Dear Air France – It’s not my fault.

Having spent a lot of my adult life traveling and working abroad, I’ve usually make an effort to try different airlines when I can. And because of that I’ve been on some interesting, stressful and adventurous flights… but the worse experience in recent memory has been the service I received on Air France.

You’d think that in normal circumstances, especially for transcontinental/international flights, airlines make an effort to provide a relaxing and enjoyable experience. I usually try to avoid low-cost airlines for this reason… I want to enjoy the experience. Having taken Air France a few times, the quality of service and food is decent, so I was quite shocked last month when I received one of the worst experiences ever.

Knowing that I had to mentally and physically prepare myself for a trip to Canada from France with my 2-year old daughter, I’d made every preparation I could think of to make sure the flight would go smoothly. Getting rest before the flight. Check. Headphones and toys for the flight. Check. Mid-plane seats for the both of us. Check.

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So as we got on the plane for a 13-hour flight which included a change-over in Amsterdam, I was ready. What I wasn’t ready for was the on-board service I received from a flight attendant before taking off on the first-leg of our flight from Marseille to Amsterdam. I made sure to buy a seat for both of us because having my daughter, who had just turned 2 a day before the flight, sitting on my lap for the trip wasn’t going to happen… and travelers are allowed to reserve seats for an infant.

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And as it goes with any child, no matter how much you prepare, things just don’t go according to plan. Théa normally travels well, but when we had to wake up at 5am to drive an hour to get to the airport to catch our flight, you’d expect any child to be grumpy. And so she was as we found our seats and were getting ready for the departure… that meant a lot of crying and frustration. Basically she didn’t want to sit in her seat and be buckled in.

I had already asked one of the head flight attendant to keep our stroller (Dear all airlines, the Babyzen Yoyo stroller isn’t the only stroller made for traveling – see the Mountain Buggy Nano!) so I could have it for the transfer in Amsterdam. She was more than accommodating so I thought “Great, I’ll be able to ask for help if/when I need it for this trip.” Oh, was I wrong…

The second we got to our seats, Théa wouldn’t sit still and she started to get frustrated and cry. Since I had to get her to use her seat belt before taking off, it made the situation even more tense. I was given a warning by the second flight attendant that she had to be strapped in. As the plane was leaving the gate to take off, this same flight attendant came back again and told me, in the most obnoxious and least courteous tone, that the flight would not take off without Théa being buckled in. So I asked to get the child seat belt so she could sit on my lap for take off. Here’s where it gets worse…

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No, you can’t have a child seat belt. It’s your fault.

She said, “No, you can’t have a child seat belt. It’s your fault.” implying that it was somehow my fault that I had bought a seat for Théa and that she had to use it even though she was crying and unwilling to sit in the seat. After that she walked away. As I struggled to calm Théa, both the guy sitting beside me and I looked at each other and wondered what just happened.

Within a minute the head flight attendant came to see what was going on. After a bit of discussion, she quickly made an assessment of the situation and came back with the child seat belt and a couple small muffins for Théa. This dramatically reduce not only my stress but also Théa’s stress as she calmed down, sat on my lap and allowed to be buckled in, and happily enjoyed her snacks… she fell asleep soon after and only woke up just before we landed in Amsterdam.

It’s better to be gentle and show some empathy rather than to be aggressive.

Inter-personal communication is so underrated yet so important especially in stressful moments like I experienced on this flight. As my neighbor, who looked like he was a father of two boys, told the head flight attendant, “It’s better to be gentle and show some empathy rather than to be aggressive.”

Whether it’s about parenting or the challenges in life, this reaction of putting blame or faulting others does not help and can create more animosity and negativity that we as individuals and as a society don’t need.

The characteristics of a ‘design thinker’

I normally see lots of emails asking to “beautify” things at work. It’s one of the biggest insults to designers, a profession that looks to not only make things aesthetically pleasing, but ultimately functional and useful whether it’s in technology or communication. It’s a discipline that spans all areas because at its essence is not so much tools or platforms, but a strategic way of thinking that creates value. Back in 2008, Tim Brown, the CEO and President of IDEO and author of the blog ‘Design Thinking’, wrote a detailed article in the Harvard Business Review of how the thinking that goes into designing products or things can actually be used for all sorts of industries.

