Walkable Cities and Shouting “Fire!” in a Crowded Theater

The phrase “shouting fire in a crowded theater” was coined in the 1919 Supreme court case of Schenck v. United States. In this case, Justice Holmes makes in his analogy that the protest of the WWI draft by Charles T. Schenck was akin to shouting fire in a crowded theater. In other words, it was the creation of unnecessary panic. To quote the indelible Wikipedia:


“Holmes wrote of falsely shouting fire, because, of course, if there were a fire in a crowded theater, one may rightly indeed shout “Fire!”; one may, depending on the law in operation, even be obliged to. Falsely shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater, i.e. shouting “Fire!” when one believes there to be no fire in order to cause panic, was interpreted not to be protected by the First Amendment.”


Over the past week, I have been muddling over this phrase and its function. If Holmes is correct, then we should assume that false claims are careless. This I can agree to. But as designers, could it also be argued that we make false claims on a regular basis. The livelihood of many designers relies on their ability to stir a frenzy and need in the masses. In fact, many professions rely on this. From politicians and journalists to advertisers and lobbyists, these parties thrive off of bringing order to disorder but are often the creates of the disorder in the first place. That’s what makes them good at their jobs.

How, then, do we distinguish from a farce and the truth? When we are surrounded by the next best solution to a problem that didn’t exist in the first place, how do we know when there is a problem in the first place?

This brings me to today. I recently began a summer internship, and will likely be working on a project with the city of Atlanta’s transit department (I’d love to say more, but cant disclose any details yet!). In planning our proposal, the design team met with local designer and transit advocate Alison Tallman.

We talked at length about applicability of good local transit and the public reputation of Atlanta’s current system. Alison turned me on the phrase “Transit Oriented Development,” or TOD, and one of its biggest supporters Jeff Speck. In his TED Talk, Speck eloquently talks about the radical changes that can happen in a city when we start to prioritize people over cars, sidewalks over turn lanes, bus routes over rush hour traffic. He advocates for building centers around transit stations, rather than supporting urban sprawl. In his aptly titled book, “Walkable City” he goes into detail about the revitalization of urban communities and the importance this will have as record numbers of people move back into urban environments.

My research also led me to a talk by former New York City transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan. She echoed Speck’s sentiments and furthered by highlighting examples of New York investing in pedestrian and bike traffic over that of cars. I highly recommend watching both of their talks if you are interested in transit issues.

Commissioner Sadik-Khan and Speck bring up incredible valid concerns and make compelling calls to action. They present a very real need for TOD and support it with substantial research. So, why then, is there not a greater alarm. Who is shouting fire? Perhaps this is the greatest issue. We as a culture are saturated with calls to action. At every turn our attention and heart strings are asked of. Sometimes for very real causes, and sometimes not. Its left to us to wade through the pool of marketing to figure out what is actually a fire, and what is just hot air. Its exhausting and overwhelming.

I truly believe that at the end of the day, the public wants to do the right thing. How then, can design communicate the importance of TOD without overwhelming. How can we empower the residents of  urban communities to advocate for walkable cities, and in turn allow them to live more productive and health lives.

Well, sound the alarm. It’s time to light a fire. We just want to make sure that no one is burned in the process.

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A Wearable Tech Extravaganza

As of my last post, I was about to head back to Atlanta. Well, after 2 straight days of driving, I arrived in Atlanta late Thursday night. My thirst for sightseeing and the quest to take the ultimate travelogue photo with my 35mm put me significantly behind schedule, but I am hoping that the photos will make it worth it. Highlights included a fruitless search for Iowa’s largest frying pan, a visit to Metropolis, U.S.A., and some absolutely stunning Kentucky farm towns. All I need to do now is finish half a role of film and find a developer. Once that’s done, I’ll take these pictures and my other remnants to make a sort of “road trip info graphic” if you will.

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To the main event, however. For the next two days after my return to Atlanta I was running around as a volunteer for Georgia Tech’s 2015 Wearable Symposium. Like many areas of design, I knew very little about wearable tech. When you hear the term, most people think Fit Bits and Google Glass. While that’s not incorrect, those mass marketed product only scratch the surface of what wearable technology can be.

