Monday, February 19, 2007


Pretty gruesome cartoon, isn’t it? When I hear business people evangelizing about the importance of “branding” I can’t help but think about the original meaning of the word and the whole subject of herding animals.

For most of my life the word “brand” was practically synonymous with “company” or “manufacturer.” Kellog’s was a brand of cereals. Campbell’s was a brand of soup. These brands were big, permanent, iconic parts of society, as Andy Warhol well appreciated. In the last few decades, however, brands have become slippery, filmy, elusive things that come and go, spring up like mushrooms and often fly by night. In the age of corporate buyouts, outsourcing and transition from a manufacturing to a service economy, brands and companies seem to have become separate entities.

Several years ago I was videotaping in a factory that manufactured a certain product for several companies. As I taped, my tour guide made sure I avoided capturing images of packaging that would reveal who the factory’s clients were. He explained that if people found out that some of their favorite brands are manufactured in the same plant, by the same people, from the same raw materials and on the same production lines as many other competing brands, they might be a little upset.

Today when I look at product labels, advertisements or websites, I think back to that factory and realize that the images companies strive to project - of unique products created by passionate people in special places - are often a bunch of baloney. That down-home chili company that shows a grandma stirring an iron kettle on its label and gives a mailing address in a small Texas town may be nothing more than a guy with a phone and some investment capital, making deals with manufacturers and distributors from his office in New Jersey.

In the boomtowns of the Old West (where the benefits of branding, in the original sense, were well understood), businessmen knew how to herd people into their tents and take their money. They did it by nailing a bunch of boards together, painting them to look like storefronts and propping them in front of the tents with signs that said things like “Jake’s Elegant New York Bar: Fine Sprits, Wines and Card Room; Ladies Welcome.” Never mind that the walls would flap on a windy night.

Today we are living through another Boomtown era in which, as marketing people say, branding is everything.

When I first moved to Seattle I was struck by the fact that all the apartment buildings here have names. Where I come from only the grandest buildings have names. Now, as Seattle booms and grows, apartment buildings are being replaced by condominiums that not only have their own names, but their own “brands” and marketing campaigns. As soon as a couple of quaint old houses up on Capitol Hill are razed, a big sign springs up over the muddy pit, with stock photos of trendy young people and text that says something like, “YOU ARE THE CITY – Come live on the Cutting Edge of Street Smart Architecture in the Uber-Sexy Ferronnzzatta Condominiums, pre-selling now, from the low $300,000s.” In the coming months I watch as guys in flannel shirts and hard hats throw up two-by-fours, drywall and corrugated metal siding, as behind the sign rises...yet another crappy apartment building. Never mind that the walls may flap on a windy night.

Sometimes the branding craze gets so out of control that it parodies itself. Recently I saw a truck with lettering on its side, reading “Image Movers: We deliver an image of quality for you.” What???? Doesn’t this company realize the irony that can be read into their motto? Do they really think I would trust them to move something important for me, when all they promise to deliver is an image? I would sooner trust a company advertising itself as “Joe’s Movers, Since 1972.”

Why am I ranting about this subject today? Partly it’s because the corporation that owns the restaurant where I work has been talking about “re-branding” us. Although many people love our restaurant, the hotel to which we are attached is being renovated, so the corporation feels that it may be time to give the restaurant a new name and decor for good measure. They also hope that a new image will improve our sales. For those of us who have put a lot of ourselves into making this restaurant a unique local eatery, the idea of being “re-branded” feels like the threat of a red-hot iron on our backsides.

It is important, of course, for a product or a company to have a personality and character that make it unique in the public eye. But the best kind of branding, I like to think, grows naturally out of the actual personality and character of the product or company, rather than being invented out of whole cloth in a marketing department and slapped on like a paper label.

I was glad to find the same kind of spirit applied to software and website design in one of our readings for this week: Tim Greenzweig’s Aesthetic Experience and the Importance of Visual Composition in Information Design. Greenzweig argues that style is not something that can be varnished onto a product at the end of a design process, but should be built in at every stage. Software engineers and website designers, he writes, too often consider the “look and feel” of a website or a software product to be merely “an issue of how to ‘decorate’ the information,” rather than as an issue of how to create and structure their product from beginning to end.

