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June 12, 2012 / Kuan

Reading Notes: Imagine by Jonah Lehrer

Before the book arrived on the shelf in my local library, I was the 88th in line to get a hold of the first copy. I’ve waited and read good reviews, and finally a week ago, it came to me. Here, I’ve quoted some of my favorite sentences and ideas on how creativity works, as reminders in the future. “Art is work,” Milton Glaser says. And fail harder.

  1. The reality of things is naturally obscured by the clutter of the world, by all those ideas and sensations that distract the mind. The only way to see through this clutter is to rely on the knife of conscious attention, which can cut away the excess and reveal “the things themselves.” Paraphrasing German philosopher Martin Heidegger, page 73
  2. “I distrust styles,” he says. “To have a style is to be trapped.” Quoting Milton Glaser on styles, page 73
  3. “If you’re at the cutting edge, then you’re going to bleed.” Quoting Nancy Andreasen on suffering and perserverance, page 79
  4. “Waves are like toys from God. And when I’m out here. I’m just playing.” Quoting surfer Clay Marzo, p. 99
  5. We can continue to innovate for our entire careers as long as we work to maintain the perspective of the outsidersParaphrasing Dean Simonton, p. 124
  6. One of the most surprising (and pleasurable) ways of cultivating an outsider perspective is through travel, getting away from the places we spend most of out time. On travel and creativity, p.125
  7. The only way to cultivate this kind of collaboration … was to have everyone in the same building, and not scattered among various spinoffs and independent entities. On human interaction, p. 149
  8. The only way to maximize group creativity – to make the whole more than the sum of its parts – is to encourage a candid discussion of mistakes. In part, this is because the acceptance of error reduces its cost. When you believe that your flaws will be quickly corrected by the group, you’re less worried about perfecting your contribution, which leads to a more candid conversation. We can only get it right when we talk about what we got wrong. On constructive criticism, p.159
  9. …the reason criticism leads to more new ideas is that it encourages us to fully engage with the world of others. We think about their concepts because we want to improve them; it’s the imperfection that leads us to really listen.” Paraphrasing Charlen Nemeth, p.161
  10. The power of dissent is really about the power of surprise. On how to escape clichés, p.163
  11. There’s no textbook for ingenuity, no lesson plan for divergent thinking. Rather, they must be discovered: the child has to learn by doingOn developing mental talents, p.236
  12. “…even then you give away the trick – you hide nothing – the magic is still there. In fact, the illusion becomes even more meaningful, because you realize that it’s all in your head. … The magic is coming from your mind.” Quoting Penn and Teller on magic performances and freeing creative secrets, p.251
May 12, 2012 / Kuan

The Most Important Unit of Time

This very day, a year ago, I graduated from college. Feeling privileged and equipped, I was told among many other fellow graduates that our future is bright and full of potentials.

I believed it then. Today, I still do, if not more firmly. Thanks to a keynote speech by Paul Ford, a Brooklyn-based writer and programmer, to School of Visual Arts Interaction Design graduates.

The most important unit of time is our heartbeat. As interaction designers, the products we produce in the next decade will cost millions or billions of heartbeats. How can we be sure that our users spend their heartbeats wisely? — Paul Ford

Let emotions show through digital platforms. Empower the end users by letting them make, create, choose and decide. Bridge misunderstandings via knowledge sharing.

Those are wonderful things that we, interaction designers along with others, are passionately doing. When we debate whether and how the Internet “disconnect” us and makes us lonelier, we can’t deny the future. Or more so, we can’t blame the tools. As cars are not responsible for degrading the environment, technology isn’t the scapegoat for human disconnection.

Having options is a wonderful thing, even though we might make some bad choices at the beginning. Looking at where the world of interaction design is heading through the lens the of those SVAixd graduates, I see an incredible amount of effort to close that gap between you and me. I see a pool of opportunities to use existing technology to live future-friendly.

Interaction is everything: a kiss, a letter, a tweet. The job of us interaction designers is to make those moments worth of your heartbeat.

Go play, and make mistakes.

I typed this post on my iPhone during my bus ride from New York City to Philadelphia. I can’t wait to sit in front of my desk to write these thoughts down, and I thank technology for allowing these fleeting thoughts to sit and be shared. Edits: Here’s the link to all the wonderful projects made with love by SVA Interaction Design 2012 graduates.

