The power of a symbol

altered accessibility signA year ago I wrote a post, Guerrilla Art is Changing Perceptions of Agency for the Disabled, about two New York artists, Brian Glenney and Sara Hendren, who started a culture-jamming project of modifying public ‘disabled accessible’ signs. Their aim was to make the person-in-a-wheelchair symbol more energetic by changing the angle of movement, and adding a sense of agency to the figure. They wanted to counter the message of passivity embedded in the traditional accessibility symbol.

Their work caught the attention of New York city officials, and the new symbol soon became recognized in New York city.

 

updated disabled symbolFast-forward a year, and Governor Cuomo recently signed an updated accessibility icon into New York state law. (See press release.) The new official symbol of accessibility for New York state features a much more active and engaged image, and it very closely follows the original guerrilla art design. After the artists placed the symbol in the public domain, it was turned into official signage by Conrad Lumm and Katrina Otuonye for SmartSign, and is being distributed by MyParkingSign on a mostly donation or discount basis to encourage implementation of this important revision as fast as possible. (See MyParkingSign’s accessibility campaign.)

As Conrad Lumm says, “Ambient messaging about people with disabilities has the potential to stifle job prospects and quality of life, so the Accessible Icon designed by Hendren and Glenney is an important corrective. We look forward to rolling out (and donating) indoor wayfinding signage that includes the Accessible Icon, too. It makes us unspeakably proud that New York state is making this switch, and we hope more states follow.”

What I love about this story is not just that disabled people in New York have a better public symbol, but that the movement towards this change came from the grassroots. Culture-jamming and guerrilla art can be defined as the people talking back to a culture whose messages and images are largely corporate- or institutionally-driven. That two artists took it upon themselves to say, “Here is a better way to symbolize this particular sector of our society,” and that their idea was seen and acted upon by those with the power and resources to move the change into law, and distribute it statewide, is truly inspiring.

Now it’s time for Oregon to update its disabled signage!

 

 

A look at Design Thinking – and how it’s not a milk cow

Vitruvian ManThe phrase “Design Thinking” is getting bounced around a lot, and for a while I found it a bit puzzling. I didn’t understand how it differed from regular thinking. Then today I read Rick Wise’s succinct (if perhaps oversimplified) definition in the FastCompany blog and realized the reason the phrase puzzled me was because is regular thinking. At least for me.

“At heart … it is about fusing the creative and open-ended with the analytical and operational, combining very different ways of thinking and acting. This is, of course, easier in theory than in practice. How do you get children’s book authors and chemical engineers to click into something greater than the sum of the parts–rather than devolve into warring camps?”

Like Rick Wise says, “Everyone’s a bit of everything.” Few people are all creative or all analytical. But I have been lucky enough to build my skills in both realms to a point where they are balanced and integrated.

Mostly from being in the right place at the right time, I’ve been blessed with abundant opportunities for education. My first degree was in visual art, a BFA from the Corcoran College of Art + Design in Washington , D.C. It was a marvelous experience that I still treasure years later. But after that first degree, I was too curious to call it quits on tertiary education. Next up I studied philosophy and linguistics at the University of Auckland, and received rigorous training in analytical reasoning. It was sometimes difficult and dry, but I knew I needed the skills. Then after that experience, I went back to art, and did an MFA at Portland State University.

Now, as a business-owner and strategist/designer, the combination of inspired+creative  and rational+analytical is an enormous asset. I am able to help clients strategize their brand and website to fit their organization’s goals, I’m able to meticulously plan timelines and budgets, and I’m able to maintain big-picture perspective during a project. In this analytical realm, decisions get made based on looking at premises, and following them to their conclusion. This is what we have now. Over there is the outcome we want. This is what will happen if we change what we have by doing X. Will that give us the outcome we want? No? Return to the premises and start over. Maybe? Tweak the variables until an acceptable level of probability is achieved.

But during the project, I will switch gears and be the designer. It’s a new set of decisions to make, but they mostly happen on the visceral level. Color palette? Hmmm. Uh. Er. Oooh…. Ah!

Choosing photos? Too gloomy. Too cute. Too green. Almost, but too wide. Will it crop well? No. But this one will…nice.

Creative decisions are made split-second fast, and it’s later that I go back and find reasons for them — which I need to do when presenting design decisions to clients.

Client: Of the three color palettes you’ve shown us, which do you think is the best for our organization, and why?


