Sign design @ SFO

Sometimes one just wonders – what were they thinking when choosing this happy Hawaiian background for a check-in sign at the airport? The sign would have worked better with no letters at all – at least one wouldn’t have to squint trying to read it. From the distance it’s practically illegible:

I think the ubiquitous Hawaiian flower pattern is, in fact, the most helpful element of this sign – this pattern is so familiar to everyone these days (think of Hawaiian shirts), that it serves pretty well as a visual guide for passengers looking for Hawaiian flight at the SFO. PLUS it quickly adds the emotional value by establishing associations with warm trade winds, tropical flavors, beaches, swaying palms – all those things we associate with Hawaii – better than any letters-only sign would.

Suggestion: remove the background from the textual part of the sign, but keep it above and/or below the text (or use as an insert). This way the informational message (words) will be still clear while the emotive/quick recognition element will be still kept intact.


A smell of spring on a rainy winter morning

flowering_tea.jpgOne of the differences between art in its pure form and design as a profession is that in the latter case, you can’t wait for inspiration to come visit you whenever it pleases. When you make your living as a designer, you have to learn to invoke those creative impulses in your brain. I am susceptible to SAD, and it seems that rainy dark winter days often leave me scrambling for creative ideas.

Sometimes, like this morning, all that was needed was a glimpse of approaching spring in a teapot of white flower jewel tea.  Next thing I knew – my mood suddenly improved, and so did my ability to produce ideas and think creatively.

I now have the whole collection of methods to jump-start my creative thinking, so to speak – ranging from certain songs to objects to food to things to do. Some have immediate effect, some take a little longer but result in longer periods of creative thinking and productivity (like certain yoga classes). One day I will put together a ‘menu’ of ‘creativity spa treatments’ for myself which I might refer to when I am feeling drained or stuck or utterly unable to think up anything fresh.

I think after a while, every designer accumulates a mental ‘treasure box’ of these tricks. It’s our way to get ourselves moving, getting into a certain state of mind that is necessary to make design happen. One of my teachers at SVA back in New York told us that his most proven technique was to always start on the next day’s project in the evening – even if nothing comes to mind, draw some scribbles, jot down a note or two. This way the next morning you would not be staring at the blank sheet of paper (or empty photoshop file) – your brain will have a starting point to get going.

This morning, a beautiful unfurling green flower with spiky leaves and raspberry-colored center was all I needed to smell the approaching spring and to feel that exciting tingle indicating that today I will have a good day – at least as far as my designs are concerned.

BayCHI Effective Prototyping event @ Google – Takeaways

Last night a small posse of us gathered together for an epic trip to Mountain View to attend BayCHI’s Interaction Design Birds of Feather event on prototyping.

I have to mention that this was Rebecca’s and mine first visit to the Googleland. I kept having visions of being at… the Epcot center, perhaps? Very exciting – and although we didn’t get to partake at Google’s famous eatery, we spent a few minutes walking around and admiring free bikes with flags, laundromats, and what looked like an herb garden outside. No sign of the glass dome rumored to enclose this curious self-sustained community, but maybe it was down for maintenance. Googleits seemed to be somewhat wary of the ‘random interaction designers’ roaming their territory, and weren’t keen on letting us into their buildings – probably were just protective of their young… Otherwise we felt pretty safe and luckily for us, English was widely spoken among the inhabitants, so we were able to find our way in the end.

But I digress.

Michael Arent (SAP Labs) and Jonathan Arnowitz (Google) were presenting their overview of the prototyping process and techniques. Their book Effective Prototyping for Software Makers (Interactive Technologies) is now out, and this presentation must have been a collection of highlights from it.

A few takeaways:

  • Calling any paper prototype a “low-fidelity” prototype is a mistake. It can be hi-fi or lo-fi regardless of the medium;
  • A wide variety of tools can be used for prototyping. Obviously, the choice of tool depends on many factors:
    • Stage in the prototyping process
    • Target audience
    • Prototyper’s skill in using a particular tool
    • Specific features of the tool
    • etc.
  • It’s a good practice to put an expiration date on prototypes. This way an outdated prototype will not be used by development team.

The third author, Nevin Berger (Ziff Davis Media) showcased prototyping in Excel – which was very impressive and made me want to go back and start playing with it immediately. Basically, by formatting the cells in Excel in a particular way one can create a canvas which lends itself well to prototyping, especially if the page in question contains a lot of tabular data. One can link between sheets (representing different pages), and because of this perceived interactivity, such prototype will be a good tool for user-testing. Another good point is that Excel is a ubiquitous tool – practically everyone in many countries has one installed. Most people have some knowledge of using Excel – and if the prototype needs to be edited by multiple cross-functional teams, Excel can be a good choice because it’s one of the lowest common denominators – both in availability and required skill. One can easily build prototypes of long pages because Excel allows scrolling (no height limit unlike in PowerPoint, for instance)

I have to play with it and see how quickly I can get used to building pages in Excel. It seems to me that although one can use images to create graphic elements in Excel, it’s best to use it for low to medium fidelity prototypes. I think I would prefer to have all the muscle of Photoshop graphic tools available to me when it comes to creating high-fidelity schematics.

Lastly, the question remains – is there a way to quickly update elements or groups of elements on a sequence of page prototypes in Excel from a centralized control point? Let’s say, I want to replace the entire footer on all 50 pages of the app. Can I do it from one spot? Can I do “find and replace” in such way that replaces blocks of cells regardless of their positioning? If there is a positive answer to this question, then the attractiveness of Excel as a prototyping tool increases exponentially (for me, anyway).

