A Meditation on Michael Jackson

July 8, 2009 § 1 Comment

In any work of fiction, it’s imperative that the audience keep what is termed a “suspension of disbelief”. That is to say, an audience knows that what’s happening isn’t real, but the plot and elements of the story seem plausible within the context of the story. It doesn’t matter the genre—Fantasy, Science Fiction, general Fiction, Comic Books, etc.—what matters is we don’t get pulled out of the story because of something too unbelievable within the context of the story.

The case for suspending disbelief also applies to artists, especially performing artists. An artist’s persona and art is their story they use to connect with an audience, who then suspend their disbelief about the person behind the persona. Many times, we as audience members don’t want to know what lurks behind the surface, lest it ruin our enjoyment of the persona and the created artifact. But when the artifact created is deeply personal and empathetic to audience members (unlike, say, an abstract painting might be), the person and the persona collide into one amalgamated being. We begin to open ourselves up to the person, creating a trust that few artists are able to forge on any wide-scale basis.

This thought brings me to Michael Jackson. As the 80s waned into the 90s, nearly everyone thought that Michael Jackson wasn’t exactly all there (and there were more than a few questions about his sexuality). But still, most of his fans either retained their suspension of disbelief about him (he oozed sex in everything he did) or they just didn’t care as long as he was the same performing badass we all grew up with. However, during this time, Michael Jackson was carefully converging his persona with Michael Jackson the person, creating an interesting mix of controversy and adoration.

In short order, Michael Jackson sang about women (The Way You Make Me Feel), creating understanding (Human Nature), eradicating famine (We Are The World), and uplifting yourself by uplifting others (Man in the Mirror). If we were to believe in the songs, we had to believe in the artist, and thus we ended up having to believe in the person behind it all. Michael Jackson seemed to be a genuinely good person underneath it all, making his personal pleas all the more palatable for the general public.

Then came the (first) molestation charge.

As great as so many of his songs are and as great of an entertainer, dancer, choreographer, and composer he was, upon the accusations of child molestation, his increasingly odd behavior, as well as revelations about his wildly extravagant lifestyle, he no longer had an artistic port to dock his boat of understanding, goodwill, uplifting others, and yes, sex. What could he possibly sing about that his would-be fans would not only support, but could also arm them to maintain their suspension of disbelief?

Even if the accusations of molestation weren’t true—he was left with nothing to write about, sing about, or dance about. There were too many holes in the story. Nothing was true anymore, either for the audience or for Michael Jackson.

At the end of it all, he produced nothing of consequence in the last 15 years—during what should have been the prime of his life. Instead, he ended up a grossly disfigured man, a shell of what he once was, hooked on painkillers, imprisoned by his now world-famous persona that he could never escape and yet had no outlet for. Right or wrong, good or bad, this was the tragedy of Michael Jackson, a man who was not only one of history’s greatest and most influential artists, but a man who needed to create, to entertain, to move people.

Upon his passing, we’ve seen millions upon millions of people coming out in support of him. I’m not exactly sure why this is, but I suspect that some of it is because the crushing weight of the Michael Jackson story has been lifted and we can now enjoy the artifacts from when the story was fun and the ending was surely going to be good.

An Election Result As Participatory Design

May 21, 2009 § 1 Comment

Is the result of an election a design?

I’ve been pondering this quite heavily for the past week or so since I took a couple days to travel to Carnegie Mellon’s School of Design graduate thesis presentations. What got me thinking about this was Kyle Vice’s thesis project where he created a website/program where people could vote on a series of posters and the winning poster was to be projected on a huge wall on campus. To achieve this, he designed and built software and various web applications for people to use to vote on the posters. Location-wise, he envisioned placing kiosks in public places as well as voting through a traditional website or iPhone app.

What this (very cool) project got me wondering is this: Is voting, and its ensuing results, a form of design? Specifically, is it participatory design? Now, in his project, the only thing people were voting on was a poster to be displayed, and no one person had any ability to massively affect the group’s collective choice outside of their own vote, but it begs the question: Does collective input equal “design”? Certainly each poster was designed, the software to manage the posters was designed, the interface and user experience was designed, even the physical means by which to vote was designed, but what about the process of choosing a design? Again, is that design?