Greenzweig goes on to discuss various traditional methods of composition and Gestalt theory, including grid systems, the rule of thirds, juxtaposition and musical ABA structure, recommending that information designers and usability experts harness these principles throughout their design processes. By imbedding good design principles deeply within products, Greenzweig believes, designers will make the very use of these products aesthetically pleasing. Greenzweig envisions people enjoying software programs and websites in the same ways they enjoy listening to music or looking at paintings.

Greenzweig is right. A good tool is a pleasure to use. For me, using a well-designed software program like Final Cut Pro, Adobe Photoshop or Microsoft Word is, indeed an aesthetically pleasing experience - like dancing or eating a good meal - and a well-designed website is a pleasure to visit. And it isn’t the trappings, Flash animation or “branding” that make them so. No amount of these can overcome a poorly designed product.

Another part of our assignment this week was to define a website genre and describe three examples of it. Our group was assigned e-commerce, which we defined as websites that allow people to buy and sell products or services. For my three examples I chose websites that sell skateboards, bagpipes and a mysterious industrial product called “cores.”

The Bagpipe Store, at, is a classic e-commerce site with L-shaped navigation, thumbnails of products, customer reviews and a rating system of stars on its home page. All of products featured are rated with five stars. The site uses a shopping cart system with the classic shopping cart icon, but calls it a “basket.” Perhaps this is the Scottish or the European terminology. In keeping with its traditional products, deeply rooted in history, the site boasts that it has been “selling bagpipes online longer than anyone else (since 1995).” Here one can buy not only a variety of bagpipes and accessories, but also clothing, jewelry and Scottish products for men, women and children. Clearly, this is the place to go not only for bagpipes, but the complete bagpipe lifestyle.

My next example is a company called Simpson Enterprises, which sells a mysterious product called “industrial cores.” Their website is identifiable as an e-commerce site because of a large aerial photo of their plant in Three Rivers Michigan on the home page. I was hoping to see a Flash animation of Homer Simpson himself walking out of the plant and hopping into one of the cars in the lot, but I was disappointed in this. Links from the home page lead to descriptions and photos of their manufacturing systems and their one product: industrial cores. Even after looking at photos of these “cores,” which looked to me like some sort of molded plastic elbow widgets, I had no idea what the company’s products are or what they are used for. This is the classic sign of industry-to-industry marketing: complete opacity to outsiders. Equally mysterious is the fact that although I wrote down this website’s URL as, this URL will not work now and a Google search for the company yields only its address and phone number, but no website. Was I dreaming when I visited this site?

Equally bewitching and opaque to outsiders is a website for a Southern California organization called the Toymachine Bloodsucking Skateboard Company at, It is hard to tell at first whether this is an e-commerce site or…something else…I’m not sure what. The main feature of the front page is a sort of photo blog with dozens of pictures of skateboarders showing off horrible wounds and doing various things not necessarily related to skateboarding, captioned with often cryptic descriptions and with even more cryptic comments from blog viewers.

The most unusual thing about this site is the fact that all of the text is hand-written in a crude scrawl, like some teenager’s Junior High School poster project. Only when you move your cursor over some of the scrawled words do you realize that they are actually hyperlinks. Scanning down a navigation column on the left side of the home page, you find “products” and “shopping” links mixed in with various news and entertainment features. This website seems well targeted at its audience and “branded” in an authentic way. I laughed, however, when I thought about all the sophisticated HTML coding by a professional designer that must have gone into making this site look so crude and home made. Like Dolly Parton likes to say, “It takes a lot of money to make me look this cheap.” Well done!

Saturday, February 10, 2007


My father, Sam Raymond, came up with the idea for the cartoon above many years ago. Like Harvey Pekar of American Splendor, Sam has lots of ideas for cartoons, but lacks the drawing skills to put them on paper. He frequently tells people his cartoon ideas, apologizing for the fact that he has to describe them. It was this habit of his that inspired me to draw my first cartoon for this weblog, and now look at me: I have become addicted to cartooning!

When I described Sam’s idea for the “go fishin’” cartoon to my friend Jennifer, she giggled and said, “Engineer humor.” True, indeed. Sam is an MIT-trained engineer, just like Donald Norman, the author of The Design of Everyday Things, which I read for my book report this week. Like Norman, Sam has strong feelings about good and bad design in everything from garlic presses to deep-sea camera housings. He has designed many of the latter for oceanographers and filmmakers including James Cameron, but he exhibits no less passion when talking about the engineering of humble, everyday objects like the former.

