Monthly Archives: May 2013

Indian Food in Chinese To-Go Boxes

A while ago (and it really has been a while, because the restaurant is now closed), I went to the restaurant Hyderabad House on University Avenue. This isn’t (wasn’t) a big Indian restaurant and definitely more like a smaller family run restaurant. The food was reasonably good, and when I was leaving I got some to-go (as you frequently have to do in the US of A given the portions), but instead of getting the standard recycled cardboard boxes that are the norm, I got my food in tiny Chinese To-Go boxes.


This was such a pleasant little surprise! Some biryani in a tiny Chinese ToGo box. So charming. I was imagining leaving it in the communal fridge at the design loft and not labeling it, so that whoever would open up the box would also be in for a little surprise.

And it got me thinking, we frequently have experiences that are delightful and joyous, but entirely NOT by design. Compare a hike in India or the sanitized hikes here in the US (generalizing from the very small amount of hiking I have done). When we talk about design language and branding, coherence and consistency show up frequently. You walk into a Macy’s and there’s the Macy’s signage and the Macy’s card and the Macy’s carry bag with the usual insignia, and so it is everywhere and to be honest it gets a little boring.

So I ask two questions:

One, Is is even possible to design for the kind of surprise that I got at the end of my meal at Hyderabad House? There was an authenticity to it. What might have been the back story? Maybe the restaurant owner thought the Chinese boxes would be less expensive overall, a financial optimization that Indians frequently do (and which I could relate to being from that culture), or perhaps he had a friend who was Chinese and also a restaurant owner and this guy would have just used the same vendor as his friend. If anyone had designed it to be so, it would actually have the opposite effect – of either coming across as inauthentic or just an oversight.

Two, if you do design it, how do you do it? Imbuing your design with personality perhaps? An even human personality, that doesn’t always do what you expect? Aarron Walter’s Designing for Emotion gets to this a little bit. Jennifer Aaker’s work on Brand Personality may be relevant. Or maybe you just try to design for surprise. But how can you do that in a way that doesn’t seem contrived? I like the tiny surprise this little jar style beer mug at CurryUpNow.

CurryUpNow Beer Mug

Googling ‘Designing for surprise’ leads to the following interesting links. This one is my favorite: POLA (Principle of least astonishment). And these two are linked here for future reading.

To be pondered over.



inkling [ingk-ling] noun a slight suggestion or indication; hint; intimation


I was speaking to a good friend of mine today (who also happens to be a magician) about making a choice about the several career paths he can choose from after graduation, and how he has made such choices in the past. He said “I’ve always had an inkling, and then I end up fully committing”, and this time he didn’t have any sort of inkling (yet).

I thought that I hadn’t heard that word in a while. Inkling, such a beautiful word, it has such a nice ring to it. Also, with such a beautiful meaning: A suspicion, a sixth sense about what is about to happen. And an interesting way to make a decision.

At grad school, I’ve spent much time making decisions, big and small: who to work with, what to work on, when to start working (when has always been a bad decision because inevitably, it has been last minute) etc. I feel like through most of life, I’ve been taught a very left brain way to make decisions, weighing the pros and cons and making an informed judgement, but here in grad school, ‘feelings’ have come up as a strong decision making strategy: what feels right, what you gut is saying, having an inkling. Or let me rephrase, I have always made emotional decisions, and therefore been branded emotional, but it is here in grad school (at a renowned engineering university of all places), that it seems like there is some legitimacy to it.

A related concept is the the notion of embodied cognition, which I learnt at an Improv session here at Stanford. Our body affects the way we think and feel and not just the other way round (when you are feeling sad, it shows on your face, but if you force your face into a smile, you feel better). Or that our body is the site for a lot of thinking, just as our brain is (I feel more and more that reductionism is not a good enough approach to understanding the world – and I haven’t fully read the thesis on reductionism so I might be using the term incorrectly here, but the idea that the mind of the brain is where we ‘think’ and the body is where the actions are manifested seems reductionist).

A couple of excellent images on the topic:

An image I saw at a friends place: note the last column about where these emotions are felt.


This is from the (awesome) book: Designing Design by Kenya Hara.


Going back to the notion of inkling, an inkling is our body helping us make a decision. Right is felt in the gut, Wrong is (at least by me) felt in the neck and shoulders.

Other related notions that come to mind are Gladwell’s Blink, and David Brooks talk on Reason and Emotion (He says “for centuries, we’ve inherited a view of human nature based on the notion we are divided selves, that reason is separated from emotion”, a “great amputation”, he calls this.)

Suitably Epic Dream

A talk series I always enjoy listening to is the Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders series at STVP (Interestingly, one of the things I was excited to come to Stanford for was to be able to see it in person, and the funny thing is that I didn’t go even once. Oh grad school!). Anyhoo, I still listen to recorded talks every now and then. A while back I heard Phil Libin’s talk. A fascinating idea in that talk is about having a ‘Suitably Epic Dream’.

My suitably epic dream, or at least one that I have been trying on for size, is to help people live up to their own potential.

As Steve Jobs said, you can never connect the dots looking forward (one manifestation of which I saw when I was applying to the Stanford Design Program, and the courses in which I had done well at undergrad, even when I was mostly just dicking around at the time, were perfect for the Design Program) I see a thread of this throughout things that I am drawn to. It starts off by trying to live up to my own potential: my fascination with finding (or making) the perfect ToDo list/email killer, inspirational talks, my interest in self help books. Another thread is about empowering others by working on more ‘platform’ problems, a mini-example being ReadyMad– getting companies with Indian pop culture inspired products to have an online platform, my desire to solve the e-commerce enablers problem in India – payment gateway, shipping etc. My Interest in companies like Square and Kickstarter and so on.

A riff on this was captured well by another STVP talk I heard today, by Tim O’Reilly:  where he talks about the notion of ‘creating more value than you capture’. Interestingly, Square features heavily in Tim’s talk, and given that Square is one of the companies I want to work for, I found the weird sense of Synchronicity at play. (I found out there was another phrase for it: cognitive bias though in this case i couldn’t have know that Square will feature in the talk).

The question that I am pondering on these days, is what can be a specific implementation of this dream?