It does, you know. You just have to get it hot enough.

Friday, May 18, 2007

All done except for the crying.

This week puts a year of undergraduate design school under the covers and turns out the lights.

I’ve learned a lot in the past nine months, some of it what they wanted me to learn, some of it that could only be learned by someone my age spending a semester or two with a bunch of 18-19 year olds fresh out of high school.

If I could only remember one thing I learned this year, it would be the value of process. As an engineer (and before that, a journalist) I was never trained to keep, much less value, the things I created while working towards a solution. Different solutions to technical problems? Erased. Countless whiteboard diagrams? All gone. Meeting notes? Only those that contain the actual solution we derived during a meeting. Drafts of writings? Tossed out as soon as I turned in the final copy.

The trick for me is going to be learning how to translate design process to engineering process. We have process in engineering, we just don’t think of it as process. We consider it waste: bad ideas, wasted time trying to implement various solutions that don’t work, etc. At best we save all our email and can go back to find out what we might have been thinking when we decided to do XYZ or why we didn’t do XYZ’ or why we wanted to do XYZ in the first place.

I probably learned a lot of other stuff, but right now I just want to lie down and sleep for a month or so.

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posted by jet at 18:54  

Sunday, April 15, 2007

school update, 20070414

I haven’t been writing much lately because between work and class, I have about zero free time to think about anything else.

We just finished a large chunk of product design model building and entertainment exercises that I loved but that I am so glad to be done with. My weakest area is drawing, and that’s the area that we cut back on while focusing on 3D models. My visualization studio is also going amazingly well, I really like taking a class where I’m learning theory and tools that I can immediately apply back to work in a couple of weeks when the semester is over.

There are a few things about the design pedagogy at school that aren’t quite right for a non-traditional student, but I’m optimistic that these can be worked out. If the vast majority of your students are straight out of high school it makes perfect sense to tailor a curriculum to fit those students. I seriously needed Drawing I (and would benefit from taking it again!), but there are other classes where I hope that prior experience coursework will let me place out of the intro class and into something a bit more challenging.

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posted by jet at 09:44  

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

school update: four weeks into the second semester

The first four weeks of this semester have been a blur of work, travel, red-eye flights, multi-minute fits of coughing in the middle of the night, two bottles of Dayquil(tm), three bottles of cough syrup, morning studio classes followed by afternoons and evenings working. If there were an drug that made people feel the way I have lately, there would be no reason to make it illegal.

We hit the ground running in my studios with projects on showing the evolution of form using only images and relating information about a sightseeing trip using a limited selection of typefaces for the names of the places, lines, and two colors. Cardboard shoes this is not, this is getting into what makes design go. These aren’t “Easy A Art Classes” as a friend of mine calls them, these are “work your ass off and still get it wrong” classes.

You can argue that there is no “right” and “wrong” in the creative space, but in design, there are clearly “rights” and “wrongs”. You’ve used well-designed objects and never noticed they exist and been frustrated with poorly designed objects that you’ve wanted to destroy with a hammer.

So how do you tell “right” from “wrong”? One way Carnegie Mellon’s Design program really does its students a favor is by forcing us to depend on each other for continual feedback during the design process. If I think I’m drawing blue squares and you tell me they look a little too purple and round to be squares, that isn’t saying that blue squares are wrong but that I’m doing a poor job of communicating “blue” and “square”. We go so far as to work on each other’s drawings with tracing paper and explain how to fix each other’s projects.

In my comp sci classes, this level of helping one another would probably have been referred to as “cheating” and we’d have been disciplined. In a design studio, if you walk by someone’s table and see that their perspective is off or that their blue cube looks a bit too green and triangular, you tell them then instead of waiting until they hang the work during a crit or turn it in for grading. Helping each other during the process and being honest with feedback and criticism really improves everyone’s work and their final results. That’s an important lesson — even an Important Life Lesson — that I’d never been exposed to in a classroom.

In the corporate world, even in the semi-egalitarian world of software engineering, this does not happen nearly enough. I’ve close enough working relationships with many of my peers that we can say, “that’s not going to work” or ask for help without worrying about looking ignorant or even incompetent. If I’m in a meeting with someone from product marketing, I can’t say anything remotely like that, even if I put it as politely as possible. Why? Because it’s seen as questioning their competence, and that’s not something one is supposed to do in the workplace. If, as engineers, we can question each other’s work, at what point is not unreasonable for us to question the work of others in our organization?

I’m not suggesting we say, “you suck and your ideas suck” to random people from other departments, but I am suggesting that we start questioning the facts presented by people in other organizations and challenging them to demonstrate the chain of logic that led them to their conclusions. If “%50 of customers think this is an important feature to add”, what do the other %50 think? Are they opposed to the feature? Do they want a different feature? Will it make them like the product any more or any less? How did you determine that %50 of the customers want the feature and whether or not they will want it if it slows down the product? (You did mention to them that this would slow down the product, didn’t you?)

If you’re going to show me a bar graph, be prepared to show me the process that went into generating that bar graph. If I’m going to tell you the new feature you want is going to take N weeks to implement, I need to be able to tell you how I came up with “N”, or at least be willing to honestly admit I picked it at random or padded it with enough time to figure out exactly what it is you’re really asking me to do.

I often get asked exactly what I’m learning, and I often have trouble describing it in simple words. For now, I think I would say that it is the development of “process” as an explicit skill that can be documented and discussed as a component of product development alongside explicit skills like “project management” or “software engineering”.

