology to solve advertising problems, Professor Hung's background is actually in an entirely analog technology: book arts. "I'm into technology," said Professor Hung, "it doesn't matter what century it came from." The point of his personal explorations is to "exploit where the technology can take us." Professor Hung makes sure to impart this mission to his students, telling them "this is where technology is at now—but what more can we do with it?"
The conference room folds down from the ceiling
The BrandCenter is housed in the carriage house of the Jefferson Hotel. One can still see the lifts used to raise horses between floors. Clive Wilkinson Architects, known for designing Google's Headquarters and the Macquarie Bank, took the shell and went to work, transforming the building into an innovative and exciting mish-mash of color, metal, wood and a folding tent-like conference room. This is the ideal learning environment: one that inspires and stimulates just by being in the building. In Professor Hung's opinion, the BrandCenter is the "convergence of really smart business people, innovation, and advertisement" with the goal of "helping consumers to have a better experience."
But getting to that point of innovation in advertising is a trial by fire for Professor Hung's students. "I take my students and drop them in a deep, dark pit," said Professor Hung. "Their goal is to get out any way they can. You can either make light and walk out or you can fumble around until you get out some other way. You just need to get your ass out of the pit." The students at the BrandCenter are some of the most creative thinkers in the industry. "Creative means you're creative," said Professor Hung. "It doesn't stop. You must be creative at everything you do. You're the Swiss Army Knife."
Musician's Friend Triangle Field Guide from Ren Toner
And that's where the creative technology part comes in. A relatively new term, creative technologists are the design thinkers of the advertising industry. Instead of turning students into experts at one discipline, which is the typical education for designers in the advertising industry, Professor Hung seeks to impart the problem-solving skills necessary to tackle challenges in any discipline. "It's like the Justice League," said Professor Hung. "Superman might be the writer, but Batman is the creative technologist. He has all the tools, but the thing that gets him to the end is his brain." Professor Hung embodies this Batman philosophy perhaps better than anyone I have met. During the course of our conversation, Professor Hung often interjected with an invention that had just come to mind or a concept for the future of advertising.
And where might this future of advertising take us? Perhaps towards transmedia, said Professor Hung, which is storytelling across all media and devices, allowing users to interact and play with the story. This interaction would only amplify the story's original meaning. Moreover, as the paradigms for communication change, so does the advertising industry. For example, "people complain about texting in schools," said Professor Hung. "But by the time my son gets to school, there's going to be ThinkMail. is the teacher going to say, 'Stop thinking?'"
There is a lot of downtime on road trips when you're driving from city to city. It gives me a chance to reflect on my life and life in general. In addition to sharing all the wonderful designers I meet along the way, I thought I'd also share some of my thoughts as I drive across the country and back. I've driven over 1,000 miles and passed through nine states in the last three days. I still can't believe I'm driving across the country—it's a very surreal experience to wake up in one state and go to sleep two states away.
I'm really struck by how similar every suburb I pass through looks. From New Jersey to Maryland to Virginia, it all looks the same. Having grown up in suburban Boston, I feel quite comfortable in these places but I also feel like they're a blight on the face of our planet. Then I get to cities and I see things that make my jaw drop, like City Hall in Philadelphia or the Washington Monument in DC. Yet I never feel as comfortable in cities—I always feel on edge or even overwhelmed. I guess I'll have to come to terms with this feeling when I move to Brooklyn in a few weeks.
Perhaps the most emotional experience I've had so far was our visit to the Museum of the Marine Corps. The museum itself is extremely well-designed in the more objective sense: a glass pyramid that reaches towards the sky in an epic gesture, which houses tons of fantastic aircraft and helicopters dangling from the ceiling. The exhibits themselves are brand new and weave you through each war and conflict. At one point, you walk out of the back of a real helicopter into an extremely realistic war scenario. But in the lobby on the day that we visited, there was a group of wounded Iraq/Afghanistan veterans missing limbs. There were missing legs and missing arms. One veteran was missing two legs and an arm. I found it extremely hard to stop at look at any exhibit because they all seemed to glorify war when there was the reality of war sitting in the lobby. I've never known how to interact with soldiers. Do I stop and say, "Thank you for your service?" I always end up avoiding eye contact.
Our country has forgotten our soldiers, a terrible act, regardless of your opinion on the wars. The soldiers come home to a country that has moved on without them. Buildings are not handicap accessible. Our world is not designed for them. Luckily, there are projects like IDEO's Wounded Warrior homes that seek to make life a bit easier for veterans. I realize that social problems in third world countries are so tempting for designers, but jeez—there are so many problems in our country right now. Why not design for people that need your help here?
I've never visited D.C. before this trip and I was really looking forward to it, but honestly, I was rather let down. The White House is much smaller than it looks in movies. And there was a DMZ running right in front. They actually shut down the sidewalk in front of the White House for some unknown reason right when I got there. As an American, I can't even see the White House? I understand all the security concerns, especially as someone with a background in security, but I felt more like I was in North Korea than in the capitol of the United States. There's a great quote from security expert Bruce Schneier that goes something like, "You know you have too much security when that security starts interfering with your daily life."
But I also found the urban decay on the immediate periphery of D.C. to be a bit unsettling. I suppose I expected the perfect city to be our capitol, and it's far from it. Yet my friend Nana disagreed with me. "I like D.C. because it's just Americans doing what they do," said Nana. "It's not idealized or pristine. It's just Americans. And if that doesn't say America, I don't know what does."
"Sure, go straight from Philly to DC and skip right over Baltimore, because there's no design to be found here. Instead, spend your time at the cultural hotbed that is Omaha. I realize that you have to cull down the stops, but man, im [sic] dismayed. Boise? Richmond? What?"
Most Played Songs So Far
1. The Wanted "Heart Vacancy (DJs From Mars Remix)"
2. Usher - "Climax (Flosstradamus Remix)"
3. Rihanna - "Cockiness" (You would too if you had my bass)
4. Grouplove - "Tongue Tied"
5. Drake (ft. Lil Wayne) - "The Motto"
As always, send destination ideas to core77dave [at] gmail.com—I'm headed down to Charlotte, Atlanta and New Orleans next! (If you haven't figure it out yet, I'm driving around the country clock-wise. Sorry Kentucky and Tennessee!)
Special thanks to Claire Bula, Ali Allage, Katherine Keogh, and Prosper Owusu!
Dave Seliger is a Postgrad Fellow in Logistics and Ext Affairs at the NYC Office of Emergency Management. He has extensive experience helping firefighters, police officers, and disaster responders improve their services through design.