Simply put, design thinking is a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity… Leaders now look to innovation as a principal source of differentiation and competitive advantage; they would do well to incorporate design thinking into all phases of the process.

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The October 2014 issue of Wired magazine was all about design and editor Scott Dadich’s fascination and interest in design and the way design thinking can be used for innovation while making mistakes along the way, or what he considers “Wrong Theory“. While designers are often known or asked to ‘make things pretty’, it’s this process of making something pretty that holds the most value – the insight that comes from this process is what gets designers to take notice of what works and doesn’t work. But in order to do this, as Dadich writes, “You need to know the rules, really master their nuance and application, before you can break them.” By getting things wrong or off-balanced, a designer’s perspective of a challenge or problem helps him/her learn how imperfection can lead to perfection.

Designers touch and shape every single part of your day; they are a constant presence in your life. Your smartphone, glasses, activity tracker – someone made them, worrying over the details that turned those things into indispensable companions.

Lucky to be working with Sarah (http://sarahroxas.ch), a talented designer who really loves her work!
Lucky to be working with Sarah Roxas, a talented designer who really loves her work!

I’ve found that sometimes the best ideas and thinking comes from people who don’t consider themselves designers. Again, thinking design isn’t so much a thing as much as a way of seeing a problem and finding a solution. So what does a “design thinker” look like? In his Harvard Business Review article, Brown highlights five characteristics to look for in a design thinker:

  1. Empathy. They can imagine the world from multiple perspectives—those of colleagues, clients, end users, and customers (current and prospective). By taking a “people first” approach, design thinkers can imagine solutions that are inherently desirable and meet explicit or latent needs. Great design thinkers observe the world in minute detail. They notice things that others do not and use their insights to inspire innovation.
  2. Integrative thinking. They not only rely on analytical processes (those that produce either/or choices) but also exhibit the ability to see all of the salient—and sometimes contradictory—aspects of a confounding problem and create novel solutions that go beyond and dramatically improve on existing alternatives.
  3. Optimism. They assume that no matter how challenging the constraints of a given problem, at least one potential solution is better than the existing alternatives.
  4. Experimentalism. Significant innovations don’t come from incremental tweaks. Design thinkers pose questions and explore constraints in creative ways that proceed in entirely new directions.
  5. Collaboration. The increasing complexity of products, services, and experiences has replaced the myth of the lone creative genius with the reality of the enthusiastic interdisciplinary collaborator. The best design thinkers don’t simply work alongside other disciplines; many of them have significant experience in more than one.

Food+Music can make anyone happy

It might be hard work but there isn’t really a down side to food. We all need it. We all have our own tastes. We can love or hate making and eating whatever we cook. It induces memories and is a visual feast that triggers other senses and emotions.

While food tickles our sense of smell, sight, and touch/taste, when music comes into the mix to trigger our ears and body, it’s a double whammy. It’s no wonder food+music can make anyone happy and transcends cultures. I watched a couple of movies recently that does just that.

Written, directed, and starring Jon Favreau (remember Swingers?), Chef is about a chef who loses his restaurant job and starts up a food truck to express his creativity and love for food while trying to connect with his son. It’s a light-hearted and easy-going film with plenty of eye-watering culinary images and lots of body-moving songs. There’s also a big push for Twitter… is this the new way for product placement – to blatantly talk about a brand and use it as the basis for the plot? Favreau might end up being the next Woody Allen because he practically does everything and at the same time includes plenty of well-known actors who all seem to have fun on the film. .. Check out the trailer below.

The other movie is based on a book called The Hundred-Foot Journey about the Kadam family who leaves India for France where they open a restaurant directly across the road from Madame Mallory’s Michelin-starred eatery. Another light-hearted film that puts the love of food in the spotlight. Since it’s based on a book, there’s plenty of stuff that doesn’t make it into the movie, but it does make a clear case that there isn’t a hierarchy when it comes to culinary arts – it’s about passion, the love of discovering new tastes and figuring out what people like or don’t like… and it has dashes of Bollywood dancing and music.

