Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Digital Life of Reily

The wave of the sustaining digital life is swiftly approaching. With Facebook’s upcoming release of their “Timeline” tool (, everyone will soon be shifting their focus from the meaningless last minute to the meaningful last decade. “Big Picture” thinking is hardly in lock-step with an online culture that is generally more interested in speed and convenience. Nevertheless, Maslow will proud that many of us will likely evolve from “Love/Belonging” (e.g. making Facebook friends) to “Esteem” (e.g. winning at Facebook games) and now to Self-Actualization (e.g. building a Facebook Timeline). 

Will it take off? I fully expect that in some way, shape, or form, the idea of a digital profile to represent your life experience is to here to stay. I have to admit, I like Facebook’s concept video and I won't be surprised if they have success with this, provided they’re out front and learning from the behaviors of their users (which they traditionally don’t). In the meantime, however, I expect to hear plenty about Facebook’s confusing privacy settings and tricky “opt-out” policies and you know someone is going to miss out on their precious dream job due to pictures that were taken with after a beirut tournament 12 years earlier in college. 

Clive Thompson just wrote about this same trend in the most recent Wired Magazine with a piece on “Memory Engineering” (
He primarily focuses on a Foursquare plug-in called 4SquareAnd7YearsAgo ( that “finds your check-ins from precisely one year earlier and emails you a summary”. Programmer Jonathan Wegener is working from good insight when he says “there are so many trails we leave through the world,” Wegener says. “I wanted to make them interesting to you again.” I hate to pick on ideas, but this feels like it’s not stepping the right direction towards more meaningful digital longview. 

I like the idea of the fun of memories from the past popping up, but Foursquare check-ins that arrive every morning pointing back exactly 365 days? Why am I living vicariously through myself from a year ago? I imagine that only 1 out of 100 days messages might be slightly interesting (e.g. “what a great day. Can’t believe that was a year ago”), but if the event was that big of a deal, it shouldn’t shock you that it was a year ago. In other words, there’s no concept of surprise or discovery, and you’re really not building a sustained narration because you’re just getting check-ins from the ghost of Foursquare past. Now, if they add some randomization and customization, then we might be talking… I might like a weekly email that tells me other things I’ve done over the past few years during this week, including places I went, pictures I took, and people I spent time with. It’s worth noting that Thompson also mentions other apps for tracking personal experiences, such as Memolane and Patchlife.

Admittedly, I may sound a bit bitter, and I probably am. Some of us have been talking about a likely shift towards a sustaining digital timeline for probably two years now. Unfortunately, the closest thing I have to proof is a moleskin page or two from 2009 and a Google Document from “76 days ago” with notes about an app that will “capture a timeline of events; share and follow timelines”. Now, we’re watching the wave take shape without a board to paddle on. Yet, such is life in the fast moving digital age. Fortunately, we have been tossing around one other idea that complements this whole movement, but I think we might let it pass and go find a new wave. I’m sure I’ll get reminded of this one in a year anyway. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Interview with Juhan Sonin, Creative Director at Involution Studios

On August 19, 2011, I had the opportunity to sit down with Juhan Sonin, Creative Director at Involution Studios (, to discuss the state of design within organizations and what designers could do to have more influence. The following is an overview of that conversation.

Sonin and I began our discussion by postulating why more companies have not been successful in their pursuit of creating better products. His view is that just like any other discipline, there is a range of talent, skill, and knowledge in the field. He explained that “the best managers, designers, and engineers understand the 3-legged stool”, referring to the multi-disciplinary aspects of product development. In his view, the failure to address the business, design, or technology-related aspects of product or service opportunity will only lead to inferior outcomes. He points to the success of Apple as an example of achieving this balance, explaining how Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive are each “design, engineering, and business-minded”.    

On the topic of designers having more impact within organizations, Sonin believes the biggest factor is the ability to communicate design. He says, “Most designers aren’t good enough at pitching their own work”. He states that we as designers are delusional if we believe we can be successful in organizations “without being able to design our own stories”. “Otherwise”, he says, “What are we doing in design”? Sonin goes into greater detail about his definition of design communication, explaining how we must not only be able to explain design but be about to translate it into business and technical terms as well.
In response to the notion that design decisions are difficult to defend because of their qualitative or subjective nature, Sonin took the counterpoint. “Most designers don’t how the science of design” he explains. “There is both qualitative and quantitative data.” In his viewpoint, it is no more or less opinionated than the discipline of engineering. So how do we fix this problem of the non-influential designer? Sonin points to design education, pointing out the current gaps and explaining that designers should be challenged to learn more. “Designers should have engineering knowledge. They need to understand how to make things, not just design in a vacuum.”

As a successful designer himself, Juhan Sonin doesn’t see too much of a challenge in creating new products. However, what companies struggle with, he explains, is when you have an entrenched product. “It’s year six. What do you do next? How do you shift? This is where products become obsolete.” He explains the financial and emotional challenge of this endeavor. Sonin points to the struggles of Eastman Kodak as an example. From his perspective, Kodak’s poor leadership, lack of future vision, and weak design communication led to their downfall. “The refused to turn the ship”, explains Sonin.