Aprender a diseñar es aprender a mirar

“Se ve con un ojo, se siente con el otro”
Paul Klee

Ver no es un acto pasivo, por el contrario es una acto intencionado que está relacionado a un punto de vista único (el de cada uno de nosotros), a un aquí y a un ahora. Quienes somos, nuestros conocimientos, experiencias y contexto, condiciona lo que vemos, nuestra percepción.

Anaïs Nin dice “No vemos las cosas como ellas son, sino vemos las cosas como nosotros somos”. “Cada uno ve lo que sabe” dice Munari (diseño y comunicación visual) y en ese contexto cito el siguiente ejemplo:

“Es sabido que un buen impresor cuando coge un libro nuevo y lo mira y vuelve a mirar por todas partes, abre la cubierta, acompañándola con la mano, observa caracteres tipográficos, la manera cómo están dispuestos y de qué tipo son, y si son originales o de fundición secundaria, observa y critica el papel, la encuadernación, el dorso del libro si es recto o curvado, la manera como empieza el texto (a qué altura), cómo son los márgenes, cómo termina, cómo está dispuesta la numeración, y tantas otras cosas.

Un lector que nada sabe de impresión lee el título y el precio, compra el libro y lo lee, pero si se le pregunta el carácter que tenía el título, no sabe responder, no le interesa. En su mundo privado de imágenes no existen puntos de contacto con estas cosas que no conoce” Su ojo no se detiene, no repara en ellas.

Al mirar en profundidad entonces, lo que hacemos es crear nuevos y múltiples puntos de contacto que nos conectan con nuestra realidad; entrenamos nuestros ojos para ampliar estos puntos lo que implicaría ser capaces de ver más y comprender más.

Pero en este mismo proceso, cuando ganamos también perdemos. Adquirir algo nuevo como ese conocimiento profundo sobre lo que vemos, implica no ser capaces de volver a la ceguera anterior en la que vivíamos. Difícilmente podremos mirar con la inocencia inicial una silla luego de comprender cómo éstas funcionan y mucho menos luego de diseñar una.

Richard Saul Wurman dice “desde el minuto que aprendemos algo, olvidamos cómo era no saberlo”.

Nos esforzamos tanto en aprender a mirar para comprender nuestro mundo, y sin embargo en paralelo cuando salimos a observar, como hacemos acá en la escuela, lo que buscamos es desligarnos de nuestros conocimientos preconcebidos. Así es, como en analogía con las arenas de la ciudad abiertas, hablamos del incesante volver a no saber, que no es la ignorancia respecto a una sabiduría (texto de apertura de terrenos).

A final de cuentas parece que lo que tratamos de hacer es aprender a mirar, para aprehender lo que nos rodea, para formar y fortalecer esos puntos de contacto con la realidad visual que de otro modo pasarían desapercibidos; pero a la hora de diseñar (el momento verdaderamente creativo, de hacer aparecer algo nuevo) aprendemos a observar y con ello a entrar en el trance de desaparecimiento donde no sean nuestros conocimientos, experiencias y contexto, lo que condicione lo que estamos observando, sino que se nos revele lo nuevo, lo puro y para eso estamos abiertos.

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My Dissertation in Information Design

Here’s the PDF and the abstract of my dissertation:

Users of academic libraries can find the experience of searching for books difficult, especially when they have little experience in the use of a particular library building. This dissertation studied, by means of a field test in the library of the University of Reading, the elements involved in a novice user journey when looking for a specific book. By going deeper into users’ journeys, the aim was to gather crucial information in order to reveal gaps in the current wayfinding system and thus suggest the need for new systems or tools for guidance.

The results were visualised as journey models and experience maps and were analysed in order to suggest ways to improve the search process of academic libraries, considering mobile technology capabilities. The use of journey models and experience maps represent an innovation for academic research relating to libraries.

The main results emphasise the need of clarifying the library sections in the computer search as well as the physical space. The role of human help and its responsibility is also considered as an important point in the library experience. Additionally, the ways in which mobile technologies and guidance tools in general can help support the decision process are discussed.

