I’m Sorry, Arduino, For the Things I Said to You While I Was Angry and Under-Caffeinated

The other week, I said some mean things to Arduino. Now, please know that this wasn’t out of my dislike for you, or even my dis-love. It wasn’t you. It was me. So, with this blog post, I will try to make right the things I made wrong, and formally apologize for lashing out at you. After all, you are an inanimate object. I mean, it really wasn’t your fault.

For those who need a recap, my last blog post was ended with an emotionally distraught grad student (me) and an Arduino board content in its ivory tower and with a complete disregard for us mere mortals. The next day, I met my lab partner to go over our project only to find that she also had the newest Apple OS and was unable to run processing as well. BUT, she also had the ability to run Windows on her system. All was right in the world…at least for the time being.

But with two days left until our quiz, and 4 days left until the functional prototype, moral was still low. On Monday night, I sat with my coffee, bread board and wires trying code after code. I was reading Arduino forums, and had even started my own forum thread.

Suddenly, things started to change. I checked my email to find my previous blog post had solicited emails from several SparkFun associates. And after only mere hours of starting my thread, I had people responding. Complete strangers were taking their time to help ME with MY project! WOAH!

I had hope. So, I kept tinkering and downloading, and then it happened. I pressed a button, and my servo motor turned. I pressed it again, and it turned another time, and another time, and another. AND, when I pressed a different button, a light went off!! There was still a long way to go, and I honestly had no idea if any of the code was correct or just functioning because of dumb luck, but it was something.

giphy-1How I Acted on the Outside

giphyHow I Felt on the Inside

After a brief nap, I went to class and handed off my project to my partner. Related side note, I had received a ticket to see President Obama speak, and wasn’t going to let a quiz get in the way. Luckily, the professor was excusing any student seeing the president speak and told us to return to class as soon as it was finished.

After a rousing debate on education policy (lean about the Student Aid Bill of Rights here), I skipped back to class only to find that the quiz had been canceled! It turns out I was not the only student who saw the president and, because of this, the professor couldn’t make the quota for the quiz. To make things better, my partner had been one of the only people in class which meant her and the professor spent almost the whole time fixing all of our issue! PRAISE JESUS AND OBAMA, HALLELUJAH!

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To wrap things up, this gave us the next 2 days to really hone in our design and fix any last minute coding issues. When Thursday finally arrived, we had a great functioning prototype and were pretty darn proud of it. The function was quite simple. Pressing a button turned a servo motor into 1 of 5 positions. As it turned, 1 of 5 RFID tags were read by a reader. When the reader read the tag, and image an song played on a screen. In addition, pressing a button also activated a light that went off when the button was done being pressed.

…ok, maybe that’s not simple. Frankly, I don’t know. But regardless, we were happy. We called it The Lilly Box, and let the wires and components of the circuitry act as a feature.

With that, thank you, maker community. You are all awesome. Now all I have to do is get through our final project on wearable, and maybe I can pass as moderately competent in Arduino.

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Arduino, Arduino, I Hate You. You Stink.

…I wish I could flush you down the sink.

I’m going to be honest. Technology scares me. The thought of having to do anything remotely high tech paralyzes me. Even using the laser cutter to cut cardboard took encouragement from my peers. But it’s an inevitable truth of my new profession that I will one day need to admit defeat and learn how to CAD, program and wire.

In an attempts to mitigate this fear, I signed up for a course entitled “Interactive Products.” In this course we would learn about integrating technology, inputs and outputs into designs. The first part of the semester was doable, filled with Little Bits and Lego Mindstorms. I was on a high. I can do this! IMG_20150307_141830_417

But then the day came. This week, we began the Arduino project. Suddenly I was confronted with wires, and sensors, and coding, and programming, and inputs, and outputs, and lions, and tigers, and bears…oh my! In less that a week, I was supposed to design a toy or game that had two inputs (including and RFID) as well as 2 outputs that included an audio/visual output.

I sat in class staring at the bread board for over an hour, my professor and TA preoccupied with other students. It seemed like everyone around me knew exactly what they were doing and that I was being left in the dust. But I remained strong!

