Weekending 10232011

Okay. Maybe we will get back into the swing of the weekending note. This one won’t be comprehensive, but a note nonetheless to note a few things.

First, something I found while flipping through the Internet that got me thinking about using creative tension and inversion in the design fiction process and also connected to this Anthem Group, which has curious dispatches related to object-oriented ontology (which I barely understand) and Bruno Latour: this was an interesting post on the reason for having “intellectual fiends”. It helps me understand why, when I was studying Science and Technology Studies and just, you know…academic-y “theory” broadly, there was always this impulse to set ideas or discussions in opposition. To find ways to be critical of anything. Which gets annoying and I’m sure is the reason for general pissy-ness in the academic world.

It turns out it has its usefulness, if you stay optimistic and hopeful. It can be a way to move discussions always in some direction rather than allowing them to sit still and suffer the tyranny of undisputed acceptance. Of course, these things would always get quite squirrely — debates and the perpetual state of “crisis” over some theoretical position. That all becomes quite tiresome and you wind up with folks who are never, ever satisfied and always finding an argument to be had.

But, related to present work, it provides a logic for designing by inversion — taking the initial instinct or common assumption and then turning it on its head. I guess things like making physical, “embedded”, full-electronic prototypes rather than “apps” is one way of seeing this. Or doing the creative-opposite of something to really get into the *why of the natural, assumed, expected thing.

For example, when we made the social/trust alarm clock it was a way to invert commonly held assumptions about about the rituals of waking up in the morning. They don’t get inverted because we think the world should be hung upside down by its shoes — at least not routinely. But one can put “the normal” in relief by looking at things from the downside looking back up. Looking sideways. And it’s not until you actually *look at things through an unusual lens and make the assumption that the abnormal is actually “normal” — then you start seeing new curious opportunities and stories to explore that can then evolve and cause creative — rather than typical — disruptions that hopefully make the normal more engaging, fun, creative and curious.

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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 ..by 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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A Wry Look At Wheels On Luggage



Why do I blog this? The idiom “wheels on luggage” has been one we’ve been exploring here, not so much to get the precise history of it (although that is interesting), but because of what it stands for. Change from one set of circumstances to another from which you look back and wonder — how could things have ever been otherwise? Or, because the change is not due to technological innovation (which is what so much is assumed to pivot) but from an innovation that is simple, direct and requires no billion dollar budgets, scores of PowerPoints, workshops galore and team off-sites. I love this kind of change — much more than the technical variety because they remind me that big change can come from small, simple alterations that just make things better. Some people like big technical imbroglios. While I don’t not like technical things — the power of one person to just sort of *shrug* and screw a couple of wheels onto the bottom of something is quite provocative. Small things done exceptionally well. ((A line of scholarly inquiry as to the social, cultural, political and technological concerns that broadly fit within the study of Science Technology and Society, or Science and Technology Studies. Fair Use, I’d say.))
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The Spaces of Innovation

Monday January 11 09:50

At the Microsoft Research Social Computing Symposium 2010, it was a pleasure to hear Steven Johnson drop a few tidbits on his soon-to-be-released book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation he described an interesting perspective on the history of ideas — or in a more marketable, business-type book-y way — the history of innovation, as coming from places and related to time and the pace of things. What I got from his short engaging talk then was a bit of a thoughtful debunking of the myth of the solo innovator, sitting alone and channeling brilliance from wherever. I’m looking forward to reading the book. There was a nice little animation that serves as a kind of networked-media-age jacket blurb in the video below.

Get the flash player here: http://www.adobe.com/flashplayer

var so = new SWFObject(“http://www.db798.com/pictobrowser.swf”, “PictoBrowser”, “500”, “500”, “8”, “#EEEEEE”); so.addVariable(“source”, “sets”); so.addVariable(“names”, “SCS2010”); so.addVariable(“userName”, “julianbleecker”); so.addVariable(“userId”, “66854529@N00”); so.addVariable(“ids”, “72157623066738659”); so.addVariable(“titles”, “on”); so.addVariable(“displayNotes”, “on”); so.addVariable(“thumbAutoHide”, “off”); so.addVariable(“imageSize”, “medium”); so.addVariable(“vAlign”, “mid”); so.addVariable(“vertOffset”, “0”); so.addVariable(“colorHexVar”, “EEEEEE”); so.addVariable(“initialScale”, “off”); so.addVariable(“bgAlpha”, “90”); so.write(“PictoBrowser100929065753”);

Some more images from the MSR Social Computing Symposium last winter.


