on amazon.

This photo was taken last month, during a sunny Saturday spent hiking in the fields. Around 100 cows and sheep, accompanied by their shepherd, paused to nibble on the leaves from nearby shrubs, the jingle-jangle of their cowbells creating a melodic dissonance.

Jingle Bells.

The sun still shines, often and intensely. At night, the city lights up like a circus, post-work crowds dashing about in pursuit of holiday gifts or a Yuletide feeling.

What do you think about Amazon? Do you have strong feelings for or against it? I did some of my Christmas shopping on there. While waiting for the package to arrive, I began seeing some front-page articles advocating shopping elsewhere. This year, I completed orders for three items on Amazon: a lovely book on creativity, some shoelaces, and aforementioned gift. Had the shopkeeper given me a precise restock date for the latter, I would have bought it in the physical, nearby store where I had first seen it. I also placed three orders on Amazon in 2017, and two in 2016.

From this scant record, I think I am not a prime Amazon user, and that subscription to Prime would be lost on me. Although a writer of one of the articles started off with two or three Amazon orders a year, he noted that he had made 119 orders so far in 2018, his third year as a Prime user.

Here are some of the benefits of Amazon that I see. Amazon is a good one-stop aggregator of products, backed by a strong search engine. More often than not, you will find what you’re looking for on there, with the range of styles and prices presented to you in a no-frills, one-page format. For those who like Netflix and movies on demand, Amazon is now a strong player in that sphere, too. With Prime, shipping is cheaper, or free. As an aside, last year, when I introduced free global shipping to our own operations, it was in keeping with the New Way Amazon has introduced to e-commerce. It is now reasonable to hold the expectation of free shipping. Amazon is reliable. Items also seldom remain listed if they are out of stock. Returns processing follows a reliable and straightforward process. For new products, a date-specific pre-order option is usually available. A responder to one of the articles noted how much easier it made her life, as a person with a disability.

For those on the sidelines, especially those in e-commerce, it is good to note some of these characteristics, and to note which ones are worthy of emulation.

If something about the ethos of a company, etc, bothers you, research it to learn more about how that ethos affects you as a consumer or patron. If you can’t live with it, find alternatives. Or go without that good or service, entirely. It has been nice to read articles on why people are thinking of ending their Prime subscription. So if you have a platform, I think it’s a good idea to use it to express your views, and in the process, educate others (like me) on the pros and cons of continued patronage.

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Winter.

Winter is a temporal desertland, its enjoyment expanded only by the warmth of communality: air molecules suffused with the aura of hearty food, the heat of others’ being, and the resonating sound of percussion and woodwind.

Winter is when the externalized activity and rush of prior months is internalized as plans, new ideas and, should one be lucky, change.

In the heat of June, an hour gone by in the quest for a good picture, we happened on a desertland with overgrown shrubbery and drunken graffiti. Dystopian, its setting of blue house, green foliage, and gold russet parched grass framed the textured reds of the abandoned casing in the foreground.

Soon another set designed by nature and circumstance will be sought, this time in the cold light and excess of fallen leaves of that listless limbo between Thanksgiving and Yuletide. Fingers numbly cold against the indifferent plastic casing of my film camera, I will frame a shot. Click.

Should we be even half lucky, the smiles and breath and glances of those who make our lives more beautiful will recur in the summers and winters of our cyclical existence, tinting each day with shades of their idiosyncratic beauty.

El Celler de Can Roca – all the food that’s fit to eat

“Did we really just eat for four hours?” I asked, as we polished off the last of four dessert dishes, an arrangement of distinctly-flavored chocolate strips leading to a neat heap of crispy chocolate crumble.

An eruption of giggles. It was a giggly experience. From the amuse-bouches that kept coming four courses in — “our bouches are duly amused,” one of us observed; to the waitress who began to say with a giggly, giddy urgency, how hot the soup bowl she had started to serve us from, was. Helped by her colleague, she hurriedly found the side-table on which to place the soup bowl, but the theatrics of it all, combined with the fun of dressing up for the dinner, still had us in giggles for a full minute after.

Three brothers: one specialized in breads (the wine bread was my favorite, suave in taste in fine contrast to the indulgent flavors of our sixth-of-a-day long epicurean experience) but also in sweets and confectionery, served from a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-style candy cart that rolled towards us as the waiters rounded up the last of our plates. The second brother a sommelier, and the third, head chef.

