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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’!



Life & lemons

14 Jan

When life gives you lemons, you don’t have to make lemonade! Sometimes we can’t choose what the cards we’re dealt, but we can ask if we even want to play (instead of the usual ‘wise’ latter part of that phrase where “we can choose how we want to play”). When things go wrong (they inadvertently always do), how differently would you want to play (or not)?


Beta test-cum-ethnographic experiment FAIL

OK, so I had planned to take the 2 prototypes of the Book Bag to the public library and do a little social experiment-cum beta testing.

It was meant to be ethnographic in nature – I place the Book Bag next to the book check-out counter with some instructions printed on a sheet of paper on how to use the Book Bag. I walk away but hover nearby to observe, camcorder in hand. Library user comes along, oblivious to the little experiment. Library user checks out books. Library user sees Book Bag, and reads the instructions. Library user curious, then takes Book Bag and fiddles with it. Lastly library user tries to borrow Book Bag, like other library books, by placing it on the sensor tray of the check-out computer. At this precise moment, I step in, inform the library user that you can’t really borrow that Book Bag as it’s not [RFID-] tagged yet, and go on to explain what I’m doing.

OK so it’s a little devious to trick harmless ordinary citizens into having false hope of actually being able to borrow the Book Bag to help ease the burden of carrying the books home. It even smells like something “Candid Camera” or “Just For Laughs Gags”. But believe me – no humans were harmed in the process! I came up with this experiment as there’s only so much you can get from interviewing people by showing and telling them about the Book Bag, like what I did with my friends. Useful nonetheless, but the totally unaware user would be the best way to show if the design is effective – it’s just simply a really effective way to test if people get it easily; getting the idea of the Book Bag being a bag that can be borrowed like the other library books. If they get it,  then the obstacles to ‘consumer market acceptance’ would be small.

Haha but before you hammer me for pulling such gags in the name of scientific research, let me say that I didn’t quite even manage to test it properly. True I got the set up done nicely and all. But as I was standing back waiting for the first ‘bait’, a librarian in charge of shelving/re-shelving books passed by, saw at a distance something of a left-behind book at the check-out counter, and promptly went to the counter in attempt to take the Book Bag to be re-shelved. Only to be intercepted by poor me, explaining my intentions. But alas! I would need official permission to do something like that! Red tape had be drawn, and now my little social experiment falls into tatters. Realising that there’s nothing much I can do now (I have to write in “somewhere” to get official permission it seems), I gently concede, and go off sulking in a corner. Hahah ok I wasn;t exactly sulking, but wondering how else I can proceed. There’s really no point in walking around the library and interviewing people about it – I could do that outside the library and that wasn’t the whole point of the experiment. Well…. I pondered and thought that instead of making do and getting by with interviews, I don’t really have to ‘play’, do I?

So I didn’t!

Not in defiance of authority, but in fact just not making it an issue of ego, but instead to “flow like water” through it. Well I figured it’s also good to not to put NLB in a difficult position, since they might not wish to be represented in any way through the experiment. The librarian had also been nice and she was simply doing her job, so I didn’t want to make her day difficult.


Finding a natural home in the library for the Book Bag

When stuck, do something else; something different altogether.

So rather than stubborning try to do the experiment head-on, I decided to just do something different and went to a quiet bookshelf in the library where I won’t obstruct reader traffic, and took some pictures of the Book Bag prototypes ‘being at home’. And true enough, they look very part of the book landscape! (If you’re reading this, NLB, please rest assured I did arrange the other books back neatly!)

This also got me thinking about the librarian who saw the Book Bag (first prototype that is, the folded one) and thought it was a book. When even a librarian can mistake the Book Bag for a book – now that’s pretty telling about how ‘naturally’ the Book Bag fits into the library environment, isn’t it? So this trip was not for nought, after all! One data point, but a good one at that! Hahahah… 😀

I also went to browse through the CD section to check out the range of sizes and shapes of the CD covers, as I’m also adding on a CD inner pocket in the Book Bag. Seems that all the CDs comes in standard covers, so I borrowed 2 which I liked (and would try reading!) to use as references for the inner CD pocket.