Why do I blog this? Mostly because I was drawn into the video, which is a cool example of these sorts of graphic note takings. There’s a bit of theater attached to it of course.

(via @jmcaddell)

James Dyson on Engineering Designers

Dyson Quote

An interesting article by John Seabrook in the occasional “Annals of Invention” column of The New Yorker just now with James Dyson — the guy who made vacuum cleaners suck better.

I captured this above while reading it on a short flight up to San Jose last weekend, afraid that I might not come back with the magazine and not wanting to get all messy and tear it up and then thinking that if I had the image, it’d compel me to jot it on the blog rather than squirrel it away in a drawer somewhere.

This is what he says:

..he said, “I think the main thing is that our products look like what they do — the engineering leads the design.” He explained that at Dyson there is no division between the engineers and the designers, such as exists in the automobile industry, for example. “We don’t have industrial designers. All our engineers are designers and all our designers are engineers. When you separate the two, you get the designers doing things for marketing purposes rather than functional reasons.”

Why do I blog this? The point of the relationship amongst engineering and design is something I’m quite interested in — that there should be some intense entanglements between the two roles and certainly not separated, but in constant dialogue. For instance — engineers should be better at telling the stories of their ideas and embedding them into the situations and practices of normal humans’ lives. Designers would do better design if they internalized the instrumental aspects of their craft rather than the gratuitous and the surface features. I had only clipped the part of this quote that started with “Dyson there is no division between the engineers and designers..” so I only now saw in the digital edition of the magazine that he says — “the engineering leads the design.” and I’m not entirely sure how I feel about that. I don’t think one should lead the other, although I do think that engineering has so much power and influence and hubris that it should try to humble itself and develop some really good listening skills and not expect that — just because you can think of something and it’s clever that it should be done like, for example Augmented Reality. ((Doorknobs looking for houses to fit on.))

This is a good read if you’re interested in these sorts of things. I think James Dyson has done a lot to put “wheels on luggage” with simple, left-field innovations, making things a little better than they are.

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Weekending 08222010


The disadvantage of having so much fun taking photos of skateboarders is that I have less “design research-y” photos to go along with the dispatches here from the Laboratory. So..I’m reusing some and digging deep into the archives.

Anyway. I’ve missed a week in here somewhere. I can say that the last two weeks have been weeks of wrangling thoughts into diagrams..wrangling and rustling and cow-branding and then, in the evening, playing lonely harmonica melodies and sipping coffee ’round the campfire. And early rising to count the herd, chase back the strays and move them along a little further to the, well..taking the allegory to its logical conclusion would ruin everything so, no good ideas really go to the slaughterhouse, they just get assessed and assayed for bits and pieces.

One continuing realization has been that these are definitely times where doing good projects is enough — and if they do good then that’s enough, too.

There was the usual cross-continental calls to update and share and exchange ideas. Some reviews and research proposals. Very exciting cross-silo puddle jumping going on. I’ve long been intrigued by the possibility that engineering and design cross-pollinate in some fashion and there may be a chance to try in the coming months.

Went to a concert at the Greek — Rodrigo y Gabriela — and normally this wouldn’t make it into a weekending post, except that it formalized the scourge of personal portable video recording devices, mostly the iPhone as there are the inevitable block-heads who just hold the thing up video recording entire songs so that you “enjoy” your time at The Greek — the canonical intimate medium-sized venue — with some jackhole holding a little video screen up in front of your view of what you should just be watching just right over there.

So — in the context of the material of this blog, I wonder how these little mobile devices that allow us to do these fascinating things like record experiences for later playback are changing behaviors. Clearly there is some kind of time shifting and hoarding and collecting and sharing rituals are in play here. Also something is going on with our ability to pay attention and maybe level-up our ability to recollect experiences without these devices — just as moments or translated perhaps into a diary or as a memory. And finally — the selfishness of that guy holding up his iPhone and blocking and impeding the view of the rows of people behind him? What’s up with that sort of willful disregard for fellow tribesman? Or whatever?

