On doing

I was never one of those kids who tinkered. I didn’t take things apart or rebuild them or concoct mad experiments. When my parents bought me Lego sets, I followed the instructions. It wasn’t that I wasn’t creative – I built entire worlds with my younger brother, played out elaborate stories with my toys, and drew constantly. In my mind, the world was segregated into very clear categories of “do” and “do not” change. Art was in the do category, because the point of art was to make a drawing or a painting or a clay sculpture from an idea in your head. Most other things were in the don’t category.

It wasn’t until college that I realized there was any other way to think about it. Maybe getting thrown into building circuits or writing Matlab simulations should have done the trick, but Nerf guns are what ended up changing my life.

Nerf guns were all the rage on campus my freshman year, so the first time I made it out to Target with some classmates I made sure to pick up some foam armament. Just having the Nerf gun wasn’t enough though – you had to modify it. I wasn’t so sure about this, but it was what everyone was doing. The implicit rules of my social sphere said that I ought to take my gun apart and shove some pennies behind the spring, so I did*. I grabbed a screwdriver and a handful of change, and set to work on my desk. I probably looked up a few tutorials online. A short while later, with almost no blood, sweat, or tears, I had a functional gun that shot twice as far as it had.

This blew my mind. In following the implicit rules of my friends (“mod your gun!”), I had broken the explicit rules of the manufacturer. I had changed something that was not to be touched. And it had worked better afterwards.

This prompted a spree of experimentation, a “CHANGE ALL THE THINGS!” phase, if you will. Part of this process involved failure, but I learned how to work around that. I crippled my Nerf gun trying to create a more directed airflow. I had to get my computer reimaged multiple times. I wrote all kinds of hacky HTML. But that didn’t matter, because I had finally realized that the rest of life wasn’t actually that different from art. My life became a blank canvas. I could see the rules and structures that governed everything around me, just as I had before, but now I had the power to change them.


I’ve been struggling to write this for quite a while. I know the story, but it’s hard for me to figure out where I’m going with it. It wasn’t until I saw a talk by UW Professor Beth Kolko about her research on creating functional, not accredited, engineers that everything clicked into place: I want to tell this story, because I want people to read it and understand that they can also be makers and doers. All too often the story of being a maker gets told by the tinkerers and hackers – the people who were making robots out of the toaster and building their own websites by the age of 8. And that’s great. That’s fantastic. But we aren’t all those people, and furthermore, those aren’t the people who need to be told that they too can change the world. This is for the rest of us.

* If you can’t tell by now, I’ve always been good with rules. My mother jokes that I was born on my due date because I didn’t want to start off out of line.

The Leon’s Flat design manifesto

(a collaboration with Ellen Chisa)

We believe that design is so firmly rooted in process that it’s impossible to write a manifesto just about the results. It needs to be about everything that goes into the product, not just the end result.

Design comes from everywhere.

Great design concepts can come from a software engineer who writes C++ all day or an elementary school student, as well as user studies and brainstorming sessions.

Start with ideas and problems.

Ideas are snippets of inspiration that come from your personal toolbox – projects you’ve done before, papers you’ve read, people you’ve met – as though you’ve been scrapbooking in your mind. Don’t be afraid to transcend boundaries. Add problems to this mix: things that clients have asked you to figure out, difficulties you have personally run into, and big picture problems that you want to solve for the world.

Let these ideas and problems float around in your head together, drawing connections between them. If you have an idea, what problem is it solving? If you have a problem, what ideas does it inspire? Switching between these questions will crystallize the What and Why of your design.

Find your Hedgehog Concept.

At some point, you’ll reach a core principle, which we like to call the Hedgehog Concept*. You need the one problem you want to solve, and the one way you want to solve it. This will help you decide which details are necessary and relevant later. Solving too many problems, too many ways, never works out.

Bring your Hedgehog to life.

This is the How of your interaction. What is the simplest way to bring the Hedgehog Concept to life? Make your work flows and make sure it’s easy for users. Once you’ve got this key concept down and working, there are two things you must to do it:

  1. Make it a game. It doesn’t need to literally be a game, but you need to treat it like it is one. Make sure it’s fun and has some type of addictive hook to it.
  2. Make it look good. Design isn’t just aesthetics (a beautiful exterior won’t fix a flawed interaction), but it does require aesthetics. Figure out your visual design language and stick to it.

Tell a story.

Being able to tell the story around your product – from the beginning problem it solves to why it helps the users and why it’s the best version of the product – is crucial. Communicating your idea so that it can and will be used is just as important as the product you’ve actually designed.

* From Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great

Becoming a digital native

Well, ok, maybe I’m not all the way gone. But who knows?

I recently got a smartphone, and it has fundamentally changed the way I interact with the world. At this point, it is still a magic box, but from this point on it’s going to become normal. So, I’ve decided to document this transition on the basis that this will never happen to me again.


It’s a magic box – I have the internet in my pocket. I wake up in the morning and check my email while my brain wakes up; then I get out of bed. Sitting in class, I can Wikipedia a concept that the professor is talking about without having to get out my computer, boot it up, and be noticeably not paying attention. In fact, booting up my computer takes so much longer that I haven’t bothered to log into email on my computer more than a handful of times in the last half-week (I usually check email online every 2-3 hours at minimum). This really helps with dealing with all of the small I-don’t-need-to-read-this emails, but I’m slower at responding to “real” email because of the small screen and less efficient keyboard.

Having an Android phone has allowed me to install Google Voice on my phone, which has in turn led to free, infinite text messaging, and my willingness to text people has skyrocketed. SMS conversations no longer end with “I have limited texting” and “Oh, sorry”. I also have a hardware GPS chip and unlimited data – Google Maps on my phone, in my pocket. I found this particularly helpful last night, while trying to locate the Awesome Foundation party that I was going to. Alone, having never been to Microsoft NERD before, I was able to not only navigate there with phone-based GPS, but also double-check the specific building address once I arrived by navigating to the event’s Facebook page on the fly. This worked a lot better than trying to call my friend, who was already there but failed to answer his phone.

At the same time, it becomes an irresistible distraction. Pulling out the phone in a group of people is a guaranteed timesuck – I’m going to end up checking my email and Twitter updates, not just looking up X thing I got asked about. I may have to make personal table etiquette rules forbidding taking the phone out at the table unless calling someone. The notifications on email arrival are also a huge distraction. I don’t really need to know every time an email hits my inbox, but what if it’s an important one? (it never is)

Overall, this is a very strange experience. It’s completely changed the way I interact with the internet, and is starting to bleed over into my real life. It’s like I’ve stepped into the future – a device that used to call and maybe text people has become a 24/7 uplink that tells me where to go, what my friends are doing, whether or not anyone is trying to talk to me (in 3-4 different formats!), and knows where I am. The really crazy part is that this is becoming normal.