I’m at VizThink!

Hey everyone, short post today because I did a guest post at VizThink about my sketchnoting experience at the first TEDxBloomington. It was my second TEDx event, and it did not disappoint. In fact, I think I might have liked it better than the TEDxColumbus event I went to this past fall!

Anyway, take a gander at my post, and help spread the word?

In other sketchnoting news, I have a tag on Sketchnote Army because they have highlighted my sketches so often. I’m feeling really good about this. I feel like I’m finding my place in the world. šŸ˜›

Consumer vs Maker

Shameful admission: I have three Google Reader accounts that I check regularly.

  • My everyday account has 100+ subscriptions covering UX, DIY, foodie topics, etc… and I play the inbox zero game with it obsessively.
  • My writing persona account has 72 subscriptions that only have to do with the writing, reading, and publishing worlds. I play inbox zero there, too.
  • My family account is where I keep my web comic subscriptions, of which I have a reasonable 20 subscriptions. I play inbox zero there as well, but it’s easier because web comics take time and they don’t update on the same days.

I haven’t included Facebook, email, and Twitter. I’ve gone overboard. Lost my balance. I’m a glutton. An information junkie. But it wasn’t always this way. Once upon a time, when I didn’t have a smart phone, a laptop, easy access to the internet…

That is, when I was ten…

I’d also like to note this was before puberty struck…

I was a happy kid. Joyful. Ebullient. I spent my evenings reading classical fiction by Louisa May Alcott, Jane Austen, LM Montgomery, and the like. I went through the entire shelf of how-to books at my library learning all the different ways one can make a doll by hand. In middle school, my parents, sister, and I built a desk out of the old kitchen table. Each Saturday night I camped out at that desk with my painting supplies and would createĀ  while listening to A Prairie Home Companion. I was a maker. I had results that showed how I spent my time.

At some point in undergrad, I became a consumer. I didn’t have time to create things, not like I was used to. I created little computer programs, wrote papers, built balsa wood bridges, and connected electrical circuits. I became obsessed with my Google Reader, and it only got worse in grad school.

Thing is, I am not in grad school anymore. I have more free time now than I’ve had in seven years, yet I cling to my habits of those seven years. I am creating; glance at my Flickr and you’ll see I’m making things again. Yet I still feel unbalanced.

Which means I can do one of three things:

  1. Cut back on the amount I consume,
  2. Up my level of making, or
  3. Own the fact that I’m a consumer and leave it at that.

Honestly, number three makes me throw up in my mouth a little, so I’m going to try a combination of numbers one and two. Wish me luck.

Appropriation vs Customization

So I had an interesting talk with one of my professors, Erik Stolterman, about my capstone topic on Tuesday. He was curious to know what my topic has to do with HCI, specifically, why I’m only looking at creative appropriation, and not everyday appropriation. To be honest, I was a bit dumbfounded by the question. It’s not that I’m not looking at everyday appropriation. Or rather, he’s correct, I am not looking at everyday appropriation, because I don’t feel what he was talking about is appropriation at all. It’s at the opposite end of the spectrum, and that end of the spectrum is called customization.

His examples included such things as buying a case for his iPhone which suited his style, or setting a GMail theme or iGoogle theme… these are customizations to me, and not appropriations. You may disagree, which is totally fine and most likely expected. Why do I feel this to be true?

According to The Free Dictionary, customization is when one “makes or alters to one’s personal specifications.” Synonymous definitions would be to have something made to a “customer’s individual requirements.” In which case, I mean to say that customization is not necessarily a creative act. It is not something in which the customer is also the individual doing the customizations. Whereas with my definition of appropriation, I specifically state…

Appropriation: The act of adapting an object to oneself in a way that not only redefines the object, but also relates the object to oneā€™s sense of self.

So while I should probably look at examples of customization, and I surely will for design exemplars, I still feel that customization is still very different from appropriation, simply because appropriation has a heavier meaning to the individual. At least, this is my theory on the subject.

It is incredibly important to recognize it is the act of appropriating that makes it more meaningful. That the individual doing the appropriating has made a choice to creatively express oneself in a way that redefines the object in a way that somehow reflects the individual’s personality, perhaps.

What do I mean by Appropriation?

This is a great question that was brought up by Nate Husted during an impromptu design session over Thai food at lunch.

(By the way, while Siam House on 4th in Bloomington is pretty good, I’m still partial to Esan Thai’s chicken fried rice. Thai curries just don’t do it for me the way Indian curries do. Yum.)

Back to business.

