Virginia Roberts

Jackal Interview

Hey y’all! Fans of the podcasting network 5by5 have been mostly lovingly coined “Jackals” for their sometimes helpful and sometimes heckling input in the network’s live IRC chatroom. One motivated jackal, Mike Beasterfeld, has been conducting a series of interviews with other jackals.

My episode aired today, should you care to listen! And you can subscribe to the show if you want to get to know the rest of the geeks who form Jackal Nation. :)

Apparently, I care a lot about swag

Tina Roth Eisenberg (aka SwissMiss) recently asked her readership about swag, on Twitter and her blog.

I was surprised by the strength and length of my opinions on the subject in the comments. I think it’s due to the fact that, while I’m a hippie about our earth and a minimalist design snob in theory about possessions, I’m a complete sucker for free stuff. So rather than rail against swag as wasteful, I think companies can strive to make it awesome in all the right ways:

Useful or solves a problem.

The only swag I’ve ever enjoyed is stuff that’s well made and useful even if you wouldn’t think to buy it. I’ve seen several customized Field Notes notebooks; those are amazing. Expos like Penny Arcade often have people giving away enormous sturdy reusable bags for people to cart around their swag in—I like that model of being helpful and solving a problem. I’ve also received custom etched pint glasses that bore the logo of a fictional pub in the game I was working on; that was cool. I much prefer a glass I can pour beer into over a poster or a stuffed animal.

Be careful, though—most of us have an excess of cheap free water bottles and mugs and commuter coffee cups and such. I feel like you’ve got to make sure your useful product is actually better made than the industry average if you want people to appreciate it and use it—which of course you should, because why else are you creating it? So no cheap BPA-laden leaky water bottles. Make it count with quality materials and an attractive base design.

Fancy pens never lose.

Everyone needs a pen, right? I mean, at some point in life. Pharmaceutical companies make the BEST free pens, with gimmicky weird tricks when you click them or twist them, etc. They always have playful design even if the playful element is pointless—and they’re usually well-made pens, sometimes in metal and usually refillable. I had a student in Mexico City who was a psychiatrist specializing in ADHD; he used to save up pens for me from ADHD drug makers because they so delighted me. Little tricks like if you clicked them the colored dots exposed under the brushed aluminum would change from gray (sad?) to yellow and orange (happy?) and such. It was delightful to have a toy embedded in a pen. (Doesn’t hurt that it was a really nice well-made pen with good heft, a metal body, and smooth ink flow.)

Legal services/conferences follow closely behind in Pen Swag Awards—my favorite pens to this date are ones from ten years ago when my law student roommate snagged me Lexis Nexus pens with integrated tape flags, and even this one pen that has a light in the nib for taking notes in a darkened room during a presentation. (Annoying to your neighbors, perhaps, but I’m still a sucker for a gimmicky pen.) They’re again well crafted, ergonomic, and they usually pack some kind of extra-useful feature beyond that of a standard pen. Can’t lose being useful.

Quality materials that show good taste.

I also love swag made from lovely materials—a Korean video game conference yielded a pen made of bent wood veneer. So cool. I’ve gotten swag made of glass or wood or even concrete once or twice; interesting high-quality materials set you apart.

And of course, a decent sense of aesthetics matters. This is more subjective to define, but I usually see decent overlap between people who choose natural materials and people who have an excellent product design aesthetic. And natural materials can sometimes even elevate mundane items, IMO.

Make it a true gift with minimal branding.

I also think it’s thoughtful and respectful when your swag’s branding is minimal. It’s more “generous” and less “transparent and borderline desperate marketing attempt.” I think more kindly of a company if they just made me something cool but didn’t force their company name down my throat in the process, you know? It also allows for a longer tail.

For example, a business card holder is nice conference swag, but it’s more likely to be used at OTHER conferences if it doesn’t say ADOBE in huge letters on the back. A small mark in the corner is more in keeping with the theoretically generous gesture of giving someone a free little gift, if you ask me.

