About my blog

I am multithreaded, and sometimes the threads get tangled.


a Studiolab production.


food design course at TUDelft
I blog in Italian
I have a LinkedIn profile
my lab is Studiolab!
I love Jasper van Kuijk's product usability weblog

the wind I am enjoying


De meningen ge-uit door medewerkers en studenten van de TU Delft en de commentaren die zijn gegeven reflecteren niet perse de mening(en) van de TU Delft. De TU Delft is dan ook niet verantwoordelijk voor de inhoud van hetgeen op de TU Delft weblogs zichtbaar is. Wel vindt de TU Delft het belangrijk - en ook waarde toevoegend - dat medewerkers en studenten op deze, door de TU Delft gefaciliteerde, omgeving hun mening kunnen geven.

Posted in 2009

the abstract fallacy (#3)

Whenever students tell me …and this phenomenon will be visualized by abstract graphics… or basically anything that includes the word abstract, I know that there is trouble on the horizon. Why? Well, this is abstract


The Matrix screenshot



this is abstract


and this too!


this, btw, is a variation on the Sierpinski triangle fractal, made by a guy that calls himself FireLizzard with a fantastically interesting piece of software: Context Free.

But to go back to why saying abstract is bad, I should be more specific: it is bad only when you say it to create a smokescreen over missing visuals or even serious difficulties in information visualization or interaction design. Abstract graphics, particularly if they are meant to convey some information (as opposed to being screensavers or cute wallpapers) are damn hard, I daresay because they sit at the intersection of graphic design and information design, with the extra difficulty that they cannot contain representations of real world objects or icons that refer to them (abstract, you see…), so if you want to represent the state of health of an old person (for example) you can’t just have an old-guy icon bent double because of backache or happily strolling around. You have to come up with something else, and I bet that it is going to be pulsating and glowing like a damn Macintosh power LED. But I digress.

To sum it up,  abstract is OK as long as you realize that it is a placeholder, and that making those abstract graphics work well could easily be the most difficult part of the whole design.



in other news: Max Bruinsma is a highly articulate guy with very interesting things to say on design

ITD Jukebox project goes to Salone – 1

Just a quick note from the center of insanity that is our little lab here in Milano. The prototype is being finished, the software is being tweaked and the Dremel is getting a nice little workout. The Dutch students are finding out exactly how many espressos you can drink before you pitch face forward into a pizza. Meet the prototype as Jordi spins it rapidly for stress testing. Or was it just to look cool?


The odd-looking eggy-pill like things in the hands of Sjoerd are the song tokens: each one stands for a specific piece of music, according to a very smart and impossible to understand color code. Color coding rules! Unfortunately. 



A detail of the top plate. While you are laser cutting, why not take some extra time and do a fancy bit of laser engraving? 



This is what things look like late in the TUDelft-at-IdLab workspace at night with 24 hours to delivery time. Perplexed people considering magnets and fancy spring-based braking devices. Of course right now everything is MUCH better and all technical issues have been solved by Dieter who, in the next photo, looks just so happy.




It is a bit blurry, but I just wanted to share it with the world. Suicide by glue gun. A very TU way to go. Don’t try this at home, unless you are wearing your fancy giant white IKEA protection helmet!

Now we have to rush to Triennale, to install our fancy graphics on a 2.5 x 2.5 m display wall: or at least this is what they have told us. Considering the Salone way of doing things, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that our space has turned into a 10 x 10 m ellipse, or the inside of a turnip, or the spires of a Gothic cathedral.


the Hip Hop fallacy (#2)

it can be summarized as the following statement: everybody wants to make music: I will give them the means to. This fallacy leads to a host of unfortunate, if occasionally amusing, design projects featuring benches, walls, stools, buttons and buttonoids, bus stops, bicycles and teddy bears that emit sounds when people variously interact with them.

Hip Hop fallacy projects tend to be illustrated by videos with happy youngsters dancing, if at all possible wearing very broad pants or very tight pants or no pants at all, depending on the current fashion. The videos last three minutes, which is also about the duration of time such a design stays interesting. No regard is ever paid to the fate of the bystanders: you know, the other people that are waiting for the bus, or want to use the park… and maybe do not like your music. Or sounds.

