Design Lessons From A Barber Shop

A month ago I decided to go for a hair cut at a new barber shop close to from where I live. Not because I was unhappy with the lady who’s been cutting my hair for the past 4 years, but because I couldn’t find an opening and by that time my hair has grown so long that it started to irritate me beyond control.

So I made the plunge…

Barber Shop Tweet

Well… I’m sad to say that it didn’t work out. For the month after that, I was even more irritated than before. My Barber Shop Friend succeeded in making me look like a douche bag [congratulations dude!]…

But not to worry, it’s a month later and my old hair stylist asked just the right questions to make me look like a shiny new penny [Thanks Candice! Here’s a shout out for Xco Man]

While we were talking about this unfortunate miss-cut, it dawned on me that the success of all the products I work on, hinges on asking the right questions and being really interested in our clients. [Yes, of course there are things like skill and management that plays a massive role, but for the sake of simplifying this analogy, I wont go into those.] When I had to tell Mr Barber how I want him to cut my hair without him even bothering to ask, I guess I should have known that we’re not a good fit.

It’s similar with working on websites and mobile applications. To ensure that I build the best possible product, I have to get to know the client and the people who will ultimately use the product I’m about to build. That way l won’t only have a happy client, but also a happy user; one’s that come back over and over again.

This isn’t a groundbreaking theory, but it just became very real to me over the past month. *Even though it cost me R120 and a bad hair cut…)

Design Is A Hypothesis

I listened to a podcast the other day where Jared Spool interviewed Jeff Gothelf on the concept of Lean UX. He mentioned something that is very applicable to where I find myself in my career right now:

Design is a hypothesis. No matter how great a designer you are, whatever you put forward is a hypothesis. So you need to validate that hypothesis both from a business perspective and customer perspective and so you want to minimise the time spending pursuing the wrong hypothesis.

As a relatively young designer, I have this inner conflict between protecting my first design ideas as the perfect solution and, putting that idea or concept out there so that it can be tested and validated as a hypothesis.

When Jeff made this statement I realised how liberating it is to present concepts as hypothesis so that they can be tested and validated first. It liberates me from trying to protect my ideas all the time and the constant fear of loosing them. It also liberates me from the idea that my value as a designer comes from the amount of unique and creative ideas I can come up with. There is nothing further from the truth than this…

My value as a designer comes from my ability to allow the people who use the stuff I make (with other people), have the best possible experience. And that’s something I’ll rather want to hold onto…

Solving Problems: New Areas of Engagement

Over the past few months I’ve quoted extensively from Design For The Real World by Victor Papanek. I’ve finally finished his book and it has become, without a doubt, one of the most fundamental books I’ve read on design to date. He cuts through the fluff and gets straight to the core of design: How do we solve problems.

Many of the problems we face today is still unsolved because of a vicious cycle that is subconsciously set in motion when a young designer chooses his first job.

…the choices facing a young designer seem mainly economic. Financial security is understandably of enormous importance to students and young designers. This brings a whole new dimension to designing for the poor and needy. The prime consideration now is a job.

Some have sold out to an employer and continue to design luxury items for a small privileged class. One may fault this approach, nonetheless it is a legitimate response to a difficult existential choice. Others have accepted my suggestion and contribute one tenth of their time or one-tenth of their income to solving problems of abject need, while continuing with their jobs.

Without realising it a young designer sets himself on a course where the luxury items for a small privileged class blinds him to the solutions that might arise by designing for the many instead of the money.

Even the most successful designer can afford to give one-tenth of his time. It is unimportant what the mechanics of the situation are: four hours out of every forty, one working day out of every ten, or ideally, every tenth year, to be spent a sort of sabbatical, designing for many instead of for money.

For in showing students new areas of engagement, we may set up alternative patterns of thinking about design problems.

I live in South Africa, a developing country in a Third World country with more problems we sometimes care to solve. Yes, some of them are way to scary to even think about, but engaging in some will lead to solving others. And this makes it worth pursuing…

Solving Problems Through A Second Language

On solving problems, Vicor Papanek states something very interesting in his book, Design For The Real World:

A new way of looking at things can be enhanced enormously through a thorough understand of a second language. For the structure of each language gives us different  ways of dealing with and experiencing realities.

It is perfectly reasonable to say I am going to San Francisco” in English. The same statement can be made in German (“Ich gehe nach San Francisco”), but it makes no sense linguistically. In German a qualifier must be added, for instance: I am flying to San Francisco, I am driving to San Francisco. In navajo and the Eskimo languages such statements must be even more specifically qualified to make sense: “I (alone, or with friends, or whatever) am driving (sometimes I will drive, sometimes my friend will drive) (by cart, by sled) to San Francisco (then I will return and my friend will drive on).”

By bringing  more than one language to bear on a problem, we obtain depth.

It made me wonder whether this is applicable to digital problems as well. Is it possible for a designer to solve usability issues easier (or better) by learning a programming language? Would it enable him to gain a new and deeper understanding of a problem by having a more technical view on the problem?

This is perhaps a good reason why designers should be able to code…

2014: Counting Life In Seasons Instead Of Years

Standing on the edge of a new year doesn’t feel as magnificent as it used to be. Each year feels less like a new year and more like an extension of the year before. I set less elaborate goals and rely more on the previous year’s learning to guide me through the New Year.

Today, standing on this side of a new year feels different. It feels as if I’m riding 2013’s wave into 2014. I haven’t set any major new goals and probably wont either.

2013 has been tough in so many ways. I’ve learned that sometimes life isn’t just black or white. Sometimes there are grey areas. I’ve learned that the most Spiritual moments in life doesn’t necessarily come from reading my Bible, praying or going to church, but rather to face life when it presses. I’ve learned more about the value of sonship and fathership than what I can write down here.

