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What is the most book-like book?

17 Jan

It is about tapping on our collective visual memories, our cultural database of archetypes…


But a short digression first…

Well! I finally submitted the final designs and prototype to NLB for the “Brown Bag Design Contest‘! I manage to make the deadline, in email and hard-copy submissions. *phew. It’s a huge relief now that the stress of submission is over. A quick sneak preview of the final product – just for you…

Final submission package

Hard-copy submission of the Book Bag - CD and photos included!

I’ll get to blogging about this soon enough! First let me catch up on where I left off previously…about the making of the final design and prototype.


Pinning down the most book-like Book Bag

A close friend had commented (during my testing stage) that perhaps the generic “book” image used for the design could be changed to an actual book design which most people can relate to. Like say for children, the most easily-recognised book to them might be an Enid Blyton book cover, or Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory book cover for children.

Which was a good point, because I would need the Book Bag to really resemble a book; to be the most ‘book-like’ in order for the ordinary man on the street to easily recognise the Book Bag for a book.  This reminds me of my philosophy classes in university, where we talked about Plato’s metaphysical theory of Forms, where abstract, non-material ideal types exist as the highest and most fundamental kind of reality. Like the idea of a “book”. There’s many types of books – novels, dictionaries, encyclopedia, coffee table books – but what is the concept of “book” which holds all these family of books together as “books”? Physical traits like paper, words printed on pages? Those traits could fit a magazine, not a book… Almost there but not really. Well, I don’t think I do justice to Plato here, but it points towards how we know things as things belonging to a family of things. Famed Japanese designer Naoto Fukasawa asked the similar question in his namesake book,

“I wanted to design a chair-like chair, a table-like table… But this ‘likeness’ was something confined to the imagination, and I understood that it differed from person to person. Still, I wanted to design the kind of chair that when people looked at it, they said,’That’s a really chair-like chair.” If you ask people,”What exactly is chair-like?”, they don’t know, but if they see it, they can say, “Oh, that’s really chair-like”; this sensation is one that, as first glance, appears inconsistent. The reason why I wanted to design a chair-like chair is that I felt that, within this ‘chair-like’ sense, there was an element of reassurance. Perhaps it’s a nostalgic sensation. Designers and architects all design at least one chair. Their chair design is thus indicative of their identity. These chairs are not referred to as being ‘chair-like’, but as ‘whoever designed them-like’. So I thought that an anonymous chair was more likely to be thought of as ‘chair-like’. The idea of designing a chair to look like chair-like stemmed from a desire to break away from the ‘this is the chair so-and-so designed’ kind of mind set.”

So to echo his sentiments, it’s exactly that “element of reassurance”, that “nostalgic sensation”, the anonymity set within the imagination, which drives me to find that “Form” of the ‘book’. Which brings me back to the question: What is a “book”? What is the most “book-like” book? Especially to local Singapore?

I pondered. Searched. Asked around for ideas. Looked around under the sheets of bookstores and stock image websites. And one image kept popping up everywhere – a hard-cover, rectangular, portrait-orientation, typically vintage-looking, and leather-bound book. So my initial hunch for going with a leather book cover design as most “book-like”, as the one most generic book image which most people would recognise it and say, “Yes, that’s a book which looks most like a book.” The answer had come full circle. But not a wasted exercise though, because only through asking this question can I be really sure of the spirit of the design is accurate.


The making of

So…with firmer conviction, I ploughed on to finish up the final prototype of the Book Bag for the submission to the library. And added on a few extra useful touches inspired from my very initial ethnographic observation of library users.

Vodpod videos no longer available.


As you can see from the slideshow, there’s now the:

  • Outer clear-plastic pocket for keeping loan receipts – remember how my initial observations showed how library users fumbled with the receipts and found their own ways to keep them properly without losing them (in wallets, in between book pages, etc)? Now there’s a home for all those run-away slips of paper, and a highly prominent, visible and convenient place at that!
  • An inner CD pocket to snugly hold the CD you borrowed above ground level – to minimise impact shock on the fragile disc of plastic when carrying and putting down the Book Bag.
  • ‘Hidden’ instructions on the ‘page’ side of the Book Bag – in 3 simple steps (it’s really just 3, as the 4th step is to say there isn’t a step 4!), the users can read and understand how the Book Bag can be borrowed, used and returned.
  • A mock RFID tag (taken from an old book I bought from a past library sale) to demonstrate a possible position where the tag can be located.

