Design Advances

General Designs Delivery. Remnant of some sort found on the wall beyond the model shop.

I’m going to paraphrase something I read in a recent issue of The New Yorker that immediately made me think of things we bunch of folk in the studio are thinking long and hard about — doing advanced design, but even before the “doing”, understanding what it is to be an advanced design studio and what the heck is “advanced design.”

The article was about Quantum Physics called Dream Machine by Rivka Galchen on David Deutsch and efforts to create a Quantum Computer. It’s a fascinating article and I recommend it. Good science fact-fiction stuff. These guys in laboratories with elaborate support apparati to make a four bit computer. Awesome. I can easily imagine the wisps of dry ice-like condensation puffing out of copper-clad plumbing and fittings.

Okay, back to the article. Now — this is just a word substitution not meant to equate what brainiac quantum physicists do with what a bunch of (pepper this with humility) clever creatives do in a little design studio. Just word substitution. In the article, as Galchen is trying to frame the sensibilities of Quantum Physicists and describes it thus:

Physics advances by accepting absurdities. Its history is one of unbelievable ideas proving to be true..

That simple statement stopped me in my reading tracks. There was something deceptively simple in that — an expectation that, or almost rule in a way that in order to move the field along, in order to advance physics, or do advanced physics, or to determine whether or not one was advancing physics — well, one had to be prepared or make sure that you were accepting absurdities.

The word substitution will be obvious to you by now: doing advanced design requires a bit of accepting things that, on the face of it, are absurd — at least at first.

Accepting absurdities, or designing things that are absurd, or realizing that what you’re doing seems a bit absurd are various measures of advancing the state of a practice idiom, like design.

Design advances accepting absurdities

There’s a bit of facing adversity built into that sort of discipline. It means that people are going to look at what you do as absurd — as disconnected from the state of the world right now; as idle experimentation; as just a bunch of weird stuff.

I think the challenge is around the degree of “advance.” Sometimes rather than making “big disruption” sorts of advances, small, simple, low-hanging-fruit sorts of things are more tractable and, potentially — more disruptive for their simplicity. This is where the phrase “wheels on luggage” comes from. Just doing something that, in hindsight seems so obvious, yet is exceptionally, blindly simple to accomplish (again, in hindsight.) Often these “little things done much better” sorts of disruptions effect human behavior in an unexpectedly profound way. Sadly, the hubris of the main players in constructing the future — engineers and technologists — consider a disruption to be wholesale system change of some sort rather than making little things better than they already are. It’s also a battle between complex programs or teams, versus relatively simple ideas with small teams executing a clearly stated vision.

Why do I blog this? There was something about that quote that has stuck with me. I’m not sure I’ve teased it all out — but its resonant and I need to figure out how best to describe what it is that “advanced design” is so I know it when I see it; and what activities “advancing design” consists of so I can tell myself what to do. Accepting absurdities and finding the way to get others who perhaps are less inclined to is a small, fitful start towards this goal.

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IxD 2011 Designing Advanced Design Workshop

Saturday February 12 10:36

Wednesday February 09 16:16

The problem that occurs when a clever, *advanced idea is inserted into a machine that is already optimized for itself — for efficiency. Just because it’s bright and clever and has colors doesn’t mean that it can find a place to fit in a process that is either (a) already humming along or, (b) unwilling or unable to change and adapt its workflow to allow something to drop into place. From my perspective, this means that it requires either a crisis which *forces the machine to stop and change itself — which is painful — or the machine needs to be changed from the outset to accommodate advanced design that does not come from left field but is accepted as something that is routine and part of the machine itself.

Some notes from Mike Kruzeniski‘s workshop at IxD11 on the topic of Designing Advanced Design. This is a fascinating topic to The Laboratory and equally fascinating to hear it from and participate with Mike, who is a good friend and former colleague at Nokia, of all things. Mike’s now at Microsoft so, it might be like we’re colleagues again! At least partners in doing fascinating and unexpected things in the realm of design and technology.

Anyway. There were a number of highlights that I think are relevant. I’ll start with the general structure of the workshop, which was a workshop. ((Parenthetically, I’m a bit confused by workshops that are more someone presenting than people getting their hands a bit dirty, or going out in the world, or ignoring their iPad/iPhone update status checkers. I would even say that I don’t get the real-time twammering in a workshop. Either be there, or don’t be there. Bring a notebook. Sharpen your pen. Listen, do, speak. Okay, rant over.))

