Sensations of Empathy

I recently invited Seung Chan Lim (aka Slim) to speak to my senior design and illustration students. Slim, a graphic designer with significant experience as a computer scientist dealing in interaction design, proposes a “model of design as empathetic conversation” (in the diagram below). Topics and principles of empathetic conversation include respect, listening, and reciprocity, among others.

After the hour-long lecture that was thoughtful and engaging with excellent visuals to match, Slim led the audience in a two-hour discussion that included stories of making art, computer science, the difficulties of empathizing, teaching design, and resonance. Slim helped to create a space where voices could be heard. The feedback from students and faculty alike was overwhelmingly positive.

In addition to words like empathy, respect, resonance, and reciprocity, Slim used terms like love, hope, and humility. It is not often that these words are used to discuss design, yet they describe what it means to be human. Where is their place in our vernacular? Even the term ‘human-centered’ has become an over-generalized way to remind us that we’re designing for people. I think Slim’s point of view on design is a unique and brave one. It not only challenges designers to remain deeply connected to a purpose, but it reveals his own experiences of humility and insight along the way.

A Handful of Fun: Why Sensory Play is Important for Preschoolers

A wonderful article from Amanda Morgan,

Think of your average preschooler.  How long has this child been proficient with language?  Depending on the age, the child may not really be too proficient yet!  Others seem to have been talking non-stop since 2 1/2, but that means they’ve been talking now for all of…..about a year!  Now think of how long these children have been seeing, smelling, hearing, feeling, and tasting.  Their whole lives!  Children are wired to receive and utilize sensory input from day one.  This is why children will dive in hands first, exploring a new substance.  The senses are their most familiar, most basic way to explore, process, and come to understand new information.

This is why we must allow young children to learn through experience, not just lecture.  These children need to use their senses and be engaged in meaningful experiences.  As we talk with them about what they are observing and sensing, we give them new language tools to connect with these more familiar sensory tools, building language as well as supporting cognitive concepts specific to the experience.

Now, the flip side to this equation is important to remember as well.  Just as children learn through their senses, they also are developing the ability to use those senses and are building the neurological pathways associated with each one.  With added sensory experiences, combined with the scaffolding of adults and peers, children become more perceptive.  Their sensory intake and processing becomes more acute.  As they are better able to use their senses, they are then better able to learn through their senses.

Sensory play is really part of the scientific process.  Whether out loud or within the internal dialogue of the mind, children have developed a question, leading them to investigate– by grabbing, smelling, listening, rubbing, staring, licking , what have you!  They are using their senses to collect data and from that, attempt to answer their own questions.  Whether or not young children are always able to verbally communicate this process, it is still a valid exercise in scientific inquiry.

The sensory table is the usually the first place people think of for sensory play.  That’s logical, as the term “sensory” is shared by both.  The sensory table certainly stands as an open invitation for hands-on exploration, but it is not the only place where the senses come into play.  Throughout the preschool room and throughout the preschooler’s day, there are appeals being made to the five senses.  The sound of toppling towers in the block area, the feel of finger-paint sliding under their fingertips, the glow of the Light Brite at the small manip table, the smell of cinnamon playdough.  As teachers, the more we can attend to the sensory involvement of our planned activities, the more our children will be engaged and the more they will learn.

For example, when discussing the need for warm clothes in the winter time, we can simply tell children about it, or we can have them hold ice cubes, one in a bare hand, and one in a gloved hand, let them really feel the difference and then meaningfully attach a verbal discussion to the sensory experience.

Back at the sensory table, we can find many more benefits to sensory play.  That bin of sand, or foam, orcolorful rice is more than just another way to keep kids busy, it is a bustling factory of developmental growth.  In addition to honing sensory and science skills, sensory play builds languagesocial, and dramatic play skills as the children negotiate with one another to share tools, create stories, and build dialogues.  Both small and large motor skills get a boost as well, as the children manipulate the medium and tools of the day.  Creative, divergent thinking is displayed as the children are essentially invited to explore and come up with new ways to use the materials.  Cognitive skills are fostered as well as the children learn about specific concepts pertinent to the bin’s contents.  Things like gravity, parts of plants, states of matter, and color mixing are easily explored and understood through sensory play.  As you teach appropriate boundaries with sensory play, children develop more self-control and body awareness.

As one of the truest open-ended activities, sensory play provides an opportunity for every child to succeed.  No matter whether you are gifted or delayed, learning a new language or mastering your first, you can’t really fail with a bin full of beans or a ball of playdough.  Children who struggle to succeed or who are apprehensive about failure often find solace in sensory play.  The simple act of pouring water or running fingers through rice is often cathartic and calming to many children who may be struggling emotionally.  It can soothe the nervous child, distract the homesick child, and serve as an outlet for the angry child.  For children with special needs and sensory integration disorders, sensory play may be particularly therapeutic.  (Please note that we must also avoid over-stimulation in many sensitive children.  Special attention must also be paid to children with sensory integration disorder and properly recognizing their thresholds.)

We often think of the sensory table as being a tactile activity, which it largely is, but the other senses come into play as well!  The tapping sounds of popcorn kernels hitting the bin, the pungent smell of baking soda and vinegar at work, the sight of separating colors as tinted water, oil, and syrup are mixed together are all sensory experiences that can be tapped at the sensory table.  Taste sometimes finds less desirable ways to sneak in at the table as well, though taste-tests can also be properly planned as fantastic sensory experiences!