YouTube Preview Image

As you listen to the above classic piece, please consider the following four commonly available facts (no users have been harmed in the process of making them available: I just opened my eyes):

(1) right now, everybody in the Western world has the means to make music or can obtain them for a sum in the ten Euro range. There are online musical instruments, every computer is powerful enough to make music, you can buy supercheap Chinese-made keyboards and guitars. If you are into percussions, there is even a fine tradition of making your own instruments. It is not a problem of availability. It hasn’t been for quite a while – if you have the time, look into the origins of American black music.

(2) Despite this fantastic availability of means, most music we listen to is made by -let’s face it- professional musicians. Much as I would love it to go out of the IO Building in TUDelft, and just stumble upon improvised orchestras, ad-hoc marching bands and even occasional choirs, this just does not happen. Most people do not want to make music. Or maybe they want, but in the same vague sense in which I want to visit Bejing sooner or later, but I have not made any actual plan to do so. This situation was different in the Buddenbrook-era past, when live music was the only music, and every offspring of a good bourgeois family was simply required to be able to play and if possible sing.

(3) third,  making music is difficult, as anybody can easily find out when sitting down for the first time at a piano keyboard. You press a key and a sound comes out: you press many keys, together and in sequence, and crap comes out. Don’t even think about instruments like bagpipes, violins or trumpets, where to even make a sound come out you need significant training. But I know what you are thinking right now: I will use samples!And the results will suck just as bad. Even assembling samples, as any competent rapper or contemporary musician will tell you, requires skills. Just try. As an example, look at these people:

YouTube Preview Image

highly trained musicians, very difficult montage. Genius director, who is also a bastard because he makes it look so good and so damn easy

(4) Fourth commonly available fact, easily discoverable through summary You Tube exploration: most amateur musicians or makers-of-music suck. They have a tiny repertoire, and their technique is not so good. Which is not bad in itself: it becomes a problem only when you give these amateurs the possibility (technical and social) to inflict their not-so-good playing on the innocent. 

At the same time, there is a large population (all the people who bought Guitar Hero) that likes to pretend they are making music, just like other like to pretend that they are space marines. But one should not confuse the desire to pretend with the desire to be.

Recover from this revelation by watching Rapper’s Delight.

Landmine design

The ever resourceful Jasper pointed me to this interesting video with a stereotypical Italian designer talking, in a very hands-off way, about his happiness about new materials and technology, and how these things improve his life as a designer of…

YouTube Preview Image

land mines, of course. It is propaganda of couse, and the video’s moral message is pretty much in your face, and it is also a tad irritating. OK, Italy makes land mines, but so do the US, Russia, China… additionally, there are some pretty clear and totally defensible applications for land mines, particularly for anti tank mines, and certainly for minefields that have been appropriately installed by a military force.

Which means, if you are not familiar with landmines, that the minefield is clearly maked and the location of every land mine is recorded in a map. Or, if the mines are air scattered or artillery scattered, that the mine defuses itself after a period of time. 

Another thing that strikes my curiosity is that they called the designer "Alessandro Manzini", which -you will agree- is suspiciously similar to the name of Ezio Manzini, a very famous Italian sustainibility guru. I wonder how good old Ezio feels about this.

If you made it this far, the conosolation prize is a video featuring probably the best prototype in the universe: a sheep-LED display by Samsung. How much of it is faked? Who cares! It is just too cool.

the Spaceballs fallacy (#1)

a common disease of interactive projects, particularly of the interactive environments and service design class. Consists of assuming that every surface can, magically, display images and be sensitive to user behavior. Named after Spaceballs, an 1987 Mel Brooks science fiction comedy movie that spoofs Star Wars.

Here an apparently neutral and featureless wall panel



turns out to be a gigantic television screen, complete with an invisible camera for videocalls! Amazing! Imagine what kind of interfaces you could do with that.