(And yes, this entry might well have the single most misleading title in this entire journal. )

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posted by jet at 17:17  

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

school update – 20061122

School and work is consuming most of my free time. Oddly enough, I have more time than before to read books or study for class thanks to the 40 minutes a day I spend riding the bus. I’ve read a few books for school and work I want to write about, and even though we have a few days off for Thanksgiving, I’m not sure how much book reviewing I’ll actually accomplish.

A bit of rambling about school while I finish my tea…

The freshman design program at Carnegie Mellon is challenging at best, totally demoralizing at worst. I don’t get the feeling there’s any sort of planned attrition or that any of my classes are “cut” classes but the standards are high and the workload is constant.

I’m one of the few people who really had no drawing skills at the start of the semester, however being able to correctly draw abstract objects is a core skill for industrial design. This is one reason why I’m working on a BFA ID instead of an MFA — I have no core art skills. (I guess I could probably get a MPD if I wanted to focus on a management track.) I spend a lot of time drawing things, showing them to others for feedback, giving feedback to others then going back and drawing things over.

Here’s a test for those of you who think you know how to draw. As quickly as you can, draw some 2″ cubes in 2 point perspective. Freehand. With a pen. Now some ellipses. Now some cylinders. Now draw a coffee percolator, a dump truck and a lighthouse. How do they look? Are they all in 2 point perspective? How’s the line weight, are the lines in front darker/wider than the lines in back? If you showed these drawings to someone else, would they be instantly recognizable as the objects you meant to draw?

I probably spend an hour a day drawing abstract objects with a pen. It’s what I do while I’m on a conference call, waiting on a build, listening to someone go on about their social life, etc. One of my professors talks about becoming “unconsciously competent”, that is, being able to do things correctly without thinking about it. One of the skills I’m working on is being able to quickly sketch or render an object, process or abstract concept without having to stop and think “are my lines converging properly on the horizon line?”

Because we’re being taught to work using an iterative, communal process, school work can easily soak up all of our time. I might think I need 3 hours to do a project, and that’s what I’d need if I were doing it by myself in isolation. But working in studio means constant interruptions to check someone else’s work and taking your work around to have it checked by others. There are days I pack up and leave, just because I don’t have the wall clock hours to participate the way I should and still get more than 6 or 7 hours a sleep each night.

This sort of communal work is not something I (nor many other) students are used to. In my previous art classes, it’d probably considered disruptive to walk over to someone while they were working and start giving feedback. In my comp sci classes, it’d probably be considered a violation of the academic honesty guidelines.

Another important skill — be able to declare something finished, walk away, and not look back. If you can’t do this you might have a hard time at Carnegie Mellon. I botched a project awhile back, got the grade I “earned”, but I can’t fret over it or spend time trying to figure out how I would redo it. I need my energy to focus on my current projects so that I don’t botch them as well. Some of my classmates spend hours and hours redoing the same drawing or model with little change on each iteration. If I can’t improve the quality a significant bit with another iteration, I stop. My grades will probably reflect this, but as long as I’m passing I’ll be happy.

Grades. Another area where a lot of students are getting blindsided. A core set of skills are needed to practice design. Either you have these skills at the end of the semester or you don’t. This isn’t like a fine arts program where you get an “A” for improvement or a “B” because you expressed your creativity in an appropriate manner. If you can’t draw, you don’t pass. On top of that, the grades themselves are based on what is expected for the average Carnegie Mellon student, not the average person in a design program. My goal is to get a “C” in Drawing. It’s not that I’m setting my expectations low so I can coast, I am having to work my ass off to get my skills to the point where I can earn a “C”. (By the way, a “B” is “wow, that’s pretty good, not many people do that well” while an “A” is “you’re fucking amazing, we rarely see work of this quality!”)

In the midst of all this, I’m trying to hold down a job. My boss is understanding and lets me work flex time, but there are only so many hours in a day. I’ll work most of the Thanksgiving holiday trying to catch up on all the tasks I’m behind on.

A couple more weeks of school, then winter break, then we start all over again.

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posted by jet at 11:39  

Sunday, September 17, 2006

It finally sinks in

Three weeks into school and my routine is well established:

  • leave the house at 0710, catch the 0730 bus, get on campus at 0800
  • dump all my crap in studio, go find some tea, head back to studio to do any last minute tweaking
  • start studio (design or drawing) at 0830
  • break for lunch, take one of my required, non-studio classes (Human Experience in Design or Japanese I)
  • head back to studio to do work or head home to do for-pay work
  • in bed by 2200 if I’m lucky, but usually it’s more like 2300

One morning last week, as I was returning to studio with my morning tea, I paused in the outdoor rotunda of Margaret Morrison and it hits me: I’m here. I’m actually here, in school at one of the top design schools in the world, and I’ve manage to survive the first three weeks of school. Ok, so there are approximately 125 weeks left before I graduate, and when I hang my work alongside that of my peers I begin to question the competence of whomever decided to let me in, but I for now I’m here. The classes aren’t as difficult as I feared they would be, but the amount of work to be done is pretty overwhelming. I can do this. Ok, I can do this semester, we’ll see if I can do the entire year.

While I was standing there kinda giddy and overwhelmed I finally read the entire inscription that runs around the inner frieze of the rotunda:

“To make and inspire the home; To lessen suffering and increase happiness; To aid mankind in its upward struggles; To ennoble and adorn life’s work, however humble; These are women’s high perogatives.”

If I substitute “design” for “women”, I think it’s one valid way to think about design — to make the world a better place starting with the most humble of objects.

(And yes, the inscription is sexist, then again our building used to house the Margaret Morrison Carnegie College where women could earn a degree in anything from Home Economics to Secretarial Science or Nursing.)

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posted by jet at 16:19  
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