The entire presentation is (hopefully) going to be available on in a couple of days.

Morning in Muni: Another offline usability mistake

Only a few days ago I had a mind-boggling encounter with a bad design at Toys’R’Us – and here is another one. At the BART/Muni station downtown, I saw 2 posters on the opposite wall, above what looked like some ticketing-related xerox-like machines:


Granted, I am slightly challenged in the eye-sight department… And I couldn’t read the black text under the red circles with a white brick across. Curious why there would be 2 ‘do not enter’ signs on a wall that doesn’t seem to be leading anywhere unless, of course, one has superpowers, I came closer…


Well, what do you know. I always thought that Muni logo was positively illegible, but having it positioned within a red circle just took it to the next level!

Interestingly enough, David and I noticed lately that we keep hearing or seeing references to the same concept, or event, or even a word (an odd one, usually) 3 times within a short period of time. Like bagpipes – a word that I wouldn’t hear sometimes for months, suddenly was overheard in 3 unrelated conversations/events within one day. One of those harmless oddities, I suppose. So I am waiting for the third instance of seeing a design that makes inappropriate use of a “do not enter” sign. Given that I will be traveling for the next few days, including subways and airports, I am sure I’ll see one.

Mindgames at Toys’R’Us

In what appears to be an attempt to speed up the lagging evolution by weeding out the slow-brained, Toys’R’Us store in Redwood City, CA entrance only!put this sign on its automatic sliding glass entrance door. David graciously took this photo for me as my camera was showing no signs of life.

What a fine example of a GUI twilight zone! Expertly blending the internationally recognized STOP/DO NOT ENTER icon design pattern with, essentially, an invitation to enter the store, Toys’R’Us caused my brain gasping for air while trying to reconcile the two. When we approached the glass door, the first reaction was, obviously, to not enter. After all, we all know what a red circle with a white brick across means. In any language and in any country. So, I started towards the other set of sliding doors. Turned out they had a similar (except yellow with a black brick) sign that said “Exit Only”. Which caused me to re-examine the original red sign and this time to actually read the words. Cautiously, we approached the door, still not completely sure if this was, in fact, the entrance (only). It was – the doors slid open.

Fascinating. Being a designer, I come across usability issues on the web all the time. I am used to it. But even in the virtual world, I rarely see something so disconcerting for the brain! When a person going through a sequence of actions on the web, an unclear next step makes a difference between a happy user (bought product, signed up for service, etc.) and an unhappy user (left the website unable to accomplish the goal). If I faced a similar navigational problem on a website, I would have abandoned it and looked for what I needed elsewhere. But in the brick-and-mortar world, we already drove to Redwood City, dealt with the weekend shopping traffic, found a precious parking spot… We weren’t going to leave so easily.

I suppose this sign would have made more sense if it was posted on the INSIDE of the entrance doors – but even so it would be more usable and conventional to post a ‘No Exit’ sign instead… One is left to wonder what made the store managers decide to slap this sign on the door instead of a plain and simple “Entrance”? What bizarre occurrence or faulty logic led to this decision?…

Training in the rain

One of my New Year’s resolutions for 2008 was to make some progress in my sporadic and mainly ‘social’ running and to run a half-marathon. Fueled by the first-week-of-the-year optimism, I signed up for the Kaiser-Permanente/Pamakids half-marathon in February, and now have less than 4 weeks to get in shape for it. It’s a stretch from my running buddy John’s and mine weekly running routine which consists of about 3 miles of leisurely moseying up and down the pretty Dolores street while rehashing the week’s events.

This morning, on a rainy and cold Saturday, John and I somehow got ourselves out of beds and to the meeting spot of the training group lead by coach Andy, a volunteer. This was an achievement in itself, mind you. So we met our running group at Sports Basement in Presidio, chose a 6-mile run (as opposed to an 8-mile run) and set off. Our route took us across the Golden Gate bridge to Marin and back, and then an extra-mile around Presidio/Crissy Fields.

Generally speaking, it went very well, although my body is hurting already (I am picturing myself trying to crawl out of the bed tomorrow, and it’s not looking pretty, even in my imagination). On the way back on the bridge, it started raining heavily, the wind became very strong and quadrupled the effort needed to make any progress. I couldn’t open my eyes or breathe with all the water hitting me in the face. I almost felt that I was going to get a black eye from some of those XXL drops falling down from the bridge… It also got very cold, and we were soaking wet. I would have probably quit and walked at this point, but our assistant coach Melinda cheered me on. This really made me a believer in organized runs. It’s good for morale.

Note to self: look into Hash House Harriers or similar running groups…

It finally happened!

After months of deliberation, procrastination, and doubting the very utility of a blog when it comes to my personal needs, I am finally here! Blogging! Yay!

I am still working on other areas of the blog which is to serve as a portfolio site (why not?), a hub for my other creative interests that generate output which lends itself well to posting online (cartoons, illustrations, custom t-shirt design, etc).

Hopefully, this blog will help me organize my thoughts and creative pursuits in one place. Hopefully, I won’t get sick of it too quickly and won’t get addicted to it (too quickly). Hopefully, putting my thoughts in writing will have a positive effect on my still so-so English (my ESL excuse after 10+ years is beginning to sound pretty weak). Hopefully.