Honestly, I’m not sure. Without getting into arguments about collective (un)consciousness, one could easily argue that we have elections all the time that hardly anyone would consider the outcome of as a “design”. However, in a sense, we are choosing a design in an election. How? In the case of a politician, he has ideas—or designs—on how best to run a community or society. A politician also has a carefully crafted persona that one could easily argue is a design. (It’s a design because there’s normally a carefully considered end-goal—no matter how unconscious—and measured actions to meet that end goal.) And then, voters vote based on that politician’s design of how to deal with various competing interests.

But, is the result of an election a design? Or is it the process that is designed to facilitate an acceptable outcome the “design”? Think of it this way: Is President Obama a design? Was President Bush? Clinton? Certainly their policies are designed and, in a sense, we choose a certain design to present ourselves both back to the U.S. and to the rest of world. But, we didn’t design them to do anything just like we wouldn’t say we designed a poster result through a blind voting process.

Or would we?

You might be wondering why I’m even bringing this up if I am so unsure one way or another. (I wonder myself.) I bring it up because this debate is a possible line in the sand in the debate about what is design and what isn’t design. It seems to me that you can design for something—a process, service, information, persuasion, experience—all for a higher cause of enabling action, learning, belief, emotion, or thought, but the end result of these designs, is, in itself, not a design. It’s not a design in the same way that a car driver is not a design, he is merely enabled to make certain choices, have a feeling about a car, and live his life how he sees fit.

In short, there is no reflection and where there is no reflection, there is no design, there is merely action enabled.

But, going back to the poster voters: if you give those poster voters a voice, a means to organize and wage campaigns to influence what poster gets on the ballot, then that begins to bear the mark of design.

How so? In the happiest accident of feedback loops (and one I didn’t realize until I got here), where design is driven by audience, the audience demand drives new designs until they don’t have to reflect any more and are contentedly enabled again. And so, in some strange way, a result of an election seems to be a design. But only if we are allowed to participate in the feedback loop. Which sometimes happens. And sometimes doesn’t (which is both good and bad).

Weird. This brings up so many questions.

What is Design? (Not Again!)

May 8, 2009 § 8 Comments

In high school, when I would get in trouble for skipping class or being late for curfew or (gulp) was pulled over by the police while driving, I would design excuses to get out of the worst part of trouble. In this case, my close friend and I (whom I was often in these situations with), would think about what the discipliner was thinking, then we would think about how to shape the information, however truthful, to fit their worldview. Unbeknownst to me at the time, this was probably my first foray into the world of design, a talent that, given my various successes, I honed quite well.

Thinking about it this way, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that children design all the time. They spill their brother’s drink and, when confronted, will make up a story about how it happened. Whether or not it works is a different matter, but nonetheless, it’s still a design. The lack of sophistication in thought process is actually their undoing here, not their desire for a well-designed story. They simply don’t yet have the mental processes in place to make a story that fits their audience.

And so we come to the crux: What is (effective) design? (Not again!)

Quite simply it’s: You + Your Desired Outcome ≥ Your audience’s wants/needs.

Now, there are many ways to achieve this. The ways, shall we say, are mediums and actions being greater than or equal to your audience’s reaction. The medium is whatever form you choose: Web, Print, TV, Movie, Product, Software, Furniture, Writing, Architecture, and so on. The action is making in your chosen medium to be greater than or equal to your audience’s reaction.

With that, effective design is ≥ your audience’s reaction and desired action. Less effective or ineffective design is ≤ your audience’s reaction and desired action.

How so? Design is merely moving your audience to your chosen destination through a medium. Yes, this is dangerous to say because you can take this all the way to those in obstructive and destructive power, like Hitler. Hitler was a great designer for a certain audience. Not so much for another audience (or two or three). Still, he anticipated his audience’s wants/needs and formed an entire ethos around that to unspeakably destructive ends.

But there are also good designs, those that foster life and love, independence and life-easing dependence. But it’s always a question of “Who is my audience?” Your audience needn’t even be human. Heck, it needn’t even be animated objects. Your audience could be trees and you design a way for trees to flourish.

