Rediscovering Comics

The universe conspired recently to get me back into comic books. I have spent many years of my childhood reading Nagraj, Super Commando Dhruv, Doga, Parmanu, Chacha Choudhry, Shikari Shambhu, even Fauladi Singh, which I remember to be pretty darned awesome. Oh, and Tausi! and all the different companies: Raj Comics, Manoj Comics, Diamond Comics, Amar Chitra Katha and more. And the Archie comics that my cousin used to own, and Phantom – so good! (Interestingly, I did not grow up with X-Men, Batman, Superman and the other usual suspects.)

I even distinctly remember that one of my childhood dreams was to be a comic book illustrator – I probably find a half-sketched Nagraj comic somewhere.

So here is the series of events that got me back.

1. I visited Portland last August, and spent an afternoon on Mississippi Street whence I sauntered into a comic book store (this one I think), and ended up adding a few comic books to my Amazon Wishlist (I am trying to do less showrooming, I promise).
2. In November, Amazon had its annual Thanksgiving 30% off sale, where I ended up buying two of the said books: Habibi, which I was drawn to because of incredible middle-eastern art and The Sex Criminals, which was very well reviewed on Amazon (and is on many best of lists this year).
3. My roommate brought home ‘The Wicked and the Divine’ (which I didn’t like – the characters don’t have much depth).
4. I visited one of my friends’ old teachers who used to own a comic book store (!). It was inspiring to see his collection of comic books and comic book art. He also is a drama teacher and it was amazing to see how he was fusing Shakespeare with his love of comic books (Classic case of bringing what you love to what you do as this man tells us to do). I was excited to tell him about Nagraj, Super Commando Dhruv and more.
5. I bought the Humble Image Comics Bundle.
6. I also discovered that SF has several great comic book stores, two of which I visited yesterday (Mission Comics and Isotope).

Which brings me to the real point of this post, is to share the list of comics I have read in the past few months and how excited I am to be rediscovering one of my favorite written mediums.

Habibi by Craig Thomson
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This one is dark and disturbing, and has the most exquisite art. I liked it, even though I probably didn’t enjoy it (in the way I might enjoy a sci-fi comic).

Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky

Screenshot 2015-02-08 23.36.27

The reviews don’t lie. Funny, irreverent, honest and clever, Sex Criminals is great. Chip and Matt are rockstars. Awesome artwork, especially the ‘cumworld’ panels. I also love how awesome both the characters look – they aren’t your usual “heroes”. Had to put in this quote “Ms. Jazmine St. Cocaine. Fire of my life, light of my loins.”
Saga by Brian and Fiona 

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This is an awesome awesome book, and what inspired me to write this post, filled with authentic writing, humor, with inspiring and real characters. A book that takes itself seriously and not seriously at the same time. The art is magnificent. I read the ePub version that I got on Humble Bundle, but just bought the Deluxe edition which is a steal at Amazon (though you may also choose to support local businesses and buy it at a comic book store) and Volume 4!

The Love Bunglers by Jamie Hernandez

Also amazing. Once you’ve read the book, you’ll realize how smart the book cover is. Also picked up Dicks and Deedies by Jamie Hernandez, which I didn’t finish.

The other books that I got and are on my list to read are: The Life After by Joshua Hale Falkov and Gabo and Mind Mgmt by Matt Kindt. Recommendations from James at Isotope Comics (must visit!) and both have exquisite (and different from the usual comic book art) artwork.

The Oppression of ‘Good’ Design

At the Bold Italic SUM conference today, Zach Klein, in response to the question, what advice would he give to the audience to cultivate their creativity, he said, the death of MySpace was a travesty. The audience laughed, but he meant it seriously. It was a travesty because through making their own pages, a whole generation was learning how to make a web page – they might have been ugly, or dissonant or chaotic – but that is what creativity looks like and by taking that kind of freedom away, we have failed.

I felt like this was an especially potent observation. Perhaps the same thing happened when cubicles were designed. Instead of prescribing ‘good’ design – users should be empowered to design themselves – and go through a journey of doing bad work before finding their voice.

True Personalization

As Jon Kolko notes in Thoughts on Interaction Design, interactions between products and people are like relationships in real life. Relationships in real life are emergent and not prescriptive.

How can we create products that can be shaped by their user and also shape themselves. What’s a new version of the Preferences window? Maybe a counseling session?

Also, digital apps have the unfortunate side effect of being ‘always new’. How can the wear and tear of a car or a loved coffee mug exist for web apps? (Maybe it can’t until we get to a bridging of physical and digital things).

