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Brought to you by MAKO Design + Invent, North America's leading design firm for taking your product idea from a sketch on a napkin to store shelves. Download Mako's Invention Guide for free here.

Navigating the world of crowdfunding can be overwhelming, to put it lightly. Which projects are worth backing? Where's the filter to weed out the hundreds of useless smart devices? To make the process less frustrating, we scour the various online crowdfunding platforms to put together a weekly roundup of our favorite campaigns for your viewing (and spending!) pleasure. Go ahead, free your disposable income:

Brooklyn-based design studio CW&T is at it again with their impeccably designed Pen Type-C. Machined out of titanium, the flat design doubles as a bookmark and features a bent steel spring to protect the tip when it's not in use. Fidgeters among you beware: flipping it around looks like way too much fun.

Here's a chance to own an object that's part of Cooper Hewitt's permanent collection. BabyLegs is a DIY tool and open-source platform aimed at making marine pollution research accessible to everyone. A variety of "trawl kits" are available—made of baby's tights, soda pop bottles, and other inexpensive materials—which can be used to collect and survey microplastics as small as half a millimeter.

This pillow uses gentle vibration therapy to guide you through your meditation practice and encourage focus.

This easy-to-use air quality monitor is small but formidable: it will track temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide, VOCs and fine dust particles as small as PM 2.5/10 in whatever room you put it in. An accompanying app translates that data into actionable recommendations and insights.

Perfect for anyone who has to move a lot, this sofa features a unique honeycomb structure typically used in aircraft design that is deceptively strong (it can withstand 1500 pounds) and allows for a super easy assembly/disassembly process.

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Whether in your college dorm, plastered on the sides of buildings, or held high in protest, we encounter posters every day and they hold a unique place in the public sphere: a democratic medium used to communicate, persuade, and reflect cultural trends. Though posters are everywhere, their impact has been under-represented in discussions of design history. That is, until now. A new museum opening today in New York will dedicate itself to exploring the global history of posters and shedding light on the significance of the medium.

Large 4K screens depict posters from the museum's collection.

Though poster museums exist in other countries and there is a vintage poster store called Poster Museum in New York, Poster House will be "the first curated poster museum in the country." The museum will host exhibitions and events surrounding the history, design, and cultural context of posters throughout history and around the world.

The children's area features a coloring mural wall with magnetic posters, interactive vintage pay phones, a newsstand, and layering stations that explain how posters are made by overprinting cyan, magenta, yellow, and black inks.

Interactive screens allow visitors to experience the poster design process, going through each step and explaining the ingredients that make a poster work: symbols, colors, phrases, fonts, and design styles.

Visitors can place themselves in iconic posters at the photo booth, a green-screen type room visible from the street.

Designed by KASA, the building features a range of permanent, interactive exhibitions including a children's area with a coloring mural wall and a station that explains the printing process, a Poster Machine that "deconstructs what goes through a designer's brain" through a "choose-your-own-adventure poster design game," and a fun photo booth where you can commemorate your visit by becoming the subject in a range of iconic designs.

The inaugural temporary exhibitions will present a retrospective of Czech artist Alphonse Mucha—with a focus on his depiction of the bold New Woman of Belle E´poque Paris and how it shaped the face of advertising—and the first US museum exhibition dedicated to the work of East Berlin design collective Cyan. Founded in 1992, Cyan was a design studio born of communist ideals but faced with the realities of working as advertisers in the new capitalist society after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Among the first to embrace cutting-edge design software, Cyan pushed the limits of what a poster could be.

Forthcoming shows will explore Ghanian film posters from the 1980s and 90s, posters from the Women's March in 2017, a 100-year look at the evolving messaging of posters in China, and how nuclear energy was rebranded through the series of posters created by Erik Nitsche for the International Agency of Atomic Energy conference in 1955.


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Rob Walker—author, columnist, and teacher—has just released his third book, The Art of Noticing. It's an essential read for designers, but also an amazing book for anyone interested in lateral thinking and, well, taking a break from their phone. (It's also a fantastic gift for clients and students.) On the heels of its publication, Allan Chochinov's Core77 catches up with Rob to learn more about the book, how it came together, and the benefits of focusing on the things we take for granted.

Allan Chochinov: Let's start at the beginning, Rob. We know that you have long been interested in people noticing things around them that we generally find unremarkable, or perhaps more importantly, don't even "see" them as things to be remarked upon...at least in the form of taking notice. This is an element in much of your work. Where did this curiosity start?

Rob Walker: I suppose it's a cliché to say that as children we're all super-curious, but for some this falls away over time. So maybe this is just one of the ways in which I never quite grew up. I was just incredibly bored as a kid (I grew up in a small town, obviously long before the Internet), particularly by school, so I was always looking for amusement or surprise. At the same time I was very shy, and I was suspicious of "authority," for lack of a better word. So, pretty standard-issue alienated outsider stuff.

Then I stumbled into journalism, a field that offers a certain opportunity to curious observers. At the same time, I've always tried to have some kind of side project going, usually something with no obvious commercial/market potential, often with collaborators—zines, a comic, an online fiction experiment, a public art stunt, and so on. Later, thanks mostly to you, I took another stumble into teaching, and that forced me to think through why it is that I believe a curious mindset, one that resists ceding control of one's attention to others, is important.

