When tools get in the way

I’ve written before about the importance of learning to use tools to communicate our ideas. Inability to use a piece of software shouldn’t be the limiting factor in pursuing a good idea.

In the intervening weeks, I’ve thrown myself into experimenting with technology that helps me be productive and communicate ideas.

I’ve spent more hours than I can count poking around Illustrator and Photoshop to replicate images of fruit and iPhone apps and storyboards.

I’ve recorded videos using iMovie, drafted numerous documents and presentations using Pages and Keynote, and created digital sketches using my Adonit Jot and the Paper app on my iPad. I’ve captured and converted hours of video and audio footage from research projects. I’ve implemented the Action Method system across all my electronic devices to track my ever-expanding task list. I’ve Skyped in a classmate from 2,000 miles away to participate in class even when he couldn’t be physically present.

I’ve figured out an entirely new paperless workflow using iAnnotate to read and take notes on the articles, chapters, and white papers for classes.

I’ve enjoyed experimenting with a lot of technological tools–familiar and new–to help me get through this quarter.

But this week, as my classmates and I sketched people and digital interfaces and gave another round of presentations, I’ve been embracing analog methods again. The tactile stuff of markers and dry-erase boards and paper and sticky notes reminded me of something important:

Sometimes the tools just get in the way.

Because the idea needs to come first. Technology can support articulating an idea and bringing it to fruition. Hardware and software can be great ways to produce artifacts. But they can also serve as a serious distraction and focus our attention on the wrong things.

When I’m working on a project in Photoshop, it’s easy to zoom in on one portion of the screen and literally move pixels around. I can refine the details for hours, and completely forget what idea or value I’m trying to communicate more broadly.

So my challenge to myself this week has been to put pen to paper and sketch through concepts before I start digitizing them. I can draw something out in a minute or less and iterate several versions in roughly the same amount of time it takes to start up my computer and open Illustrator or Keynote.

Better yet, I think the physical interaction with an idea makes me more likely to refine and improve it. And it’s also way more satisfying to crumple up a piece of paper and thro it across the room than dragging a file to the trash.

What Do You Desire?

In Lauren’s class a week ago, we were talking about why research methods matter for the design process. One important reason comes down to mental models–or how a person imagines something works.

Just the other day, I experienced the challenge of mental models firsthand. I was working on a project in Photoshop after spending a significant amount of time working in Illustrator the previous week. The two applications look really similar, but when I started trying to manipulate shapes and use some of the tools I’d come to rely on in Illustrator, I kept getting error dialogue boxes.

I’m sure I hit the enter key harder than necessary in my effort to get rid of the error message. And I had a few choice thoughts for Adobe.

My experience and frustration happened because they way I thought something should work differed from the way it actually functioned.

This reminds me of a concept called the desire path. I’m sure most people have seen a desire path before–and have probably even contributed to making one. This kind of trail happens when people deviate from the intended path, usually for the sake of a shortcut. Like this.

Desire paths are a physical examples of workarounds. They visibly reveal what happens when the way something is designed and made manifest differs from what people expect or want.

And that’s part of the value of design research. Through observing people’s actions, we start to see behavioral trends. We notice patterns of how people naturally function, what they expect, where they get stuck, and where they carve out other routes.

So I’m starting to pay more attention to desire paths around me. It happens when I’m out for a run and see a shortcut tamped down by people before me, as well as at a coffee shop watching the barista move from the register to the espresso machine. It happens when I see people walking out the doors after a worship service.

And it’s also got me wondering… What desire paths have you seen in the church?

(A variation posted on the AC4D blog, image: Kake Pugh)

What I Learned From a Banana…

This is a banana:

It was the outcome of my first foray into Adobe Illustrator CS6. The still image likely betrays the angst and frustration that went into figuring out how to form a pretty basic shape. Managing the pen tool to create curves. Figuring out how to manipulate anchor points and handles. Learning a few basic keyboard shortcuts so I didn’t have to keep clicking back and forth between the vector image and the application’s panels and palettes. Cursing at my trackpad because I didn’t think to bring my mouse to class.

The next day, I tried again, this time with the help of a mouse, an external monitor, and a bit more confidence than in my first exploration.

Starting from scratch was much easier, and I discovered little tricks (through lots of Google searches) that led to this version:

Throughout the rest of the week, Adobe has made me feel like I’m in 8th grade again, full of drama and angst. My classmates and I have celebrated our accomplishments and discoveries, only to groan when we hit the next roadblock approximately four clicks later and resort to a series of Command-Z keystrokes.

Today, though, as I closed out an Illustrator file filled with a cluster of grapes, I realized I’ve only been working in Illustrator for a week. I’m surprised how quickly I’ve been able to move from complete novice to feeling comfortable creating objects in Illustrator.

