Denver Design Week keynote: Designing Within Our Species

Following up on the “humans” theme from my recent Bluetooth World presentation, in my keynote talk at Denver Design Week last week I spoke about design and humans. Questions I posed during the talk included: Why is design so difficult?, Why are females so difficult?, Why are we so bad at math?, and Why are we so bad at music? In addition, why we should stop booking conference rooms. And finally, coinciding with the baseball playoffs: What’s up with the Infield Fly Rule?

The central part of my talk focused on design and behavior. Based on my decades-long experience in usability I organized influences on behavior in a hierarchy. At the top of the list is instinct. We have approximately a 50,000 year history of “modern human behavior.” Universally, we will first react according to instincts acquired over that time. Where possible, it’s advisable to design to our instincts – for instance, using of red as a sign of danger. However, there are no instincts for the majority of our design-related actions today. We haven’t been driving cars or using smartphones for 50,000 years.

Next in line for the determinants of behavior are preconceptions. These are difficult or impossible to predict, vary according to the individual, and can result in the most odd and unexpected behavior in a person, despite our best design efforts.

As designers, we have no control over these first two. Our design influence therefore entails, in descending order: 3-dimensional design cues, 2-dimensional design cues, complex graphics, extended text, quick reference guides, and as a final resort, the instruction manual. Or at some point in the sequence, sound or voice cues. Or someone may check Google, YouTube, or call a friend for help. In the big picture, external factors will of course also have an impact on how we behave (economic, social, etc.) – I focused this talk specifically on design and interaction.

Max Burton, at Fjord, gave a great talk just ahead of my presentation on Tuesday: “The Personalization of Everyday Life.” On Thursday Surya Vanka, formerly Chief of Staff of Microsoft’s User Experience Leadership Team, spoke about his experience at Microsoft, and his current work: “Win by Design: Lessons from the Frontlines.”

The weather in Denver was great.

Opening keynote at BluetoothWorld: The Problem With Humans

It was fun to open the BluetoothWorld conference last Tuesday morning in Santa Clara, California. In a two-day conference that was apt to be filled with presentations discussing tech, I opted to talk about humans. More specifically, our 50,000 year behavioral history, and the limited impact we have as designers on the way people react as we try to integrate new products and technology into our lives. Understanding human instinct, preconceptions, design and behavior represents a frontier in design. Considering the rate at which new tech products are being created, and the rate at which we are willing or able to adapt, it’s inevitable that we’ll need to get a better grasp on these basic, human-centered topics as we continue to move forward.

Robopsych podcast: Designing with Gender in Mind

Here’s a link to Episode 70 of the RoboPsych – a podcast on robots, AI and the future – hosted by Dr. Tom Guarriello and Carla Diana. The topic we discussed centers on technology, design and gender. The opportunities for companies and organizations to better address females are vast. This includes not just producing products and services that click with women, but questioning whether the internal cultures we’ve developed in the fields of design and engineering are male-centric. While many females have historically dropped out of these professions, feeling somewhat uncomfortable in those environments, the situation is bound to change, as more and more influential women are working in the AI/robotics world.

Ep. 70 – Dr. Dan Formosa on Designing with Gender in Mind

The podcast was recorded on September 20, 2018.

Thoughts on the Future of Design, Archives of Design Research

After spending September and October as visiting lecturer at KAIST in South Korea, (Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology), I was invited to write an article for the Archives of Design Research. The journal is published by the Korean Society of Design Science. The issue has just been published (and I’m happy to see that my entry, Thoughts on the Future of Design, is the opening article.

In the article I reference Richard Buchanan’s 2001 article that identified three “levels” of design research. Clinical research (arguably the most prevalent) is conducted for a specific project. Applied research looks further, applicable to a number of projects in a specific category. Basic research is designed to acquire fundamental knowledge in design, with wide application.

A problem with understanding design is that Basic research is a rare event. Or maybe I should say it’s a huge opportunity. There’s a lot left to know about design and how it can or should impact our lives.

Journal of Health Design podcast, Melbourne

Improving health through design: The podcast recorded last week with Moyez Jiwa, Editor in Chief of the Journal of Health Design in Melbourne, Australia, is now online. At just over 5 minutes, topics include design and behavior, and the need for better design in healthcare for both patients and healthcare providers. Thanks to Moyez for inviting me.

