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Did you miss our recent series of articles on the right way to hire a digital studio?

We're more than three decades into the digital age, and yet companies still have difficulty finding the right fit when it comes to design providers. Why should that be the case? In these four blog posts, Dirk Knemeyer shares a fresh perspective and practical tips to help you establish the best possible client / consultant relationship.

Skip the RFP

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Leave the RFP behind and try something new to narrow down your choices and get the perfect-fit design agency—in a way that motivates, empowers, and encourages them to perform at their absolute best.


Start With a Test Project

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Replace the pain and frustration of the hurry-up-and-wait syndrome with a timely but systematic approach to ensure your big bet is on the right partner—start with a small “lust-to-dust” project together.


Culture is Key

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A relationship that features agency-client compatibility, along with a healthy shared culture where the two intersect, is a more important vector than you might first think in choosing an agency partner.


Review the Relationship

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Strong partnerships require nurturing. You may already do progress reviews with an agency—but do you talk with your team about the agency? Or have the agency team give a tech talk? Learn how to build a relationship that adds value for your team while challenging the agency to demonstrate their effectiveness.




Wait! There’s more!

While immersing yourself in the topic, be sure to catch the Digital Life podcast in which Dirk and Jon share more ideas on finding the right digital agency fit for your company.

Here in the United States, it is Columbus Day, when we are supposed to celebrate the excitement of exploration (and try not to think about what happened after the explorers landed). Perfect timing to share some images of our own explorations as mentors alongside MIT MechE seniors in two-double-oh-nine.

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“Ideate. Model. Test”: the 2.009 mantra.

MIT’s 2.009 Product Engineering Processes is a popular course for senior mechanical engineering students. The semester-long course engages teams of 16–20 students who design and build working alpha prototypes of new products. The course provides experiences in need-finding, innovating, prototyping, and the business development cycle in a simulated but very realistic environment. Students learn about creativity, product design, and working within a budget, while they gain unifying engineering experience. They must exercise both creative and analytical thinking while solving engineering design problems. They also develop strategies to increase the likelihood of success and apply them to product development while working in large teams.

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Juhan checks in with a fellow instructor prior to the build challenge, where teams raced human-powered vehicles they designed and built.

From an instructional and program/project management standpoint 2.009 is an enormous undertaking. This year there are eight teams, all benefiting from the guidance of not only the professors, but a number of instructors from a variety of disciplines, teaching assistants (mainly grad students), and mentors. This year, the mentor team includes three of Involution’s crew: designers Roger Zhu and Sarah Kaiser along with yours truly. Summer 2014 Invo Intern Amy Loomis is an instructor this year (she is the one who talked me into it!) as well as Invo Creative Director Juhan Sonin.

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Emily Twaddell, Amy Loomis, and Sarah Kaiser at MIT Pappalardo Lab (about to put on safety goggles, really!)

2.009 mentors come from a variety of design backgrounds including product, mechanical, electrical, UI, robotics, medical, aero, optics, communications, and other design disciplines. Some are students themselves, others are veterans of decades in the workforce, which gives the MechE teams a broad range of voices and experience from which to draw. Mentors act as non-threatening advisors. We question, encourage, gently critique without slamming doors to creative thought. We don't grade students, nor do we advocate one idea or approach over another. We model a calm, supportive perspective while helping ground students in reality as they run their projects and teams.

Before signing on for the fall, I asked Roger Zhu, now in his third year as a mentor, about his experiences. Here is what he told me about it:

“I did the job for 2 yrs, the first year I was there simply to observe and learn, and the second year I had a bit more knowledge of the course and I participated more, include teaching a tutorial. My personal experience is that sometimes I feel great being able to help, sometimes I feel amazed by the work the students produce, sometimes I feel I am not helping whatsoever. Depends on different stage of the class, the design can contribute differently, the beginning of the class is where the design play a bigger role (ideation, concept sketches, etc), there is a period of time it's mostly technique development so I take a back seat, and by the end of the class, we can help them craft their presentations.”

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Roger flashes his mentor badge and a smile at the 2013 final presentations.

As a first-year mentor, I do mostly observe, and I am sure I am learning far more than I will be able to teach these brilliant students. I am floored by not just their smarts, knowledge, and abundant prototyping skills, but by their leadership abilities, their commitment to support each other as people as well as co-learners, and their incredible work ethic. Every time I read another op-ed complaining about spoiled or unfocused millennials, I know that the author has never seen the likes of these 2.009 adventurers!

