Glass Half Empty

Senior Project

A blog about design, culture, and weird thoughts.

Semilattice: Documenting the Progress

Problem, Intent, and Concepts
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Senior Project


Christopher Alexander, Architectural Intelligence

1. We’re living in a world with increasingly complex problems sitting within a growing ecosystem of of social, cultural, or informational pressures.

Some examples: economic equality -> AI-powered crime prediction solutions -> Palantir/; climate crisis -> traffic congestion -> ride-sharing services; political extremism -> deterioration of public social space -> Facebook

2. Many of these “wicked problems” are entangled with digital technology, and it made me reflect on its desired role in our world.

Vannevar Bush, As We May Think; Douglas Engelbart, Improve our Ability to Improve

3. I was fascinated with the promise of computing to extend humans’ ability to process and use knowledge.

Alan Kay, User Interface: A Personal View; model is inspired by Hugh Dubberly’s SECI model and took analogy of researchers’ synthesis process

4. I want to examine how computers today help us “collect information, create knowledge, manipulate and share it,” because tools we create shape ourselves. I made a WIP model to represent the process of knowledge creation.

5. I found web browsers one of the tools in today’s computers that are most insufficient at “processing and using knowledge.” The main critique is: the archaic IA metaphors (pages, tabs, bookmarks, history (of links)) prevent people from comprehending information when the web has expanded itself massively.

6. The relationship between “comprehension,” “collection,” and “interpretation” still needs to be untangled here. To correlate with the model, people use web browsers to collect information. One could argue that the silo-ed consumption-ready experience in web browsers is sufficient for “previewing” information before they’re collected elsewhere. But my assumption is that providing affordances to let people interpret web-based content could help us comprehend better.

7. From here, I aimed to find ways to help people comprehend digital information better in web browsers.


  • Project Xanadu: the parallel comparison of documents shows the power of visual thinking. (I learned about Jerome Bruner’s mentalities of thinking from Bret Victor’s work, including……)
  • DynamicLand: if information is tangible and ready for manipulation and experimentation to its fullest.
  • LiquidText and MarginNote: excellent examples of active reading. When I look at them, I can’t help but think if the similar affordances could be provided to web browsing.
  • WebMemex: a project with a very similar intent, seems discontinued unfortunately. It mentioned fighting back the ephemerality of digital information by making personal archiving more accessible.
  • Muse: an excellent example of creating affordances for people to develop ideas in a digital scrapbook-like environment.


Design new metaphors for web browsers that encourage thinking and creating new ideas.


Right now I’m designing the fundamental elements in the paradigm. I made a very scrappy proof of concept to demonstrate the following ideas:

  • Creating excerpts and multi-media cards to support active reading
  • Visuospatial connection between pages and cards
  • Automatic grouping and manual clustering pages and cards to visualize relationships and support the thinking process

Here is a use case from my own experience as a student: researching the future of transportation and looking for design ideas.

To start, I might want to search for a relevant keyword. It is the beginning of my exploration.

Clicking on a link opens a new page connected visually to show the trace of discovery. I might stumble upon something not so interesting and go back to the search results.

Clicking on another link took me to another article, which turned out to be really insightful. A paragraph is very well-written and reminds me of a new research direction. I can take it out as an excerpt and write a note related to the paragraph.

I want to learn more about the context of this page: who wrote this? Following the hyperlink led me to the main page of Greenfield Labs, where I found another quote inspiring for a different design direction. As I expand my area of exploration, my previous traces are automatically collapsed, showing my thoughts and highlights: what I think is more important than what I see.

I started a couple of new searches related to that thought by creating new nodes from the note card I created earlier. The first two aren’t really interesting, so I put them away. Clicking on the “history” button would reveal my traces. The last search led me to an interesting article by the Washington Post. The car design of this image is interesting, and it said it’s by IDEO. There’s no hyperlink here, how can I find more information about this project?

I highlighted this image and wrote down my thoughts about space usage of vehicles. The connected search led me to IDEO’s original project. As I look back at where I am compared to where I started, my trace of thought is represented as the visual traces of exploration in the space. What’s unimportant is left out, what’s important is visible in a glance.

As I continue my research, I can organize pages and cards into subgroups to reflect hierarchy of topics. I can manually connect between pages, cards, and groups to reflect my logical reasoning. I can break the original hierarchy of pages and cards and reorganize them to reflect my "understanding."

See also

On Thinking, as a Way to Build the Future

Semilattice, pt. 1

Semilattice, pt. 2

Feedback Highlights

  • The design direction as a knowledge-creation-system assumes people are inherently incentivized to seek truth, instead of falling into certain beliefs. A more promising direction might be supporting groups who are directly incentivized to make better decisions. 

Next steps

  • Reframing problem moments: supporting objective-based exploratory research in web browsing
  • Build a workshop-like low-fi prototype to test the core concept

Making a Home Tactile Map

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Senior Project

Recommended by Kate Rutter, I took Rob Walker's advice in The Art of Noticing: 131 Ways to Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration, and Discover Joy and mapped out the perception of my home with the sense of touch.

