On architecture and architects

What a schlep. Today was the School of Architecture BBQ, held at the department head’s studio in Polish Hill. Daisy-chaining the buses perfectly from Squirrel Hill should have taken an hour, but after getting off at the wrong stop, walking the wrong direction and waiting for a bus that doesn’t run on Sundays…well, let’s put it this way: Sometimes my iPhone feels more expensive than it was worth – and other days, like today, it saves you from being stranded in the middle of nowhere for hours on end.

Anyhow. It was worth the trip – good food, interesting company, and a long lecture on the nuances of how their old studio was transformed into a swanky, energy-efficient studio suitable for even the most hipsterly of architects. I’m sure it was made sense to the vast majority of students who were actually in the Architecture school to study *architecture*- but alas, it went completely over my head. :/

But seriously, sometimes I think I’ll never understand architects. I used to joke with my friends in the field that architecture firms always had the most poorly designed websites – and that their gratuitous overuse of Flash implied not just a casual misunderstanding, but rather an active disdain for their intended audience. The sort of utter contempt for human life that might, say, cause someone to design a very steep, very *hip* staircase entirely out of glass in the middle of a city known for its slushy winters. Oh, that’s right Apple Store Boylston. I went there.

Fast forward to now – as I’ve gotten more into design for public settings, I’m realizing that yes, there is actually something to this practice of architecture (and its red-headed step child, urban studies, which is really growing on me as a field.) But actually becoming *part of* an Architecture school has been a bit strange and surreal.

Fortunately, this is a feeling I’m slowly getting used to. I seem to terminally be the odd one out – first as the resident designer-type in my computer science classes learning HCI, then as the resident hacker-type in Federico’s design lab learning interaction design. I flatter myself by thinking that maybe I’m actually some sort of trend-setter: after all, since I’ve left MIT, the computer science department seems to be attracting a lot more undergraduate designer types – and Federico has hired some fantastic hacker types full-time to bring his team’s creations to life. It’s a much “cooler” thought than the possibility that I’m just a dorky kid who simply wants to be friends with everyone. Hey, I’m trying to be hip – maybe I’ll understand architecture yet! :P

Ok, ok, I won’t end on such a cheap shot. I’ll end by recommending a few general-purpose books in urban studies I’ve been reading recently, and that I’d recommend to anyone interested in understanding how cities really work. It’s getting late – if I get time tomorrow, I’ll add more about each of these books, but for now, Amazon reviews will have to do.
“The Death and Life of Great American Cities” – by Jane Jacobs (The version I have is paperback, but I couldn’t find that on Amazon.)
“A Pattern Language” – by Christopher Alexander (Expensive – I had to get this first from MIT’s Architecture library before finally coming across one at a used bookstore.)
“The Works: Anatomy of a City” – by Kate Ascher (Again, mine is paperback – but Amazon’s hardcover price is so cheap, go for it!)

Just, tap me politely on the shoulder if you catch me wearing all black (unless a roof or a tunnel is involved.)

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MTID Is Coming!

And not a moment too soon. (Although I will miss the abnormal amount of sleep I’ve been getting lately.)

The brand new Masters of Tangible Interaction Design – that wonderfully experimental Carnegie Mellon degree program I keep talking about, and just paid quite a bit of tuition to attend (but can’t yet explain sufficiently to my parents) – begins in two days! I’m spending the day finalizing my classes, writing professors and otherwise getting ready to head back to school. Oh, and doing laundry. Very humdrum, but at the same time very exciting.

[Edit: Err, I guess I spoke too soon. As I was writing this, the toaster oven caught on fire! Tres exciting. Just got back from buying a new toaster oven…and a fire extinguisher.]

This year, the Architecture department was able to give everyone in their Masters program an assistantship (tuition break) in exchange for 6 hours of work a week. Assistantship options include helping TA classes, conducting research, maintaining the shop and fabrication labs, and the like. In the spring, we all put in sheets ranking our preferences for an assistantship, and I formally received my assignment today:
“MTID program development and promotion.”

