Monthly Archives: June 2013

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?