Aquella maravillosa ceguera inicial

Cuando tenía 5 años recuerdo la frustración de no saber leer ni escribir. Como hermana menor, para mí era imposible soportar o admitir mi incapacidad frente a mi hermana de 7 y medio que ya se manejaba y en dos idiomas. Ella podía escribirles cartas a mis abuelos de Valdivia y yo no, así de simple.

Me acuerdo del tiempo que pasé mirando los libros de cuentos que tenía, tratando de ver algo más allá de dibujos y tramas en las letras, hasta que un día, MAGIA! en medio de toda la página, de la nada, apareció la palabra David. Y cuando digo apareció, es porque realmente apareció. Antes no estaba (en mi cerebro por lo menos) y ahora sí. La D con la A, la V con la I  y la D al final, todo hacía sentido de repente.

Después de ese hallazgo, devoré el libro saltando de un “David” a otro “David” (lo que en un libro de David el gnomo puede llevar un tiempo). Era como si todo el resto del texto fuese una masa gris indescifrable, pero en cambio, cada “David” brillaba. Ahora que sabía lo que el dibujo de esa palabra significaba, nada era lo mismo. Ahora me era imposible ignorar y hacer como si no la entendiera y verla sumergida en la piscina de texto como antes.

Esto inevitablemente me hace pensar en qué increíble es lo que ganamos cuando aprendemos a leer, pero a la vez, qué fuerte es que para leer tengamos que “perder” la habilidad de mirar las letras como dibujos y el texto como textura en una página. Tanto así que al estudiar diseño, se vuelve necesario volver a desarrollar eso que abandonamos muchísimos años atrás. Pero nunca es como antes. Nunca se vuelve a no leer la palabra antes de ver el dibujo.

Ahora, de hecho, para mostrar un texto “no legible” tenemos que usar lorem ipsum, porque es lo único que no reconocemos como contenido y, por lo tanto, nos ayuda a verlo gráficamente como bloque de texto sin información.

Esto, en realidad, es algo que pasa en todos los ámbitos. Por ejemplo nuevamente yo, al no saber de autos, lo que veía en ellos eran colores distintos y claro, si me fijaba bien también las formas cambiaban, pero eso no afectaba el hecho de que al verlos pasar en la calle, eran sólo una cosa indefinida, sin información asociada. Esto, por supuesto, hasta que mis papás se compraron un toyota corolla blanco en el 95 y de repente volvió aquella super habilidad de sólo leer toyota corollas en las calles, el mismo efecto de David, el efecto “¡ahora lo veo en todas partes!”.

La cosa es que cada vez que aprendemos algo nuevo, perdemos la habilidad de no reconocerlo. Perdemos la maravillosa ceguera de no conocer, la única quizás que nos permite ver con objetividad puramente visual. Traten de pensar en cuando conocieron a una persona nueva que luego se volvió importante en sus vidas. Se acuerdan la primera vez que vieron su cara? qué pensaron? qué les evocó? es acaso la misma cara que ven ahora en esa persona? Claramente no. Ahora hay tanta información asociada a esa imagen, que lo que vemos es distinto y no lo podemos separar. Todo lo que conocemos o aprendemos de algo/alguien afecta nuestra percepción visual sobre ello.

Wurman en su libro Information Anxiaty 2 , dice “The minute we know something, we forget what it was like not to know it” y ese debe ser uno de los problemas más grandes de la comunicación. Porque claro, los que comunican ya saben y por lo tanto perdieron aquella ceguera inicial. 

Aunque sea imposible volver a ese estado de no saber una vez que ya sabes, quien aspira a comunicar de manera clara, debe tratar de atrapar ese estado de no saber, tratando de recordar cómo veía antes de haber aprendido, para explicar de acuerdo a las necesidades de alguien que todavía no sabe.

What information design is

The Information Design Conference this year (12th and 13th of april) started with a great (in my opinion) presentation of Per Mollerup, Professor of Communication Design at Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne. Basically, he introduced many concepts or elements that are part of information design as a discipline and that we were going to hear many times during those two intense days of talks. The way he related one concept to the other was extremely clear and logical, so it was a pleasure to hear.