Before I started the investigation, I looked around my house: there is literally no natural objects! Well, except for the last three oranges in the fruit basket. My house suddenly became a depressing place to live in after this realization.

The objects and notes I took when touching them.

Here are some particular observations I have in my investigation.

Representations of micro vs. macro hardness.
  • The first impression of tactile quality sometimes differ from its actual hardness. When I tap on the character sculpture on the TV table, it felt like a soft material. When I press it down, it turned to be harder than I thought. Surprisingly, I found the ceramic cup quite soft in my hands, even though it’s pretty hard. It’s mysterious, but I kept receiving the same feeling after touching the cup multiple times.
  • When I close my eyes and focus at the tactile sense, it’s quite comfortable to touch some objects. (I kept rubbing the blanket in my living room for two minutes.) In my notes, I described it as “friendliness.” It might be a mixture of many variables, and it’s quite magical to imagine if these objects want to be touched by humans or not.
  • When a texture gets too rough on my fingers, it feels as if the object is irritated and angry. I encountered it when I swiped on the dryer sheets.

Based on my feelings (……), I produced a set of overly generalized tactile map of my home.

The tactile map of my home.

The tactile sensation is probably one of the most ignored senses in interaction design, and I’m surprised how powerful it is at producing emotional influence. When I tried to describe the tactile feelings, many of my words are extremely subjective. The physical contact elicits stronger emotion than I anticipated. I’m happy that I picked the investigation and got to be more aware of its significance.

Topic Workshop: Education

My first time designing a workshop
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Senior Project

When Claire, Jay, An and I sat down and talked about creating a workshop about the design of education, we didn’t know that we ended up making a something dramatically different than what we had in mind.

We didn’t want to create a lecture in the first place, because we believe we can create an engaging activity where people could stay present and learn through making. Thus, designing with an intent is essential to ensure everyone can learn something meaningful from the workshop.

What helps us design better education experience? I thought: how can we design better education experience if we’re not conscious of the education that we received?

Our random thoughts on education @ CCA IxD.

The center of our initial discussion became the reflection on our own education, largely in CCA. I felt more mindful when I connected what I experienced in the institution to what I am and hope to become as a designer. More importantly, we hope that people will be more empowered to understand the impact of education and design such experience for themselves and others.

The curriculum model designed by Kristian Simsarian, the founding chair and ex-chair of IxD BFA program, helped us clarify the concept and design the activity. His whole body learning curriculum framework depicted a dependent relationship between craft, process, and purpose.

The whole body learning curriculum framework.

Our activity started with thinking about the classes, projects, resources, and skills. We hope the reflection happens when the participants are asked to connect them with their values and beliefs that they hold today. From there, they can look for the missing pieces in their education experience to fulfill their hopes and needs. We think it’s an appropriate depth of critique on the program in this workshop.

Sketches of activity sequence.

Each of us designed the different portions of the workshop but stayed collaborated in testing and iteration. It’s more difficult to design a one-hour activity than a one-hour presentation! I found mapping our little steps useful in clarifying the design and reaching consensus within the team.

The workshop plan.

Through a dry run test with one of the students, we gained confidence that the activity seems to deliver what we intended to share. We shortened the ending and tweaked the small moments throughout the workshop to make the process smoother and more engaging.

The team conducting a dry run.

When we were at the presenters’ table, there’s too much running in my brain that I can’t assess the result well. If I had to make a conclusion, I would describe the feedback of the class as a “lukewarm” response. I think we had a lot to say, and we delivered some of that through our activity. I think the activity could be more engaging with a clear explanation of our intent before it ends.

At least we weren’t sleeping in the morning class!

While I was writing this, I realized that this seems to be my first time designing a workshop. So, hooray!

Semilattice, pt. 1

Senior Project Brief
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Senior Project


In mathematics, semilattice means a partially ordered set in which elements could have multiple parents. Christopher Alexander compares the city with a tree and a semilattice in his essay, A City is Not a Tree. He borrowed the mathematical concept to illustrate the necessity of viewing a city not as defined and separated districts, but as multiple overlapped and organically-grown communities.

Diagrams of tree (left) and semilattice (right) structures. Christopher Alexander.

The idea of semilattice doesn’t only apply to urban planning. It also offers designers an approach to map out dynamic systems and complex relationships. The word does not directly relate to the technology’s stance in our life. Instead, it honors the complexity of:

  1. The nuanced understanding needed to design intervention for systemic problems.
  2. The non-linear, spontaneous, and organic formation of thought.
  3. The societal, cultural, and political implication of the technology’s influence on one’s mind.


How does technology augment and/or undermine humans’ ability to think?

The full context of the inspiration could be found in the essay On Thinking, as a Way to Build the Future.

Problem Space

The project considers the following items as relevant issues in the problem space.

