This painting was completed as a portrait project for Ryan McCormick’s Drawing & Painting class at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts.  It’s based on a portrait by Teenie Harris: “Portrait of Lucille Cuthbert” c. 1940-1950, Charles Teenie Harris, gelatin silver print, Carnegie Museum of Art 1996.69.48

You can see the original portrait at Historic Pittsburgh.

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UX research: balance and iterate

Interesting food for thought in this article published in the Weave Journal of Library UX:

The goal of user experience work, as I see it, is not a purity of methods but a balancing of these methods with a practical effectiveness of outcomes. If ethnography and service design can be understood as poles on a spectrum, with methods on one side and outcomes on the other, then user experience would be my term for the spectrum itself.  – Andy Priestner

I’m not sure I get much out of the idea of user experience as a spectrum between ethnography and service design, but I wholeheartedly agree that the goal of UX work is a balancing of methods more than a purity of methods. This view came up frequently in talks at both this year and last year’s IA Summit. FJ van Wingerde did an especially nice job of synthesizing how all the UX research tools we have are basically problematic, but we still have to use them:

Art inspired by online dating

I started this piece many months ago when someone sent me a really annoying message on OK Cupid, but I couldn’t put my finger on what was so frustrating about it.  It said: “no way u r single”.  So I ended up making this painting using  images from old encyclopedias and acrylics:

no way u r single - 1no way u r single - 2no way u r single - 3

Since this is the first artwork I’ve actually COMPLETED in a really long time, I went hog-wild and submitted it for Art All Night, which happens this Saturday in Pittsburgh. Yay for un-curated, free, and massive art displays! Can’t wait to see everything else that’ll be there. Oh, and I did title this piece “no way u r single”, it only seemed proper as an homage.

Birds of prey

Years ago I got this lovely book at the Ann Arbor Public Library book sale.  It has 192 full color plates illustrated by Roger Tory Peterson.


I’ve since used many of the bird illustrations in collages or as models for paintings or designing paper cuttings.  The latest project turned out especially great — somehow even though there’s terrible lighting in my apartment, I managed to get the color mixing exactly right to blend the printed images into the painted edges of this small wooden tray:

IMAG1506 (2)

For this little tray (which was a random Goodwill purchase years ago), I cut out part of the plate from the book, painted a background with some minimal shading, and then fixed the lovely vultures onto the tray’s surface using glue and paint.  I then hand-painted the missing or cropped parts of the image to extend them over the edges of the tray, improvising a bit and making the already dynamic imagery feel like its flowing out of the rectangular frame.

IMAG1505 (2)

I can’t recommend this type of painting enough if you’re feeling stuck in a rut or don’t know what you want to create. Let some other artist help you out of your image block by using their forms as your canvas. It will probably help you relax and just enjoy working with paint and color, along with helping you learn to see new aspects of an image you already appreciated.  Worth it, even if you don’t end up creating something wholly original.

Reflections after an odd museum experience

I recently visited the Seattle Art Museum, despite being warned by a friend that it was “just not good”.  “How could an art museum be not good!?” I thought to myself,  “I must go see for myself, no matter what.”  I paid the cringeworthy entrance fee of $19.50 and proceeded to view the entire museum in one hour, including the new feature exhibit, “Disguise: Masks & Global African Art”.   There were some great parts of the SAM, but overall I left feeling grouchy and like I had paid a lot of money and didn’t get much out of the experience.  Because I’m interested in museum experience and have been thinking about it more frequently thanks to the Skibo Society and Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, I couldn’t just let this bad experience go.  I had to analyze it and try to understand *why* it was so unfulfilling for me as a visitor.  I’ll outline some of the things I perceived as negatives along with some positives, and connect them to some related research.

Confusing Gallery Flow

Or maybe I should say “anti-flow”.  There seemed to be very little logical or thematic or even chronological connection between spaces or galleries.  I found myself following what is a very common path for museum visitors, which involved mostly turning right. “In the absence of other motivations (such as a destination to the left, or following a group of other people) people who are in the right lane of the path will turn right if it involves the fewest number of steps” (source:Bitgood).  On the 3rd floor (which is where visitors are directed to start), this strategy led me first through some glass exhibit (“Glass at Pilchuck”) then into American Art, which seemed mostly from the 19th century…but then I found myself looking at modern ceramics from Asia (“Contemporary Ceramics and Basketry”).