Me: Option three is the best. The intensity of the palette visually supports the vibrancy of your organization. You fund organizations that educate children in energy-intensive ways. However, your website audience is adults, not children, so while the colors are bright, it’s a sophisticated adult palette, not a play-school or candy-bright palette.


Client: “I see what you mean, yeah…” 

The FastCompany post focuses on how Design Thinking is done at a particular firm, Lippincott, which is much larger than Blue Mouse Monkey, with eight offices worldwide. Design Thinking impacts not just client strategy, but how their whole company is structured and how staff are coached, and how they are paid. I can only say as a creative and as a business-owner, am inspired by Lippincott’s priorities and strategies.

However, Design Thinking has its critics. When taken as not simply a vague label to describe the ability to blend “left-brain” and “right-brain” problem-solving (over-simplified terms in themselves) and is used instead to mean a specific methodology or process to “get more value” from staff, then it can become a mere trick, applied externally to people situations to provoke them to be different from how they are. A type of provocation that can easily fail. Bruce Nussbaum, also in a FastCompany blog post, outlines his criticisms of Design Thinking, and calls for a new conceptual framework he calls the “Creative Quotient.” His recent book is Creative Intelligence: Harnessing the Power to Create, Connect, and Inspire.

I have not read the book so can’t comment. But all this talk of finding the right way to “harness” creativity makes me a just a tiny bit queasy.

As Thomas Frank says in his article, TED talks are lying to you, “The creative class has never been more screwed. Books about creativity have never been more popular. What gives?”

He goes on: “Those who urge us to “think different” … almost never do so themselves. Year after year, new installments in this unchanging genre are produced and consumed. Creativity, they all tell us, is too important to be left to the creative. Our prosperity depends on it. And by dint of careful study and the hardest science — by, say, sliding a jazz pianist’s head into an MRI machine — we can crack the code of creativity and unleash its moneymaking power.”

Creative minds, says Frank, are treated like they can be “harnessed” and then are supposed to “do their nonlinear thing” and out of that flows “epiphanies and solutions” that make corporations rich.

Thing is, creativity doesn’t work that way.

Not to say that corporations haven’t gotten rich from epiphanies and solutions arrived at by creative people. As Frank says, “Spend a few moments on Google and you will find that the tale of how Procter & Gamble developed the Swiffer is a staple of marketing literature.”

But it can’t happen by applying a formula. What the writers on creativity fail to mention is the role of intuition. And that intuition can’t be forced. Sure, it can be encouraged and developed, but it can’t be imposed. It simply doesn’t work that way.

The corporations that get rich from some creative insight are lucky. They had the right people at the right time. Other corporations might have the right people at the right time, or they might not. When it works, it’s not because of the application of a formula, it’s because of a serendipitous set of circumstances. As much as corporations want to control variables, and “harness” intangibles, there is no way to reduce the creative process to a repeatable formula. You might invent the Swiffer, or you might not.

Keep trying, sure. Don’t give up. But don’t expect to corral the ethereal, evanescent, weightless nature of creative inspiration like you might a cow that you expect to give milk at will.

Oregon First website launch

Oregon First real Estate Website home pageBlue Mouse Monkey is proud to announce the launch of a new website for Oregon First. Oregon First is the largest independent, locally-owned real estate brokerage in Oregon. Their new website combines a RMLS data feed with unique customized design (rare for real estate sites!) as well as two blogs (one for agents, the other for the general buying-and-selling public) as well as individual pages for each of the 300+ member agents. Built in WordPress, the site is now easy for Oregon First staff to keep updated.

Boxy but good

Remember Dudley Moore, the ad man who goes crazy in the 1990 movie, Crazy People? He switches to using honesty, and comes up with campaigns like, “Volvos. They’re boxy but good.”

Parisian design collective Maentis is doing something similar in their reimagining of famous logos with a dose of added honesty. Check out their Universal Unbranding portfolio. A couple of examples are copied below to whet your appetite.

BP oil soaked bird

 

 

 

Ikea kitset logo

Guerrilla art is changing perceptions of agency for the disabled

guerrilla art handicap stickerIt started out as a piece of guerrilla art, and now it’s changing official handicapped accessible signs.

Brian Glenney and Sara Hendren started to “modify” existing symbols of accessibility to change public perception about disability several years ago. After the project gained the attention of New York officials the revised symbol is becoming officially recognized within the city.