Just before I left, I managed to sneak in a quick picture (while I was borrowing my CDs) of how the Book Bag would look like if placed at the check-out counter to facilitate ease of loan. I believe being next to the check-out computer would be best ‘home’ for the Book Bag.  The pictures of the Book Bag being shelved together with other books also made me wonder if that is the other natural place where the library can ‘stock’ the bags, so that readers can easily and simply just take the Book Bags off the shelf where they are, use the Book Bag to carry the books around the library and out after check-out.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Well! So the final design is confirmed – the folded one! (by virtue of the librarian’s perception). Not utterly scientific again I know, but what to do when there are on-site constraints to user testing? Sometimes for certain products there may not be luxury of complete user testing (for reasons like confidentiality, high danger to test users, or red tape…), but move ahead we have to and we shall! 🙂


Next – finalised design for submission! The deadline (15 Jan 2011) is approaching! Stressed!


Beta karma

12 Jan

The virtuous cycle of prototyping, beta-testing, feedback & reiteration is part of enlightened product design, liberating us forward to an ultimate salvation from the hell of useless objects…


The holistic harmony of participatory co-design, & relations with the social work field

Armed with the mini prototype, I went around as many friends as I could to gather comments about the Book Bag. Design thinking methodology tries as much as possible to include users as early on as possible to co-design and co-create the product. This is one good way of ensuring that whatever goes out as a final product had already been accepted by customers, and thus less risk of investing in technology and marketing when it won’t ‘sell’.

This is one of the best parts I like about design thinking – trying to achieve a holistic balance between desirability by customers, business feasibility and technological viability. IDEO proposed this method in their Human-Centered Design Toolkit, a free innovation guide which they produced together with Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for social enterprises and NGOs worldwide [you can download the free toolkit intro here.]

Source: Adapted from IDEO HCD Toolkit Intro


I’m a firm believer that for-profit business have lots to learn from such a framework built for not-for-profits, especially now. Often in the past, we can hear of not-for-profit organisations expressing some form of ‘business-envy’, and they try to emulate business systems and quantitatively measure the ‘market numbers’, which can get pretty difficult and tricky in the very different and human-centered social work field. I respect that both sides can and should learn from each other, but I believe consumers are increasingly seeking qualities which these traditional helping professions are really good at – empathy, customised help and care, focus on benefiting clients not system efficiency, and sharing resources through inter-organisational collaboration.

Anyway, I digress again! Design thinking, combined with my passion and previous job in social work field, is juicing me a lot creatively!


Hear ALL about it!

I’m listing the comments gathered from my friends – I’d forgot who said what, so if you’re reading this and one of the comments belong to you, please stand up and comment on the comment!

  • Have 2 variations of the prototype to compare and choose, in order to get the most honest opinions. It’s just like the proverbial situation where the wife asks the husband whether he likes the dress, and he’s damned if he does and damned if he don’t. Better to have 2 so that people can state their preferences of one over another, and not have to criticise just one option (and thus potentially making things defensive or socially awkward).
  • Bag handles – opinions were mixed. Some preferred handles from years of shopping experience, some were okay with a slot-type handle.
  • Most expressed a curious interest at first look even before I said anything about the Book Bag.
  • Most liked the idea of integrating a book and a bag, and appreciated the aesthetics.
  • Most were skeptical about whether getting people to borrow it like a book can work.
  • Add-on ideas included instructions for use on the bag, incorporating some ‘reading’ on the opened pages itself.
  • Someone pointed out that only right-handers can complete the picture – something I didn’t realised! Since most people are right-handed, I’ll go for it! Moreover, when it comes to carrying bags, don’t we frequently switch hands when one hand is tired?


