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11 posts from January 2011

The Metaphor of the System, Part 3

Outfit Hierarchy

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, I identified the elements that comprise an interaction model: UX patterns, feature clusters, system behavior over time, and UX principles. What sews those elements together is what I had been calling an "interaction metaphor," or the metaphor of the system.

So, how is an interaction metaphor different from the parti, as described in the previous post—the central idea or concept of a system? I'll venture a guess, though this is still rough thinking and confined just to interaction design.

Continue reading "The Metaphor of the System, Part 3" »

"Design Business for Breakfast" Series Returns for 2011


If you missed last year's "Design Business for Breakfast" series, this is your chance to catch it again—with a few new surprises! Here's the copy from the AIGA Seattle's site:

Many firms offer stellar creative work. The ones that survive and thrive understand how to successfully operate their business. To help you master that second skill, AIGA Seattle is proud to offer an encore presentation of Seattle designer and author David Sherwin's design business series.

Whether you work on the creative team, the account team, or are a one-person firm, this series has enough valuable content to fill books. [Like my next one coming out in 2012... details coming soon.] Covering key aspects of design practice—from project and account management to creative leadership—this 4-part series represents years of hard-won wisdom, yours to be had over a comfortable, light breakfast. And as a special bonus, the series will be kicked off with an exclusive presentation and Q&A with Ted Leonhardt on January 26th.

Here's the lineup:

Weds, Jan 26 / Ted Leonhardt: Identifying Opportunities in Your Time
Weds, Feb 23 / Erica Goldsmith: Connect with Your Clients
Weds, March 23 / Fiona Remley: Structure Your Projects and Process
Weds, April 20 / David Sherwin: Design Leadership

Tickets can be purchased individually, or for the entire series via

All talks start at 7:30 AM at Il Fornaio, located in Pacific Place. Parking is available in the underground ramp. Take the elevator to concourse and escalator to the first floor. If you're on foot, street access is from Olive Way and up the escalator. Doors will open at 7:15.

Your questions are welcome and invited. Send them to or use the Twitter hashtag #DB4B.

The Metaphor of the System, Part 2


Whenever I think of interaction models, I visualize in my mind an imaginary modern art gallery designed by a famous architect. Let's walk inside, pay our admission fee, and enter the first gallery from the grand foyer.

At first, what we notice are the other people milling about the space. There must be hundreds of visitors from around the world, listening to their self-guided audio tours and quietly shuffling to and fro.

To your left, there's a security guard perched on a high chair. He's supposed to make sure we don't deface the art with our No. 2 pencils. When you glance at him sideways out of the corner of your eye, he looks a bit hung over. In a few minutes, another security guard will come in to replace him, so he can grab a quick smoke outside.

There are benches, plants, and other cues that let us know we can rest and linger if we wish. Right now, schoolchildren are perched in the room's centre, either texting their friends or doodling in their notebooks.

And, lest we not forget, there are works of art. Some are on the walls, winking from baroque gilt gold frames. Others are non-traditional, like video installations and sculptures that rest like melted wrecking balls on the scarred hardwood floors. You'll have to wait a minute or two until you can make your way to what seems to be the most popular works. Most of the people are bunched around two specific paintings, perhaps by Picasso.

Much of this experience is "designed." I put that word in quotes, as there is no designer holding us by the elbow, shepherding us through the room. The designer has considered the various points of contact that a person may have with the items and people within the space: the picture frames, the benches, the pots for the plants, the uniform of the security guard. (Though the guard may not like that polka-dot tie.)

Along with the curator, the designer may have determined the containers around content—the specific framing and placement of each work—and how those containers relate to communicate a particular story. The designer may be aware of the narrative flow of the exhibit, and how visitors can create different stories from the content based on when they encounter it. The designer may have worked alongside the curator to selectively manage what content may appear on the gallery walls beside the art, such as placards, infographics, and other wayfinding moments.

However, separate of what we see within the space, there is more to examine from above. Looking upwards, we notice that light shines down through a diamond-shaped skylight. Why didn't we notice it before?

With the permission, we hike up the stairs and climb up a ladder, pushing ourselves out onto the building's roof. Standing above this room and gazing down into this gallery space, we realize that it was designed structurally to encourage a specific kind of motion, from door to door. In fact, as we walk across the roof to examine other rooms, we realize that each room winds into the other like a nautilus shell. Visitors begin each exhibit from the center of the shell—the main foyer—spinning their way outward into deeper explorations of specific subjects. The skeleton of the building's space, when abstracted from its drywall and plumbing, its specific artworks and security guards, would resemble the elegant interior form of some crustacean sea life.


