DS106 on the couch

Tag: design

Been playing with Shadow Puppet as more than just short commentary on photos. I re-did my design safari photos as a Shadow Puppet story. I had some issues uploaded the larger file but Carl now has released a new version of the software that allowed me to create, upload and embed the story easily. 

It is a really elegant and useful solution to putting audio and photos together – can be used to create educational presentations very easily now that the 4 minute upload limit is no longer a problem. 

Design safari 2 with Ds-ina

Yes, it is!

So this weekend I had intended to work on the radio show, perfect my audio voice and re-do my work over and over to get it ‘perfect’ whatever that means. Instead I went on another design safari with Ds-ina. She wrote a blog post that ended with:

It took me over a week to finish this blog post, and probably it’s far too long for anyone to read through the whole thing. 

Well, Ds-ina you were wrong; not only did I get to the end but read it more than once and followed up your links as you had explored different stuff from me though we both started from the same document. I liked the fact that your post was sharing personal learning, reflecting on personal struggle and not trying to establish the rights and wrongs of design. I too struggled with many new concepts and challenges to deeply held views on design week. It is something I want to keep learning about – may be next time I do DS106? Did I just write that? I decided to strike while the iron was hot and just go on a new design safari with Ds-ina. What follows are my reflections from her post and new thoughts it led me to explore.

I started with this comment as the post explored colour and its use in design: 

Is this a good use of colour? Honestly, I have no idea. Are the colours used complementary in some way? Should they be? Why are these particular colours used, and why are some colours on top of others—what guided that choice? No clue. All I can go by is what seems pleasing to me, and I do like this one. I think the contrast of the colour and the dark-ish glass is nice, and the colours are spaced in a way that seems balanced.


This spoke to me at many levels. It suggested to me it is one thing to notice design elements and another to feel able to say if something is good design. This resonates strongly with my own explorations. Ultimately I too went back to a visceral like/don’t like criterion which is what Donald Norman suggests design is about. He says a small percentage of what we choose as good design is reflective in nature (i.e. we choose  consciously in line with our values) but the majority is visceral, behavioural and unconscious. Good design makes us happy. So, as we see something pleasing, a surge of dopamine hits the brain and generates positive emotion. We cannot explain it with language, but we feel it. 

Norman illustrates this in many ways ( the short video is a design safari itself – and great fun to watch) but my favourite example is this:


This is Jake Cress’s chair with flaw.

It comes with a short story. This poor little chair knows it is flawed and it is working hard at trying to fix itself. Norman says that what is interesting about this is that we believe the story and are emotionally affected by the object. We like it. I have linked to Jake Cress’s website (click on the photo) – worth a visit if quirky furniture that tells story is your thing. 

This connected for me with the video by Paul Zak during the initial weeks of DS106. There we learnt that increased production of cortisol and oxytocin are found when stories are told that fit Fraytag’s dramatic arc – exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and denouement – and that this makes us behave in ways we may not have chosen to behave before we heard the story. Zak proposes that stories are changing our brain chemistry. In the same way that Norman says our brain chemistry is changed by good design. 

It is a difficult job then for any budding designer to determine how to make people happy so that they like their designs. As I continued to read Ds-ina’s post  I began to see a pattern. Designers are trying to create conscious heuristics or principles that may lead to people’s happiness ( or their emotions being affected in some way)

Ds-ina in her post explores symmetry for example. She quotes this article, 

Symmetrical balance occurs when the weight of a composition is evenly distributed around a central vertical or horizontal axis. Under normal circumstances it assumes identical forms on both sides of the axis. When symmetry occurs with similar, but not identical, forms it is called approximate symmetry.

I had been struggling with the idea of approximate symmetry, but she shows us a photo that explains it beautifully. 


People, but not of the same sex or doing the same action! I now get approximate symmetry. What this has done is given a heuristic to understand why I may have a positive emotional reaction – I like it – to this sign. There are many signs that have useful purposes, such as helping us to recycle more, and design principles may or may not be applied to these. Ds-ina’s post goes on to explore some objects and signs as she continues her design safari around her university campus. I encourage you to read her post for a clear and well supported explanation of many principles we covered in design week. I particularly liked her examples about minimalist principles and asymmetrical balance, which for me until I read her post, had been a contradiction in terms. 

