Archive for the book review Category

The Culture Code

The Culture Code

The Culture Code

The Culture Code: An ingenious way to understand why people around the world live and buy as they do.
by Clotaire Rapaille

Having spent substantial portions of my life in 3 very different cultures on 3 different continents (US, UK, Korea), I found “The Culture Code”, very insightful, entertaining and surprising.

The Culture Code. as defined by the author, is the unconscious meaning we apply to any given thing – a car, a type of food, a relationship, even a country – via the culture in which we are raised.

The author uses the Jeep Wrangler as an example of how different cultures have different codes when relating to it: Chrysler didn’t know what direction they should push the Wrangler, and asking people hadn’t helped. The author didn’t ask what people wanted, he asked what their earliest memories (“imprints”) of Jeeps were. Many recalled open land, going where no normal car would go. This reveal the code for Jeep in America is “horse”. Hence Jeep didn’t need luxurious touches, such as soft leather seats. It needed removable doors, and an open top. In contrast, the code for Jeep in France and Germany is “liberator” since many associated the Jeep to the liberation of Europe during the Second World War.

It had always puzzled me why Americans love carry their coffee around, drinking it on the go – on streets, in cars. I would see American exchange students on campus in Korea, faithfully carrying their big travel mugs heading to class. Only American students seems to do this. A sure sign of an American student was his/her coffee, backpack, sandals and large water bottles.

This, I learned, was because Americans equate health with movement, (the American code for health is “movement”) and that Americans have a strong ethic for work and getting things done and have no patience for taking a backseat or enjoying things for its own pleasure. Therefore consumption of coffee (= productivity), on the go (= movement, efficiency) makes practical sense to the common American where it would puzzle your average European or Asian.

The books goes on to explore various codes for love, beauty, fat, health, youth, home, work, money, quality, alcohol, shopping and towards the end the code for America itself.

The book was somewhat therapeutic for me. I never imagined that a branding/marketing book would end up being a self-help book. It helped me understand how growing up in different cultures informs the way we think and helps explain some of the differences between my wife who grew up in the States and I who grew up in the UK. Why I read instructions and she doesn’t.

The study of how Americans perceive quality was also informative. American code for quality is simply “it works”. What this says is Americans prefer basic function over design. American are very forgiving towards design as long as it performs it expected function (How else would you explain the abundance of such bad car designs coming out of Detroit). In the mobile phone industry, this attitude is perfectly exemplified in the Verizon ads with the bespectacled man who goes around simply saying, “Can you hear me now?” In comparison, Koreans, Japanese and British people are far more conscious about the way cell phones look.

The author bring all the observations around cultural differences to a conclusion about global marketing:

Global strategy requires customizing for each culture, though it is always important that the strategy embrace “American-ness.

The author suggests that branding needs to be tailored to cultures however when a brand is global, it is always in its best interest to project an image of its local roots:

Cultures perceive globalization as a direct attack on their survival. If the world becomes truly flat and we all exist under one huge planet-wide culture, then we lose the individual cultural identities that have defined us. When brands extend themselves into the global market by championing their village of origin, they accomplish two tasks at once: they perpetuate their own culture and they celebrate everyone’s cultural identity.

Think Mini Cooper. They are owned by BMW, but they are branding (rightfully, successfully) as a British icon. Think Evian or Levi’s. These are global brands, but still have something very local about them. Evian is water from the Alps and Levi’s is the icons American apparel.

In the end I had to wonder about Korea. How Koreans perceive themselves. Also how Korea is perceived by others outside Korea. What is the code for America in Korea? How should Samsung, LG, Hyundai be market themselves? What is uniquely Korean about these brands?

On this heels of one book that explores the differences between cultures comes another: I just started reading: The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently… and Why. This book promises to be more of an academic read.

Simplicity, Complexity and Contradiction in Design



Belatedly I finished John Maeda‘s book, The Laws of Simplicity, which outlines ten laws for balancing simplicity and complexity in business, technology and design. In effect he is building on the “Less is More” principle, popularized by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (originally spoken by Robert Browning in 1855.)

I’ve been a long admirer of the concept of simplicity. In architecture and the arts, simplicity was often called “minimalism” or even “modernism”. At the turn of the last century, in reacting to rampant pluralism of styles, and trying to come to terms with industrial production and the embodiment of socialist ideals, modernists rejected ornamentation and sought more fundamental architectural values. They stripped architecture down to it minimal functionality. Works by Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier of the 1920’s and 1930’s exemplify this movement.

By the 60-70’s simplicity had become stylized to the point that some reacted against its “over-simplification” burden of stylized, soul-less modern architecture. The vanguard of this reaction was Robert Venturi‘s compelling 1966 book, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. In this book, the author call for a return to richness in architectural meaning, and the embrace of inherent contradictions of the human condition. Unfortunately what they started was the beginning of the often misguided and cacaphonic post-modern movement in architecture.

Maeda’s book mentions this cyclical relationship and rhythm simplicity and complexity have towards their coexistence. We seem once again to be drifting towards the simplicity extreme again these days.