Wednesday February 09 15:06

Wednesday February 09 15:00

Wednesday February 09 14:45

After introductions by Mike and a bit of a discussion about what advanced design might be ((I mentioned I was also quite interested in *advancing design in the sense of moving it closer to the locus of decision making, alongside of the business-y types)) Mike presented the workshop exercise. We were to build boats. Little boats. Made of plastic bits sort of like Legos but, as we would find out later — subject to subtle variations in how they can be assembled, even much more than the typical Lego brick. ((* Update: via @rhysys — they are called Stickle Bricks! *)) The group was broken up into several roles — customers, customer liaison, builders, suppliers, plant managers, quality assurance. Each group played the roles you would expect in the construction of to-spec boats. Customers would place orders which would be relayed to the operation. I was a builder so I basically tried to assemble boats as quickly as possible, making horrible but not-obvious mistakes which resulted in boats being delivered…and then rejected. Each round was broken up into 10 order cycles that ran for a short, fixed amount of time. In that period we’d try to assemble the requested amount of boats, which the customers could reject for flaws. Flaws were sent back to be disassembled so we could try again, but things moved quickly. At the end of the round ((which consisted of a number of order cycles)) a tally was made to determine the per-unit cost based on factors such as — number of workers, number of delivered boats, quantity of raw materials left over, etc. All the things you might understand to influence the cost of a boat. At the end of each round, there was a short amount of time to reconfigure the whole “plant” — increase builders, rearrange how materials moved from source to assembly, break apart assembly into multiple steps, fire people, etc. This was all in order to decreate the cost per boat. We actually did really horribly the first time — target cost: $15. our cost, like..$2500. miserable. We got better over two more rounds, but still only got down to about $30+ or something.

Some insights from this exercise, which is derived from a familiar MBA exercise. First, designers don’t seem to want to fire anyone. Second, MBA people are more than willing to fire workers (based on Mike’s description of when he participated in the exercise at a sort of MBA program). Third, companies that make things — even a few of them and not in the millions of them — are optimized for themselves to be efficient. Change breaks that kind of optimization, resulting in less efficiency, higher costs, etc.

((That third point is one reason I guess we here at the Laboratory prefer small refinements that make big impacts. Making something just a bit better, or refining it with such tenacity — simple, small, thoughtful refinements — that the consequences can become significant without significantly challenging the need for efficiency.))

In the lead-up to this exercise, Mike introduced a few simple yet important tenets surrounding advanced design. There are two basic ways for a company to compete: (1) It can be cheap; (2) It can be different (be something else.) And he introduced one of these curious “Laws” that we here at the Laboratory had never heard of: Parkinson’s Law which basically states that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. Or, stated another way: The demand upon a resource tends to expand to match the supply of the resource. ((And yet another way that the Laboratory’s Bureau on Time Management uses as an operating principle: If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do.))

So then we can think of advanced design as those resources set aside for other activities, which sort of means that it can get a bit out of control if we apply Parkinson’s Law. So — how does one do advanced design? What are some models and approaches?

For the workshop, Mike looked at three case studies of advanced design studios: Nokia, Microsoft and Nike. Each has somewhat different approaches to advanced design, which he laid out. ((I may get the details of the case studies slightly off, but the substance is what I recall and what I think is the significant points.))

3 Approaches to Advanced Design

1. The Outlier
This is the advanced design studio that thinks about “what if?” scenarios, and explores to the side, looking at perhaps total departures from the conventional wisdom. Real out-there stuff that challenges and provokes. He offered three examples of The Outlier: BMW’s Gina Concept car from 2008; Nokia’s Homegrown project; Xbox Kinect

2. The Pantry
A bit like squirreling things away in the pantry for when the weather goes all awry and you’re trapped and can’t get out and don’t want to starve. You do things even if they’re not assigned to go to market. The case study Mike offered was Nike who’s design studio maintains an active bit of work exploring, researching new materials and the like. In the case study, Nike was outdone by Under Armour sports kit who created an intense following amongst various gladiator sports like Football and the like. They broadsided Nike whose marketing people went to design and said, Design did not start a specific program from scratch to address this, but went to their “pantry” and put together a package from the existing “advanced design” material to create a bit of sports kit that made Football’rs look super robotic gladiators. Plus, presumably — it worked as equipment. One intriguing thing Mike mentioned was that some folks had been doing some studies on motion and the like with sports folks and found out that feet and hands move the most, so they highlighted feets and hands by bringing out these intense dayglo colorations to the materials used in gloves and sneakers so the players *look fast. I found this fascinating.

3. The Northstar
This is where design works towards an advanced goal, but it’s more an aspirational target that is steered towards, perhaps indirectly. This might best be described as evolving a vision, refining from what’s out there. This I think captures to a certain extent what *vision work does, although sometimes vision work is basically just a nice thing to look at without the tectonics that could activate design work. The challenge is to avoid just creating something that’s cool to look at but doesn’t give enough to make it start becoming material.


1991 Audi Avus Quattro Concept Car

The example Mike offered in this case was Audi Avus concept car that (I know nothing about cars except how to drive them, sorta) that provided some radical new lines in 1991. It became a sort of objective point in a way — guiding the evolution of their surfacing and configurations so that over time Audi cars begin to take on the features of this Avus concept over time. The Avus provides the “Northstar” for the design team. Now — whether its stated expressly as in a lead designer 20 years lets get *here, or if it is less formal perhaps does not matter so much. Its more that this vision becomes quite tangible over time, an evolution of the car DNA.


