19 / The Significance of Contributive Design
About Miguel Cardona
Miguel Cardona is an Assistant Professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology in the New Media Design (BFA) and Visual Communications Design (MFA) programs. His classes focus on user experience and interaction design for digital experiences and products. Students from these programs are highly marketable and go on to design at companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Marvel, Lyft, Amazon, Nike, and numerous other high-profile product and creative agencies all over the world.
Most recently, Miguel was a foundation hire and lead designer for imgix, a San Francisco-based company that provides web developers the ability to resize and optimize images in real-time. Previously, he co-founded the Rochester, NY-based design and technology studio, Dwaiter Design. Miguel has more than 15 years’ experience designing and developing digital products, e-learning experiences, motion graphics, advertising, and interactive games for not-for-profit, educational, and B2B institutions. He was once mildly internet-famous for illustrating on coffee cups.
Design Is Storytelling, by Ellen Lupton.
Algortihms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism, by Safiya Umoja Noble.
fertilegroundroc.org, an exploration of race and placemaking in Rochester, NY. In collaboration with cultural anthropologist and University of Rochester Professor Kathryn Mariner, Fertile Ground sprouts from three existing intellectual traditions: theories of space and place, urban ethnography and history, and feminist and Black geographies.
In This Episode
As organizations move inexorably to a team-based, agile methodology, how do individual contributors effectively demonstrate what they’re working on or what they’ve accomplished? If performance is measured based solely on the team’s deliverables, how do team leaders appropriately acknowledge each member’s contribution or target their professional development? Enter the notion of contributive design, in which involvement of the individual is made clear. Contributive design fosters an environment in which team members collaborate as one, but also where they’re not necessarily dependent on others for their own outcomes.
In this episode of ITX’s Product Momentum Podcast, hosts Sean and Paul welcome Miguel Cardona, professor of design, artist, and keynote speaker at ITX’s 2nd annual ITX UX 2019: Beyond the Pixels design conference. Miguel introduces us to the notion of contributive design and its far-reaching impact – not only in the classroom, where contributive tools help him evaluate the performance of project teams while isolating the contributions of each student. Contributive design applies with equal significance in the workplace as we consider the modular nature of teams, design systems, and the user experience.
Paul [00:00:00] All right, product momentum. Today we have a really fantastic guest and a recent speaker at our UX conference, Miguel Cardona. He’s professor of new media and visual communication design at RIT and he’s got a really rare blend of skills in the creative, in the technical and in the business sense having a background as the co-founder of a firm here in Rochester and some businesses out in Silicon Valley. So, Miguel, great to have you with us on the show today.
Miguel [00:00:34] Thanks. Good to be here.
Paul [00:00:37] Awesome.
Sean [00:00:37] So you’ve done a bunch of really cool things, Miguel, and I want to hear a little bit about some of them today; we’ll get to that. But one thing, Paul mentioned your four-year tour of duty in the proverbial Silicon Valley with a startup, so you got to learn a lot there, I’m sure.
Miguel [00:00:52] Oh, yes, indeed.
Sean [00:00:53] Was it imgix is the name of the company that you work for there doing some design work?
Miguel [00:00:57] Yeah, the company’s name is imgix, yeah.
Sean [00:01:00] And you know, your coffee cup thing, we want to talk about that a little bit and I want to understand how that got started. You’ve done a lot of things in this industry.
Miguel [00:01:09] Yeah, like a quilt, like a patchwork of like various things.
Sean [00:01:13] There you go. I’m going to tap into your brain and extract some of the things you’ve learned for our audience here. Super excited.
Sean [00:01:21] Yeah, so jumping right in, I think that the most interesting thing that I’ve been really curious to talk to you more about is getting into what you would call your thoughts on this concept of contributive learning, or contributive design, and you kind of pitted it against this more traditional concept of collaboration, contribution versus collaboration, but you know, you’ve been walking the walk and I’m curious how that’s worked both in the classroom and in business.