Meanwhile, the culture at large seemed to be getting more and more concerned about how technology distracts us and makes it hard to focus and prods us to attend to certain things and ignore others. Which, to me, makes this subject more urgent.

There are very logical evolutionary reasons that we want to pay attention to whatever we think everyone else is paying attention to. But what makes humans human is our ability to overcome that, to set aside instinctual behavior, think in the long term—to pay attention to what we, as individuals, value and believe is worth attending to.

Indeed. And it's not exactly a fair fight, given that online platforms can afford the very best designers, behavioral psychologists, and marketers to keep us glued to ever-irresistible (and novel) content. I wonder if "noticing" things online is different in ways yet understood. I think about kids making memes as a response to a particular flavor of what they see. This reaction to "design" something—they used to be called "response videos" when YouTube was new—has got to be a bright spot, right?

Well, maybe. Two things here.

First, the designers and marketers and so on aren't quite the magical puppet masters that they portray themselves to be. They're merely exploiting aspects of human nature. I don't want to spend a lot of time on this, because I'm very wary of mystifying these people and processes and making them seem impossible to overcome (without help from the exact same designers and marketers who allegedly "caused" the problem and now are working very hard to forward the idea that they are the only ones who can "solve" it).

There are very logical evolutionary reasons that we want to pay attention to whatever we think everyone else is paying attention to. But what makes humans human is our ability to overcome that, to set aside instinctual behavior, think in the long term—to pay attention to what we, as individuals, value and believe is worth attending to.

Similarly, I'm not against response memes or videos and the like, but I'm very specifically interested in spending less time and energy merely reacting to others' expression. Sometimes reacting matters, obviously. But if you spend your life reacting to others, that doesn't leave room for you to be, you know, a person.

And hopefully a person who has the ability (or the persistence!) to exercise her/his agency. And that's where the book seems so accessible. In many of the activities you suggest, the magic seems to be in the creation of the structures that bound each kind of engagement—each invitation, really, to notice something. Tell us what it was like to put all of these together. And of course, what the number of them might mean.

I noodled for quite a while with the idea of "a book about attention" before coming around to the idea of making it a collection of exercises or provocations. My publisher doesn't like the word "assignment," but the form was clearly influenced by giving assignments. And once I hit on this, putting it together was really pretty fun. I came up with my own idea, I got ideas from students, from things I read. I interviewed people and asked for their ideas. The format allowed me to go long or short with any given prompt, and I decided to rank them by difficulty. We put a lot of thought into sequencing, but the structure is intended to allow the reader to dip in and out if they don't want to go straight through.

We debated whether to have 100 or 101 or 150 or what. I wrote many dozens more than are in the book, and we decided my editor would winnow it down and we'd settle on an exact number based on that. I became attracted to the idea of a number that seemed really specific—this lends some kind of weird authority that makes people curious, like the numbers on Cosmo covers. I thought it should be a prime number, but that was kind of my only serious parameter. We ended up at 131. So that's the number because it's the right number!

Darn! I was going to comment that it was a prime number!!!

I really don't know much about math, but if you're interested in that point, then I suggest you check out the Wikipedia entry for the number 131 (which I actually consulted when I was conferring with my editor about whether 131 was our final answer).

Yikes! That Sonnet—yowza. Okay, let's get into the meat of the book, and maybe focus on a few exercises that I think really speak to the designer. Some are breezy, and some are tough. And for sure the hardest hitting is on page 202: "Read the Label." This is a speculative product that I've seen often in design school, but it's also one of the most compelling ideas for a design intervention that speaks to everything from materiality to labor practices. You boil it down to "Scrutinize whatever information is available" in the bold-face. (By the way, I really love how each of the activities has this distillation sentence; I also adore the illustrations!) Anyway, can you tell us a bit more about that activity, and maybe one of the ways that you've employed it yourself?

As an aside, one of the fun things for me in talking about this book is that everybody zeroes in on different exercises. I so rarely have to repeat myself!

Anyway, yes, that exercise refers to reading the labels in clothing, but means to make the larger point that we should a) take the time to scrutinize whatever information is available in plain sight that might guide our decisions, and b) consider what information is missing, and why that is. Usually details are vague, little more than "Made in X," or whatever. But if you're wondering "how they do it" for such a low retail price, well, maybe that should give you pause. It's just another way to be engaged in the world, and to pay attention to something that hardly anyone wants you to pay attention to.

And obviously it applies beyond apparel.

(And thanks about the design & illustration, we spent a lot of time on that. And it was a thrill to have Mendelsund / Munday do the actual illustrations, which I love!)

I think designers are always trying to deduce what could be—whether it's how to tweak some element of a product, or completely re-envision a category.

Another of my favorites is on page 141, "Channel Your Inner Monk." It made me think of my friend and colleague Petrula Vrontikis—an amazing graphic designer and educator—who says, "I work with my ears." Here she's talking about working with clients and users. But when I read your text, you're of course working way beyond the consultant. (My other favorite expression on this is "you only learn when you're not talking.") I'm very excited about trying not talking for a day. I'm also excited about the "not spending any money for a day" exercise on page 117.

I think with both of those exercises, the most important thing to remember is that it's fine to fail. The point of self-denial is to make yourself focus on stuff you take for granted—speaking freely, spending your way through the day as a matter of course. But yes, per your friend, I suspect a useful side effect of speaking less is a different kind of listening. She's actually quite wise: I'm pretty sure we all know professionals in many fields who are a lot more focused on telling their clients things, rather than absorbing what the client wants and needs. I'm pretty sure I've done versions of that myself.

