The remains of the day

March 28, 2012 in Email, Evening, Home, Project Work, Research

The boundaries of my days have slipped somewhat over the years, so it is not uncommon to be up and working in the wee hours of the morning, then go back to bed for an hour after breakfast. This morning, however, I opted instead for second breakfast, which I ate at a food court franchise of the Billy Goat Tavern–immortalized on Saturday Night Live some decades ago.

Since my 2010 sabbatical year, however, I’ve gotten into the habit of working less on weekends and evenings, so it is a bit unusual that I take a few minutes tonight for this final blog post. What did I leave out of my reports of the day? Well, I had a Skype call with Teresa Dobson about three or four of the research projects we’re doing together. I went to the bank to see about cashing the little royalty cheque I received recently for my book, but since it is written in pounds the bank fees are worth nearly as much as the cheque, and the wait is almost a month. There has to be a better strategy.

Along the way, I also got an alarming message about a research proposal where I had dropped the ball on getting the budget planning done. I received draft papers from students and colleagues on agent-based modeling of an online resource-sharing system, a Wizard-of-Oz-style social media experiment, and a study of best practices for design management in small firms.

Some things I didn’t get done–a note to my co-PIs on a recent letter of intent, a note to my co-researchers on the speculative timelines project (and that’s a note that is long, long overdue), a note to a prospective PhD student, some literature review on cognitive artifacts, and reading some chapters by Lakoff on classification for tomorrow’s PhD seminar.

I did, however, get the chance to live another day in Chicago, and to be picked up after work by my sweetheart and her daughter, who stop by the school nearly every day to walk home with me.

Susan and Marley in the lobby of the Steelcase building where I work

Understanding context

March 27, 2012 in Afternoon, Class, Teaching

Here at the Institute of Design, we have only graduate students, so the teaching consists of a variety of graduate seminars. I taught in the fall and am co-teaching this term a course that has to do with the production of literature reviews and environmental scans of existing products and services. The goal is that students get some practice in coming to terms relatively quickly with the state of the art in a given area. They can then use this understanding to help inform the next stages of the design process, only in this course, they turn instead to the next topic rather than moving on to doing the design work. The upshot is that, somewhat unusually for design students, they spend the term writing.

My colleague Matt Mayfield and I have also now expanded this course to include a section on design-related concepts, such as sustainability, social media, and so on. In addition, I’m offering this term an “advanced” version that is really by any other name a graduate writing seminar, where the students choose items from their previous design projects, and attempt to produce conference presentations or research papers about the work. The jury is still out on how far they’ll get, but the projects they are discussing are great.

Stephanie Smith, working on adapting design critique to business settings



March 27, 2012 in Afternoon, Communication, Office, Teaching

For many years in the Humanities Computing program at the University of Alberta, I considered myself to be one of the advocates for design in DH. Now that I am in a design school, I have reversed the polarities, so to speak, and have become primarily an advocate for the digital humanities in design. It is a rich international environment here, with some awesome students and faculty members from all over the world.

For example, in the fall, I taught a course called “Prototyping for Hermeneutic Inquiry” where the students learned a bit about DH and the agenda of attempting to produce new online systems to help scholars with the task of interpretation. One of those students, Stylianos Makridis, will be presenting a paper about his work this summer at the annual conference of the Society for Digital Humanities (SDH/SEMI) in Canada. He was interested in producing an information dashboard for comparisons of public speeches.

In this jpg, you can see three of my other colleagues, who I found just finishing their tea when I returned from lunch. On the left is Keiichi Sato, who has a background in design engineering and does research in design theory and methods. He is also a genius of managing design information, holds a named research chair, and coordinates our PhD program. He and I share the office where the photo was taken. Next to him is Mauricio Bernardes, here on sabbatical from his design professorship in Brazil. On the right is Shao Lin, also on sabbatical, from mainland China. She is holding a brochure from the design program at Loughborough University in England, left with us yesterday by a visiting speaker, Mark Evans.

Three awesome design faculty members from three different countries

Reference letters

March 27, 2012 in Admin Service, Communication, Morning, Office, Reflecting, Writing

Like all academics, I spend time writing reference letters, whether for scholarships, travel bursaries, graduate admissions, or jobs. Reference letters have their seasons, but there are also off-season requests when a new position becomes available or some special event requires that potential participants send along a letter or two of endorsement. I have a few of these on my desk today, which I hope to get to in between reading and posting to Day of DH, participating in research meetings, and teaching this afternoon. I take the responsibility of writing references seriously, and try to describe as carefully as I can the strengths of the person, backing my observations up where possible with examples or anecdotes. I’ve also had to read a lot of reference letters over the years, so I’m conscious that a letter that is a pleasure to read can have a greater impact on the chances of the candidate.

The poster for recruitID

I am inclined to think of reference writing today in particular because we are in the middle of an event called RecruitID, where for three days in the spring and fall potential employers come to the Institute of Design to interview students for summer internships and jobs. We have a great set of industry partners at the school, and many of them are here now. Ashley Harris, a full-time staff person here who helps ID to manage these relationships with industry, sent a list. I would have loved to work for these places when I was a student–more than a few of them are names to conjure with in the design world:

Doblin Monitor
Halverson Group
Hermann Miller
IA Collaborative
Jump Associates
Knight Foundation
Memorial Sloan Kettering
Peer Insight
SC Johnson
Siegel + Gale
Trunk Club

Prehistory, history, and today

March 3, 2012 in Biography, Morning, Office, Programming, Project Work, Research

Having looked at a few of the other about-me posts, I have the impression that people this year are tending toward giving a brief synopsis of their introduction to the digital humanities. For me, I think that would be in the late 1980s, when I was finishing my BSc in computer science, having previously dropped out after three years of math and physics, then instead completed a BA Hons and MA in English.

I was sitting around in the computer lab pontificating about something or other–one of my favourite topics at the time was that there was no future for monitors, because they were less useful than decwriters, which produced a long ream of paper printout you could flip back through–and a man I had never met rolled his chair over and offered me the chance to interview for a job in machine-assisted translation.

He was a manager for an international outfit that wanted to get a government contract translating Canadian provincial laws from English to French and vice versa. So next thing I knew, I was spending my post-degree days in an environment that seemed to me a bit like the deck of the Starship Enterprise, surrounded by a bunch of purpose-built machines from a company called Gigamos, part of a team of computational linguists and computer programmers writing parsers in LISP.

Here is my lisp programmer self, wearing what I think can best be characterized as a very 80s look.

What followed might perhaps be described as a series of tragedies interspersed with disasters, or maybe it was a simple concatenation of circumstances somewhat less subject to human failings than a person might be inclined to think, but the upshot was that I wrote an unpublished black comic novel called The Young Entrepreneur’s Guide to Canada, after which I decided to set the digital humanities aside for about a decade.

In the late 1990s, while finishing an MDes in visual communication design, I met several DHers at the University of Alberta who impressed the heck out of me, and Susan Hockey agreed to supervise my interdisciplinary PhD, albeit only briefly, since about a year later she left U of Alberta for UCL. But it was enough to get started again.

Fast forward another dozen years, and you find me an Associate Professor of Design at the IIT Institute of Design (formerly the “new Bauhaus”) in Chicago. I’ve only beenĀ  here since August, but I love this city and the school, and I think everyone here is the cat’s whiskers. I had similarly enjoyed my time in the Humanities Computing program at the U of Alberta, where I continue to collaborate with several really great groups of people, including the organizing team of Day of DH.