My father and Donald Norman have a lot in common. I laughed out loud when I read Norman’s story about his elaborate modifications of the light switches in his laboratory to achieve more “natural mapping” between the controls and the lights – in other words to help him figure out what switches controlled what lights. This is exactly the kind of thing Sam does all the time: adding screws, clamps, guards, extra holes and so on to all sorts of manufactured items that come his way in order to make them better suit his purposes.

In some families on Christmas morning, parents have to stop their children from playing with their presents right away. In my family, the children try in vain to stop our father from not only playing with his presents – and our presents - but also taking them apart, reassembling them and grabbing tools to start improving them.

One primary edict of Norman’s with which Sam would agree whole-heartedly is “Make controls visible.” Devices with invisible controls or tiny, low-contrast labels drive Sam nuts. He battles them with Sharpie pens, Scotch tape, brightly colored paper and paint. He has no compunction about taking a sleek, shiny, expensive new stereo component or computer device and immediately plastering it with hand-drawn arrows and big lettering to clarify how it should be used. To him, devices are things to be used, not status symbols or art objects, so no modification that could make something easier to use is out of bounds.

I have never learned to modify things with such ease. I like things to be pristine and cannot even bring myself to make a mark in a book. By contrast, the first thing Sam does when he buys a new book is pull out a pen and start underlining. His kids laugh at him a little because he will often underline the title, the author’s name and everything else on the cover page. It seems to us that when you underline everything, you defeat the purpose of underlining.

I finally broke down and “did a Sam” the other day with the remote controller to my DVD player. As on most remote controllers these days, the important buttons are jumbled in with a lot of other buttons I never use, so I constantly hit wrong buttons, which often leads to chaos. While watching a subtitled German film one evening I accidentally turned off the subtitles and couldn’t figure out how to turn them back on. Since I don’t understand German, I had to quit watching the movie. The next morning I bit the bullet, pulled out a Sharpie pen and drew big black marks around each of the four remote control buttons that matter to me. Then I tossed the controller aside with disgust. Now it is ugly, but I can see what I am doing in a dim room. I have joined “Sam’s Club.”

As an engineer who knows how to design things that work, Sam often wonders why, why, why there are so many badly designed things in the world. Norman has several interesting theories on this. One that I found especially illuminating has to do with the difference between design in the pre-industrial and the industrial world. In the old days, Norman explains, when things were made by individual craftspeople, it was relatively easy to modify designs because things were made one by one. This led to a slow, natural, Darwinian evolution in design.

In the industrial world, by contrast, things are manufactured in tremendous volume in elaborate processes that require costly templates and specialized machinery. This makes modifications more difficult and costly. In addition, designers are now distanced from users. In the old days, the blacksmith chatted with his customers in the forge, but today engineers and designers are separated from the end-users of their products by many layers of corporate bureaucracy. In many companies, designers are actually forbidden to communicate with users because of patent issues or the general culture of secrecy that pervades today’s corporate world. Another factor is the pressure of the capitalist market on manufacturers to constantly come up with something new and different to set their products apart from the competition.

The end result of this is that products seldom evolve gradually any more. When companies decide to modify a product, they usually introduce a whole new model with all kinds of new features added and often with good, old features removed. Norman discusses the paradox of products that evolve to the point of perfection and then go past that point and return to imperfection. If someone comes along and designs a perfect device, Norman writes, it is incumbent upon someone else to come along and design a competing device that will be different, and therefore less perfect.

I have a fantasy about some day giving my father a Christmas present that he would find so well conceived, engineered and executed that he would feel no need to modify it, only to admire it, using the word he reserves for the best kind of design: elegant. He would probably pick it up, look at the name of the manufacturer on its side, grab a Sharpie and underline it!

Sunday, February 04, 2007


A Sitemap. That’s what the two perplexed kids in my cartoon need. I didn’t really know what a sitemap was until I read about them in Kelly Goto and Emily Cotler’s book “Web ReDesign 2.0.” Now I look for sitemaps on all the websites I visit. Websites that offer them to users are probably the sites that need them least, however, because they are usually the best organized. Websites that don’t offer them may fail to do so because their designers never bothered to create a sitemap for themselves in the first place, as the authors indicate is all too frequently the case.

