Friday, August 27, 2010

Design Related: Branding with Debbie Millman


I always struggled with a singular identity. Maybe that had something to do with going back and forth from East Africa and the United States, maybe it is because my father had a lot of books and it gave me a curious nature. Whatever it is, I am the kind of person who, when I find myself in a bookstore, picks up a magazine on a topic I know nothing about and enjoys trying to discover the nuances of a not yet explored world of information. I’ve done it with things like pens, model trains, and antiques.

When it comes to design, as much as it may seem by some to be orthogonal to software development, I’ve had the growing understanding that the two go hand in hand. Design, to me, is not picking nice colors for gradients or making icons. Design is planning, it’s understanding a problem and solving it. Although as a software developer my visual design has often been an afterthought (something I’ve fought with increasing intensity over time) and yet when I write a piece of software, put together a user interface, or model data structures, I am planning and problem solving. I am designing, even if I’m making a poor effort of things.

The more aware I’ve become of this, the more I’ve sought to have a baseline understanding of design which is why I found myself at the South Dakota AIGA hearing Debbie Millman give a talk on the history of branding, which was originally prompted by her thinking about the phenomenon of MySpace. I’d long been aware of Debbie; I listened to her Design Matters show when it originally became available online and look forward to a new podcast via Design Observer.

In speeding us to the present, the question of why there may be 300 national brands of cereal or 100 different types of bottled water in a store, Millman began 50,000 years ago with the “big brain bang” where scientists believe we developed our Triune brain. The 3 parts of the brain Millman talked about, Reptilllian, Limbic, and Neocortex are a basis for how she believes that branding works today – if I could shortcut to the conclusion, the reason why we put ourselves in groups and find affiliation important is because this need is hardwired. In one humorous aside, Millman said of the part of the brain that fears the unknown:

“You can’t meditate it away. It’s just there.”

The talk bolstered this point along many fronts, some anthropology, some historical/statistics and other scientific studies and anecdotes. She then divided the history of branding, starting from the US Trademark Registration (landmark legislation that is the legal foundation for branding) in 1876, into 5 different “waves:”

Wave 1: 1875 – 1920

Brands as a guarantor of consistency (Think Campbells soup, Quaker Oats).

Wave 2: 1920 – 1965

Brands as a guarantor of quality. (Think Mortin’s Salt, Pepsi).

Wave 3: 1965 – 1985

Brands as self expressive statements, telegraphing what others should think of us. (Think Nike, Levis, Volskwagen).

Wave 4: 1985 – 2000

Brands as an experience. (Think Starbucks.)

Wave 5: 2000 – present

Limbic brands. (Think Social Networking). In reference to the earlier portion of the talk on brain development, this is the part of our brains which serves us emotion and sense of group. In our present, fractured world, where traditional models of group like family are being uprooted by modernity, we turn to brands to fill that portion of our lives, which is hardwired.

I found the talk riveting, in large part because it aimed at a higher level thinking of how branding works. Afterward I had a chance to talk to Debbie and it sounds like there are new Design Matters shows in the making. I’ll look forward to hearing them and learning more.


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Failure in two parts, IronRuby


I recently ran across a two part series from Dave Winer related to failure. Essentially Winer asserts the following:

“The only way to succeed in my opinion is if you cannot visualize failure.”

In the first post he describes a personal experience where failure was imminent and he pushed on despite it because he realized his back was to the wall.  In the second he keeps the theme by emphasizing the special level of determination necessary for success. Many of the blog posts I find my way to via Hacker News and other outlets have similar exhortations but Winer holds more gravitas for me because of his success as a founder and longevity as one of the alpha dog programmer/internet personalities.

Both pieces were inspired by the recent news that Google was no longer pursuing Wave – the kind of capitulation that may have inspired Winer’s title: “Embracing failure is a good way to fail.” As an aside, Dare Obasanjo has some thoughtful points on why Wave couldn’t grow.

Not long after I discovered that IronRuby’s future as a Microsoft project was in flux. It seemed to me similar to Wave in the sense that I remember the fanfare when all the Iron* (IronRuby, IronPython, etc… ) projects were beginning and the excitement of people in the programming community only to perk my head up now and find that the project seems no longer to have the good graces of its company. What a contrast.

I speak as an outsider but I suspected that as time passed the level of interest in these projects began to erode: everything from key people leaving teams to diminishing excitement from people on the outside. Most of my interest was directed toward IronPython since it was the most mature dynamic language implementation in the beginning (the whole concept of the Dynamic Language Runtime (DLR) came from Jim Hugunin’s early port of Python). This was both fortunate and unfortunate; I was eager to learn Ruby but since I can’t learn languages very fast I decided to maintain my focus on Python in exclusion of other DLR language implementations. All I can do is suspect but perhaps there were others like me who decided rather than trying to learn different languages simultaneously it would be better to focus on one.

Now as I think upon my encounters with the DLR, I realize that I’m a part of the “failure,” if one can call it that, of Microsoft in valuing this and other dynamic language implementations. Although I was excited early on, even spending some time creating projects and coming up with ideas that leveraged the dynamic languages on the DLR, I got bogged down by how hard it was without a lot of documentation and the difficulty of trying to convince people around me that what I was doing was worth it. (Insert the glazed eyes and “why not just use C#? It has intellisense…” conversation). In the interests of a more full disclosure, a personal tragedy from last year took a lot of wind out of my sails and I didn’t do any programming my spare time for a long stretch of time.

But of course I neither think that IronRuby is a “failure” nor do I think my lack of initiative over the last few years is the way things need to remain. Now seems an even better time to become more active in what community IronRuby has since the absence of Microsoft will create space for people like me, on the outside. I will probably return to the drawing board with a few projects and ideas in IronPython but Bruce Tate’s latest book has inspired me to think that perhaps trying to tackle multiple languages at the same time isn’t so outlandish a goal after all. The important thing I’m going to try to bring with me is the frame of mind I quoted above from Winer: being unable to imagine that IronRuby can go away or lose value as an idea or a platform.