I should really be using Tyvek ® ‘paper’ (Tyvek® is actually all recyclable plastic, which looks and feels like paper) for the final prototype, but it’s not easily found as bookstores don’t really stock them. So I worked around it by using some good ol’ vanguard sheet, and pasting the A4-paper design prints onto the skeleton of vanguard sheet. The accidental quality of using printed paper is the creases and wrinkles that comes with uneven glue spread underneath, which makes the book look even more authentic!


Next up: ‘Fashion’ shoot of the Book Bag, to illustrate how the Book Bag would look like when used in our daily lives. No more studio shots against plain white backgrounds – stay tuned to see the Book Bag go ‘live’!



Meditations on first concept

9 Jan

Navigating the rivers of thought for a solution…


Of the 3 seed ideas from the previous post, through

looking and re-looking,

wondering and day-dreaming,

comparing and sieving,

I had come to a decision. It wasn’t one of those “Aha!” moments where instant illumination drops down from the sky, but more like a clear-water stream gently flowing and meandering through the expanse of random thoughts, cleaning out the landscape while at the same time refreshing it with clarity. So I thought I’ll share further meditations on the ideas.

The Green Bag

True. ‘Green’ consciousness had come a long way and now, more than ever, people are wanting more from businesses and governments in terms of ecological sustainable practices. So people might recycle and reuse the bags, fulfilling the 2 “R”s. But the third “R” would be more difficult – what incentive would they have to return these bags to the library? In more likelihood it would be tossed into a pile of other bags when they get home and another would take its place when they need to use one to carry books to the library. It would be truly lost. Moreover, if it’s going to be really well-designed and nice-looking to keep, users would have even lesser reason to return it. Encouraging readers to return the bag simply through advocacy would entail them to learn new behaviour which is a high barrier.


The High Street Bag

A great-looking fashionable bag would definitely get readers interested and start using, but it suffers from the same predicament as people wanting to keep them instead of returning. A rewards scheme for returns is certainly an attractive and familiar way of ‘pulling’ users towards a behaviour we wish to influence, though the budget implications may be huge. If budgets are low and the free rewards and gifts are perceived to be pretty ‘cheapo’, then there’s little ‘pull’ indeed for the again new behaviour they have to learn (‘push’ factors). Besides, what are the men going to do with these fashion bags?


The Book Bag

A book-like [book/bag]. Initially, this idea sounds ‘flat’, pretty normal or even average. On a visceral level, it seems to be nothing surprising, nothing too exciting either. But I feel it’s really more of something familiar, something easy-going. Readers are already handling and borrowing books at the library, so having to handle an extra ‘book’ [/bag] would be little obstacle as there’s almost no new behaviour to learn. If this [book/bag] can mimic the behaviour of other books, then there’s even less barrier of adoption. Technology (in the form of cheap radio frequency identification tags) used on the library books are already in place, and all this [book/bag] needs is a RFID tag like its book cousins to function as a ‘book’ to be borrowed. With ultra low-cost RFID tags in sight (based on recent research forwarded by local scientific institutions IME and A-Star), this will make economic sense as well. On a reflective level, the design can be crafted in such a way that would have visceral appeal to the public eye – imagine people walking around with ‘open books’ in their hands, always looking like they are in the middle of reading, living and carrying out daily activities while in the midst of reading. It would be a kind of buzz which would benefit the NLB brand.


What do you think, dear reader? My gut feel is for the Book Bag, but I’ll leave to the next post to highlight the decision-making frameworks which would help me decide with more [rational] certainty…


The Deep Dive

6 Jan

This video is seriously inspiring, again from my favourite design firm IDEO! The creative process behind design and design thinking is made a lot clearer with this show-&-tell. I like it that the object in question was the ubiquitous shopping cart, which falls in that same category as the shopping bag in terms of how common and ‘everyday’ it is. Before I dive into brainstorming and ideation of design concepts for the library bag, this is one powerful adrenaline shot for the coming creative work…..

Library ethnography 101, part I

4 Jan Image from

Sometimes people are the best inspiration……


One of my design thinking heroes whom I had already introduced in an earlier post, Tim Brown from the renowned design firm IDEO, mentions this about design thinking,

“Design thinking can be described as a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity.”