Office of the Roca brothers. Squint to see a photo of them on the left. Mexican sake ‘Nami’, to the right.

Psychedelic. Magic mountains of white asparagus heads emerged vertically from a lake of asparagus-loaded garum sauce, dotted with pickled, yes, asparagus. A smack in the mouth with all the ways asparagus could be, beyond your wildest dreams. All served on the same plate.

In an earlier course, miniature bonsai trees required that we picked olives off them to eat: the green ‘olives’, cold and sweet, were olive-flavored ice-cream; the brown ones, hot and savory, were a black-olive tempura-shelled tapenade (!) It was like Alice in Wonderland, with the scale a bit off (olive trees that fit on dinner tables), cutlery irregularly curled, and the paradox of choice – black olive hot; green olive cold, both options consumed in the end.

Excerpt from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)

The most surreal experience of all was our repeated underestimation of the capacities of our bellies. Each time we thought we couldn’t possibly fit any more food, our dishes would be cleared, next wine introduced and served, plates and cutlery placed, introductory spiel to new dish given, and there we would be, relishing it like it was the first course of the evening. This was the case particularly with the desserts.

Our worlds collided. At least four of us at our table of eight were fans of the 90s Jim Henson show, The Dinosaurs, and a dessert of liquefied cucumber, cardamom, apple, fennel, and eucalyptus came accompanied with dinosaur-stemmed silverware. The silverware broke all rules of usability, but only if your understanding of silverware is simply ‘tools to eat with’. For us, they contributed to some of the most resonant giggles of the evening. Not only did we find a home for them on the strategically placed rocks that served as table centerpieces, but our dinosaurs formed partnerships and communities, traveling across the table and along their partners’ backs, before being picked up by their chubby sculpted stems to tackle our desserts. “I don’t use my juicy salif to juice lemons,” star designer Philippe Starck once quipped of his lemon juicer design, “I use it to start conversations.”

What one wouldn’t give to be a fly on the tablecloth during a dinner at Celler de Can Roca, a gastronomic experience designed to maximize delight, hearty mealtime conversation, and giggles.

crouching tiger; hidden dragon. Or maybe just dinosaurs.

Thanks to Anna for the pictures of the food. So busy was I eating that I forgot to document some of my favorite dishes. Like the magic asparagus mountains that ensure I’ll never look at asparagus the same way again.

Back to the ease of film

If I asked you how you tell a good photo, or a professionally-taken photo, it’s likely you would answer that it must be sharp and with the right areas in focus, and if you were a bit artsy you might like some ‘bokeh’, and that the composition should be on point.

Minku has had quite the photographic journey in the last seven years, a journey during which I unwittingly became a photographer, with a specialty in mostly product and portraiture.

Besides needing quick turnaround times for product photos to be used for the e-store and social media pages, I also ran into some scheduling challenges with the photographer I usually work with, who is based in California. The most recent round of challenges motivated me to both find photographers to work with locally, and refine my own photography abilities further.

For product shots, I’m still on board the dslr train, but for social media captures, I’ve started the transition to film. Film is more organic, the light is more like how I see the world, the edges don’t look so HDR, the smiles are softer, the wrinkles are more forgiven (yes, see what I did there), the hair is softer, the reds are pinker. Film is what my earliest memories were captured in; it is how I grew up seeing the world.

For every film photo I’ve kept in my recent rediscovery of the medium, I’ve discarded one. Still, that’s ok. I’m still learning my camera, and it’s not a complex one. I realize, too, that the complexity of the heavier, electronic cameras didn’t hold the solution to the organicness I sought. Photography is just my means of expressing myself, and with film, I realize I’m skipping the editing because the colors and textures, two things with which I hold an irrational preoccupation, are coming out perfectly. With electronic cameras,the hue was always too blue, the textures too sharp, the definition too high.

I am Goldilocks. With film, it’s just right.

Optimizing for empathy in design – Part II

In the previous post, I wrote about the different ways I optimize for empathy in design. It was easy to apply these, seeing as I was designing for someone I know. What about when designing for someone I have never met, and had only interacted with over the internet?

As if to test my pontificating, such a scenario presented itself over the holidays. I received an order for a bag I had made, and mailed it. I imagined it was a gift for a guy, as

  1. The order had been placed through a male name
  2. I had just created a ‘For men’ section and was eager to convince myself it was already taking off
  3. The bag was a unisex design.