Interaction Design, Late to the Parti

When considering the structure of a building, architects often define its central, organizing idea as part of their ideation and design process. This unifying idea is known as the parti. The overall expression and movement of people through the space, the actual flow that happens through daily use, emanates from and returns to this fundamental idea.

In the case of our imagined art gallery, I've noted that there is a parti that organizes its space. We could summarize it in the idea, "Nautilus shell."

The central idea or concept implicitly encourages flow and movement from room to room, via a metaphor that manifests itself implicitly in how the space is used.

When designing for interaction, well-constructed systems can have a similar unifying idea. (See Luke Wroblewski's great talk on the parti and the design sandwich, which this piece is building upon and evolving.)

But in the realm of interaction, we're not just focusing on the elements within the system—the people, the potted plants, the artwork, the security guards. We're also not solely constructing the overall architecture of the system independent of the individual actors: the blueprints, the drywall, the plumbing. We are grappling with how the whole system functions as a living, breathing organism, meant to live symbiotically with humans.

So an interaction model, when well-defined, describes how a system is intended to function over time. It is comprised of the following elements:

  • UX patterns: Repetitive structures and pathways that people will encounter and move through over and over again. Example: A news feed in Facebook would always scroll downward, containing endless objects that a user could act upon. This is important: A UX pattern describes where actions will take place, rarely a range of specific actions. That is reserved for…
  • Feature clusters: The specific functionality that a system contains. The features should be organized in a manner that makes logical sense to the people who use it, and have a dynamic relationship with the UX patterns. Example: When using my Facebook news feed, I am able to act upon an object by commenting on it, liking it, sharing it, etc.
  • System behaviour over time: The animation, transitions, and other ways that the system behaves in response to (or anticipating) user input. Example: I click on a field that says, "Write a comment..." in my news feed. It dynamically exposes a larger box with my photos, encouraging text input. If I click away, it snaps shut automatically.
  • UX principles: A set of guidelines tailored by the designer that governs the elements above. Violating the UX principles can causes all the other elements to suffer in both usability and desirability for end users. Example: I'd imagine that Facebook wants the minimum number of interactions or clicks possible from scrolling a news feed to interacting with content—one or two at most. Any new functionality must try to preserve this principle.

All of these elements are required for a system to feel unified during use. To quote Mr. Dan Saffer,

"A device without an interaction model will likely seem disjointed and made up of pieces, instead of as a whole. Pieces of functionality will work differently and the overall concept will be hard to grasp. Many mobile phones, appliances, and consumer electronics suffer from this problem. A solid interaction model is the basis for any great device."

Beyond devices, a solid interaction model can help organize practically any kind of designed experience: an art exhibit, an in-store sales experience, a board game. Any kind of product, service, or system that requires repetitive input and output would benefit. The material outputs may look different—i.e. you're not creating user flows and wireframes in all cases—but there may be a similar process in structuring the desired design outcome.

In describing the imaginary building above, I was outlining patterns of how people should enter and exit each room. There were principles that governed how those patterns are employed, and what specific features map to those patterns and principles. Specific features and content map to those patterns and principles.

But what differentiates an interaction model—at least in the process of brainstorming and crafting an interactive experience—is in what central idea or concept helps to cohere what would otherwise be "disjointed and made of pieces." I like to call these central ideas "interaction metaphors," or the metaphor of the system.

In my next post, I'll outline what makes an interaction metaphor distinct from a parti, and how these metaphors are created through the brainstorming process.

The Metaphor of the System

Targets for Ideation: Interaction Models

Recently, I've been meditating on what makes brainstorming for interaction design so challenging. (Not just because I'm leading a workshop about it at Interaction 11.)

After spending a few years in the trenches of product and service design, I've discovered that ideation for interaction doesn't operate quite the same as other design disciplines—especially when compared to visual communication, branding, marketing, and so forth.

Why? Because interaction designers are creating multifarious, complex systems comprised of repeating elements that must cohere into a recognizable and usable whole. And more likely than not, what you're attempting to modify or construct wholesale over the life of a project is an interaction model.

Never heard of an interaction model? To explain, let's take a trip to your local art gallery... in my next post.

This Week's Challenge: Through the Looking Glass

Magnifying Glass

Mail = A6 envelope. Chat = speech balloon. Search = magnifying glass.

When creating icon systems, designers exploit our familiarity with commonplace physical and lingual metaphors. They are universal, pervasive within our culture.

However, by tying ourselves so closely to such analogies—both when considering individual icons and icons that may represent a corporate brand as part of a logotype—we contend with the wide range of meanings that others have already exploited in the world.