The Journal of Health Design‘s podcast can be heard here on SoundCloud.

My 2012 TEDx talk a Drexel, on math and music (everyone calm down.)

I was surprised last week (an understatement) to see that my 2012 talk at Drexel University, on the visual communication of math and music, has received more than 250,000 views – or at least partial views. Many of them, I think, are recent.

That may sound like a good thing, but there’s a major problem. People are watching it out of context. And some of them are really angry. If you came to the video without any background, here are some things that may calm you down.

  • This is a talk to 75 or 100 designers, mostly undergraduate design students, about visual communication and low literacy in math and music – which starts at an early age. It’s a day-long TEDx event about design, with a “Why Not Admit” theme. I’m proposing math and music education to the students as a design problem.
  • In the video segment that some people are up-in-arms about, I am NOT giving a music lesson. I am discussing things about notation that are confusing. To explain it, as I do in the earlier discussion about learning math, I’m speaking from my grammar school experience – speaking in first person, present tense. Which, seen out of context, may sound to some like a music lesson.
  • Reading flats and sharps, visually mapping the music scale to a piano keyboard, and understanding the difference between E# and F, were difficult. (I personally understand it, years later, which is why I chose music as a topic that day.)
  • I am not presenting the Nashville number system as a replacement (not sure why some people think I’m saying that.) I’m only showing it to the students as an alternative that some musicians have found useful.

If people came to the video expecting a solution, that wasn’t the purpose. I’m discussing the impact of visual communication on our ability to learn.

The like/dislike ratio for the talk is around 3:1, which is pretty good. And I have been receiving email messages from adults who are saying “thanks, I thought it was just me” and are going back to give music notation another try. But some of the hostile, mob-like reactions I’m seeing, made without any understanding of the context, and feeding off of each other’s misinterpretations, are making me feel like I’m in politics.

(I’m trying to get the TEDx organizers to update the YouTube description of the video. I may also add more to this post later.)


Rethinking Time: Ergonomics in Design Journal

Rethinking Time, a commentary I wrote on our attitudes toward time, has been published in Ergonomics in Design Volume 26 Issue 2, April 2018. Discussing things such as why I set my microwave to 33 seconds instead of 30, the consequences of applying an education-instilled factory-based mindset to virtually everything we do, and why we downplay the fact that our best ideas come to us while taking a shower.

Rethinking Time, Ergonomics In Design, April 2018



International Design Conference, Manila

I was honored to have been invited to give the closing keynote presentation at the Design Center of the Philippines’ First International Design Conference, focused on design thinking. It was a packed room of business leaders and designers (as far as I can tell around 300 people.) Natalia Bednarek opened the final session with “8 Signs You May Not Be Design Thinking.” My talk discussed present and future directions in design and its impact.

Side discussions with Rhea Matute, Executive Director of the Design Center of the Philippines, and others centered on how can we brand and position the Philippines. Despite an incredibly diverse array of high quality products, many of them hand-crafted by expert artisans throughout the country, does the phrase “Made in the Philippines” elicit any positive thoughts? Brand thinking can be applied to companies, organizations, and celebrities – but also to political movements, social causes, cities and countries.


I’m starting my third week of a 2-month appointment as”Visiting Professor” in the Industrial Design department at KAIST (Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology) in Daejeon, South Korea. Topics I’ll be covering over the 8-week course will include data visualization, quantitative methods in design research, statistics, basics of biomechanics, design and behavior, and design and gender. I’m pretty much settled in at this point, I’ll post more over the next few weeks.

Guitar Pickups 101

Following up on my speaker article in Premier Guitar magazine’s July 2017 issue is this August 2017 article explaining how guitar pickups work, Guitar Pickups 101.

Pickups are based on the same basic principles as speakers – how coils of wire, placed in the vicinity of magnets, behave. The fundamental principles are 5th grade science stuff. However, the type of magnet, the copper windings on the coil, the effect of mirror-imaging two coils in some pickup designs to cancel unwanted hum, and the varied arrangements of the components in different pickup designs all make a difference in sound performance. As does the type of guitar strings.

