What I Read in 2012

Although its not complete, and doesn't include many excellent periodicals and longer-form essays that I consumed here and there, here's a list of what I read over the year 2012: 1491 (Second Edition): New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt

Born to Run by Christopher Mcdougall

Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age by Steven Johnson

The Voyage of the Rose City: An Adventure at Sea by John Moynihan

How to Be Black by Baratunde Thurston

This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

Started, still in progress:

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick

The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever by Christopher Hitchens

Articles and essays of note:

Why Things Fail: From Tires to Helicopter Blades, Everything Breaks Eventually - wired.com

How Culture Drove Human Evolution - edge.org

The Enemy (Kindle Single) - Christopher Hitchens

The Hunt for Geronimo - Vanity Fair

The Value of Drawing

Michael Graves, renowned architect and product designer, wrote about drawing in yesterday's New York Times. I'm a constant sketcher at work, so I found his discussion especially meaningful, since he addressed the "lost art" of drawing in an age of computerized rendering in the architectural profession. First, Graves talks about the intention and value of drawing, which is particularly valuable for those who don't draw or don't think they need to. I think he neatly sums it up with this statement:

"Drawings are not just end products: they are part of the thought process of architectural design. Drawings express the interaction of our minds, eyes and hands."

What we've done since we were children is cast aside to easily, without considering what is lost. The literal connection that exists between our brains and hands has a much higher degree of fidelity and nuance than is possible with a mouse (pen, or tablet input as well). It takes a significant amount of time to develop and atrophies when not used.

And then Graves talks about his process, which I found particularly illuminating, since I don't think I've ever given names to the drawings I do, other than calling them "iterations". He identifies three drawing types called the  “referential sketch,” the “preparatory study” and the “definitive drawing.” The last is most appropriately done on a computer these days, but he finds the most value in the first two:

"With both of these types of drawings, there is a certain joy in their creation, which comes from the interaction between the mind and the hand. Our physical and mental interactions with drawings are formative acts. In a handmade drawing, whether on an electronic tablet or on paper, there are intonations, traces of intentions and speculation. This is not unlike the way a musician might intone a note or how a riff in jazz would be understood subliminally and put a smile on your face."

Read the whole piece here.

Design or Cut Bait

At a UX conference not so long ago, a fellow presenter (a non-designer) and friend remarked that in so many of the presentations, he detected a tones of exasperation, almost whining, coming from the speakers. He wondered why so many designers were concerned with not being in a strategic or decision-making position, when the opportunity is theirs for the taking. I've encountered this quite a bit, and confess to being that designer in the past. At a lot of companies, especially larger ones, the goals and language set are dominated by people with backgrounds in business, sales and marketing. Much of what is discussed has an aura of rationality, science or math, its largely subjective, and its difficult for many designers to overcome the wall of jargon they encounter. Designers definitely need to learn some of this to approach the table, but they should be prepared to bring their own. Look for ways to shift the culture, ways to open up the discussion to include stories from real users, and ways to build on what's already being done.

Take a hard look at where you are working - is it even possible to achieve this? In my experience, if there isn't someone a couple rungs above you who gets it, you are in for a long, frustrating and probably futile quest. If this isn't working, find another company that does get it, work in consulting, or start your own. Agency work is appealing to designers partly because someone else is paid to inject them into the position they covet, but also because someone is running interference for them. They get to focus on design work while someone deals with the challenging clients.

I vastly prefer working in-house, where I see a rich range of problems and get the chance to see solutions through to conclusion and revision. It's a personal preference, and one that requires patience and stamina in different ways than other contexts.

TechCrunch Disrupt Presentation

I had the distinct honor and pleasure of presenting a new app that we've been working on at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference as part of their Battlefield competition. The competition pits 30+ startups against each other in a judged competition. Each team gets roughly five minutes to present, followed by another five minutes of questions from the judges. Overall, I think it worked out well even though we didn't win. Here's the video (first there's an ad).

TechCrunch also did a pretty good writeup of the app, which saves me from having to explain it.

Jobs I've Had

I was thinking last night about all the different jobs I've had over the years, and how many were "relevant" to what I do now. I suppose they were all relevant, since they got me to and are a part of what I am now, but there are a few that I consider to be a direct link to what I do now. They also signal a conscious shift in my outlook with regards to my career. Note that while this is roughly chronological, and includes only wage-earning jobs, I've done the same job at multiple employers, so I rolled up those positions.