One exception is when the overall look is custom, even though the branding is minimal—XOXOFest gave out awesome hot pink Field Notes notebooks; when I see someone else writing in one of those I basically know we share the Secret Code of XOXO. (Full disclosure; I was not an official attendee but I was in town visiting with folks who attended. They gave me pity notebooks, I suppose, haha.) Recognizable traits like that are OK if you pulled off good taste and subtlety in the actual brand name being stamped somewhere.

Everyone hates pointless cheap tchochkes.

Stuff like buttons, patches, glasses, keychains, and cheap plastic cups or tchotchkes are what I think it’s best to avoid. Those are all ugly and disposable feeling; they just seem like an utter waste. You’re better off doing nothing than spending money on crap.

No paper products.

Any paper products (fliers, brochures etc.) are an even graver utter no-no. It’s like you missed the memo about what swag is supposed to be, and it’s purely harmful to the environment without the redeeming “fun” factor of swag as a gift-like object.

My only exception to this was in Tokyo, advertisers often gave out packs of toilet paper with ads printed on the outside, because many public toilets there don’t have paper available. I never actually wound up using it, but I respected that idea and count this as more “useful/problem-solving” than “paper product” in my mind.

Don’t overspend

I’ve never actually been to the kind of event that gives away crazy spendy swag like free iPads or headphones or battery cases, but I see a bunch of mixed/disappointed reactions from people on the receiving end of higher-end swag. It feels wasteful; the gesture of having spent $200 per person on bulk Microsoft Surface pricing is crazy. People start thinking, “Couldn’t they have just lowered the ticket price, or let me at least pick my specs, or donated this to charity, or ___?” It’s such a personal thing, choosing what tech we spend hundreds of dollars on. When someone else makes that call for you (and engraves it to diminish potential resale value, heh) it just feels, I don’t know, like that generosity is misplaced and telegraphs poor judgment.

Maybe I just know a bunch of ingrates, but I think everyone would agree that it seems like the money could have been put to better use. So if you offer something pricey, make it also a problem-solver—like Tina’s commenter Daniel who said his company gives out mobile battery packs because people are always stressing about battery life at conferences. THAT is the right idea!

Internet’s Prayer

Get on that, Internet.

Design getting in the way of content

I’ve had a recent epiphany about website design. I’m blown away by how much I’ve fought usability in order to shoehorn in certain design quirks or trends or ideas that were utterly out of sync with the goal of delivering a useful and easy to navigate website. I’m hanging my head in CSS shame here.

Anyway, don’t freak out. New site coming soon, which will involve a new look. It might go through a few new looks. It’s still me, though! <3

Sometimes puns are irresistible.

My husband’s pal Ian started a fun game on Twitter. I joined in. Hilarity ensued, at least as far as the three of us were concerned. I thought you might also find it amusing.

And then we all went to bed, I guess.

My second piece for Medium

Wow, I haven’t written anything here since my last Medium post. I sense a new trend!

Not really. I almost wrote a thing about One Star App Review Gate (kill me for saying that; I mean the stupid -gate suffix ironically, in case it wasn’t clear). But then I didn’t. So here’s my latest Medium post, about New Year’s Resolutions! A phrase which I’m not sure should be title case like that! Oh well! Happy new year! Or, if you prefer, Happy New Year!

When I empty the Roomba, I will finally remember to disassemble it over the counter instead of the trash can, even though I know that will make an annoying mess on the counter, because that one tiny fucking piece always falls out and then I have to root through the trash with my bare fucking hands like an animal. Or maybe I’ll just by a new Roomba, because WHO DESIGNED THAT PIECE.

A Roomba.

My other resolution is to start using unironic header images for my Medium posts.

My first piece for Medium

Check it out; I finally wrote my first piece for Medium! It’s about how I hate default text and crappy auto-tweets and generally bad non-human-like behavior on social media.

What should the next one be?

Epic spam comment template (?)