On page 39, you talk about Adam Grant's notion of conditional thinking—key for designers of course. Can you describe this a little more, and maybe talk about some of the ways that you incorporate this kind of thinking in your own process and work?

The point of the underlying research was that the subjects needed an eraser, and didn't have one. But those who were primed to think conditionally (to think about what "could be" instead of what "is") realized that a rubber band can function as an eraser. Those who weren't primed that way were much less likely to have that epiphany.

I think designers are always trying to deduce what could be—whether it's how to tweak some element of a product, or completely re-envision a category. In the book I talk about a designer who does street interventions under the name Rotten Apple, and he was very good at seeing how, say, a bike rack could be converted into a chair, or a walk/don't walk sign could be used for some impromptu pull-ups.

So I think this is a way of looking that could simply be fun, but is also kind of at the heart of innovation.

So that last one, "Change Is to Could Be" is in the first section of the book, Looking. You divide things up into five families of exercises: Looking, Sensing, Going Places, Connecting with Others, and Being Alone. How did you go about clustering the exercises to come up with these, and what were some of the categories that didn't make it to the finish line?

We designed the book in a way that you can actually ignore those sections altogether, flip around, read it any order. The exercises are ranked by difficulty, so you can focus on that if you want. (This could have been another way to order the book—easy to difficult—but I never seriously considered that structure, it just didn't feel right to me.) In a way, this all a concession to short attention spans! I'm trying to meet readers where they are. Nobody needs a tome on how hard it is to focus.

So, the first section focuses on the visual, because that's what people think of when you first describe noticing or attention. (Thus the cover features an eye symbol.) So that's just starting where the reader is. I thought about structuring it around the five senses, but for a variety of reasons that just didn't work. So the second section became concentrated on getting beyond vision—sound, touch, and even sensations beyond the five senses (feelings, etc.).

The third section focuses on place—exploring new places, re-exploring the ones you know well. The fourth section is about connecting with other people. This is an idea that basically came from students. Every year I ask them to "practice paying attention," and the point is to see how they resolve the challenge. On several occasions the ideas involved talking to or attending to strangers, which would never have occurred to me. (I'm very introverted.) But it makes a lot of sense, and inspired a whole bunch of ideas about listening and communicating and how attention affects relationships, both close and fleeting.

The last section is more interior. I had this rough structure, but it wasn't really thought out very well until my editor (Maria Goldverg) got involved, and I remember her saying what I'd done boiled down to: "First you look around, then you end up looking inside." That became the sort of north star comment for finishing the structure and sequencing and so on. She had a lot to do with that.

Every year I ask them to "practice paying attention," and the point is to see how they resolve the challenge. On several occasions the ideas involved talking to or attending to strangers, which would never have occurred to me.

And speaking of the cutting room floor: Are there two or three exercises that didn't make it into the book? Anything that you were in love with but just couldn't make work?

Somebody else asked about this recently and I was surprised that when I looked at the "cut" file, how much was in it. Dozens! I'm going to start sharing some of those in the newsletter soon. But I can mention one.

There's a little batch of prompts that advise the reader to "Look like" a historian, or a futurist, or whatever, meaning look at the world in the manner that a historian, futurist, etc. would. I had one that was "Look Like Prey." This comes from walking my dog: Some years ago he was attacked by an off-leash dog who came out of nowhere and was much bigger, and frankly I thought was going to kill my dog. Ultimately it was brought under control, but it was really traumatic. To the point that to this day, when I walk my dog, I'm constantly looking for threats. It's a very intense way of looking at the world—like prey.

But when Maria read this, she made the point that a woman might not appreciate this idea of adopting the perspective of prey. And that was a fair point. So we dropped it.

My goodness, that story about your dog is awful. I hope s/he is okay. But that reminds me of a comment that you made during a recent talk of yours. It was just off the cuff, but it's one of the things that stuck most for me about the evening. You urged the audience, "When you walk your dog, please don't be on your phone. Just be with your dog." Seeing this around Manhattan is truly a sad thing.

Oh he's fine, it was some years ago, he recovered. But yes, be with your dog! It's such a great opportunity to free yourself from other obligations. Take advantage of it.

You also have a newsletter as an extension of the book. Can you tell us more about what goes into that, and how readers can sign up for it?

The Art of Noticing newsletter is basically a way to keep sharing or experimenting with new ideas similar to those in the book, or highlighting projects that resonate with the book's themes. I randomly started sharing "icebreaker" questions, and asking people to send in their own favorite icebreakers, and that's kind of taken on a life of its own.

I've had other newsletters in the past (my first book had its origins in a somewhat newsletter-like series of essays distributed via email to friends and then to strangers). I like the form, it feels more genuine than, say, social media. Getting the icebreakers and other feedback and tips from readers is really enjoyable. Anyone interested can sign up at tinyletter.com/robwalker. (It's possible that I'll have to switch to a different service as the number of subscribers has grown, so as a backup people can always check robwalker.net/noticing.)

In your acknowledgments, you give a very generous credit to the students of the SVA Products of Design. Can you tell us more about your course, and how the activities with which you engage your students gave some oxygen to the book?