And my surprise isn’t only about semi-successfully hacking my way through a complicated software program.

Matt and Pat, the instructors for our Studio class who are putting us through this emotional bootcamp, explained that these projects aren’t about fruit in vector format. They’re not about learning to use clipping masks or gradient meshes. They’re not even about Adobe Illustrator, really. Instead, Matt and Pat are challenging us with tools that will enable us to communicate and document ideas.

Jon Kolko’s words struck me in class the other day. When we’re creating a product or service–or even a presentation, there are lots of reasons not to do something. But it shouldn’t be because we can’t use the tools to pull off what we envision.

I’m definitely trying to embrace the messy, inefficient discovery process. Through the challenges, our class has started to bond and collaborate more deeply, and we’re discovering how scrappy and resourceful we can be–even working on tight schedules with minimal prior knowledge.

And I learned all of this thanks to a silly little banana.

(Also posted on the AC4D blog.)

Design Boot Camp: A Reflection

Last Thursday and Friday, our AC4D class participated in a design boot camp. The two days provided a quick way to experience the design process from start to finish. We focused on this year’s theme of education and explored three phases–Ethnography, Synthesis, Prototype–which we’ll drill into with much more depth as the year progresses.

Chuck, Eli, and I teamed up to research college students who work while going to school. We had about 90 minutes to conduct interviews and gather as much data as we could during the ethnography phase. The three of us went to the University of Texas and Austin Community College campuses to talk with students. In total, I think we interviewed about 14 people. Not statistically significant by any means. On top of that, our results were probably more skewed because the semester hadn’t started yet. We came back with lots of notes and photos but weren’t very confident we’d have much to go on.

However, as we processed our research and started to synthesize it, we discovered some surprising insights we didn’t notice in the moment as we were speaking with students. (And we also developed a whole new list of questions we wished we could have explored!)

Ultimately, the storyboards and sketches we prototyped by the end of boot camp on Friday wasn’t anything we could have anticipated on Thursday morning. I’m not saying it’s an idea we’d actually be able to produce and sell–or that there weren’t other ideas we toyed with–but the process did help us identify some new insights and opportunities.

And more importantly, the boot camp reminded me that it doesn’t really matter where you start. The important thing is to start. Somewhere. And to be open to where the messy, iterative process will lead.

(Also posted on the AC4D blog.)

Ready, Set, Draw

  1. Document everything.
  2. Design publicly.

Jon lifted up these two values during AC4D orientation yesterday. He was talking about how ideas are fleeting, but if we want to actually solve wicked problems, we need to make stuff. And in order to create something, it must be written down. Documented. Artifacts–which can take the form of sketches, notes, prototypes, models, videos, photos, and more–become points for communication and clarification. They externalize ideas and enable collaboration.

At one point, Jon said, “Have an idea? Make it. Show it. Create it. Draw it.”

And if I’m honest, that’s kind of scary. I’m no stranger to sketching on a dry erase board as I process an idea, but my scribbles usually consist of boxes and arrows. The thought of drawing people (especially while standing in front of other people!), intimidates me.

So after class wrapped up for the day, a small group started talking about our fear of stick figures. Jon gathered us at the dry erase board and gave us some tips for drawing people and hands, since we’ll be doing that a lot in the months ahead. And then an assignment: Draw hands and people. An hour a day. And see how much easier it gets over time. Here’s a snapshot from last night’s efforts:

Even with only a couple hours under my belt, I’m already feeling more confident. At the moment, I’m much better at hands than people (and at palms than knuckles), but I’m excited to keep practicing and discover how this skill will enable me to communicate ideas more effectively.

(Also posted on the AC4D blog, and swing over there to see what some of my classmates are thinking about…)

On Possibilities

So I haven’t blogged in way too long.

I’ve been keeping myself busy between launching a new sparkhouse preteen curriculum and spending as much time with Brent, family, and friends as I can before I leave for Austin in less than a month. (Plus running The Color Run last weekend–post forthcoming…)

But this made me pause and smile.

I love how this group looks at a piano and doesn’t just see keys, strings, and pedals. They imagine new sounds. New ways of playing the instrument. And they work together to create something new and cool.

They see possibilities. Check it out.

The Piano Guys – One Direction “What Makes You Beautiful”

No, I’m not pregnant, but…

I have a big announcement.

And it will take about 9 months.

Austin Center for Design logo

Because I’ve been accepted into the year-long design program at the Austin Center for Design (AC4D). Here’s a description of what I’ll be studying:

We offer a one year program—held at nights and on weekends in Austin, Texas—that emphasizes creative problem solving in the context of social issues, like poverty and nutrition. You’ll learn about human behavior, technology, and novel approaches to business strategy. The program is ideal for designers, business professionals and technologists with several years of experience doing professional work, or for more established professionals looking to change the trajectory of their careers.