But beyond that, I’ve learned that life works better when it is counted in seasons instead of years. Since each season requires a different strategy, vision, and direction, entering 2014 isn’t daunting. I know the season I’m in right now. It hasn’t changed yet and it wont change before tomorrow.

I will continue to build and establish, but with a better strategy from what I’ve learned over the past year.

I will make 2014 count in seasons instead of months.

Here’s to everyone going into a new season or extending their seasons!

In the words of the wisest man who ever lived:

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:

a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.

King Solomon |  Ecc 3: 1 – 8

Lessons From Designing A Radio

A while ago I did a quick summary of Mike Monteiro’s video, “How Designers Destroyed the World”. As if this truth wasn’t sobering enough, Victor Papanek in his book, Design For The Real World,  shared this advice from the company owner who asked him to design a radio:

Just think what making your radio entails in terms of our workers. In order to get it produced, we’re building a plant in Long Island City. We’re hiring about 600 new men. Workers from many states, Georgia, Kentucky, Alabama, Indiana, are going to be uprooted. They’ll sell their homes and buy new ones here. They’ll form a whole new community of their own. Their kids will be jerked out of school and go to different schools. In their new subdivision supermarkets, drugstores, and services stations will open up, just to fill their needs.

And now, just suppose the radio doesn’t sell. In a year we’ll have to lay them all off. They’ll be stuck for their monthly payments on homes and cars. Stores and service stations will go bankrupt when the money stops rolling in; homes will go into sacrifice sales. Their kids, unless daddy finds a new job, will have to change schools. There will be a lot of heartaches all around and that’s not even thinking of my stockholders.

And all this because you made a design mistake. That’s where your responsibility really lies, and I bet that they never taught you this at school!

I dont have much more to add to this. Sometimes the impact of a designer’s work stretches beyond what is directly visible with the eye.

Touchstones In Our Relationship To Computing

One of Frank Chimero’s in What Screens Want:

Like them or not, Metro and iOS7 are major touchstones in our relationship to computing, because they signify that we’re beginning to accept a flexible medium on its own terms.

But it’s not the first time we’ve done something like this. Let’s go back 35 years…


The Kleenex Culture

I’m making my way through Victor Papanek’s book, Design For The Real World; a book that is slowly changing the way I understand design. It’s quite academic at times, but apart from that, it’s becoming one of the most insightful books I have read on design to date.

The book was first published in 1970; initially not received very well in the design community due to Victor’s very different design philosophy. But today, 35 years later, it has become one of the most read books on design.

One of the many statements he made that stood out to me was about how the motor industry is instilling a throw-away mentality in us:

From the end of World War II to 1978 car manufacturers sold the American public on the concept that it’s stylish to change cars every three years…

But the risk is the expansion of this attitude; from changing automobiles every few years, we may move to considering everything a throw-away item, and considering all consumer goods, and indeed, most human values, to be disposable.

Throwing away furniture, transportation vehicles, clothing, and appliances may soon lead us to feel that marriages (and other personal relationships) are throw-away items as well, and that on a global scale, countries and, indeed, entire subcontinents are disposable like Kleenex. That which we throw away, we fail to value.

I don’t need to look at stats on divorce rates to convince myself that people, today, value relationships less than 30 years ago. We certainly do have a Kleenex mentality, specifically about relationships.

Now, I’m sure it’s not only the motor industry’s fault. People are changed by a whole ecosystem of things connected and influenced by each other over time. But I think we can learn a lot from the motor industry and how consumer goods are created. One such thing is that some relationships, just like some consumer goods, wont last forever. Friends come and friends go…

But a more important thing we should learn is that some consumer goods last a lifetime, not because they withstand the trends and fashions of life, but because we place enough value on them to last beyond these changing times.

Some relationships should be the same. They last because we add enough value on them that even though time and life happens, we choose to keep them.

The Kleenex culture can’t be changed by just making products that last forever. They don’t and won’t. The solution is so much deeper.

Im reminded of Albert Einsteins quotes:

The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.

Me & My Beautiful Fiancé.)

In less than 4 months, me and my beautiful fiancé will get married. One of my friends is a brilliant photographer and spoiled us with an engagement shoot. Below are some of his photos. They were taken on our farm just outside Durbanville, Cape Town. You can view more of his other photos at

A quick tech tip: By using JpegMini, I was able to compress these photos by more than 50% without any quality loss. Try it out. It’s a really nifty tool to compress photos that would otherwise be 10MB big…

Steyn-&-Lindl-11Steyn-&-Lindl-10 Steyn-&-Lindl-9 Steyn-&-Lindl-8 Steyn-&-Lindl-7 Steyn-&-Lindl-6 Steyn-&-Lindl-5 Steyn-&-Lindl-4 Steyn-&-Lindl-3 Steyn-&-Lindl-2
Wow! She’s beautiful!)

Floating Labels: Making Inform Fields Work Better

Most of the time, when I design form fields, I would put the labels inside the field. Purely because the design is a bit more compact and it feels a bit cleaner. But I’ve always felt a bit uneasy when I use this pattern. Apart from a few technical issues, it also forces the user to make use of his short-term memory to remember what he needs to enter into the field.

Jackson Fox lists a few solutions to this problem in his article, Making Infield Form Labels Suck Less”. I don’t really like any of these because they either feel out of place or they kind of go against the reason why I wanted to put the label inside the field in the first place and that is to keep it compact and clean.

But I found this really neat implementation by Marcus Pohorely of a concept done by Matt Smith. It’s called floatlabels.js and is available for free over here. What I love about this solution is the subtle animation of the labels to appear just above the input copy and by doing so still keep the form compact and clean.

Here’s Matt’s concept design:

Infield Form Animation