January 9, 2013
"There is a tendency to view the site, the poster, the logo or the product as the purpose of design when it is not. We will only make design a force in creating the future if we see it not as an end in itself, but as a tool, a medium, a lever in a process of ongoing transformation—and if we take full responsibility for the transformation we engender. “What will we accomplish with this?” is the question we must never forget ask, and to honestly answer. That will be the work of the designer of the future."

— I have had many conversations with the inestimable Cheryl Heller about the meaning and purpose of “design thinking.” She’s a smart thinker and writer — not to mention the founder of the new Design for Social Innovation program at SVA. Where Design is Going, and How to be There is her manifesto for future designers, and it’s well worth a read. 

November 29, 2012
I don’t have anything particularly insightful to add to the news that MoMA has acquired 14 video games for its permanent collection, apart from a hearty “hurrah!” and slight confusion about what it means for a museum to “acquire” a video game. Luckily, MoMA’s Paola Antonelli comes to the rescue on that last front, writing a detailed post on the museum’s blog:

In order to be able to preserve the games, we should always try to acquire the source code in the language in which it was written, so as to be able to translate it in the future, should the original technology become obsolete. 

Then of course there’s the issue of curating the backend of the game (the part that arguably contains the creators’ true creativity), the code. Writes Antonelli:

We request any corroborating technical documentation, and possibly an annotated report of the code by the original designer or programmer. Writing code is a creative and personal process. Interviewing the designers at the time of acquisition and asking for comments and notes on their work makes preservation and future emulation easier.

Then there are the rights issues, which can only be legion. So it’s not perhaps as simple a slamdunk as you might have imagined, and hats off to MoMA for recognizing the artistry and genius of the likes of Pac-Man, Katamari Damacy, and The Sims (with Pong, Asteroids and Donkey Kong still to come.)
[Pac-man image via Flickr/methodshop.com.]

I don’t have anything particularly insightful to add to the news that MoMA has acquired 14 video games for its permanent collection, apart from a hearty “hurrah!” and slight confusion about what it means for a museum to “acquire” a video game. Luckily, MoMA’s Paola Antonelli comes to the rescue on that last front, writing a detailed post on the museum’s blog:

In order to be able to preserve the games, we should always try to acquire the source code in the language in which it was written, so as to be able to translate it in the future, should the original technology become obsolete.

Then of course there’s the issue of curating the backend of the game (the part that arguably contains the creators’ true creativity), the code. Writes Antonelli:

We request any corroborating technical documentation, and possibly an annotated report of the code by the original designer or programmer. Writing code is a creative and personal process. Interviewing the designers at the time of acquisition and asking for comments and notes on their work makes preservation and future emulation easier.

Then there are the rights issues, which can only be legion. So it’s not perhaps as simple a slamdunk as you might have imagined, and hats off to MoMA for recognizing the artistry and genius of the likes of Pac-Man, Katamari Damacy, and The Sims (with Pong, Asteroids and Donkey Kong still to come.)

[Pac-man image via Flickr/methodshop.com.]

November 20, 2012
"If you have zillions of dollars and all the time in the world, I don’t think you’re going to produce great art. And you certainly won’t feel like sticking it to the man who’s giving you those zillions. It’s funny, isn’t it? In an ideal world, you wouldn’t have the types of pressures that can lead to great art."

How the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine gave rise to modern animation is a beautiful homage to the legendary 1968 animation film. Written by Simpsons writer and Futurama producer, Josh Weinstein, the piece gives great insight into the paradox of the artistic process. He includes an important lesson on “how brilliant things get produced,” which he describes simply: “it’s called trusting in artists and letting them do their stuff.” For control freaky executives used to calling every shot, this is the hardest lesson to learn of all.

November 20, 2012
"It’s okay to be imperfect, to embrace Williamsburg."