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Maybe it was the full moon this week, but we seemed to be in a wickedly playful mood.

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Engineer Adam Pere contributed this creepy craft for engineers who love to have fun on Halloween.

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Along the same lines, designer Sein Woo shared this avian documentary: A Murder of Crows. After watching this, you will look at crows in a totally different way!

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Creative Chief Juhan Sonin found something that captures the Invo vibe perfectly: taking the lowest-tech toy (besides dirt) and making it, well, current-tech with the Paper Airplane Machine Gun.

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Visiting Ben Listwon came bearing gifts with a complete set of A Book Apart titles on web design to add the the Invo Library. Thanks, Ben!


This Week’s Highlights

In Episode 72 of The Digital Life, The Digital Dark, Jon and Dirk examine cyber bullying, harassment, and trolling—the darker side of the Internet.

Wednesday we launched number 3 of the series of six articles looking at the future of experience design for emerging technologies, The Future of Design: UX for Robotics.

And Monday’s Around the Studio features some contributions from Invo’s talented Sarah Kaiser.

And in other news, the MITX blog featured Invo’s Dirk Knemeyer: Where Did User Experience Come From?

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I was all set to compose a riveting post (pun intended) about the creative work of Invo designer Sarah Kaiser, who sits next to me, makes me tea, and amazes me several times a day with her magical skills. While thinking about how to frame this little story, I did some quick research into Maker culture, which seemed to be the right context. I discovered that the theory of constructivism that I had studied so long ago in college, is a foundational value of Makers. Venturing over to Pinterest opened a whole new world of time-sink bliss with links to education, science, school libraries, learning, DIY, projects, and—yes!!—design.

But then I happened to open Facebook (note to self: no FB before homework is done). A literary academic friend had posted a link to a scathing article that very nearly burst my artisanal, plant-dyed, spun-local-organic cane sugar balloon: Keywords for the Age of Austerity 12: DIY (Do It Your [Damn] Self). Here I sat in my cozy little home studio, surrounded by my craft library and supplies (yes, some rescued from the trash) and read this political rant against an admittedly appalling suggestion that poor residents of government housing learn to make their own repairs. It was the trashing of middle-class do-it-yourselfers (hey, that’s me!), along with the reference to “the apolitical hubris that ... fatally compromise[d] the Arts and Crafts and 60s ‘maker’ movements” that bothered me. Yes, I understood his points about lack of significant economic reforms in the context of those historical movements. And that the DIY trends of the 1950s and 60s and even now were and are heavily gender-biased. In my childhood years it was my oldest brother who subscribed to Popular Mechanics and built Healthkit radio sets. He once bottled his own root beer and we spent summer nights listening to the caps blow off the bottles in the basement. My mom made many of my clothes and I was sewing by the time I was 8 or so, we made grape jelly and pie from scratch and never used gravy from a can or a bottle. My dad, a doctor, wasn’t “handy” but, when my sister tore her ACL in a childhood fall, he splinted her leg with cedar shakes and sanitary pads wrapped with Ace™ bandages.

Except for the splinting, it wasn't out of necessity that we did these things, it was because it was fun and interesting. Is that not a good enough reason? And now, in the 21st century, puttering around the makerspace involves a new level of industrial magic with the integration of contemporary technologies. The lines between work and play are interweaving, not just blurring. Anyone can weld sturdy, pretty things. Anyone can sew pretty, sturdy things. Anyone can learn to program them, in some cases, even quite a young child. Or an, ahem, older person.

So, not to disapoint, back to Sarah's play/work/art/construction. Sarah grew up what might now be called a free-range kid, exporing the woods and fields around her rural home while crafting her own toys and fixing broken electronics. Her mom taught her to solder at an early age, which garden flowers were edible, and a fiercely independent self-reliance. RIT nurtured her design and coding skills. A nearby makerspace, Artisan’s Asylum gives her room to work on bigger project using power tools. Commuting by public transit allows plenty of sketching time, and she is never without a sketchbook. Ever.

Take a few minutes to indulge your mind and consider a few examples of the incredible range of talents that Sarah brings to Invo and to our clients. No apolitical hubris here, nor gender bias, nor the dabblings of a discontented Millenial. This is real art, from-scratch making, seriously true design work.