With this challenge, you'll explore what happens when you mold three of these everyday icons to a uniquely tailored use.

Your alma mater has hired you to redesign their campus-wide email, chat, and bulletin board systems. As part of this redesign, they would like you to create unique icons that represent Mail, Chat, and Search.

In 30 minutes, create these icons. They must immediately convey to any student, faculty, or staff member that the functionality is affiliated with the school—but without directly integrating any existing official crest, seal, or logo within the icon.

If you want to take it further, design the key screens for Mail, Chat, and Search as part of a school-provided mobile application.

Want more challenges? The first 24 pages of Creative Workshop: 80 Challenges to Sharpen Your Design Skills are available free on Scribd.

"Creative Workshop: Teacher's Guide" Is Now Out

Creative Workshop: Teacher's Guide Cover

Today, I released a free e-book called Creative Workshop: Teacher's Guide. It serves as an accompaniment to Creative Workshop: 80 Challenges to Sharpen Your Design Skills, published in Nov. 2010 by HOW Design Press.

This 72-page e-book with co-written with my wife Mary Paynter Sherwin, who was a substantial contributor to the Creative Workshop book and class. The Teacher's Guide describes the pedagogical methods behind the challenges, how to create your own Creative Workshop class or workshop series, as well as how to use challenges from the book most effectively in a classroom setting. This text is intended for teachers of design and creative thinking, but it may also be helpful for designers and creative managers.

Continue reading ""Creative Workshop: Teacher's Guide" Is Now Out" »

This Week's Challenge: Please Sign Here

december • 2009

I worked with an excellent proofreader whose cubicle you would never approach until she had flipped a little sign from “No Coffee” to “Had Coffee.”

At that same job, one of the designers kept a mini-whiteboard up to date with her ongoing projects, what’s on her plate, and when she was planning to take lunch—so she wouldn’t be surprised by rogue project managers while she was running out the door.

And, of course, there was the ever-ubiquitous promotion by Veer, which was a flip book that consisted of various tongue-in-cheek phrases: "Where am I? Letting someone else do the creative."

These designed moments become part of our studio environment and culture. So for this challenge, show us how you share your status to your co-workers—
like only a designer can.

In 30 minutes, create an interactive piece of signage you can place on your design studio door, desk, or other clearly visible place. The signage must be easily modifiable to note your current project status, overall mental state, and any other data points that are critical to the health and wellbeing of yourself and your co-workers.

If you want to take it further, how would your sign translate into an iPad or screensaver application?

Shown above is one of the beautiful monthly desktops created by graphic designer Miss Vu, which are posted regularly to Flickr.

Want more challenges? The first 24 pages of Creative Workshop: 80 Challenges to Sharpen Your Design Skills are available free on Scribd.

The Fundamentals of Effective Design Critique

Design Critique Fundamentals

In my previous few posts, I've explored some of the root issues that stand in the way of well-considered critique habits. This post is focusing on the process of delivering design critique, and what specific areas we can improve.

The above chart describes the overall flow of high-level actions that comprise a successful critique situation. Let's explore each of them in further detail.

Initiate: The designer initiates a critique session, either through actively requesting it or by attending a meeting that has been formally set up. Having a standing critique meeting encourages designers to work towards critique, rather than having it sprung upon them—though sometimes it's best to put the designers in control of when critique occurs, so they don't feel rushed.

I've purposely not included the "drive-by critique," where the boss happens to wander by the desk and can't help but comment. That should not happen without the permission of the designer. So ask before you open your mouth.

Reflect: Participants in the critique should actively solicit the intent of the designer if they aren't familiar with the project (and its creative brief), explore the detail of the design, and gauge the level of fidelity based on where the designer is in the project flow. This all happens before verbalizing any immediate thoughts or impressions. Those participating in critique should also consider any previous experiences they've had with similar material. As we'll see later, this may not immediately impact the critique.

This phase can last anywhere from a few seconds to a dozen minutes, depending on how much design work is on the wall and the level of its fidelity.

Assess: There are three questions that I find critical to ask myself before offering comment. If I skip over any one of them, I almost always say something that really doesn't contribute to the critique and causes problems both in the critique session and later on in the project.

"How does the designer's intent match the brief?" Knowing that a design is on strategy, or at least tracing the boundary of it, is a litmus test for measuring creative quality. This question may become less important if you're working from an intentionally unbounded brief. (Ulp.) In those cases, a better question to answer may be, "How does the designer's intent shape the strategy?"