As I went further on safari with Ds-ina, it put me in mind of the idea of emotionally intelligent signs. The notion that we are more likely to take action on a sign that appeals to our emotions and particularly signs that are empathetic to our experience such as this one, 


This sign singlehandedly changed my view of electric hand dryers a few years ago.

I then spend several hours watching Objectified again and again. I have mentioned this film in a previous post. It really challenged my views about what makes good design. It goes beyond notions of aesthetics and brain chemistry and makes us stop to think about the intent of design. it suggests that we need to think systemically not individually about design; that non-disposability, and longevity matter; that there is a reality to be faced about how objects that have been thoughtfully designed are just landfill fodder for the future. Many examples and images later, that tell a story of waste and consumption, I am ready to sit up and listen to the suggestion that what Norman calls the reflective level of good design may need much more attention that we give it. Both in object design and in designing our personal cyberinfrastructure. 

I kept going back to Ds-ina’s post and noticing the discomfort she expresses with evaluative criteria that are from the purely personal realm. The whole safari seems a quest for more impersonal criteria against which  design could be judged. I found myself in the same place during design week. I was happy to come back to ‘art in the brain’ as a foundational principle, but something kept nagging at me too. So I explored further the ideas in the film as I felt that an answer might lie beyond the personal and my love for creating ephemeral artefacts. 

I found the seed of an answer in Tim Brown from IDEO talking about design thinking.

I can only say ‘watch it, now!’ But here is his view of what design has become. From,

systems thinkers who were reinventing the world, to a priesthood of folks in black turtlenecks and designer glasses working on small things. As our industrial society matured, so design became a profession and it focused on an ever smaller canvas until it came to stand for aesthetics, image and fashion.

In the world of digital storytelling I guess this equates to using our shiny digital toys to make stuff look good without a thought for the crafting of the story and its place in the wider world. I think that these ideas challenge us to think beyond individual creativity and look systemically to the intent of the storyteller and the actions our stories encourage. 

His answer? Moving away from design and towards design thinking.  He calls for ‘a shift to local, collaborative, participatory design thinking. ’ It suggests a set of design principles grounded not in psychology, not in individual aesthetics, but in community and what David Kelley calls a common ethos of empathy for the consumer. it uses rapid prototyping as a tool that puts potential ideas into the hands of users and gets users to assess value. Kelley says ‘it is not rocket science, it is just empathetic to people’. This is the approach that gave us Apple’s original designs, they worked with Steve Jobs in the early days. This to me has hope. It is defined as ‘human-centered design’. It encourages creative confidence as the ability to ‘to fail often, to succeed sooner’ and as the ability to come up with ideas and having the courage to try them out. This implies to me that what we try does not always succeed, that we should assess this according to an external criteria of how others engage with our designs, and that we need the courage to remove and delete what does not work, and try again. In turn, this requires that we look in the mirror and question our givens – and just why do we like that? The design thinking approach further encourages us to ask: Should we like that? What is the larger purpose that my individual creativity is serving? For some the answer is in social change as in the example of Southwark Circles as a new way to care for the old, for others about open education and using it to teach this approach to design. Yet others want to focus on younger people and how to support them in this kind of thinking. 

If we change brain chemistry and the way people act by the stories we tell, then may be we have a responsibility to press pause and question our intent as storytellers. The wider purposes, our responsibilities as storytellers to ourselves, our communities and the wider systems we belong cannot be ignored when looking at the issue of design principles in digital storytelling. Jonathan Worth may be on to something when he says we have to teach the ‘gravity of the role of the storyteller’. Perhaps there is space to add a week on this topic in future runs of DS106?

I have learnt much and much remains to be learnt.

I take away the need to hold the tension of opposing views as the frontier where new ideas are born and how tough it is to do that without the mind grasping for simple solutions. Thanks, Christina for taking me on such an insightful safari and encouraging me do a second one of my own that has led to deeper insights.

Good design – visceral, unconscious and embodied

So says Donald Norman. Good design taps into our happiness pathways and is evaluated mostly unconsciously with a small element of conscious reflection that makes us chose certain things that may not perform a function because our super-ego says we should – like buying an ecological car that only travels 50 miles before needing recharging. We buy it because it fits our espoused theories of action. So we have the object, yet remain unhappy with it. We give allegiance to the idea of caring for the environment, but operate from a theory in use that values comfort and speed. So, mental models clash. Humans are not rational animals in making decisions about good design any more than they are rational about any other realm of life. 