If you haven’t watched the movie, go here, at time 5:10 – this also happens later in the movie with other innocent looking  panels in totally inappropriate locations. Also features, albeit in a serious manner, in the opening scenes of Total Recall (1990).


and if you want to claim that my culture consists strictly of SciFi movies from the last millenium, why you are welcome!



first in a series of interaction design fallacies.


liveblogging the ITD presentations

Disasters! We had the perfect plan: every group would, before 3PM, load their presentations on a lab Macintosh. Then we would transfer the presentations on a portable Mac and a portable PC, so that they could be played back in class on the students’ system of choice. Perfectly on time at 1545 in TBM.


the Castiglioni brothers, throwing fireworks in Zug



Unfortunately, one group showed up with the cursed USB stick of doom, that crashed the Mac and generally made everything deathly slow. Add to that the other group that had managed to produce a presentation that would run only on their own Macintosh. And of course the group that had wrapped their slideshow+music in a Flash application that probably tries to compute π as it plays back: and the QuickTime movie that would play back at the correct speed but only if it was not on fullscreen. And of course the surprising WMV file produced with a codec that VLC does not know anything about…Of course, all this could have been prevented with a dry run or at least some more preparation work on the part of the course coordinators.

Despite all the mini-disasters (from which we learn) we saw some very interesting presentations. We feel very optimistic about the future evlolutions of the concepts.

Lessons learned

  • we need to improve our presentation-craft
  • students need to improve their delivery techniques

In particular

  • slides full of tiny text make blood come out of my ears
  • people that say "and well that is our idea" say something redundant. When they say it in a way that implies that the idea is nothing special, I tend to agree with them.
  • transitions and fades mean something: they should not be used randomly
  • 100% green Arial text is just BAD. If it flies in and the flies out it is superBAD.
  • 5 minutes are enough to present 3 concepts, if you use them properly
  • 5 minutes are barely enough to rehash the brief and present one half concept, if you use them in the wrong way

If we do another plenary presentation (this one was tricky, 20 groups with 5 minutes each does not leave room for any uncertainty in stage management) we will provide the students with one single presentation machine that they will load and test by themselves, so that all the movies play and the presentations run.

I was a bit disappointed to notice that some concepts had not evolved much from last week’s presentations. I guess that I have to be clearer in my feedback. I was amused to see the Top Of the Pyramid concept (TOP) go forward 🙂


ITD Jukebox project sites online

YouTube Preview Image

Which makes two:

 Out of Order

 team 1

in other news, we will be featured in the catalog for the Jukebox project! Massive excitement and rapid, hamster-like, clicking of keys to write explanatory text. Recently I got confused between Smooth Criminal and some other Michael Jackson video: chalk that up to the consequences of a sheltered upbringing, where everything after Beethoven was considered too unrul. Anyway, the relevent video is indeed Smooth Criminal – still quite amazing.

Apple and Sony according to the Onion, a most fundamental news source

required viewing for people that do UTAR.




"Anyone mystified by the device’s numerous extraneous features can scroll through the interactive help menu, a labyrinthine maze of indecypherable topics of use to fucking no one"

And of course there is one for Apple users: nothing is simpler than a single giant button.

Philips LivingColors, an informal product review




I live in a small, crowded house with singularly bad lighting. I also like having many small light sources. And I am a sucker for design. All these elements made me a natural victim of the Philips LivingColors

lamps. Plus, it allows me to express my unending admiration for the G3 Cube design without actually trying to use one of the things. I would like to insert deep links into the Philips product microsite, but this will not happen because the site is a screaming mass of multimedia Flash about which the least is said the better – other than I don’t like pages that mess up the CTRL-page Up combination in Firefox. I like tabs, sites should not try to dictate how I flip tabs.

At any rate, I saw this lamp in the house of Pieter Jan and I decided that I wanted one. Before I get into the rest of my rant, I will state two basic truths: it looks good, in an unobtrusive glass-vase sort of way, and it does make a pleasant light. Keep this in mind, lest we lose sight of the forest for the trees.