Book Bag beta version 1.2 and 1.3

So I quickly made some improvements and made full-sized prototypes. It ended up being pretty nostalgic process; of youthful primary school days during the 80s when we worked on “science projects”, using vanguard sheet, UHU glue, colourful ‘magic pens’, cutting, pasting, colouring…… It was strangely comforting getting re-aquainted with those activities again – so fun! If you have a keen eye, you’d realise that I made a mistake when scaling up the ‘floating’ hand – it’s too small! Haha…. it can be rectified easily but to capitalise on the mistake, I got my lovely niece to model her hand for the prototype – see how the picture gets completed through the human user? I made 2 versions )open book/portrait vs closed book/landscape) to compare and choose.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

So what do you think? Which one would you choose? More beta testing needed, this time in real time and place – the library!


Hot models at my place today.

12 Jan

Hahaha… nope. Sorry to disappoint, but not that kind of hot models. But I’m sure the subject header got your attention! ;P

Cheap tricks aside, here’s a preview of things to come…

Lo - fi home studio shoot!


This blog is now Xtranormal.

11 Jan

Broccoli Man tells Coffee Girl about the Book Bag, a new superzeroz side-kick to the Library Man. But someone’s going green about the Book Bag……

[Created on Xtranormal]


Fail early, succeed faster = prototyping

10 Jan

Play with prototyping, as early as possible. Go low-fi. Test it out. Ask others to use it. Get feedback. Learn from mistakes quickly. Reiterate. Wash, rinse, repeat till success.


Prototyping is one of my favourite stages of the design process! There’s something very real about working with your hands, feeling textures and handling objects requiring high dexterity (no, typing on keyboard doesn’t count!). Sometimes I wonder if this ‘need’ to feel and work on something tangible with our hands originates from our cavemen days when being able to work with raw materials of stone and wood meant survival on a day-to-day basis. But anyway, I digress – my anthropological mind speaking again.

So it wasn’t too difficult getting out a first design prototype! A quick online search for the right images and templates (offered free, of course!), then collage, print, fold, paste and voila! My first prototype is up! Albeit a mini version, it looks so cute on its own! I’m quite proud of it actually! And convenient to carry around and show friends to seek feedback. Pictures here.

Vodpod videos no longer available.


*Notes on design:

A shopping/paper bag is similar to a book in terms of its box-like, cuboid shape. Thus, the Book Bag will follow the shape and look of a book, in 2 modes for comparison – ‘open-‘ and ‘closed book’ mode. For a start, the mini version will be made in only the open book mode.

Typical paper bag templates are offered freely and easily online. A simple template I referred to is here. But at the same time, I also wondered if there are more interesting ways to construct the structure of the paper bag, in order to lend more strength and manufacturing ease. This origami gift bag purse tutorial was pretty fun to make – folded entirely out of just 1 sheet of paper without any cuts or seams needed, it sounds like a pretty solid structure. But unfortunately the base of this origami bag was only a sheet thick, unlike the typical

paper bag which has several layers folded and glued together for strength and durability. This is important to the strength and durability of the bag since most of the books’ weight will gravitate downwards onto the base of the bag, and people will be putting the bag down mostly on its base – thus I think having those extra layers and with strong gluing, the typical paper bag’s base would be potentially stronger than the origami one.

I’m also liking the Instructables website a lot as people can get together to share DIY tutorials and tips on making EVERYTHING, except bombs and nuclear reactors of course. I learnt so many techniques and tips for making a paper bag here!

To handle or not to handle
The issue of having handles for the bag is a tricky one. On one hand, having those ‘hanger’ string type of handles makes carrying the bag easier. On the other hand, using a ‘letterbox-like slot/hole’ type of handle cut out from the bag itself is requisite for incorporating the interactive design element of the bag. The pressure points and textural feel of both types of handles are more or less the same; only the ways in which one can carry the bag differs between the 2 types of handles. The differences would probably be minimal, so I decided on the slot type of handle. But this debate points out the need to get feedback on the handle, later on during testing.

