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art, culture, journal, politics

Comments Off on Beyond Words

Beyond Words

This nonsense brings back a powerful memory.

One morning during my Junior year of college, my sculptor professor, a scruffy-looking curmudgeonly man, who also happens to be one of the most well-spoken individuals on the topic of art I’ve ever met in real life, led our small group through the art building’s court yard area.

We must have been doing a class critique of some student work, when we came across an old, torn-up mattress that had been abandoned next to the art building and seemingly staged for display. On it somebody left a piece of paper with some words scrawled on it.

“This is art. Smell my fart.”

For a minute, I saw the stunt for what it appeared to be on the surface–a prank begotten of laziness, opportunity, and a few too many beers by some asshole fraternity members wanting to get rid of some old junk–and I probably even chuckled to myself at the culprit’s audacity.

But as I stood there debating the delivery of a sardonic comment that never came, it soon sunk in that this was something of a test for me.

At that time, I had just begun accepting the fact that I would be dedicating part of my life to making art, or at the very least something of creative value for others and myself. And here were people telling me how worthless it all was–belittling my peers, my institution, and what I thought at the time was my purpose. In fact, they were willfully acting out against the idea of art itself and I couldn’t help but to take it personally. At the peak of this moment of college self-discovery, I knew there could only one side for me to stand.

When my professor read the note, he didn’t seem surprised. But his disappointment couldn’t be contained either. He later recalled to us his own story of a public sculpture piece he created as a young artist, which repeatedly fell victim to a local vandal.

“That’s when I learned,” he said in his usual deadpan, “that some people can’t handle creative expression. They’re so intolerant of any point of view that they don’t understand or simply don’t agree with, that they’ll try to destroy it.”

This unrehearsed bit of wisdom still resonates with me today. It reminds me to expect the unexpected. And it helps me understand that creative expression can sometimes speak powerful words to people who are too closed minded to simply sit back and listen.



art, culture

Comments Off on A Tale of Two Paintings

A Tale of Two Paintings

The Philadelphia Museum of Art has in its permanent collection a number of cannot-miss-works, including Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, Cezanne’s Bathers, and an entire room full of Marcel Duchamp paintings and readymades (although some are noted as replicas).

But there are two outstanding paintings, which have left me breathless during the past few days — both for different reasons, however cumulatively similar their effect may have been. The first is Antonio Mancini’s Il Saltimbanco — a nearly seven foot tall stretched canvas of remarkable execution. This Italian-born painter and contemporary of John Singer Sargent may be lesser known than his friend to popular art history, but he’s certainly acheived a similar greatness as a painter. Known for his portaits of homeless children and street performers, a closer inspection of Il Saltibanco shows the artist’s remarkable technique, which embraces a poetic realism along with an expressionistic tendency far ahead of his time.

Standing a few feet away reveals the artist’s use of reflective gold and thickly applied paint. From this distance as my eyes weaved around the composition of the various staged props, I immediately gained a profound respect for Antonio Mancini. The Philadelphia Museum of Art has recently acquired over 40 works by the artist, which will be exhibiting in October. If his other paintings are anything like Il Saltibanco (and I’m convinced this one has to be an exception), the show should not be missed.

Antonio Mancini - Il Saltimbanco

Antonio Mancini
Il Saltimbanco (detail) 1877-78
Oil on canvas
Philadelphia Museum of Art

Another remarkable piece, which could easily be passed given it’s diminutive 5 inch size (and especially in comparison to the Mancini), is Jan Van Eyck’s rendition of Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata. This extraordinary work is a technical marvel to be seen. But be warned–a recent trip to an optometrist is probably required before viewing.

Although a provocative examination of it’s true identity has recently been articulated and despite the existence of an identical, yet four times larger, duplicate of the painting in Turin, Italy, the Philly version is no less a significant achievement. Indeed, as I looked at the four centuries old work with my own eyes, I felt forced into some kind of awe struck concentration–engrossed at the pain staking realism, which is hair-painted into such a small area. Save for the curious misplacement of the iconic figure’s feet, it is executed to near perfection.

Jan Van Eyck - Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata

Jan Van Eyck
Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata c. 1438-40
Oil on vellum on panel
Philadelphia Museum of Art

Both these works are exquisite in their own ways and I find their dichotomy in scale to be particularly charming. If you’ve never had the chance to run up the Philly museum’s front steps, I recommend making a point of doing so at some point in your life. And after you’re done posing like Rocky (dont’ worry, you undoubtedly won’t be alone), I recommend going in to see these master works. They are among the best that have ever been created by human hands.

design, journal, user experience

Comments Off on Taking Stock of the iPod + iTunes User Experience

Taking Stock of the iPod + iTunes User Experience

In April of 2003, I chronicled my first experience using the iTunes music store in a blog entry titled Tuning In, Turning Up, and Taking Change.