On Saturday, I enlisted my roommate who is getting her masters in electrical engineering. There were hickups, and mishaps, buy things were chugging along. We had this in the bag! No sweat! That is…until we got the evil Java error message. Well, over the next 3.5 hours I consulted my roommate, my classmate who is an Arduino god, my TA, and just about every other person I knew who had any knowledge of Arduino. Nothing. I took a break for a few hours, and revisited it later in the evening. Nothing. I even consulted my roommate getting her masters in Aerospace Engineering, as had the Arduino God take control of my computer remotely to figure it out.

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By this point, I was a ball of mush. I was at my wits end. Finally, we figured it out. The problem? Well, it turns out that my brand new fancy pants computer is SO new, th

at it was not compatible with the processing software used with Arduino. So much for a new computer! But, it was OK. I still had my old Mac. I could just download it there.

NOPE!

Turns out my old mac is too old. It was a case of Goldilocks and the 2 Macs. I then proceeded to try and download Windows onto my Mac only to find that I didn’t have a properly sized USB, and that I would need to…oh yeah…buy Windows. So, I guess that’s not an option.

And this brings me to today. With the assignment due Tuesday, and no progress made, I ask you to excuse me while I go turn into a ball of mush in the corner of my apartment while eating a pint of Ben and Jerry’s and watching Notting Hill. Say a prayer for me, good friends, and send me any good Karma you can spare.

Good luck, my brave Arduino warriors.

Playing Hookie From Classwork

This week has been a flurry of design activity…most of which had nothing to do with my design work. And, honestly, I think it was exactly what I needed.

Two big things have been happening this week. The first, was a major bucket list item for me. On Friday, I had a blog post published with National Geographic’s Great Nature Project Education Blog for my work with The Biomimicry Institute. I’ve loved Nat Geo ever since I was a little kid, and to in some tiny way be affiliated with their work is just beyond exciting for me. Please take a look at the post here and let me know what you think!

My other big thing has been my participation in the Global Service Jam. From Friday evening to Sunday morning 20 or so designers, consultants, chefs, improv specialists, marketing professionals, and even a toddler were put in a room and asked to create a service. Our prompt was a picture showing how to make an origami fortune teller. That was it. The results, however, were amazing. There was a communication device for families of the armed forces, a travel app, a global cooking service and ours, which was an events franchise in line with a Tough Mudder or Color Run called Laughter on the Front Lines. You can see all of the projects here.

So, I am exhausted, and almost nothing on my to-do list has been accomplished. That being said, I am going to make this short and bid you all farewell for now. Wish me luck!

If One More Person Tells Me, “Just Make a Grid…”

It’s crunch time. As the threat of summer approaches, all efforts are being channeled towards getting the elusive summer internship. It’s one of the few ways we can gain real world experience before graduation, and critical in order to secure a permanent job after we leave the gates of Tech. The portfolio is an essential part of this process, which makes sense. How else do we show prospective employers our work? But there is just one tiny issue with this. I have no idea how to actually make a portfolio!

My creative endeavors up until this point have been in the fine arts. In fine arts, the portfolio is pretty straight forward. You write a 1 page artists statement, you write a slide page, and you put your art into portfolio sleeves. If you have sculpture, you take high quality photos of the work from multiple angles.

That’s about it.

But design? Oh no, brother. It’s not nearly this simple. There are layouts, and grids, and color schemes, and visual hierarchy, and photos, and sketches, and grids, and icons, and did I mention girds?

I began asking my peers how to make a portfolio and kept getting the same response. “Just make a grid,” they all said. Just make a grid? Ok, what does that mean? How do I make a grid? What size should it be? What are the proportions? What is a good grid? What is a bad grid? All these questions would fly through my mind, and clarification beyond, “just make a grid” was rarely provided.

So, I took matters into my own hands. This past week, I attended a portfolio review through our local IDSA chapter. I put my work into what I knew at the time, bound it, and went to the event.

Probably one of the first legitimate networking events I had been too since starting my program, I was in my element. The small talk, the exchange of business cards, the industry specific jargon, the anecdotes and lame jokes. It was networking at its finest. And although I was a little rusty, I was like a tiger who had been locked in a cocktail party-less cage for 7 months and finally released back into the wild.

As the mingling subsided, I suddenly became nervous. We had reached the part of the night where the actual reviews began. I expected the reviewers to tear my poor portfolio to shreds—to say the work was hideous, the layout belonged in the trash, and that the gird was just the most abominable thing they had ever seen in their entire lives.