I just got this as a single spam comment on one of my less-used sites. My jaw kinda dropped. I thought someone out there might find it as interesting, disturbing, amusing, and/or useful—perhaps if you develop anti-spam products, you’ve just been handed a useful template to add to your filtering system. Anyway, enjoy! <3 VA

 

{
{I have|I’ve} been {surfing|browsing} online more
than {three|3|2|4} hours today, yet I never found any interesting article like yours.
{It’s|It is} pretty worth enough for me. {In my opinion|Personally|In my view},
all {webmasters|site owners|website owners|web owners} and bloggers made good content as you did, the
{internet|net|web} will be {much more|a lot more} useful than ever before.|
I {couldn’t|could not} {resist|refrain from} commenting.
{Very well|Perfectly|Well|Exceptionally well} written!|
{I will|I’ll} {right away|immediately} {take hold of|grab|clutch|grasp|seize|snatch} your {rss|rss feed}
as I {can not|can’t} {in finding|find|to find} your {email|e-mail} subscription {link|hyperlink} or
{newsletter|e-newsletter} service. Do {you have|you’ve} any?
{Please|Kindly} {allow|permit|let} me {realize|recognize|understand|recognise|know} {so that|in
order that} I {may just|may|could} subscribe. Thanks.|
{It is|It’s} {appropriate|perfect|the best} time to make some plans for
the future and {it is|it’s} time to be happy. {I have|I’ve}
read this post and if I could I {want to|wish to|desire to} suggest you {few|some}
interesting things or {advice|suggestions|tips}.
{Perhaps|Maybe} you {could|can} write next articles referring to this article.

I {want to|wish to|desire to} read {more|even more}
things about it!|
{It is|It’s} {appropriate|perfect|the best} time to make {a
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{interesting|fascinating|attention-grabbing} {things|issues} or {advice|suggestions|tips}.
{Perhaps|Maybe} you {could|can} write {next|subsequent} articles {relating to|referring
to|regarding} this article. I {want to|wish to|desire
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{I have|I’ve} been {surfing|browsing} {online|on-line} {more than|greater than} {three|3} hours
{these days|nowadays|today|lately|as of late}, {yet|but}
I {never|by no means} {found|discovered} any {interesting|fascinating|attention-grabbing} article like yours.

{It’s|It is} {lovely|pretty|beautiful} {worth|value|price} {enough|sufficient} for me.

{In my opinion|Personally|In my view}, if all {webmasters|site owners|website owners|web owners} and bloggers made {just right|good|excellent} {content|content material} as {you did|you probably did}, the {internet|net|web} {will be|shall be|might be|will probably
be|can be|will likely be} {much more|a lot more} {useful|helpful} than ever before.|
Ahaa, its {nice|pleasant|good|fastidious} {discussion|conversation|dialogue} {regarding|concerning|about|on the topic of} this {article|post|piece
of writing|paragraph} {here|at this place} at this {blog|weblog|webpage|website|web site}, I have read all that, so
{now|at this time} me also commenting {here|at this place}.|
I am sure this {article|post|piece of writing|paragraph} has touched all the internet {users|people|viewers|visitors}, its really really {nice|pleasant|good|fastidious} {article|post|piece of writing|paragraph} on building up new {blog|weblog|webpage|website|web site}.|
Wow, this {article|post|piece of writing|paragraph}
is {nice|pleasant|good|fastidious}, my {sister|younger sister} is analyzing {such|these|these kinds of} things, {so|thus|therefore} I am going to {tell|inform|let
know|convey} her.|
{Saved as a favorite|bookmarked!!}, {I really like|I like|I
love} {your blog|your site|your web site|your website}!|
Way cool! Some {very|extremely} valid points!
I appreciate you {writing this|penning this} {article|post|write-up} {and the|and also the|plus
the} rest of the {site is|website is} {also very|extremely|very|also really|really} good.|
Hi, {I do believe|I do think} {this is an excellent|this is
a great} {blog|website|web site|site}. I stumbledupon it ;) {I will|I am going to|I’m going to|I may} {come back|return|revisit} {once again|yet again} {since I|since i
have} {bookmarked|book marked|book-marked|saved as a favorite} it.
Money and freedom {is the best|is the greatest} way to change,
may you be rich and continue to {help|guide} {other people|others}.|
Woah! I’m really {loving|enjoying|digging} the template/theme of this {site|website|blog}.
It’s simple, yet effective. A lot of times it’s {very
hard|very difficult|challenging|tough|difficult|hard} to get that “perfect balance”
between {superb usability|user friendliness|usability} and {visual appearance|visual appeal|appearance}.
I must say {that you’ve|you have|you’ve} done a {awesome|amazing|very good|superb|fantastic|excellent|great}
job with this. {In addition|Additionally|Also}, the
blog loads {very|extremely|super} {fast|quick} for me on
{Safari|Internet explorer|Chrome|Opera|Firefox}.
{Superb|Exceptional|Outstanding|Excellent} Blog!|
These are {really|actually|in fact|truly|genuinely}
{great|enormous|impressive|wonderful|fantastic} ideas in {regarding|concerning|about|on the topic of} blogging.
You have touched some {nice|pleasant|good|fastidious} {points|factors|things} here.
Any way keep up wrinting.|
{I love|I really like|I enjoy|I like|Everyone loves} what
you guys {are|are usually|tend to be} up too. {This sort
of|This type of|Such|This kind of} clever work and {exposure|coverage|reporting}!