The power of metaphor

Needs a longer post, but wanted to take a moment to capture all sorts of things about the power of metaphor. As it turns out, it isn’t just a figure of speech, but one of the most powerful tools for understanding and creating the world.

Metaphors We Live By by Lakoff and Johnson
Evidently the seminal work on how we use metaphors to understand the world.

Synectics
A problem solving methodology that uses “‘metaphorical process’ to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar”.

Prototype Theory
I need to research this more, but seems related.

Using Metaphor for Needfinding
In this Stanford class, Michael Barry taught us how to use metaphor as a way to synthesize design research.

Steve Teig talks about using Metaphor
Steve Teig talks about how powerful metaphors can help solve problems, including examples like how by using the game Mastermind as a metaphor, he created a new drug discovery engine. Come to think of it, one the most influential start up entities today, Y Combinator, is also driven by a metaphor.

Design and ‘Riyaaz’

The other day I went with my brother and dad to my dad’s physiotherapist. I decided that I’d also consult her for some muscle pain I had been experiencing. She asked me if I did any exercise. I said, “I run 2-3 times a week.”. She said, “Running is not exercise. It’s like you sing, but that doesn’t mean you don’t do your riyaaz.”

An excerpt from the book Art School by MIT Press, gives the following definition of riyaaz.

In Hindustani music traditions, riyaaz, or the everyday cultivation of one’s musicality is a repertoire of exercises to keep the voice or fingers or one’s ability to play an instrument in good shape. But it is more than this. It is as much about the cultivation of a set of attitudes and sensibilities as it about the honing of a skill. Riyaaz is an attempt to explore the boundaries of what one can do on a regular basis and of pushing these boundaries again and on a regular basis so that the foundations of one’s practice undergo a daily renewal, so that one keeps becoming an adept. Riyaaz is a practitioner’s meditation on his or her practice.

This got me wondering, what would consitute riyaaz for a designer? A design thinker? Riyaaz is different from practice. Whenever I produce something, I am practicing my design skills, but what would be something that would have “the foundations of my practice undergo a daily renewal”?

An aside: The same book also asks,

What would constitute the riyaaz of the kinds of artists who busy themselves with the continuous generation of context for praxis?

Of course, I have idea what the phrase “contexts for praxis” means, and a google search reveals little, but googling praxis revealed a treasure trove of information

 

Gift Economies

Since I’ve been thinking about generosity recently, another idea that I appeals to me is what Sep Kamvar calls the gift economy (By the way, the entire Mastery and Mimicry essay is a great read).

This posts just catalogs some interesting things I’ve found on the interwebs that speak to that idea. Here’s an article about a company called Patreon, that let’s people be patrons to artists they like on YouTube. This phrase particularly stood out to me “the age of advertising was a hundred-year blip”.

Another pieces of news was the open access policy to research that University of California recently instituted.

Kickstarter is also a gifting platform, even though it has found more fame as the platform to “pre-sell” technology projects.

I like the word “gift” instead of “free” because there is still a currency involved, one of gratitude.

Generosity

I recently took a trip to Maui. While we were there, we took a ferry ride to Molokini to do some snorkeling, and as we were getting off, we came across the all familiar tip jar. And I was faced with one of those classic tipping dilemmas: You can only tip in cash, but the denominations you have are more than the amount you want to tip. To tip more? Or not to tip at all? Or to awkwardly ask for change?

Tipping is one of those social customs that I find deeply fascinating. Especially when someone from one tipping culture is dropped into a different tipping culture. It is a moment when who-you-are, is laid a little bit bare. Do you tip the minimum considered appropriate, or do you tip more? You tip only when you’ve received excellent service or tip the same no matter what? Do you do complicated math to make sure it is a multiple of ten? How do you tip when you are on a date? How do you tip when no one’s watching? Why do you tip the way you tip? To show off? To feel good? To be ‘fair’?

I also think tipping is a measure of how generous you are. And generosity applies to things beyond money. I was talking to one of my friends whose boss is apparently stingy with praise. The boss would say (and I am paraphrasing), “Why do people always want a pat on their back?”. I think the subtext there was that “No one is giving me a pat on my back, why should I pat someone else?”.

I think the that is the way I, and I’d imagine many others, approach giving: Once I have enough myself, I will give some away. When I have enough money, I’ll be more philanthropic. When I have more money I’ll get nice gifts for my friends and family. When I have enough success, I’ll be appreciative of others success instead of being jealous.