To my complete and utter delight, they said no such things. They gave me critical and objective feedback. The pointed out my strengths and weaknesses and told me directions to take the work in. It was great and informative at the same time. Here are some of the main takeaways I learned:

  1. Put your work in context. This I kept hearing over and over again. CAD a hand holding your rendering. Put it in a bedroom if that’s where it belongs. Make a persona to describe who will use your object. Put logos on pretend business cards. Always give context for your designs
  2. Put in outside work. As one speaker said, “I will fight anyone to the death who says that extracurricular work will not benefit your portfolio.” Employers don’t want to see just class assignments
  3. Just because an assignment ended, doesn’t mean the design has to. This ties into the previous point. If you like a design, push it further. It shows initiative
  4. It is better to have 3-4 highly detailed projects in your portfolio than 20 overviews. Employer’s want to see how you think. They don’t want to see just the end product. Put in sketches, models, prototypes, and the final product. Also, they want to see the research behind the project, so putting a page on the backstory and research involved in the design is a good thing.
  5. Have both a print and digital portfolio. Maybe this seems obvious, but out of the 20 or so students at the event, I was one of the only students with a print portfolio. As I got to the last reviewer, he thanked me, stating that all night he had been hunched over computer screens looking at tiny images. Designers like using their hands, and that goes for touching portfolios too.
  6. Show what makes you you! My portfolio was about half design, and half fine art. I was nervous that I would get critiqued for that, but instead found the opposite. Everyone loved that fact that I had fine art work and even told me to elaborate. Many designers are not fine artists, so this is a skill that I need to accentuate. They told me elaborate on my work, include studies, and delve deeper into the research that informed my art.

So, what then, can we learn from portfolios. Well, at the end of the day, I learned that quality always out shines quantity. I learned that every portfolio will be different and that there is a no one-size-fits-all style. Do your hard work justice, and let it shine. And lastly, I learned that when the work is good, no one is going to say jack squat about your grid.

Titans and Icons

How funny is it that every day we interact with a myriad of objects and environments but know little about the people that created them—designs inextricably linked with our identity that you couldn’t begin to describe the history of. This past week, I was confronted with some these identities through a series of discreetly linked events.

On Monday, a professor told our class about the passing of Japanese designer Kenji Ekuan. Most famously known for designing the Kikkoman soy sauce bottle, he was one of Japan’s most revered designers and responsible for countless influential designs. He was a giant, and I had no idea who he was.https://i2.wp.com/www.japan-guide.com/g3/2019_01.jpg

After class, I did some digging and found that he was on the design team of the Shinkansen high-speed train in Japan. I had to do a double take, because just 20 minutes previously, I had been editing a piece about the rail system for my work through The Biomimicry Institute’s Ask Nature project. Previous to that, I had been reading an article about the train in Zygote Quarterly. I sat back, for a moment, basking in the delight of such a serendipitous twist.

On Tuesday, I was confronted with another one my idols. I’ve been watching John Stewart’s The Daily Show since adolescence. Though through a T.V. screen, he was undoubtedly a part of my life, helping foster my interests in politics and global development. So imagine my shock and heartbreak when I learned Tuesday night that he would be ending the show sometime in 2015. Granted, he wasn’t a designer, but he brought on designers, writers, artists, and activists. He gave them a national platform that they otherwise wouldn’t get.

https://i0.wp.com/graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2010/10/31/31rally-blog4/31rally-blog4-blogSpan.jpgAdditionally, his mentorship of Stephen Colbert was huge for me. It was on The Colbert report that I first saw a 3D printer, and watched a pivotal interview with Senior MOMA Curator Paola Antonelli, arguably introducing me to the field of industrial design and changing the course of my professional life.

