Inventor Spotlight: Jie Qi

Circuit Sticker Sketchbook from Jie Qi on Vimeo

Jie Qi is the co-founder of a digital-paper-circuits company called Chibitronics. She’s also a Berkman Fellow and an alum of the Hi-Lo Tech Lab at MIT.

In the video above, Qi demonstrates the analog precursor to Chibitronics with her Circuit Sticker Sketchbook. It’s a delightful workbook and equally delightful demo video. And if you’re into product evolution, you can find some earlier iterations of Qi’s sketchbook on youtube like this video here

What’s so impressive about these books is their simplicity and high usability. Simplicity is a funny thing. Artists & Inventors know that it’s harder to make something simple than to make something that’s not. Simplicity is actually complex and it takes a lot of work and emotional intelligence to achieve.

I admire inventors like Jie Qi that create easy-to-use modular systems that help people be creative. Systems like legos or tinker-toys or little bits or bare conductive!


Priorities + Constraints = Clarity


I don’t know who designed this poster template, but I love it. By looking at it you can see that the designer has prioritized the information in order of importance, then employed a set of constraints to convey the message in the simplest way possible. The set of constraints are made up of three elements: color, size, arrangement.

PRIORITIES. You know a that a designer has their priorities in order if  their work passes “the squint test.” That is, if their reader squints at it, they know what it’s about. Readers don’t need to know all of the information at once. They need to know the most important thing. Then, if the most important thing is interesting to them, they will move closer to the poster to get the details.

CONSTRAINTS. Designing something that is clear takes discipline. Effective designers use constraints to get their point across. Sure, they could use every color in the rainbow, but in most cases, that just confuses things. Sure, they could make all of the type close in size, but then how would your reader know what information is most important? Sure you could arrange elements all over the page equally, but then how would your reader know what to read first?

The most common pushback I hear from junior designers on constraints is that they limit creativity. I don’t know where this idea comes from but it’s false. The best artists and inventors use constraints. And you should too.

Transforming the Mundane

Artists and Inventors observe the world around them and make things that aim to improve it. Sometimes that means adding something, sometimes it means taking something away, and other times it means picking out one or two details within a situation and transforming them.

I love this 2009 Kid Cudi video by French designer, So Me. In the video So Me draws flat, colorful animations on top of footage of mundane scenes. Two pizza makers turn into DJs spinning records. An aisle in a bodega turns into the yellow brick road from The Wizard of Oz.

With some imagination and the right box of crayons, what might you transform?


Realtime and Historical Data

When sensors and microcontrollers and cloud connectivity become cheap, they will be in every product and system that you can imagine. They will be generating data. Sometimes it will be customer facing, sometimes it won’t be.

Either way, it’s important to think about user experiences with data in time and space. Important questions should be researched:

  • What is the purpose of real-time data?
  • Does it need to be glanceable or detailed and text-based?
  • Does it need to be seen on location or remotely?
  • Does it need to be acted on? If so, by a person or a machine?

Similar questions apply to historical data though the answers will be different in many cases. And those differences should inform design decisions:

  • What is the purpose of historical data?
  • Does it need to be glanceable or detailed and text-based?
  • Does it need to be seen on location or remotely?
  • Does it need to be acted on? If so, by a person or a machine?

As inventors, we need to think about this data piece as an integral part of the experience with the life of a product or system. It’s not something that gets tagged on at the end like the packaging which is a short-lived aspect of the UX. Data, you could say, is the language the product speaks. It needs to be clear and smart and engaging.

Mixing Your Own

When you get good at looking at paintings, you can tell if an artist uses colors straight out of the tube or mixes their own. Straight out of the tube isn’t good or bad, it’s just something that you notice. Some painters mix their own colors. Some sculptors forge their own tools. Some fashion designers design their own fabric.

I ran into a colleague over the weekend who designs 3D digital games and she talked to me about her technique. After sculpting her characters’ forms, she flattens them out, like a dress pattern, and uses her own color and shading to bring them to life.

I love this. It’s a ton of work. And it’s the kind of detail that most people won’t see, at least consciously. But it’s the kind of thing that a craftsperson has to do. It’s a sign of integrity mixed with a little bit of obsessiveness. The sign of an artist.

Shaker Furniture

shaker 2

My version of running away to join the circus would be to run away to and make Shaker furniture. I deeply appreciate the balance of simplicity with functionality in Shaker pieces.

The work shown in the picture above is from a project called “Furnishing Uptopia” hosted by Hancock Shaker Village and Mt. Lebanon Shaker Museum. The project invited a set of international designers to study an archive of Shaker furniture, then design their own contemporary spin on Shaker objects–tables and rakes and baskets and stools. The results are beautiful. You can see more here.