  • Car wash carhop Learned that ill will created by older siblings can negatively affect job duration
  • Gas station attendant Learned how change the oil in a VW, smoke Marlboro Reds
  • Busboy in a fancy restaurant Leaned how to set a proper table, which side to serve and clear form, hang out with waitresses
  • House painter Learned about importance of health insurance. First management experience, and my team sucked
  • Apartment painter Learned how to paint student housing interiors, survive all day on a diet coke big gulp
  • Sorority houseboy Learned how to steer clear of a house full of college girls
  • Mail room of McDonalds world headquarters Discovered they serve beer in the HQ McDonalds
  • Printing plant Learned about union-mandated breaks
  • Bartender Discovered bar tending isn't that much fun, really.
  • Stereo equipment sales Learned how commission sales work (or doesnt)
  • Lawn maintenance Learned how to drive a big truck, second management position
  • Busboy Learned that laundromat/bar combinations are a great idea
  • Picture framer Learned how to get involved with much of the female sales staff, third management position
  • University telecom warehouse storekeeper Learned about DOS/Windows, and all the types of RJ jacks. First direct experience leading to current career.
  • Telephone customer service/technical support Learned about flaming co-workers via email not being a good idea, fourth management position. Also first experience working in a meritocratic workplace. Led to beginning of current career.
  • Product design and management Learned I loved designing interactive products, fifth management position. Start of current career.
  • University computer science department design intern Learned I had no idea how to build a large website, learned a lot about methodologically sound research.
  • Interaction design consultant Learned a lot about client management, had to lay off my first employee.
  • Interaction design manager Learned a lot about excellent and horrible management, big company politics.

Agile UX NYC Slides

On Saturday, I had the pleasure of speaking at the inaugural Agile UX New York conference here in New York. The roster of speakers was excellent and I learned quite a bit. I spoke about some of what I've learned at betaworks over the last four years working in an early stage startup environment. I outlined a number of the elements I saw as contributing to the success of some of the companies I've worked with to get up and running. Please take a look at my slides below:

Bonus - If you can bear it, here is a video of me giving this talk, via Ustream.

Speaking at Agile UX New York City

I'm excited to announce that I'll be speaking at the upcoming Agile UX conference here in New York. I'll be talking about the how the relationship of design to the world of startups has recently shifted from a question of necessity to a position of criticality. To succeed in this new environment, designers need to adapt their strengths. Specifically, I'll talk about my experience at betaworks and how designers innovate in an early-stage startup environment and transform ideas into products then companies. Join me if you can!

The Commuting Surplus

The share of automobile miles driven by people aged 21 to 30 in the U.S. fell to 13.7% in 2009 from 18.3% in 2001 and 20.8% in 1995, according to data from the Federal Highway Administration's National Household Travel Survey released earlier this year. Meanwhile, Census data show the proportion of people aged 21-30 increased from 13.3% to 13.9%.

According to the experts, young people don't want to drive anymore, and the Internet is to blame! Aside from criticizing journalists for lazily falling back on not one, but two tired tropes (kids these days + the Internet) to generate interest in something that is not incredibly newsworthy, I wanted to see what else might be causing a decline in US car culture.

I see automobiles as the most prominent (and for many years, almost the only) designed object in most American's lives. For years, they were also an overt expression of identity. In movies, in cities and towns everywhere, life seemed centered around the car. Sections of cities were destroyed and new cities built for them. Like any strategy predicated on growth, it had to come to some end, right? With the design force Apple and multiple websites and interactive products, there are other options Americans to express themselves.

It may be that American youth is less interested in what's being offered by auto manufacturers. I don't have any data, but perhaps cars today are too conservative and aimed at broader market segments, with fewer interesting variants to be appealing. Smaller, cheaper cars for years have been overlooked by manufacturers as worthy of their attention. Practically speaking, people must be doing something with their time, and it seems they all want to be online. All along cars have been just a means to socialize, and now its a lot easier to do that using Facebook and Twitter and mobile apps. It's very hard to use these while driving.

Another aspect not covered is how the rise of hacker and maker culture comes into play. Cars can't be hacked so easily anymore (exception noted), with blackbox computers and sophisticated engines and drivetrains. Computers and websites can be easily customized and are vastly cheaper than cars, too. The economy has been in a prolonged recession and new cars are inaccessible for many.

Lastly, it seems collaboration and environmental concerns are powerful motivators for people to consider public transport, sharing services, and living in denser urban areas.