April 24, 2012 / Kuan

I am not my apps, and vice versa.

Lately, I’ve been wondering a lot about the relationship between apps, let them be the smartphone, tablets or web ones, and me. Because I’ve noticed that I need them way more than them need me. I need The Weather Channel to help me decide what to wear today. I need Wunderlist, Reminders and a few other task management apps to remind me to pick up some tissue paper after work. I need Mint to calculate how much money I spent on food every month, and notify me to stop. I need Sleep Cycle to physically wake up every morning. Okay, I also need NPR News to wake up my brain too.

They, my beloved apps, on the other hand, don’t need me.

As Amber Case said in her TED talk that we now look at our tools not as “a physical extension of the self” like the folks and knives we’re using, but “an extension of the mental self.” True for me at least. I occasionally write my deep, dark thoughts in Day One, keep my passwords in Password Safe and record my journey on Instragram and Piictu. My apps become me without childhood memories.

Film critic Carina Chocano, in her recent essay on data on digital devices in The New York Times Magazine, wrote, “The ability to store our data externally helps us imagine that our time is limitless.” But if that’s true, what’s the essence of being human? Isn’t it the fact that we have a limited time to live that creates a thrilling, mysterious adventure called life ahead of us? Or isn’t it the do-it-now-or-never mantra that gives our action a sense of urgency and necessity?

Facing the sea of apps that were crafted by designers like me and were supposed to help ease my life, I naively passed on my duties to my apps, and thus forgo what I value deeply as a human being — those memories, those phone numbers, those birthdays, those connections. If what Chocano concluded in her essay is true that our desire to digitize “is a manifestation of our urge to remember how to remember,” we perhaps went a little too far.

Don’t wait until your Reminder app calls you out to send a message to your loved-ones for their birthdays, because if one day you lost your phone, you might also lose those deep connections.


Articles, books and apps on being human that helped shape this post:

1. Milton Glaser on Fear of Failure

2. Fish: a tab essay: a short but heartfelt manifesto about the difference between liking something on the internet and loving something on the internet. Download the app here to read on your iPhone.

3. Kevin Slawin’s TED talk on algorithms

4. Brène Brown on The Power of Vulnerability 

5. Anne Lamott’s book on writing and life Bird by Bird

March 20, 2012 / Kuan

Planting Potential in Pixels

The cherry trees around the block are blooming, spring is all-of-a-sudden, here. The very last time I sat down and concentrated on writing, I saw the Brooklyn Bridge in the dusking sky. A lot have happened since then — I moved to DC for a position at The Washington Post, bought bedroom furniture for the first time in my life, hung framed posters on my wall and even painted one wall chalkboard. Three months have gone by, as the fragrance in the air reminded me, I hadn’t got the mindset to write. I also deleted the phrase “I don’t have time…” from my vocabulary and replaced it with “I don’t have the mindset to…” as I think time isn’t the issue when it comes to almost everything including writing, but the mind is.


A few weeks ago, I was contacted by my former professor at The Writing Program at SU to write a short update about my job change and how, if possible, writing has to do with my new job. The short update turned into a long reflection on the relationship between design and writing, and the following is an excerpt from my reply:


The consciousness of the use of language and the strong capability to clearly communicate ideas are qualities good designers and writers share. If one’s writing is carefully crafted, one’s design is more likely to be so as well. Especially with UI/UX design that is to interact with others, every detail is to make their experience pleasant and smooth. The ideal outcome is almost like reading a good essay, which engages us so much and creates an experience that we forget that we’re decoding words — a rather mechanical process. I think the phrase can go the other way as well, that a good designer has to be a good writer because the ability to communicate using visual tools is transferable to verbal communications.


When I studied Writing at Rhetoric at SU, I was fascinated by the discoveries of author’s intent, uncovered by closely reading the text. Word choices, sentence breaks, usages of pronouns and many other details, usually left unnoticed until I started analyzing the texts, became crucial evidences of the arguments — the building bricks of certain grand promises. I learned at the WP the skill to flag those cues, and now I am planting those potentials in pixels. The design choices I make hopefully will become unnoticed when users interact with the product, and yet they’re the reasons why their experience is unique and memorable.