Where design differs from strictly art is that oftentimes, the artist’s audience is him/herself. It is the audience’s responsibility, then, to come to the artist, not the other way around: The artist to the audience. Now, the artist can create baselines, guidelines, for the world of design, like the Bauhaus art, craft, and design movement. They broke things down to their simplest element, lending designers a baseline idea ever since. In this way, you could say they were artists for designers.

And who is a designer? Anyone who projects an audience’s needs and takes actions for a desired audience reaction and action. To me, anyway, it’s really that simple.

It’s just that some of us are better at anticipation than others. And some of us have better mastery over the making aspect in certain mediums. And judging effective or ineffective design is an extremely qualitative process and subject, but like the Supreme Court once famously said about pornography: I know it when I see it.

No Tipping, Please. Our Service Is Free.

April 28, 2009 § 2 Comments

waiter_-_cartoon_4For the past two-and-a-half months, I’ve been working part-time at a popular full-service restaurant for myriad reasons—social, financial, to gain new experiences, and sometimes, just to keep busy. As a 32-year old who had his first job at thirteen (caddying) and worked many traditional service jobs throughout high school and college, I hadn’t worked in a restaurant since I was nineteen. Needless to say, after 7 years (and counting) in corporate America, it’s a bit of culture shock to work primarily with 20 – 25 year olds scraping by while they figure out what they want to do with their lives, others working two or three jobs, some with kids, and some just college kids trying to work their way through school. However, the real culture shock has been the nature of how the restaurant model works and what it says about America’s values.

In many ways, working at a restaurant is a true meritocracy: Serve well, get better tips, prove your long-term worth and in return, you get the more lucrative shifts, which gets you more money and if you like, more responsibility. This is a nice cycle of positive reinforcement in a job you can leave at the door at the end of each day.

The other edge of this sword, though, is this: Serve poorly, make less money, get less responsibility, and find yourself looking for work elsewhere. Quickly.

In this time of a down economy, there’s a seemingly-unending supply of workers. Here in Indiana, the unemployment rate is about 10%. (Captain Obvious: That’s a lot of people who need work and are ready to fill the payroll sheets). The benefit to customers who can afford to dine out is that they can expect exemplary service. Why? It’s not just because restaurants are trying to make the customer happy at all costs to keep revenue up, it’s because workers are fighting to keep their jobs at ever-increasing rates. And if not, there are more waiting at the door. This keeps the quality of service high, because the best workers stay… while the lesser workers go.

This is the part that can rub workers the wrong way. Basically, the ball is in the restaurant’s court. In a strong economy, a restaurant may be loathe to get rid of average workers because there just isn’t a strong pool of candidates. But in a weak economy, the restaurant can be more footloose and fancy-free with their workers. Granted, the restaurant can’t be completely inhuman, but it can be choosy, make very stringent rules, and with high employee turnover rates at restaurants, the ability for workers to organize into a cohesive force to fight this is practically nil.

I’m not saying the solution to this is the unionization of restaurant workers, not with restaurants working on a razor-thin margins that sees long-term failure as the rule, not the exception. What I’m getting at is that the entire system for restaurant service in America is generally whacked.

At base, restaurants compete on two things: 1) Price, and 2) Service. To accomplish lower food prices, restaurants pay a pittance to their front-of-house staff: Servers make $2.13 an hour, while hosts might make $5.00 an hour plus a small tip-share. Lowering the up-front costs to the customer places a keen focus on service. How? It makes servers work hard for their money. So hard for it, honey. This leaves the restaurant to manage overhead, food prices, menu items, marketing, employees, and other issues involved in running a restaurant.

In this way, you could say that the restaurant is the medium and the servers are the message.

But what this arrangement does is place the up-front financial risk firmly in the server’s hands. How? Everything could go right with a customer’s meal, but then the customer doesn’t tip well and everyone has made money besides the server busting their butt all over the restaurant. All of which hardly seems fair.