"What tangible design decisions contribute to their intent?" If we start critiquing the aesthetic details too quickly, hammering on technical deficiencies such as poor kerning or lines that don't meet up in an illustration, we may be missing opportunities to align around what specific art direction or interaction decisions may strengthen the work.

There's always time to fix typos and adjust leading. There is rarely enough time to clarify an overall information architecture or art direction too late in the game. Besides, if you spend too much time hammering on the details—forcing designers to become better craftspeople, fostering a detail orientation, etc.—they may not have the space to be more aware of how those details fit into a coherent sequence of designed moments. Bouncing between the big picture and the details is one of the few ways to make sure you don't slide into a habit of thinking small first.

"What do they still need to solve for?" In critique, we're often asked to verbalize or sketch out unexplored paths that a designer could follow from where their work currently stands. Providing effective design critique emerges from in measuring what ideas and specific notes will aid the designer in fulfilling their intent—and personal goals too! From your own experience, and in observing others grappling with similar problems, you may know what is required to help them reach that intent.

Critique: Now that all of this information has worked its way through your brain, you can vocalize, sketch, and otherwise contribute as part of the critique. However, you have a range of actions at your disposal.

You can help to calibrate and otherwise re-align the designer's intent, if you feel it is either off brief or requires a more articulate strategy. These kinds of conversations should be happening early in the process, but sometimes you don't understand the implications of a design direction until it reaches high fidelity. So a designer shouldn't be fearful to scrap everything at the eleventh hour in critique—they should only be fearful that the conversation hadn't been evolving that deep rework may be necessary late in the process.

You can provide notes on craft, either to bring the craft in line with their desired art direction or to help identify and improve any technical deficiencies. Clarifying art direction should always trump fixing tiny details—the latter can be worked out via notes written on paper rather than out-loud conversation.

You can praise what is working in the design, choosing to illuminate what intent- and craft-based decisions resonate most powerfully in the work at hand. This should really be happening first and foremost in the design process, and usually follows a formula known as the "shit sandwich" in writing workshop circles: identifying a powerful detail or feature and praising it, pointing out an area that may require more work regarding craft or intent, then closing with further praise. Even if you work in a corporate culture that offers criticism before praise, you should measure where praise fits into the process and be prepared to offer it in every critique.

You can choose to defer to comment, delaying critique until the work has had more time and energy invested in it. Designers should never interpret this option as potentially harming their work later down the road. Selecting this option should mean that those in the critique trust the designers to further their work, based on their vocalized current intent and art direction. This is any design manager's secret weapon, and I know I don't exercise it often enough. Providing no feedback, or solely positive feedback regarding what's working best, will create the necessary space for creative leaps to happen.

Don't allow delaying critique to turn into a passive-aggressive method of control. And keep in mind that you should also offer your designers the choice of what kind of critique they may want to receive. They may just want you to see where they're at, but no detailed feedback whatsoever. Don't feel like you're required to lob a nuclear bomb at design work that often needs just a gentle nudge down an alternate path.

Again: Let the work be good!


What Good Design Critique Tastes Like

Unlike other types of wines and spirits, there is a unique method of properly discerning the many distinct notes in a glass of quality sake. Compare this to the tasting of red wine, where a person may hold the liquid on their tongue for fifteen to thirty seconds before the full complexity and body of a decanted wine yields full bloom.

When trying a new sake for the first time, take a drink from the glass, then hold the liquid on your tongue and soft palate. Breathe slowly inward and outward for one breath. The sake will open up, revealing secondary characteristics that would have remained otherwise unobserved. The drinker can then swallow the sake, discerning the difference between the first taste, the second taste upon the palate, and then the wine's overall finish.

In a similar manner, reflection must precede analysis if you aren't going to solely "shoot" at creative work. When dealing with complex subject matter, the end product may feel simple, but there is always enough detail layered underneath that requires deep consideration to properly vocalize how it may be improved.

So in this New Year, consider how to create these moments where you can hold creative work on your tongue, savour it, and let it be good in its own right. It is these moments that we will enjoy most and will most nourish us as designers, as leaders, and as members of collaborative teams.

Otherwise, that bitter taste in your mouth at the end of every project won't be the bite of strong, celebratory champagne.

Many thanks to Mary Paynter Sherwin, who helped create the central theme of this series.

Starting with the Double-Black Diamond

Turning the Apprenticeship Model Upside Down

When considering a change to our critique habits, we often think it's just a matter of getting everyone on your team together and agreeing upon new ways of working together. However, the way a design organization is structured can have a major impact on how critique is conducted.