Illustrations this time were relative easy – colorize (and color code) various pickup patent drawings.

Gimlet Media’s “Design For All” podcast

Thanks Katelyn Bogucki and Cristina Quinn for including me in Gimlet Creative’s .future podcast series, sponsored by Microsoft. Along with my thoughts, the Design For All episode includes discussions on Inclusive Design in tech with Angela Glover Blackwell (Founder of PolicyLink,) Jenny Lay-Flurrie  (Chief Accessibility officer at Microsoft,) Sean Marihugh (Escalation Engineer at Microsoft,) Crystal Jones (Escalation Engineer at Microsoft,) and Erin Williams (Senior Supportability Program Manager at Microsoft.)

The subtitle for the episode: “How designing technology with people with disabilities in mind makes it better for everyone.”

Jordan Jackson’s “Branded” podcast

Jordan Jackson has been creating insightful podcasts on the topic of branding. I’m happy to have been asked to record one of them with him. It’s titled The Power Of Purpose, When Executed Through Promise.

The discussion falls under Jordan’s theme for the series: “As new technology encroaches upon all aspects of our lives, and changes the nature of how all businesses operate, brand building will have to adapt.”


Speakers 101: Premier Guitar

For the July 2017 issue of Premier Guitar magazine I was asked to write an article explaining the basics of speaker design (All About Speakers.)

Guitar amplifier speakers are quite different from those for audio amplifiers. Speakers intended for listening to recorded music are designed to produce an even response across a wide frequency spectrum. Their goal is to accurately reproduce the sound the artists and engineers intended you to hear, without coloring it in any way. Clearly and without distortion.

In contrast guitar speakers are designed to add character. An ability to smoothly break up into distortion, for instance, can be desirable. Each speaker component—the cone, the surround (which attaches the cone to the frame), the spider (which holds the voice coil in place), the voice coil, and the magnet—affects the speaker’s tonal character in some unique way

For audio or guitar, the article discusses their history and explains the function of each component. And their effect on tonal characteristics.

London’s Johnston100 typeface

Johnston100 screenshoot_St Johns Wood copy

Great look at, and revamp of, London’s 100-year-old Johnston100 typeface. Interesting how that typeface quietly defines the look of the entire city and city services, and has been doing so for 100 years. It’s getting an update, thanks to Nadine Chahine and company at Monotype. Additions include a hashtag (#), apparently not in frequent use in the early 1900s, a few modifications, and the addition of a number of thinner typeface weights. If you’re interested in type, London, or both, here’s Monotype’s article and video.

Death of the Supermarket, or Why I Never Buy Sugar-free Jell-O. HOW Design Live, Atlanta

HOW 2016_Dan_IMG_3710_sm

The HOW Design Live conference took place in in Atlanta this year. I participated in a double-session with a few other members of the  SVA Masters in Branding faculty. With me were Debbie Millman (hosting the double-session discussions), Sem Devillart, Tom Guarriello and Richard Shear. Our topic: Death of the Supermarket. My topic – Why I Never Buy Sugar-free Jell-O. The quick answer – because my supermarket feels obligated to let me know it costs $45 a pound. The longer answer – supermarkets aren’t nearly as relevant as other entities in our lives. Based on their own descriptions, many consider themselves to be less about the food business, and more about shipping and stock. Which made sense in the distant past, because it’s how they came to be – but many have failed to evolve. They are suffering for it, including the 156 year old Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company (a.k.a. A&P), who met its demise last year.

Apparently this is a hot topic – our session went on for two straight hours, the room was packed, and I don’t think anyone left! If you attended, thanks for coming. Hope to continue the conversation.

Six predictions about the future of design

NASA earth image cropped

The world of design is changing rapidly. The practice of design – not as quickly. The methods we typically use to design things today are based on decades-old practices. (I have project plans from the 1980s to prove that – I save a lot of things.)