The lamp is being slightly marked down at Media Markt (elsewhere known as Media World), and I so I bought it more or less on impulse. At Media Markt, it was huddling in a not very exciting part of the shop, together with nameless extension cords and really big packages of batteries – right before the checkout. As a matter of fact, I found it more or less by chance, after wandering through all the store, which probably reflects a sort of category difficulty that this product will encounter: is it a lamp? is it a light-bulb? is it something associated with entertainment? Clearly none of the three. More about the positioning at the end of the post.

The product that defines you

Since the LivingColors lamp does not have a clearly defined function (too bright and wide-beamed for a reading light, too weak for a generic room light, too weak for a task light), Philips would like you to believe that this is a product associated with a lifestyle. In other words, you are going to buy it because of who you are not because of what you want to do. Or rather, because of who you imagine you are instead of what you imagine that you want to do, I mean, it is all a game of representation and identity: the product affirms your identity before yourself and everybody else. Now we could rant on and on in a postmodern, slightly cynical and blasè way, but let’s proceed then to the question:

who are you supposed to be? Based on the images present


in the Philips site, I would venture that

  • you are highly design conscious, in a way that induces you to buy or at least desire Mies Van Der Rohe or Verner Panton armchairs. Or maybe knockoffs of those armchairs.
  • you listen to music with headphones
  • you are 2/3 woman and 1/3 man
  • you are 1/2 white-bread North European, 1/6 darker South European, 1/6 darker yet Caribbean, 1/6 Chinese or Far East Asian.

And you like candles, champagne, newspapers, coffee with cookies, telephones. You harbor an unspeakable passion for disco balls. You like to think you have a social life and friends that will "share" into this fabulous product. 

You are either a single woman or a happy smiling couple. Or maybe a couple of lesbians.

In other words, you are an average Dutch urban dweller, the lamp says. 


The box is a bit bland on the outside. I guess it must be some standard Philips design for a box, mostly white with a big blue PHILIPS. Then they sprinkled it with pictures of the lamp projection some of its millions of colors, the usual happy, wholesome, young people enjoying the pretty colors and some color spectra (perhaps a bit too technical?).

Opening the box shows an internal architecture of transparent plastic divides that protect the lamp itself. On top of it there is a booklet with vague -very vague, actually- staff about the relationship between the lamp, its many possible colors and your mood. And they are all very good moods, but this booklet was so incredibly bland and friction-free and boring that I forgot all about it in a flash, so I will stop discussing it right now. The blandness was increased by the fact that the text is in approximately one thousand languages, which in turn makes the graphic design a bit tricky – since the reader is supposed to ignore about 95% of what lies on the page.

The lamp itself is presented in an intriguing pearl grey rounded soft bag closed by a drawcord, pretty much the type of bag a well behaved girl from a well off family would use to store her used underwear (you know: the type that needs hand washing). This is actually a good free suggestion for actually using this bag, since you certainly not going to use it for the lamp itself: I cannot see the user storing the lamp in the bag and then … sauntering off into the sunset with a cannonball shaped object casually hanging from his hand? And to go exactly where? I mean, do you take your mood lamp with you wherever you go? Just like an iPod? If it were battery powered we could probably stretch our imagination a little bit.

But as it happens, the bag perfectly fits the lamp, with no space left over for the necessary power adapter (a white wall-wart job, slightly nicer than the usual black type), probably in order not to spoil the lamp+bag silvery roundness. Thus, this hypothetically mobile mood color light user would have to remember to take the power adapter wherever he goes.

Anyway, the panties bag seems to me a perfect example of trying hard and then failing due to the lack of any possible use scenario. How do we make something more precious and appreciated? Wrap it! Give it a case! is a correct question with a correct answer. Maybe not so applicable to this particular lamp, though.

Plugging in

Upon plugging in, the lamp runs through a color spectrum to let you know that it is indeed plugged in and working. Response to the remote is pretty much instant. Satisfaction is really immediate, and placing this lamp requires less thought than other lamps, since it does not produce much heat and it can only be oriented on the horizontal plane – inclination is mandated by the shape of the base. Anyway, wherever you place it sits pretty and it delivers light. Because of the LED light sources, it turns on instantly to whatever setting it was at when you switched it off.

