The non-obviousness that something is an installation

When people saw our Blind Reading installation, they often ask, “How does it work?” The fact that the piece is an art installation and not a design artefact must not be obvious. Even the speeches alluded to results of design research (when there is, as far as I can tell, only one product design presentation in the whole exhibition). Even the official blog of the exhibition sounds as if they got it wrong and thought our art piece was a design artefact. But at least the installation held up for the evening. (The realization that, other than the incorrect wiring, the root cause of our problem was mechanical in nature helped immensely.) People did ask, we tried to explain, and I hope we got our points across. I still fear Wednesday: I have never been on this side of the table at an artist’s talk before, and I have not gone to enough artist’s talks, but my consolation is that I will probably not be the one doing most of the talking.

Open complaint letter to @4ormat from an @OCAD student

They know I am on OCAD’s beta program and not on a paid account, but that is still not a reason to ignore my suggestions. Their user interface has a steeper learning curve than Behance (and to be blunt a few places are outright non-obvious), and if they keep throwing their strengths away I’m not sure how they plan to stay in business.
Date: Sun, 17 Mar 2013 00:23:37 -0400
Subject: Using 4ormat as a writing portfolio (please reply, as promised in the Help page)
From: Ambrose LI <ambrose.li@gmail.com>
To: info@4ormat.com Hello, in the “Help” section you promised that “a member of the 4ormat team will get back to you with an answer.” After more than a month, I am still waiting for a response to my previous suggestion. Last month I suggested a way to make it easier for those of us who have chosen to use 4ormat as a writing portfolio. Not only have you ignored my suggestion (and without giving me an explanation), you have just made changes that make it even harder for people to use 4ormat as a writing portfolio. I find this utterly incomprehensible. It was very difficult to use Behance as a writing portfolio, but things have improved on their side. When I first signed up with 4ormat I thought you guys had an advantage over them because despite their improvements things were still way easier (and much more flexible) here. But instead of building on that strength, you guys are throwing it into the trash. When a classmate told me two days ago that he had just created a (graphic design) portfolio himself, from scratch, using WordPress, I could not understand why he would do that when a ready-made solution like 4ormat exists. But if sites like 4ormat keep changing for the worse, I suppose his decision was justified. -- cheers, -ambrose <http://port.ambroseli.ca>

The biggest hindrance to making progress in our project

Our professor was suggesting that we could document our experience of having a geographically separated team designing our gizmo for our installation. But I have this feeling that our biggest problem isn’t really our geography, it’s the simple lack of access. Our biggest progress was made approximately during the last one and a half weeks, yet we saw several days where Angela was in town but we could not do any work on our installation either because the room was in use all day, or simply because the office separating the elevator lobby and our classroom was locked and no one was available to open that door for us. We literally wasted at least four days because we physically could not get into our own classroom (in a building we were told would have access 24 hours a day, 365 days a year). It’s not the remote aspect; it’s the “last mile”—or, in our case, literally, the last inch (that is, the thickness of a locked door). So I could not even mount a set of information panels I freshly made yesterday because when I got back (from the cold, outside, in Butterfield Park, because students in our program apparently have no access to proper, ventilated studio spaces, and for obvious reasons I was not going to use rubber cement or spray fixative in the only studio space I actually have access to—I don’t want to literally blow up the studio we all love) the door was already locked. In hindsight, during our group meeting yesterday we could have easily defended our (unreasonable, I admit) slowness—we could not make any progress not because Angela was not in town, nor because I could not understand her code until I got my own Arduino, nor because of the steep learning curve of figuring out how to drive the stepper, nor even because the wheel was slipping and we could not make it not slip; we could not make progress simply because we could not get into the classroom to work on the installation. This has to be the stupidest reason ever why work could not be done, but it’s true, and it’s sad. And it has absolutely nothing to do with us allegedly treating this “real-world commitment” as mere “schoolwork.” And I fear this will repeat in our next installation, because 49 is another space we simply cannot get in.

The third point

Yesterday I finally remembered. I was talking to the professor a few days ago and thought there was a third point that I forgot, and indeed, there was a third point that I forgot. So here it is: We keep talking about agile, but agile values “working code.” And one way people doing agile keep their code working was to use TDD (test driven development) or BDD (behaviour driven development) techniques. They iterate quickly, but they don’t iterate in a vaccuum. Before they code, they write the test first. (Or at least that’s my understanding after taking that Coursera course.) To do agile, we have to first have our success criteria—a fluid set that changes over time, of course—set down. Success criteria, however, are sorely missing in our case: We just don’t have them. We know something is wrong, but we haven’t really defined what we mean by right. So no matter how short our iterations are, we still can’t be doing agile; if there’s a word for what we’re trying to do, we can probably call it hacking. And yes, this came out of that project too.

Design and research

Both the AIGA and the RGD were holding webinars today—at exactly the same time—, and since the RGD one seems to be directly related to my studies, I opted to go to the RGD one. What I got out of this: I have seriously underestimated the amount of work I need to do to finish this week’s assignment. Not that I wasn’t aware of that yesterday when I went to the library to do a good read of the course material, but if there is no established database and no established list of design journals in existence, then I’m pretty much screwed unless I started last Thursday, which I did not. Or unless the bibliography I should come up with would appear in a journal in a “related discipline,” which again is not going to be the case. I don’t know what I’ll be able to come up with, but whatever I manage to do will, as it stands, not be very good.