So, how do we teach design? How do we help students to distinguish a website that sucks from one that can be said to meet good design criteria? In DS106 we were encouraged during design week to look at examples, many examples, over and over again more examples. What this  implies from a learning perspective is that Donald Norman is right in saying that the principles of good design are below awareness. If we want to learn good design we need to develop a practice of attention to help us bring to awareness the principles we use to evaluate ‘good’ and create heuristics to help others learn perceptual patterns that are labelled as ‘good’ in our culture. A tough job at the best of times. In DS106 even harder because we look at many different types of design in a short period of time – industrial design, graphic design, photo design, audio, website design, story design, interaction design, etc. 

For my learning I chose to focus on surfacing my own implicit values for ‘good design’. The rest of this post looks at design week assignments and how I used them to start to answer the question: What is good design for me? First, a short story that encapsulates a key criterion of what counts as good design from my world-view,


At the metacognitive level I realise I hold a strong belief that there do exist absolute principles of design and that I do not subscribe to the relativist post-modern notion that beauty is subjective and anything can be seen as beautiful by somebody.

From my work in cognitive science I understand these absolutes to be tied to human perception and what the perceptual system affords as we interact with our environment. Of course there are individual differences here, but there are shared patterns too.

For example, symmetrical faces are perceived as more trustworthy and the brain has mechanisms to automatically detect novel faces and rate features as trustworthy (1) . We are pattern recognition machines, and not all patterns are created equal, even if the idealists amongst us may want any feature or pattern to have equal opportunity. I could turn this post into a review of the cognitive science literature that supports my assertion, but this blog is not for my academic work but for making sense of digital storytelling and it place in my own life. So, my assertion will have to stand and those interested can look at the research on mirror neurons, for example, as further evidence that pattern recognition is unconscious. We act differently depending on the patterns we perceive. Briefly, mirror neurons are sophisticated pattern detection mechanisms that enable us to learn without conscious attention by watching others act (2). There is also new evidence to suggest that there is a ‘neurology of aesthetics’ with core principles of what the brain interprets as aesthetically pleasing – such as grouping, symmetry, hypernormal stimuli, peak shift, isolation and perceptual problem solving – which ‘may cut across not only cultural boundaries but across species boundaries as well.’ (3) Different areas of the brain respond to elements of the visual arts such as colour, form, line, and motion, and hence our experience of art ‘relates strongly to the neuroanatomy of the visual cortex’(4). 

This research matters because it shows that there are absolute principles in design and that these are tied to the nature of embodied cognition and the brain. Put simply it means there is pattern to what we like and what we dislike, it is not all subjective evaluation. There are many other issues at play in evaluating good design – culture, politics, peer pressure, in-group norms – but here I am just attending to cognition.

We learnt during visual week how using the principles of Gestalt psychology we could take better photographs (5) and these are not dissimilar to the neurology of aesthetic principles we just mentioned. I went searching this week and found out that Gestalt has also been applied to web design (6) and learnt that the guiding principle of Gestalt is often mis-translated as ‘the whole is greater than the sum of the parts’ that in fact in fact Koffka intended it to mean “The whole is other than the sum of its parts” and this implies that the whole is perceived as different from its component parts. The article suggest that when we design anything we can usefully and purposefully ask: What gestalt principle is this element of the design appealing to? This can allow us to self assess in a rigorous rather than self congratulatory manner anything we design. I found this idea very useful and plan to apply it to the artefacts I design in Ds106.

Further evidence for the cognitive underpinning of design comes for cognitive linguistics. A key slide from that presentation that connects with my own Phd research,


In my own work I define creativity as the process of bridging from one domain to another apparently unrelated – where the abstract gets mapped to concrete bodily metaphor (7). This is referred to as juxtaposition in Safer’s work above. The key here is that we understand via our bodies and how they experience the world. Interaction design uses metaphorical understanding to help make the tool or product invisible to the user if the right metaphor for understanding is applied. As is the case for, say, the desktop in our computers or the trash can as digital metaphors which map to embodied experience and map purposes across domains.

Our assignment for design week asked us to choose 4 elements of design and carry out a design safari – select images that represented the chosen elements. I chose:

1. Metaphor – understood as abstract concepts are grasped via embodied experience

2. Form and function – How do we blend form and function in that which we label ‘good design’?

3. Minimalism – for me understood as how do we get to the essence of things? This will give us components in a design that uniquely define/express a ‘thing’ – be it a film, a photo or website.