So says Melody Roberts, senior director, experience design innovation at McDonald’s, in this Fast Company piece, 3 Big Insights From Today’s Top Design Thinkers. Her insight is actually right on, that one extra-large size no longer fits all, but mainly I love this funny way of putting it, as if Williamsburg hipsters are actually representative of a genuine counter-culture. Here’s the thing: it’s more than likely that in midwest-headquartered McDonald’s, they really are. That’s not to meant to sound snobby—god knows, I’m the furthest thing from any kind of hipster you’re ever likely to find. What’s useful is that this neatly helps to explain the real challenge for Roberts and designers in such ginormous companies, especially those looking to tap into the slippery “yoof” market. Given that company leaders are inevitably far removed from any kind of actual “edge,” how far do designers push things? How can they be careful not to clutch desperately at the tail of an ever-elusive cultural animal that is forever changing its shape—and thus always appear one step behind? How can they not terrify their own internal audience with fuzzy tales of an amorphous society that is too unformed to have any true sense of its own identity? The answer: don’t even try. Grab onto the safe side of grit, instead. And thus: hello, Williamsburg.

November 19, 2012
"Our engineers and scientists actually go and build their own prototypes and test the rigs themselves. And the reason we do that—and I don’t force people to do that, by the way, they want to do it—is that when you’re building the prototype, you start to really understand how it’s made and what it might do and where its weaknesses might be. If you merely hand a drawing to somebody and say, “Would you make this, please?” and in two weeks he comes back with it and you hand it to someone else who does the test, you’re not experiencing it. You’re not understanding it. You’re not feeling it. Our engineers and scientists love doing that."

Sir James Dyson, he of bagless vacuum cleaner fame, talks innovation, design, and entrepreneurship with Wired’s Shoshana Berger in How James Dyson Makes the Ordinary Extraordinary. I loved his description of the hands-on working environment he fosters at his company (above), while I also liked his take on patents, namely that they’re critically important when used correctly: 

If you really want to improve technology, if you want things to work better and be better, you’ve got to protect the person who spends a lot of effort, money, and time developing that new technology. But you can’t patent something that another skilled engineer in the field could have calculated or done with his basic knowledge.

You listening, Apple, with your patented page turn insanity?

And, well, now that we’re on the topic of patents, I loved this recent tweet from hacker/artist, Zach Lieberman:

So what happened next? I asked. Lieberman’s reply:

That link details changes to US patent law that came into effect in September, and those that will kick in in March of next year. It’s well worth a look…

October 31, 2012
"Jodhpurs to me belong more to the dancing master. But once elegant now almost baggy trousers — baggy through preoccupation with more important things — is character."

— Thanks to Andrew Blau for pointing me in the direction of this wonderful note from Gene Wilder, contemplating the design of his costumes as Willy Wonka. Part of this world, Part of another was written to the film’s director Mel Stuart, and shows Wilder’s obsessive attention to detail and awareness of the impact of costume design on the audience. Love it.

October 31, 2012
"If you were to walk through an architecture school today—and I don’t recommend it—you’d think that the height of invention was to make your building look like a Venus flytrap, or that mathematically efficient triangular spaceframes were the answer to everything, every problem of space and habitability. But this is like someone really good at choosing fonts in Microsoft Word. It doesn’t matter what you can do, formally, to the words in your document if those words don’t actually say anything."

This is an astonishingly beautiful piece of writing, an obituary for the architect Lebbeus Woods, who died this week “just as the hurricane was moving out of New York City and as his very neighborhood, Lower Manhattan, had temporarily become part of the Atlantic seabed, floodwaters pouring into nearby subway tunnels and knocking out power to nearly every building south of 23rd Street, an event seemingly predicted, or forewarned, by Lebbeus’s own work.”

The whole obituary, by Geoff Manaugh, is well worth reading, for its personal insight into why Woods’s work matters so much, as well as its thoughtfulness, humility, and all-round-general-loveliness. The paragraph above particularly caught my eye for two reasons: firstly, how sad that an architecture expert (and teacher) clearly doesn’t think much of the state of architecture education; and secondly, doesn’t this statement extend to the design field at large (and anyone in the business of “content creation,” I suppose)? Doesn’t the idea of “someone really good at choosing fonts in Microsoft Word” resonate for you? We’ve all become so adept at the superficial that we can forget to ask the difficult questions about why we’re even doing something in the first place. It’s not often that an obituary sparks as many questions as it answers, but it’s somehow deeply appropriate this would be the case for one of Lebbeus Woods. He would surely have approved.