Finally, this week introduced me to designer Henry Dryfus. He was the man behind the Honeywell thermostat, the modern Bell Telephone, and mid-century tractor designs. My History of Industrial Design professor was lucky enough to be contacted by a Dryfus historian who then came into our class to speak. I listened as he spoke about Dryfus’ accomplishments and how they had impacted my life in small ways. Like how Honeywell, a Minneapolis company, was in my home of Minnesota and helped establish Minnesota as a major metropolis. Or how he designed tractors which likely had an impact on the way my grandfather did business having worked as a tractor salesmen in the Midwest for over 30 years. https://thefunambulistdotnet.files.wordpress.com/2012/04/the-medicalization-of-architecture013.jpg

I think it comes with out saying that we have to know where we come from. Not only as people, but also as designers. We need to learn from the work of the designers who came before us—their failures, their successes and their temperaments. What made them great? How did they respond to failure? Who were the people and what were the events in their lives that made them great. Knowing these insights makes us better designers, and more integrated into the larger community we are trying so hard to be part of.

Ellen DeGeneres: ID’s Secret Weapon

When I told my family I wanted to become an industrial designer, I had a reaction that I assume was similar to many aspiring designers. My parents starred at me with a look of love and confusion, and asked, “honey, what is industrial design?” This was followed by a, “but, can you get a job as a designer?” and “why don’t you just become an engineer?” I know they meant well, and that these questions came from a place of love and concern, but the frustration was still there.

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What it feels like trying to explain what ID is to my friends and family

My parents were not alone. Extended family, friends, and even strangers on the bus would ask me, “what is industrial design?” I used a variety of methods. I explained to them that ID was making iPhones, cars, and vegetable peelers. I explained that it could be as diverse as designing apps, pacemakers, or trade show displays. I explained to them that ID was what would happen if engineering and art made a baby. And, when all else failed, I just said that it was, “like getting a degree in Ikea.”

“Oh! I get it, now,” was the usual response.

Of course, I have come to learn that industrial design is not easily defined. Depending on whom you ask, you can get wildly varying answers. But for the sake of clarity, I have become OK with letting people think that ID can be defined as making iPhones and modular furniture. So imagine my surprise when one day my mom says, “Allie, Ellen is doing an industrial design show! Are you all watching it? I get what you’re doing, now!” (Ellen, being America’s sweetheart Ellen DeGeneres, and “you all” being my classmates).

“Mom, what do you mean ‘Ellen is doing an ID show’?” She went on to tell me that Ellen had paired with HGTV to air a reality show where furniture designers would compete for a prize and the title of “America’s Best Furniture Designer.” It was aptly named “Ellen’s Design Challenge.”

Was Ellen the missing link? While I knew that a reality show was not the ultimate indication of success as a furniture designer, nor was it a holistic view of industrial design, it did bring up an interesting thought. Was design becoming popular enough where TV executives considered it legitimate programming? And what did it mean that a mainstream celebrity was now a barometer for critiquing a discipline once reserved for high-end Manhattan firms, and gallery directors? In one fell swoop, Ellen had made a convoluted industry digestible to a wide audience of hobbyists and housewives.

As I watched the show’s judges critique the contestants’ pieces in the opening episode, I let these questions linger. All esteemed panelists in their own right, their critiques were insightful and informed, and they used language similar to my own peers and professors. It didn’t feel overly contrived nor dumbed down, which I appreciated.

So, kudos to you Ellen! While I don’t see a reality show in UX happening anytime soon, I do appreciate the step towards bringing the world of design to the masses.

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Now, all we need to do is to get Beyoncé in on ID!

Let’s Talk About Periods…and User Experience

No, gentlemen, I am not talking about grammar. I am talking about the necessary evil and paradoxically beautiful event necessary for creating life. But before you get your undies in a bunch, and run from this page as fast as you can grunt, “Super Bowl Sunday,” let me give you a little back story. This week, I was on Facebook when one of my favorite sites for girls empowerment, A Might Girl, featured a story about Arunachalam Muruganantham. A lower-middle class Indian man, Muruganantham was shocked one day to find that his wife was continually choosing between purchasing food for their family and purchasing sanitary pads.
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Rather than purchase sanitary devices, his wife and many other women globally resort to using rags, leaves, grass, hay, and even mud to prevent embarrassment. In many parts of the world, access to basic hygiene is a luxury, and specifically with regards to female health. These alternative methods lead to a host of UTIs and vaginal infections, all which are easily preventable. To add another layer of complexity, the lack in access to hygiene devices causes girls to routinely miss school, and makes it difficult for women to hold steady jobs.

