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Interface design, 2002: Interviews

IX.2 March 2002
Page: 113
Digital Citation

Alben Design by Lauralee Alben


back to top  About Lauralee Alben

Lauralee Alben is a design consultant dedicated to creating new ways to apply design sensibilities and strategies to solving the complex challenges facing our world today. Until 2000, Lauralee was a principal of AlbenFaris Inc., a firm that specializes in the design of interactive experiences for clients including Monterey Bay Aquarium, Apple, IBM, Netscape, and Sony. AlbenFaris designed brands, Web sites, multimedia titles, software applications, interactive television, and other emerging technologies. Lauralee's design work and articles have appeared in many computer, design, and business publications and at CHI and SIGGRAPH conferences. The Design Management Institute selected her as the first recipient of the prestigious Muriel Cooper Prize and one of the I.D. Forty, I.D. magazine's pick of "the most important design innovators from the West Coast." She is currently working on a book and film titled "Designing Ourselves," about the ways in which we are designing our humanity.

EADE: Tell us about your background, AlbenFaris, and what you're doing now.

We had many wonderful opportunities over 16 years at AlbenFaris, exciting clients, challenging projects, a talented staff, and stimulating colleagues and friends. We were fortunate to have transitioned in 1990 from more traditional design work (branding, print, architectural graphics, and exhibition design) into an emerging world at the intersection of design and technology. When Jim Faris and I moved to Santa Cruz from New York, we quickly realized that there was a tremendous chance to help form a new profession and to create ways for designers to play an important role in the computing and Internet revolutions.

Our underlying intention was always to bring human values to the forefront, and we became advocates for humanizing technology. This was the focus of our design, writing, and speaking. I think this human-centered philosophy is often obvious in our projects, from Making It Macintosh, which provided a friendly and nonauthoritarian style to Apple's interactive human-interface-design guidelines, to the customizable appearances ("skins") we designed for Mac OS 7,

conceived on the premise that computing environments should reflect and respond to people's real surroundings. Even in the Mac OS brand identity, we combined the face of a user with the computer to communicate Apple's message of individual empowerment. I'm proud of this work and what we did to promote the values behind it.

Now, with the closure of our Santa Cruz office, I have launched a new design consultancy, Alben Design. Initially, I took some time off to reflect and explore, to study and think about questions I've been fascinated with for a long time, like "How are we designing the human experience?" This is an inquiry I began in my articles, "Quality of experience" and "At the heart of interaction design." [1] Now I'm asking "How can we use design more consciously to effect positive, sustainable change in our world at large?"

Working with a consortium of colleagues I respect, I've developed the Sea Change Design ProcessSM. It's an integral approach that uses design sensibility and proprietary techniques to help find transformative solutions to the complex economic, social, and environmental challenges we face today.

EADE: What is Sea Change?

Sea Change uses a model based on a natural system—the oceans—and an interactive, three-phase process. It provides organizations with a comprehensive, flexible framework for strategic planning, idea generation, and the creation of products, services, and solutions. Sea Change enables you to first become aware of the intentions, relationships, and impact you desire, and then envision and create the actions and artifacts that actualize these intentions. Consistently and broadly applied, Sea Change can create profound and sustainable results congruent with an organization's deepest values.

EADE: Where do you see applications for Sea Change?

It is especially suited for addressing issues that arise from the development of new technologies, global integration, and rapid change. The Sea Change Design Process provides creative ways of engaging in a range of activities, including problem definition, vision development, culture change, new business initiatives, product definition and creation, customer experience strategy, and global and environmental initiatives. Design is used strategically from the very beginning, and depending on the project, we end up with either tangible or intangible artifacts. Sometimes a solution involves a new language, revised laws, or codes of ethics.

Sea Change incorporates design techniques and tools, some of which we developed at AlbenFaris when we designed strategies for the Monterey Bay Aquarium Web site and the customizable appearances for the Mac OS. Now, I am currently working with Procter & Gamble on designing a culture change within one of their research and development departments. We have used the process to help develop a Web-based educational product and to coordinate the programs and services of a nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting poverty. For me, the most challenging project last year was to find new ways of approaching the protection of human rights in Uzbekistan.