Audi Rosemeyer

Audi R8

What I find most intriguing about this sort of vision-y Northstar case of Audi in particular is that they are able to stay on course. Twenty years is a long time — even, it seems to me, in the world of automobile design where things change exceptionally slowly because of the momentum and levels of commitment necessary for manufacturing and tooling and all the rest. Yet somehow they are able to keep their eyes on this objective that must’ve seemed quite radical at the time, especially if you consider what Audi looked like in 1991.


The 1991 Audi 200 Turbo

Some random insights that came up during the workshop.
* The Apple model isn’t reproducible perhaps because it is quite driven by the owners themselves and their personalities and abilities to drive change.
* Advanced design is about change. The instinct of a company is optimization; reduce risk and costs; it will reject change.
* Our role as advanced design is to help companies *prepare for change rather than execute it. In other words, be there when things go badly and people around you start losing their head and blame you while you keep yours, and you continue to trust yourself when all those around you doubt you — in other words, when panic and confusion sets in, advanced design can lead at those moments of epic, systemic change.

What is advanced design?
Let’s take this from the perspective of “advancing” design. The “advanced” moniker seems quite old fashioned. Advancing design, or advanced designing seem like useful semantic word play. The semantics help me think about design as something that can move forward (advancing design), rather than designing something in advance of something else (as advanced design would imply), or designing in a way that is different from what is designed today (or what is thought of as design today). In that way, advancing and poking and provoking means more than differentiation. It means more than using advanced techniques.

Some notes/thoughts about what advanced/advancing design or advanced designing might be:

* working through ideas differently
* designing the way of designing always, for each and ever
* iteration, refinement — put it up, strip it back, put it back up again
* communicating tangibly, materially
* storytelling — film, prose, language
* design fiction – actively suspending disbelief. making props and probes and prototypes.
* proto-typing – making stuff, in the shop, at the bench, learning by making and doing
* photography – way better than clip-art and it forces a different kind of conversation and moves things away from *only working at the screen in Illustrator

Why do I blog this? Because I went to the workshop; it made me think of a few useful things; I’ve been sitting on this in draft state for almost two months.

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Northern Nordic

Monday December 06 23:06

Monday December 06 13:27

Just a quick note to remind myself that I’m in the northern Nordic for the week, translating and workshopping and clarifying much of the work that has gone on in the studio over the last many months. It’s quite interesting to see how important the communication work is in the design process. Not so much showing as alliance building and enrolling people into something that is new to them and foreign in the sense that it has come from *outside — not their studio, not their work. But then — how do you make it theirs so that it becomes “ours” all for the common good. It’ll be a fun, wintery few days doing this. Always learning. It’s also intriguing to bring advanced design, which has humility as represented by the people who have done the work — into the more execution-oriented variety of design. It’s just design at the end of the day, different ways of making things better, each with their own assumptions about what it takes to do the work of better-making.

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Weekending 11212010

Friday November 12 12:22

Well, I haven’t done a weekending in awhile, partially because I was away in Switzerland (for the Swiss Design Network Conference) and then Italy and Spain on vacation and I almost didn’t take any kind of computer, but I did take an iPad partially as an experiment. In any case, I mostly read and photographed and walked and didn’t do any real blogging.

In the meantime, coming back I barely got home when I went off again for some friends’ wedding in Seattle, then back and then a drive down to San Diego for a team meeting with the larger international members of the Design Strategic Projects studio, which was good. We’re onto something here and if I could say more, I would. Aside from the substantial work, I’m also intrigued by the design process — mostly the translation of ideas into their material form as specifications for components and all that. I see it as a way of making the ideas legible in a specific way to those who have to make it. I should say that this is as you might think things work, except that they don’t normally when ideas are coming from advanced design, which in the past has been more involved in *vision or *concept work that rarely if ever becomes something much more tangible than a book, or short film or concept sketches. While I have been intrigued by that sort of work in the past, mostly because anything closer to the metal is often clipped in the expanse of its thinking, or is just ruled impractical or beyond scope — or whatever — now I found that it is difficult to translate, or get it closer to the making-of-things for a variety of reasons. In many cases, I think its systemic. By that I mean that it could be the case that parts of an organization are just completely unaware of another — or they don’t have the languages and linkages to communicate, or the mandate. That’s systemic or organizational. But then even when you do create the linkages you need to translate what might make complete sense in one studio into the terms and idioms of another, or into the language of code and software, or machines for making and fabricating. Whatever it might be — it’s a huge bit of work and in the process of doing the work, you refine the idea and iterate upon it, and learn from it when the gaps start showing, or when questions start coming in for clarity and refinement. Things that at one point you could ignore, or you didn’t even know about.

So — that’s what’s going on at this point. Learning about how to do advanced design thats relevant, rather than just sort of ideating or concepting or visioning.

I also went to Calgary Canada basically just for the night. It was cold. There was snow. I had to hunt around for my Patagonia Windstop, which I found just in a nick of time. And I wore sneakers, which was fine but I felt silly not thinking that snow meant more than cold. In any case, my hosts at the Faculty of Environmental Design had me up to do a talk for their “Design Matters” lecture series, which was fun. Another opportunity to refine some thinking, mostly editing together some new examples of science fiction film clips to explicate the conventions of design fiction.

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