It isn’t like this in other countries. In those countries, the server’s wage is included in the price of the meal. And maybe that’s why service can be notoriously bad in some of those places. However, this arrangement also protects the worker. I wonder what would happen if an American restaurant chain bucked the low-wage + work-for-tips custom? What if customers had to pay an extra 15%-20% premium on their food and drink, but didn’t need to leave a tip? Would Americans go for that if it was understood up front that the business model at so-and-so restaurant was “No Tipping, Please. Our Service is Free.”

What the current American set-up reveals is two-fold: 1) Americans like to reward hard work, using a system that creates up-front stress to produce back-end results; and 2) We don’t value the service worker nearly enough. We tend to think of service jobs as “starter jobs”, as merely one point in a long line of other jobs the server is (hopefully) working up to. Whether we like it or not, the current system may be set up to reward hard work, but it ultimately sends the message that servers are only worth $2.13 an hour and whatever somebody else has the good graces to give you. Which, frankly, never stops stinging.

Addendum: Many restaurants show their appreciation to servers with free food, compensation cards, rewards, parties, and other “treats”, but it never is lost on the server that an empty section or poor tips means they’re up the creek, no matter what they do. What if the service model was different? What if?

De-frienders and De-friendees

January 17, 2009 § 4 Comments

Our Friend The AtomToday, I was on facebook looking through a friend’s friend list and saw a friend of mine whose profile I hadn’t checked out in a while. When I clicked on this friend’s name to see what was new on her profile, I got the pop-up window of the non-friend.

“Wait a second,” I thought. “We’re friends.”

And as my brain cranked through all the possibilities, I realized, “Holy crap, I’ve been de-friended.”

I’ve written about how many “friends” I have that I wouldn’t really consider a “friend”, more like an acquaintance or some other relationship, but this one hurt because this was a person that I actually, like, really like. I’ve known her since junior high and when I saw her on facebook, I was very happy. (Yes, a lot of modifiers in this paragraph. It’s for good reason, though: It’s very true.)

But something happened on the way to the cleaners. You see, she wrote on my wall when we first became friends, and I, in a move of obscene density, never wrote her back. So, I assume from here that this made her mad and she de-friended me.

F– that guy.

Yes. F– me.

It wasn’t just that she was offended by something that happened in a virtual environment, she also ended up sending me a message that she was angered by simply de-friending me. And so I ended up sending her an apology letter asking if we could be “friends” again. Seriously. Over facebook.

Over.

Facebook.

Thus, the crux:

To my new de-friend, me not replying was every bit as offensive as her having called me to say hello and never calling her back. Except, in some ways, not replying on facebook was worse. Why? Because facebook is even easier socially than making a phone call. Frankly, facebook lowers the bar for effort so low that when you don’t reply, people get really offended. And for good reason: It takes, what? 30 seconds of effort to write on a friend’s wall? And then all the profile information, photos, and everything else do the rest of the catching up for you. There’s no 45 minute conversation, awkward silences, or fumbled good-byes. There’s simply:

Hi, great to see you doing so well. We always had a good time hanging out and I have a lot of good memories of you. If you’re around, maybe we could get together some time? In the meantime, take care with everything, good luck with your son, and keep in touch.

So, yes: Even in the facebook world, relationships require a level of attention and care commensurate with the level of friendship you have in the 3-D world. In this way, the virtual world is merely a medium for real feelings. And just as in the 3-D world, the relationships are tricky because some relationships you care about and some you don’t, some need tending, some don’t, some friends just don’t like to be on facebook that much, and some refuse to be on it at all.

But it isn’t so hard to say hello and we must not forget this. And if you think it’s hard to say hello, think about how much harder it is to make up.

Throat-Clearing + Happy New Year

December 30, 2008 § Leave a comment

Some thoughts as we round up 2008:

• As some may have noticed, I have taken down nearly all my posts having to do with politics. While I greatly enjoyed writing about the election, in my current unemployed state, it seemed a tad reckless because, frankly, politics and work just don’t mix.

That said, I never really felt like I was “political”, per se, and yet, I’m still surprised at the reaction I got from some people. While I did have a candidate I personally supported more than the other, with my background in trial/courtroom communication and argumentation, my only real agenda was analyzing each candidates’ strategy and how it persuaded or affected the so-called moderate voter. Some of the reaction I got from people was pretty interesting, though. When I wrote something that I thought actually showed more support for one candidate, I got comments that suggested I was supporting the other. And vice versa.