As I spend more time on mobile every day, whether it’s texting, tweeting or googling, I realize how our quality of life could improve if certain mobile experience can be more carefully thought out and executed. There’s no doubt that our society is digitizing, and the at the moment of change, mobile experience needs to lead the way to show that we’re moving forward — things can be better. That’s what fascinates and challenges me about my work at The Washington Post. In the end, I design for humans, and that’s the most compelling aspect of design, in my opinion.


The “update” turned into a profile, which you can read here. I have to mentioned that I’m very proud of the self-portrait — the assignment was “to be creative with it.”


A few good posts on the same subject:
1. Day 84 on Kern and Burn: an interview with designer, writer, thinker Duane King

2. Getting Real: The book by 37 Signals: The creator of several successful web apps, such as Basecamp, published this awesome book on how to make kickass web apps. The book is a must-read, and is free for reading online.


December 27, 2011 / Kuan

Keep an Eye on the Backward Clock

Lately I’ve been reading Making Ideas Happen by Scott Belsky, founder of Behance Network and The 99 Percent. In the book, Belsky talked about the idea of the backward clock. We’ve all heard of this before — If your life would end next minute/month/year, what will you change today? Now that the end of world may await around the corner, it seemed appropriate to seriously consider this question.

A while ago, I wrote a post on saying no to something I love and the idea of doing as in “Demos, not memos.” While those two are high on my list about things I want to change and improve, I recently came across a short talk by designer, illustrator, author and thinker Frank Chimero, given at Do Lectures. Think our work as a gift, he said.

What differentiates a gift from something one buys for him or herself is the extra layer of caring that is given. Chimero argues that everything we craft, whether it’s a piece of design, drawing or writing, has a separate value apart from commerce. Whether it’s history, legacy, knowledge or memory, the separate value is a gift. And when I begin to think of my work as a gift, so much love and caring has naturally added into the recipe already.

But can all creative work be gifts? Potentially so. In my opinion, the extra layer of caring is usually received when a piece of creative work solves problems. Michael Bierut, in one of his most watched videos on The 99 Percent, talked about how being a graphic designer is like a doctor. Bierut said that he hardly comes up with personal projects; instead, he focuses on solving his clients, a.k.a the patients’ problems. Instead of inventing fictional projects, the opportunities of solving real problems are to make design truly as a gift to others.

Lastly and perhaps most importantly is to learn to appreciate more. Belsky pointed out in the book that we as creatives are customized to constructive feedbacks — we wanted to know what went wrong so that we could be better next time. At a storytelling workshop, however, master storyteller Jay O’Callahan taught Belsky the technique of appreciation: commenting on the strengths rather than pointing out weaknesses. Not only does this technique avoid demoralizing consequences, it favors the “natural recalibration” that weaknesses lessen as strengths are emphasized¹. O’Callaham nicely explains the technique:

If our eyes are always looking for weakness, we begin to lose the intuition to notice the beauty. … Appreciations are not about being polite. They are about point out what is alive. The recipient must take it in, incorporate it.

The recipient can be ourselves as well. Instead of frowning at the our own weaknesses, perhaps we can celebrate our strengths — the part of us that make our friends and family proud and cherish. What’s alive is within.

Happy holidays, everyone! See you in 2012, make it count.


¹ Belsky, Scott. Make Ideas Happen. Page 198

December 11, 2011 / Kuan

I Pledge to Read the Printed Word


Poster inspired by this bookmark I found in the office today. I pledge.

October 27, 2011 / Kuan

Read Wisely, Think Critically and Act Responsibly

Since I finished college and the News21 fellowship in August, the real world has tenderly embraced me into her arms. I’m among the luckiest to find an paid internship at a studio I love, live in the City full of inspirations and most importantly, have time to read. Read for homework? No longer. The liberty to read for pleasure is a bliss.

So far, three months in, I have finished more than a dozen books and numerous articles, ranging from cultural critique to true crime, most of which I finished cover to cover on my daily subway commute. To squeeze more time to read, I changed my reading patterns from continuously devoting a big chunk of time to books to my current “reading sprints,” I set a goal to read a few chapters and only allow for 45-to-60-minute total reading time every day. To my surprise, looking back at my experiment so far, my initial fear of losing the thread of thought by splitting reading time never came to exist. The secret ingredient, in my recipe, is the notion of preciousness.