Following is a list of six things that I believe are about to change the world of design. Some are starting to happen already, others are long overdue:

1. In the future, designers will know things.

2. We’ll add metrics to design.

3. Advertising and marketing budgets will be diverted to design.

4. We’ll return to basics in understanding people – psychology and physical ergonomics.

5. Females will re-think the fields of design and engineering.

6. We’ll see an exponentially increasing demand for better design, worldwide.


1. In the future, designers will know things.

In the 1980s, how to design something was important. Designers introduced new (and valuable) methods to improve products and help embellish a line of goods. The approach to design was helpful to many companies at the time.

Today we all know, globally, how to design something. The process of design has become a commodity. The value now is in knowing what to design, and why. To evolve designers need to base value on knowledge, not process. We need experts in design, not simply designers who can fill a slot in a project planning spreadsheet. Knowledge in design will be its future.

2. We’ll add metrics to design.

In past practice most designers have avoided any form of measure in their design work. Quantification is typically not something taught in design schools, therefore, not something that a majority of designers even know how approach. Yet we’re all trying to innovate. It’s hard to imagine running a lab, or learning anything, if we’re not measuring things.

Quantification, or data visualization, can take many forms. There’s lots of opportunity to advance our knowledge in design if we can get better at this understanding. Not to mention the fact that early quantification will not only give design ideas more credibility, it will enable design teams to push forward with more confidence, in more far-reaching directions.

3. Advertising and marketing budgets will be diverted to design.

There was probably a time in the world (before my time) that designers would invent something, then hire a marketing group to promote it. With the 1950s advent of television advertising, that got turned around. Companies needed something to advertise. And whether the product was new or not, at least in advertisements it had to look new. Marketing groups started hiring designers. Designers became stylists.

The internet, our go-to medium today, has been changing that. Product messaging is no longer coming from the top down, it’s coming from the bottom up, because we now own the media. Through blogs, Amazon reviews, discussion groups and all forms of social media, we’re advising each other about what to buy, and which brands and organizations deserve our allegiance.

With this phenomenon showing no sign of letting-up, companies are embracing design. They are setting up design and innovation centers, and hiring some of the best designers available. Advertising budgets, which historically have been exponentially greater than our paltry design budgets, are being diverted to design. Design is the new advertising.

4. We’ll return to basics in understanding people – psychology and physical ergonomics.

Lots of designers, and design schools, tout the idea that they are all about understanding people. Yet when I ask if they provide any background or courses in biomechanics or psychology, their answer is “no.” Biomechanics is the study of how the body works, Psychology covers cognition, the brain’s thought processes. If they’re not versed in the body or the brain, then it’s not clear exactly what part of “understanding people” they are about.

As physical and emotional needs are to be met, and as design becomes less about “what” and more about “why,” this is certain to change. Understanding the basics will be essential.

5. Females will re-think the fields of design and engineering.

The way we design something, unto itself, is a design. The fields of engineering and design, and the work cultures that have emerged, are based on the way males would engineer or design something. Naturally, since males dominated those professions for decades. The result is often a feeling of discomfort or uneasiness by females working in those environments. While the gender ratio in engineering and design schools is roughly 50-50, in practice the ratio is more like 20-80 – many females drop out.

Change is inevitable. There are too many females emerging from STEM initiatives in schools (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) for those male-generated cultures to continue. That change may not take place as a slow evolution – my sense is that female engineers and designers looking to change the world will be too impatient for that. I’m thinking it will happen quickly, we’ll see female-lead practices that will have significant impact on the testosterone-laced cultures that have developed within these fields.

6. We’ll see an exponentially increasing demand for better design, worldwide.

I’ve been advising a major consumer electronics company on the future of their products. They have always considered their competition to be other companies that manufacture the same items – for instance, televisions. My advice was different. Their competition is everything else in an individual consumer’s life with which they interface. That person may only own one television – but he or she using websites, microwave ovens, audio equipment, hi-tech thermostats, smart phones – an array of products that can set a high standard for design and usability. They are the competition, and the products by which other products or services will be judged.

This appreciation of design is happening worldwide. Many countries I’m working with, for instance, are seeing the emergence of lower-income social classes. As more people in those populations begin to see or experience well designed items, the more they are realizing that other things in their lives have potential to be equally well-designed.

This is good news for designers and engineers, if they can respond appropriately, since this realization that things-can-be-better will assure new opportunities, worldwide, for many years to come.