I received a gracious email saying that the writer’s dear husband had purchased her the bag as a Christmas gift, but that the strap was too short for her.

I think that one of the advantages of making bags is that unlike shoes, they are often one size fits all. For everything else, a strap adjuster is usually a good solution. The thing is that

  1. Sometimes, from an aesthetic point of view, a strap adjuster introduces at least two additional metal components, that can sometimes remove from the aesthetics I had in mind.
  2. A shoulder bag is usually fine. However, I had listed this as a cross-body bag, and for fuller-bodied people, what this means is that the bag strap has to be long enough to cover some of the width of their shoulders, lateral rib-cage, and chest/bust. So it almost becomes like clothing, where bust measurements, shoulder measurements, etc come into play. I hadn’t thought of this as I placed the listing under the cross-body category. I am now more careful to only place bags with ample-length and an adjustable strap in this category.

I thought that this would be a good opportunity to put some empathic design into play. It was after the holidays and I could make out time to create a bag that the client would be happy to wear. Also, unlike scenarios where the client places an order and I mail it in and communicate thanks via email, I had had a bit more communication with this client. Many of the people who order from Minku have this warmth about them. Sometimes I have to send customer care emails for situations like when someone is personalizing a gift, or when items would take longer to mail out, because I need x number of days to make their custom order. I receive the warmest and most patient of email responses. It makes this job really fulfilling, partly because I know I can relax and do a good job. I also work very well under pressure, but I try to avoid it, as I am lucky enough to be the person I report to.

For step one of making a bag that the client would like, I asked her if she wouldn’t mind sending me a picture of some of the bags she owned, just maybe two or three of them placed together. I told her this would give me an idea of her bag taste, and help me come up with something for her. At first I received no response, and I thought this was expected, because who really wants to get that intimate with someone she doesn’t really know? There might be an element of it that seems to say show me your style and I’ll judge you and make you something I think suits you, and I had to be proper with the wording, to remove the slightest misread sense of judgement. However, I found it important to request this information, because I needed more than a blank slate to work with.

When the returned bag arrived, we had the touchpoint of conversing again, and I asked again, just in a no-fuss way: if you can send me a photo of two or three bags, then I’ll get an idea and can work with more direction. If you don’t feel comfortable sending it, this is totally fine, and I’ll make a bag with the strap of the length we already discussed, and mail it by x date to avoid delaying this.

She sent me the photo the same day, explaining that the challenge had been deciding which of the bags to send me a photo of. It was really cool to receive the photo, because I knew almost immediately which of the styles I had been ruminating over, to make for her. I hadn’t tried padded quilting before, but I really wanted to. Even though none of the bags in the photo she sent to me had padded quilting, I felt that this was my chance to  give it a try, to achieve the more structured style of bag she seemed to lean towards. Also, leather quilting is really pretty, and I wanted the challenge.

I sent her a photo of the bag, and I received the best email, saying how much she loved it. I have to say that I feel I also got lucky, because it is not like I am suddenly a mind reader or a photo reader. It is a combination of having a gracious client and working to understand people’s taste and translate it into something that, though different, they will still like.

The bag arrived about a week earlier than I had expected, and I got the best email from her.

First, spirit animal – whenever I’m stoked about something, I think that I would cry. And sometimes, when I am telling someone that their gesture/gift/words made me want to cry, I can see the look on their faces like, “no, that’s not what I was going for” but I still use the expression anyway because it’s how I feel :) So it was nice to see the client use the same expression. I totally understood the feeling she was trying to convey.

So I felt like it was a successful interaction. The thing about this work is that the emphasis has to be that I want to make bags that people want to wear. On average, people have tens of bags, so it would be unrealistic to think that wearing one bag every day for two years will be a mark of success. However, the thought of switching to the bag should delight them, like yay I can’t wait to switch my things into this Minku bag, with its glorious aso-oke interior and how the contents of my bag hit the light differently; its comfortable strap, the artisan details, the form of the bag, and all the compliments I will get.

For me, that is the dream. And it made this unplanned empathic design experience 100% worth it.