Miguel [00:01:50] Yeah. So the notion of contributive design, I think we kind of coined it. I mean, it’s not necessarily coined, but in terms of how I’m using it in the classroom is kind of the result of how a lot of industry was looking at our students work. One of the key components of the New Media Design Program [at RIT] is this capstone project where there’s a team of about 10 students. You will get development students and design students to work together and it’s a real big collaborative show of work. Now, the industry says they love to see collaboration. However, when the students demonstrate their work, they don’t necessarily understand, well, “What did you do? What did the individual do as part of that collaboration?” And a lot of times when you collaborate, the little bits of work are like your contributions to that work and maybe a little bit more kind of muddied out.
Miguel [00:02:46] And a lot of times we have students claiming that they did things that wasn’t their own. I’ve been a big advocate of a lot of collaborative work. Over the years, I’ve worn many hats. I’ve even done, I know you were talking about my illustrations and I do design work, and, you know, I co-founded a company and kind of like management, but I also was a developer at one point working on interactive games. So I see the need for collaborating with other individuals and like speaking other languages. Now, the notion of contributive is basically a way to kind of demonstrate what you’re working on in that and recently I’ve been trying to troubleshoot projects and exercises where it’s very clear the involvement of the individual. So even the notion of contribution, I’m thinking of projects like GitHub where, you know, developers, they make contributions to a larger whole, or even just in the working environment you see, more often than not, you know, someone will get a task, they perform the task as kind of like one. And how I use that in the classroom is that I have these groups. The groups define technical specifications, right, so they’re like, “oh, okay.” Let’s say, for example, they’re going to work on a storybook. The storybook is going to be an interactive story book and a print story book. There’s nine students in the group and each one is doing, like let’s say if they’re doing an ABC book. Each student gets assigned a smaller bit, right. So they are allowed to work independently, but they’re still contributing to a larger whole. This way, when it comes time to show their work, it’s very evident what they were working on. Typically when working with students, there’s a lot of pressure, right. Everybody has different schedules. Everybody has outside work, projects, and things going on so it’s oftentimes difficult to get them to work together. And often you’re assigned a group meet, right, and there’s this like heavy pressure. That’s another thing that I’m dealing with is where students are like pressuring each other almost to the point of like borderline abuse where like, “oh, you know, we have to work on this til 3:00 am.” And so I wanted to try to foster an environment where, you know, they can work on things together, but they’re not necessarily dependent on others for their own outcomes. Does that make sense?
Paul [00:05:11] Yeah, that’s really interesting. I think that has a lot of parallels from the product management world where we’re trying to decouple features or decouple sometimes services from the UI, to put it in developer speak. But one of the things that really stands out to me is really just how you can take a team, whether it’s students in a pedagogical sense or workshops, where you have a team that’s working cumulatively or constructively over time, as opposed to this sort of parallel notion where your own work disappears into the larger whole. In this kind of thinking, you know, you can have more of a breakout where, “I can see what I’ve done” and it does have some interesting parallels. I’m curious, what would you say is the thinking that might be applied? Like here at ITX we do a lot of workshopping around big ideas, trying to make bold commitments around what we can change in the world and how we can inspire people. What do you think a parallel would be for a real time contributive system and trying to solve a problem not just for an assignment at 3:00 in the morning, but for building and improving products in people’s lives?