I have been to many a website where I have felt as lost and befuddled as my cartoon kids, going deeper and deeper into cyberspace against my will, as links lead me to places I didn’t expect and “back” functions lead me to places I don’t remember being. Often I find that links have led me through two or three websites, without my realizing that I ever left the first one. When entering a web page from a search engine, I often find myself in what feels like a lonely outpost of some great metropolis, with little or no indication of what city it belongs to or how to get to the main gate. Often I feel like a cyberspace Dorothy, clicking my heels together and saying “there’s no place like home page; there’s no place like home page.”

The usual results of my fumblings on the Internet are either getting unexpectedly kicked out of websites or deliberately dumping my searches and going back to Google. I almost always start my Web activities at Google and always go back there when I get lost. Google is a foster home for wandering waifs like me who can’t find home pages.

A “home” button on every page is a great thing, but a sitemap gives you an overview for which there is no substitute. The amount of information and the random access that the Internet provides are certainly wonderful, but the biggest thing I miss from the old fashioned, pre-computer days of browsing and doing research is OVERVIEW.

Most of the students in my class are too young to remember something we used to have in libraries called Card Catalogues. A card catalogue was actually a large area in each library where there were row upon row of big wooden cabinets, in each of which were hundreds of little drawers containing thousands of little cards with information on each book in the library. As I remember (it’s been a while now), there were two sets of card catalogues, one arranged alphabetically by subject, and the other by book titles and authors’ names.

I still remember the exciting feeling, when starting a new research project, of approaching the card catalogues and taking them all into my view, like Prince Henry the Navigator surveying the Atlantic from the cliffs of Sagres, vowing, “I shall send ships upon these waters.” Going up to the subject catalogue and finding the general alphabetical area for my topic, I would pull open drawer after drawer like so many treasure chests, and in a few quick glances would know how much gold lay in these territories. You see, there were little tabs that stuck up from the cards that indicated subjects and sub-categories of subjects, and so by glancing at these and at how many inches of cards lay between each tab, you got an instant overview of your topic and how much territory there was to explore.

There were a lot of drawbacks to card catalogues. Often you had to jockey for position with other people using the card catalogue or wait your turn to look in a particular drawer. Sometimes you would get a sore back or dirty knees from stooping or kneeling down to look in low drawers. Sometimes you would find a drawer missing because someone had pulled it out and put it on top of the card catalogue or on a nearby table to look through it. And of course once you found a card for a book that interested you, the card could not tell you if the book was actually available at the time or checked out. You had to go to the stacks to find that out. Then, if the book was not in the stacks, you had to go to the circulation desk to find out when the book was expected back. For librarians, who had to manually type each card, I am sure there were many other drawbacks.

Computerized library catalogues have removed these shortcomings and intoduced many powerful new tools, but so far they cannot offer the kind of all-encompassing overviews and lightning-fast random access that physical card catalogues made possible. Maybe I need help from a good librarian, but I find using computerized library catalogues extremely tedious and laborious as I click in and out and in and out of entries, endlessly going down and backing out of blind alleys, where my fingers used to dance lightly through card catalogues like those of a casino dealer riffling through a deck.

“Riffle” is a good word. I just looked it up and found that it means “to turn over something, especially the pages of a book, quickly and casually.” The ability to do this is definitely a feature of the physical world that the virtual world needs to better develop, for the sake of overview and fast random access.

Think of picking up a magazine and browsing through it. By riffling through the pages, you can, in about two or three seconds, get a pretty good idea of what is in that magazine: how many articles there are, how long the articles run, whether it has a lot of pictures or not and what tone and style the magazine and the individual articles have. You can also, in these two or three seconds, probably pick out at least one or two articles that interest you because of their titles or illustrations.

Now, try to do the same thing with a website. Sure, the home page will attempt to give you some oversight and some juicy teasers, but you have to click on hyperlink after hyperlink, going in and backing out of page after page, to get the same kind of overview of what’s really in there that you can get in a few seconds of flipping through a magazine.