Keep up the {superb|terrific|very good|great|good|awesome|fantastic|excellent|amazing|wonderful} works guys I’ve {incorporated||added|included} you guys to {|my|our||my personal|my
own} blogroll.|
{Howdy|Hi there|Hey there|Hi|Hello|Hey}! Someone in my {Myspace|Facebook} group shared this {site|website}
with us so I came to {give it a look|look it over|take a
look|check it out}. I’m definitely {enjoying|loving} the information.
I’m {book-marking|bookmarking} and will be tweeting this to my followers!
{Terrific|Wonderful|Great|Fantastic|Outstanding|Exceptional|Superb|Excellent} blog and {wonderful|terrific|brilliant|amazing|great|excellent|fantastic|outstanding|superb} {style and design|design and style|design}.|
{I love|I really like|I enjoy|I like|Everyone loves} what you
guys {are|are usually|tend to be} up too. {This sort
of|This type of|Such|This kind of} clever work and {exposure|coverage|reporting}!
Keep up the {superb|terrific|very good|great|good|awesome|fantastic|excellent|amazing|wonderful} works guys I’ve
{incorporated|added|included} you guys to {|my|our|my personal|my own} blogroll.|
{Howdy|Hi there|Hey there|Hi|Hello|Hey} would
you mind {stating|sharing} which blog platform you’re {working with|using}?
I’m {looking|planning|going} to start my
own blog {in the near future|soon} but I’m having a {tough|difficult|hard} time
{making a decision|selecting|choosing|deciding} between BlogEngine/Wordpress/B2evolution and Drupal.
The reason I ask is because your {design and style|design|layout} seems different then most
blogs and I’m looking for something {completely unique|unique}.
P.S {My apologies|Apologies|Sorry} for {getting|being} off-topic
but I had to ask!|
{Howdy|Hi there|Hi|Hey there|Hello|Hey} would you
mind letting me know which {webhost|hosting company|web host} you’re {utilizing|working with|using}?
I’ve loaded your blog in 3 {completely different|different} {internet browsers|web browsers|browsers} and I must say this blog loads a lot {quicker|faster} then
most. Can you {suggest|recommend} a good {internet hosting|web hosting|hosting} provider at
a {honest|reasonable|fair} price? {Thanks a lot|Kudos|Cheers|Thank you|Many thanks|Thanks}, I appreciate it!|
{I love|I really like|I like|Everyone loves} it {when people|when individuals|when folks|whenever people} {come together|get together} and share {opinions|thoughts|views|ideas}.
Great {blog|website|site}, {keep it up|continue the good work|stick with it}!|
Thank you for the {auspicious|good} writeup. It in fact was a amusement account it.

Look advanced to {far|more} added agreeable from you!

