Design for Failure


With regrets to Aaron for the blurry, noisy photo of himself..Taken in Montreal Canada at Design Engaged 2008.

For no particular reason — perhaps a salute to Nicolas who will be presenting his work on design for failure at IxDA this week — I bring you this image taken during DE2008 in which Aaron Straup Cope discusses designing engineering systems with failure contingency as the critical path.

Why do I blog this? I find this perspective intriguing — it assumes system meltdown, anticipates it and delivers appropriate data to indicate when it might happen. If I remember correctly, there is no specific interest in being exact about failure, just that it will happen and you might be told roughly how long until it happens. So the effort is to help stave it off by various means — adding more servers to spread activity loads around, optimize queries, increase caching, whatever you need to do. This makes me think of the intractability of designing for deletion. If someone wants to extricate themselves from the databases of a service or system, there is almost certainly no quick and easy way — in fact, I doubt there is anyway at all, and most services are not obligated to handle these situations. If I told Google that I wanted to check out fully and completely, even if they wanted to do this, it is doubtful they could. Would someone have to run through all the backup *whatever — tapes? — wherever they may be? It’s not just the live systems, and its not just purging caches and so on. All of our data is on its own, like orphaned snapshots of moments in our lives, somewhere. I don’t necessarily find this chilling or anything like that. I’m just curious about this notion — designing for intractable, ugly, messy circumstances, like failure or deletion. Things that run counter to the intuition — we usually design for the beautiful, full, glorious 32-bit conditions.
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Design Fiction @ Design Engaged 2008


Design Engaged 2008 winds down with a series of quite enjoyable “wrap-up” presentations from some real-world adventures amongst four groups who went out into the field yesterday after the last of the presentations on Saturday. Thanks to everyone and especially Andrew, Boris, Mouna, and Jenn for their hard work and especially for the invitation! Now we wait for Ben’s wrap-up presentation with some discussion.

In the meantime, I’ll quickly post the slides from my really, really early-days presentation called “Design Fiction” where I look at various kinds of prototyping as kinds of prop-making whereby objects are speculations and “conversation pieces” helping to craft and author stories about what the world could be like. This work reaches back to my dissertation, or a chapter of it, where I investigate the role that special-effects play, particularly in sci-fi film, in heping create a convincing story. It goes deeper though — there’s a precedent for film props to be quite slippery in their cultural power, with the props serving as conduits between the “laboratory” and the “set” as locales of meaning-making.

Design is a kind of authoring practice (but different in important ways that have yet to be worked out in my mind from writing words on paper — writing is not the same as what design does when working with material, and the histories and specifics of the practices are quite distinct), crafting material visions of different kinds of possible worlds. Design’s various ways of articulating ideas in material to create social objects and experiences can be seen as a kind of practice close to writing fiction. This is a presentation about the relationship between design, science fiction and the material elements that help tell visual stories about the future — props and special effects. The questions here are this: How does design participate in shaping possible near future worlds? How does the integration of story telling, technology, art and design provide opportunities to re-imagine how the world may be in the future?

What are the ways we imagine and represent the near future? How can we use design and designed artifacts of various sorts to shift our representations of the future to encompass multiple futures? How can design become the prop-making craft for hopefully more habitable, sustainable near-future worlds?

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