Design and social change

I went to the “Navigating the World of Design (w/ Zahra Ebrahim)” forum today, without really knowing what it was before I went. So it was a really good discussion (not really a “presentation” in the usual sense of the word), and Zahra turned out to be really friendly and approachable. Too bad I have never been good at coming up with good questions to ask. But in any case, the career related stuff aside, two things really struck me: how much her vocabulary overlaps our program’s (“disability” and “social impact” in particular, and probably a couple more, but I bet she’s unknown in our class), and her assessment on the state of graphic design. A few days ago—in fact last week after that class that “accidentally” happened—Brandon was talking about graphic design being “dead.” I was not convinced. But today Zahra also mentioned the fact that traditional design firms—even large firms—are failing, and this is something I was not aware of. Her conclusion—if I am not mistaken—the value of designers is in design thinking and our process. (Ok, am I allowed to say “our”?) Which is exactly what AIGA has been saying for the past two years. (And Ric Grefe calls it “craft.”) So, there, perhaps this is why we have such divergent views: Brandon views graphic design as print; print is “dead” (or so they claim) and so graphic design is “dead.” But I view graphic design as more than print: My idea of graphic design includes print, web design, environmental grapic design, and video, and I was never convinced that graphic design is “dead” because even though people might argue that print is dying, web design, EGD, and video are obviously not dead. But the essential question remains: Can I say I “get” the process? Can I say I “get” design thinking? I really don’t know but I suspect I might not like the answer.

The better thesaurus, revisited

Working through the source text of a translation contest, suddenly the inadequacy of ordinary dictionaries and thesauri was bugging me again. There are at least semi-usable thesauri for English, but for Chinese, there is virtually nothing usable. (True, the Revised Dictionary of the National Language is somewhat useful as a thesaurus too, but it is not even comprehensive enough as a dictionary…) So that quad that I drew in the summer semester (which I believe no one really noticed and so no one commented on) suddenly came back to me: We do need a better thesaurus, and in the fine tradition of Princeton’s WordNet, it should probably be an open platform where people can contribute. We really need “a better thesaurus,” for both English and Chinese, where people can look up not only synonyms, hypernyms, hyponyms, and that vague notion they call “sister terms,” but antonyms, emphatics, and causatives (yes, those alledgely Semitic ideas). The lack of something that can jog our memory to come up with that elusive causative we invariably need is, in my humble opinion, a serious problem for translators. Maybe that can be a project, or a paper, or something. I don’t know. Does this really have anything to do with my program? I never got that feedback I needed.

What is the rationale behind timeouts?

I logged in to my course account yesterday, left it open, and today I found the login screen sitting where my studio course’s syllabus should have been. Why is a timeout even necessary? To force students to take breaks? These annoying timeouts are there even if you saved the pages onto your hard disk. Why is this happening in this program in particular? Isn’t our program the unlikeliest place on earth that this happened? I am sure this is an act of exclusion at least for blind people, people with learning difficulties, or people with motor impairments. Did the programmer even try out that green dot computer interface thing? Are they telling us to block the timeout code as if it were a virus? Why are all web sites getting less and less usable? What is it, really, that we—the design, IT, and engineering professions on the whole—are striving towards? Isn’t our goal usability and not uselessness?


I went to the 4ormat presentation on Thursday. So this will be our online portfolio, and not Behance, Cargo Collective, or Coroflot. I’m not saying there’s any problems with the decision. It’s a totally fine decision, and as the presenter said, they’ve explored all the options and settled on (what they think is) the best. And 4ormat—while we’re students here—does seem to be very attractive. For one thing, I certainly am going to test how giving it a separate domain will work out. That said, this still means that OCAD will not have an official presence on Behance. That is, people will see Art Center, MICA, RISD, SCAD, SVA, and even Academy of Art, but not OCAD. If I remember correctly, the presenter mentioned that a lot of students don’t have online portfolios. I wonder if that really is the case. Talia has one. Larry also has one. Three is certainly not a representative sample, but for those of us who are already using Behance (or maybe something else), are we really going to give up Behance for two years (or four), use something else, and then when we graduate and lose our free access switch back? I’m not so sure.

The end of the OCAD network on Facebook

Two days ago, on November 23, I received a mass email from IT Help saying that the forwarder that forwards ocad.ca email to ocadu.ca will be turned off at the end of the semester. Since Facebook has not been allowing the creation of new networks (nor the update of existing ones, apparently) for quite a while, this means that new students will no longer be able to join the OCAD network on Facebook. Granted, networks on Facebook have not been doing much lately, but that can be said of virtually everything. Everything on Facebook—including messaging, SMS support, and even fan pages)—is getting less and less useful. So perhaps it will just be a matter of time before all the existing networks will die off. Still, this will be a “milestone event” for OCAD: The end of its official network on Facebook must still mean something.
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