Miguel [00:06:25] So I think that there’s like two things there. You know, you’re kind of mentioning the building of the products, but then also, you know, like how a product is going to help people. I mean, I think a lot of what we do when we’re working in the industry, right, we are kind of contributing our portions, right. You know, we kind of set those constraints. You know, we identify a problem and we work towards solving something. But with a team, you know, you have roles and, you know, you kind of like work towards those. I know that oftentimes we try to kind of like remove silos in projects, but oftentimes you still kind of do go back to those roles. One thing that I think is beneficial is in working on a project, you know, having roles kind of like change from point to point. This is kind of like referencing the talk that I gave an ITX. There’s this notion of the designated dissenter, right. So imagine you’re working on a project and someone is assigned the role of the dissenter and basically their role, for the scope of that project, right; this isn’t their job, this isn’t their career. For the scope of that project, they’re assigned with identifying things that could be, let’s say, problematic to the product. So in speaking terms of, let’s say, design ethics, you know, maybe there is an accessibility issue. Right. And because everybody’s so involved in progressing that product forward, they might not be thinking about that issue with accessibility. But the role of the dissenter says, “hey, this is one thing that needs to be fixed,” right. And that role may change from person to person. So it’s a role that can be held by either a designer or developer or like an engineer, you know, kind of like working on a product. So if you’re talking about having individuals assume different roles in a project or product or like as a feature is moving out, they’re not necessarily isolated, but they’re given the opportunity to assume that role. And then if you have something like a dissenter, so as that person is not constantly, you know, always being the negative individual on the product, that can kind of move from person to person. Does that make sense?
Paul [00:08:40] Yeah. I think we have a team up at the board that’s trying to get a coherent collection of thought and having that dissenter speak up, you know, they might be called the devil’s advocate in a situation, but…
Miguel [00:08:51] Yeah.
Paul [00:08:52] …making sure that we’ve thought of not just all the aspirational views, but all the potential break points and flaws that we might want to build and turn into opportunities when you flip them on their head.
Miguel [00:09:04] Yes, absolutely, and identifying those opportunities is key. So even when I’m working with my students, you know, they’re contributing into a project and oftentimes that’s a problem because I mean, not that it’s a problem, but what I mean is that you might have a row of designers going into a project; they are more likely to step on each other’s feet if they don’t have their kind of like assigned role, you know. So what is their contributions that project and how can it be quantified in a very specific way? So, you know, part of what I’ve been doing is trying to look into these projects that can be created where the sum is greater than the whole of its parts, wait no, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. You know what I mean, right? Like uh…
Paul [00:09:48] Yeah switch that, you got it.
Miguel [00:09:52] Yeah, like the outcome is going to be this much grander opportunity for them to kind of have this really cool output. And right now, I’m trying to have them create something that’s testable so I’m using a lot of collaborative software that’s kind of giving them the opportunity to see these larger-scope projects where they can get a sense of that larger outcome but that individual contribution is very evident in that outcome.
Sean [00:10:19] So I have a slightly different perspective. Before I get into that, I want to pull on this designated dissenter, devil’s advocate, sort of a role. Like Paul said, we’ve been running workshops at ITX for 20 some odd years here and I’ve found the most powerful workshops, the ones that have the most creative output, tend to be the ones where somebody naturally takes on that role for whatever reason. And I’ve always been an advocate of, you know, when we’re solving a technology problem or a business problem, to have as many of the perspectives in the room that are important to the solution and having the positive perspectives and the negative perspectives and if we get a customer perspective in the room, that makes them even more powerful. When you get that natural dissension or the natural friction that occurs between different perspectives around the voice of the customer, you get the most powerful result. I love the idea of being a little more purposeful about assigning a designated dissenter. If you purposefully assign somebody, then do you limit their creativity in the process? Because it feels like if somebody has that purposeful role, it might restrict the creativity from that person. Do you see that happening or what’s been your experience with that?
Miguel [00:11:27] So when I’m talking about contributive design, it’s allowing, you know, someone’s contributions to kind of stick out more, right, so it can be more clearly identified. Now, that’s not to say that collaboration is dismissed. You know, we still have instances of brainstorming. We still have like little activities that we run and those activities largely inform the constraints or they identify basically what they’re going to be building. So a lot of times we’re still benefiting from the group collaborative aspects of it when they are identifying requirements. So when they’re identifying the requirements, when they identify, you know, the technology that they’re going to be working with, the platform, how they’re going to be prototyping it, there’s still a lot of opportunity for them to kind of engage together and that’s where they benefit. But I want their work still attributing to some of those outcomes. So if you think about someone, you know, as being a designated dissenter or, you know, you have someone that’s in a different role where they might be responsible for, you know, even just like identifying the features or establishing what are going to be the, and I think we kind of used this term differently when I worked in imgix than y’all may use at ITX, but, you know, kind of distributing OKRs for individuals. The way that we would do OKRs would be, every week, you know, it’s almost like a task list, like this is what you’re going to complete, and that may include other individuals, but you’re fundamentally the point person on that specific requirement. And then the following week you’re basically responsible for producing, you know, all efforts put forth for that. And I think that contributive design is more about identifying responsibilities almost like independent of someone’s skillset. So it’s just kind of giving different sets of ownership that then become kind of quantifiable in the outcome of the project.