I quickly realized that there’s no controlling how people will interpret your words, no matter how carefully you craft them, no matter how much you focus on the process of getting elected and ignore a hoped-for election outcome. Politics is just too hot-button of an issue. So, I took all those posts down except for one, because that post was about a personal experience regarding bigotry, hypocrisy, how we seek out those who agree with us and the collective need to challenge ourselves to be better. And if someone doesn’t want to hire me because of that post, then so be it.

•  In general, blogging has been tougher to keep up on than I thought it would be. I thought that, in my current state of unemployment, blogging would be fairly easy. But I’ve realized that you have to have experiences and conversations that make you want to blog about something on your mind. In this, my unemployed (read: broke) state, I don’t have a whole lot to write about. Most of my days involve either going to the public library to get out of the house, finding a corner of the house to get some privacy, or going for a run. My nights tend to be made up of going to the corner watering hole to play a few rounds of Golden Tee Golf. (The interaction design in that game is stupendous, by the way.)

In other words, I’m not visiting the richest of environments for new thoughts and experiences regarding designerly things. Quite the opposite of Carnegie Mellon, to be sure. For the most part, this is fine: It’s been healthy to not obsess too much over design, but it also means there’s not a whole to say, but when there is…

•  My posts tend to take longer to write than I mean for them to. I’m pretty obsessive about my thoughts and insights and writing and clarity. Basically, I don’t want to sound like a total schmuck and I’d rather be thorough and thoughtful than quick and controversial. For example, my Abilify post took a solid 14 hours of research and writing. (Yeah, I know, I need a job.) Why so long? I knew basically nothing about drug names, always had a curiousity about them, and had to get all my facts in line before spouting off about it (and I certainly had never thought about drug names as an ethos-pathos-logos thing. All that was made up on the fly, then hammered out, drawing on design school stuff that I never thought to apply in such a way.)

So, yes, this is why there are not as many posts as I’d like there to be. But hopefully, they have some quality to them, even if they sometimes verge on pedantry.

• I’m pleasantly surprised that I get any traffic at all and find myself intensely flattered when I get occasional unforeseen boosts in traffic. It’s like I’ve won an Emmy every time anyone reads a post. Thank you all for reading!

• If anyone knows of any design jobs you think I’d be good for, please let me know. The poor economy has made the job hunt much worse than it was, even as recently as early November.

Happy Holidays and Have A Wonderful 2009!

A Conglomeration of Relationships

December 30, 2008 § 1 Comment

Just so you all know that I’m not dead, I do have a post for you. Unfortunately for me, after taking a fair chunk of time writing this the past couple days, further research showed me that most of what I propose below is, in some way, already mostly a part of facebook’s profile privacy management. The problem is that facebook’s process for profile privacy management isn’t straightforward and could be much, much simpler with an easy re-design. So, all is definitely not lost with my post, as having a simple, satisfying, and useful user experience is still the name of the game. Also, because I realized my half-blunder after spending so much time already writing, I’m not going to proofread it very closely. ‘Tis what ’tis. Thank you and enjoy.

——

According to facebook, I have 246 friends. This is one of the most ego-flattering, preposterous lies that’s ever been told about me. If I really stretched the limits outside of facebook, I might have 18 friends, 5-6 of which are close friends, and 2-3 that I would consider “best friends”. Instead, what I really have on facebook is a conglomeration of relationships, made up of family members, close friends, friends, acquaintances, old flames, co-workers, classmates, colleagues and one person I’ve never met nor talked to, yet I admire his writing, so I friended him and lucky for me, he accepted (It seems he accepts everyone. Oh, this is not a “fan page” either, it’s his actual profile.)

My situation is not unique. Actually, it’s the norm for facebook. This is a problem. You see, for most of these relationships, I don’t mind these friends seeing my life and catching up a bit—it’s like a constant reunion—but I don’t want all of them in my private life. Yet, I can’t control what my conglomorees can see, to the point that I’ve considered deleting my facebook account. (I know, I know, I’m addicted to facebook, I know. But hear me out.)