Compared to older generations, Millennials participate in and are more open to collaborative consumption programs, such as media, car and home or vacation sharing. - Millenials Prefer Sharing Over Ownership

In many ways, they are trying to undo what their parents and grandparents did when they fled the cities for "greener" pastures.

The challenge for designers is systemic, and has been for some time. Its a massive service design challenge in some ways, and one that seems to be coming from the bottom up, rather than the corporate-driven suburbanization effort. Better urban planning and a much wider array of transportation options are needed for people who want to use their cognitive surplus.

Who "Gets" Product?

Like many in my field, I'm always amazed when poorly conceived or executed products find their way to market. While every case study of failure is unique, starting with a great product team is a variable we'd like to have under control. Finding people who work in product development with a compatible outlook and skillset is difficult, but identifying higher-order abilities in those people is hard. How do you know if someone “gets” product?* You want to find these people, but what are you really looking for? This is a deceptively hard question, and the easy (but unsatisfying) answer is that you can't. The other easy answer is that there are many answers. I've shared my own perspective, but I also asked a number of people to hear what they thought. What I Look For - The Short List

  • X-ray Eyes People I know that get product can "see through" a product along multiple dimensions to understand all of what goes into making it and where it can go. What the decisions were, the trade-offs and meetings during the process of development. How many times did they test a part, and did they fix it? What will happen over time? How are they planning for the unknown?
  • Mostly Makers Skills in making, editing, and curation are very important to me, but are only part of a holistic skill set and outlook (and many great product people aren’t makers). Curiosity about how and why things work and succeed (or fail - why does Hollywood make so many bad films?). A good track record helps, but being flexible about what success is may be necessary. Some of the best product people I know I’ve known for a long time, but its hard to get that insider perspective.
  • Well Spoken I like it when someone can articulate the stance a product takes. Is a company trying to break out or fit in? They see how people use it (can they use it, is it meaningful, do they like it, will they keep it) now and in the future, and everything orbits around that. More literally, can people talk about products with clarity and directness (and metaphor). Many fields have a specific language set so insiders can be very specific, and product people should be well-versed or be able to adopt the local language.

From the Experts I asked several friends and colleagues to share their experiences, and was delighted with their responses. Several commented on the difficulty of the question itself, but all took up the challenge. I’ve synthesized their responses below, but thanks to Charles Adler, John Borthwick, Dan Boyarski, Liz Danzico, Alex Rainert, and Khoi Vinh for taking time to respond. Here are their key points:

  • Its About People People that get product understand that fundamentally this is about people. Product people use products. They talk about products in the context of use (as opposed to the features) and about the emotional engagement that exists for them. Development is a human process, and requires an understanding of the interaction of the roles involved and, of course, who the audience is.
  • It Takes Holistic Thinking Getting product also requires (or may be an outcome of) holistic thinking. They think about all aspects of the product: market, technology, operations, support, design. They can talk about and balance the relationships among them.
  • Bring a POV Despite being able to balance across disciplines and requirements, they have opinions that they hold strongly and can trust and defend them. They can say smart things about products - their own and other people’s. They understand where they’ve failed and can build on that.
  • Prove It Being able to demonstrate the ways they go about solving problems is important. Seeing past work is one measure, and seeing the results of in-person problem solving is used often. They understand the roles required, and they actually have experience shipping something.
  • Legacy Perhaps the most elusive, but in some ways critical quality, is whether someone can be trusted in the future to continue, extend and grow a product.


*By “getting product”, I mean people who can understand how and why products are made and succeed (or don’t), and can articulate and repeat that outcome.

Big Screen Chartbeat

Chartbeat is often displayed on large screens inside newsrooms and offices, usually in a static mode. In this shot, John Borthwick is using it on a giant touchscreen (an 82" Perceptive Pixel LCD Multi-Touch Display) at the Gizmodo Gallery (there are some Betaworks folks at the 22 second mark in the video). I think it's still holding up well after over 2 years without a significant change.

Behind the Bitly Mascot

Ok, so its a bit of a puff piece, but I was interviewed by Mashable about the origins of the Bitly mascot.

How did the pufferfish develop?

We started looking at renderings of pufferfish, and one of the things that I hit on was why not show two pufferfish and show them in the states you would encounter it, puffed out and shrunken down. Once we played with that, we hit on the relationship between these two. So we invented a backstory that the little is always pranking the big one and the big one is sort of clumsy. The little one is the smart one because it’s a shortened link and there’s a lot of data and valuable attributes that are useful to people, where as the big one is the sort of big, dumb long link that breaks in emails when you send it to people or IM it.