Already it feels like the new thing, making the way things were seem like such an ancient memory (if not ethically questionable). In minutes I had downloaded and purchased my first album…

At the time, it was only available for folks with Macs and not-so-secretly targeted for iPod owners. This may be one of the more revealing outtakes I’ve jotted down here for posterity’s sake, given how much the iTunes and iPod combination have affected not only my perspective, but certain paths I’ve taken over the years.

In many ways, what Apple has been able to do with the iPod, and the main reason I believe they’re so highly regarded in the Ux community, gives ultimate testament to the power of user experience itself.

I’m not exactly sure how to lay down the plot lines, but I’m fairly convinced that the total sum of the iTunes user experience has changed my outlook on music, making me behave in surprisingly new ways.

For instance, I’ve been spending the better part of the last month–finding precious and rare time in between work and child rearing–organizing my increasingly obsolete CD collection. Actually, organizing isn’t the right word at all. I’m archiving them. I’m doing this because iTunes has altered the orginal value of the CD for me as a media. Since I’ve digitized and transported all of my music into my iPod, I have little need to port around plastic discs anymore. If anything, they’re only useful to me as a burn-and-forget back up. So, in an effort to trim down to what’s only essential, I’ve been pain stakingly tossing out my plastic jewel cases (which I hope to recycle) and loading up my collection into a more compact, transportable box.

Actually, even the way I categorize my collection into this box is being influenced by iTunes. Instead of my usual last name alpha-chronological order, I’ve succumbed to the iTunes way of things, as sterile and anti-historical as it may be–first name alpha, no exceptions. Even my Bowie’s are getting filed under D, eschewing the natural order for which they’ve been mapped to my brain over the last twenty years.

It’s the kind of thing that would kick John Cusak’s character in the movie High Fidelity square in the balls and make him cry out loud.

iTunes has also pointedly contributed to changing my appearance–or at least where I shop for T-shirts these days. But before we go there, let’s understand something. Back in 2003, I had for the most part decided that my taste in music had been more or less permanently set. Sure, I’d hear some artists on XPN and I’d buy an occasional new album, but for a time I believed that I had already heard all of the magic I could from music. Then I bought my first iPod and began to seriously create a computer music library. The experience of importing my old CD collection, combined with the convenience of listening to numerous songs on my iPod, allowed me to re-experience much of that original magic. In relatively short order, I had renewed a waning interest and began opening up my eyes to new artists and new possibilities.

Not surprisingly, my attitude changed and I’ve recently found myself buying my favorite rock T-shirts at Hot Topic. This is only worth mentioning because in my wildest 30-something dreams I would never even dare enter a store like that on a whim. But after examining my relationship with music via the iTunes user experience, I’ve opened up and allowed myself to feel just a little bit younger.

For this, you can totally blame Steve Jobs. No, really. You can send the letters telling me to cut my hair directly to him.

All joking aside, there’s a huge reminder I should begin taking note of here, whenever circumstances provoke me to question my faith in user experience design. Because the fact of the matter is, if a product designed by Apple can encourage me to change my deeply ingrained habits, the possibility exists that other user experience practitioners, such as myself, can take similar strides–changing user behavior in outlying areas and making people feel a little bit better about themselves in the process.

You can’t put a price tag on that.

brand identity, design, user experience

Comments Off on User Personas as Product Design

User Personas as Product Design

New Denim, New You at Old Navy

Lately, I’ve noticed some anecdotal evidence which suggests that brand marketers and product designers have been moving the time-honored practice of user personas away from their normal confines on the product designer’s cubicle wall for occasional reference and elevating them to a place where they’re least expected–smack dab on the final product.

Case in point, the new New Denim campaign over at Old Navy. The idea is simple enough. Three different cuts of ladies denim jeans are given new vigor with names that personify different personalities, all of whom could have been derived from the subtitles of an actual Cooper style research activity.

The Diva. The Flirt. And the Sweetheart.

The fact that each jean has a different cut and fit reinforces the fact that each are also stating different intents. One doesn’t have to read a detailed research findings report to presume that the diva wants undivided attention from everybody in the room, while the flirt wants attention for sure, but on her own terms. Of course, the sweetheart wants only the right kind of attention from the person for whom she’s most fond.

Closer inspection of the jeans (to my distracted eye, anyway) brings no real substance to this kind of thinking. They’re all fairly similar, but the products as they’re positioned in the mind of a potential customer do seem to provoke an internal dialogue.

Which user am I? Given my life situation, my unique behaviors and attitudes, which one of these jeans steps beyond just making my ass look flawlessly delicious and gives me a truer reflection of myself, my goals, and my needs.

Of course, I suspect that in the end the connection to user persona is only accomplished through smoke and mirrors (if any ethnographic research was done at all). But it is interesting to see the suggestion of it tried on such a grand scale and in such a different context (the personas I look at all day have to do with people’s finances).

It’s interesting to see this kind of work coming out from the basement of methodology. I suspect, as the years pass by and user experience design becomes more accepted, consumers will be seeing more of this trend.

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