Has anyone developed a tool that lets you “flip” through a website yet? If so, please forgive my ignorance. If not, could someone please start working on one? I realize that it takes a little time for each page of a website to load, so perhaps a “flip” or “riffle” feature could be made from graphic simulations of web pages rather than actual web pages. A sliding bar could be used to allow users to scan pages at incremental speeds - similar to sliders used to scan video in editing programs such as Premiere and Final Cut Pro. While flipping through these simulated pages, a user could stop on one that he or she finds interesting and simply click on it to be taken to the actual web page with all its hyperlinks and Flash features and whatnot that take time to load. Another, simpler way to do this, I suppose, would be to put whole websites, or big sections of them, onto single pages that users can scroll down quickly for overviews. I know that most website experts recommend that web pages should require minimal scrolling, but perhaps long pages should be re-considered or at least offered as an option. For online shopping websites, riffling or scrolling features like this might prove to be very profitable because they would increase serendipity and impulse buying.

My theme here is making cyberspace feel and function as much like real space as possible. Perhaps this seems a little old fashioned and curmudgeonly. But remember, we still live in the real world and that is where our senses and sensibilities are based. We have not yet morphed into cyberspace creatures, as people do in science fiction. So, as long as the physical world remains our home page, we would do well to learn from it and imitate its best aspects when we design websites. I suggest that old-fashioned magazines and library card catalogues are great models from which we can learn.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007


You've been up most of the night working on a book report for a school assignment. After a few hours of sleep you get up, turn on your computer, and find a message from the author of the book you reviewed, thanking you for what you wrote. What??? Is this some kind of sleep-deprivation and caffeine induced delusion?? In the past it would have been, but not any more.

After typing my delerious thoughts about "The Cluetrain Manifesto" on my weblog last night into the wee hours, I woke this morning to find the following message in the Comments section of my blog:

"I am Chris Locke, one of the authors of the Cluetrain Manifesto. David Weinberger alerted me and the other co-authors to your post, which is a wonderful essay of the state of affairs today. I don't think any of us really believed in 1999 that business would evolve across the board and fully rise to the opportunity the web offered. We did hope (in simplistic terms perhaps) to shame the Bad Guys and encourage the Good Guys -- both of which camps are still well represented out there. Your example of how individuals can and do make a difference is inspiring. Thanks for writing this."

Wow! Nothing like this has ever happened to me before. When you write a book report for school, you just don't expect to get a thank you note from the author the next morning. And Chris Locke isn't just some blogger; the Financial Times of London listed him as one of the "top 50 business thinkers in the world" in 2001. Later in the day I had a meeting with my teacher Kathy and asked her if she had forwarded my blog post to the authors. I thought perhaps they were friends of hers. She said no and explained to me about specialized search tools that authors can use to alert them anytime anyone posts anything about their work on the Internet.

By commenting on my humble little blog post, Chris Locke demonstated exactly what he and the other authors of "Cluetrain" are talking about. The world really is becoming a networked community and has the potential to become a more humanized place becaue of it. Thanks to the Internet, an author can rise up from the black and white of his text, materialize as a real human being to one of his readers and interact with the reader's thoughts about his book. Oh brave new world, indeed!

Monday, January 29, 2007


One evening recently I was standing in line at my local convenience store and overheard a conversation between the female clerk and a young man who had several shirts in a dry cleaner’s bag draped over his arm. He apologized for the shirts as he juggled them to dig for his wallet and remarked, “I never used to have anything dry cleaned until I got a real job.” The clerk and I shared a laugh after he had left and agreed that we somewhat resented his phrase “real job.” She told me that she loves her job and considers it as real as any other.

We both knew what he meant by a “real job.” A “real job” means working in an office, doing things that are often boring and stressful but are generally considered to be somehow vital to our society and our economy; it means sweating under pressure in a starched shirt, but with the satisfaction of knowing that you are on a real career path, betting on the Main Chance, following The Money and getting in on the the Real Action.

The two kids in my cartoon will eventually abandon their piratical lemonade stand and may get “real” jobs some day - maybe even work for or A “real job” means working for THE MAN, the Establishment, for the kind of organizations that the authors of “The Cluetrain Manifesto” predicted in 1999 would soon become dinosaurs.

In 1999 David Weinberger, Doc Searls and Chris Locke created a “Cluetrain” website and book in which they heralded “the end of business as usual,” due to the arrival of what they call “networked markets.” Thanks to the spread of the Internet, and the development of intranets within big companies, they believed that businesses could no longer control markets, nor their own employees, and therefore could not continue doing business as they always had. The ability of people to communicate instantly, find information on virtually anything and find each other through the Web had broken down the barriers that businesses have traditionally erected around themselves.