October 22, 2012
"Designers create solutions – the products and services that propel us forward. But artists create questions — the deep probing of purpose and meaning that sometimes takes us backward and sideways to reveal which way “forward” actually is."

Well, hello there, can o’ worms. Nice to see you again.

Designers and artists seem to love to immerse themselves in the “but what is it?” question of their very identity. And in a piece for Wired, RISD president John Maeda leaps right into the fray, arguing that now that everyone has come around to the idea that design matters, design, well, no longer matters quite so much.

If Design’s No Longer the Killer Differentiator, What Is? is an interesting piece with some smart ideas. But it also concerns me in that I think its central thesis is, well, wrong. Yes, of course artists play a pivotal role in our society, provoking us, delighting us, making us think, making us laugh, helping us to re-imagine our world and current reality. But Maeda’s separation of the two disciplines (above) seems unconvincing — mainly because I’d argue that the very best designers are also extremely adept at asking the questions that really matter. Only then they marry that skill with the ability to translate insights into solutions for the real world.

Frankly we need those kinds of people more now than ever, along with executives who can both understand the field’s potential, and support and sustain those trying to do it. Design needs visionaries, but it also needs professionals who understand the realities of business. It certainly doesn’t need to take a giant step backwards to the days of old in which practitioners were mainly known for bitching about why their pesky clients were getting in the way of their vision with tedious practical-minded issues such as how the hell something might actually be brought to market.

As for the idea that everyone now understands that design is a clear differentiator? Please. Look around you. The power of good design might be a hot buzz-phrase, but it sure isn’t a reality in most areas of our lives. Would it be at all possible to stick with the tough work of showing how and why design matters before trying to start a new bandwagon rolling?

Chris Riley wrote a good response on his blog: “Design may no longer be the killer differentiator but we still need to solve the problem that design was designed to solve: human connection.” For now, I’d argue it might be a little premature to stick the nail in the coffin of design, and it’s a bit sad that the discipline’s own senior figureheads seem to want to do just that.

October 9, 2012
"Artists are the interface between revolutions and life. Artists bring in the human factor to revolutions that get their start in technology and science. We’re used to thinking that progress comes from the technology, science, and financial sectors. Culture brings, in truth, a slower, more sustainable, more holistic and trustworthy kind of progress."

Newly minted director of R&D (and former senior curator of architecture and design) at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Paola Antonelli muses in an interview with Architect magazine about what she’ll be getting up to in her new role. I love this insight above… As my colleague Larry Keeley likes to say, actively trying to change culture is like trying to stick a pin in a cloud, but it certainly happens, and being conscious about how such changes are being driven is a noble endeavor.

[Story via Allison Arieff.]

October 7, 2012

Um. This is AMAZING and, as MOMA design guru Paola Antonelli put it, “I want to go to there.” The Guardian’s Oliver Wainwright visits a new installation at the Barbican in London, where visitors get to walk through a torrential downpour without getting in the slightest bit wet. Love the comment from one of the creators, Stuart Wood of the collective Random International, as he grapples with the perennial art vs design conundrum. “No would-be designer would create something that’s completely pointless,” he says, justifying his self-description as artist. That’s as maybe, but I for one find this type of installation far from pointless. Magical, in fact.

October 2, 2012
An amazing group… with nary a designer among them

The 2012 class of MacArthur Fellows is suitably impressive, filled with amazing people doing incredible things in their chosen fields. From neurosurgery to journalism to geochemistry to astronomy to music, it’s all here… apart from design, that is.

I surely can’t be alone in noticing the distinct absence of any designers, really of any type. Sure, Olivier Guyon is designing telescopes and astronomical hardware. Benoît Rolland is creating violin bows. Photographers and film makers are here, too. These are amazing, amazing people, but they’re not “designers” in the traditional sense. Does this matter? Well, to me at least, the absence of a graphic artist, a typographer or a digital designer (say) speaks volumes about the state of the industry itself. The design industry pleads with itself to get the respect it is quite sure it deserves, while the rest of the world merely shrugs, if it pays any attention at all.