I will briefly explain below the main things that I took out of Per’s presentation.

First of all, there is no such thing as one definition of information design that explains everything it involves. “The Information Design Handbook” (Visocky O’Grady 2008) tries to collect many definitions so you can create your own idea of it. But when something gets close to explain this broad discipline, the definition becomes too long and thus harder to understand and remember.

Mollerup himself, stated that information design is explanation, and that good information design is clear explanation. Although I don’t think that this definition captures how strong the role of visual communication is, I believe it is clear and, especially, catchy.

Some of the concepts that he explained later were Clarity and Simplicity, Complex and Complicated. Simple and Complex are attributes of what it’s being explained, but clear and complicated result from the design and the user’s perception and interaction with the information. Thus, Complex consists in many interrelated elements, Complicated is something difficult to understand and analyse, and Simplicity is a means to achieve Clarity.

Furthermore, information design or information designers deal with 3 other concepts: Aesthetics, Functionality and Ethics. These are related to Norman’s 3 ways of relationship between people and products: Visceral, Behavioural and Reflexive. According to Mollerup, aesthetics affect the 3 visceral, behavioural and reflexive level, whereas functionality only affects behavioural and ethics the reflexive level.

There were more concepts mentioned, but the ones described above are those that I thought were more relevant. After this kick off, the conference started with more than 25 short talks to come, covering several topics such as wayfinding, information design for interaction, document design, data visualisation, language and content, collaboration in design and finally information design for health. This list is just a great example to show how broad the field is for information design, covering from content to graphics and from research to innovation.

A little complement to the book of forms

So forms are essential for trade and government from a communicational but also organisational point of view. In the past, forms helped develop industry but, as a consequence of this, they contributed to enhance and enlarge (the abhorred) bureaucracy.

Many examples of rather new forms can be seen in Schwesinger’s book. In addition, in his chapter about the history of forms it possible to find some interesting old examples, but I would like to complement this section with two cases related to passports reviewed in one of the typographic delight class about forms.

At least for me, it was is hard to imagine the passports before being the comfortable small booklets they are nowadays. Well, the picture below shows a extended passport from 1820 app (from Italy?). As seen, the communication is based on hand-written information and official stamps.

Pasaporte extendido

The information carried is similar to the modern passports whereas the object itself is completely different. Instead of a bound book, the old passport has pages folded like an accordion. The length of the passport varies according to the amount of travels that the person or family did.  The paper was written in both sides until there was no more space to use. Then they added more paper and continue using the same passport for many years.

The role of the stamps, on the other hand, is not anymore just an official signature. Stamps now carry most of was used to be written information, such as date, country, city and accrediting bodies.

The other remarcable example is a much more sophisticated form, a passport or visa document from France in 1823 and 1828. This document consist in two parts which have the same information in it. One is meant to be for the general police of France and the other (smaller version) is for the person staying in the country.

Pasaporte francés

Between the two versions of the visa, there is a vertical text saying “Royaume de France”. This text is not ornamentation but a way of proving that a document is original. The two parts of the document are cut just over this text, as a way of having a unique way of fitting. In the picture above, the pieces are not from the same document, that’s why they don’t match.

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Notes on Schwesinger’s book of forms

Before starting with the form analysis, the author establishes 9 fundamental rules for form designers. These rules are:

  1. Learn to love forms
  2. Take forms seriously
  3. Get to know your users
  4. Take your users seriously
  5. Learn how providers think
  6. Think how providers think
  7. Give forms identity and style
  8. Leave nothing to chance
  9. Do not give users one more form – give them one less problem.

When the author talks about Users, he means all those who use forms (you, any costumer, etc.), and when he says Providers he means all those who issue them (public services, business, institutions, etc.)

Form theory

Forms and their functions

According to Schwesinger a form is a “framework of communication, made up of information which can be fixed or variable”. They can be a sheet of paper with check boxes and text fields, a printed list, or even a computer interface that requests, collates and distributes the information.