{By the way|However}, how {can|could} we communicate?|
{Howdy|Hi there|Hey there|Hello|Hey} just wanted to give you a quick heads up.
The {text|words} in your {content|post|article} seem to be running off the screen in {Ie|Internet explorer|Chrome|Firefox|Safari|Opera}.
I’m not sure if this is a {format|formatting} issue or something to do with {web browser|internet browser|browser}
compatibility but I {thought|figured} I’d post to let you know.
The {style and design|design and style|layout|design}
look great though! Hope you get the {problem|issue} {solved|resolved|fixed} soon.
{Kudos|Cheers|Many thanks|Thanks}|
This is a topic {that is|that’s|which is} {close to|near to} my heart…
{Cheers|Many thanks|Best wishes|Take care|Thank you}! {Where|Exactly where} are your contact details
though?|
It’s very {easy|simple|trouble-free|straightforward|effortless} to find out any {topic|matter} on {net|web} as compared to
{books|textbooks}, as I found this {article|post|piece
of writing|paragraph} at this {website|web site|site|web page}.|
Does your {site|website|blog} have a contact page?
I’m having {a tough time|problems|trouble} locating it but, I’d like to {send|shoot} you an {e-mail|email}.
I’ve got some {creative ideas|recommendations|suggestions|ideas} for your blog you might
be interested in hearing. Either way, great {site|website|blog} and I look forward to seeing it {develop|improve|expand|grow} over time.|
{Hola|Hey there|Hi|Hello|Greetings}! I’ve been {following|reading}
your {site|web site|website|weblog|blog} for {a long time|a while|some time} now
and finally got the {bravery|courage} to go ahead and give you a shout out from
{New Caney|Kingwood|Huffman|Porter|Houston|Dallas|Austin|Lubbock|Humble|Atascocita} {Tx|Texas}!
Just wanted to {tell you|mention|say} keep up the {fantastic|excellent|great|good} {job|work}!|
Greetings from {Idaho|Carolina|Ohio|Colorado|Florida|Los angeles|California}!