My class, a five-week mini-class, really, is called Point of View, and it's about helping students think about what they want to do, and talk about it when they've done it. Like the book, the class heavily emphasizes the importance of noticing things everyone else overlooked—which is the starting point for creativity and innovation, if you think about it. Teaching forced me to articulate a lot of vaguely held beliefs about attention and originality and so on, and that definitely got me thinking in ways that led to the book.


[Article originally published at https://productsofdesign.sva.edu/blog/the-art-of-noticing]

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With nearly two decades of experience in a variety of industrial design sub-fields, Justin Coble understands the importance of research. "Throughout my years of working in consumer-centered design, my favorite part of the process has been getting out in the world to learn and understand how people live their lives," he writes. "I have always been fascinated with the stories, the differences in people, and most of all the moments of pure emotion that come out when you truly connect with someone."

"Learning about people, their problems and absorbing all the unarticulated insights are key to Design Research. And while personally fulfilling, it is also a critical element of product development, regardless of whether digital or physical. As I have learned and applied design research principles across various industries in my career, I have created 6 rules of thumb that I always introduce with my new teams so I thought it would be great to share here too."

Photo by William Iven on Unsplash

Justin has graciously allowed us to reprint his 6 Rules of Thumb for Design Research here. Enjoy!

____________________

Photo by Helloquence on Unsplash

Frame the Challenge

Assumptions are the number one cause of failure in consumer centered work. Teams come in thinking they know what the consumer wants, and a lot of times have a hard time breaking away from these assumptions. I believe that these assumptions need to be put on the table before going into the field. Without putting them out there, everyone will walk into the study with their own agendas, which will greatly jeopardize the study. Before beginning any research, I organize teams to first frame the challenge. We gather knowledge, challenge our assumptions and agree on an ambition. We then design the proper research paths to gather the best possible insights.

Build Rapport with the Interviewee

It is very important to make the interviewee feel as comfortable as possible and create a sense of trust with the interviewer. Remember multiple strangers have just entered their home or inserted themselves into their day-to-day lives. You have to immediately make them feel comfortable. Start by explaining why you are there, but then move on to making them forget you are a stranger. Complement them on their home or ask about their family. Find a hook that is going to get them talking. This doesn't have to be about the topic you are researching. Once talking they will continue to open up. Along with making them feel comfortable, prompt people to tell stories. Stories are more than facts. They reveal how people arrange and approach the world. Ask the respondent to give an example or share a personal experience, rather than sticking to scripted questions.

While telling their stories, never correct their answers. It doesn't matter if they are technically inaccurate because they are behaving as if it is accurate. Correcting them, can cause embarrassment, or confusion which may derail the interview or cause them to shut down.

Listen with Your Eyes, Nose, Ears…& Heart

Empathy is NOT listening to the consumer. This is the biggest misconception in consumer research. Empathy is being able to feel how consumers feels. Some of the best insights are discovered through observation of the environment which is gathered through what you see, smell, and overall feel for the consumer. When leading research teams, I always make sure the team is recording their initial observations when walking into a consumer's environment.

Don't just listen to what people say, but also observe what they do, how they live, observe their environment, and how they may behave. Look for barriers and workarounds. Probe thoroughly to understand what and how obstacles prevent success. Look for systems or processes that they may have invented to get the job done? These could be physical repurposed objects or an abandonment and restructuring of a task or process. Take note of the compensating behavior and how it effects their lives.

Prototypes Are a Discussion Tool

Consumers cannot always articulate what they are thinking. Bringing physical objects to the study for them to react to is a great way to help them connect the dot. This could be image cards, competitor product, or prototypes to drive conversation. A simple image sort can tell you a lot about how a person views the world around them. You can have them categorize food imagery to have a conversation around segmentations, attitudes towards products, and so on. The imagery gives them something to react to allowing them to structure their thoughts. Product prototypes can also be pushed to the extremes to stimulate discussion with the consumer to get great learning on the boundaries and challenges. These are NOT intended for design feedback but rather quickly identify benefits that resonated more or less with consumers and use their reactions to develop insights.

Synthesize Soon & Often

We have all done an amazing consumer study, only to get together at a workshop and have all your respondents feedback start to run together. You can't remember the key insights of what Joe said over Rachel, and Sean. You remember big "Aha's" but you have forgotten the nuances. I always put synthesis tools together and insist that teams do immediate downloads. Spending 30 minutes at a coffee shop after every interview and doing a group synthesis is key to pulling out meaningful insights. The team records their initial thoughts, their key "aha's" and the slight environmental nuances they saw to make sure the information is not lost. This is also a perfect opportunity to make sure the team is aligned. After a long day of research everything will start to run together. Waiting until the research workshop is not the time to be sorting out your thoughts.

Spread the Empathy

The best consumer studies are ones that energize teams to spread what they have learned with each other and through the business. Immersing a cross-functional team in observations is absolutely key to building wide spread empathy. Too many times design and innovation programs have fallen victim to a small group going out into the field and talking with consumers and then coming back to "debrief" the team. The issue with this is that the whole team has not developed empathy for the consumer. This means that they haven't created true consumer connections therefor they can't truly feel the struggles of the consumer. This can lead to debate over research findings, questioning of methodologies, and disengagement. I encourage all functions, R&D, Sales, Marketing, Finance, etc…, to attend the research, broadening their perspective on the challenge and bringing different functional expertise to the insight translation process. This not only makes the insights more robust, it also strengthens team engagement by giving everyone ownership over the insights. The intention is to get them immersed into the consumer's need, but also to enable them to spread that empathy into the organization. Nothing is more exciting than witnessing a finance team member get very excited over what they saw in the field and telling consumer stories. It blows their mind!