Forms act as interfaces between organisations and users, they are a means of communication. They guide interaction and additionally they create internal organisation. From the provider’s point of view, forms fulfil an organisational function.

Schwesinger describes two problems with forms, that are out of designer’s hands, but with which designers need to deal necessarily:

  • Forms need to fulfil a dual function as a means of communication and at the same time as a means of organisation.
  • The content of forms is usually unpleasant.

Designers need to work to make the forms consistent. Furthermore, designers need to pay attention to details, avoiding the creation of forms that look restrictive and discriminatory. Comprehensible language and clear design are the keys to achieve the design of good forms. When companies have efficient means of communication, they have a chance to stand out from the competion (other providers of the same service, for instance).

Forms are a replacement for a personal dialogue, therefore the use of language is a key factor to achieve clarity. The following are suggestion from the author for clarity:

  • Avoid technical terms.
  • Write what you mean, not abbreviations or abstract references.
  • Avoid long strings of nouns (“Notification of our decision will be forwarded” to say “We will let you know”).
  • Don’t switch terminology to refer the same subject.
  • Use active language (is more personal).
  • Use please and thank you.
  • Be concrete.

Forms within the framework of corporate identity

  • Corporate design > Visual image > Forms as design.
  • Corporate communication > Ways of speaking to the world > Forms as texts.
  • Corporation behaviour > Ways of dealing with people > Forms as attitude.

A brief history of forms

Analysing different cases of forms, Schwesinger takes us through a sort of history of forms:

  • 1455 Letter of indulgence: It used Gutenberg’s movable type print and leave some blank spaces to be filled.
  • 1790 Tax form: Blank spaces but embellished. Additionally it has explanatory notes in the margin.
  • 1892 Passenger list: It uses division by categories. Forms divide humanity.
  • 1900 Business forms: Forms enabled the growth of industry and lithography allowed decorations.
  • 1929 Modernist forms: Experimentation with typefaces but keeping it practical and functional.
  • 1933-45 Forms in Nazi Germany: Forms can be instrument of arbitrary power, they are not always rational and neutral.
  • 1983 Electronic data processing: Changes in technology have been the main reason to change the style of forms, giving more freedom to design but not always improving the usability or being more friendly.
  • Present days E-government: This is meant to make public services more friendly, accessible and cheaper. But this is not always accomplished mainly because of problems in usability and accessibility (different visualisation in some browsers, for instance.)

Types of form

There are 2 categories of forms, communication and dialogue. Communication forms convey information and they do not expect response. Some examples are bills, receipts and certificates. On the other hand, dialogue forms gather information. There is interaction between the provider and the user and in this case, response is expected. Contract and declaration are part of this category.

Dialogue forms

Communication forms

The following list explains 11 types of forms:

  • Application: They express claims and requirement. They collect sensitive information.
  • Registration: They give access. They declare the desire to be part of something.
  • Declaration: They obtain required information and for that they need to win the user’s trust.
  • Orders and contracts: Standardised agreements to purchase, rent or work. Maintaining trust is part of the form responsibility.
  • Invoices, bills and receipts: There is no payment without proof and there is no proof without form.
  • Notices and statements: Pre-formulated communication addressed to one or more receivers providing information about a specific subject.
  • Questionnaires: They collect personal data, attitudes and opinions through pools, surveys and ballots. They hold a dialogue.
  • Certificates and passes: What they announce is demonstrably true. They make statements about people, situations and rights.
  • Tickets, cheques and shares: They bear information about their value, who issued them, who owns them and what right do they have.
  • Records and checklists: They can both be produced without the aid of forms, but forms speed-up the process an insure that all the important information is noted down.
  • Direct mail (that demands response): This is most of the time used for advertising purposes, such us coupons. They need to follow-up the loud and often obtrusive approach of the ad and create dialogue.

