Why Does a Door Need Instructions? Seriously!

Red Door Pull Sign.jpeg


If you’re willing, the next time you get to a door, stop.  What’s your initial reaction? Push it? Pull it?  Doors are one of my favorite examples of lousy design.  Shouldn’t opening a door be intuitive? We really need instructions to go through a door? Really?? 

USB Pointer.png

Our world is filled with poorly designed products we use every day without thinking twice.  We’ve come to accept that this is the way it is.  We learn how to work around the non-intuitive design and just use the easy-to-figure-out features.   Take the USB Pointer for presentations! My natural instinct is to use the up arrow, the one on top, to move the slide ahead, but no! Even though I’m pointing at the screen, I don’t use the up arrow (pointing at the screen), I use the down arrow pointing at me!

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Some of the best designed products are simple and long-lasting – like the paper clip!  And there are products that just entice us with their elegant, beautiful and comfortable design – like the Vespa, globally recognized as an icon of design.

As you approach work this week, be it leading people, designing products, services or systems, creating marketing material, building circuit boards, writing essays in college, giving presentations, etc., take a few minutes to think who will be using, hearing, reading, sharing your “stuff” and how you can make it easy for them.  Just as I asked you to stop the next time you got to a door, stop the next time you’re ‘designing’ and think - how can you make it intuitive, easy, enjoyable and amazingly useful?

p.s. A great read on design for everyday life is The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman!

How to Create an Amazing Life by Design ~ 5 Fundamentals

From the floorboards of Jackson Pollock's studio in the Hamptons, NY. The paint spatterings can be traced to specific pieces of his art.

Two and a half years ago, I was invited to share my story, Life by Design, at Brown University's Creative Mind Lecture series.  Since then, it's taken on a life of its own with my mentees who now use it as a noun.  They've asked me to formalize it in case I get hit by a bus, so here's the start.

After several years of mentoring and advising, I've discovered 5 (at least) fundamentals to creating an amazing Life by Design (through very non-scientific methods).

1. Very little you do in life is irrevocable.

Aside from dying, very few of the choices we make in life are permanent and can't be undone, redone, mitigated or benefited from.  Even losing a limb is no longer necessarily life-altering.  Once we view life that way, opportunities are endless sources of learning and exploration.  We don't need to be afraid that if we do X today, we're stuck doing X for the rest of our life.

2. There are many paths, solutions, answers, right choices - not just 1.

Following #1 above, rarely in life is there just one way to do something - there are many ways.  Many times we feel the path a role model or someone we admire took is the only path to get to the same place. Unfortunately, our education system reinforces the one way - there is THE right answer or way not A right answer or way.  Well, guess what, rarely is that the case.  Life isn't binary.

3. Your major or job isn't destiny.

The world tells us that our college major and even our current job is destiny.  Engineers should only look for engineering jobs, not design, product management, etc.  English majors should only look for writing or PR jobs, not design, product management, etc.  Drop the "should" - it's a horrible word!  Our job or major is not our destiny.  By looking at how that major or job has taught us to think, approach problems, communicate, see connections and patterns, apply to different situations, we can use our experience in so many ways!

Kandinsky - Composition V1, 1913

4. "Man plans, G-d Laughs"

This age old yiddish proverb is so true.  A student came to me a few years ago asking for help laying out her 10yr plan. 10 years!!!! I told her to write something out, put it in a drawer and then come back and we'd discuss the next 2-3 years.  Think about life in 2-3 (maybe up to 5) year chunks - what do we want to learn, experience, explore, discover over the next 2-3 years, why, and what are the best places and ways to do that! Yup, it's that simple... but not easy.

5. Experiment -> Learn -> Apply -> Iterate

At the age 99.5, my grandmother said, "The day you stop learning is the day you die." Life, personal and professional, is a continuous experiment - we try things, we hopefully learn, we apply those learnings and experiment again - til we die.  Learn to be curious, love to learn, try stuff - often, question your assumptions, question your questions, as why, why not, what if, and one of my favorites, where is it written (e.g., is it a rule or guideline?). 

Next week? I'll share my view of Life as lego blocks! Your comments and thoughts are welcome!

An Animated Look at Scientific Illustration

No matter what your profession or passion, design is a part of it, even the most STEM'y ones. Allison Chen, RISD '15, believes that scientific illustration is a definition of STEAM... and she's right! It's Science, Technology, Engineering (how the body works in the case of biological systems) and Math ... and Art! This great post, from her STEAM Stories project (please follow it!) shows us how art and design are so embedded in our daily lives and our work.  Enjoy! And follow her and read these great stories.
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Before modern film and computers, scientific phenomena were recorded with meticulous drawings and paintings for centuries. These illustrations illuminated the unobservable or unclear, often answering, “Will that plant kill me?” or “What’s going on inside my body?”

Of course, we still ask these questions, and can now use new media to answer. Based in Seattle, Washington, Eleanor is a designer that puts a modern spin on scientific illustration. Having received her bachelor’s in molecular biology and done visual art since high school, she combines both passions to create stunning animated infographics.

“I think visuals really help explain science to the general public,” Eleanor said. “If you haven’t gotten a degree in it, it’s really hard to understand topics like global warming or GMOs. It’s important for actual experts to explain everything.”

When she isn’t working for clients such as Huffington Post and the Gates Foundation, Eleanor has the freedom to design whatever subjects strike her interest. These interests manifest in both animated and static diagrams that she documents on her blog tabletopwhale.com, where you can also find a tutorial that shows how she works with Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop.

One animation, 3 Different Ways to Breathe, compares human lungs with those of birds and grasshoppers. Watching the animation, you can see how birds can take in oxygen even while exhaling, and how air is transported directly into the grasshopper’s tissue cells.

“I had no idea that things breathed differently,” Eleanor said, “or that the way humans breathe isn’t even the most efficient.”

Another animation, How to Build a Human, depicts the growth of a human fetus from fertilization to birth.

“I really wanted everything to be visible at the same time,” Eleanor said, explaining why she chose the spiral format. “When I was reading about it in college, I had some trouble figuring it out in my head. It was described in the text but I wanted everything on one page.”

And perhaps one of the most visually interesting, Flight Videos Deconstructed compares the flight patterns of five flying species and depicts the curves their wings make in space.

As noted on the infographic, the project was an observational exercise and doesn’t represent any scientifically accepted information.

“You definitely can’t draw conclusions from these videos alone,” Eleanor said, “you have no idea if the animals were injured, how old they are, if they’re even flying normally. In an actual study they would’ve taken 30-40 animals in the same room in the same conditions, done in a lab so that a computer can map it.”

This serves as an important reminder that imagery can always be misinterpreted or contrived, no matter how beautiful. Eleanor has noticed a fair amount of science-related art out there that isn’t accurate, and encourages more communication between artists and scientists.

This Fall, Eleanor is returning to school to get her PhD thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation. Best of luck Eleanor, let’s hope your research will inspire more infographics in the future!

Eleanor Lutz: Blog, Twitter, Dribbble

Allison is a designer and writer (soon to be) based in Chicago as a DFA (Design for America) Fellow. She seeks to design for learning and play to help us better understand each other and the world around us. While earning her BFA in industrial design at RISD she co-led the DFA RISD|Brown studio 2014-2015, worked on STEAM learning tools, interned at various organizations, and helped build a solar-powered house for Solar Decathlon Europe 2014. Children are her favorite users, and she enjoys designing for the inner child in all of us. Through her STEAM Stories blog series, she hopes to bring together a community of passionate STEAM do-ers to inspire future interdisciplinary work in hobby, education, and industry.