The full post is here.


A couple quick quotes on the meaning of design: "In most people's vocabularies, design means veneer. It's interior decorating. It's the fabric of the curtains of the sofa. But to me, nothing could be further from the meaning of design. Design is the fundamental soul of a human-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service." - Steve Jobs

“...you cannot have depths without surfaces. They communicate with what is within; between the two there is always a great dialogue.” - Linda Grant

Whole-team User Research

In the 15 or so years I've been designing interactive products, I have always tried to involve the intended audience (users) in the course of product development. A recent article by Jared Spool on UIE.com articulates something different that I've felt but rarely had the data to support: involve the rest of the team in deep exposure to users. I'm in complete agreement with this approach, as long as sensitivity to team structure and dynamics are understood and managed well. Resistance to conducting research (broadly speaking, from field research to usability testing) can come from unexpected quarters, but the usual suspects include Sales (who fear losing control of the relationship they have with their clients), Technology (who look at it as something that will slow down develpment time), and Product (who've invested too much time in their MRD and PRD documentation). The Design team, too, has their share of those who fear user input will impinge on their freedom to create, among other reasons.

I started my career at Morningstar working on Windows-based software, where our team used a waterfall process and testing was difficult. We had to wait until the product was nearly done, which was the only way it could stand up long enough for us to test it with users. Even then the feedback was invaluable, but we rarely had many of the front-line developers on hand to observe. Also, much of the development staff were from mainland China and had a more limited command of English.

Later on at Razorfish, I learned valuable lessons on how not to run user research. One of the failures of the agency model is how often work is done in an assembly-line fashion, with little room for iteration and teams that are separated from each other. My team did excellent work, but too often we weren't tightly coupled with the IA, Design, and Tech teams to provide user feedback in a timely manner. It was also trimmed or eliminated from pitch budgets since it always appeared as a line item.

At Yahoo!, we had a much more tightly integrated UX team, but we weren't physically or organizationally close to Tech. In between us was a firewall of Project Managers (necessary in any large endeavor, I might add). This inhibited our ability to get everyone on board, although we did manage to get some of the front-end developers to some usability tests.

Right now I'm at betaworks, and the situation is different still. Here teams are very small and fast-moving. I don't have a team and everyone is super-busy and its hard to find time to squeeze in anything other than core job responsibilities. There are vastly different outlooks on what roles are critical, and products serve very different markets (although they all have UIs). In a startup environment, there is a lot of pressure to maintain a clear vision and course in the face of all manner of obstacles, users included.

Here lies the challenge: how to integrate user feedback into a team's work so that its not considered unusual or can be sidelined. A few takeaways:

  • Convince teams that something that feels so counter-intuitive is actually better. Spending more time on understanding users, planning and designing actually makes the development cycle shorter (and saves tons of time post-launch).
  • Convince teams that this is as important a part of the process of developing interactive products as continually testing for and fixing bugs.
  • As Spool points out, every discipline needs to be involved to avoid the kind of infighting that comes about when people are basing decisions on assumptions about user goals, not empirical evidence.

Data Overload in the Military

...the screens in jets can be so packed with data that some pilots call them “drool buckets” because, they say, they can get lost staring into them.

It appears the military is bumping up against the limits of peoples ability to absorb and make sense of the streams of data they encounter in their rapidly digitizing field of operations. Myths about people's ability to multitask continue to lead managers astray, I fear. Scientists comment that multitasking actually impedes performance in simulations. If you've ever tried to complete this awareness test, you'll get some idea of these limits.

While well-intentioned, the impulse to add another monitor or another data stream only makes the problem worse for soldiers facing extremely stressful situations. Fundamentals in usability have roots in the military, when aircraft crashes were unexplainably high and researchers determined that standardization of control layout and developing controls with significant tactile differences dramatically reduced error rates. Efforts to "rewire" soldiers to aclimate them to information overload seem foolish to me, as there is only so much change the human brain can accomodate. There is nothing significantly different about the brains of today's 20-year-olds and yesterday's. No amount of video games has made their brains different, but it has acclimated them to this kind of work.

A closer look at integrating data into more holistic dashboards, making data more actionable, and offloading onto the system some tasks so that soldiers can operate better all seem like useful directions, and probably significantly cheaper. This last part is probably of no interest to the contractors supplying expertise and hardware to this effort, however.