Form practice

Macro-level design

The design process include different stages that allow to address the problems of creating a form from abstract to concrete:

  1. View and sorting the existing forms.
  2. Analysing channels of communication and administrative structure.
  3. Optimising and reducing the amount of information and the number of forms needed.
  4. Categorising and dividing the content of the form.
  5. Visualising on a macro and micro level (this is where the book focuses).
  6. Developing prototypes or draft versions.
  7. Testing on users inside and outside the company. (Then go back to visualising).
  8. Implementing the design system through manual, style sheets and templates.
  9. Checking the form effectiveness through observation and analysis.
  10. Adjusting the design and content. (Then go back to implementing).

This process considers that testing is fundamental to check the results.

The author goes deeper into graphic variables that need to be taken into consideration when designing a form. Many of these variables are basic references about legibility, use of colour,  grids and layouts, typefaces, paper, formats, hierarchies and how all of the elements work together. Some of the variables need to be considered from the beginning, for instance if the form needs to be read by a machine. If so, gathering the date will be easier and automatised, but the design will need to fit the requirement of reading equipment.

Micro-level design

In this chapter the author explains basic language and punctuation rules such as spacing, hyphens and dashes, quotation marks, etc. He mentions that choosing a point of view as the tone involved in the dialogue is also part of this level of design. Some examples of tones are:

  • Questions and answers: What’s your name? > John Smith
  • Explanatory perspective: My name > John Smith
  • Neutral perspective: Name > John Smith

In the rest of the chapter, Schwesinger gives his opinion and advices about different possibilities for every graphic decision. He analyses and compares real cases, showing many options to solve common problems of form design, such as dealing with more than one language.

Digital forms

Some advantages of digital forms over paper-based forms:

  • Digital forms are non linear, there have links from one section to another.
  • Digital forms can check inputs avoiding simple mistakes of the users.
  • Digital forms can help people to fill them, with dynamical explanations.
  • Digital forms can do calculation, making easier for the user to respond accurately.
  • They can be accessible and more flexible (Fonts re-size, change colour, reading text aloud, etc)
  • They are easier to update and it is immediate.
  • The process (from the provider point of view) is faster with digital forms because data is delivered immediately.

Some disadvantages are:

  • The process can fail for “mysterious” reasons and it is not always possible to go back easily.
  • Sometimes when the form is sent, there is no evidence of the information.
  • Digital forms are not always secure enough. Personal information can be transferred which make people feel insecure.
  • They require technology and not all the users have the same access to it.
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About non-latin scripts

The typographic delight of this week was about the emergence of non-latin scripts. Why was it necessary to have non-latin fonts in the first place? Mainly because of the imperialism of the time (15..) and the need to understand the classical sources. Books started to combine latin and greek scripts as the picture below shows.

Mixed book

After the start of use of non-latin scripts in the first books, comes a string of attemps to collect as many symbols from other scripts as possible, with the aim of organising them in a (not always) logical way.

Symbols

After Rosetta stone was found and after many years of analysis, the book Grammaire Égyptienne by J. F. Champollion was published. As the full title says, this book explains the general principles of the Egyptian sacred writing applied to the presentation of the spoken language.

Rosetta stone

A wierd fact about this book is that it has different style of printing in the first two thirds of the book than in the last one. This is visible in the facing pages below. They began the book using lithography and finished it with letterpress combined with lithography (only for special characters).

Grammaire Égyptienne

Notes on Donald Norman’s book Emotional Design: Why we love (or hate) everyday things

Donal Norman is an academic of cognitive science, computer science, design and usability engineering. His approach to user-centred design in his previous books was focused in usability, trying to figure out, from a scientific perspective, what makes something a good or bad design. He didn’t take emotions into account, only usability and functions from a logical, dispassionate way (as he states). Emotional design, represents a change of his viewpoint about how people relate with products. He now states that there are different emotional layers to consider, beyond the logical perspective of usability. In his opinion, emotions and cognition are thoroughly intertwined. So, the question arose: Can beauty and usability go together?

1. Attractive things work better

In this chapter Norman explains that the affective system works independently of the conscious thoughts, but that both are equally important and extremely related. Decision making that was believed to be a logical, rational process, was proved to be wrong by scientific studies that demonstrated how the affective system influences the decision by giving fast warning of what is good or bad. Moreover, research also showed that when people are relaxed and happy, they become more creative and more imaginative in problem solving situations. Attractive things work better because they make people feel good, thus people are more tolerant of minor difficulties and they think more creatively. Plus, they are willing to work harder to find the solution to what they are trying to do.