Old American art followed by contemporary Asian ceramics
Gallery anti-flow: old American art followed by contemporary Asian ceramics

This made no sense to me, and was very jarring both visually and “experientally”.  I felt like I had taken a wrong turn, but the architecture of the rooms made it clear that this was a logical way to move through them.  The exhibit contents just seemed to directly contradict what the space would imply to a human moving through it.  This incongruity continued as I wove my way around the Third Floor.  I passed through some galleries of Native American art, and then was suddenly in one room with abstract expressionist paintings.  From this room I could see the aforementioned “old American art” through one door and the Native American exhibit through the other.

Abstract painting bordered by Native American art
Abstract painting bordered by Native American art

African sculpture in a gallery bordering French painting
African sculpture in a gallery bordering French painting

This kind of juxtaposition isn’t necessarily bad; in fact it could be great if there was any sort of curatorial hand at work here to make interesting connections between types of art that aren’t normally considered side by side.  Unfortunately, that didn’t seem to be the case.  I started wondering if there’s some battle between gallery sponsors where the museum has no control over what goes into each room, leaving visitors at the mercy of gallery sponsors’ whims and collections which may or may not have any connection to the larger physical context of the museum.

Un-viewable Vases and Empty Walls

I studied ancient Greek art in college, and I realize that this is not going to be the collection highlight at most museums.  I’m happy if there’s even just a couple vases to look at; I’m not expecting it to look like the British Museum or something.  What I *am* expecting is to be able to SEE the things that are actually on display, but at the SAM two of the most impressive vases where in display cases above my eye level…and I’m tall.

The top shelf is at about 5.5 feet, making someone tall like me just able to see the bottom half of the artifact.
The top shelf is at about 5.5 feet, making someone tall like me just able to see the bottom half of the artifact.

There is some value to seeing the bottom of a vase, but this is a bit excessive.
There is some value to seeing the bottom of a vase, but this is a bit excessive.

There were a few display cases like this, and it was difficult to figure out which labels on a nearby wall corresponded to which case.  Can you figure it out?

Greek vase sign

In his discussion of how the general value principle applies to museum visitors’ behavior and viewing patterns, Bitgood sums up this problem nicely: “If you have to exert additional effort to read the label, the cost may be too great.” One museum visit in college stood out to me as having an especially good way of displaying ancient pottery and other artifacts; I think it was either the art museum in Toledo or Detroit.  Each vase was at torso-height (for an average person) and each case could be completely circumambulated, enabling the viewer to see from all angles, including into the inside of the vessel.  It’s so painful when art objects are displayed in a way that clashes with their form, and often three-dimensional objects seem to suffer from this more than two-dimensional ones.

Speaking of which: I still don’t know if there was some intention behind how the paintings in this room were displayed:

Empty walls 1 Empty walls 2

Where is all the art?!  Why are the walls so empty?  You could fit at least 2 other pieces on each of those walls, and it doesn’t seem like there’s a reason to only have one piece asymmetrically hung.  Why did I pay $19.50 to look at blank walls?  Again, if I felt like there was some actual curation or justification behind this, I wouldn’t feel so grouchy about it.  Maybe we could optimistically assume that the artists who made these works were commenting on the state of art institutions and aesthetic displays, and this odd arrangement is a nod to that critique?  :-/

Visually Engaging and Historically Informed Porcelain

This exhibit was something that immediately drew me off my economical path of inertia through the museum; it was visually unique (or salient!) partially because it was so different from the surrounding standard gallery setting, but also because it makes use of repetition, symmetry, and contrast to create a visually striking display:

Porcelain room 2 - Seattle Art Museum Porcelain room 1 - Seattle Art Museum
Porcelain detail 1 - Seattle Art Museum Porcelain detail 2 - Seattle Art Museum

One of the coolest things about this was not only the way the exhibit was a work of art in itself, there’s also historical relevance for displaying porcelain in this way (which I learned because of an informative placard, one of few that I read in its entirety!)