Anyway — onward. I think I am going to try to read “The Mirror, the Window, and the Telescope: How Renaissance Linear Perspective Changed Our Vision of the Universe“, the more legible follow-on to Samuel Y. Edgerton’s much more academic “The Renaissance Rediscovery of Linear Perspective“. I guess it’s weird putting a “to-do” in a “weekending”, but I started reading it, so I guess this is a marker in time-space so I can go back and note when I started sometime in the future when I realize I didn’t finish it..again. But, I’m curious for more useful stories in the catalog of useful stories about “how things were different” in the past — sort of a high road around the “wheels on luggage” conversation. I was encouraged to collect more “wheels-on-luggage” stories — moments where you realize that something happened to bring us to where we are today and things have not always been as they are, even if it seems incredibly obvious that anything other than what we have today seems silly — like not having wheels on luggage. In the case of the Edgerton books, he’s looking at how Renaissance linear perspective changed how we see and even understand the world around us, and it’s impossible in a sense to imagine that we could have seen the world differently. That may not be the best “wheels on luggage” example because it’s quite a big thing, different from small bits of design work that just make things a little better and do so in a subtle, understated way, but it’s one other story amongst hopefully many other useful examples. (I’m also curious if something like AR will do what the mirror and the window and the telescope have done to the way we see, understand, describe, discuss the world — will AR have its Brunelleschi moment where all of a sudden our “view” of the world, the way we see, changes?)

And finally — there was the Device Design Day talks brought to the world by Kicker Studio. I gave a presentation — some updates and re-workings of the Design Fiction material based on an essay that is quite well over due for the Swiss Design Network conference in late October. And a renewed committment to myself to do this remake of Kubrick’s 2001, as well as some small threads of the underpinnings of this based on some of the notes on HAL and “strong AI” found in the AIAA’s Special 2001 issue from April 2008, Volume 33 Issue 2. A note to self — I realized I wasn’t able to give any prescriptive thoughts as in — here are the three steps toward better device design. And that was okay — this need not be medicine, although people want a cure. It may be enough to think of Design Thinking as an approach rather than a process. Anyway — Bob Ryskamp has some brief notes on the entire Device Design Day, um..day..

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Features Aren't A Measure Of Innovation

A fix to keep a door from clanging against an adjacent utility pole. Observed in Seoul, South Korea.

It’s too bad that the measure of results often must translate to quantities or business-y things, like numbers of meetings obtained or pages of PowerPoint presentations. Decanting often rich, qualitatively substantial ideas into boxes and “slides” and “decks” sloughs off so much richness that all that was learned often evaporates. The miscommunication is tragic in such instances. When asked for “the presentation”, I’ve taken to doing the electronic email version of a *shrug* — sorry, no “deck”. We can chat. I can send you some object-thing-embodiments-of-principles..if you like. If you want to stare at words, well..

The culture of PowerPoint is best described as a social disease. I don’t mean to gripe too much — it’s not a new thing, and it isn’t only a reaction to conditions as they exist for the Laboratory right now. The culture of the deck has been around us since the days at the advertising agencies and brand marketing agencies during the last cycle — where there were entire departments who did nothing but make presentation decks. Ugh. Can you imagine?

The Measure of Reality has been an obsession since I fully comprehended the made-up nature of reality, I suppose while thinking about the social and cultural parameters of science while over-educating myself. It’s good stuff — I’m not complaining — and it makes it positively frustrating at times to communicate something where you know that everything depends on how you communicate and not only the idea living in your head. No matter how much you believe in it, you have to materialize it in such a way that other people believe in it, too. You need to enroll people in your vision to the degree that they suit up and follow.

In the world of things the Laboratory works on — weird gizmos, gadgets and devices — this becomes particularly difficult when the basis for describing a design-led vision avoids touching on technology-specific features. For some reason lists of features are legible to accountants and engineers who often have the keys to the car and decide what gets done. Here, we wouldn’t offer something up that starts with a bit of technical kit — an augmented reality sensor array or whatever — and then build around that. We would start with a peculiar people-centric platform of experience — say, an otherworldly city guide as we did for the first analog edition of the Drift Deck and as Laboratory Associate Platinum Class Jon Bell is doing for the second digital edition of the Drift Deck. Our conceit has been that experiences for people offer a richer, more meaningful and legible way of creating new stuff. Innovating, only not by stacking lists of features and parts and stuff — but at least by starting with ways of creating opportunities and experiences that lead people in new, unexpected directions. That make space for experiences that go beyond expectation. Basically creating new user experiences. I don’t think you do that just by creating new features and bolting on new technologies.