2. The multiple faces of emotion and design

Norman’s studies of emotions suggest that there are 3 level of the cognitive and emotional system for humans: Visceral, Behavioural and Reflective. These are response mechanisms that analyse and generate physical responses. The visceral is a biological level that reacts to certain things like temperature, shapes, lightning, textures, smells, etc. It is about appearance and touch&feel. Behavioural and reflective level are directly affected by culture. Behavioural is about function, performance and usability, whilst reflective is about interpretation, understanding and reasoning. The question is how to combine these 3 levels or 3 designs in one product. There is no clear answer to that question but it should be take into consideration that no product will never satisfy everyone.

Products must be attractive and pleasurable but also effective, understandable and appropriately priced. Products must strive for balance among the 3 levels.

3. Three levels of design: Visceral, Behavioural and Reflective

Each of the 3 levels of design (Visceral, behavioural and reflective) play its part in shaping the experience of use. Each is as important as the others, but each requires a different approach by the designer.

Visceral: People learn sometimes to overcome the visceral response of the body (to be in noisy places, to eat spicy food, etc.) when for instance a thing is viscerally negative, but reflectively positive (i.e. to ride a roller-coaster in an amusement parks). Effective visceral design requires the skills of the visual and graphic artists and industrial engineers.

Behavioural: What matters here is function, understandability, usability and physically feel. When designing for the behavioural level, the hardest is to understand the unarticulated needs of the user, because they don’t know what they need. Observation is the appropriate type of research for this situation, instead of focus groups, questionnaires or surveys which rely to much on the user opinion.

Reflective: There is nothing practical or biological about the this level. Attractiveness is to visceral, what beauty is to reflective. Beauty comes from conscious, it looks below the surface. The overall impact of a product comes through reflection (again, the example of the roller coaster), that is why costumer relationship plays a mayor role in the reflective level.

4. Fun and games

How to maintain excitement, interest and aesthetic pleasure for a long time? Like in music, literature and art, through the depth and richness of the things. That way, it is possible to perceive something different on each experience. Products that give joy over the pass of time usually follow these 3 steps: Enticement (make an emotional promise), Relationship (continually fulfil the promise) and Fulfilment (end the experience in a memorable way).

5. People, places and things

In chapter 5, the author refers to humans and the natural tendency to interpret emotions in people and objects. Computer anger is a case in point of how people humanise and interpret as animated something that is not. The reflective level is the one that relates past events and makes conclusions. People tend to blame the computer as if it was its fault, similarly to team work relationship. Moreover, the fact that computers do not express shame or blame makes it more frustrating. People naturally want to trust, but trust comes from experience and it must be earned. It implies reliance, confidence and integrity.

6. Emotional machines

Norman describes how in this time (back in 2004) machines have reasonable amount of intelligence but no emotions. He states that non-verbal feedback, facial expression and body language will be needed in robots in order to understand them better. Machines will not be smart and sensible until they have both intelligence and emotions. Emotions not necessarily similar to humans emotions, but any other way of affective system. He goes deeper imagining possible home-robots and how they should interact. He discusses their shapes and general behaviour. He mentions that robots should have at least these 3 emotions in order to improve their performance: Pride, fear and frustration.

7. The future of robots

In this final chapter, Norman analyses possible robots and the implications of their role in society. For instances, robots for highly risk missions, educational robots (tutors) and robots for medicine. The increase of the amount of robots doing regular jobs would led to unemployment, among other social problems. Norman concludes that if robots combine intelligence with emotions “The positive impact will be enormous. The negative consequences will also be significant”

Epilogue: We are all designer

Norman includes in this epilogue some of the comments that he received through a survey for his personal study of emotions. There are mainly quotes that evoke one or more of the emotional levels, whilst explaining a product that they love, hate or maintain a love/hate relation.

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