Cannes Lions: Product Design
and the Lucky Iron Fish


I was thrilled to have served as jury president last month in the newly-formed Product Design category at Cannes Lions. First I need to thank the jury members, who were absolutely great to work and hang out with: Defne Koz, (Italy/USA), Gen Suzuki (Japan ), Jonas Pettersson (Sweden), Leonardo Massarelli (Brazil),  Priscilla Shunmugam (Singapore), Ruth Berktold (Germany), Samuel Wilkinson (UK) and Tobias van Schneider (USA). If you ever get a chance to choose members for a design award program, choose them!

The Cannes Lions event is more than 60 years old, historically celebrating the best in advertising. The product design category was initiated last year (I was a jury member last year.) As such, the event seems to be a well kept secret among product designers – but that will no doubt change over time. We had approximately 280 entries this year, most coming from ad or marketing agencies more familiar with Cannes Lions. Winning a Gold Lion Award at the event means a lot in that industry, and even more so winning the Grand Prix, for which there is just one awarded per category. Because of that the entrants tend to submit a single, unchanged entry into multiple categories, hoping to win at least one. This severely affects our ability to properly judge an entry in the product design category. The jury got a marketing pitch, but not the design story. In fact, we were certain in some cases that the entrants in the product design category never even consulted with the designers. Doing so would have helped us (and them) a lot. The entrants are kept secret from the jury, to prevent any bias in the judging, so while we don’t know for sure, it was extremely obvious from the lack of design-relevant information that they provided.

The entry we ultimately chose for the Grand Prix was a surprise even to the jury I think, although we were unanimous in the decision. In the midst of an event that showcases the latest technology in film, video and digital, we chose something as low-tech as can be imagined. We selected the Lucky Iron Fish, a cast iron fish that is having proven success in alleviating the iron deficiency in the diet of the people of Cambodia. The prominent metal for cooking vessels in Cambodia is aluminum. Encouraging people to add a block of cast iron to the pot while cooking had limited effect – they didn’t do it. However, casting it into the shape of a fish, a symbol of luck, changed that. We feel this is an outstanding example of the power of design to affect behavior and improve people’s lives.

Credit for the award goes to Gavin Armstrong (CEO) and Lucky Iron Fish. A misdirected credit to Geometry Global, in Dubai, the marketing group that entered the Cannes Lions submission, caused a bit of a stir on the internet, although it was unintentional on their part and the credit was resolved the next day. A video providing more information is here:  Lucky Iron Fish: A Simple Solution to a Global Problem

Thanks ArtsHub! Ten designers who are changing the world

ArtsHub logo

Thanks Deborah Stone and ArtsHub for including me in the 10 Designers article!

Ten designers who are changing the world

I’m in great company, including:

Leah Heiss: Making jewellery that saves lives:
John Bielenberg: Designing communities
David Webster: Helping people walk again
Kelo Kebu: Visualising history
David Berman: Improving access for the blind
Adrian Paterson: Identifying criminals
Alain Le Quernec: Campaigning for human rights
Adrian MacGregor: Rethinking cities
John Maeda: Making life simpler

Bangladesh Brand Forum Seminar, April 18 2015: Rethinking Marketing

Bangladesh Brand Forum banner


On April 18 I’ll be speaking at the Bangladesh Brand Forum’s Rethinking Marketing seminar in Dhaka.

From the BBF site: “2015 is a critical year for Bangladesh. On the one hand, the year, unfortunately, started with major political conflict which is still affecting businesses and their projected growth. On the other hand, philosophy of marketing is being reinvented – due to the influence of digital and increased engagement of consumers and people. The exponential growth of online activities – from adopting a smartphone to opening a social media page to buying and selling online – Bangladesh is seeing a growth of consumer activities like never before. During such a challenging yet opportune time, the focus for every business is delivering sustainable growth. And that growth is only feasible when the businesses and brands are designed around people, when marketing is outside-in.

Flying Lessons

gossamer condor v2

As brilliant as Paul MacCready’s Gossamer Condor was in design, the way it was designed may have been equally as brilliant. Made of Mylar, the team was able to quickly repair damages and make modifications following a crash. So yes, they crashed, but they also instantly corrected. That was 1977. How many of us are taking that approach today, making quick iterations part of our strategy, to see what will fly?