EADE: So you see a broader role for design in the world?

Yes. The alphabet, the wheel, the telescope—people have been designing things for a very long time. Today, the design of artifacts is an acknowledged and valued part of our lives. Our post-industrial society has built many successful ventures based on the business of artifacts, from soap to software. But design's potential extends far beyond this tangible realm.

Design creates vast currents, originating from every product, service, and environment that we interact with. Its influence is evidenced in our behaviors, thoughts, and values; in the ceremonies and codes of our cultures; and in the integrity and viability of our planet. And these in turn influence what and how we design; a circular pattern of cause and effect flowing through the daily events of our lives in minute ways and informing our world view on a grand scale. Through magnificent ocean swells, forces are constantly at work shaping and changing the planet. Just as the ocean creates profound effects upon the land, so too does design affect our lives.

EADE: Did working with the aquarium inspire the ocean metaphor?

After three years of working with so many people passionately committed to preserving the ocean, I came to understand its wonder and importance in new and intimate ways. I have always been inspired by the magnificence of the ocean. When I touch the cold waves lapping against Cowell's Beach, near where I live in Santa Cruz, I marvel that this same water has visited Japan, the tropics, the poles. It's traveled in fast-moving boundary currents along the California coast, and plummeted thousands of icy feet into the deep, carried by ponderously slow moving waves. A particle of water takes thousands of years to travel through our one vast ocean. I think about how all those moving particles connect all the continents—and all of us; watery messengers bearing tidings of their amazing journey and our unity.

EADE: How is Sea Change different from your previous design practices? How does it work?

I, like many designers, grew frustrated over the years with seeing products, services, and systems developed in a fragmented fashion, often out of context, and often disconnected from the people for whom they were being designed. In an all-too-familiar scenario that I have witnessed over and over, design is still often thought of and included near the end of the product development cycle, to give something a form and face. Sea Change is an alternative.

At the model's core are the three main tenets: context, relationship, and flow. If you understand all three of these aspects of a challenge, you can develop new perspectives and insights into solving it. Context, or a holistic view of a challenge, is essential in order to develop a broader awareness of the general conditions, influences, and deep human values that cause or contribute to the circumstances. This helps balance overspecialization, alienation, and fragmentation which result in lopsided, myopic views of a problem. Relationships are, put very simply, at the heart of everything; every conversation, interaction, and transaction. Identifying, building, and strengthening key interconnections between people, organizations, information, ideas, and artifacts ends up creating what I call "self-sustaining currents of influences." If you have these, then you get flow: energy that creates sustainable, felicitous results; new ideas for future actions; and a broad and deep impact in the world.

EADE: Second-order cybernetics promotes a similar concept of systems thinking applied as a "perspective filter" to many other disciplines. Russ Ackoff, Stafford Beer, and Peter Checkland have written about the need to approach a situation from multiple perspectives. And the flow concept sounds similar to the writings of Humberto Maturana and Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi. Has systems science and cybernetics influenced you?

While developing these concepts, I was aware that cybernetics underlies many of the interactions of living and industrial systems. I studied Fritjof Capra, among others. Sea Change incorporates many principles of ocean science, ecology, and living systems—like nonlinear, cyclical feedback loops—which correlate to both industrial processes and principles of good design, like iterative prototyping and usability testing. I incorporated both my own intuition as an experienced designer and the wisdom inherent in the design practice, creating ways to communicate this to others.

Our concept of flow sources from water movement, which can be laminar, turbulent, or transitional. It's a metaphor for results, viewed in four ways: design integrity, economic prosperity, social responsibility, and environmental stewardship. My work was inspired by many other people including philosopher Ken Wilbur, physicians and healers Lewis Mehl-Madrona and Rachel Naomi Remen, author Thomas L. Friedman, poet David Whyte, Jacob Bronowski, James Lovelock, and Lynn Margulis.