The Notion of Preciousness and How to Read Wisely

Writer, designer and editor Mandy Brown, the woman behind A Work Library and the fantastic A Book Apart series, recently observed that people read online more than ever.

They even read long articles, and straight to the end. They read one article after the other. They crave reading in the quiet moments of the day—waiting in line for coffee, riding the bus, enjoying a glass of wine before their date arrives at the bar. They read while walking down the street; they read at their desk in between tasks; they buy devices that permit them to carry more words than they ever could before—and with those devices in hand they read more and more. –Mandy Brown, “A Web Designed for Reading

Facing the overwhelming flow of twitter updates and news feed, many of us grow the appetite for information. We constantly want more, but puzzle over how to magically add more hours to what already seems to be a crazy schedule. Instead of stressing out about how little time I have for the amount of information, I try to select. Select the best piece of information to read for the hour/day/week/month, and know that the next selection will always be not only more timely, but also better, as knowledge builds on. By selecting, the time I spend on reading the article, book or whatever is so much loved and focused. Consequently, I am more engaged in the content and more critical to the author’s thinking – I underline, annotate more often and always remember where I leave off.

Imagine condense a year worth of time you’ll have with your beloved to a month, and how would you spend that time? You don’t need my answer to the that question.

Say no if you love something

I’m not crazy by saying that, either is Liz Danzico.

Co-founder and Chair of MFA Interaction Design program at School of Visual Arts, she noted:

What we choose to leave out create the story. – Liz Danzico, “Lesson,” published in The Manual Issue One

If one truly loves something, say no to other choices that present themselves. It’s tough, to be sure, to turn down opportunities, especially when they knock on your door. But if it’s the evolving relationship you’ve had with books that you love, or let it be the absence of it, you have to choose to protect the ingenuity.

In doing so, something else wonderful happens. It’s called thinking.

Let’s use our body as an example. After we eat, our stomach needs a few hours to digest the food, absorb the nutrition and clear out the waste. You can’t rush through the process. (If you figure out a way to go around that, do share. Let’s be billionaires.) When the content isn’t thought through, I lost it in the matter of time. Even if there is an output of attaining the information, the output will be superficial, shallow and worth no further investigation. Meanwhile we acknowledge that good design/writing/art, as our stomach processing food, takes time, we seem to undervalue the thinking, which is the part of absorbing the nutrition in our stomach analogy.

So read more selectively and think more critically. And then, it comes the output.

Screenprinted motto on Fabric at Etsy Workshop with Jessi Arrington

Demos not Memos

The steps of input, process and output are shared between human and technology (More thinking on technology will be the topic of my next blog post, stay tuned). The only difference is that human output isn’t an pre-programed one-way behavior, but an integrated pathway, like an merged traffic lane or a mouth of streams, resulted from multiple past experiences. Christopher Murphy and Nicklas Persson, UK-based designers and speakers, a.k.a. The Standardistas, quoted cultural theorist John Berger in their essay “Designing the Mind” for The Manual: “Today the discredit of words is very great.” They therefore reflected:

In a world of 140-character missives and ill-considered blog comments, words rarely seem to be used to dig deep anymore or applied to the search for profound truths. Everything is surface, sometimes depressingly so.

To grow, we must act on our thinking, whether it is singing, writing, designing or photographing, with a vision that whatever we do, we leave a trace of knowledge behind that we’re forever responsible for.

Notes: Many articles and books have shaped the way I think, and therefore this essay. Here is a short list of what I’ve read:

The Manual: A beautifully crafted journal that takes a fresh look, in print, at the maturing of the discipline and profession of web design

Design with Emotion: Demonstrating accessible strategies and memorable methods to help you make a human connection through design

The UX Driven Startup: A web presentation by Alexa Andrzejewski, co-founder of Foodspotting

The Myths of Innovation: by Scoot Berkun

What Technology Wants: by founder of Wired magazine Kevin Kelly

A Working Library: Website of Mandy Brown where she writes on reading and reads on writing

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