I’m glad you asked – here’s a link to a post I wrote on the topic in PMP News: Flying Lessons

Innovation: 9 Things to stop doing…

Forbes 9 Things article photo

Thanks Nadja Sayej for the article that appeared in Forbes, Dan Formosa On 9 Things to Stop Doing in Innovation. Following up on Google’s “nine principles for innovation,” here’s my list:

1. Stop designing things for old people
2. Stop saying “ethnography”
3. Stop making things simple
4. Stop coming up with answers
5. Stop listening to your customers
6. Stop talking to yourself
7. Stop fantasizing about women
8. Stop being so qualitative
9. Stop using so many Post-It Notes


Innovation4All, Oslo


4B Innovation4All blog photo_1680Had fun giving a talk, and running two workshops with Mike Jones at the Innovation4All conference in Oslo last week. Thanks to the Norwegian Centre for Design and Architecture, and the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at RCA in London for hosting the conference. The photo above shows Onny Eikhaug kicking off the conference.

I posted an article about the conference on the 4B site ( – here’s the link: Being Nice at the Innovation4All Conference in Oslo.

Why can’t we be more like Google?

Google logo_top half

Here’s a link to a blog post on innovation that I wrote for PMP News (Pharmaceutical and Medical Packaging): Why Can’t We Be More Like Google? It’s easy to find out how Google innovates – just Google it. Google’s Chief Social Evangelist Gopi Kallayil reveals nine principles for innovation:

1. Innovation comes from anywhere.
2. Focus on the user.
3. Aim to be ten times better.
4. Bet on technical insights.
5. Ship and iterate.
6. Give employees 20 percent time.
7. Default to open processes.
8. Fail well.
9. Have a mission that matters.

Nine simple, but extremely difficult, steps. There’s more in the PMP link above. For Kallayil’s complete 58-minute talk, click here: YouTube: Google’s 9 Principles for Innovation.

Raw for the Oceans wins Grand Prix at Cannes Lions

Screenshot 2014-06-24 11.35.34 Did I mention the award winners at Cannes Lions last week? We awarded the Grand Prix to G-Star Raw “Raw For The Oceans,” a clothing collection using a form of denim made from recycled plastic found in the ocean. G-Star Raw created it in collaboration with Pharrell Williams and Bionic Yarn. Other winners were Samsung’s “Food Showcase” refrigerator, Samsung’s “Galaxy Core Advance,” “Central Park Conservancy Receptacles” by Landor Associates New York,“Freedom Candles” for Amnesty International by Ogilvy & Mather London, Kano’s “Kano Kit” by MAP London, Not Impossible Labs’ “Project Daniel,” LELOi AB’s Ora Personal Massager, and Nest’s Learning Thermostat.

They can all be seen on Fast Company’s page: G-Star Raw “Raw For The Oceans” Wins Product Design Grand Prix At Cannes.


Inside the First-Ever Product Design Jury at Cannes


Here’s my article in AdAge, discussing the Cannes Lions jury gig. Lots of great designs were entered. Unfortunately, many suffered from a poor entry submission. They made the mistake of trying to sell us their products, rather than tell us about their designs. Or tell us why they deserve a design award. Still, a great showing for the Cannes Lions Product Design Award program’s inaugural year.

AdAge article



Cannes Lions

Cannes Lions photo

Just returned from the Cannes Lions festival in France. While this 61 year old program has historically been focused on advertising, this year marks the first time they have included a “product design” category in the program. My thoughts on why this makes sense – because big companies no longer own the media. We don’t buy things according to what companies tell us. It’s not the ads or marketing campaigns that represent the brand, the best that can do is boast their intent. But it’s the actual products and services that define the brand. And since we (as in “we the people”) now control the media, it’s our own messages that we refer to when making a purchase, buy-in decision, decision to join or to donate.


The turnout for the product design program was pretty good – approximately 200 entries in many different categories. And interesting selection for the jurors – talking cat collars to flying cars. Of the 200 entries, we were encouraged by the organizers to limit to awards to around seven. That included seven “Lions” and one Grand Prix.” Final selections involved some triage.