To their credit, facebook does offer some semblance of privacy from exposing yourself, especially with things like photos. Facebook gives control to the user through allowing the easy creation and management of friend groups. Facebook also has ways for you to control what gets published in your friends’ news feeds and has ways for you to tailor what you get in your news feed as well. Lastly, there are also ways to protect your information from non-friends and you can always choose to show a limited profile to someone. But no one, I mean no one, keeps someone out in the cold with the barebones limited profile.

Why we don’t keep potential “friends” at the limited profile view is, mostly, out of guilt. We don’t want to be mean, shafting someone who wants to see some recent pics of us, some pics of our family, etc. But the problem is that this makes you make a choice: Heed the friend request or not.

Now, I’ll be the first to say that I’ve been denied facebook friendship, although I’ve never denied one friend request. I’ve cringed when accepting a friend request and later “defriended” some people, but I realize this is a choice that I make, whether to allow these people so far into my life. And I know I could just not be on facebook or limit what I put up or really prune back the old conglomeration of relationships. But the problem is that I even have to consider doing any of these moves. Facebook is a free site that wants users, users, and more users because the more users and friends we all have, the more entrenched facebook becomes in our lives, making it a bigger fixture, making it nearly indispensable.

Not to mention, part of what makes it fun is the public forum-ness of the whole mess, the free voyeurism, the, well, socializing. Openness keeps facebook from becoming “clique-y”, your friendships egalitarian. Exclusivity is for private messages.

However, I’m here to say that facebook has reached a threshold, a critical mass of societal penetration where facebook can now shift to overdrive, to the next level in friendship control. The next level includes a simple, pre-designed, user-friendly solution to allow for different levels of conversation between friends: A group called “Inner Circle” and the others, simply “Friends”.

These distinctions are made by you, the user about whom you deem a close friend, and they apply to your status updates, your photos, posted items, live feeds, etc. You can choose your Inner Circle who you want to get specific updates from and if your friend has chosen you back for Inner Circle status, you get their specific updates. This allows conversation among close friends, weeding out old acquaintances, co-workers, and yes, family members.

There would still be regular status updates to all of your friends if you so choose, but having an extra layer to be able to communicate with a handful of friends without email and not having to worry about what you’re writing about or posting would be priceless. After all, I don’t mind if my “friends” see innocuous pictures of me with my family, but what I want is to be able to have the same user-friendly experience of socializing among my close friends as it currently is for everyone.

Having this type of control is, I believe, the key to the next level of facebook membership and site usage. I say this because those who are not on facebook often cite the lack of information control as one of their top reasons for not joining up. Sure, these non-facebookers don’t want to connect with all those old friends, but more so, they don’t want their laundry aired to the whole world. Further driving my proposition that allowing more communication control will drive facebook usage is that the current lack of control is one of the main reasons that current facebookers don’t use it more: Everything’s too public, too out there. And most people aren’t that exhibitionistic.

The bad news is that facebook probably will never change their current set-up. Why?

Facebook’s entire platform, its entire service, is based on openness, its egalitarianism. Being so open limits how much amount a user has to think or act while limiting the social stress of choosing who is part of your “Inner Circle” and who is just a “Friend”. They’re all friends. By making everyone equal, it shifts the stress and guilt of deciding who is a friend-worthy instead to a question of what is socially acceptable in a public forum. In other words, the facebook society is its own policeman: If you’re ashamed to post it, you shouldn’t be posting it. This is happy times for facebook.

Next, keeping the communication channels wide open keeps facebook from becoming “clique-y”. If you all of a sudden have 300 million users choosing not only what does or doesn’t get published but also to whom something gets published, then you create pockets of friends and possibly mute the very thing that makes facebook so fun: its sociability-ness, its sense of open voyeurism, if you will.

These are definitely problems. But facebook has all the tools to manage two levels of friendship and they have reached the critical mass where such tools wouldn’t stunt their growth, it might actually turbocharge it. After all, I would be inclined to post more updates if I knew that my colleagues, my Mom, and that girl from my 8th grade science class weren’t going to read it. But please don’t make me de-friend them.