I have seldom read anything as funny or as true about business as the authors’ searing observations of the traditional culture of “real jobs.” They compare corporations to medieval castles, surrounded by moats of secrecy, ruled over by absolute monarchs and favored courtiers. The primary force, they write, by which companies strive to motivate employees and structure their organizations, is fear. They point out that corporations create elaborate security networks to protect themselves not so much from their competitors as from their own customers and their employees: to make sure that no one but their inner circle really knows what it going on. They observe that corporations consistently avoid any kind of real dialogue with customers or employees, but instead issue propaganda that few people in or out of a company fully trust or take seriously.

As I laughed and cheered my way through articles from the Manifesto, I found myself writing down quote after pithy quote in my notebook, like:

“Somewhere along the line, we confused going to work with building a fort…As the drawbridge goes up behind us, we become business people, different enough from our normal selves that when we first bring our children to the office, they’ve been known to hide under our desk, crying.”

“Companies must ask themselves where their corporate cultures end. If their cultures end before the community begins, they will have no market.”

“Companies need to realize that their markets are often laughing. At them.”

“Companies attempting to ‘position’ themselves need to take a position…Bombastic boasts – ‘We are positioned to become the preeminent provider of XYZ’ – do not constitute a position.”

“Markets do not want to talk to flacks and hucksters. They want to participate in the conversations going on behind the corporate firewall.”

Observations like these echoed my own experiences of corporate cultures and the two worlds I have found there: the official world of corporate propaganda and the actual world of day-to-day work in the trenches.

I remember well my shock when I first discovered the gulf between these two worlds. In the office of a large telecommunications corporation where I worked for a while, a new supervisor arrived with great credentials but no actual skills, and proceeded to complicate everyone’s job with a lot of red tape, slowing us down by making us fill out detailed reports on everything little thing we did. When we complained, the general manager explained, “I know you all do a great job, but headquarters doesn’t perceive that you do a great job. So, the most important thing we have to do is change that perception. If we have to make ourselves a little less efficient in order to be perceived as more efficient, that’s what we have to do.”

Another day at this same company the whole staff was called into an all-day meeting, complete with a big lunch and fancy snacks, during which a representative from our new health insurance provider explained, at great length and with many glossy handouts, all the wonderful benefits of our new health insurance plan. As the hours dragged on, we began to wonder, why all this fuss? Then, late in the afternoon, the truth finally came out. “Now, I think you’ll all agree," said the general manager, “that these benefits the company is giving us are wonderful and that we need to do our part too.” Then the hammer came down as he explained how each of us would begin paying for this new health plan with big deductions from our paychecks. They had fattened us up and lulled us with happy talk all day so they could tell us that the company wouldn’t be providing us with health insurance any more. We had to buy our own.

I remember reading annual reports from a company in which I owned some stock. Year after year there were glowing reports about how they were growing and expanding into new facilities and new markets. Then one year they reported with equally glowing words, about how excited they were to be “streamlining” their operation by “downsizing” their staff, selling off excess facilities and “focusing on a more select section of the market.” They were sinking like the Titanic but their brass band was playing a rousing march.

I could go on and on. We have all had experiences like these that have made us grow somewhat cynical over the years about the business world. The authors of “Cluetrain” believed in 1999 that our cynicism was cresting, both as customers and as employees, thanks to our new ability to communicate with each other through the Internet and see the waves of B.S. that the business world is constantly rolling our way.

In a chapter called “Internet Apocylpso,” Christopher Locke tells the story of how little, isolated cells of techies began communicating with each other in the early 1990s and how they developed an iconoclastic, no-holds-barred style of communication that frequently punctured the overblown images of the organizations for which they worked. At first, he writes, the Internet was so small and specialized that no one in power took it seriously. By the time organizations realized how big the Internet community was growing and where it was heading, it was too late to control it or stop its freewheeling spirit. By 1999, the authors believed that organizations needed to either adapt themselves to a new spirit of realism, honesty and open communication or else go out of business.

So here we are now, eight years later. Have the predictions of the authors of “Cluetrain” come to pass? Has the spirit of the Internet community ushered in a new age in business? To some extent, yes. As in all revolutions, however, many people have simply put a new cockade in their hat and have kept their old ways. Also, as in George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” many of the new bosses are acting more and more like the old bosses all the time.