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Sarah designed and constructed this costume. At right is a portion of the Arduino program she wrote to control the claw you see over her left shoulder.

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Sarah’s prized Form 1 3-D printer with its first form emerging like closely spaced tiny icicles. At right is a set of detailed wings she designed and printed to use in a new costume embellishment.

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Sarah giving an Invo tech talk on molding with resins.

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Many sketches are always hand-drawn first, for new a Health Axioms card.

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Sarah casually drinking tea while modeling a flexible armored glove she created. Note the finished wing decoration on the (faux) weapon.

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Sarah helped to design Tabeeb, a medical interaction framework that enables clinicians to discuss and document patient cases. Tabeeb is a product of NxTec Corporation.

I hope you have enjoyed this artistic interlude, it was fun sharing with you. Have a good week!

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In case you have no plans for Friday night:

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Visit CSS Diner! Bring a friend to this table-for-two experience. If you are new to CSS selectors, no worries, the chef is super-helpful.

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The Green Bean Maker Module™ lets you build your own controls for GE Appliances. For $20, you can buy a little circuit board which connects to a variety of GE appliances (refrigerators, water heaters, stoves, ovens, etc) and your computer (or a Raspberry Pi). Via their node.js SDK on Github, you can get data from or control your appliances. Pretty cool.

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Need a house in a hurry? Gizmodo tells us that the answer might be Wikihouse: open source building plans online for anyone to download, designed to require only the most basic knowledge of construction to create.

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The Ascom Myco™ (My Companion) provides intelligent patient alert handling for nurses, health caregivers, and other clinicians.

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This last one is just a personal indulgence. Have you seen the campy GE lighting ad featuring actor Jeff Goldblum? (I’ve been a fan ever since I saw him in Earth Girls Are Easy.)


This Week’s Highlights

In Episode 71 of The Digital Life, Jon and Dirk examine the unintended consequences that may come with the adoption of emerging technologies and the potential role of UX design in mitigating them.

Wednesday, we offered the second in our series of six articles looking at the future of experience design for emerging technologies, The Future of Design: UX for Genomics and Synthetic Biology.

Monday’s Around the Studio featured the digital and culinary contributions of our last summer 2014 intern Clément Prod’homme.

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And now we come to the last installment in our series of summer-intern stories! In this case, we bid adieu to our new French Invo'ite and resident pastry chef, Clément.

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Clément Prod’homme is an engineering student in Ensimag, the school of Informatics, Applied Mathematics, and Telecommunications at the Grenoble Institute of Technology near Lyon, France.

Talk about the projects you worked on.

During the first three weeks, I was in charge of the Soccer Data Visualization for which I mainly worked on the design and the rewriting of the algorithms. Then, I spent the last nine weeks on a new project called pophealth. I had to manage the data, build from the ground up the application, and develop a UI.

What were some of the most difficult problems you faced?

I think the first is freedom. When I arrived at Invo, Juhan told me he wanted the data viz [for the soccer feature story] to be prettier, which wasn’t really helpful because I didn’t know what to start with, or even what to do. Later, for pophealth, he just told me “this is your baby.” That was the opposite of what I’ve been told at school: that you always have the project’s specifications.

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The soccer visualization involved a large and very detailed data set.

Then, it was also challenging that I had to choose the structure of the whole pophealth project, and designing an interface was kind of new for me.

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Pophealth is intended to create a service that enables people to choose their hospital depending on various critera, and helps them understand some health key factors about Massachusetts. It uses data from the Massachusetts Center for Health Information and Analysis (CHIA).

Talk about the studio environment.

I saw pictures of the studio on Juhan’s Flickr before arriving in the US, but when I visited the studio for the first time, I was impressed. I’m used to cold work offices with few furnitures and no design but Invo is the contrary. It’s a huge space with wooden desks (real wood, not from Ikea) and filled with so much cool stuff everywhere that I’m sure I won’t find everything before leaving. Nevertheless, I already took a step forward and have a picture of most of the fake animals that are sprinkled inside the studio.

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Clément and Juhan Sonin discuss visual design with large data sets.

Final thoughts? What will you take with you from this experience?

So much! First, because it was my first time in the US, I discovered the American culture and was (happily) surprised of how different it is from what I thought. Also, I really improved my writing and speaking English, even if sometimes I can’t pronounce the right way a word, or French comes out of my mouth unintentionally. Then, I gained a lot of front end skills and discovered what it’s like to design a UI. That was really interesting.