Love,
Minku

Optimizing for empathy in design

There are a few things that are important for optimizing one’s design work. First, it’s important to know what I optimize for

  • I optimize for the usefulness of what I am making. I want the user to find it necessary and sufficient, but not over-the-top for what he/she needs.
  • I optimize to use as little of the material as possible, unless absolutely necessary. Leather, the vegetable-tanned type I favor these days, is usually expensive, and also quite heavy/dense, which is a disadvantage for some objects like bags that are to be carried around.
  • Speaking of which, I optimize for lightness. I buy the lightest-weight leathers I can find, that still retain all the other properties of the heavier leather that I love. I cut away excesses after sewing, keep designs simplified. Anything to end up with something just a bit lighter.
  • I optimize for the lifestyle of the end-user. If someone lives in a small space, I don’t want to make them something they can’t fold away or tuck away and forget it’s there. If they like certain finishes or shades to their furnishings or leather, I want my design choices for them to align with that. Dark wood finishes like the interior of an Irish or English pub, vs. light woods like pine or oak. Aligning small aesthetic details with the intended end-user’s life can greatly affect how often they want that object around their lifespace/workspace/playspace.
  • I optimize for delight. I generally am drawn to happy things: joyous, if minimalist art; open, airy and sun-flooded spaces, patterns on clothing. There’s another type of design, and it’s also fun, I’m sure because I sometimes explore it (like that time I made flagellators), though I have to consciously place myself in that mind-space. But generally, I just want to make things where the owner sees them and is a tad bit happier. Sometimes it’s in how I combine the threads for a stitch in an unexpected way. Other times, it’s how a design is evocative of something the user grew up familiar with, but never gave a conscious thought to until now.

Now, for the considerations.

  1. Time: designing takes time. I don’t really sketch; I do it all in my head. Though I do know that the more complex my problem-solving becomes, the more I’d need to sketch parts. Yesterday as I walked to El Corte Ingles and back, I had Bonobo playing through my earplugs and was just playing about with ideas in my mind. Should I make a roll-up tool storage bag? No, because so far I don’t know what all the future tools will be, number and sizes. Ok, so a toolbag for one chisel, then. No, that’s a waste of leather. It’ll need to have a long closure flap. I don’t want to make a thoughtful Christmas present; I want to make a useful one. Ok, so what’s the need? To keep the chisel edges from blunting or contact when not in use. Possibly to hang the chisel in a toolshed. What about the plastic cover for my awl that covers just the metal part of the awl? Could I make something like that, in leather? Yes. Will it hang off a hook if hung, or will the chisel fall out from the weight? I’ll try to make it fit snug so it hangs. Ok, that’s good. I can also picture it being used without much fuss. A toolbag seems like it’s for people like carpenters who travel with their tools a lot. This is just for protecting a tool when not in use, in the home-space. Now that the ‘what’ has been solved, how can I design such a cover? That will be the subject of the next line of thinking.
  2. Design thinking. In 2010, I got into Stanford’s mechanical engineering masters degree program to study product design for two years. I didn’t go, but I do go on their web site from time to time, to align my thinking with their best-in-class practices. And they do this whole empathic design schtick where they observe the user for a long time before designing. The insights are priceless. In his book Emotional Design, Donald Norman alludes to how objects with sensual appeal seem more useful. I’m a big believer in this. Make minor design decisions that favor the person or group that you’re designing for, and watch them never let the finished product leave their side. One day, a vegetable-tanned fuchsia bag I’d made for a friend, Z, got stained with splashes of wine. After telling her how to rub them off gently with a cloth dampened with distilled water, I suggested a few weeks later that if that didn’t work, I could take the bag and dye its leather black. “Dye it black, she says,” mocked Z, “that would kill the whole essence of it.” For her, the color was the thing.The empathic design aspect of design thinking is much more than seemingly-superficial considerations like color preference. It involves astronomical levels of empathy for the user’s lifestyle, income, how they weigh things that are important to them e.g money or experiences; family time or solitary travel; proximity to city life or affordable accommodation, and not necessarily as binaries. Also, their physical living/working/play space, how they commute to work, whether they are religious, whether the like sunlight or prefer dark spaces, preferred climate, whether they consciously put on music when they’re in a shared or isolated space, what kind of music and how loud, their eating habits, whether they’re partial to wood/metal/plastic/paper, and so on. I’m painting in broad strokes, but the specific considerations to note in empathic design will depend on what problem you’re solving in the person’s lifestyle. Still, it’s not to be underestimated how much seemingly unrelated factors can end up being the ones that most inform each other in designing for a person or group.
  3. Communication. It’s nice to know someone or a group of people enough to be able to divine their preferences. In the case of making the tool covers, it’s what I’ve had to do, since this is a Christmas present. I also know I have it right because 1. we have the same aesthetic taste 2. I am good at listening for preference details 3. I can make associations between design styles. E.g. if someone has an Eastern-style saw with bamboo handle, that’s crying for some natural/untanned leather accessories, maybe black, but not mahogany-colored leather and not really bold primary colors like red or yellow unless that’s an on-going preference the person has going on. For instance, I like all the gold, shiny things, he he, and if someone got me a gold, shiny leather case for my tools, I’d just be amazed and amused and delighted, regardless of my other aesthetic preferences or what matches my tools.This to say that for the things you don’t know, it’s better to ask. And you need to remember the most mundane of details – jot down if you must.