That means I’ll be moving to Austin, Texas, in the end of August. In addition to the AC4D coursework and designing business/service/product ideas to address “wicked problems,” I will be working part time remotely for sparkhouse and am excited to be able to apply what I’m learning to the sparkhouse projects I’ll still oversee.

And even more importantly, I have the support of my incredible husband, Brent. We’ll be doing the long-distance marriage thing for 9 months. I’m not looking forward to that part, but I am unbelievably grateful for his encouragement and wouldn’t be able to do the program without him. (The optimist in me also likes to point out that at least we’ll be able to video chat and visit each other between quarters, unlike the college semester I spent studying abroad in Vienna, Austria.)

So there’s my big news.

The application is done. I’ve been accepted in the program. And now I’m working out logistics like housing, travel, and transition plans for my sparkhouse work.

Kind of scary, but mostly exciting.

(And no babies.)

I’m (Re)Imagining Christianity

Adam Walker Cleaveland, pastor/blogger/thinker, is currently running a series on (Re)Imagining Christianity. He posed two questions and asked a number of people to write guests posts with their responses:

  1. What is one belief, practice or element of Christianity that must die so that Christianity can move forward and truly impact the world in the next 100 years?
  2. What is one belief, practice or element of Christianity that we must hold onto and live out more fully so that Christianity can move forward and truly impact the world in the next 100 years?

I feel honored to share my thoughts alongside folks like Landon Whitsitt, Tony Jones, Carol Howard Merritt, Clint Schnekloth, Lars Rood, Sarah Bessey, and Troy Bronsink, among others. Here’s an excerpt from my post on nostalgia in response to the first prompt:

I think we face a similar case of nostalgia in the church. The state of the typical American church is a little unsatisfying, so we long for “the good days.” When denominations were growing and thriving. When people were biblically literate. When youth ministry and worship didn’t need to compete with sports practices. When families worshipped together, and kids dressed up and sat quietly in the pews during worship. When… When… When…

It makes me wonder, When? When did church actually look like that?

I have a suspicion that those days never really existed. Or if they did exist, they weren’t as perfect as people imagine.

Read the rest here.

The series will have a number of posts through late-April, so be sure to keep checking Pomomusings for the latest reflections and to share your comments.

Now Showing (in the Twin Cities…for one day!): Blue Like Jazz

A few years ago, I read Donald Miller’s book, Blue Like Jazz and really enjoyed it. (In particular, I was struck by the “confessional booth” Miller and several Christian friends set up on a very secular college campus. But instead of asking people to confess their sins, the group confessed and asked forgiveness for the ways Christians have misrepresented Jesus.)

Then two years ago, I read A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, which came out of Miller’s experience trying to turn Blue Like Jazz into a movie. I really appreciated how A Million Miles challenged me to think about the story I tell with my life–and how to live a more compelling narrative. (Which explains how I gave away a couple copies of the book before I even finished reading it myself!)

So back to Blue Like Jazz… As they were making the Blue Like Jazz movie, funding ran out. And then a Kickstarter project saved the film, which has been screening at ministry events and college campuses across the country before it hits theaters April 13.

And now it’s coming to the Twin Cities. (Well, technically, St. Paul.)

So if you’re looking for something to do on Friday, March 16, head over to one of the two screenings at Macalester College. Donald Miller and Steve Taylor (the film’s director) will roll in on the Blue Like Jazz bus an hour ahead of the screenings to hang out with people before the movie begins. The events are free but do require an RSVP, which you can do here:

Want to see more? Check out the website and the trailer:

This Post is Not About Davy Jones

Facebook and Twitter streams reflected people responses and sadness over the death of Davy Jones on Wednesday. While I recognize that a 66-year-old music icon’s passing reminds us (especially children of the ’60s) of our mortality, I struggle with the amount of attention it’s getting.

Because when I woke up this morning, I heard this report from Syria on NPR:

After pummeling the Baba Amr neighborhood with tanks and rockets for nearly a month, the Syrian government pledged yesterday to, quote, “cleanse the area.” And that’s what appeared to be happening today. Activists say soldiers are going house to house, arresting all males over the age of 14. This morning, activists say soldiers lined up 10 men and shot them, execution style.

14-year-olds are reportedly being rounded up in an effort to quell the rebellion. Those boys would be high school freshman in the United States.

Soldiers are executing people. Despite repeated efforts, the the Red Cross has been turned away, and many Syrians are without food, water, electricity, and medical care.

The crisis in Syria is overwhelming, the politics are complicated, and I don’t claim to understand what’s happening. I don’t know what I can do to help the people of Syria.

But I’m paying attention. And I’m thinking about how life is fragile. And I’m praying for resolution in Syria.

Even if it would be easier to change the topic to Davy Jones’ legacy.