The speakers were as diverse as the field and ranged from textile companies developing chip integrated fabrics, to a researcher developing custom fit head products in Asian markets, and local firm talking about the role of cadence in interactive products. Every presenter and speaker had a new perspective to offer, and discussions ranged from fashion and planned obsolescence, to strategies for technology adoption. Tech was even able to toot their own horn and show off a range of projects including shoes that would allow parents to track children and a circuit embedded tee shirt that encouraged kids to learn about technology.

By the end of the event, I was exhausted and slap happy. All I could think is that if I was exhausted, I couldn’t imagine how our rock star organizers felt. After the final exhibit was taken down, the remaining volunteers sat around and popped the left over white wine, poured in a little Sprite and orange juice, and toasted to an incredible weekend. We divvied up the last of the food, loaded up our cars and parted ways.

I cannot say for certain if wearable tech will be part of my future, but I can say with complete certainty that it is an incredibly exciting field and one that is filled with tremendous potential and innovation.

Road Trip Design Trip

A recent class speaker said “you can make anything into a design project.” So, as my upcoming road trip came into focus, I decided to take this to heart. I’ve spent the past few days with family in my home state of Minnesota recovering from the end of the semester, and will be driving my car from from Minneapolis to Atlanta tomorrow. It will take 2 days and over 18 hours.

How then, does one fill 18 hours in a car driving across America? Make it into a design project! I don’t know exactly what this turn out like, but I have a few rules set for myself:

  1. Take a photo with my 35mm camera every hour, on the hour
  2. “Humans of New York” style interview one stranger in every state I visit and try to take their picture
  3. Make a Vine length video blog once an hour
  4. Stop at at least one ridiculous road side attraction per day
  5. Get “lost” at least twice and/or stumble upon some picturesque Iowa farm town (…and If I find Chris Soules, that wouldn’t hurt, either)

Also in tow, a few roles of b&w and color film, an early birthday present in the form of Yes Please and What Do You Do With An Idea, Ellen on audio book, my sewing machine, a few canvases and my mom’s vintage Robin Hood bike I plan to fix up over the summer. With that, I ask you to wish me luck and safe travels!! The Honda’s filled with gas and the road trip bag of snacks is plentiful. See you on the other side!

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Project Management and Checking the Boxes

“But what is this?” we said with dismay.
“An overdue blog post to write on this day?”
“You did not tell us, that this task was due.”
“But I did” he replied, “it was told to you.”

“Write a blog post about project management,
and make haste, tonight, with reckless abandonment.”
We rolled our eyes, shifting sided to side
conceding to the inevitable tide.

So, because I adore you, M and K
I will, in fact, with this blog say
My thoughts on project management

Project management is not for the faint of heart.
It is not for those who will fall apart
At the site of road blocks and hazard signs
Deviating you from the original time line.

Your plans may very well change
And this may feel strange
But make a solid gantt chart
And the solution will not be far apart

Be good to your team
For it would seem,
that they are the key to saving serious green.

And above all else, when you’re at your wits
When your plan’s to the dogs and life’s the pits,
Take a breath and simply say,
“All is well, and this will be ok.”

And this, my professors, is my ode to project management.
I cannot say if this filled the requirement.
But I know you laughed
For this is post is quite daft.
I hope this is not too recalcitrant.

Design Ethics and Global Waste

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In one my my courses, we recently had a lecture on design ethics. We looked at a range of design organizations including IDSA and ICSID, looking at their articles as well as looking for gaps. We were then instructed to create our own code of ethics as designers.

Not too shortly after this lecture, I came across the article Inside the Hellscape Where Our Computers Go to Die  written by in WIRED. In this article, he describes Agbogbloshie, Ghana, a dump for electronics that are burned and set to waste away. It’s a chilling and humanizing view on the impact our consumption is contributing to the global waste stream.