A Maker of Things: Eva Zeisel

eva_zPhoto Credit: ©TalismanPHOTO

Every time I see Eva Zeisel’s work in a museum, I let out an audible, “Oh! Eva Zeisel!” Her work is delightful in how she combines lines from nature with simplicity and playfulness and functionality. Zeisel’s work calls for an audible “Oh!” It’s the appropriate response.

Eva Zeisel lived to be 105 and worked her entire life. She was born in Budapest and schooled in the guild system there. She then worked in Ukraine and in 1936 she was arrested in Moscow, imprisoned for 16 months, then moved to Vienna upon her release. In 1938 she fled the Nazis and immigrated to the US. In 1946, she was the first woman to have a one-woman show at MoMA.

In 2001, Zeisel gave a TED Talk. She was 94:

I call myself a maker of things. I don’t call myself an industrial designer because I’m other things. Industrial designers want to make novel things. Novelty is a concept of commerce, not an aesthetic concept. The industrial design magazine, I believe, is called “Innovation.” Innovation is not part of the aim of my work. We are makers of things…we are actually concerned with the playful search for beauty…. Sarah Smith, who was a mathematics professor at MIT, wrote, “The playful search for beauty was Man’s first activity”…The word, “playful” is a necessary aspect of our work…this for me is now 75 years.

A 75-year career really gives you time to think deeply about your work and it’s relationship to the world. Some argue that work from her time–the Bauhaus style–isn’t relevant to the 21st century. I used to argue this too but my thinking has evolved. Because when you zoom out and look at what the Bauhaus was doing in that particular time and space, they were searching for a new vocabulary at the emergence of a technological and political revolution. The same thing is happening now. It is relevant. And we might do well to look back at masters like Zeisel to find the beauty and the usefulness of it all. A sense of play. Our humanity.

eva granit sugar cream

Image Source: Design Within Reach

NYTs obit: Eva Zeisel

Google Image Search of “Eva Zeisel Work



“Less is Almost Always More”


I adore these photo montages from Berliner artist, Isabel Reitemeyer. When I contacted the artist for permission to reprint her work, I asked her if there was anything she’d like to promote. She replied simply, “When it comes to my art, less is almost always more.”


This principle of ‘less is more’ applies to so many objects and systems. Posters, emails, products, conferences. When inventing and creating, we must resist the urge to cram it all in. Instead, ask yourself, “What features can I strip away? And how does that stripping away make what remains more clear?”

Because we don’t want clutter. We want clarity. Clutter is a Victorian-era design principle. And we are past that, aren’t we?

Isabel Reitemeyer’s website:

related reading (from the archive): Nile Rogers on Figure-Ground


Long Live the Touchscreen?

This headline caught my attention the other day:

Pebble [smart watch] is dead and hardware buttons are going with it: The future is all touchscreen, for better or for worse

Eh not so fast. Sure, it’s true that touchscreens are the status quo for interface design. But as with anything status quo, the players that are invested in it are well positioned to defend it. It’s easy to confuse their power with permanence.

But the status quo changes. There are plenty of artists and inventors working on tangible, gestural, and conversational interfaces that don’t involve touch screens at all. While these inventors acknowledge the economics and reality of the status quo, they don’t let it limit their imagination or their drive to change it.


article: Pebble is Dead

for fun: tangible media


Design in Time and Space

I went to music school as an undergrad. Though I studied classical voice, I hung out mostly with jazzers and composers, folks that not only performed other people’s music but improvised and created new music. One of the things we did together was to listen to music. Constantly. If we already knew the record, we’d point out special parts as they were about to arrive, “Check this is out, check this out, listen…”  And if the record was new to us, we’d giggle with delight as special moments surprised us. Something I came to appreciate about music then was its temporal nature. Music happens in real time and so does our experience with it as a listener or a player.

Ten years later I found design. Design is often confused with the visual. Or if you’re talking to someone with a little more understanding of it, that description is extended to the tactile. Design is the “look and feel” of a product. And while the word “feel” gets closer to what design is, it still misses the mark. Design is spacial and temporal. Our experiences with designed objects happen in space and time. For example, the designed gadgets, furniture, and architectural elements in our homes live in specific spaces where we interact with them at specific times. Mobile devices like cars or smartphones live in a more fluid way in time and space but they are still time and space bound.

So when we design new products and systems or talk about existing ones, it’s important that we understand how these products and systems live in time and space. If we focus only on the visual, we design products that look great in a press release or a magazine but fail in real life. The human experience lives in time and space. And so must design.