When I first wrote the draft of this post, it came to mind when the folks at Tenyagroup asked permission to use a photo (that wasn’t even mine, but whatever..) I looked at their short article and found it intriguing. At one point they say:

..great brands change the game by changing the customer, not by changing the product. They become new platforms of opportunity for a new kind of customer, freshly empowered.

Those are weird words not really in the Laboratory lexicon, but somehow it makes sense. The “changing the customer” part might be stated plainly as: offering new sorts of interaction rituals and behaviors. Merely adding a bit of technology does not translate that technology into a necessarily compelling experience. It’s back to the doorknobs joke — if you can’t translate the technology into terms and experiences legible to a normal human, you’ve just stacked yet another unnecessary ornamentation on top of everything else.

This is all swirling around an argument not to design for features lists.

For brand builders, the following definitions of “features” might be useful:

Feature – Evidence of unfinished design.
Feature – The absence of brand vision.
Feature – Fear of freeing the customer–and raising him/her to the next level.
Feature – Footprint of the committee: more is less. As a rule, good design minimizes features and maximizes customers.

(inspiration via http://tenayagroup.com/blog/2009/02/21/customers-drive-brand-growth-not-features/)

Why do I blog this? This has been sitting in the Drafts pile for 18 months and I felt it was time to just post it before it got lost to some kind of data backup failure. But, I am continuing to hunt down ways of putting design-for-people as a guiding principle ahead of just adding meaningless features. Sometimes I see ideas from powerful decision-making people that basically lists the technologies du jour as specifications for what should be made. It’s infuriating — which is entirely my fault. I wish I had the techkwondo to flip that for real, and do so in an elegant way that helps people see the trouble of trying to stick doorknobs on everything they see. Also — trying to cohere some thoughts and scraps for the upcoming Device Design Day later this month.
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*Wheels On Luggage

Luggage without wheels

A short-hand expression used in and around the studio to describe that one, usually small, unexpected and deceptively obvious designed feature that makes an artifact suddenly transformatively useful/helpful/up-graded. The kind of transformation that makes you look back and wonder how the heck you ever schlepped that awkward, sagging Samsonite with one arm across entire airports..cities..continents. Like..what took them so long to put wheels on luggage, anyway? I mean — I’m sure there’s a business case study on it ((if you know, please share with me..I’m curious..))



Above is just one example I came across and was prompted to mention briefly after Ian blogged about his feelings towards presentation software. This is a simple button to do the switch-a-roo between displays that is inevitably a big bump in getting set up to present from Keynote. Often enough, almost inevitably, your presentation notes screen gets piped to the audience display and you have to hunt about in display system settings to switch them. Always awkward to have people staring at your notes, or, worse — your desktop or email. Here’s a quick ejection button that toggles the displays right from within Keynote. No hunting for your System Settings, losing track of where the display mode modal dialog has gone, etc.

*Wheels on luggage.

More generally this idea of *wheels on luggage is useful to remind ourselves that things have not always been as they are — things have been different and they’ll be different again. It’s useful, to me at least, to think that we are in the Jurassic era for *something. Where are the exemplars around us that are waiting to have a set of four wheels put on to make things work a little bit better, a bit more humanely, or sanely? What is the relationship to all our “new” things today to what they will become sooner than we expect — E-waste? Something squirreled away in another bin of lost-and-forgotten things that we once thought we couldn’t live without? bits-and-bobs in a vintage shop display case?

Why do I blog this? I find it a very useful approach to design to imagine that I am making the past for some future, rather than the future itself. Artefacts that reflect ideas and inspiration but are things that someday will be quite ordinary, quotidian and unspectacular. Normalizing heroic ideas to the everyday yet exceptionally useful — such that they are impossible to imagine a world without. Like wheels on luggage.
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