Interface Design Concepts

A nice roundup of some interface design concepts over at the Fast Company design blog: http://www.fastcodesign.com/1662959/12-of-the-years-best-ideas-in-interface-design-slideshow I'm particularly taken with both the DJ turntable concept because it doesn't shy away from expecting users to develop a knowledge of how the system works, and isn't a slavish replication of both the appearance and interactions of a real-world system. The Mozilla Seabird phone concept is quite compelling too, since it breaks the screen entirely, extending it into the adjacent space for users.

A History of Product Development at betaworks

I recently (December 8th) gave a talk at the betaday 2010 - a small private conference put on by my company, betaworks - covering the history of product development there. I was excited to present because of the occasion, but also since I got to talk about product development.

John Borthwick has a simple framework he uses to describe our approach to creating products, and it goes something like this: Inception, Iteration, Scale. The overall approach is similar to Paul Graham's Six Principles for Making New Things and lean startup techniques like Minimum Viable Product. A key distinction from most startups is that betaworks intentionally makes products that turn into companies, and its companies are held in a loose network, fostering learning and growth. Here, then is a short description of each of the phases:

  • Inception: this is closest to Lean Startup/MVP ideas, in that we try to have a single developer build out the core product use case end to end in a short period of time. What we do at the end here is some kind of assessment to determine if an idea is solid enough to make a bigger investment. In my talk, I refer to the origins of chartbeat, and while people gravitate to stories with clear beginings, most betaworks companies emerge from a primordial soup than a flash of divine insight.
  • Iteration: the next phase is also closely aligned to current startup thinking, and is where we start making rapid iterations and pivots, looking to pick off substantial and hopeful edge cases that were overlooked previously. If we think we have something - and often the market will tell us - we usually need to scale it up. Knowing when to pivot or completely change a business model is difficult, especially when so many startup narratives are about founders sticking to their vision. chartbeat is a clear case of this in that the underlying technology had origins in a real-time chat environment and ended up powering a data dashboard.
  • Scale: rapidly accommodating growth of a user base is often accompanied by corresponding growth in staff, the breadth and complexity of the app, and wildly spiking usage patterns. The betaworks network of companies share knowledge and experience with each other, so companies can move faster with fewer mistakes.

After my talk I was asked about the role of user experience at a startup and when to hire a UX person or team. The answer is, of course, it depends. My role at betaworks is pretty unique, in that I work across several companies at a time, and do almost everything (user research, interaction design, visual design, usability testing). I help companies grow, and to the point where they need to hire their own fulltime UX staff. To what degree a startup needs help with their UX (if at all) is dependent upon several factors:

  • The type of company. Some startups may be backend and/or API focused, and only need a simple marketing presence to communicate what they do. Other companies are completely dependent upon low-friction user interaction or cultivating user-generated content and might need more attention. bit.ly spent a considerable amount of time scaling up its infrastructure and refining its API, only paying attention to the UI later on.
  • Where in its growth cycle a company is. Generally speaking, I'd advise that companies outsource their UX for as long as possible (depending upon the above), since reasonably talented developers can get good mileage out of some good design patterns. Forming a close relationship with a single UX contractor can keep costs down while benefitting from gains in institutional knowledge.
  • The kind and level of UX involvement needed and is possible. The term "UX" is often misused and poorly understood (entirely through the efforts of its practitioners) but goes far beyond the appearance of a product. UX methods and solutions run the gamut from strategic to reactionary, from game-changing to decorative. A skilled practioner will be good or excellent in several areas, and wise enough to know what's good enough or when to call for help. A startup might not be willing or able to bring in user's voices to product develpment efforts, or choose to direct efforts in the wrong area. Having a designer make concepts "real" through lightweight prototypes or designs, and validating those with users can be far cheaper and time efficient than having a team of developers code up something. The nature of the business should indicate which paths to go down.

Overall, this was a great opportunity to deliver my perspective on how UX is valued and integrated into the startups at betaworks, and something I'll talk about more in the future.

Level Up or Out

An interesting series of articles appeared in the New York Times Sunday Magazine this past week covering technology in education. Interesting to me because of the variety of approaches discussed, from drill-based learning to home schooling. One of the pieces discussed the use of video games as learning aids, and covered a new middle school here in New York that has a curriculum largely based around video games. It was a little hard to discern what level of integration gaming has with learning there, but there was a brief mention of what one might term normal learning activities (like reading) place. I'm a bit torn on the efficacy of this approach, and perhaps because this piece is a little lighter in facts and heavier on first-person interpretation. I am a little leery of breathless descriptions of people who only two years ago were running street art and puppet shows now commanding an entire middle school. There is some mention made of dopamine studies, but it all sounds extremely thin and premature.