I’m {bored to tears|bored to death|bored} at work so I decided to {check out|browse} your {site|website|blog} on my iphone during lunch break.
I {enjoy|really like|love} the {knowledge|info|information} you {present|provide} here and can’t wait
to take a look when I get home. I’m {shocked|amazed|surprised} at how {quick|fast}
your blog loaded on my {mobile|cell phone|phone}
.. I’m not even using WIFI, just 3G .. {Anyhow|Anyways}, {awesome|amazing|very good|superb|good|wonderful|fantastic|excellent|great} {site|blog}!|
Its {like you|such as you} {read|learn} my {mind|thoughts}!
You {seem|appear} {to understand|to know|to grasp} {so much|a lot} {approximately|about} this, {like you|such as you} wrote the {book|e-book|guide|ebook|e book} in it or something.
{I think|I feel|I believe} {that you|that you simply|that you just} {could|can} do with
{some|a few} {%|p.c.|percent} to {force|pressure|drive|power} the message {house|home} {a bit|a little bit}, {however|but} {other than|instead of} that, {this
is|that is} {great|wonderful|fantastic|magnificent|excellent} blog.
{A great|An excellent|A fantastic} read. {I’ll|I will} {definitely|certainly} be
back.|
I visited {multiple|many|several|various} {websites|sites|web sites|web pages|blogs} {but|except|however} the audio {quality|feature}
for audio songs {current|present|existing} at
this {website|web site|site|web page} is {really|actually|in fact|truly|genuinely} {marvelous|wonderful|excellent|fabulous|superb}.|
{Howdy|Hi there|Hi|Hello}, i read your blog {occasionally|from time to time} and i own a similar
one and i was just {wondering|curious} if you get a
lot of spam {comments|responses|feedback|remarks}?
If so how do you {prevent|reduce|stop|protect against} it, any plugin
or anything you can {advise|suggest|recommend}? I
get so much lately it’s driving me {mad|insane|crazy} so any {assistance|help|support} is very much appreciated.|
Greetings! {Very helpful|Very useful} advice {within
this|in this particular} {article|post}! {It is the|It’s
the} little changes {that make|which will make|that produce|that
will make} {the biggest|the largest|the greatest|the most important|the most significant}
changes. {Thanks a lot|Thanks|Many thanks} for sharing!|
{I really|I truly|I seriously|I absolutely} love {your blog|your site|your website}..
{Very nice|Excellent|Pleasant|Great} colors
&amp; theme. Did you {create|develop|make|build} {this website|this site|this web site|this
amazing site} yourself? Please reply back as I’m {looking to|trying to|planning
to|wanting to|hoping to|attempting to} create {my own|my very own|my own personal}
{blog|website|site} and {would like to|want to|would love to} {know|learn|find out} where you got this from or {what the|exactly what the|just what the} theme {is called|is named}.
{Thanks|Many thanks|Thank you|Cheers|Appreciate it|Kudos}!|
{Hi there|Hello there|Howdy}! This {post|article|blog
post} {couldn’t|could not} be written {any better|much better}!
{Reading through|Looking at|Going through|Looking through} this {post|article} reminds me
of my previous roommate! He {always|constantly|continually}
kept {talking about|preaching about} this. {I will|I’ll|I am going to|I most certainly will} {forward|send} {this article|this information|this post} to him.
{Pretty sure|Fairly certain} {he will|he’ll|he’s going to} {have
a good|have a very good|have a great} read. {Thank you for|Thanks for|Many thanks for|I appreciate you for} sharing!|
{Wow|Whoa|Incredible|Amazing}! This blog looks {exactly|just} like
my old one! It’s on a {completely|entirely|totally} different {topic|subject} but it has pretty much the same {layout|page layout} and design.
{Excellent|Wonderful|Great|Outstanding|Superb} choice of colors!|
{There is|There’s} {definately|certainly} {a lot to|a great deal to} {know about|learn about|find out about} this {subject|topic|issue}.
{I like|I love|I really like} {all the|all of the} points
{you made|you’ve made|you have made}.|
{You made|You’ve made|You have made} some {decent|good|really
good} points there. I {looked|checked} {on the internet|on the web|on
the net} {for more info|for more information|to find out more|to
learn more|for additional information} about the issue and found {most individuals|most people} will go along with your views on {this
website|this site|this web site}.|
{Hi|Hello|Hi there|What’s up}, I {log on to|check|read} your
{new stuff|blogs|blog} {regularly|like every week|daily|on a regular basis}.
Your {story-telling|writing|humoristic} style is {awesome|witty},
keep {doing what you’re doing|up the good work|it up}!|
I {simply|just} {could not|couldn’t} {leave|depart|go away} your
{site|web site|website} {prior to|before} suggesting that
I {really|extremely|actually} {enjoyed|loved} {the standard|the usual}
{information|info} {a person|an individual} {supply|provide} {for your|on your|in your|to your} {visitors|guests}?
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order to|to} {check up on|check out|inspect|investigate cross-check} new posts|
{I wanted|I needed|I want to|I need to} to thank you
for this {great|excellent|fantastic|wonderful|good|very good} read!!
I {definitely|certainly|absolutely} {enjoyed|loved}
every {little bit of|bit of} it. {I have|I’ve got|I have got} you {bookmarked|book
marked|book-marked|saved as a favorite} {to check out|to look at}
new {stuff you|things you} post…|
{Hi|Hello|Hi there|What’s up}, just wanted to {mention|say|tell you}, I {enjoyed|liked|loved} this {article|post|blog post}.
It was {inspiring|funny|practical|helpful}.