What I liked the most about Venturi’s book, isn’t so much the complexity part, but the contradiction part. I think we are bound to live with contradiction. This is a part of what makes us human. I love simplicity but I value complexity. Fractal rules are so simple yet they reveal a deep complexity. Humans are wonderfully complex but driven by very simple hopes and loves. I see it all the time within me and in my children.

It seems that Maeda tries to dig deeper to a more spiritual plane. What he write seems more than a series of observations that can be translated into techniques for product development or organizing your desk. It is less a series of laws to abide by and more a series of conversations worth engaging in, with our very being, in search for a deeper meaning.

Vittorio Gregotti, Italian architect, architectural critic and former editor of Casabella has a whole chapter entitled “On Simplicity” in his 1996 book Inside Architecture. Here he muses: (my italics)

…to me simplicity is not simplification, and above all not simplification as a formal model. Eloquent simplicity can be reached through great effort, but it is never a good starting point, nor above all, an objective at any cost. Architecture is not simple; it can only become simple.

…Simplicity must make contradiction itself clear and compehensible without denying its existence and its value as a material for establishing difference.

Gregotti talks about simplicity in the context of architecture, but it can equally be applied to product design or design of online services. What he seems to be getting at is that we should not strive for simplicity for its own sake. This will end up being another misguided stylistic overture or even worse, end up denying the a meaningful part of our existence.

The future of simplicity seems to be in its ability to work with complexity. Industrial production techniques nowadays allow for simple, personalized variations in design. (think iPods inscribed with personal messages before delivery). Websites deliver, in simple form, personalized information that is in fact generated through complex algorithms and make use of immense processing power.

Great complexity belies anything of great beauty or meaning.

Leibniz once wrote:

The infinite fold separates or moves between matter and soul, the facade and the closed room, the outside and the inside.

Infinity that is enclosed in a finite space. Now that’s a simple and complex idea, if not a pure contradiction.

Ambient Findability: A Walk through a Garden of Forking Paths

Ambient Findability

Ambient Findability

Ambient Findability is Peter Morville‘s “Lemur Book” on how we go about finding information and how what we find affect us.

I started out thinking this is going to be a technical book about how we orient ourselves in relationship with the world around us, and what internal mechanisms we employ to navigate and find our way to our destinations or goals, whether it be in the physical world or in the virtual world. It starts out discussing these things and challenges we face in information architecture, but he begins weave an interesting argument when he introduces us to Calvin Mooers and his views on how we interact with information:

An information retrieval system will tend not to be used whenever it is more painful and troublesome for a customer to have information than for him not to have it.

There is an accessibility or effort component to information. In other words, we are fundamentally lazy when it comes to information. We would prefer to sit at our desks and search Google than go to the library and browse bookstack on a given topic.

Over the short course of internet history, as we have developed organization systems and various algorithms to improve the quality of information retrieval modeled on traditional models of interaction with information, we now see new behaviors and technologies emerging to overcome the limitations of these automated and rigid systems. Crowdsourcing over AI. Folksonomies over rigid taxonomies. Thus with the digitization of information emerges a social aspect to information retrieval. Information is no longer in the control of a few institutions, and the learned. The flow of information is no longer controled by traditional media or academia. It is now controled by sites like Google who provide the path of least resistance to the retrieval of information. Findability is key in this new information environment.

This is where his book gets really interesting. He takes the concept of findability on a journey that start out as innocent and technical and turns it into a quiet manifesto for the redistribution of information wealth. He says:

Findability is at the center of a fundamental shift in the way we define authority, allocate trust, make decisions and learn independently.

Given this newly discovered freedom of access to information, he does not share the unsubstatiated optimism/idealism of some. He remains deeply cynical of extremes. Complete freedom is often crippling, where the over-abundance of choices leads to us paralysis. He compares information consumption to food and diet. One should choose carefully what one consumes and understand where it comes from in order to stay healthy. Web is not the solution. Google is fast food.

In the end Peter Morville’s book is an artfully balanced essay that seeks to reconcile the views of authoritarian control with the distributed popular intelligence of the masses. His conclusion is an uncomfortable one: we need both the cathedral and the bazaar. In an age where libraries are seen as outmoded and a symbol of control, he reminds us that the notion of the free public library was an idea hatched from the mind of a rebel, Ben Franklin, who sought the equal access to ideas and information for all, and the Oxford English Dictionary, the pinnacle of authoritarian definition, was in fact the first open-source project.

I must say that Ambient Findability was a very enjoyable read, and refreshing to see Peter Morville critially examining his information architecture background, relinquishing control and embrace a more optimistic future where both control and freedom over information needs to and is able to coexist. It is our job then, as professionals who are entrusted with the care of information, to be aware of the complexity and contradictions and to maintain the balance.

He end the book with a quote from one of my favorite authors, Jorges Luis Borges, from his “Garden of Forking Paths”:

The book and the labyrith are one and the same.