This internship changed me a lot, and especially, since then, I know that it’s the kind of job in want to do, and that I want to find a similar structure where I could blossom.

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Clément prepared a fabulous lemon-meringue pie for everyone to enjoy, from a recipe his grandfather gave to him.

Thinking about joining Involution Studios as an intern? Learn more!

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Paperhouses recently interviewed Juhan Sonin on why he designs and why Involution Studios works.

After seeing our Gamestorming mention last Friday, early Involution Studios principal and technology director Ben Listwon responded with these engaging ideas for using play and Lego in corporate and educational settings.

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Lego Build With Chrome (in case your kids won't let you bring theirs in to work).

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Lego Serious Play fosters creative thinking in all kinds of workplaces. This image is from an offshoot of Serious Play called Strategic Play Room. Lego Serious Play began as a trademarked consultancy service and product line that is now open-source.

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Ben also shared this amazing idea from the 2012 Google Science Fair, Growing Bones with Lego!


The week’s highlights:

On this week's podcast, Episode 70 of The Digital Life you can hear about BIF10, the tenth annual Business Innovation Factory conference. Jon describes it as "basically the equivalent of a giant dinner party where you get to see some terrifically intelligent speakers on stage. Afterwards, you actually also get to talk with them on one of the many break-out sessions about innovation, about design, and about business."

On Wednesday we opened an exciting new series on the future of experience design for emerging technologies, including the Internet of Things, robotics, genomics / synthetic biology, and 3D printing / additive fabrication.

Monday’s Around the Studio featured summer intern Noel Forte and his work on the new goinvo website.

We've said good-bye to another, already-missed summer intern. We'll continue to share our intern stories with you over the next few weeks. Read the first and second installments, too!

What I Did On My (one and only) Summer Vacation

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Noel is a sophomore studying Graphic Design at Drexel University in Philadelphia. You can find him on Twitter @thenoelforte and check out his other works and writings at noelforte.com.

Talk about the projects you worked on.

My project this summer revolved entirely around building a new goinvo.com, which involved a number of smaller components that all worked together to create a final product. Coming into the project, I learned that some work had been done on it already, but that Involution was looking for someone to really finesse the design and take the base of what had been previously done all the way to completion. Now, looking back, I think I can safely say that this project was one that I gave nothing less than everything to, and adopted it to be something that I could call my own.

What were some of the most difficult problems you faced?

When I first was introduced to the website, a lot of work had been done to design and conceptualize what it might look like when it was completed, but looking at the code I could easily see that there had been a number of voices in the development process. The site uses HAML, an abstraction of the HTML markup language that is fine for doing layouts, but has some major shortcomings when it comes to writing content. This flaw in the language has been acknowledged by not only the web design community, but also the language’s lead developer (see the section on work-arounds).

Writing content in HAML was something I could work around, but what I felt needed immediate attention was the use of Zurb Foundation for layouts. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing shameful about using Zurb when you’re working on a quick site layout and spending more time focusing on the content. But with Invo's site, I thought that we as a design studio could do something better, which is why, halfway through the project, I took the site off Zurb Foundation and refactored the CSS in less than 48 hours. (If you are interested, read my notes on the refactor here.)

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Migrating away from Zurb enabled the site to function without the need for extra style overrides and extraneous code. The final refactor included 32,089 deletions across our repository and in turn allowed the site to run more quickly and efficiently.

Talk about the studio environment.

Before I began working at Involution Studios, I honestly had no idea that they existed. For years I had walked by their building, never knowing that a design company doing work for well-known corporations was just upstairs. I first discovered the studio through an interview on the Arlington Public News, another local website to which I have contributed.

The studio space, at least to me, is a merger between the old architecture of the ballroom environment that is the main room, and a modern digital studio complete with white walls, shiny Apple computers, and natural and ambient light that fills the halls, offices, and kitchen. The reclaimed wood desks at which most of the designers/engineers work are a nod to a time that once was, while the rest of the space has a clean modern vibe to it.

Noel took a brief Hyperlapse tour through the studio one afternoon.

How did your art inform your work?