Businesses are certainly presenting themselves with a new kind of image. An organization that once emblazoned the marble lintel over its door with brass letters reading “Associated Telecommunications Corporation” is now likely to call itself “aTeK,”in a logo that looks like hip hop graffiti. If its motto was once “America’s Communication Leader,” it is probably now something like “Communicate. Share. Discover.”

Businesses are also communicating differently. On its website, aTeK probably describes its services as “cool features” and “killer aps.” At meetings executives call each other “dude.” Customers can now “access” the company “24/7” through its website.

Of course most of this is just window dressing. Many companies are simply using new technologies and new communication styles to keep on shoveling the same B.S. they have always shoveled. Some of them are using the Internet to shovel EVEN MORE B.S. than they did before, thanks to the ability to send Spam infinitely and spread rumors anonymously on the Web. Some organizations are using their websites to retreat even further from the public than they did before. Want to learn more about aTeK? Just click on this link. Want to get in touch with us? Just email us and our computers will analyze your inquiry and send you an automated, personalized response instantly. No, you won’t find our address on the website. You don’t need it. We are everywhere and nowhere. Want to call us? Here’s an 800 number you can call to get recorded information. Want to talk to a human being? No problem. Just type in your credit card number and we will set up a customer service account for you.

Real changes are happening, of course, due to new technology, globalization, outsourcing and, yes, to the new spirit of business the authors of “Cluetrain” describe, and many of these changes are good! I think it is important, however, for everyone involved in e-commerce and digitized organizations to take a good look at the Internet’s potential to improve their relationship with the public, instead of just its potential to make life easier or more profitable for themselves. Everyone should read “The Cluetrain Manifesto” to catch the Utopian spirit its authors felt at the dawn of the Internet age. We need to keep this spirit alive.

There is hope that we can. A couple of years ago we got a new department manager at the hotel restaurant where I now work. He came from a background in human resources and one of his first acts was to call a meeting for the whole staff at which he presented, with great passion and with many Powerpoint slides, our parent corporation’s Mission Statement. When he was done he asked us how we felt about it. For thirty seconds thirty faces stared blankly at him. Finally, a little reluctantly, I raised my hand and commented that it sounded pretty much like the Mission Statement of every other company for which I have worked. What we really needed to talk about, I suggested, was our own individual mission as a restaurant and our specific goals, strengths and weaknesses, rather than the generic philosophies of the corporation. The new manager turned a bit red and began stammering, but the staff breathed a sigh of relief and a lively discussion of real issues ensued.

Later I heard through the grapevine that after the meeting the new manager was asking people, “Who was that incredibly RUDE guy?” In the following months, however, he and I became good friends and conspired together to make some real waves around the organization. On the day he left for another job at a bigger company, he hung up a beautifully printed, laminated poster on the back room wall. It was a brand new Mission Statement for our restaurant, which he had written himself, that really talked about who we are and where he saw us heading. He had gotten my message.

In little ways, here and there, the gaps between “real jobs,” real people and the real world may be closing.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007


Kathy told a significant story in class tonight. She was working on a project for a company where deadlines were so rigid and unrealistic that, in order to keep on schedule, she had to train customer service people to troubleshoot a product that didn’t even exist yet. On the final day of the schedule, “delivery” was achieved by sending a rough version of the product from one office of the company to another. Thanks to this “successful delivery” on the target date, some vice president was able to get his bonus, even though the actual product was not ready until many months later.

This story is a great example of the cultural phenomenon I raised: our obsession with setting and meeting ambitious goals and timetables. Of course goals and schedules are important, but not when they are unrealistic, arbitrary or designed mostly to make some manager look good or as a marketing strategy to win a contract. As Magnus ironically commented, projects today are budgeted with the idea that they will go over budget.

In light of this, let me re-phrase the memo I proposed in my earlier post “Into the Flow” (see below). Imagine this:


. . .

Monday, January 22, 2007


In “Notes on Design Practice” Thomas Erickson reveals an interesting trick of the trade among art directors and designers. Having created a fairly finished design on a computer, the designer places a sheet of paper over the screen and traces the design by hand for presentations. This creates the impression that the design is more preliminary and more open to suggestions and changes than it actually is. Erickson also lists “roughness” as one of the important characteristics for prototypes. Roughness helps to present an idea in progress, without a flavor of finality.