Porcelain room sign 1 Porcelain room sign 2

The Porcelain Room at SAM also reminded me of the chair wall in the Bruce Galleries at the Carnegie Museum of Art, which also makes use of visual repetition and a unique display style to make a really visually interesting exhibit out of objects which could easily be overlooked if they were shown on their own or in isolation.

Compare the visual similarities of Carnegie Museum’s chair display with Seattle Art Museum’s porcelain display (pictured above)

Great sculptures in a weird spot

One of the main points in Bitgood’s paper, “An Analysis of Visitor Circulation: Movement Patterns and the General Value Principle“, is that visitors follow certain principles like inertia, resisting backtracking, one-sided viewing, and basically being subconsciously lazy as they move through a museum.  “Salient object attraction” may pull visitors off their path of least resistance, which was definitely how I related to the Porcelain Room. However, at the SAM there were also instances of incredibly eye-catching, weird, or otherwise salient sculptures being placed in areas that seemed less than ideal.  Two of my favorite sculptures were on display in a foyer-type area that is at the intersection of multiple gallery exits/entrances along with the elevator exit.  This area probably gets very crowded when the museum is busy, which likely reduces visitors’ ability or desire to put in the effort to see these works.  The visual attraction and striking presence of these pieces is thus somewhat being wasted, though there may be some merit to placing them in front of the elevators to draw people into the museum from that route.  BUT there are at least 3 other routes by which visitors would encounter these works, and I don’t think the elevator exit scenario trumps any of them.  

Garnering 44 - William Morris - Seattle Art Museum
Don’t trip on this as you exit the elevator and try to decide which gallery to move towards…

In this fascinating study, the Louvre and MIT Senseable City Lab used Bluetooth tracking to gather data about how visitors moved through the museum.  One conclusion was:

When the number of the rooms with exhibits increases, visitors seem not to visit them all, but visit a few of them selectively. But our findings tell us more; these limited paths and their use are almost independent of the length of the visit to the museum, meaning that most visitors, irrespective of whether their visit is short or long, tend to use the same trajectories. (source)

Pieces that make visitors think (either consciously or otherwise), “What is that weird thing! I need to go over there!” should be placed in settings that will draw people towards areas they might not otherwise approach — not in the middle of a high-traffic area and not in an intersection from which numerous other galleries and their contents are readily visible.  Not only will this help reduce congestion by drawing people out of entry spaces towards visually magnetic pieces, museums could also use it to specifically guide visitors towards spaces that might otherwise seem unappealing or “cut off visually from the main path” (Bitgood references the concept of “dominant path security” which may also play a role in wayfinding).

One thing SAM did that was great for wayfinding and just a really fun way to deal with their admittedly confusing building design was this signage near the admissions desk:

Great signage for wayfinding

Creatively Integrating Social Media

The Disguise exhibit included an area especially designed to encourage visitors to take selfies and post them using the hashtag #SAMdisguise:

Mask selfie Mask sign

One especially good aspect of this was that it was separated from the main exhibit by a partial wall, so that visitors who were interested in the interactive or social media type activities wouldn’t be in the way of or distracting visitors who were just trying to see the exhibit.  There’s nothing like trying to take a museum selfie and getting photo-bombed by the angry person behind you who was just trying to see the art, amirite!?

Overall, the Disguise exhibit was fascinating and really great, both in design and concept.  I just wish I could say I felt the same about my experience throughout the rest of the museum.


Bitgood, Stephen. “An Analysis of Visitor Circulation: Movement Patterns and the General Value Principle”.

Yoshimura Y, Sobolevsky S, Ratti C, Girardin F, Carrascal J P, Blat J, Sinatra R, 2014, “An analysis of visitors’ behavior in The Louvre Museum: a study using Bluetooth data” Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design 41(6) 1113 -1131. and

A ridiculous movie review from past me

This blog post I wrote in 2007 has come up so often in conversation lately that I just trolled through the Wayback Machine (aka the best service to humanity that exists on the internet) so I could resurrect it.