What does that mean? Essentially, I’ll be learning how to explain MTID sufficiently – and using that skill to help coordinate advertising, recruitment and organizational development for the new program. It might include anything from greasing the wheels organizationally and creating a consistent, “branded” look and feel, to helping the program network with other institutions. With some good ol’ fashioned gophering throw in for good measure, I’m sure.

Let’s put it another way. If the program advisor and I can do a tenth of the job for MTID that Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design (a program I nearly fled the country for a year ago, as some may recall) has done in quickly developing a strong, coherent and inspiring message and infrastructure around the practice of interaction design, I’ll consider the assistantship a success. And at that point, MTID will, indeed, be coming.

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Interaction Design and Institutional Culture

An interesting exchange occurred recently between American Airlines and interaction designer Dustin Curtis (who I hadn’t heard of, but, thanks to the tenacious twittering of Dan Saffer, is now on my to-read list.)

First, this Dustin Curtis fellow wrote a pretty scathing evaluation of the usability of the existing American Airlines site – going so far as to call for the firing of the entire design team responsible. Not surprisingly, he’s since received a response from a “Mr. X”, a UX designer at American Airlines. “You’re right. You’re so very right,” he starts. “And yet…” In short, AA gives a spirited defense of their user experience work at their site (AA.com), particularly detailing the nuances of their corporate culture and how working in a slow, multi-billion dollar corporation ties his team’s hands from creating a unified, seamless user experience. What’s unspoken in the letter is how decisions are often driven by things outside of “the customer’s best interests” entirely – be it political divisions, internal logistics unseen to the end customer, or plain old bad management.

Dustin seems pleased, but unimpressed, with the reply from AA:

“A lot of people blame bad design and bad customer service in big organizations on the fact that they are big organizations. This is what Mr. X did. But that’s a cop-out. The reason large companies with bad design are the way they are is because they are run poorly from the top, with philosophies that force the entire company to behave like its lowest common denominator. The company ends up making bad products. It ends up treating its customers badly. And if the company is being run by people who don’t have taste, it gets stuck. Eventually, the company’s brand suffers. This is what has happened at American Airlines.”

Dustin, as a design community, we’re right. We’re so very right. And yet, we’ve missed something in completely ignoring the spirit in which he makes his defense. (Sorry Dustin, I’m picking on you to make a point. It’s not you specifically that’s missed the point, but rather, I fear, most of the design industry.)

From Paul Rand-quality logos and top-down branding, to multimedia marketing agencies, we’ve spent decades desperately trying to learn how to imbue large corporations with a sense of taste. I’d say we’ve largely succeeded in that endeavor – any company that wants to can present as slick or as formal of an image as they desire. However, as a design commnuity, we’re terrible at teaching executives design *processes* that reinforce the “spirit” of a company, the things which defined them and made them succeed in the first place. It’s true – a company like JetBlue that isn’t afraid to start from scratch has a tremendous competitive advantage. It’s also true that it takes incredibly strong leadership to realize that such a transformation is needed – leadership that, unfortunately, American Airlines seems to be lacking (judging from a confluence of terrible, selfish decisions they’ve made over the years.) Unfortunately, we neither can nor should always start over – and in those cases, education and patience, not brushfires, are needed.