I got thinking about these two concepts while I was creating this week’s cartoon, which is both rough and hand-drawn. In a cartoon, I realized, the most important thing is the idea, not the drawing itself. Maybe this is why most cartoons are drawn rather simply, providing just enough information to get the idea across, without a lot of fussy details that might distract from the idea. So perhaps a prototype is a sort of cartoon for an idea of a final product.

There is also an appealing quality to things that show the mark of a human hand. Perfect renderings prepared with mathematical precision on a computer have an initial appeal, but this fades quickly, leaving a feeling of coldness and lack of heart in its wake. Although recent generations have grown up learning to love the smooth, spotless look of molded plastic and the “new car smell” of petroleum by-products, I doubt that we will ever entirely lose our instinctive attraction to hand-made things and natural products.

As I ride the bus through the endlessly repeating landscape of malls and chain stores that surround Seattle (like one of those looped backgrounds behind the Flintstones as they drive), I often ask myself one question. Why is it that we, the richest, most productive society on earth - who can design and produce almost anything we want in any shape we want – do not surround ourselves with incredible beauty?

I am always looking around for things worth drawing or photographing, for things and places that are literally “picturesque.” Sometimes I find a lot of them in the same place. But more often I go for miles and miles without seeing any. I have noticed some patterns. For example, I find that very rich and very poor neighborhoods tend to be the most picturesque. Nature, untouched by humans, is usually beautiful, but there is also great beauty to be found in the most un-natural of environments: in factories and industrial districts where aesthetics have no value.

Recently, on a long drive, my sister and I started talking about all this, comparing notes on what we found beautiful, ugly or bland in the places and things we passed. Finally I asked her what we were looking for. What makes man-made things beautiful or not beautiful. She thought for a moment and finally answered “passion and purpose.”

These two words answered a lot of my questions. In factories, there is beauty in raw, naked PURPOSE in action. In the poorest of slum neighborhoods in Third World countries, one can sense the PURPOSEFUL way people survive as best they can, and the PASSION with which they make and adorn their houses with whatever resources they can find. In the richest of neighborhoods and resorts, the PASSION of connoisseurs and the artists they can afford to hire dazzles the senses.

By contrast, in the vast aesthetic wastelands of American suburbs and malls, passion and purpose are either lacking or diluted. Everything here is designed by committees, and ideas go from research teams to design teams to engineering teams to corporate oversight teams and so on, as Erickson and others describe. In such a process, how can even the most brilliant of ideas not get compromised? Often simple, elegant ideas get overcomplicated, as more and more people add their input, and we may end up with vacuum cleaners equipped with rocket launchers. Frequently we end up with compromises between aesthetics and functionality, with end products that are neither fully passionate nor fully purposeful. Hence their lack of beauty, as well as practicality.

We end up surrounded with products and environments that are at best approximations of quality and beauty - at worst caricatures of them. When I was a kid I used to watch television on Saturday mornings, and in between the cartoons there were ads for toys in which cartoon-like plastic people were shown driving cartoon-like plastic cars and living in cartoon-like plastic houses. Today I feel like this cartoon world has grown to full size: we are all Barbies and Kens and GI Joes living in a cartoon world made by Disney, Mattel and Hasbro.

So it is no wonder that smart designers trace plans off computers to present them in hand-drawn diagrams that bring back a sense of passion and raw purpose to their presentations. In doing this, however, they are merely creating an illusion. In order to achieve truly great design, in order to achieve the full potential of the power we have to shape our world, we need to bring passion and purpose back to the way we design and build things from start to finish. We need to give more power to individual designers and inventors, break down the walls between designers, engineers and business people, and reduce the distance between ideas and final products. We also have to reduce the distance between people and the work they do, give them a stronger stake in it and a greater sense of ownership. We should also return to some old fashioned ideas of craftsmanship, artistry and ethics.

Above all we have to learn that we cannot get away with cheating. Yes, we can make things that look okay and work okay and people will buy them. But people can tell the difference between things that are okay and things that are great. Even if people don’t know they can tell the difference, they sense it sub-consciously, in their bones. The quality of the things we make and the environments we create really does effect people's sense of values and the level to which they aspire to greatness in their lives.