My children are already well aware of what level they are on in most of their subjects where such measurements are taken (Reading, Math). They are fairly competitive, and I don't know how much more pressure they need in that area. What does appeal to me are the constructivist principles that seem to be at work in some of the learning. Kids building their own games is a very old approach, so its good to see it updated here. There was mention of game design and design thinking playing a role in the development of the curriculum, which is encouraging, because if it is done right it can bring the invaluable knowledge the educational system has acquired with newer understandings of motivation and reward.

I wonder if these principles can be used to instill a joy of long-form reading, and the kind of discussion that can accompany the development of close reading skills. Perhaps an "Om Reader", like the OmmWriter, but with more incentives and networking can be a part of children's learning experience. I don't particularly like it, but the "Popular Highlights" feature in the Kindle seems a step in this direction. IDEO released a concept video of three approaches to reading tools, and while the last one named "Alice" seemed the most interesting, I found the other two to be fluffed out features, not standalone products.

It points to the desperation our society feels about the state of education in our country, and how little we seem to know about how children learn. My guess is that we know quite a bit, in a general sense, but we keep trying to scale this knowledge up and apply to all children, which is where it falls apart. Perhaps that's the problem, and programs like this might help us make the brave decision to allow for much greater latitude in how our children are educated.

Lions, Mirrors and Reading

A couple of articles I came across provide insight into the development of our ability to read. Not only are some novel explanations put forward, but it comes at a time when one of my daughters has experienced what is described. Examples of how evolution can explain seemingly impossible developments in human are always interesting to me. As is often the case, an adaption suited for one thing is "hijacked" and put to use for something else. What I've seen in my household is how my daughters will often flip letters ("b" and "d", for example) when writing, and it takes months or longer for them to get the correct positioning down. In the Economist, new research has found that:

Learning to read requires the brain’s visual system to undergo profound changes, including unlearning the ancient ability to recognise an object and its mirror image as identical...[and] skills acquired relatively recently in people’s evolutionary past must have piggybacked on regions in the brain that originally evolved for other purposes, since there has not been time for dedicated neural systems to develop from scratch.

Since writing has only been around for 5-10,000 years, there hasn't been enough time to evolve an adaptation for reading. I recall that the shortest known adaptation is lactose tolerance in adults, which I think started in Europe and has been spreading since then. My kids (and all early writers) are unlearning an evolved survival response that allows them to distinguish between reflections from real objects. Again, from the Economist:

Dr Dehaene thinks that the VWFA (Visual Word Form Area) may be responsible for the ability of some primates to recognise themselves in a mirror, or to recognise a tiger even if it is seen only in reflection—thus conferring an important survival benefit. That it is also crucial for reading might explain why children make a type of error he calls “early mirror reading”. It was thought that only dyslexic children were prone to confusing “b” and “d”, and “p” and “q”, and occasionally writing their names back-to-front, but Dr Dehaene has found that all children make this error."

In a recent New Yorker article ("A Man of Letters" June 28, 2010), Oliver Sacks describes a case where damage caused by a stroke in a patient revealed the connections between many areas of the human body that allow us to see and read:

Reading, of course, does not end with the recognition of visual word forms–it would be more accurate to say that it begins with this. Written language is meant to convey not only the sound of words, but their meaning, and the visual word form area has intimate connections to the auditory and speech areas of the brain as well to the intellectual and executive areas, and to the areas subserving memory and emotion. The visual word form area is a crucial node in a complex cerebral network of reciprocal connections–a network peculiar, it seems, to the human brain.

Sacks describes how our evolved capacity for rapidly recognizing objects by their shapes, even when we haven't fully processed what we're looking at, is at the core of reading. Type designers recognized this in the 1950s when working on the US Interstate: people recognized mixed-case words much faster than upper-case words because they could more easily discriminate the shape. Sacks cites research showing a limited range of shapes and combinations humans use to create alphabets of any kind, and their tight relationship to the kinds of topographies humans innately recognize. While we may think the alphabets of the world to be very diverse, they are actually limited and tied to closely to our evolved abilities.

I'm sure there are more important takeaways from this than to carefully consider when to use type treatments (any good designer should know this), but I'm always happy to find connections like this that link personal and professional interests with real-life experience.