Sean [00:13:36] Interesting.
Miguel [00:13:38] So the thing is, as I mentioned, in terms of like a pedagogical view, it allows students to kind of see their own development, right, and to some degree, they’re working with all the people on their team, and to some degree, they’re competing with all the people in their team, you know, because they have their requirements, they have those responsibilities. As I mentioned, I have them working on a print book, an interactive book, and an augmented reality book and that kind of takes them through the semester. So they work together in thinking of a theme, right. Then they work together in divvying out the various tasks and their various tasks can shine individually, right. So you’re not going to get like a low grade because somebody else didn’t pull their weight, you know? So you’re able to kind of like quantify and see their outcomes. They’re better overall together. However, if someone does kind of like miss out, there’s still these opportunities to get the product…it’s kind of like a minimum viable product across the board. So in making these books, if they’re like a couple spreads short, they still have a viable product. And I think that’s important for people in the learning phase because they need to see their own contributions. They need to see the weight and value of others. They need to see, “well, oh, okay,” like, “what am I responsible for with this, like other individual,” you know? And that was actually a big thing for me was that, because, I mean, they’re not in the workplace. They’re there for their own individual merit and they have all these outside pressures. For me to tell them that, like, “hey, if you got something that’s going on outside, you know, like, you could just tap out and it’s not going to implicate everybody else, you know, just kind of alleviating that pressure for them, and still allowing them to achieve. You know, so from a pedagogical sense, like I think that that’s really important. And when you’re in a workplace, I mean, there’s like an entirely different…
Sean [00:15:32] Yeah. Completely,ccompletely different. I can see how in a learning environment you need to have a way to evaluate each individual contributor’s work. So I applaud the work you’re doing. It’s very cool. But in our environment where we’ve got to build real products that move the needle on human behavior in the real world, we’re gonna be able to contribute more as a team than any one of us could ever contribute as an individual.
Miguel [00:15:54] Right. And that’s not to dismiss that. I mean, like the whole notion of that contribution is also that, you know, I mentioned we have people come from industry all the time. We have a creative industry day. We’ll have companies like Google, Microsoft, and they absolutely, they were like, “oh, yeah, we want to see, you know, all this work you’re doing with others.” But then also they’re like, “no, we just want to see your work,” and it becomes really, really difficult, like, we need to scope to them. We need to get the students prepared to basically demonstrate their efforts, so they need to be aware of what they are capable of but then still have that outcome that is, like I said, is that greater sum. So they’re able to like, showcase, “okay, this is the finished product; this is this amazing thing that we put together,” right. I mean, let’s say if there is a student that withdrew from the class, you know, they’re still able together to pull this across the finish line. So like, I will do this with nine members in a group. So if you run a smaller sprint, right, you only run two people, if someone drops out, you know, that’s 50 percent of your team gone. So my goal in having the larger group and having that contributive model, it’s almost more like the real life model, you know. So you’re still able to get it across the finish line; you’re depending on other people, but you’re also still able to utilize your skill sets in kind of taking this forward.
Sean [00:17:29] Sure.
Miguel [00:17:31] …while still having the opportunity to have your own little slice of ownership on that project. And as mentioned, you know, this kind of comes from people like contributing code bits to GitHub. When I worked at imgix, we would have front end libraries that people would constantly contribute to and then make them better. I mean, even if you look at it out a little bit more, I mean, the App Store exists on Apple’s platform because they would not have all the resources and power to, you know, make all the apps that would then live in that ecosystem, right, so people kind of contribute to that in a way. So I think that there a lot of different models as you look at like platforms and the type of work that we have in terms of like how people can contribute to existing ecosystems to make those better.