Formally practicing art has been something that I never dabbled in until my freshman year of college this past year. Having now taken three design classes, one drawing class, two art history classes, and one digital design class, I’ve been trying to put more and more of my knowledge of art into what I used to “design” without giving the final product much thought. One of the things that the people who see my work know me best for is my love of low-contrast, elegantly designed layouts that embrace the white space of a design and don’t force an excessive amount of distraction or clutter on the viewer. In working with the design of goinvo.com, much of the site was laid out in black, white, and shades of gray to draw attention to the content and visuals rather than the site design itself, a technique that I reused from my work developing Arlington Public News.

Were you breaking new artistic ground for yourself at Involution?

I’m not sure, actually. Maybe I was, subconciously. I think that the groundbreaking moments for me were coming into a project that had already been started, and learning how to have a conversation with the other designers and engineers there. I’ve never had the experience of working on a design team before, so if there was any ground to be broken doing that, it certainly was this summer.

Artistically speaking, I think more than anything I learned more about how to apply a sense of graphic design to the web and what new and experimental techniques others in my fields of interest are using. I’m the sort of person who feels that there’s always more to learn about the way design and the web interact as whole, in addition to seeking out new ways to experiment what can be done with web design and web layouts.

Final thoughts? What will you take with you from this experience?

My overall take away from working at Invo this summer has been to embrace collaborating and building things with other people, and learning how to have conversations and involve people into the web design process through collaboration. I’ve learned how to do more with the skills that I brought with me, and from my experiences I was able to gather some ideas of what to bring to projects that I will work on in my future career as a designer and developer across mediums.

Thinking about joining Involution Studios as an intern? Learn more!

The week’s highlights first:

We are breaking with our usual links-first format to introduce the latest goinvo feature story, Redesign Democracy: A Better Solution for the Digital Era. Allow yourself a good block of time to explore and enjoy this well-researched and beautifully crafted article. Available in its interactive form, downloadable pdf or e-book, and also as an audio file, it is well worth your time and sharing with others.

Concurrent with the Feature launch, this week's podcast, Episode 69 of The Digital Life offers a lively discourse on Dirk Knemeyer’s vision to redesign democracy into a system more appropriate for the realities of 2014 while moving closer to its philosophical origins.

On Wednesday we offered the final installment in the “Right Way to Hire a Design Studio” series, Review the Relationship. Take notes: it offers a number of excellent tips for maintaining an effective partnership throughout a project. 

Monday’s Around the Studio gave a quick look at how Involution designers sometimes organize their thoughts early in a project. Suffice it to say we go through a quantity of sticky notes and eraseable markers here!

And in other news...

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Check out Gamestorming a toolkit, blog, and wiki that has lots of good techniques for idea generation with a group of people. 

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We are pretty excited about the work of Sangbae Kim and his robot cheetah!

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And it might be fun to introduce the cheetah to the new bird in town, which could prove useful to both the avaiation and waste-management industries.

Happy Friday!

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One week this past summer, I followed designers Ben Salinas and Roger Zhu around the studio, snapping pictures with an eye toward capturing their process in a (relatively) non-invasive way. As I looked through my collected shots I realized they needed a context. So, like any smart designer, I turned to the Design Axioms.

It was actually a little hard to choose only one axiom, but I settled on this one: Forget The Pretty Pictures: Help People Do What They Want. My pictures aren’t all that pretty, but they do show the bare-bones workflow that Ben and Roger followed to deconstruct and analyze a project in the works. Here are a few of my observations from this simple exercise.

Involution designers frequently start out with some sort of category tree to identify user tasks, look for patterns, and generate questions to discuss with the client.

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Sticky-note card-sorting make it easy to categorize tasks and information elements. One day these notes may become a navigation menu.

Sketching doesn't have to wait until after all of the categorizing is done—sometimes drawing diagrams helps you to see relationships and patterns in ways that words don't always convey. (For more on sketching, read Five Reasons to Sketch Your User Interface.)

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An early sketch begins to take shape.

During iterative design and review, Involution designers meet directly with the clients in a collaborative process to refine the foundational concepts.

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Blueprints lay the foundation for another round of notes. Still not committing to pretty pixels—a project blueprint helps designers to generate feedback directly from clients, who can write and stick notes directly on the comp without worrying about ruining anything.

The designers use the insights and feedback gleaned from weekly client design reviews to inform the next round of design decisions.

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Our studio walls are coated with whiteboard paint, which makes it easy to extend the discussion literally beyond the limits of the paper copy. Designers often take pictures of each stage before updating the next version in pixels.

Throughout these initial stages of the design process, the focus is on what the user needs to do. Elegance and beauty wait in the wings.

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