Keep on posting!|
I {{leave|drop|{write|create}} a {comment|leave a response}|drop a {comment|leave a response}|{comment|leave a response}}
{each time|when|whenever} I {appreciate|like|especially enjoy} a {post|article} on a {site|{blog|website}|site|website} or {I have|if I have} something to {add|contribute|valuable to contribute} {to the discussion|to the conversation}.
{It is|Usually it is|Usually it’s|It’s} {a result of|triggered by|caused by} the
{passion|fire|sincerness} {communicated|displayed} in the {post|article} I {read|looked
at|browsed}. And {on|after} this {post|article} Virginia in
Seattle. I {{was|was actually} moved|{was|was actually} excited} enough to {drop|{leave|drop|{write|create}}|post} a
{thought|{comment|{comment|leave a response}a response}} {:-P|:)|;)|;-)|:-)} I {do have|actually do
have} {{some|a few} questions|a couple of questions|2
questions} for you {if you {don’t|do not|usually do not|tend not to} mind|if it’s {allright|okay}}.
{Is it|Could it be} {just|only|simply} me or {do|does it {seem|appear|give the
impression|look|look as if|look like} like} {some|a
few} of {the|these} {comments|responses|remarks} {look|appear|come across} {like they are|as if they are|like} {coming from|written by|left by} brain dead {people|visitors|folks|individuals}?
:-P And, if you are {posting|writing} {on|at} {other|additional} {sites|social sites|online sites|online social sites|places},
{I’d|I would} like to {follow|keep up with} {you|{anything|everything} {new|fresh} you have to
post}. {Could|Would} you {list|make a list} {all|every one|the complete urls} of {your|all your} {social|communal|community|public|shared} {pages|sites} like your {twitter feed, Facebook page or linkedin profile|linkedin profile, Facebook page or twitter feed|Facebook page, twitter feed,
or linkedin profile}?|
{Hi there|Hello}, I enjoy reading {all of|through} your {article|post|article
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use {some of|a few of} your ideas!!
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Design lessons from narwhals

This is a whale tale. It’s a father-daughter story. It’s also a lesson about a design job gone wrong. It was inspired by a recent blog post from Seth Godin, soliciting a narwhal logo for the Krypton College project he started. (You can see the logo they ended up with here.)

When I was in second grade, my class studied whales. We each got to pick a specific whale to specialize in, but we also studied whales in general. We took some really cool field trips to areas where we were supposed to see orca whale pods that never actually materialized—but we had loads of fun, and we played with jellyfish and tidepool crabs and generally managed to still learn a lot. Much of which I still remember, if you feel like quizzing me!

My whale was the coveted narwhal—coveted of course because of its similarity to a unicorn. In case you were wondering, most second-grade girls LOVE unicorns. (Heck, the boys probably liked ‘em too, but I was the big Unicorn Whale Winner that year.) I was SO STOKED! I think I liked narwhals EVEN BETTER than unicorns!

 

On one of our educational field trips, we went into a whale-watching museum gift shop. There was this cool little toy of a curvy orca impaled with a dowel, who could be spun along this track of two pieces of wood. You’d spin the dowel and the little orca would somersault in flip after flip; it was delightful, kind of like a Pacific Northwest executive toy for a desk, you know? (I’ve tried and tried to find an example to show you, but it’s elusive.)

I of course wanted one, but in a narwhal instead of an orca, duh. I wanted this badly, despite my not considering the factors a) that the narwhal was much longer proportionally, especially when you included its horn; and b) that in fact the cool toy-rendered spinny motion was not a natural behavior for either species of whale. No matter; I wanted a spinny narwhal toy, and my father was a hobbyist woodworker who was delighted to potentially grant his daughter’s wish. So Dad and I set about making our own narwhal version of this toy.

Well, first of all, I failed to articulate that the orca toy had been painted, so all of its black and white detail showed. The narwhal isn’t nearly as high contrast or recognizable in its markings as the orca is, but I still probably envisioned a dappled gray end result with a stained ivory tusk. Instead we did the whole thing in some sort of soft wood, with a walnut stain effect. It turned out lovely, but eight-year-old me was probably confused as to why it didn’t look more like the toy I had remembered and (to my mind) faithfully described.