I hope this inspires you to get out and to engage with and learn from your consumers. As I always love to learn, please share your favorite techniques of gathering true empathetic insight.

_______________

Need more pro tips? Check out Core77's discussion boards, which are chock full of practical information from working industrial designers.

Thanks Justin!

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The furniture line ORTO by zweithaler is based on a structural design principle, which results in structures that are stable without any connectors. The horizontal MDF boards of the shelf ORTO 53 are held up and locked by skewed wooden poles, which allow for flat pack delivery and tool-free mounting.

Orto 53
Frontal View
Credit: Günther Linshalm
Orto 53
Detail
Credit: Günther Linshalm
Orto 53
Detail
Credit: Günther Linshalm
Orto 53
Detail
Credit: Günther Linshalm
Orto 53
Shelf Detail
Credit: Günther Linshalm
Orto 53
Top Shelf
Credit: Günther Linshalm
Orto 53
Top View
Credit: Günther Linshalm
Orto 53
Flat-Pack-Delivery no tools needed
Credit: Günther Linshalm
View the full project here
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Designers create choices.

The working designers among you often create multiple options that non-designers must make a decision on. You present concept sketches or renderings for a client to choose between. If you work for a consumer goods company, you may be designing multiple iterations of a product, and consumers are meant to pick one of them to purchase. Tropicana offers 15 variations of orange juice; Colgate offers 47 types of toothpaste. In modern society, choice seemingly provides freedom, individualism, and ultimately, happiness.

But in actuality, having too many choices can leave people with a taste in their mouths worse than, well, orange juice and toothpaste.

End Chooser

Having choices can backfire. The 14th Century French philosopher Jean Buridan likened this to a donkey that is equally hungry and thirsty, placed equidistant from a pile of hay and a pail of water. Unable to make a rational decision to choose between the two, he stands there until he expires from lack of both. Studies show that the same paralysis hits us when faced with an overwhelming amount of choice, or having to choose between complex items, or choice that has no stark differentiators, such as the donkey's hay and water.

Still, we stubbornly demand the option to choose. Your client's never going to be happy with just one rendering and no options, and customers may not want Object X if it only comes in red. So what is it that really goes on inside people's heads?

A fintech startup working on a marketplace for credit cards witnessed an interesting phenomenon during their early research. They developed a platform that guides customers to the credit card that's "perfect" for them, by matching them with their interests or spending habits. And customers love it--up until it is time to make their final choice.

In early testing, experimental users loved it when the application automatically narrowed their choice from 25 cards to eight cards, and then to five cards. But when the app provided the single best match, customers became suddenly anxious. "Is there only one?" they remarked. "Could you show me a few more like this?" So they reverted back to wanting more choice, but as they said, "Not too much!" We are left with a paradox, where users were both attracted to and repelled by choice. And it begs the question: What is the optimal amount of choice and why?

We're in a Jam

Consider a study from Columbia University psychologist Sheena Iyengar. Supermarket shoppers encountered two tasting stations of jam, one that had 24 flavors, the other six. While the 24-flavor station attracted the most shoppers, the smaller selection led to more sales – 30 percent of shoppers purchased jams from the smaller stand. In contrast, the 24-flavor station had a conversion rate of only three percent. Many studies since have proven that when you narrow choice, sales increase. But it is a bit more complicated that this simple conclusion, and Iyengar's study received debate in recent years.

There is a more nuanced point: Iyengar's study also found that shoppers were happier with their purchase when they had to decide from six options. Those who bought from the 24 choices walked away anxious, most likely because they had many more reference points with which to compare.

It turns out that when you increase the number of variations, you increase the potential that your customer will regret their choice.

This idea was further explained by behavioral economists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, who discovered that people regretted loss from an action they made, but did not regret a similar loss from inaction. This links back to the donkey and its inaction. We sometimes fall back on a decision to not choose, to do nothing at all, because we are terrified of regret, also known as loss aversion.

Live Three or Die Hard

Too much or too little choice leave users uncomfortable; the right amount of choice makes it easier for them to decide--and, importantly for brands, has them feeling great about their choice, post-decision. So what is the "Goldilocks" amount of choice? Studies show that we are able to choose effectively from no more than five options at any one time--and that three may be the magic number.

Why three? Because three provides a middle, and there is a lot of research supporting the idea that the middle item is usually the one that people pick.

When people are asked to pick a number between two numbers, they generally tend to choose a number close to the middle. And when faced with the choice of four bathroom stalls, people choose the middle two twice as often as they choose one of the outer two. Or if you offer people the choice of three highlighters, they will more than likely choose the middle one. In a row of three chairs, people will more often than not choose the middle one. And similarly in business, customers will tend to choose the mid-priced item. This is why e-commerce sites often have three pricing options—it provides a stronger prediction of what consumers will choose, and, you guessed it, it's the middle option that is most often bought. Our attraction to the middle affects our daily decisions, our purchases, our driving routes and all kinds of other actions we make somewhat unconsciously. The phenomenon is well known to social psychologists and it has a name: The 'center stage effect.'