These are our computers, our iPhones, our tablets and our smart devices. Not only as consumers, but as designers, I strongly believe that it should be within the ethics of our conscious to consider topics such as this. How do we, as designers, better design for disassembly? How do we create humane working conditions for the workers mining and dissembling these minerals? And how could we, rather than ignore our contribution to cycles of poverty, empower these communities?

This is a big issue, and I know that there are countless amazing people working around the globe to answer these questions. But its time that designers come to the table and not only acknowledge our part in the process, but use design thinking to solve these issues.

You Know You’re a Designer When…

As my first academic year comes to a close, I am beginning to feel more and more like a legitimate designer. I’ve survived sleepless nights in the studio, competing deadlines, painful critiques, and I’ve gone through more Sharpies in nine months than I thought was humanly possible. During these nine months, I’ve also compiled a list of characteristics unique to industrial designers, and designers in general. So, without further adieu, I give you “You know your a designer when…”

You know you’re a designer when:

1. You can justify the purchase of a $110.90 hand blown coffee filter from Chemex. I mean, seriously. Its beautiful, functional, highly crafted, historical, and perfectly filters 13 cups of delicious coffee. You don’t even know.

2. Having an in depth conversation on the complexities of coffee on a regular basis is not abnormal. Coffee, right!? I don’t even know how much coffee comes up in my daily life. Just this morning, I had a 15 minute conversation about superior forms of coffee presses. This is serious stuff, wo(man).

3. You have an unhealthy obsession with certain hex numbers. Who ever knew that you could be so insanely attracted to a color. Don’t worry. I won’t judge you if you’ve ever fantasized about marrying #2f3440. When paired with #ea6045? I can’t even! Be still, my beating heart.

4. You will never be able to look at anything, ever, without critiquing it. It’s the designer’s curse. Everything from a pint glass, to a web app will be scrutinized. Even if you absolutely love it, you will find something to improve upon it. The new iPhone, yeah, its beautiful, but its not perfect. And that’s ok.

5. No pen is ever good enough. The other day, I sat down to do some sketches. 15 minutes of searching and 10 pens later I finally found one I was somewhat satisfied with. My non-designer roommate stared at me in amazement, boggled by the rigor to which my pens were critiqued.

6. You can describe the ideation phase as a dog, and its tail as prototyping. If you didn’t understand that, you are obviously not a designer.

7. “I don’t want to do this anymore” is said in regards to what you love on a daily basis. Possible iterations include “I don’t even know what I’m doing!” “Why am I even here!” “I have so much work to do,” and “This doesn’t even make any sense.” But at the end of the day, you have made something beautiful and inspiring. And if its not, well, you’ll just pretend it is.

8. Making something “portfolio worthy” is the bane of your existence. Today, a professor told me I could make my project into a portfolio piece. I almost cried.

9. You choose a 24 pack of Prismacolor markers over groceries for a week. Change the brand to Copic, and that’s at least 2 weeks. Supplies over food. The struggle. It’s real.

10. The first time you sat in an Eames lounge chair brought you close to Nirvana. I’m not going to sugar coat this. It’s fantastic…and the moment that you put you’re feet one the ottoman…well, you’ve been warned.

If you have some more, I’d love to hear them! Comment below!

Sitting in My Box

I’ve always had a fascination with children’s books. Every time I go to a bookstore, the first place I go after the arts section is the children’s section. Because of this, to my delight and detriment, I have amassed a healthy library of children’s books. A good children’s book is timeless, and has the ability to use whimsy and joy to discuss the harder topics in life. They don’t feel contrived and their subtlety is often too nuanced for its intended audience.

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I was recently in my head, when my mind wandered to the book, “Sitting in My Box” written by Dee Lillegard and first published in 1989. Growing up, this was one of my favorite stories. In this story, a boy sits happily in his box reading a story about wild animals. One by one, he is interrupted from his story by a series of pushy creatures who “ask” to sit in his box, but really just force their way in. By the end, he has no place to sit. When a small flee jumps in, unannounced, the flee begins biting all of the animals, promptly emptying the box. Once again, the boy is alone and able to read his story.