Back in October 2013, I tried to take a photo of every meal I ate at breakfast, lunch and dinner. It was a visual feast, but probably one I wouldn’t want to repeat. The results weren’t very appetizing – click on each photo to see all the meals.

Pamplona: the centre of infographics and pintxos

Last month I was in Pamplona, Spain where the world-famous running of the bulls takes place. While the bull running doesn’t show up until mid-July, the city becomes host to Malofiej, an infographics world gathering, in March. It wasn’t a surprise that infographics weren’t the first thing on the tip of people’s tongues when I arrived. Instead it was pintxos, the local name of the bite-size Spanish snacks that are commonly known as tapas. Yet, what I found was that there were a lot of similarities between infographics and pintxos and was happy to share my thoughts when Visualoop asked if I could be a guest blogger.

I had heard of and visited the popular website that started out on Tumblr in 2010. Since then Visualoop evolved into its own digital environment and is a place that is dedicated to anything and all things visual and related to data visualization.

We try to bring together experts from fields such as information design, cartography or visual journalism, with students and others interested in expanding their knowledge about data visualization.

What I didn’t realize was that its now run out of Brazil by a very charismatic and friendly Portuguese guy named Tiago. He was quite the busy bee during the conference – networking with participants, blogging everyday, and setting up interviews with people. Here he is with the very talented and respected illustrator Adolfo Arranz at Malofiej23.

Talking with @visualoop at #23malofiej

A photo posted by Adolfo Arranz (@adolfux) on

Here’s how I see the link between infographics and pintxos/tapas:

  • Pintxos are popular because it comes down to a simple idea. The clarity and simplicity of an idea is also what can make an infographic great in communicating information visually.
  • What makes (some) pintxos taste great is the ingredients and how they’re used. This goes the same for infographics – the basic building blocks and ingredients are data and information.
  • Pintxos taste much better when shared with others. Infographic design isn’t (or shouldn’t) be an individual activity, but one where ideas and interests can be shared.

Read the full post on Visualoop and also have a look around as there’s plenty to see especially if you like infographics… no pintxos unfortunately!

Charts don’t explain themselves

It’s a scary fact of life these days that people take figures and numbers at face value, and consider them authoritative when it comes from the “source” or by the media, yet a lot of times they are taken out of context to serve a purpose like selling an idea or a service. Maybe it’s the way we’ve learned things in school, but when numbers and figures are put into charts and graphs it becomes more “scientific” or trustworthy. They are also easy ways to visualize information – this is misleading. I’m a big fan of data visualization and information design, and have made a living out of it. At the same time, I also understand their limitations and biases because of how numbers can be manipulated or emphasized to serve a purpose. Communication isn’t just about exposing numbers – it’s about being able to explain them in a meaningful way.

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This below video from Veritasium which demystifies 13 misconceptions about global warming (i.e. climate change) is a great example of why charts and graphs don’t explain themselves. The presenter flashes lots of scientific graphs and charts that have also been used by climate-deniers to support their arguments. The key thing is that he supports the numbers with clear explanations backed by research rather than just focusing on the numbers or trends shown by the charts.

Cartographer takes Kobe to school

Admittedly the title for this post would make for a great story, but unfortunately it’s only fantasy for now. Skill and talent may still have a large part to play in basketball, but Kirk Goldsberry thinks there’s more to it and that thinking like a cartographer (i.e. you know, those guys that makes maps) might actually help people understand the game better and improve the way the NBA plays and manages it.

Goldsberry’s quest to map every moment of basketball really stood out for me in WIRED magazine last month. This excerpt from Mark Mclusky’s new book “Faster, Higher, Stronger” (Xmas present anyone?) is about maps and basketball. Two of my favorite things. I can’t help but think where was this research when I was studying Geography in university – I would’ve jumped at the chance to work on it.

Goldsberry’s research is different compared to that of data-analytics-driven baseball (i.e. Moneyball). He saw the constant flow of basketball as just a problem in information flow.