“What do you mean when you say appropriation?” Nate asked me as we walked to Siam House. It was drizzling, and cold. A miserable day, actually, where it wasn’t wet enough to open my umbrella, yet, it was misty enough that my glasses were rendered useless. His question was simple. So simple, that I was, for a moment, dumbfounded that I hadn’t thought to define my understanding of appropriation yet.

This isn’t to say that I hadn’t thought about it a lot, I had. I’ve read almost every paper in the ACM library on appropriation, so I have a working knowledge of how other HCI/tech researchers are approaching the appropriation research/design space. What about the general public? When they want to understand what it means to appropriate something, where do they turn?

  • Free Dictionary: (1) To take for one’s own use, esp illegally or without permission. (2) (Economics, Accounting & Finance / Banking & Finance) To put aside (funds, etc.) for a particular purpose or person.
  • Wikipedia: Appropriation is the act of taking possession of or assigning purpose to properties or ideas and is important in many topics.
  • Wiktionary: v (1) To make suitable; to suit. — William Paley. (2) To take to one’s self in exclusion of others; to claim or use as by an exclusive right. (3) To set apart for, or assign to, a particular person or use, in exclusion of all others. (4) To annex, as a benefice, to a spiritual corporation, as its property. –Blackstone.
  • Dictionary.com: adj (1) Suitable or fitting for a particular purpose, person, occasion, etc. (2) Belonging to or peculiar to a person. v (3) To set apart, authorize, or legislate for some specific purpose or use. (4) To take to or for oneself; take possession of. (5) To take without permission or consent; seize; expropriate. (6) To steal, esp. to commit petty theft.
  • Merriam-Webster: (1) To take exclusive possession of : annex. (2) To set apart for or assign to a particular purpose or use. (3) To take or make use of without authority or right.
  • Oxford English Dictionary: (1) To make (a thing) the private property of any one, to make it over to him as his own; to set apart. (2) Const. to oneself: = next. (3) Hence ellipt. To take possession of for one’s own, to take to oneself. (4) Eccl. To annex (a benefice) to some religious corporation, as its property. (5) To allot, annex, or attach a thing to another as an appendage. Obs. (6) To devote, set apart, or assign to a special purpose or use. Const. to, for. (7) To assign or attribute as properly pertaining to; to attribute specially or exclusively. arch. (8) To make, or select as, appropriate or suitable to; to suit. arch. (9) To make proper, to fashion suitably. (So Fr. approprier.) Obs.

So that’s a pretty good start, right? This, of course, is all impromptu research I did after Nate’s question sparked genuine worry that I wasn’t doing my job as a researcher. How could I possibly attempt to understand why people appropriate, without having a general definition of appropriation in the first place?

My answer to Nate went roughly like this:

“Well, I’ve read a lot about what the ACM community thinks about appropriation, so I guess I could talk about that. But to me, appropriation is when you take something, whether be a finished product or simple materials, and adapt them to fit you. You engage the artifact, whatever it is, and bring it into your lifeworld, as it were.

“Exampleā€¦ okay, so a ton of people have an iPhone, right? But no two iPhones are exactly alike, if you think about the apps that people download. Or the cases they buy. Or the other little personalizations and customizations that make your iPhone yours, and someone else’s iPhone theirs.”

“So appropriation is personal customization?” Nate asked.

“Yes, to me anyway. It’s making the object personal to you. But that’s just appropriation. I think my topic, my subdomain of appropriation, is actually about the do-it-yourself, creative aspects of customization and personalization. The extreme end of appropriation, where you engage the artifact to the point of using your creative talents to make it your own. What drives people to do that? Why do I do that?”

“So steampunk fits inā€¦?”

“Because steampunks are all about doing it themselves. They embrace their creativity and engage the objects around them. They are an extreme of the appropriation spectrum. They are my people.”

Soā€¦ okay. What’s the moral of the story? I’m sure you’re wondering. Well, the fact is this is why it’s so great to talk to people about my capstone. The fact that everyone seems interested, asking great questionsā€¦ it’s invigorating. So invigorating that even though I was completely ready to sleep, having been laying in bed for an hour, I couldn’t sleep. Why? Because I kept thinking, I need to write down my thoughts on appropriation before I fall asleep and they drift away. So here I am, writing this entry at 12:30 AM EST on a Saturday night, after having literally traveled across the country, starting my day at 3 AM PST (6 AM EST, to be fair). I spent twelve hours traveling, and returned to Bloomington to partake in an excellent Diwali celebration.

I should be exhausted. I should be unbelievably cranky.

I’m sure I will be when I wake. But hey, let’s be completely honest hereā€¦ What’s another few hours of late night, bloodshot cogitation to a seasoned graduate student, anyway?