Wicked Problems

  • Deteriorating space for public discourse
  • Climate crisis
  • Political extremism and division


  • Algorithmic personalization
  • Information and knowledge management system
  • Machine learning

Skills and Abilities

  • Systems literacy
  • Critical thinking
  • Agency / freedom of choices


To address different opportunities in the tangled and complex problem space, the project is organized as multiple short sprint sessions to create as many playful and communicative prototypes as possible. Each session focuses on a particular intersection of the problem space. (i.e. Climate crisis & critical thinking.) As the research progresses and new challenges emerge, the definition of the problem space will change accordingly.


In the first 6 weeks (Sep. 28 – Nov. 8), each session is two weeks long. In the next 4 weeks (Nov. 9 – Nov 29), each session is one week long.

Sat&Sun / Sat

  • Academic research into the problem space
  • Expert interview (depending on schedule)
  • Determine primary research interviewees (3 users/customers)
  • Contact and schedule appointments with primary research interviewees

Mon&Tue / Sun

  • Context collection
  • Inspiration
  • Analysis of existing solutions
  • Expert interview (depending on schedule)
  • Exploratory interview with users/customers

Wed&Thu / Mon

  • Expert interview (depending on schedule)
  • Formulation of exploration/problem statement
  • Brainstorming session
  • Technology/feasibility research

Fri&Sat&Sun&Mon / Mon&Tue

  • Rapid prototyping of interactive prototype or multiple prototypes
  • For two-week sessions: Documentation online
  • For two-week sessions: Reflection writing

Tue&Wed / Wed&Thu

  • Concept testing with interviewees
  • Evaluation of concept testing
  • For the next session: Brief academic research into the problem space
  • For next session: Determine expert interviewees (>1 expert)
  • For next session: Contact and schedule appointments with expert interviewees

Thu&Fri / Fri

  • Documentation online
  • Reflection writing
  • Refinement on problem space

In addition to sprint sessions, there will be daily JavaScript learning as preparation to kickoff building the MVP next semester.

In the last 2 weeks (Nov 30 – Dec 13), the project shifts focus as the semester comes to the end.

  • Wrap-up of any additional work from sprint sessions
  • Determine MVP direction from proofs of concepts
  • Evaluation of JavaScript learning progress
  • Project Plan for second semester
  • Presentation

On Thinking, as a Way to Build the Future

Thoughts on the senior project
Published in
Senior Project

On Reflection

On the Third Annual Phil Patton Lecture, Natasha Jen, partner at Pentagram in New York, gave a talk about The Designer as Critic. She argued that designers should not be critics, for most of them already strive to be critical of, yet remain too close to their work. Instead, designers should be skeptics. The word opens up possibilities for designers, who are “obsessed with prescriptions,” to explore the possibilities beyond existing understanding of the field and its methodology, a.k.a. Design thinking.

A difference was pointed out between the critique on the quality of work and the reflection on the way we work. Reflection is important to designers because it gets us closer to the “possibilities removed” by the process of brainstorming, research, etc., even though we don’t know what we don’t know.

To an extent, designers’ trust and reliance on methodology resemble people’s trust and reliance on technology. Methodology promises abundance (of “ideas”) and excellence; technology (and consumerism) promises simplicity, freedom, and individual choice. Both could be deceptive. Our world is becoming increasingly complex, and people, including designers, have trouble navigating within it. Meanwhile, designers keep releasing inventions with vast implications into the world.

In the 1960s, Christopher Alexander, architect and design theorist, described designers’ unique role, which is summarized in Architectural Intelligence (2017):

Alexander argued that the designer was designing for an increasingly complex world in which it was impossible to keep in one‘s mind all of the inter-meshing systems with all of their details. “In spite of their superficial simplicity, even these problems have a background of need and activities which is becoming too complex to grasp intuitively.” The complex systems of which he spoke sat within a growing ecosystem of other pressures, whether social, cultural, or informational.

The reflection on how we engage in and create with technology is critical in the present world.

One could argue that it must and can only be done by designers because 1. they contributed more or less to the growing complexity of the world, and 2. they are more capable of “thinking out of the box” and recognizing the cognitive bias involved and deliberately used to construct the complexity.

On Thinking

Looking back on Vannevar Bush’s As We May Think (1945), many of the promises of technology became true today, but we are still confronted with a confusing world.

On the one hand, compared to fifty years ago, it is beyond our cognitive abilities to find answers to many systemic and global challenges that exist today. In New Dark Age (2018), the artist and writer James Bridle commented:

We don’t and cannot understand everything, but we are capable of thinking it. The ability to think without claiming, or even seeking, to fully understand is the key to survival in a new dark age, […] Technology is and can be a guide and helpmate in this thinking, providing we do not privilege its output: computers are not here to give us answers, but are tools for asking questions.

On the other hand, it is essential to examine if technology fulfills its promise as “intelligence augmentation.” To put simply, does technology help us think better or not?

In my last year at the undergraduate IxD program at CCA, I would try to answer this question. Many arguments and counterarguments could be made here, but without a focused and analytical approach, we will end up in spiraling fruitless discussions, which we’ve had too many before in this world.

We have to move forward, and it won’t happen if our ability to think is threatened.