And yet, I am coming around to the thought that the way to have more, is to give more. So the order of business is to give first and get later instead of the other way round. One context in which I have learnt that to be true is business. One of my best business lessons was with one of my worst clients. We set the wrong expectations, I severely undersold myself and then when the work turned out to be more than I had budgeted, we were unable to renegotiate the relationship (until much later). There were two lessons there, one was to not undersell yourself, but another was also to give some without any expectation of getting anything. My client did not know what she wanted, could I have helped her think through that when we started our conversation? Could I leave her asking the right questions? Even if she would have chosen someone else, would she be better off having interacted with me?

A lot of businesses have the concept of “free consultation”. And yet most time that feels like a long advertisement, but there are some where the person solves your problem, and you are left wondering, ‘You sure? This is for free?’. I’ve had both experiences recently. A free fitness consultation at the gym where every question was answered with, ‘I can tell you that when you sign up for the full class’ and not one, but two visits to a bike shop where a guy solved my problem and didn’t ask for any money (even when I was willing to pay them). Next thing I knew I went and bought something from that bike shop, just because they had been generous. (Or maybe it was just reciprocity at play).

The big challenge is to figure out where to place yourself on the continuum, (of course everything is a continuum to a design thinking student). To not be so generous as to undersell yourself, and not to be so thrifty that you turn into a miser. My favorite analog is Subway stores. There are Subway stores where some servers put generous helpings of lettuce on your sandwich, and then there are others who act like every strand of onion is costing them a rupee. And then there will always be those who will abuse your generosity. But don’t let some of those change you. Here’s a useful talk by Mike Monteiro (and a book) on not underselling yourself.

So I am making a new rule for myself: “Be generous today”. Not on some future date when you have more, but right now. Tip generously, help generously, give generously. Without expecting. Leave people feeling better off having interacted with you.

Just as a note to myself, I am also writing down some of my other rules, to be perhaps blogged upon another time, “survive the grimace”, “if recognize, say hello”, “maximize karma, not profit”.

So what did I do in Maui? I tipped the larger amount. It felt a little weird, usually I would not have tipped at all. It will take some time to get used to.

Transitions

A little more than a week ago, I graduated from college.

I am still in denial.

But there are enough reminders, and I think it is finally sinking in. A first of those was an email stating I must move out of graduate housing the day after I graduated, (though I did have the option of extending that through the summer. I did till mid-July, I found out yesterday that someone is moving in 4 days after I leave). I had a few library books I needed to return today. Usually, the turnstile at the library opens with a satisfying click when I swipe my card. Today, I was greeted with a tiny red light that informed me that I no longer had access. I had to wait for a few minutes while someone had to come to the entrance to take the books from me. I now get limited alumni access, and of course I can pay to be able to borrow books. Only a matter of time before I lose my access to the d.school. I was thinking of going to the gym today, but maybe I will go for a run outside instead (knowing that my card won’t allow me inside the gym). I should probably add something to my email signature, letting people know they won’t be able to use my university email address any more. We recently found a place to stay in San Francisco. Google maps tells me I’ll have to change two trains and spend over an hour to get here. So I can no longer plop out of bed 10 minutes before class starts and get there just in time (but then again, I don’t have any classes to get to.)

It’s not like I haven’t had transitions in my life before, or I am some fukru who doesn’t want to pay the (discounted) alumni rates to get access to university resources, but somehow this one seems, for the lack of a better word, ‘harsh’. Maybe the other transitions were easy: When I went to college in India, I was a 40 minute drive away from home. When I got my first job, my office was 15 minutes away. Eventually I started a company that operated out of my house’s basement. Even when I was moving to the US, somehow the transition did not seem that hard. Perhaps because I had a year to plan, and be prepared for it. I was excited. I was traveling with only two suitcases full of stuff. Now, I have no idea how I amassed the mound of boxes that I know will have when I move out. Worse, I came to a place where you learn how to “make stuff”. Some of it I can part with, some carries too much emotional value to give up.

In one of our classes here, we do a project called “Themes and Bridges”. We are supposed to take two or three contrasting themes and then bridge them. A lot of us didn’t get it the first time. We had contrasting themes but we didn’t have well articulated bridges, or we “cheated” (like using a black fadeout between two frames of a video). On our second attempt we did better.

One of my friends build a “Z” shape out of a piece of aluminium, a nicely finished piece of wood and an unfinished piece of wood.