Perhaps most promising for the design industry as a whole is the acknowledgement of the work of Maurice Lim Miller, an innovator in the social space who, as his bio puts it, designs “

programs of mutual support and self-sufficiency that break the cycle of economic dependency for low-income families and build more resilient communities from the ground up.” From OpenIDEO to the Acumen Fund, attention is being paid to design in this space, and it presents a promising path to the future. But design educators, design professionals and, indeed, design writers, all have a lot of work to do to make a case more convincingly that this stuff actually matters.

October 1, 2012
"The lack of insight overall was palpable."

I wasn’t at the recent Global Design Forum, but judging from the reviews, I didn’t miss much, even as the event itself apparently missed its moment to make a mark. Richard Eisermann has a good review, in which he bemoans the missed opportunity: 

The Global Design Forum, held on 18 September in London, was billed as “one day to set the global agenda for design”. It fell well short of this lofty ambition. It was about design, yes, but it wasn’t particularly global and it certainly wasn’t a forum.

The tart observation above actually comes from a comment on Eisermann’s piece from Nico Macdonald. In it, he nails some of the topics I’ve been thinking about for years:

My contribution to the debate (and I was one of the few able to speaker from the floor in the limited time) was to observe that while design thinking had been originated by designers it has now been taken over by management consultants and other people in professional services, partly because it was a loose concept that was able to be adopted by others. I noted that speakers such as Tom Dixon were not able to properly interpret the data they presented. And Charles Leadbeater’s forecasting was so impressionistic he considered it could be done by talking to his 12-year-old-son.

In a context in which many designers find it so difficult to grapple with other domains I asked the speakers what’s one thing designers needed to do, or do better, to ‘step up to the plate’ and be taken seriously in the boardroom.

Suffice it to say, many of the designers at the event were not able to step up and answer him satisfactorily. And this, right here, seems to be the major obstacle facing the design industry and its continued quest to be integrated into the highest echelons of business. Just wishing it will not make it so.

October 1, 2012
"You lose money every month, eventually there’s no restaurant, right?… It is so important that we, as chefs, understand how to manage in a way that we are not losing money. Because otherwise there is no point."

In Check, Please, John Colapinto peeks into the kitchen of Eleven Madison Park, the upscale NYC restaurant that charges $195 for its tasting menu. The co-owners, Will Guidara and chef Daniel Humm, are striking in their practical approach to running their business, while the piece is full of fascinating insights into the management of food. Some of the other tidbits that stood out:

Grant Achatz of Alinea got rid of tablecloths from his Chicago restaurant, saving himself $42,000 a year.

Staff at the restaurant Daniel monitor diners via cameras to ensure that service is as fast as humanly possible. Not for the benefit of said diners, it should be added, but so that the restaurant can maximize the number of people who eat there each night.

Says Guidara: “If you ever make a decision first and foremost to make money, it will end as well… Every decision needs to start with it making you better. And then you have to ask yourself, ‘Is this also a good financial decision?’ “

September 17, 2012
Jason Fried: Questions to ask when reviewing design

This is smart. Jason Fried of 37signals has written a post about the design review process. As he writes, “over the past couple days I’ve been writing down every question I’ve been asking when I look at a design-in-progress.”

It’s a really useful list, and worth taking a look at the whole thing, but here are the first ten questions:

  1. What does it say?
  2. What does it mean?
  3. Is what it says and what it means the same thing?
  4. Do we want that?
  5. Why do we need to say that here?
  6. If you stopped reading here, what’s the message?
  7. What’s the take away after 8 seconds?
  8. How does this make you feel?
  9. What’s down below?
  10. How else can we say this?

August 16, 2012
"When our UX is compared to the unexpected competitor Apple’s iPhone, the difference is truly that of Heaven and Earth. It’s a crisis of design."

All Things D has a copy of an internal Samsung memo that contains frank opinion from JK Shin, Samsung’s head of mobile communications. The quote above is just the start. Isn’t it fascinating to see the weight being placed on design by these huge technology bigwigs? Samsung has actually done a pretty good job of supporting design in the past decade or so. Yet in what could yet prove to be a classic example of companies failing to notice competition under their nose, it still looks like it was blindsided by a company willing to play by different rules as it was hellbent on monitoring what Nokia was up to. Fascinating.