Enter the Center

This center stage effect happens for physical as well as social reasons. First, physiologically, we are programmed to look at the middle first. Even when scanning a busy scene, a room, a painting, a computer screen, and presumably an industrial design rendering, we first focus on the middle or center before moving around the edges of that scene. So we tend to have a bias for the middle right away simply because we notice it more and attend to it for longer, and because of this we are already biased to choose the middle or center item.

Second, we have social norms that bias us to view the center as better. In one study, students were asked where they would sit in order for the professor to notice them and they picked center and up front. They were also asked where they would sit if they wanted to go unnoticed—and they picked the edges. We seemingly just know this, but in fact we have become socialized to think this way. Company leaders sit in the middle, at the head of a table. On teams, the last picks are usually from the edges of the group, and the least popular products are positioned on the top or bottom shelf, further out of reach. Of course there are functional reasons for this positioning, but the point is that it influences our decisions elsewhere, as in when we choose products or services.

Nothing about this process is rational; it is purely about balancing the irrational nature of decisions and respecting your clients' or customers' emotions.

This last point is important for all businesses to get right. Successful entrepreneurs tend to notice the things that others miss. They care about how their users feel at every step of the purchase journey. You never want to leave a customer or client feeling uncomfortable, baffled or anxious. Ultimately, understanding the irrational motivation of your end users, whoever they are, can go a long way towards determining the success of your product.



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As happy crafting with a humble chisel as conducting a 6-axis CNC robotic arm as if it were his own limb, Gareth Neal makes the most of, well, everything at his disposal as a designer and maker of contemporary furniture.

Brodgar chair, Gareth Neal

Whether he's using the "waste" wood of a tree, or exploring how we can better reduce the carbon impact of objects, Neal is constantly on the lookout for better way of doing things. His efforts over the past 20 years have resulted in a body of innovative and exciting work, including collaborations with the likes of Zaha Hadid. We sat down with the designer/maker to talk about everything from collaboration to woodworking:

You make furniture using a combination of traditional hand tools and digital fabrication. What do you think are the most interesting new tools, technologies and processes out there for working with wood?

The evolution of manufacturing processes or tooling is a slow process. Rather than the question of what machinery is out there, I'm asking questions about what I can do with processes to talk about the relationship between hand and machine. So I'm looking into machines that help me make some sort of connection or continue this dialogue between the distance you get on a CNC machine or a digital technology and that close relationship you get with hand tools, and trying to find machines that enable that.

My latest work is perhaps my fascination at the moment with what I can achieve with these robotic arms. I feel that they're relatively unexplored because there's not that much access to them.

The Hack Chair - Vimeo
The Hack Chair from Petr Krejcí on Vimeo.

You've said one of your missions is, "To explore how digital technologies are perceived and how they do have craft within them". Do you think the CNC will be looked back on in decades, centuries or perhaps millennia as fondly as the chisel, or do you think we overly romanticize the chisel?

At the end of the day, things are superseded continually. We want the latest iPhones and the latest computers because they offer us the best ability to do things, and I think it's the same with tooling. You want the latest tooling because it opens up more opportunity with what you can achieve and the speed you can do it, and often the accuracy. CNC is just an extension of the toolbox—they just happen to be very big bits of kit.

Gareth uses a 6 axis CNC robotic arm alongside traditional tools. Photo credit: Petr Krejci

So what role and benefits are there to being taught and retaining hand-making and drawing skills when it comes to being a designer/maker for the future?

The most powerful tool is really the pencil. That's where it all begins, and it's the simplest of things. What I've experienced is there's absolutely no point in going straight to a CNC machine with an idea. That's not necessarily going to result in a new and fresh perspective on furniture by using the latest technology, because with all tools it's about understanding how they work.
You get really good at using a traditional tool, and it takes years to master certain tools, so I think it's the same with a CNC machine. I think they're all just as valid tools, and ultimately the most important thing is to have a go at mocking these things up and sketching them and trying to do it as cheaply and efficiently as you can.

I'm not interested in owning a CNC machine. I'm more interested in owning lots of hand tools so I can mock up and play around and computer model, and when I'm ready I'll do some sampling on a CNC and then I'll commit to making it.

The subtle art of timber selection. Photo credit: Petr Krejci

You've explored making furniture in the woods, through the craft of Bodging and Windsor chair making. It may seem utopian, but do you think it's possible to make products and furniture at a production scale in woodland in a way that's sensitive to nature? Or is "making at source" only the reserve of small scale batch production or one-offs?

If you look at some of the Swedish factories, they're based right next to their woodlands. It's slightly romantic to think we'll all be using pole lathes again, but actually to be able to base your factory in the center of your well-managed woodland is a very sensible idea because it cuts out so many of the trappings of the production line—the raw material to the processing plant, it takes out all of those equations.

But it takes somebody with a lot of capital to achieve that with any degree of running a successful business. And I do hope making will return to that kind of way. I do think there is a passion for reducing the carbon footprints of objects and finding ways to do so. To build at source is a way of doing this.

Gareth Neal turns his designer/maker talents to stone

You don't currently use synthetic materials in your work, but would you be open to using new, responsibly made and environmentally sustainable synthetic materials in your work?