3 08 2007

I just finished watching The Core, which I enjoyed for its cheap thrills, unlikely but believable scenarios, and passable acting.  Though this movie is one of many based on some projected Earth-destruction situation – that can only be averted by tremendous self-sacrifice and a motley crew of scientific experts, pilots, hackers, and military strategists – it actually pulls this off as well as it possibly could, completely fulfilling what I deem to be the core requirements of the action-armageddon genre:

1. Rockin’ the Method: the problem must be solved by science, so the audience can be amazed by the inventiveness of the less brawny characters whose genius saves the day (maybe even multiple times.)  One of several examples of this fromThe Core is when “one guy who doesn’t die” character realizes that although their ship has no power to get home, they could continue deeper into the core in order to harness the power that their ubermetalsomething ship will gain from the increase in heat.  This movie is actually one of the better when it comes to tickling the wannabe scientist within us.  Yes, all of us.  Better than say…Deep Impact.  Though I haven’t seen it in awhile so I can’t be sure.  I learned things about fluid mechanics and geophysics!  (not to say they are scientifically accurate things.  see “Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics“.)

2.  Brutal Self-Sacrifice: there comes a point in any good armageddon action movie when characters have to give up their lives for the cause.  sometimes they draw straws, sometimes there’s empassioned arguing about who could be the most useful for the rest of the mission, but often it’s the guy who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.   Will he cut the tether and allow the doors to close so the rest of the team can make it to safety? Or will he insist that they try to rescue him, further endangering themselves and the mission?!  In The Core there are several types of self-sacrifice – the valiant on-purpose kind, the “oops the door is shutting” kind, and the “holy shit if we don’t jettison that thing now we’ll all die! frankie get out!!” kind.  One of the self-sacrifices involves the kind-hearted, unappreciated inventor of the superdrillship braving 9,000 degree metal to get to a manual override that will allow the remaining heroes to work their plan C for saving the world.  I appreciated the little touches, like the bursting of the helmet lamp and the gooey melting suit shoes.  Brutal.  (comparison: Bruce Willis must stay behind to detonate the nuke in Armageddon)

3. “Baby baby, hold together.”  Obviously none of these movies would be exciting if things went as planned.  And even if you manage to overcome the environmental obstacles, you’re left with the increasingly dire problem of wear and tear on your ship.  Usually the final problem to overcome is that of the blown power circuit, the broken propulsion system, or the breached helm that will keep you from making it home alive.  It doesn’t matter that you saved the world if you can’t get back to see it.  This is another area where scientific genius enters in, unlike in Dante’s Peak, where the solution to the problem of the melting metal boat in the acidified lake is to jump out and give it a shove. I guess that qualifies more as idiotic self-sacrifice.  Another significant trope that could fall under this category is the ubiquitous communications failure, forcing the heroes to prove that they’ve got what it takes to fly solo.  The lack of mission control usually leads to some flaring tempers, too.

4. Monumental destruction. What really needs to be said about this?  It’s the main fodder for all the trailers, because seeing the Parthenon exploded by lightning (?) is exciting even if you know it’s computerized to the max. The Core’s destruction sequences are really cheesy compared to Deep Impact and its megatsunami.  I haven’t seen Day After Tomorrow, or I would comment on it.  Microwaves getting through a hole in the Earth’s protective (and waning) electromagnetic shield and destroying the Golden Gate bridge? yawn.  A static lightning cloud storm thing roaring up the streets of Rome? yawn. (though the electrified espresso machine and the unsuspecting barrista was a nice sterotypical touch).  Pigeons going crazy and flying through windows and busting heads in London? hellll yes.

5. The Bad Guy. He seems like he’s there to save the world like the rest of the crew, but does he have an ulterior motive?  What’s with those clandestine communications to the head of the military?  What does he know that we don’t know!?  Eventually this guy either gets killed by a natural event – and we’re happy – get’s killed by a testosterone-ridden co-crewmember – and we’re happy – or he turns out to be a moral human after all, and chooses to do the right thing.  Either way his suspicious behavior creates some good tension as you wait for the moment when he’ll eff everything up by choosing self-preservation over self-sacrifice.

I also have to say that the hacker kid in The Core is a great character, and the Hot Pockets were yet another nice touch.