Paul [00:18:15] Yeah. You’re actually going somewhere that I was hoping we would get to because about 30 seconds of browsing through your Twitter feed, it wouldn’t take somebody long to realize that you, I hope I’m not putting words in your mouth, I believe you would say you’re an advocate of a product called Figma and it seems like they’ve got a really interesting take on what seems to be a trend in the industry, in tools, in how we get products to market specifically, around this concept of free-to-use. You know, there’s a parallel in gaming in free-to-play, but in the tools that we’re using to build products, we’ve got a lot of low or no-cost options now that five and definitely back ten years ago would have been a huge premium to bring into organizations and license fees and whatnot. So I’m curious, with tools being in the midst of this sort of revolution in how we gain the ability to build products and ship them, what are some of the features that you’re most excited about that you see today as just table stakes what, you know, a couple of years ago might have been considered delighters? What do we have available to us today that differentiates the product people, the designers, the developers, the product managers? What’s exciting to you in the space that’s going to make it easier and more exciting to build and ship things?
Miguel [00:19:37] Yeah, it’s interesting that you bring it up. So a while back there was this product that was called Hackpad. I don’t know if you’re familiar with it. Dropbox bought it, consumed it, turned it into this protocol Dropbox Paper. When I was at imgix, we would use Dropbox Paper and fundamentally what it is is just a way to, you know, have like these markdowned format and pages. It was cery barebones at the time and it was a key way in which we were able to kind of like work together and I think it was one of the first instances where I started thinking about like collaborative versus contributive, right. Because the application would allow you to just work in a single document, you might say that these kind of collaborative document tools existed before with like Google Docs. However, what was different about Dropbox Paper was that it was just a stream of consciousness. It didn’t actually model existing simple sheets of paper that like quantified individual sheets. What it allowed us to do was to better organize our documentation, better organize any new features that we would roll out, and it was almost like a sketchpad, right, so everybody would go in there, they would add their two cents, we would throw in images, and we would comment. And over time, we would just build out either our articles or spec out new features; we would create task lists in there, and this seemingly unassuming software that had a lot of like openness and freedom to it allowed us to organize really, really well. You know, and you can see in the document who led to what in the side. So you can see who was engaged, who was adding to it. You ping other individuals to elaborate on a concept. I actually reference some of those Dropbox Paper docs when even just presenting on my work, you know, in like identifying, well, you know, this is where, you know, this became a green-lit feature for our product and this is how we kind of organized and discussed it, right. So Dropbox Paper was this first product where I was like, “wow, we’re collaborating in real time, you can see who’s engaged and you get an instance of everything that’s going.” And it’s very different than something like Slack because you’re just kind of like shaping away, like you’re carving out at this blank page and you see it kind of forming and it’s at once, you know, well presented, but also very much work in process. When you get a tool like Thigma, and you know, you’re talking about it as being, you know, this free software, but to really unlock its potential, you know, it’s like you need to pay for it to work in teams and have those files like organized and structured. But I think what Thigma did, and what I demonstrate my feed, is that it makes the process almost like more beautiful, like it revels in the process. I enjoy working on my little Thigma files and demonstrating to others how I did that. What they did was they identified a lot of friction points in other creation software and they made those these engaging experiences that you would then want to share with others. I remember opening up Thigma for the first time and as soon as I figured out something I was like, “man, I want to show somebody else.” And I understand that as a teacher, I’m like, “okay, yeah, I have a natural inclination to do that.” However, there was something about the way that the application allowed you to work and you can just as easily invite somebody into that document to work along with you and I think that was kind of a game changer for me because it started to democratize and make available and make visible a lot of design, whereas somebody might have an illustrator file sitting dormant on a desktop, you know, this is just this living file. You know, you put in a backslash and write duplicate on your URL and you all of a sudden have a duplicate of that file in your own kind of like repository. And Thigma, it allows for you to have this kind of like sketchpad mentality, but also have this nice finished and polished and organized approach at the same time, you know, so it was very similar to Dropbox Paper where it was a place where you worked. I think that that was really important.