Yeah absolutely. I think I only got stuck using wood. I wanted to be a furniture designer and didn't necessarily want to be a woodworker—that just happened to be the byproduct of the course I did, and some of the skills I picked up. And I had a bit of a natural ability to make things. I wouldn't say I'm a great maker, I just happened to pick up that set of skills. I'd absolutely love to play with other materials. I've just done some stone and cast metal things. What I don't want to do is things that suddenly stick out like a sore thumb.

George cabinet, Gareth Neal. Photo credit: James Champion. Video here.

You often blend or juxtapose traditional and contemporary aesthetics. You've developed that theme in a number of your pieces including your early Anne table and George chest and Hack Chair. Both evoking a strong sense of the past and the future. As a designer looking back, what are the most interesting periods and pieces in furniture making through the ages?

I don't understand why papier-mâché furniture didn't kick off and why we didn't continue with that. I've always thought that would be a great one to get back on with because it's essentially recycled wood pulp. There was a big period of papier-mâché furniture you can see at the V&A museum, and they're beautiful objects, super strong, really lightweight, made of paper. What could be a better credentials package than that? So that's one area I've thought I'd like to do something around.

Egyptian furniture, obviously they made some groundbreaking bits. The first chair, that's always exciting isn't it. I really dislike heavy oak solid furniture. For me English furniture design only really started to get good after 1730 because it became lightweight, less chunky and more delicate.

Hack chair, Gareth Neal. Photo credit: Petr Krejci

Your latest series "Hack chair" explores the past and the future. You mentioned previously that, "This object is like a glitch in history. It questions and challenges technique, the future and the past". Can you tell me how that project came about and why you chose the process you did?

What I discovered is that the furniture industry and the material we use on those chairs is the most undesirable bit of the tree, which is actually the heart of a tree. Flawed with splits and often used for firewood. So what you get in these timber yards are these knotty, gnarly pieces of timber that people don't want to turn into planks because they're not very clean and they're full of flaws. So they are the discarded bit of furniture making in some ways. So I thought there was something quite poetic about that.

Strikingly scorched. Photo credit: Petr Krejci

And by buying it green you're completely removing the drying process of the carbon equation, so that's another nice element to it. Green wood has got a very high moisture content. It's very wet, so while you're CNC'ing something it's moving. Or after it's been CDC'd it moves. So it basically takes a process that is all about perfection and introduces imperfection. That's what I wanted to capture—that relationship between the unknown and the known, so the object has those flaws and those glitches and those moments when actually you can't really think, "How did they do that? Was that really done on a CNC machine because that's not square that's not straight? That's flawed. Why would you do that?" So all those little bits are what drove me to doing it. When it comes off the machine it still needs a lot of handwork, and it changes when it comes of the machine. It's matured in a way that's quite special.

I like the idea that the imperfections are where the beauty lies, and are one of the ways to make a connection with people.

Ves-el, Gareth Neal and Zaha Hadid. Photo credit: Petr Krejci

Ves-el, Gareth Neal and Zaha Hadid. Photo credit: Petr Krejci

You enjoy collaborating with other designers and brands—architect, Zaha Hadid for a tableware project, and a chair for Glenlivet. What have you learned about yourself as a designer working in collaboration?

There was a time when I was slightly more ego driven, thinking that I knew it all, and I wouldn't want anyone else's input because I thought I knew. And then I realized that I didn't and that the more you open yourself to others working, you can actually create better things.

Glenlivet is different, that's a commercial project with me doing something for the cash. But the Zaha one was definitely something I questioned whether I should do or not, but of course if Zaha Hadid offers you an opportunity then you do it. But these objects wouldn't be, and wouldn't look like they do, if it wasn't for that input or for that contact. The Ves-el wouldn't be the Ves-el if it wasn't for using their computer technology and me sitting in their offices. It adds extra dimension to your work. And it's really enjoyable working with others when you've been working with yourself for such a long time. The Orkney chair wouldn't be the Orkney chair if it wasn't for Kevin Gauld.

The Wish List - 'Ves-el' by Gareth Neal with Zaha Hadid - YouTube

Ves-el, collaborative project with Zaha Hadid. Photo credit: Dan Medhurst

The creative constraints and benefits of working with someone else is fine. But there's a point at which control ultimately has to sit with one individual. Do you find you need that?

Yeah I think you probably know that most of the projects are where I think I've got the bigger say. I think I'm well equipped enough as a person to communicate that to them in order to get it to the place that I'm happy with it.

Jack cabinet, Gareth Neal. Photo credit: Petr Krejci

When you were just starting out, who were you looking to as a designer?

I guess Ron Arad and Tom Dixon were very much in the limelight of furniture at that time around 1993. Philippe Starck was there and of course I came across John Makepeace. I didn't like John Makepeace's work, but I was aware of it.

But I like to think that I wasn't necessarily inspired by furniture, but would get more inspired by creating a feeling or an emotion or picking up on architecture. I mean I loved Calatrava when I was at uni, and I liked hippy values of people building green properties, and I read books like Places of the Soul. I was getting a lot from that, but it's not really furniture.

If you get into studying too much furniture you end up copying it, which I suppose is inevitably what I've ended up doing with some eighteenth and seventeenth century bits of furniture.

Orb salt and pepper grinders, Gareth Neal

Tableware for Case, Gareth Neal

Do you have any other pieces of furniture that you've seen or you hold up as great pieces?

Loads of them. I'm continually envious of other people's work. From production designers to the dead to the living, there's so much good design out there. Hans Wegner is obviously someone that when you look at those chairs you just think, that's perfection.