Unlike the static, state-to-state action in baseball, basketball is a constant flow. Players switch from offense to defense, from posting up to double-teaming. If a baseball player is a left fielder, you know the basic area he will patrol on defense. If a basketball player is a forward, he could be anywhere on the court at any time. The game has no states, so statistically you can’t determine the odds of a given outcome.

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So the whole problem with basketball wasn’t so much percentages and probabilities, but of space… more specfically the spatial distribution of players in where they have their strengths when shooting, playing defense, or driving the lane.

Instead of focusing on the numbers that defined a state in baseball, Goldsberry began to focus on the locations and movement of objects—specifically, the players and the ball. It was a mapping problem… To understand basketball, you also have to understand space. You need a cartographer.

The best thing about this project isn’t so much the geek-factor of collecting stats and visualizing it, but what Goldsberry wanted it to do.

“I wanted to find a way to get this data to sing a new song, to tell us things like where Kobe is good and where Kobe is bad… and to communicate to players, and fans, and the media.”

By charting the location and frequency of every shot in the NBA, Kirk Goldsberry can create a map of the strengths and weaknesses of each player’s offensive game, like the ones below.

Midrange shots aren’t very productive for most players—except Nowitzki, who loves the right baseline.
Even the most prolific three-point shooter of all time has relatively weak areas, like from the left wing.

If this really is going to change the face of basketball like how Moneyball did for baseball, I’m looking out for a future movie. In the meantime, it would be great to see a head-to-head match up with Goldsberry and Kobe!

Smart yet simple messaging works every time

Finally got through another annual from Communication Arts –  what I really like about the 2013 advertising annual is that the ads featured in the magazine are simple yet engaging. There’s nothing better (and harder to do) than an idea that is smart and makes you think about what’s being communicated. Rather than skimming through these ads, I have to stop and think about not only the message, but also the creative way that the message is being communicated (i.e. design). Some of my favorites are below – all with a subtle yet intriguing thing about each of them.

"ACE Scholarships is a Denver-based nonprofit organization that raises money to provide partial tuition scholarships to low-income children in grades K-12. To highlight the relationship between high school dropout and incarceration rates, we wrapped a school bus to look like a prison bus. The message is simple: better education leads to less incarceration."
ACE Scholarships is a Denver-based nonprofit organization that raises money to provide partial tuition scholarships to low-income children in grades K-12. To highlight the relationship between high school dropout and incarceration rates, we wrapped a school bus to look like a prison bus. The message is simple: better education leads to less incarceration.”
Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America
Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America
Transit series for Fiat
Transit series for Fiat
General Mills, Cheerios
General Mills, Cheerios
“This is the classic approach of showing the problem while offering a solution. Having a problem like avalanches just happened to add some visual interest to this guerrilla campaign we did for Island Alpine Guides. Dummy arms were placed in snowbanks, holding brochures for Island Alpine Guides Avalanche Skills Training.”

 

The first unified theory of branding

There’s a lot of talk in the business, marketing, and communications world about branding, strategy, and design but not always (well, most of time) in the same breath. There seems to be rift between the right and left side of the brain so it was a such a surprise to find a book that bridges this gap between strategy and design.

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The Brand Gap by Marty Neumeier, from Liquid Agency, is not only a quick read, but a deeply insightful book presenting the first unified theory of branding – a set of five disciplines to help companies bridge the gap between brand strategy and execution. There are plenty of powerful statements Neumeier sets out from the start to the end of the book. It seems that he wanted to make it perfectly clear that you can’t have strategy without design, communication without dialogue, and brands without focus.

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The five disciplines of branding

  • Differentiate
  • Collaborate
  • Innovate
  • Validate
  • Cultivate

Think you know what your business is all about and think you have a great marketing strategy? Try to find unambiguous answers to these three little questions:

  • Who are you?
  • What do you do?
  • Why does it matter?

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Working in visual communication, I found it also to be a great example of also linking business content (normally boring and stale) with visually stimulating typography, graphics, and layout. It actually makes you want to read this book, which is categorized as “marketing and management”.