After so much online musing and research, it’s time to get started on the “people’s needs” aspect of design thinking. Design thinking advocates an interesting method of ethnographic observation of the human user, through the open-mindedness of an anthropologist, in order to really see how people behave in their natural settings. As we know from the Hawthorne effect, people may say one thing but do another thing when caught in context, thus ethnographic observation helps to dig deeper into customer behaviour and minimises any armchair presumptions we may have about why people act they way they do.

While the tech and design worlds are still finding it difficult to agree on the power of ethnographic research as a serious discipline for innovation (see Don Norman’s controversial article, and further discussions [1, 2] on Business Week), I believe there’s still value in observing how library users go about their activities in the library – which translates to more personal experiences and visual material for musing and inspiration for conceptualising the new library bag.

I’m also pretty excited to get re-acquainted with those participant observational skills and methods I learnt in university through my anthropology modules. What an interesting way to bridge what we had studied in school with real-life problems! Not forgetting to mention that there’s also an ‘almost-wrong’ kind of voyeuristic excitement from hiding behind bookshelves to ‘spy’ on people, which I won’t explain too much here… hahah.

The ethnographic excursion starts!

So off I went to the Central Library. Thankfully the book check-out counters were located close to some bookshelves which made for good spying fortress. Next, find a book to ‘pretend-read’ while discretely observing library users check their books out. Then quickly jot down observations on notepad hidden on bookshelf. Resume ‘reading’ posture to observe. Wash, rinse, repeat till satisfied. But why the extra effort at pretense? Just so that people are unaware and can behave at their truest – remember the Hawthorne effect? But also because I’m having so much fun being almost 007-ish…haha.

I took a few minutes to get into the groove of observing and noting, and very soon, observational details were coming in fast and furious. It’s almost strange to self-witness that, since this scene (people checking books out) was something I see so often (I visit the library pretty often) and I’m pleasantly surprised to be able to pick out many facts to note which will help scope the design of the library bag. I split the observations into 3 categories: 1) People, 2) Books, 3) Bags.

I found that bringing along one’s own tote bag solely to carry the loaned books was already a common practice, especially with the ladies. Mothers with their kids are most definitely seen with their own tote bags, as they usually borrow stacks of children’s books. Otherwise, most other users stuffed the books into their own handbags/backpacks/slingbags. The ones who walked off with book in hand and no bag were mostly men. The users who brought their own bags even used them to carry books around the library while browsing.

Really, books of ALL sizes were loaned, including magazines and CDs.  These days with these other forms of media available for loan, the new library bag would have to be designed for these items as well. Children’s books, which are a hit with mothers with kids (they borrow stacks of it), are usually thinner but in unusual sizes.

What materials made up the tote bags people brought along? Polyfabric tote bags seemed most popular, especially the ones used for groceries since they are built for holding heavy items. Otherwise people used shopping bags of hybrid paper/plastic quality. Many of the bags people brought along were also pretty fashionable and well-designed (not your average sloppy plastic bag) – a sign that people are more conscious of how bags looked with them.

Other observations
Receipts – many people fiddled with the receipts, finding all sorts of places to keep them (folded into wallets, slotted in between pages of the book, or simply tossed into the bag). Some even printed individual receipts for individual books, a practice which I confess to doing as well. Why? ‘Cause it’s much easier to check on the return due date if each book had its own receipt, than to hunt down the correct book and page. But the slotting the receipts into books also made many fall out of the books, even right after people had borrowed them.

Space – many users lingered on at the counter after the checking out the books, in order to bag the books properly, stuff them into backpack, re-arrange things in backpack and then stuff them in, fiddle with receipts and folded them and took out wallets/books to keep them. So having enough space for them to do all that was crucial – thankfully the check-out counters at the Central Library were widely spaced apart, allowing for this ‘transitional’ space.


So that was pretty productive for a start! More to come next – spying “thoughtless acts” (no, not the ugly type) during book drop and other natural library user mannerisms.


More online muses!

3 Jan


Literature meets fashion.

Unleash the inner geek!


Thinking with your hands

31 Dec

Going analog for further inspiration…


In this day and age of the Internet, it’s so easy to get lost in the online world. I admit I spend too much time online, knowingly. Sometimes I feel like I can’t do anything else productive unless it’s in front of a computer! I wonder if this is some form of learned helplessness… haha.