Miguel [00:23:53] That’s a really interesting thought. I think there’s parallels that we find in tool that we’re a fan of here called Miro, formerly RealtimeBoard, where there is sort of this almost little society inside the document where there is the potential for chaos because you’ve got 20, 30 people inside the same whiteboard clicking and dragging and resizing but there’s also the shared understanding of, “these are the rules of the document, these are the rules of organization,” and the more tightly you hold it, the more you constrict the creativity. But, you know, with that potential for chaos, there’s also a real potential for creativity, too. We’ve seen that in those collaborative tools that we use too. That’s a really great observation. Thanks.
Miguel [00:24:32] Yeah. Thanks. Yeah, and I’m familiar with Miro, you know, like with my students, we use Thigma in a very similar way. And it’s a really cool application that just allows you to make your own tools in it and it’s kind of like embracing these technologies that I think, you really need to, as a student, show what you did. We focus very, very hard on intentionality and demonstrating, you know, like how you got from point A to point B. What was your research? You know, like what did you engage in, who did you interview? And then kind of like develop this narrative of a work in progress and work in process. So much of it so to, when you’re interviewing with a company so then this way, they understand how you work. And that’s also a really important thing that I try to impart on my students is demonstrating the story of your work. And once again, like how I’m talking about contributive, that was a way for me to even sell that project to the design chair, because so many, quote unquote, just flat out collaborative projects: there’s so much controversy around them in regards to like, “well, how much were students participating or collaborating and are they getting all this credit?” And granted, when you’re in the real workplace, I mean, it’s a totally different beast, but in preparing for that workplace and kind of developing as a designer, as a developer, as someone that’s going to go into there, you know, people need to be aware of what their contributions are. They need to be aware of where their skill sets are and also like what they’re lacking, like what they need to kind of develop more so. And I think it’s an important step to collaboration to understand, “well, what am I bringing to the table, like what are the skill sets that I’m developing and how am I putting that forward?” So it’s more or less just kind of formalizing your contribution.
Sean [00:26:26] If I could pull on that a little bit; I think that’s even more important at the organizational level to be able to see who’s contributing, who has what skills, what needs to be developed more across your organizations. These contributive tools are definitely on the rise; they’re definitely going to play a much bigger role in product development I think in the future. So thanks, thanks for sharing all that and those great ideas.
Miguel [00:26:50] And I just want to add one more thing, too.
Sean [00:26:53] Sure.
Miguel [00:26:53] So just kind of speaking to intentionality, you’ll see that a lot of companies products; they’re making available their design systems, right. These design systems kind of outline how their product looks, feels, works. Google has their Material Design system. I believe IBM has their like Carbon system, and, you know, when someone goes in to a design role that one of these companies, you know, they’re responsible for adhering to it, but also contributing to it. You know, when they have an edge case, they then begin to, like, make their mark. You know, I’ve had friends who worked on Material who would be like, “oh, yeah, that page, that was mine, that was my little bit.” And so much of what’s important to that is that modularity of those design systems in the way that you can kind of interlock different aspects of it, and, you know, they’re nothing new. If you look at like Massimo Vignelli, if you look at like his older modernist designers, you know, they basically came up with systems to streamline the approach to their work. And we’re seeing a lot of that and we’re seeing a lot of modularity. And with that modularity, that whole notion of contribution is going to be really important. It’s not so much that everybody’s making these super bespoke bits, they’re adding in and building upon something that’s better as a whole.
Sean [00:28:07] That’s brilliant. Yeah, no doubt we’re going to use that quote I’m sure. All right, so take us off the reservation a little bit. I actually read your thesis, so I’m going to ask you a couple of questions about that. Are you ready?
Miguel [00:28:20] Oh, dear God.