Find ways to optimize sensory play for your children.  Whether that’s providing a bin of sand to explore, giving your child a dish wand and plastic dishes to “wash” at the sink, or finding ways to integrate the senses into your other activities, provide space and time for sensory play!  It’s a natural and satisfying way to explore and learn!

Moss Pencil

“This fancy moss pencil demonstrates the emotional effect of an unconventional style. The fluffy green jacket plays with its haptic appeal. Curiously, the viewer immediately takes this pencil into his hand. Beside a comparably pleasant writing sensation the moss covering offers further ergonomic advantages. In many cases, the soft synthetic moss leads to a relaxed finger position, and the risk of pressure marks is reduced.”
– Red Dot Online

A Poster in the Making…

In January, I’m participating in an exhibit at the Mazmanian Gallery (Framingham State University) titled ‘PROCESS.’ I’m the sole designer among a group of accomplished fine artists. My hope is to create a piece that can both communicate clearly, and also fit with the other pieces in the show. The content of the poster is the areas of study within the Art & Music Department at Framingham State University (where I currently teach). Eventually the poster will be used to promote the department.

I’m interested in the term ‘process’ as a way of thinking and making and also as a technique. Although I don’t have a plan at this point for what my poster will look like in the end, I do have a few wishes:

– To demonstrate that graphic design is much more than a ‘computer-driven’ activity. Digital tools are extremely useful in the process, even necessary, however, depending on the computer alone can be limiting.

– That the overall aesthetic form of my poster should not look ‘digital.’ Through the form, I’d like to reference the methods of making the poster.

Shown here is my first sketch. I’ve listed the areas of study within the department and have started connecting the letterforms. I love type. I’m using the typeface Benton, a fairly new discovery for me. Working in this way with Benton allows me to get to know the characters intimately. I understand their widths, curves and baseline measurements.

The next step in the making will be the introduction of a hand made process.  SG

Synesthesia in Film

Thank you Terri Timely, for this synesthetic film.

type + hair = Hirsutura

This deliciously hairy lettering system called ‘Hirsutura’ was created by designer Craig Ward. Craig’s website, Words are Pictures, profiles his typographic play. Ideas often come from the details of life (and when least expected). Ward explains, “I was having my hair cut when inspiration struck: a lock of hair fell to the floor in an almost perfect O. I asked for a bag of hair from the floor (grim, I know) which I took back to the office and threw on the scanner until I started finding shapes that I could use in addition to letters.”

Brilliant. The result was Hirsutura – from ‘Hirsute’ meaning hairy, and Futura; the font Craig used as a base. Hirsutura was created as a Photofont for Fontlab Inc., who had created a new piece of software that allows you to create photorealistic fonts. The same project also inspired Blossomwell and informed the cover Craig created for Angel’s Psalms (below).


what does graffiti smell like?

A very sense-conscious student of my Stir course at RISD, just sent me this link on ‘smell graffiti’ from noodleplay (thanks Campbell). I love that his point of view is smell as an artistic notion, and he uses the medium to bring a bit of nature into urban spaces. I looked up the artist and it seems Mitchell Heinrich has several interesting projects, here’s his personal site. SG

the bonniedale farm project

Dan speaking with students

Currently, I am teaching stir (evoking sensory awareness) as a semester-long course at the Rhode Island School of Design. I am fortunate to work with these bright and driven graphic design students in an atmosphere that embraces design as a way to view the world.

If you love animals, you will love our latest class project. Yesterday we paid a visit to Bonniedale Farm in North Scituate, RI. The farm is home to many animals that may otherwise be homeless or destroyed. Dan and his girlfriend run the farm, and take in pigs, sheep, llamas, horses, dogs, cats, chickens, turkeys and probably any type of animal you could name…they never say no and are the only type of animal sanctuary like this in all of Rhode Island. They advocate for animals, provide a safe and happy atmosphere, and spend time educating anyone (including inner-city children) who wants to find out the fascinating and often difficult stories behind each of the animals on the farm. The farm atmosphere offers many opportunities for sensory stimulation, and the reason for the visit was to document these.

Tommy Boy

Unfortunately Bonniedale Farm will be closed within a month due to foreclosure. This is a harsh reality that many Americans are facing at this time. The community is rallying behind Bonniedale, but time is running out.

The story of this farm will serve as the core of the latest class project. The students have been given an assignment in which they will explore the potential impact graphic design can have and consider how design thinking and making can captivate, engage and motivate people to act. There certainly is potential here for the synergy of ideas, motivation and design to have a positive result. SG

Read the article from the Providence Journal here:

penny takes a nap in the sand

colored time

I have a particular interest in time/color relationships. This surely stems from my research into synesthesia. I found a playful little timepiece called “color clock”,by Martin Bottenberg in The Netherlands. Now I’m having fun imagining potential applications for this…

If you like experimental clocks, there are several more here: SG

experiential storytelling

In 2003, I was fortunate to be a part of a highly creative design team that also included, Tom Ockerse, Dan Gaidula, Soe Lin Post, and Anne West. We collaborated to create a ‘dynamic map’ for the Collective Wisdom Initiative. This organization, funded by The Fetzer Institute, specializes in research into group intelligence and was in need of an online experience that could begin to visualize this otherwise invisible field. The result was a playful, meditative and experiential telling of the stories of the group’s 26 core principles.

You can view the project here. Please take note of the instructions “Play. Stay open. Believe in possibility.” More information on the creative process is also available. Enjoy. SG