Muruganantham, like many men, was shocked by this realization. He began tinkering with a host of low cost designs and prototypes, and at one point began wearing his inventions himself (with the aid of goats blood!) because finding women to were willing to test them was so difficult. Currently, Muruganantham’s products are manufactured in over 1,300 villages and 23 Indian states, as well as employing as many as 10 women in each village. In 2014, Time Magazine named him one of The 100 Most Influential People.

I took a step back, and thought about his work through the lens of the industrial designer. User experience is an increasingly important aspect of design. If we don’t understand how our client thinks, acts and what they experience, there will always be a disconnect no matter how strong the product is. Companies like IDEO have near-perfected this model, and countless others have provided supporting material. But what do we do when the user wont engage with the development process? In the case of Muruganantham, there was a very real and critical need. He had to bring “User Experience” to a whole new level, literally putting himself in the position of the client in order to bring a viable product to market.

I was also enamored by the idea of a man with no formal education or exposure to design methods using a principle that is still being explored in the design field to a whole new height. It reminded me of a similar story published in 2013 in which in Jorge Odón, an Argentinian car mechanic, invented a life saving device for emergency births.

While part of me reads these stories and thinks, “Why am I in design school again?” the other part of me is inspired by these inventors and further affirms my belief that to be a good designer you need to have a strong understanding of the world you want to design. Being able to wade through the endless sea of design methodologies and diagrams will only get you so far. You need to actually understand the problem you are addressing. This should be common sense, right, but I seem to be finding this isn’t always the case.

With this in mind, I leave you with a quote I heard from Dan Formose of Smart Design, New York in the documentary Objectified. He stated, “What we really need to do to design is look at the extremes. The weakest, or the person with arthritis, or the athlete, or the fastest, or the strongest person. Because if we undersand what the extremes are, the middle will take care of itself.” In the case of Muruganantham and Odón, they looked at the extreme. They saw a problem, learned about the user, and worked tirelessly to solve it. The rest, as Formose, stated, took care of itself.

This is Your Brain on Grad School

I think its safe to say that almost everyone who was alive in the 90s remembers the “This is your brain on drugs” PSA where the woman cracks an egg into a hot skillet and we watch in horror as our poor brain is cooked to a pulp. Replace the word “drugs” with “graduate school” and you essentially have the same idea.

This past week has been a dizzying string of deadlines, deliverables, lectures, and exams. Hardly a month in, I was already feeling the same level of intensity that I didn’t feel until finals time last semester. My biggest priority became checking as many things off of my to-do list as possible. The more and more I did this, the less joyful and inspired I felt.

This changed when the other day I was flipping through an old issue of Marie Claire. No, I was not leisurely absorbing the latest spring fashions (if only!). Instead, I was finding images that would become part of an interactive products assignment. While my primary goal was to find images of vintage women’s fashion, my eyes stopped when I turned the page and saw a LifeStraw accompanied by the ostentatious title 6 Simple Ways to Save the World.

Having exposure in the nonprofit and development sector, LifeStraw was nothing new to me. Why, though, was it in Marie Claire? The brief article went on to describe incredible, simple innovations for promoting positive change in the lives of women and girls around the world. In addition to LifeStraw, it highlighted Q Drum, clean cook stoves, a cervical cancer screening test with vinegar, natural pads for schoolgirls, and rural birthing kits.

I sat for a moment and took the article in. As I looked at the pages, I suddenly remembered why I wanted to be an industrial designer. These products were not new to me. In fact, I remember being just 18 when I first learned about Q Drum. But these products were significant to me for a range of personal and professional reasons. Revisiting them in Marie Claire was a wake up call for me, aggressively reminding me why I was here in Atlanta. These were the i-pods of the development world, and the preeminent example of the kinds of products I wanted to design. Being a part of the global development community has always been a goal of mine. I won’t hide the fact that I am an idealist, nor will I suppress my desire to make truly impactful designs that will improve the lives of women and girls, globally (as goody-goody as that may sound).

I still have a long way to go, however, and my current skill set will be of no use to anyone until I put in the time to work on it. Seeing this article was a breath a fresh air, and the jolt of inspiration I so desperately needed to keep moving. So, while I may not be ecstatic about every assignment, and there might be some nights that I want to pull my hair out, I need to be conscious about putting things into perspective and remembering my end goal.