Brass Goggles and Lace

So I’m working on my capstone proposal, and I’m worried. I’m worried, because I’m not sure this is exactly what I’m trying to study, or if I’m letting professors put words into my mouth because it sounds good, or if I’m saying these things because I feel it’s easier to argue for them. Anyway, see below for my draft, which took far too many hours to write. I need critique!


Brass Goggles and Lace: Steampunk as a Case Study of the DIY Creative Process and the Implications for the HCI Design Process

Target group affected by study
Interaction Designers

Binaebi Akah

Description of Problem Space

Why does the do-it-yourself (DIY) movement exist? It is more convenient and possibly even more practical to buy a finished product. Yet, stores like Lowes, JoAnn Fabrics, and Hobby Lobby; television shows like Design on a Dime, Trading Spaces, and Carter Can; and websites like Design Sponge, Etsy, and Instructables, are all flourishing. Why is this? I often hear it is the economy, and this is why people are doing more on their own. This is both true and untrueā€¦ it is still much cheaper to buy clothing than to make it from a yard of fabric, for instance, and I have the receipts to prove it.I contend that a large portion of the DIY movement exists because it is in peopleā€™s nature to be creative; to want something that is personal, meaningful, unique, and with a story. But DIY itself is vast and deep; so I am focusing on Steampunk as a case study.

Steampunk has multiple connotations with fashion, fiction, music, and technological aesthetics, among others. I am focusing on the latter. The technological aesthetics of Steampunk rebel against our always-connected-with-my-super-high-tech-homogenized-gadget culture by finding inspiration in the past, specifically, the Victorian era, when industrialization did not mean homogenized yet. Why do people join this movement, and how? What is their creative process?

Why Important

My goal is to learn how and why people become involved in this movement. What is their creative process? How does it differ from traditional computer science and interaction design processes? The do-it-yourself movement is all about discovery, personal meaning, the art of craft, choice, freedom, and invention… is it possible to bring some of these traits into the interaction design process? What would this mean to human computer interaction design?


People tell stories.

People create and feel creative.

People embed objects in their personal lives.

People invest when there is a perceived benefit.


I have been reading about appropriation, the diy movement, hacking, creativity, identity, and, of course, Steampunk. This is to get a basis for definitions about creativity and the individual, and how it shapes the individualā€™s creative process. I have begun to involve myself in the Steampunk movement by buying the independent magazine and following the top blogs. I will conduct narrative interviews and hopefully some walkthrough probes to learn about the creative process and how these DIYers define themselves as creative individuals. I hope to attend a Steampunk convention, but that depends on availability.

Preliminary Plan

Please see here for my visual timeline.

Cuz We Are Living in a Material World

So this past week, I’ve been trying to follow the advice of one of my professors, Shaowen Bardzell, about how to narrow the scope of my capstone. Yes, I like the idea of appropriation (why do we personalize the things we do, and what does it mean?). Yes, I love Steampunk. But what is it about these topics, and how can I make them relate to HCI?

Well. I’ve been reading articles from ACM this week on the following suggested topics:

  • DIY
  • Craft
  • Creativity
  • Narrative
  • Material Culture

They were all interesting, but one stood out: DIY. This makes complete sense to me. I’ve always been a crafter, and this past summer especially I reignited my passion for crafting (take a glance at my Flickr to see what I mean). Anyway, I found an article on IKEA Hacking with a sentence that literally made me say “Oh my God. That’s it.” It talks about the growing “intersection between online culture and the material world of creative practitioners,” and that “creativity and identity are transforming through the merging of online and material culture.”

I love this because I am all about materiality. I am a tactile person, and love using my hands. I’m frustrated with the flat touchscreen obsession riding the technology wave… I like buttons! I like not having to look at my mp3 player when I want to skip a song, or my phone when I’m making a call. I have fingers, they have sensors, I want to use them to their full extent.

But not only that, I also feel I’m a part of this culture. I do T-shirt surgeries, but I didn’t know they were called that until I found the LiveJournal community. Watching that community inspires me, and sometimes I post my own creations to it. Would I continue my crafting without this community? Definitely. But does it make me feel like I’m part of something a little bigger? Yes, which is cool. Same thing goes with my furniture refurbishing, or my art pieces, etc.

Anyway, I emailed my professor asking if we can talk about this topic and she seems pretty excited! Which is awesome, because I feel like I’m getting somewhere with this crazy topic. And, to help with research, I bought every available issue of the indie Steampunk Magazine… along with their guide to surviving the apocalypse.

Moral of the story: Research is fun.