Voter Resignation

Right now, I’m pretty much annoyed by every candidate from both parties. I’m tired of fliers I pull out of the mailbox everyday. I’m tired of the garish signs pock-marking the landscape. I’m tired of the over-dramatic, mudslinging television commercials. Most of all, I’m sick and tired of the dozens of automated phone calls I’ve been getting at my house. I hate the waste in money, time, and resources that have gone into producing all this junk.

If you want my vote, donate at least three quarters of your campaign funding to charitable causes, and then tell me that you plan to reform the voting process. I should be able to log into my ballot online. Each candidate should have links to information about their platform, past voting records, and video clips of debates they’ve participated in and speeches they’ve given.

As things stand, I’m sorely tempted to vote for whoever calls me the least.

Punishing the Innocent

One of the things I value most is my time. There’s never enough of it. I hate wasting it. That’s the reason I get really annoyed when I insert a DVD and am faced with commercials, previews, and yes, the FBI warning, before I can watch the film. Not only does it waste my time—it detracts from the artistic vision and experience of the film. It’s going to get worse.

The government is rolling out an updated copyright infringement screen, along with a new  “educational” message. Both screens will be displayed before the film starts for ten seconds each, and they will not be skippable.

I already bought the DVD. You don’t need to lecture me on piracy.

More information can be found at arstechnica.

Designing for the Divide

Whether we think of issues of governance, religion, race, the environment, economic development, education, or healthcare, the inability to communicate, cooperate or compromise erodes social capital and weakens the ability to draw on diverse skill sets to address common challenges.

This conference calls for ideas that help bridge social divides from the fields of communication design, service design, user experience design, behavioral and social psychology and partners in civic engagement. These will include projects, media innovations and citizen brigades among others. The conference will also schedule workshops and planning sessions to jump start some of those ideas.

I’m driving down to WVU early tomorrow morning to attend Designing for the Divide, a conference on community action across lines of difference. The conference chairs are my colleagues, the design faculty at WVU. The conference is the brain child of Eve Faulkes, the professor under which I received by bachelor’s degree.

There is an interesting array of speakers, ranging from Yossi Lemel, and internationally recognized, Israeli poster artist, to Emily Pilloton, founder of Project H and author of the book Design Revolution. There will be workshops dealing with industry and the environment, religion, health issues, the economy, and the politics that surround them. It should be an interesting two days.

My students created large-format posters dealing with some of the issues as their most recent project, and I intend to share a couple of them with you next week.

It all brings to mind this passage from Richard Saul Wurman’s book, Information Architects:

There is a tsunami of data that is crashing onto the beaches of the civilized world. This is a tidal wave of unrelated, growing data formed in bits and bytes, coming in an unorganized, uncontrolled, incoherent cacophony of foam. It’s filled with flotsam and jetsam. It’s filled with the sticks and bones and shells of inanimate and animate life. None of it is easily related, none of it comes with any organizational methodology.

As it washes up on our beaches, we see people in suits and ties skipping along the shoreline, men and women in fine shirts and blouses dressed for business. We see graphic designers and government officials, all getting their shoes wet and slowly submerging in the dense trough of stuff.

These same people read the newspaper, thinking they understand the issues of the day, whether it’s the Savings and Loan crisis, the health-care crisis, Bosnia-Hercegovina, or taxes, or insurance. They nod their heads, knee-jerking to key words in headlines, but unable to tell anybody else, including themselves, the essence of any issue.

EASy come, EASy go

Dave Malouf made a perspicacious observation in his recent blog post about the Emergency Announcement System (EAS) and its first national test.

EAS has a huge flaw. It requires being attached to a radio or TV. However, a growing critical mass of people are never on a major broadcast system and thus EAS will never get its very important message to a core unit of the population.

He’s right. Case in point, I had no knowledge of said test until I read Dave’s post, nearly two weeks after the test had been conducted. I never watch live TV. The few shows that I do watch, I record on my DVR and view when I have the time, often weeks later. Nor do I listen to the radio on a regular basis. When I’m at home, I play music from my iTunes library. When I’m in the car, or doing chores, I listen to podcasts, audio books, or music on my iPhone. I occasionally have the radio on in the car when I’m chauffeuring my kids around town. I get my news from RSS feeds, podcasts, and Twitter.

I think Dave’s suggestion for expanding the EAS to contemporary, digital media channels, such as SMS, is important. And while his suggestions for pushing messages to platforms like set top boxes and gaming consoles isn’t a bad idea, an easier first step would be to harness social media, getting the word out on Twitter, Facebook, and so forth. As is typical, the government is lagging behind the technology, designing solutions for where the puck is (or was), rather than where it will be.