I’ll admit – I have close to no formal design training. (That’s why I’m heading back to school, among other reasons.) However, my first job out of college was working as an interaction designer for a consultancy working for various departments of transportation. The government – talk about a place that needs to get with the times, right? However, I learned a few things working with the government:
*People within big organizations, more often than not, feel like they’re “outside of the stereotype”. They see their units as doing the best they can in a large, behemoth bureaucracy.
*More often than not, these people are right. As far as I can tell, apathy is the exception – at least in a field like transportation, where today’s 50-year old transportation officials are more typically the older version of kids who grew up playing with toy trains, or whose fathers drove them down Eisenhower’s interstates.
*Some of the best people I’ve ever worked with exist within transportation.
*Most importantly, as an interaction designer, nearly everyone I talked to in transportation was *happy to see me.*
Yes, I was 25. I was new to the workforce, much less transportation. And, more unspoken, my designs and plans for technology were designed to make things so much more efficient that many jobs could be made redundant as a result. Yet those people in the system with both patience and a passion for their work were always willing to work with me, not against me; to slowly but surely transform their culture from within – while keeping what makes their sector (transportation) special, and letting transportation make designs THEIR designs.

All I’m saying is, when you start from scratch, you invariably throw something away. Designers LOVE to throw away existing systems entirely – and certainly, often that’s the right thing to do. One of the things designers are best at is knowing not to get too attached to work – something companies, often with jobs passed down from generation to generation, are inherently bad at. However, designers need more than the courage to decide what dies – they also need the courage to decide what parts of their corporate culture can be saved, and the patience and consideration needed to make that happen. Only then will designers be seen as working *with* companies, as opposed to being “pretty packaging.”

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The New Biskerrific

Hi folks –

Welcome to the new biskerrific.com!

For those who don’t know me, I’m Solomon Bisker. I’m a lot of things, but by training I’m a computer scientist. I’ve been a computer scientist in some form or another for as long as I can remember – but since 2005 or so, I’ve specialized in a growing subfield called human-computer interaction (HCI), which deals with all matters of how technology can be better built and designed for people to use. More specifically, since 2007 I’ve been practicing “interaction design” (IxD), an even younger field – IxD tries to combine technical studies with studio design techniques to discover ways to seamlessly integrate technology into everyday life. That’s a pretty vague definition, but since the field is so young (the phrase “interaction design” itself was only coined in 1989), a better one would be its own entry. In fact, the more I explore it, the more I realize that my concepts of what defines interaction design are shifting under me.

This website is a way for me to try to keep up with the ground below me, by forcing me to write down my thoughts and observations, and by letting me periodically put my understanding of the field into perspective to discuss with others.

It will also serve as a way to share my experiences with my friends back in Boston, who after seven years (and two degrees) I’ll be leaving this August as I move to Pittsburgh. Why Pittsburgh? Aside from a masochistic love of snow, I’m heading back to school there to formally study interaction design. Specifically, I’ll be pursing a Masters of Tangible Interaction Design (MTID) through Carnegie Mellon’s School of Architecture, which I anticipate finishing in December 2010. What is “tangible” interaction design, then? That’s a good question – but I’ll have to leave it to a seperate entry.

For those who already know me, you may remember the old version of biskerrific.com. You may also be looking at this website, and thinking, “Gee, it sure looks a lot like the old version of biskerrific.com. You didn’t even change the Gumby picture. Does just adding a blog make this the “new” biskerrific.com?”

Well, in short, yes. ;) Though let me explain. The old biskerrific.com was nice, but I must confess that it was thrown together in a 72-hour coding marathon, in hopes of find a job at my first human-computer interaction conference (CHI2007). In a lot of ways, it reflected my “coming out” as a designer – my first attempt at presenting my work visually, in a way that could compliment my regular resume (and my traditional engineering skills). Over time, I’ve polished that site into something presentable – but I could still feel that it still didn’t reflect who I was as a person.

A lot has happened in the two short years since I launched biskerrific.com, but chief among them has been the realization that much of my understanding of design – and really, life in general – comes from sharing it with others. So I thought a blog might be a nice way to share my thoughts with the world – and would help transition this page from a plain ol’ portfolio page that talks about past accomplishments, to a place that helps capture and encourage the thoughts that ultimately shape who I am and what my work will become.

So that’s that. Please let me know what you think of things – and I’ll be keeping a blog roll of other interesting blogs that I follow, to which suggestions are more than welcome. Thanks for swinging by!


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