I will be back to update this post with pictures of the items that I made; I can’t post them right now because it’s not Christmas yet.

Well, if you have some comments about empathic design or other factors that are key to your work, whether as a designer/architect/craftsperson/landscape architect/interior designer, post them below. It’s just such a cool approach to design, compared with throwing everything at the wall and hoping some of it sticks. Of course it gets more complex when you’re designing for a group of people e.g. building a well in a village. But if you’re designing for one person: a client who has placed a  personalized order, or your mum or partner or sibling or child, then the more of their observed behavior and preferences you can factor into the design, the more likely they are to find delight in the finished product.

How I learned computing Part I

Today I wanted to tell you about how I got into computing. I’m a technical founder, even though my work is so enmeshed in design as well that the days and nights I spend awake figuring out the mobile-friendly code for minku.com don’t seem like they count. They do, as there would be a difference if I had to outsource the programming work. As someone who doesn’t even sketch designs before she starts sewing, imagine having to tell someone how to design something exactly as it’s in my head. Ok, partly kidding – when I worked in consulting, this was precisely my job, via something called wireframes, which I could generate at high speeds and with great efficacy. However, the architecturing of information and site interactions took a front seat to design in that scenario, whereas on minku.com, with its fewer pages and lesser focus on arranging tons of vital information for a varied set of users, I can really let the design aspect shine. For this type of task, I enjoy getting down and dirty with no maintenance mode and no prior sketches/wireframes. Craziness, you may call it. I call it living on the edge :)

When I was 7, my mum enrolled my sister and me in a computer programming course (sister was 9 or had just turned 10). I was below the minimum age for the class, but I was also at that tag-along stage where I just go with my sister where she goes so mum has some hours to not be driving us somewhere, and can focus on her work, or having a summer (this was Lagos, where December is almost as hot as June, but work with me). Well, so we learned a language called BASIC, Beginner’s All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code. I loved counting in tens, which I had to do for each line of code, and I loved for statements and GO TO commands, and drawing flow diagrams, gosh did I love drawing flow diagrams! We had a class test and I remember scoring 7 or 7-and-a-half out of 10 and the teacher praising me to high heavens because everyone had assumed I had just come there to play Pacman and Prince of Persia and Space Invaders while I waited for my sister to learn stuff. Yet there I was, learning.

So that was my first experience with programming, well, besides playing around with some punch cards my dad had lying around the house for whatever reason. Fast forward to when I was 14 or 15, and my dad, who along with my mum likes to buy us all the best things, got us an iMac G3 for the house. The mini living room at the top of the stairs suddenly became the place to be in our house — whether to watch my sisters be Ryu and E. Honda at a very early version of Street Fighter, or to try my hands at yet another web site design using FrontPage. Our internet connection was still choppy at best, you’d literally read two pages of a novel while waiting for one light page to load. But it was the late 1990s and there was this beautiful new world of motion and interactivity, and beyond Solitaire and Microsoft Word’s Marching Ants text effect, we were a real part of it.

2001, I was taking a gap year at home before university. Our good family friend asked what I would like him to bring me from the States. At that specific time in history, Manolo Blahnik X Timberland heeled boots were new and in, and every Nigerian high-school girl wanted a pair. As did I. Yet I said I wanted a programming book. Let’s pause here to absorb the painful asceticism inherent in this decision. I had it in mind to study computer science at university, and I had been learning JavaScript at Aptech, a local computing school, but still. Disciplina pura y sencilla.

First year of University, I moved countries. I was also learning assembly language, which was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. When I was 7, I had read in my sister’s France Afrique textbook, a short story of a girl who goes to Paris, and I had decided to myself then that I wanted to learn French, possibly with dreams of going to Paris. Learning a core computing language was like preparing to go to the Paris of computers; I just didn’t know then how long and fulfilling a journey I was embarking on.