4. Balance – as an example of an embodied metaphor when we say good design has symmetrical or asymmetrical balance we are understanding it in relation to bodily balance.

We have learnt about many other design concepts – colour, typography, rhythm, proportion, dominance, unity. Many of them grounded on gestalt psychology. I am no designer but have always attended to design around me and have an in-depth understanding of embodied cognition and how it grounds all human endeavour.

My reading and watching for design week (e.g. Helvetica and Objectified) also offered up other interesting design principles. I loved the definition of design as ‘the search for form’. Other principles that resonated with my own sense of good design were: invisibility, simplicity, non-disposability.

The designers interviewed on the films wondered: Is the aim to differentiate yourself or to contribute to the world of design? Should we be going back to designing according to the principle of things that get better with use rather be willing to dispose just to differentiate ourselves and our products?

After my study for design week, I was left asking: How are Wabi-sabi principles useful in expressing what I value in design? Wabi-sabi contains the idea that the aim of design is for it to dissolve in natural behaviour and this is similar to the invisibility principle I believe in strongly in user interface and website design. As a buddhist it is perhaps not surprising that I value wabi-sabi aesthetics or see its application to wider ecological issues in western design. 

I was struck by a designer saying that almost all design ends up as landfill today and that designers must now consider sustainability and non-disposability . This links for me with a personal, but only just emerging, view about the negative consequences of encouraging the constant production of content for the web.  So much of it is just regurgitation of old ideas with not thought to research or good design – I am using the metaphor of the virtual landfill to make sense of this. We encourage (particularly in the open education movement) a sense of entitlement for the creation of virtual spaces – without rigour in design or content at times. May be designing content with appeal to a non-disposability  principle would give us more reciprocal hyperlinks and less withering domains,

“My hunch is most people do not consider that there are implications for this, the missing part of the original dream of hyperlinks as being bi-directional.”

Of course bi-directionality does not speak to quality. It does, however, speak to the importance of a longevity principle at least. This is an evolving theme for me, one I will come back to it in later posts. It connects for me with what I believe to be the dysfunctional relationship to time in our culture.

So, here we go, our design safari. I used SlideSpeech to add audio to the photos. It is in alpha so there were some glitches but you can hear the computer generated commentary for the photos by clicking on this link. I love this tool and have used it in my work as it can quickly produce great output. I have ran the slides with commentary on my computer, created a screencast and uploaded to YouTube for work projects. SlideSpeech is an example of a focussed tool, designed to blend with the user rather than for the user to adapt to it. We all make powerpoint presentations, and just adding key presenter notes gives you a decent artefact.

A nice feature I have not managed to get to work yet is that you can add interactivity to your artefact and offer your listener extra resources to follow up. Check this simple tutorial produced with SlideSpeech to learn how to use it. I will come back to it and want to support John Graves to further develop it by using it as much as I can – it will be a great tool soon.

Design week has opened my eyes to design beyond software and I notice that I am noticing the language of design used around me much more. For example, symbolism in advertising,


1.Engell, A. D., Haxby, J. V., & Todorov, A. (2007). Implicit Trustworthiness Decisions: Automatic Coding of Face Properties in the Human Amygdala. Journal Of Cognitive Neuroscience, 19(9), 1508-1519.

2. Ramachandran, V. (2013) The neurons that shaped civilisation. http://www.ted.com/talks/vs_ramachandran_the_neurons_that_shaped_civilization.html

3. Ramachandran, V. (2008). The Neurology of Aesthetics. (cover story). Scientific American Special Edition, 18(2), 74-77.

(4) Zeki, S, Inner Vision: An Exploration of Art and the Brain. Oxford University Press, 2000.

(5) Baraban, J. (2012) 6 Principles of Gestalt Psychology That Can Improve Your Photography http://www.adorama.com/alc/0013706/article/6-Principles-of-Gestalt-Psychology-That-Can-Improve-Your-Photography

(6) Tuck, M. (2010) Gestalt Principles Applied in Design http://sixrevisions.com/web_design/gestalt-principles-applied-in-design/

(7) Funes M. (2003) Bridging: The essence of Creativity. European Association for Creativity and Innovation. In: Jon Buijs, Remko van der Lugt, Han van der Meer, Idea Safari: Proceedings of the 7th European Conference on Creativity and Innovation, 2003.

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