A Public Service Announcement

I don’t tend to get very involved in politics, but occasionally there are issues that irk me enough to act. There are two internet censorship bills: The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is in the House, and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) is in the senate. If you care about net neutrality, freedom of speech on the internet, and the future of web innovation, you should educate yourself about these acts. The RIAA and media companies have been lobbying hard for SOPA, and it’s on a fast track with a surprising amount of support.

Fortunately, we’re fighting back. Yesterday, over 6,000 sites, such as Boing Boing, Tumblr, and Mozilla, participated in American Censorship Day, which was organized by organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Creative Commons. As a result, over 1,000,000 email messages, 3,000 handwritten letters, and 87,834 phone calls were sent to Congress.

But the fight’s not over. Here are some links where you can find more information. Don’t let our government break the internet.

  1. What’s On the Blacklist? Three Sites That SOPA Could Put at Risk
  2. SendWrite
  3. Electronic Frontier Foundation
  4. American Censorship Day
  5. Mozilla
  6. Creative Commons
  7. Demand Progress
  8. Public Knowledge

A Product of Design

USA Today just published a piece titled Tax code grows like kudzu as another April 15 approaches, which states the following:

The instruction booklet that comes with Apple’s new iPad is one page. The instruction booklet that comes with this year’s IRS 1040 long form is 172 pages.
This raises an obvious question as next week’s dreaded filing deadline closes in on taxpayers. How can a revolutionary new product — using about as much computing power as a mainframe computer might have had a few decades ago — be so easy to use, while a tax code serving a constant purpose of funding government be so complex?
The answer is that the iPad is the product of free enterprise. The tax code is a product of politics and, in this age of dysfunctional government, it is a particularly defective one.

The article proceeds to place blame on the political parties, but they came to the wrong conclusion right out of the gate. The answer is not that “the iPad is the product of free enterprise.” The iPad is a product of Design.

As other journalists have done in the past, the article concludes by flippantly suggesting that the job of simplifying the U.S. tax system be turned over to Apple. A better approach would be to hire a design firm that specializes in social and organizational change. They would assemble a team of people with appropriate knowledge and experience and then work closely with the IRS. They would approach the problem with a user-centered process in which the needs of all stakeholders, from taxpayers, to financial advisors, to those that work for the IRS, are taken into consideration. This is exactly what Richard Buchanan and Tony Golsby-Smith did in their work with the Australian Tax Office. It started out as an effort to make the tax form itself easier to fill out, but ended up as an overhaul of the entire tax code, making it easier for citizens to file their taxes and cheaper for the government to administer the process. Everybody wins.

Simplifying and clarifying the tax system is an achievable goal, but it isn’t going to be accomplished by our government alone.

They Can’t Move Forward

I received in the mail today my official 2010 Census form. It’s five pages long. The first page presents an initial set of ten questions. Pages two through four repeat the same seven questions for five potential residents. The last page has a smaller set of fields for persons seven through twelve. I searched the entire form and accompanying letter for a URL, expecting to be able to fill it out online. I did find a website address for learning “more about (their) privacy policy and data protection.”

It amazes me that in a society as technically capable as our own, our government isn’t able to provide a web-based form for a major data-gathering event. They could have real-time visualizations as the data comes in. It would likely save thousands of dollars in postage, not to mention the labor necessary to get the data from paper forms into a database. I realize, of course, that they would still have to do the paper mailings, as not everyone has internet access, but if we don’t begin transitioning now, when will we? The 2010 Census website says, “We Can’t Move Forward Until You Mail It Back.” I say we can’t move forward until we can press a “submit” button. 

Data Visualization & Social Change

On Friday, March 5th, President Obama appointed four people to the Recovery Independent Advisory Panel. One of those people is Edward Tufte, author of The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, practically the bible of data visualization. As posted on Tufte’s blog, the panel was created in 2009 with two goals:

To provide transparency in relation to the use of Recovery-related funds.
To prevent and detect fraud, waste, and mismanagement.

Its mission statement is:

To promote accountability by coordinating and conducting oversight of Recovery funds to prevent fraud, waste, and abuse and to foster transparency on Recovery spending by providing the public with accurate, user-friendly information.

I’m once again teaching my course on information design and visualization this semester, and in my introduction the first day of class, I suggested that it is a skill that is becoming more and more important in our society. I pointed out its prevalence in everything from advertising to politics. As Nathan Shedroff stated in his essay, Information Interaction Design: A Unified Field Theory of Design,

One of the most important skills for almost everyone to have in the next decade and beyond will be those that allow us to create valuable, compelling, and empowering information and experiences for others.

It can be a powerful tool to help or hinder social change. As such, I’m intrigued to see Tufte in this position and anxious to learn what he will be contributing.