Sean [00:28:23] I initially intended just to skim it, but it was really fascinating and I just got suckered into it, so I read it. You set out to solve a really, really challenging problem with your thesis that we all have that I don’t think anybody has actually solved to date but your contribution to academia here and your contribution to the field was pretty cool. But the quote here that I’m going to take from your thesis is, “memory is malleable, glossy and prone to failure.” I want to know, and I think my audience would love to hear what some of your key learnings about that problem were, because I think they apply to a lot of product spaces. Like how do you manage a long arrangement of any sort of data or information over time and how do you arrange a useful, powerful way? What are the key learnings that you got in that whole process?
Miguel [00:29:08] Yeah, some of the things that I found most fascinating was just how people kind of like recognize and understand things. And I mean, it has impacted to like how I work as a designer and how I work as a professor and how I organize like my classes so then this way people have these points of reference. So one of the key things that I really understood is just the way that we think about events, like life events. You might not remember the exact date that something happened, but you remember it according to something that was of stark contrast. So you might say, “oh, yeah, the summer before so and so’s wedding,” or, you know, “this event occurred,” you know, even just like “pre 9/11.” Right, so you remember these things according to bits contrast. And I mean, even that kind of speaks to the way that you visually understand things, right. Like the Gastaults of things. What we do is we perceive contrast. We identify hierarchy and the same way that you read to a page is almost the same way that you might like navigate a memory. We kind of engage with these things in spatial way, so it’s important to understand, you know, when things kind of happen. So even if you were a go on a vacation, you might remember the beginning, you might remember one key event, you might remember the end. So whether that vacation was three weeks or two weeks, your memory of it might only be those kind of key points. If you have a fantastic vacation for two weeks, but that last day, you know, something terrible happened, you know, you almost don’t even remember those two weeks that preceded it. And that very much applies to designing an experience for an individual. What are those kind of like key or signature moments that they’re going to remember? What are the contrast points that are going to take place for them? What’s going to sit back and almost not even be surfaced? And I think that that’s really important. You know, the designer deals with sort of managing contrast and hierarchy almost in the same way, like, what is the key takeaway? Another thing that I learned from that is just like this notion of like a cognitive load. People always say, you know, seven plus or minus two, so nine to five items in your short term memory. The more you’re kind of like engaged in something, the more you fit into those locks, so if you’re a keen chess player and you’re playing a game of chess, it’s not that you’re seeing all these moves ahead of time, it’s that you’re looking at larger chunks of the game. You’re not looking at individual moves, you’re looking at whole sets of moves. You’re looking at the whole board, right. So you’re able to kind of map your memory into those five to nine blocks of memory, you know, larger sets of moves. And with that, you know, whenever you’re designing an experience, you’re managing someone’s cognitive load. What are they able to take in? What are they remembering, you know, what are they holding on to as they’re kind of moving through that experience? And I think that that’s really important because, I mean, if you get to the end of a sign-in process and they needed to remember something from the beginning, you could potentially lose, like, the sign up. If you’re not properly thinking through a person’s attention span when working through an experience, you’re going to lose out on that experience. So, I mean, I think that’s really important. This designer works on the National Health Service over in the UK, Andrew Duckworth, he has a really interesting blog where he kind of breaks down some of these UX problems and thinking about memory and thinking about accessibility. He constantly talks about this notion of, you know, one item per page. Oftentimes, you know, we try to make things very complex, but we need to simplify them so they can fit into like one of those memory blocks.
Paul [00:32:52] That’s really cool. We’ll have to link the Duckworth resource in the show notes. I wanted to interrupt because you’re dancing around something that I’ve been itching to ask the entire time. One of the things you have in your repertoire is this unique, memorable experience of having a coffee cup illustration. And I wanted to get to this before we run out of time because it’s something so unique, and I don’t know if you’d call it a hobby or a calling card or how you’d describe it, but I’m really interested to hear a little bit about how you got into this memorable experience of showing somebody’s work in this really one-of-a-kind format.