Your time is valuable, so my first goal is to give you a book you can finish in a short plane ride. My second goal is to give you powerful principles that will last a career.

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If anyone works in communication, branding, or strategy, this book should be the first thing to be read. In addition to the book, you can download for free a PDF that summarizes the concepts and ideas from The Brand Gap in a nice visual storytelling presentation – the images from this post are from the presentation.

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Being positive is good for health and communications

It’s been a while since I’ve flipped though my subscription of Communication Arts – I finally got through the 2013 Photography Annual and found a bit of inspiration, particularly drawn to photos related to health. Photos are a great way to share our emotions, relationships and connections with people and things. And there’s no more personal connection than to personal health.

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A campaign pointing out the health risks caused by smoking in cars. Headline: Don’t ignore their wishes / Alex Telfer

What is it about the world of media that uses negative imagery to try to catch people’s attention? There’s that saying about news: it’s not “Dog bites man”, but rather “Man bites dog” that will get the headlines. Yet, a lot has changed when it comes to this kind of view on news, and more broadly communication. With the ever-growing access to information and communication channels, communication professionals might think about placing less emphasis on the negative side of issues – especially if we want people to take action and do something. For example, researchers in 2007 found that the more students were exposed to anti-smoking messages, the more inclined they were to smoke. Results from the study suggest that campaigns don’t work by convincing individuals to avoid tobacco, but rather by helping change the social norms surrounding smoking. This means positivity works better than negativity, especially in a time where positive messages are more likely to spread and engage people, as shown by this study “Upbeat Content Best Bet for Anti-tobacco Messaging” or this report by the New York Times “Good News Beats Bad on Social Networks“.

These photos from CA’s photography annual shows that communication can have an impact when it strikes a cord between something visual, emotional, and making a positive connection.

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Assignment to illustrate a feature story, “Water for All” about the state of fresh water health and policies, or lack there of, governing right of capture rules / Woody Welch

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“Senior Moments.” – for these senior Olympians, age is just a number, and competition is a lifelong passion / Gregg Segal

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Trade advertising campaign to healthcare professionals for a new cancer drug. Portraits capture honest moments of joy as patients receive the good news / Peter Beavis

Technology isn’t going to solve all our problems, just ask Johnny Depp

A couple of weeks ago I watched Johnny Depp’s new movie Transcendence – spoiler alert: it’s a love story (kind of) – and found the issues the movie touched on quite intriguing. A lot of it focused on people’s reliance on technology and how it was suppose to give us all the answers to life. The premise in the movie was that there were two opposing perspectives on technology: one was to give ourselves completely to technology and artificial intelligence (AI), while the other was on balancing human vs. machine decision-making where we/humans are in the ones in control. Well, all hell breaks loose when Depp’s consciousness gets uploaded into an AI… just watch thetrailer below to see what happens.

The topic of humans vs. machines has always been around (remember 1984’s Terminator?). It’s just that now, it’s actually happening with more and more technology infiltrating our lives. I don’t have to go very far to think about how often I jumped to attention when getting a Facebook, Gmail, or Twitter notification on my phone – isn’t the beep from our phones kind of like a master calling his dog?

Nice to see that life can still be entertaining (and distracts us from our phones) like this drummer asking people to play with him.
Nice to see that life can still be entertaining (and distracts us from our phones) like this drummer asking people to play with him.

While these scenarios are scary (otherwise how would Hollywood make more movies??), more insightful thinkers like Clive Thompson makes the argument that it’s still possible, even necessary, to blend humans and machines together to actually evolve and help society. This doesn’t mean turning everyone into cyborgs, but really looking at how we can use the best of both worlds. In the early chapters of Thompson’s book ‘Smarter Than You Think’, he provides examples of how chess grand masters worked with computers to not only improve the speed, but also creativity of play. I’ve just started the book, so definitely more insights to come.

My favorite quote so far:

“At their best, today’s digital tools help us see more, retain more, communicate more. At their worst, they leave us prey to the manipulation of the toolmakers. But on balance, I’d argue, what is happening is deeply positive. This book is about the transformation.”

Update: Thx Mr. Thompson!