 

Second of all, there was no internet. This was in the late 80s, and we couldn’t just Google up a narwhal’s dimensions. So I think we either winged it, or *maybe* dug around trying to find a relevant National Geographic before winging it. Some sort of Encyclopedia Britannica or Commodore 64 action may have been involved as well. In the end, the narwhal we produced had a tusk that was much shorter than a faithfully realistic narwhal model’s would have to be. I don’t think I even noticed this as a kid, but I can’t help noticing it now, haha.

Lastly, I thought I had described the orca toy’s spinning and flipping and catapulting well—in hindsight, its motions were actually more like that of a seal than of any whale family member I’ve seen in action. But anyway, it spun. Like, all the way around, somersault style. Multiple times from one push. It spun from either the rightmost point on the tracks all the way to the left, or vice versa if you flipped the toy around, and it completed MANY revolutions in that distance with minimal user effort; this was greatly satisfying. We, ah, we may have miscalculated that part. (I’m guessing I didn’t fully articulate the spinning nature, nor did I pipe up authoritatively during the manufacturing process when I realized that there was no way this non-curved narwhal with its lengthy tusk was going to be able to spin around on its own competently.)

Our end product was a gorgeous walnut-stained narwhal with a short tusk, straight body, and tracks that could accommodate only a faint rocking back and forth motion. Furthermore, we failed to take into account the balance of the whole narwhal’s body, so its head leans forward significantly when at rest. (The orca is pointless to compare to here since its shape was totally different, but I believe my young self would want the balance to be even or slightly favoring the head, if she had to give up on the spinny action. Just a hunch. Because, you see, the head comes up for air. I was weirdly kid-logical even at eight.)

Interestingly, Dad actually added in a few improvements. That textured detailing on the horn was pretty painstaking, I’m betting. That’s true to form and outside the scope of my original vision/request. And see how he used a router to round out the edges of all but the tail and fin spots? That gives the whole thing more depth and dimension than I had envisioned; the orca I was modeling my request after was more 2-D. It was flat on both sides and maybe a centimeter and half thick in the middle. None of the edges were rounded like this; any dimension on the orca came from paint rather than actual texture or form.

My little narwhal

I absolutely treasure my adorable little narwhal model now, and I’ve had it on display in every home I’ve lived in as an adult. It (he, I think) gets lots of compliments. But I still think it’s an amusing window into how the design process can go very wrong. (Note that I’m not a designer at all, and neither is my dad; I’m just amused to ponder this as a Pretend Case Study.) I want to make clear that I don’t intend to take away from the awesome work of my wonderful father, whose generosity and joy in creating cool woodworking items lives on. But let’s put on our Design Hats break down where we went wrong if this had been an official modern adult design transaction.

1) I failed to articulate my needs. I wanted some very specific elements to be included, like paint and functional motion, but I didn’t specify them, and my dad as a non-designer didn’t know how to ask questions that would draw out a complete spec. He worked with the vague picture I painted and he created a mental picture from scratch based on my youthful ramblings.

2) We failed to adequately research. Between the two of us, we probably could have come up with some data point indicating that the narwhal’s tusk would have to be n percentage of its body length; we then could have figured out how much space it needed to clear in order to turn an orca-like revolution.

3) I didn’t speak up or halt the presses when I saw things going wrong. This is assuming I even saw things going wrong or had any ability whatsoever to compute this; really, I have no recollection. I was eight. But I think I could tell that it was shaping up differently than my mind’s eye when I saw Dad at work. (I would watch and learn as he created things.)

4) We both allowed design assumptions to be made, without checking in. Dad actually did something much more elegant than the orca; he rounded the edges of all but the tail on our narwhal. This is way more sophisticated and realistic-looking than the more 2-D orca toy which inspired the project. But he also assumed stain was fine, he assumed the dowel placement didn’t matter, and he assumed the piece was more for display than for toy-like use (I think). I assumed he could read my mind.

These are all interesting problems that I imagine actual design professionals face. I myself am learning to define my intentions, articulate them better, and check in more regularly when I hire creative vendors for my online dating coaching company. What say you, Actual Design Professionals? Have you run into anything like this with a grown-up client?

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