Tom's Themes and Bridges
Themes & Bridges by Tom Cohlmia

The bridge between the two wood pieces was visual: dovetail joints, and conceptual: the material of the wood itself. The bridge between the finished wood piece and machined element again had two parts, the visual: bolts and conceptual: the finished rectangular piece of wood and machined rectangular aluminium. Our professor emphasized that we need to work hard on our bridges, our transitions, because that is the stuff we don’t pay attention to.

Even as laymen, we know bad design. When we see something that has not been bridged well, we get a sense that something is ‘off’. Having spent some time at design school, on some occasions I can identify what that “off” is. This feels like one of those times, there is something “off” about this transition. Given that as an alumnus, I am valuable to my school, I wonder how they can make this transition better (or maybe I should just grow a pair and stop being a whiny little bitch).

Better Products or Better People?

The central dogma of design thinking is “Thou shalt have empathy”. That means we start by understanding the needs of the people we are designing for : not just their explicit needs but (especially, and very importantly) their implicit and latent needs. A framework to classify different needs is Michael Barry’s Use, Usability, Meaning framework.

Inevitably, this leads to better products. As Paul Graham says, make something people want. But here’s the question I have been considering: How can we design better people? How can we design so that people want things that make us a better culture, a better civilization?

In The Lost Interview, Steve Jobs says “The way we’re gonna ratchet up our species is to take the best and spread it around everybody so that everybody grows up with better things and starts to understand the subtlety of these better things”. (Also relevant, Paul Graham essay on taste).

This is a question that needs much reflection and investigation, and I will touch upon this topic many times, but for today, I will share a passage from Kenya Hara’s Designing Design:

Design is like the fruit of a tree.

The soil of design

In product design, vehicles and refrigerators are the fruit. Design functions from the perspective of how to produce good fruit. If you look at the fruit from some distance, you see the next tree that bears the fruit and then the soil in which the tree stands. Important to the whole process of creating good fruit is the condition of the soil. If we’re after good fruit, we must cultivate the soil, though that might seem a roundabout path to the fruit. In our metaphor, the soil corresponds to the market and the “level of desire” of the individuals who make up the market controls the quality of the soil. What matters is the quality of the appetite: what kind of appetite do they have for living?

More good stuff from the Hara Design Institute.

Micro-relationships

When we hear the word ‘relationships’, we probably think of big hairy audacious relationships first. Family, spouses, close friends. Then there are the acquaintances. Somewhere along this spectrum are Facebook friends. (Interestingly in Poland, there are two separate words for friendship. A “normal friend” and then a “friend friend”, and you are very careful about what to use when. I always love to find words in other languages that cannot really be translated to English).

Anyway, there is another class of relationships that I would like to call microrelationships. They are unusual in the sense that they are more than acquaintances, so they have a little more ‘intensity’, but within a very specific context or a thin slice of time (even though the overall time for which they may last is longer). You make these relationships with your bank teller whom you enjoy talking to, or with the barista at a coffee shop you frequent who knows what you like, or with the man who comes to your department for clean up at 1am in the night and you practice a couple of lines of your measly Spanish with.

I differentiate these from relationships like your driver or your dhobi, because you can still choose these people. Microrelationships are more serendipitous.  Maybe a different barista serves you one day, maybe the guy who cleans your department has a different shift that night.

For example, at the coffee house at Stanford (CoHo), I know a guy called Sergu, with whom I always have a fun conversation whenever I am getting coffee. I like my coffee extra hot, and one day he decided to describe that as ‘cachondo’ (which apparently means horny in Spanish slang). So whenever I get my coffee now, we get a laugh out of him calling me Mr. Cachondo. Our ‘relationship’ doesn’t go beyond that, but the short conversation means something to me. When I go to get coffee I hope that it is his shift.

But what if something goes wrong? What if one fine day he refuses to acknowledge me in the same way? This happened recently at another coffee shop here. A barista who used to be really nice to me (our little schtick was addressing each other with the first three letters of each other’s name) has practically stopped acknowledging me (and I can even guess why that might be: I was abusing the free refills policy – you know, like PIGS are prone to do). But how do you resolve a conflict in a microrelationship? The serendipitous nature of these makes it decidedly awkward.

In a class called Social Brands here, I learnt that brands are a lot like people. They have a personality, they make mistakes and so on. A simple framework to look at this relationship  trajectory is the following:

Socializing

You start by saying hello, you listen with intention, you make mistakes and then recover, you express gratefulness and then you start again. One of the things that our teaching team drilled upon was the power of the apology, which brands don’t leverage enough. I wonder how one apologizes and recovers in microrelationships? Or maybe just take Tim’s advice about uncomfortable conversations?

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