“Initially, Glenney and Hendren’s aim was to generate conversation. Though the ISA symbol had generally been a huge boon to disabled individuals over the years, it’s easy to see how the symbol itself was less than ideal. Compared to the bathroom sign stick figures we’re used to, the one on the ISA looks frail and immobile–more an outgrowth of the chair it’s sitting in than its own distinct entity. … the goal [of the new symbol] was to show a more humanized depiction of the disabled. That meant reorienting the visual focus of the symbol from the chair to the person, and replacing the rigid, static representation with something more dynamic and active.”

old and new accessible iconsRead the full story at fastcodesign.com »

And more about the Accessible Icon Project »

Spirit Mountain Community Fund website makeover

Spirit Mountain Community Fund home pageBlue Mouse Monkey worked with the Spirit Mountain Community Fund (one of Oregon’s largest funders of non-profits) to launch their new website in 2010. Two and a half years later the folks at the Community Fund were ready for a makeover that responded to the needs of their audiences, as discerned through analytics. During this makeover we shuffled content into new places to make it easier for their main audience, grant writers, to find. In addition to rearranging content, we also changed the look-and-feel subtly enough to ensure the new site kept a relationship with the old site, but strongly enough that users were alerted to the fact that the site had changed.

As always, we’re happy to work with the good people at the Community Fund, and gratified to be helping them help Oregon non-profits!

The Disciplines of User Experience Design

The deeper I go into user experience design, the more I realize how broad the topic is, and also how difficult it can be to explain to someone for whom the idea or term is new. I appreciate Thomas Gläser‘s Venn diagram of the discipline and how it relates to many other disciplines. On various sites where the diagram has been posted commenters are quick to point out what’s missing, e.g. why doesn’t sound design overlap with interaction design?  But, as Mark Wilson points out on fastcodescign.com,

…to critique a piece like this is to ungratefully overlook its utility: Don’t see this as the only road map for the entire UX design industry, but a postulation as to why it’s so darned complicated to nail good UX. To think anyone could be an expert in each of these circles is sheer absurdity. Scratch that: To think any designer could be an expert in each of these circles is sheer absurdity, but to recognize that every end user is an expert in each of these circles is highly important. As humans and end users, we might not know what makes an experience right, but we certainly know when it’s wrong.

Yup.

It’s comforting to have Jakob Nielsen in the world

Siemens website carouselThe latest Nielsen Alertbox posting inspired me to write. It’s Auto-Forwarding Carousels and Accordions Annoy Users and Reduce Visibility and it makes no bones about the uselessness of what at first glance seems like a good idea. Auto-forwaring carousels have become standard issue on websites where the urge is to “tell our story” but the client has a hard time condensing that story down to a few words. So a carousel is set up where the story is told over several slides, each typically featuring a large photo or graphic with a short paragraph of text. But the fear (on the part of the client and the designer) is that most users will not ever see beyond the first slide in the carousel, so the carousel is programmed to automatically rotate through the slides.

To the client and to the designer, copywriter, programmer, and others who have worked on the site, all seems fine because we’ve been knee-deep in developing the content for months and the carousel slides are familiar to us. But what about the new visitor? I know the frustration of having a carousel slide on a new-to-me site disappear before I’ve finished reading the contents, and the fumbling to find my way back (Where’s the navigation? At the bottom? Top right? Under the text?).

I have designed rotating carousels on many a website, often at the request of clients who have come to expect them. But I wonder if they are a fad that will pass. Maybe by 2014 or 2015 we’ll look back on carousels and wonder why we tried to cram so much into our home pages.

Oh, and I also love Nielsen’s comment about “content-free content”. Of the tagline on the Siemens website, “Rewarding.Life.Style.” he says, “This is content-free content to at least 99% of humans outside Siemens’ marketing department.” So true!

This is one of the reasons I like to perform a focus group on a website after it has been built but before it is launched to the public. Real-world users catch the BS-y things that can easily slip into a website during the design and build, and they’ll call you on it.

As I always say, your website is not for you, it’s for your audiences, and making sure their needs are met is highest priority.

SHnibbins Dog Snacks website launched

Blue Mouse Monkey is pleased to announce the launch of  SHnibbins dog snacks — the website and the product itself. We provided full branding and design services to enable SHnibbins to bring their new line of heart-shaped dog snacks to the market. From logo, letterhead and package designs, through to content creation, audio, website and social media, we created a new brand that focuses on the simple joy of doggie love. Get SHnibbified!