Now, what does this story have to do with design? Well, a lot, actually. Almost 26 years later, I think I understand what this book is trying to say. Granted, this is sort of a leap, but just go with me, here.

We go into a design project with a clear objective. We have a plan. We have a design brief. We have a task list. One by one, however, we become side tracked, demanded of, burdened with the requests and wants of others. We are “asked” to help someone with a favor, to just do one more rewrite of a paper, to dig just a little deeper into that concept you don’t want to dive into. Before we know it, we are surrounded by the unfamiliar, and our original objective is lost in the white noise of everyone else’s needs.

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Trying to make room for those around us, we have given up our seat at the table. We are no longer able to perform the task we set out to do.

Now, I am not saying that we shouldn’t offer our services and skills to others. I will always praise the importance of service. What I am saying, however, is that we need to recognize when we are being valued versus when we are being over taxed and taken advantage of. We have skills, and those skills have a value assigned to them.

The flea? Well, the flea is our recognition of this value. When we are able to advocate for ourselves as designers and professionals, we can objectively evaluate the tasks in our lives and cut out the clutter. Sometimes, the flea is a smack over the head. Other times, it builds gradually, slowly revealing itself.

That being said, I’m still looking for my flea. This past week has been a slew of conflicting demands—personal, professional and academic. One thing pulls me north, while the other pulls me south. My box is full and I don’t know where I put my book. I need the flea to jump in put everything in perspective for me.

That being said, I’ll let you know when I do.

Less Talking. More Doing.

I’ve spent the last week talking–talking about design, talking about manufacturing, and talking about my goals as a designer. I’ve talked with the president of IDSA, freshman design students from burgeoning design programs, and I’ve talked about my fictitious design firm to my fictitious clients/real life professors. Yet despite my love of improvisational small talk and my natural inclination towards public speaking, I am spent. I’m done talking. I want to start doing.

This past week, I ventured down to Florida for the 2015 IDSA Southern Conference. It was my first professional conference with IDSA and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous. I had been to plenty of conferences and networking events before, but never for design. These were my people, and I wanted to make a good impression.

For the past 9 months, my view of ID has been fairly limited to what my university has provided for me. And while I’ve ventured out on my own to the best of my abilities, I still have a very narrow view of the field. It was like I had spend the past 9 months in elementary school, and this was my first day of junior high. What if I didn’t fit in? What if the big kids stole my lunch money or stuffed me in a locker? But as I settled into the conference’s first lecture regarding the sustainability of design and the use of innovative materials, I knew instantly I was where I needed to be.

The next few days were a blur filled with insightful presentations, plenty of small talk, the exchange of business cards, and happy hours that lasted well into the evening. During this time, one consistent theme kept coming up: making. Every speaker, engaging in their own way, spoke on the importance of getting your hands dirty–of investing in local manufacturers, artisans, and resources. The talked about becoming more invested in the process after our designs left the studio, and thinking critically about our influence as designers during a product’s life cycle.

As I made the drive back to Atlanta on Saturday afternoon, I was slap happy, sleep deprived, and in dire need of my own bed. During the ride, I began really thinking about that message of making. Here I had been sitting in a beautiful conference center listening to professionals out in the field about making. I had watched undergrads present their merit work, rendering me speechless. Here I was, surrounded by makers, feeling inspired, overwhelmed, inadequate and empowered all at the same time. But here’s the thing–I wasn’t making!

What does this all mean, then? Well, I need to start doing more. Talk is cheap. I will never reach the level of those individuals I had admired so much over the past 3 days without working just as hard, if not harder, than they had. I started small, writing down excerpts and snippets overheard during the conference. It was small, but it was putting pen to paper which was a step in some direction.

In building my online portfolio, I stumbled upon my senior thesis from undergrad. In it, I put a quote from Mark Rothko stating, “if a thing’s worth doing once, it is worth doing over and over again–exploring it, probing it, demanding by this repetition that the public look at it.” As an developing designer, I couldn’t think of a better way to express my views on design at this very moment. Designers are makers, thinkers, and doers. And only from repetition and continuous self examination will we progress.

So, lets get to work.

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