Max Lamb, my contemporaries, I think they're so good. Peter Marigold. Amazing thinkers with materials. There's so many and I get excited when I look at other people's work. Even look at Russell Pinch, he's a big brand but very well designed stuff. Very simple, very pure, very lovely.

Some of Gareth's sketches of the George cabinet

What's on your drawing board right now?

I'm mocking up a sideboard for the New Craftsman. We've just prototyping an extension to the straw furniture range. We've got some more CNC Ves-el and a couple more pieces from the Hack series we're looking at. A few things on the go.

What advice would you give to any designers who are starting out around now?

Well one of the things that I heard from Wendell Castle actually, now that he's passed away, he always said "the lazy dog finds no bones". I think that's a good one really. You've got to get out there and get on it.

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The latest from French design duo Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec is a meditation on color, light, and scale. Their new range of architectural glass panels developed in partnership with Skyline Design debuted during NeoCon last week and took home a Silver award in the Architectural and Decorative Glass category.

The design process started with the brothers wandering around and taking photographs of what they encountered—from landscapes to kids playing on a sports field—with the aim of capturing "sensations of colors and light." From there, they selected eight images and ran them through a computer script written by Erwan Bouroullec, which sampled all the color information in the photos and distilled it into a unique base color, while transforming the overall "rhythm" of the image into a pattern.

"That color is then further transformed by a translucent pattern layer, generating thousands of additional color iterations," they explain. The patterns were outlined in a darker color intended to mimic the lead line that frames each panel in traditional stained glass. "As stained glass is shaped by its lead frames, the colors are shaped and reshaped by the lines of each individual pattern, their density and distribution changing almost imperceptibly."

The Bouroullecs were inspired by the qualities of stained glass in medieval cathedrals and sought to translate that experience into their atmospheric panels, which create the sense of being immersed within an abstract landscape through their complex interactions of color and line. "The result is a sense that the glass is almost alive with a delicate pulse, capable of evoking the same sense of wonder as its medieval counterpart."

The panes are brought to life through Skyline Design's digital print and manufacturing processes and can be customized in size, scale, and color to fit the intended application. The collection is composed of four pattern variations—Oblique Regular, Oblique Bold, Chevron Stroke, and Chevron Fill—that are each available in four monochromatic colors or four polychromatic palettes. They can be used in interiors—as feature walls, space dividers, or stair railings, for example—or on exterior facades, railings, and canopies.


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What will bathrooms look like in the future? American Standard, one of the leaders in bathroom and kitchen development teamed up with Pratt Institute students to create "Future Bathroom 2025." As the name suggests, they created a vision of what the future bathroom will look like in the not-so-distant future.

The project highlights water conservation as a main feature of the bathroom. Grey water, the term to describe the relatively clean-used water from showers, sinks, washing machines etc., is reused from the shower to power the toilet, which would save around 14 gallons of fresh water a day per person. The ability to use grey water for your toilet exists, however, grey water cannot sit stagnate for more than 24 hours (though let's be realistic, I hope you use the bathroom at least once per day). As a precaution for this, the water would be treated with phytoremediation.

Baths can use around five times more water than a shower, so to solve this problem, the team created a reclining seat in the shower—a way to relax without using the gallons of water needed to fill the bathtub. Lovely details like air plants hang on the walls, and a light show imitates the sun to visualize the length of your shower. The future of bathrooms is looking bright.

The bathrooms would come in as a prefabricated unit that would require much less hard labor and time to install than a current bathroom takes. It comes with customizable options so that each future bathroom can be uniquely your own.

This concept was presented in May 2019 at Wanted Design in Manhattan and included a full-sized prototype with visual research panels that explained important details.

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'The Coral' is an indoor micro-algae farm designed to rebuild a relationship with algae, critical for sustainability yet less appreciated, in our everyday lives. This wall-mounted bioreactor proposes a daily ritual for algae consumption for a sustainable alternative of nutritional diets. The Coral also highlights algae's environmental benefits through a symbol of revitalizing coral from 'coral bleaching.' Besides, the representation augments an indoor experience, allowing us to welcome the algae farm at home for aesthetic purposes. The Coral suggests a socially acceptable way of bringing algae, which helps us take one step forward to a better sustainable way of living.

The Coral suggests a more sustainable way of living by bringing algae into our everyday lives.
Credit: Hyunseok An
Its sculptural front presents the lively patterns of corals, highlighting algae's environmental importance as well as providing an ever-changing aesthetic experience.
Credit: Hyunseok An
The medium in culture cells turns green as algae grow (1/3)
Credit: Hyunseok An
The medium in culture cells turns green as algae grow (2/3)
Credit: Hyunseok An
The medium in culture cells turns green as algae grow (3/3)
Credit: Hyunseok An
Each of its 16 culture cells can grow algae for the amount of recommended daily intake, allowing us to replenish and harvest algae continuously in a bi-weekly cycle.
Credit: Hyunseok An
The Coral soaks up CO2 in the air, and each valve on the bottom can control air flow to each cell.
Credit: Hyunseok An
Once the medium turns dark-green, algae can be harvested through a simple filtration process.
Credit: Hyunseok An
Each cell is sitting on a grid wall by a neodymium magnet attachment.
Credit: Hyunseok An
By algae grow, the color in the cell turns from transparent to shades of green.
Credit: Hyunseok An
View the full project here
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