EADE: You work with people from all sorts of disciplines. Are you looking for more collaborators?

Yes, absolutely. We have set up the Sea Change Consortium, an association of professional consultants who are committed to working with diverse organizations to find creative responses to today's incredibly complex business, social, and ecological challenges. We seek and attract clients in the commercial or nonprofit sectors who are committed to innovation, positive vision, and the broadest possible impact in their work. Our services include consulting engagements, workshops, and keynote speeches.

Everyone in the consortium has a thorough, working knowledge of the Sea Change Design Process, as well as extensive experience in their own area or areas of expertise. The consortium offers a rich mix of talent and experience—including design, business strategy, psychology, ethnography, marine biology, Internet and branding strategy, software engineering, writing, and education. I can imagine all sorts of additional collaborators including environmental specialists and artists. What is important is to match expertise with the challenges we are given. And today's challenges are significant and often very different from one another. What unites them all is the need for an integral approach to problem solving.

I am very fortunate to be working with Sydney Hudspith, Jon Butah, and Terry Swack, the principals of the Sea Change Consortium. Syd has helped me birth the model, through many long hours of spirited discussion in which I benefited from his insights into design and its amplified effect upon our behaviors, culture, and the planet. Jon has helped me refine, extend, and test applications of the model in various contexts; and Terry has been the voice of pragmatism, working with me to articulate and coalesce Sea Change into a viable business.

EADE: You've had some interaction with San Francisco State University and with the University of California-Santa Cruz Art + Design program. What sort of things do you do locally with educational institutions?

I am a teacher at heart, as well as practicing designer, attuned to both practice and theory. I believe the interaction of professionals and students is vital to the development of tomorrow's designers. In the '90s, I served as an evaluator for two industry initiatives designed to create alliances between design professionals and students from schools around the world: Apple Computer's Design Project and Interval Research Corporation's University Workshop. These were valuable and inspiring opportunities for both the students from schools around the world and the sponsoring companies. I hope more initiatives like these will happen on an ongoing basis. I also have lectured at many schools, universities, and professional organizations. To promote the value of design, I also like to speak to corporations like Procter & Gamble and Adobe. There is still a lot of design education needed in business, too, which is one of the main reasons we took the time at AlbenFaris to write and speak about case studies of our projects. Sharing the learning, even for busy professionals, is important to the evolution of our emerging profession.

EADE: What do you think should be taught with respect to design?

In an educational system where design is segmented and taught by discipline (graphic, interaction, industrial, and so on), an emphasis is put on specialization. Often it is difficult to create cross-department, multidisciplinary projects that represent the way design is developed in the real world. Cross-pollination and communication are difficult to achieve, especially across areas as disparate as design, liberal arts, business, computer science, the social sciences, and the natural sciences. Yet design, in a meta sense and in practical ways involves all these and more.

It is easy for students to focus on their own, personal vision and solutions to design problems. This is understandable as they engage in the process of forming themselves and their talents. However, balancing inward-focused development and growth with an outward responsiveness to the world is critically important. Directing students' focus to the people who would or will use their designs is both practical and the source of insights into both human behavior and innovative ideas. Becoming aware of the immense influence design has on people, physically, cognitively, emotionally, and spiritually provides students with a very real sense of responsibility. In this way, students can grow as empathic human beings and as effective designers.

EADE: How do you think the CHI community could help advance good design? Are we ready? Are there things we need to do?

SIGCHI serves an important role as an organization that bridge the worlds of computer science and design and, obviously, as its moniker implies, bridges computers with humans. I would like to see more inclusion of related design disciplines at the CHI conferences and in its publications.

EADE: SIGCHI has also felt this need; we now have a cooperating society relationship with the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) and their Experience Design group. Our first joint event is the CHI2002/AIGA Experience Design FORUM at the CHI2002 conference; with the combination of our organizations' many perspectives and talents, some interesting things should happen!