So taking time off the computer and going analog is one of my little ways to get inspiration. There’s also something about being able to handle something in your hands; to touch and feel it, and to play with it with a curiously explorative mind not too unlike how a child would. It’s also an exercise in getting re-acquainted with the shopping bag since we handle it so often in our daily lives and would have probably overlooked its many details. So the easiest and fastest way was to potter around the house and see what play comes up.

I immediately went to my home stash of shopping bags, and took out the ones which were about A4-sized (as part of design criteria). Handled them to see in 360deg perspectives to see if the difference between ‘portrait’ and ‘landscape’ modes ; examined the foldings and ‘movable’ parts to see how it’s built; placed some books into them to get a feel of the weight; tried the different bag handles to feel the pressure of the handles against my hand in order to gauge ‘handle-bility’; touched the texture and bent the bag around to feel the physical properties of the bag through the thickness and malleability of the materials used.

All this exploratory play is really, actually quite serious. Yes, no kidding here. Play breaks down pre-conceptions and barriers to our mental stereotypes, and opens us up to possibilities which we might overlook as adults. Tim Brown, President and CEO of the multidisciplinary design firm IDEO, in his talk at Serious Play conference speaks about how:

Kids can inform our outlook on creativity by looking at exploration, building and role-playing, as he explained, “forgetting the adult behaviors that are getting in the way our ideas.”

I love what he mentioned about how kids on Christmas Day morning end up playing with the boxes which the presents came in rather than the presents themselves, and when encountering something new, kids will invariably ask “What can I do with it?”. However, he did point out that play as part of a creative process doesn’t necessarily mean anarchy – one thing which I believe is on every senior executive’s top fear factors when told he/she needed to let his staff “play” more in order to be creative. Tim mentioned that kids play by rules, and kids together informally adopt a code of behaviour which helps them play better. So “productive play” is definitely one of the ways to get our creative juices going.

So coming back, what has all that play gotta do with the bag design? At this preliminary stage, I hesitate to label and to start categorising point-by-point what came out from it. I like to just let it sit in the back of my mind at the moment, and let those creative juices slowly simmer. So that when it’s dinner time, I know that the stew will taste darn good.


Quick & dirty research

30 Dec

Inspiration musing (aka research) the quick and dirty way…


To get my design journey underway,  I did what most travellers would do for planning – Google! Images search was truly helpful to start off, and with each image linking me to more sources of inspiration, it became a viral way of getting quick information. Not only did the images offer design concepts, but also materials used, functions/purposes for bags. It was pretty fun learning about the myriad of uses and forms the ubiquitous shopping bag had become!

It was particularly entertaining to see how clever some of the designs brought out the brand feel and create buzz just by being carried around. Many ‘compilation’ type of blogs/websites frequently feature posts which show such like “30 Brilliantly Innovative Shopping Bag Designs“, or “Unusual and Creative Shopping Bags” . I especially like how some of the designs are interactive and needing a human user to complete the picture, though by itself alone would also pique curiosity by ‘yearning’ to be completed. I see this as one of the good examples where designers are tapping on how we are all hard-wired in our brains to organise visual elements into “unified wholes” (see Gestalt principles of visual perception) – especially in this case of Blush’s X-ray bag, giving a cheeky preview of Blush customers’ innerwear, or Panadol Extra’s bag showing how headaches sometimes feel like someone pounding on the top of your head. It’s great fun carrying these bags around, isn’t it? After seeing all these interesting, attention-seeking shopping bags, I’m surprised I don’t see much of such types making their way around town. Why Singapore, why?

Online sources also gave some good ideas on materials for shopping bags, especially since I’ll be designing a bag for books, which tend to be heavy and having hard corners (which might pierce your usual ‘soft’ plastic grocery bags). There’s so many choices, it’s baffling! Looking at materials like jute, polyfabric, and Tyvek had been pretty educational though – for some reason I love learning about random everyday stuff! It’s also fascinating how shopping bags are evolving in form, especially how since most are carried by women, the design for shopping bags are going more fashionable, like these fabulous Tyvek-made CheekyGreen bags- they look so good I think they qualify as normal fashion bags to carry around!

The main learning point from these online musings seem to be simply “FUN” – just because it’s a commonplace object doesn’t mean that the shopping bag has to look boring (think “brown”), or made of the usual suspects (think “paper”). Haha…

So how can I design a bag for library users to borrow books with, but at the same time can be fun / entertaining to use / durable (since one of the criteria is for users to return the bag, and thus be subject to multiple uses) and lastly helps our public libraries spread their ‘brand‘?