Many traditional design organizations have been constructed via division of labor, with the "brains" at the top and the hands at the bottom. When teaching craft first and conceptual thinking second, this type of organization forces designers fresh out of school or without a great of professional experience to grapple with the nitty-gritty details, slowly maturing their way into informing and driving more of the conceptual thinking behind a project. This is known in the craft-based trades as the apprenticeship model.

This line of thinking is becoming old school. and not all agencies function like this anymore. But for large-scale marketing agencies and in-house groups, this type of model is common because—just like a Ford assembly line—people fulfill specialized tasks as part of their daily roles, as cogs in a larger profit-generating machine. This is partially why designers often move swiftly from agency to agency, as they can be a larger cog or leader within another organization sooner than they can vacate their defined roles and responsibilities at their current jobs.

Not all designers (or leaders) believe that "better" ideas come from those with grey hairs at the top. New methods of coaxing the best thinking out of everyone on a design team, whether every person's title is Designer or not, are required for dealing with more complex, ambiguous design problems and ambitious solutions. This requires designers and their cohorts to collectively design the situations in which they collaborate to successfully integrate the best thinking in an emergent fashion from everyone involved. Essentially, flip the pyramid upside down, placing the apprentices in charge.

Pulling this off successfully, over and over again, is harder than it may sound. Let's pursue a wintry analogy to elaborate.

Continue reading "Starting with the Double-Black Diamond" »

This Week's Challenge: My Design Graph

My Design Graph

Don’t believe it when other designers tell you, “You’re only as good as your last project.” It’s the trajectory of our career that tells the story of our growth as designers. Some designers just keep creating the same project over and over again—which may lead to some solid design work, but it does little to push them into new and unexplored territory. The resulting portfolio will show competency in craft, but little curiosity.

Much in the same way that we meander toward the coffee shop around the corner for our espresso fix, breaking ourselves out of professional ruts takes concerted, mindful effort over time. In this challenge, you’ll dive into the nuts and bolts of what makes your work tick, and uncover what new directions you may want to take in the next phase of your career.

In 60 minutes, look over at least 10 of the past designs you’ve created. Based on patterns that you detect in use of typography, grid, color, photo and illustration use, and other factors, create an 11"x17" chart that quantifies major trends in your work. Use this chart to highlight opportunities for new approaches you can attempt in the next few months to spur your growth as a designer.

And if you're feeling even more adventurous, draw inspiration from the work of Nicholas Felton at and create an annual report of the trends you’ve exhibited across your last year’s complete portfolio, as well as any other artistic outputs.

Want more challenges? The first 24 pages of Creative Workshop: 80 Challenges to Sharpen Your Design Skills are available free on Scribd.

Let the Work Be Good

Let the Work Be Good

When pursuing the lofty vision of a creative leader, we often lose sight of what's right in front of us: the work.

We begin to critique, poke at, and otherwise prod the work in the name of iterative improvement, without stopping to reflect that the work is already good. Really good. At times, so strong that if the first pass your designer took against the brief was let loose into the world, few would be the wiser.

So, as a New Year's resolution or holiday gift to yourself, let in the possibility that what you've created is good. Feel free to even say it out loud: "What I've created is good."

Now, what's probably right on the tip of your tongue is the following question: "But what if I know it's not good?" If we're seasoned design professionals, we've been around the block two million times. We think we know a thing or two about good design, and this ain't it.

I'm not preaching radical acceptance, more so than critiquing the ever-dissatisfied design leader, paternally finger-wagging that we can always do better. Besides, we've all had days where the inner critic starts tearing the wallpaper off the walls of your freshly decorated room—or on worse days, calls in the wrecking ball to trash the whole building we're trying to construct. In these situations, we make ourselves feel like crap. And it's not just our own psyches. The people we work with feel like crap, especially if they're always on the receiving end of endless "make it better" criticism.

Dreams of success, populated by happy clients singing the hosannas of powerful design solutions, may hedge us into pursuing greatness at the cost of fostering compassion and humanity over time. From a process perspective, the final product sounds to the client like there were a number of musicians playing individually beautiful melodies that weave into gorgeous harmonies.

However, in reality, we've conceived a jumbled performance corrected in post-production to sound sweet, while wearied musicians slog home after dozens of takes that never sounded quite right to the producer's ear. It doesn't need to be this way.

Over my next two posts, I'll be sharing some perspectives on how to return some of that compassion to your daily work, as well as your interactions with your design team—in the form of better-considered critique habits.

Until then, have a happy New Year!

Many thanks to Mary Paynter Sherwin, who helped create the central theme of this series.