The only element that mars the purity of the shell is the coaxial power port. In other words, there are no buttons on the lamp body and you are wholly dependant on the remote for operation. One of my colleagues mentioned that this is the first lamp that allows you to lose its remote… perhaps one button for "full on white" and "off" would have been useful for emergency operation – but I can’t really see a situation where the LivingColors is the only available light in a room and you have lost the remote or its batteries are dead.

The light it makes

The light is quite pleasant and much brighter than I expected for an LED source. It is spread in a fairly broad beam, and the very pleasant thing is that the transparent material of the lamp body plus the translucent nature of the ring on which the light source is mounted makes the lamp itself very beautiful in outline. In this case the pictures do not lie.

When you fiddle with the remote, the light changes in smooth steps. Under some operating conditions, that’s to say at very low power, you can see some sudden steps that feel like dithering.

The remote


One of my colleagues’ students has actually worked on this remote, and I am happy to report that it is one of the nicest remotes I have ever touched. It is shaped like a little bathtub: to open it, you slide a button on the bottom, and the flat top comes off, carrying the electronics and the batteries with it. The insides are very clean. 

Some people have remarked that the remote is not easy to open. I have to agree that there is a trick to it, and that until you get the trick right it will not open. Since this is not an antique treasure chest, opening should not rely on users getting unintuitive tricks right.

Operation of the remote is not difficult at all, provided

  1. you have the Hue, Saturation, Lightness color model deeply embedded in your head. Photoshop junkies rejoyce! This lamp thinks exactly in your terms.
  2. you understand one complex yet smart interface trick.

the trick (thank you, Patrick, for making me notice) is that the color wheel operates in two modes: if you peck at it like a hen, it sets the hue to be equivalent to wherever you pecked. But if you drag your finger along the circumference, it will change the hue in the direction in which you are going – but there is no relationship between where your finger ends and the hue the lamp will take on.

Once you understand this trick, you realize that pecking is for setting quickly the hue, and dragging is for fine tuning.

Trying to be Apple: the logic behind

I can kind of imagine (wild speculation here) someone at Philips saying hey, we are the kings of LEDs! we really understand lighting systems! let us try to make something very cool and desirable, way sexier than a power-saving fluorescent compact lightbulb! and so they got to work on the Living Colors. I imagine that there is also a synergy with that bizarre peculiar piece of Philipsia, the Ambilight LCD displays – something that I would like to review but not to purchase. Anyway, knowing that they could lick the engineering+design problems (and there are many engineering problems when you want to make something like the Living Color lamp, having to do with non-linearity of LEDs, perception, heat dispersion), and since this product really fills a non-existing niche, they had to invent a reason for you to buy it.

This is no mean feat. Most Philips products solve problems: a beard trimmer trims your beard. A hair dryer, a microwave oven, the lighting system of the Eiffel Tower, a flat-screen TV, all solve some problems and fulfill some needs, real or imaginary. But a color lamp that is not bright enough to be your main light for a room? People who do not live in brothels, fish tanks or butchers’ display cases tend to have really narrow minded ideas about the color of light they like as a main light source or as a reading lamp. The possible niche would be what is known as accent lighting, an architectural conceit melodiously defined by Philips itself as

Accent Lighting provides concentrated light to spotlight an object or
area where extra attention is needed or a task has to be performed.
Accent lighting also adds drama to a room by highlighting objects. (Philips Ligthing)

And indeed Philips produces hundreds of components for accent lighting, like the excitingly macho-named eW Downlight Powercore (which sounds like a weapon out of Halo). But these are components purchased and used by architects or engineers, not consumer products. The Living Colors lamp is accent lighting with color control for consumers, who -thus far- had no desire for anything remotely like that.

Kind of like an iPod, if you think about it. Did any human ever declare I want a portable music player that talks to an online music shop! before the iPod was designed and made purchasable? So here Philips is trying to create a new desire. They envision their customers saying Oooh, look at that statue of a fisherman I bought in Curacao! Wouldn’t it look great with a green-yellow wash of light coming from bottom right? They imagine people walking out of an art gallery or a theatre, and saying hey, I could get myself two of those big LED babies and make my living room a real experience!