This is great. It should provide a rich opportunity for learning and sharing. Both organizations have a lot to contribute to each other, and until now overlapped very little. It's good to balance scientific rigor with creative exploration, and my hope is that CHI can represent both. I do long for the days when CHI conferences included the Interactive Experience.

EADE: Me, too—and I wouldn't be surprised to see it come back by popular demand! What kind of involvement have you had with the CHI community?

My first introduction to CHI in the early '90s was very stimulating. I was inspired by the cutting-edge works of Dana Atchley, Abbe Don, and a host of others. It was in this innovative, spirited environment that Harry Saddler, Jim Faris, and I designed the interactive Making It Macintosh exhibit that originally was shown at SIGGRAPH and then at CHI in Boston in 1994. We wrote about this project in the first issue of interactions magazine, in an article called "Making It Macintosh: Designing the Message When the Message is Design." [2]

In 1995, ACM sponsored an interaction design awards competition, to which an entire issue of interactions magazine was devoted. The jurors included me, Terry Winograd, Austin Henderson, Harry Saddler, John Rheinfrank, Shelley Evenson, Carol Stroehecker, and Mark Rettig. In this issue, we recorded our attempt to define "quality of experience" and the criteria we used to evaluate and judge interaction design. [3]

EADE: You've mentioned before that you think everyone can design, and that, in fact, everyone is a designer.

Yes, everyone makes design decisions all the time. Usually they just don't think of it as design. From the moment they set their alarm clock, to the clothes they select to wear, to what's on their dinner table, to their choice of profession. Design is at the heart of every human activity. Elizabeth, in a previous conversation, you said it quite succinctly, "As I place one foot in front of another, I am designing my path."

EADE: What keeps you motivated and engaged in this field? Do you feel a certain responsibility?

It's a big responsibility to say what I believe about the value of design and then deliver on the promise. And it's hard. But there is too much at stake to do anything but be courageous. These are new and demanding times in our world. Even now, the terrorist events of September 11, 2001, are still raw and painful for everyone. As a result, I've been thinking a lot about the changing role we have as designers. We are not firefighters or policemen or health care workers. Or are we?

In the Sea Change model, we use the deep waters under the surface as a metaphor for the deeper layers of our common humanity. If you can fathom these hidden waters of motivations, perceptions, feelings, and spiritual needs, then all manners of possibility, wisdom, and creativity become available to you. All these inevitably well up to the surface, causing and affecting events and actions. For each person, there are deep, defining moments that influence every aspect of their life, whether they are conscious of them or not. One of mine was the death of my sister, Denise, 22 years ago. This year she has been gone from us as long as she was with us. On the night before her funeral, my youngest sister, Kathy, asked me very honestly, and very quietly, this question. "Lauralee," she said, "I am a nurse. Denise was a social worker. How are you using design to help people?" And that is a question I continue to try and answer.

back to top  References

1. Alben, L. At the heart of interaction design. Design Management Journal 8, 3 (Summer 1997), pp. 9–26.

2. Alben, L., Faris, J., and Saddler, H. Making It Macintosh: Designing the message when the message is design. interactions 1, 1 (January 1994), pp. 10–20.

3. Alben, L. Quality of experience: Defining the criteria for effective interaction design. interactions 3, 3 (May–June 1996), pp. 11–15.

back to top  Author

Lauralee Alben

Alben Design
317 Arroyo Seco
Santa Cruz, CA 95060
Phone: +1 (831) 426-8026
Fax: +1 (831) 426-8022

back to top  Figures

UF1Figure. Lauralee Alben

UF2Figure. Snapshots of the design strategy and the Gizmo theme created by Alben Faris, for the Mac OS8 customizable appearances.

UF3Figure. The E-Quarium features scientific content, interactive habitat tours, educational activities, and games like "Is there seaweed in your house?"

UF4Figure. Interface design history: In 1993, AlbenFaris created the graphic and interface design for this instructional CD-ROM from Apple; to help developers give the Macintosh look and feel to their products.

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©2002 ACM  1072-5220/02/0300  $5.00

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