Paul [00:33:29] Actually, I’ll relate it to the exactly what I was talking about.
Paul [00:33:31] Yeah.
Miguel [00:33:31] So yeah, I started drawing on coffee cups when I was in San Francisco. It started as a little like procrastinatory habit while we were working on imgix in the early days on like a coffee table, we would go to this coffee shop, come back, and in between just like just thinking through a problem, I would draw on the coffee cups. At the time, Instagram was fairly new so I was actually posting them onto my Instagram account. You know, like people would comment them and I thought it was pretty cool so I started doing it every day. But thinking of ways to make an impression on people, you know, making these coffee cups and giving them to like individuals was like much better of a calling card than to say, you know, “hey, I’m a designer who lives in San Francisco,” you know what I mean? When you’re in a city where there’s so many like-minded individuals, you have a different way of kind of like discerning yourself and I mean, it came about in a way that, you know, like it was just a habit that I formed; it just became kind of like this thing. But it allowed me to, like, meet a lot of people, make a lot of connections. At one point I was selling them for a local charity in San Francisco called Project Night Night where I quantified the selling of one cup to care package for a homeless child. That then turned into a bit of press for me in January of 2014, you know, like everything from like Today.com to DesignTAXI was posting my coffee cup illustrations, which was kind of cool. It actually yielded a Tinder date for me, so that was kind of funny. She thought I was catfishing her, but I was like, “no, I am the guy from the article.” So it was a funny experience.
Paul [00:35:10] I think that’s a podcast first, the use of the term catfishing.
Miguel [00:35:15] Yeah. It was just a funny thing, but it allowed me to make me really good friends. You know, I have left cups in like Germany. I got to draw a mural in Istanbul, and just the simple notion of drawing on this 3D surface, which is very different than drawing in a book, right. When you draw in like a sketchbook it’s kind of this more expected behavior; it’s more personal. People are less likely to come up to you and say something, whereas if you’re drawing on a coffee cup, you know, it’s a little bit more outward expression, and yeah, it just allowed me to meet a lot of really cool individuals. I drew on some wine bottles that actually paid for some wine tabs, some pretty expensive ones. I think that I once paid for a one hundred and thirty dollar wine tab with a drawn-on one bottle.
Sean [00:36:01] Nice.
Miguel [00:36:01] So, yeah.
Sean [00:36:03] All right, well, this has been great. You’ve given us a lot of great stuff in here. So I really appreciate you sharing your ideas and your time with us. We always ask one question, so we asked you to recommend a book, maybe something you’re reading or something that you refer, or reference to, for people in the product development design space. What would you recommend? What are you reading these days?
Miguel [00:36:24] Oh, man, there’s a lot. So for somebody in the product space specifically?
Sean [00:36:30] Or design, product design.
Miguel [00:36:32] Yeah, so what is it.. Design is Storytelling by Ellen Lupton.
Sean [00:36:37] Great recommendation. Cool.
Miguel [00:36:39] Yeah. I don’t know if anybody’s recommended that before, and then on the other end of the spectrum: Algorithms of Oppression.
Sean [00:36:46] All right. Good. Well, for our listeners out there, if you’re interested in design tools, I think Miguel has one of the finest Twitter feeds on the planet in terms of evaluating and looking at different design tools. Its @miggi on Twitter. I highly recommend you follow him. Is there anything else that you want to promote or anything that you’ve got going on, Miguel?
Miguel [00:37:05] Well, I mean, I just had a gallery show for working with an anthropologist at U of R, so fertilegroundroc.org. So what we’re working on is the anthropology of space-making a hyper-segregated city, and we just had our first gallery show and our first zine, which is just a way of making transparent the academic process. So if you go fertilegroundroc.org, some of our outcomes are going to be shared there. It’s a small project that I’m working on, but it means a lot to me.
Sean [00:37:38] Awesome. Well, thank you so much for spending all this time with us and for speaking at our conference as well. Appreciate your time.
Miguel [00:37:45] Yeah. Thank you very much for the opportunity. Appreciate it.