And I guess that it is possible for Philips to become the Apple of lighting, provided enough people convince themselves that having highly controllable color lights in their living room is desirable. After all, in the ’70s we had a word for people who wandered the streets on Sunday, oblivious to their surroundings and listening to a soccer game on a portable radio: we called them pathetic losers. Nobody thought that they were experiencing immersion in an audio-only environment or a shared media experience: they were just losers. Now we get to do something very similar every day, and we feel very cool or at least non-pathetic. 


Will this LivingColors cannonball of intelligence kick lighting out of the nerd domain?  It is not so clear, but let us look at the alternatives.

Actually, there are not that many comparable alternatives. Artemide makes an impeccable (of course!) suspension halogen called Nur ("light" in Arabic) with three colored sources. I have seen it priced at above 2000 USD, and it uses 150 W HIE sources with color filters: in brief, it costs about twenty times as much, uses about one hundred times the power and makes probably fifty times more light.

Unfortunately, since Artemide too decided to build its website as a
screaming mass of Flash, it is impossible for me to link to the product
page. Additionally, Google will not find anything on this site, but
will helpfully point you to various regional distributors of Artemide
things. Way to go people! You have really nailed this Internet
marketing and company presence thing! Should you feel like you want less heat dispersion and power consumption, Carlotta de Bevilacqua designed (again for Artemide) this other spaceship like object called Yang Touch. It uses fluorescent lamps and it looks damn good – I like this type of in your face technology. Also for the low low price of 2000 Euros.

At the opposite end of the price spectrum, you find LED light sources based on numerous not very bright LEDs packaged on a board. The STAIRVILLE LED PAR 56 is a good example, using 152 LEDs and featuring also a DMX controller and a serious-looking theatrical-style enclosure. It is being sold for less than 40 Euros online. But it looks really terrible, so it isn’t a very comparable alternative. 



NB: most of the photos included in the article have been grabbed from online Philips and Artemide  material

Juke Box, CD kitsch

One of the briefs for the ITD class revolves around reinventing the juke box. Now, juke boxes can be seen in many different ways, ranging from the music consumption effect of having a shared device that plays music upon the insertion of money (and there is no such a thing currently in our world), to a shiny glowing piece of industrial design. Somebody clearly decided that he like the form so much that they made a large (man-sized) CD player in the shape of a juke box.


This is a rather large object. Unfortunately it was in the middle of a bunch of other peculiar stuff (if you have visited the Saturday market in Rotterdam on the Blaak you know what I am talking about), so I was not able to include a person as a scale factor. At any rate, contrast with the hob at bottom left.

So, what does this object of wonder actually do, since it certainly is not a real juke box stuffed full of 45rpm records? Apparently it is a CD player. The purple disc inside looks like a CD, surrounded by all sorts of not terribly functional appendages and things. (but then, 98% of this thing is by definition non-functional). The buttons on the front panel (links to higher resolution pictures at the bottom of the post) are typical CD control buttons. Large hints of the presence of an FM/AM radio are also present.

But what really got my attention was the remote control. Done in a bastard ’90s buttons+chrome trim+retro Ghostbusters+vaguely decò style, in black plastic and chrome, more or less similar to the juke box front, this is the remote control that Buck Rogers would have used to control his space juke box while rocketing from Mars to the Earth. Barbarella would have found it too obsolete for her tastes, I am sure.

In other news, I just spotted the name Wurlitzer on a cigarette vending machine in Dunya Döner Kebab, again in Rotterdam.

Higher resolution images

entire juke box
detail of CD receptacle
remote control


This was my reaction when one of the groups working on the ITD brief let me know that they have set up a blog as a collaboration platform. Here it is! I am surprised by the number of students at TUDelft that have only a "passive" relationship with the Internet, that is, they browse, they read, but they do not have a presence (as in, their website, their blog…) Some use facebook, but not really everybody. I guess that the seductions of the physical world are still too strong.

© 2011 TU Delft