Summit 09

The U.S. National Design Policy Initiative (NDPI) held its second summit in Washington D.C. this past Tuesday. There were around 30 people in attendance from professional design organizations, education, and government including:

AIGA, the professional association for design
Interaction Design Association (IxDA)
American Architectural Foundation (AAF)
American Institute of Architects (AIA)
American Society of Interior Designers (ASID)
Design Management Institute (DMI)
Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA)
International Interior Design Association (IIDA)
Society for Environmental Graphic Design (SEGD)
Association for Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA)
Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design (AICAD)
Interior Design Educators Council (IDEC)
National Association for Schools of Art and Design (NASAD)
Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum
National Park Service (NPS)
U.S. General Services Administration (GSA)
U.S. Government Printing Office

They had five objectives for the summit, four of which they accomplished (#2 must be completed).

  1. Develop the 2010 strategic priorities for the U.S. National Design Policy Initiative
  2. Finalize membership of an “American Design Council”
  3. Gain a sense of the priorities for design from the Department of Commerce, USPTO
  4. Engage the wider design community in national design policy decision making
  5. Develop a set of case studies that demonstrate the value of design for publication

Prior to the summit, the NDPI posted a poll on its website, allowing people to vote on what they felt should be the organization’s top priority for 2010. Out of 324 votes, 75 (23%) voted for the introduction of design creativity and innovation learning modules into K-12 educational curriculum. This was almost twice as many votes as the second-place priority. I concur.

Design education is currently in a tricky position. There is more interest in the field then ever before, and the scope of problems that design can be applied to continues to grow. This means that there are more students applying to design programs than can be accepted, and that a designer must be trained in a wider range of skills, from traditional, visual design to technology and business. There isn’t enough time to cover it all in the typical undergraduate degree program. Introducing design education even at the high school level would significantly improve the quality of design education in this country.


Let Teachers Teach

There are serious problems with our current educational system, and this week’s mailing from my children’s school is an excellent example.

The president of the United States is planning to address the nation’s children during a televised speech on the importance of education, work ethic, and goal setting on Tuesday, September 8th, 2009.

We understand that some families feel strongly in favor of allowing and not allowing their son/daughter to view this speech. In an attempt to respect differing viewpoints, we would like to accommodate the wishes of all families. Therefore, we will tape the President’s speech for re-broadcast and make it available to fourth and fifth grade students only. Kindergarten, first, second, and third grade students will not see the speech at school.

We will rebroadcast the President’s speech during the afternoon on Wednesday, September 9, 2009. This is an optional event; so if you choose for your child not to participate, please send a note with your child Wednesday morning. Children, who are not permitted to participate, will have an alternate learning activity.

Following the speech, the teachers may ask students to share their opinion of President Obama’s message. We will not be using any of the Internet-published materials.

It is the district’s wish to accommodate the needs and wishes of all families. We thank you for your understanding and support of this important and delicate situation.

Since when do parents specify what the teachers will and won’t teach in their classrooms? I don’t have any say over whether or not my daughter is required to write her spelling words in cursive or what method of division she will be taught. I’m not asked for permission to let her read any of the books they are assigned. I have no influence over which operating system she is exposed to in her classroom. I am not consulted on the content of the standardized tests used for her evaluation, nor am I allowed to vote on which areas of history they will focus on.

I would never expect any of this. I trust the school faculty and administration to know what should be taught and how. That is their job. They have been trained to do it.

I realize that there are a number of controversial issues about what should or shouldn’t be taught in schools. Most of them have to do with religion. I have my opinion about Intelligent Design and the inclusion of the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. But Obama’s address is not a religious matter. He is the President of the United States, for crying out loud. He is our elected leader, holding the highest office in our country. Whether or not you agree with his position on health care or anything else, he should be given respect. If he is addressing the children of our nation, and the school wants to show it and discuss it, why should any parent keep their child from seeing it? A few points:

  1. If you are afraid that the President of the United States is going to in some way subvert your child with political messages, I feel sorry for you.
  2. Our country is in bad enough shape without us teaching our children to be hard-line, uncompromising, non-thinkers with conspiratorial pessimism on either side of the political spectrum. Let’s first teach our youth to have some respect for their country.
  3. Have you listened to Obama’s speech? Can anybody disagree that it was a positive message that students should hear? Success isn’t easy. Stay in school. Work hard. Even people who grow up under tough social and economic conditions can become important contributors to our society. Can you honestly tell me that you are fundamentally against those notions to the point of disallowing your children from hearing the message? Well, what did you think he was going to talk about?
  4. If you have valid concerns about a particular teacher or curriculum, there are reasonable ways to address them.

Teachers are already overloaded with requirements laid on them by the government. Rather than teaching what they know their students need based on their own training and experience, they are required to build lesson plans around tests forced upon them by legislators. That’s bad enough, and doesn’t even mention the current problems with punishment for misbehavior. They don’t need to be further compromised by the uninformed opinions of parents. I’ve heard from many teacher friends that the hardest part of their job is dealing with parents. Leave classroom teaching to teachers.

And for the love of our country, show some respect to its leadership.