Credits go to the artists at deviantart, dafont and stock xchng [1, 2, 3] for some of the key images. This makes prototyping much faster and easier! Can you see how the design mimics our natural behaviour in which books are typically held, carried, left on the table, while reading?  The ‘floating hand’ is a curious, attention-seeking piece of imagery which [visually/psychologically] ‘yearns’ to be completed by a human user. Once the bag is carried, the picture is complete – the ‘always-ready-for-reading’ open book is now held by the user. When we leave the bag lying down flat on the table, it’s as if we are taking a break from reading and the book is left open for us to return to it. When the bag had served it’s purpose of carrying and gets folded, it look even more like a book – check out the picture in the slideshow when I shelved the folded Book Bag together with other books – it looks exactly like one of the others! This is how the Book Bag ‘behaves’ like a book, that bags other books! This visceral-reflective depths of the Book Bag design is what really appeals to me personally!


What do you think? Which part of the design is calling to you? More to come – actual-sized prototyping and user testing.


Boxes for the mind

10 Jan

Without a map, a compass is useless. Thinking out of the box still requires a box to start with – without a box, where does thinking beyond go? All good ideas will float around in utilitarian nothingness without the good ol’ box. Sometimes, having boxes allow us to make better decisions…


Frameworks for those brain-works

Sometimes creative people are adverse to having frameworks. If thinking out of the box is needed, why do we bother with frameworks (aka boxes) in the creative process? This is where I feel the whole creativity thing is so over-sold and misunderstood.

I guess at the onset, divergent/creative thinking is needed to explore options and to go beyond the box, and to generate lots of ideas. Then with many ideas floating around, how then can we act? This is where we get caught in an “either/or” situation between thinking divergently/creatively and being rational/convergent. But this is a false division of the situation. We can think both divergently and convergently, but at different stages of the project. Particularly when it comes to the time for decision-making, we need to find convergence on all the ideas and cut out the superfluous.

Donald Norman’s book Emotional Design, proposes a useful way of assessing the different levels of appeal/engagement a product has on the consumer. He says there are three levels: 1) Visceral, 2) Behavioural, 3) Reflective. This is also similar to the three levels of head, heart and gut framework by Joel Desgrippes and Marc Gobé for brand engagement. In a nutshell, “head/reflective” level refers to the rational attributes, the “heart/behavioural” level points to the social/physical interactions (how things work) between the customer and the product/brand, and the “gut/visceral” level points to the intuitive impact and stimulation delivered.

These frameworks help me in deciding which one of the ideas to develop further. When I try to locate the bags in the Venn diagram, it becomes more telling – the Green Bag appeals to the head in particular, while the High Street Bag draws people mainly through gut appeal. The Book Bag seems to have more of a balance of the 3 levels. Granted, this is totally unscientific, but you get the rough idea (it’ll be awfully boring to read through numbers, wouldn’t it?!).

Conclusion? The Book Bag shall be the bag of choice!


The head, heart & gut of the Book Bag

Head – rational attributes, “liking the idea of it”
The Book Bag reminds one of a book and about reading, which ‘implicates’ NLB and its mission through such reminiscences in the library users’ and public’s mind. Book-lovers especially will like the idea of 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.

Heart – interaction-based, “how it works”
With readers already handling and borrowing books at the library, having to handle an extra ‘book’ would offer the least resistance in terms of having to learn and adopt new behaviour. Ultra low-cost RFID tags allow the Book Bag to be borrowed as a ‘book’ while being economically viable, and also fulfilling the criteria of encouraging return since the Book Bag will have to be borrowed as part pf the user’s loan quota! The functional convenience the Book Bag offers for library users who didn’t bring bags along would be appealing to the heart. Above all, the Book Bag ‘becomes’ a bag only when book-carrying is needed in between the home and library, and at other times becomes a book worthy of being keep together with the other borrowed books (i.e. not having to hunt for it at home for return), hence situating itself as a natural part of the reader’s journey and physical environment.

Gut – visual/emotional stimulation, “I love how slick it looks”
Learning from the interactive design shared on my previous post on creative shopping bags, incorporating some element of ‘clever’, interactive design would draw curious attention (visceral appeal) from the public eye, and hopefully create a kind of brand buzz.


Next…… quick design and prototyping, in order to fail quickly and learn even faster!