Thursday, December 15, 2011

Occupy, Reinvent, Tweak, Design…Everything

The recent death of Steve Jobs affected me in a strangely personal way- I was quite moved in fact. It was strange because he was, on one level, just another media figure- I’ve worked with a few people who met and knew him- and there was no personal connection with him in a normal sense. But I realize now that what he and his teams at Apple did totally changed my life in a positive way: he not only delivered excellent design, he set the standards for it. I think that, just maybe, this could turn out to have much larger implications than even Mr. Jobs realized.

As Malcolm Gladwell points out in his recent New Yorker profile of Jobs, “The Tweaker,” Jobs performed  a function not always widely recognized today. Rather than develop the groundbreaking new inventions that fuel huge revolutions, he was a "tweaker" - he took the groundbreaking inventions, refined them, made them work, and got them into the market. His relentless drive to perfect and refine is quite familiar to those of us involved in creative fields. The story of his complaining about the design of the oxygen monitor that doctors placed on his finger, while he was heavily sedated and on his deathbed, kind of sums it up.

The elegant and friendly Nest thermostat
Who can possibly succeed Jobs at Apple? There has been much speculation about the role of the obsessed visionary in managing innovation in large companies and effecting broad scale change. Can big companies innovate and tweak, or is this basically the exclusive territory of ornery little startups? One hopeful sign is the recent release of the Nest thermostat, designed by former Apple exec Tony Fadell. Maybe there will be not one successor to Jobs at Apple, but many, in many companies. I look forward to a day when high product quality as exemplified by Apple products can infuse industrial design in all kinds of markets, and beyond. Why not? We've instituted a quality movement before, TQM and Six Sigma, but this was largely focused on industrial efficiency, not user interface or customer service.

Job's frustration with bad design was personal, and one of the reasons it resonates so strongly with most of us is that it's really deeply personal for everyone. Bad design seems to rule the world sometimes. This is in fact the very basis of my Enduring Supreme Existential Rant, and making a mighty effort to curtail the roiling rivers of vitriol I hold in reserve on this subject, I will cite only a few quite random examples (I'm sure you can come up with dozens of others on your own with no effort whatsoever):

  • Most consumer electronics (especially user interface schemes)
  • Sprawl (the Mother of All Bad Design)
  • Hardshell product packaging (impossible and frequently injurious to open)
  • Most Microsoft products (except, possibly, Excel)
  • Like, totally, Facebook (AKA the Comercialization of Friendship)

Sprawl, The Mother of All Bad Design.
Photo: Congress for the New Urbanism
Bad design makes our lives miserable for many reasons, but chief among them is a creeping sense that the companies responsible for it are in fact completely hostile to our existence. In many cases, we've adopted a new technology (like a phone or computer) that replaces our dependence on something we control with something we can't. The new thing works so well at saving us time and money that it's that much more damaging when it breaks down due to some critical detail that was overlooked or forgotten in design. The compact of trust between producer and user is annihilated. Another complicating factor is that often, bad design is not random or sloppy, but entirely intentional - for instance, people refer to sprawl as "cancerous" or unplanned, but in fact it's all according to code - overplanned down to the last detail of street widths and paving materials. The problem is that its entire design as prescribed by the planning code is wrong in the first place. 

Good design by definition is not just additive or decorative, but holistically considers all parts of the system-efficiency, manufacturing, distribution, materials, service and support, and most importantly, user experience. Good design is inseparable from quality- it sounds obvious, but it doesn't seem to be so for manufacturers, judging by its relative rarity in our world today. It also is not necessarily more expensive or only for McMansion dwellers. Despite the persistence of Apple's legendary price premiums, I believe that equal distribution of the services and benefits of good design was ultimately at the heart of Job's vision. remember, he was an old hippie from way back.

Charles & Ray Eames
A whole-system design approach is not new- in fact, historically, the deep specialization and compartmentalization that exemplifies our current design world is the exception rather than the rule. I grew up with Charles and Ray Eames as our big design heroes, and was very fortunate to work in Los Angeles with a few of the people who were disciples from their office. Doing most of their work together between the 1950s and the 1970s, the Eames exemplified what Mr. Jobs, in a 1985 Playboy magazine interview, praised Edwin Lan (the inventor of the Polaroid camera) for: creating products that were at the "intersection of art and science and business."

The most powerfully transformative effects of the Industrial Revolution in England, and later industrial development in the U.S.) happened not as a a result of singular inventions (i.e. the steam engine, power loom, railroads, and telegraph for example) but as a result of their rapid refinement, and more importantly their combination. We're in a similar era today, where individual game-changing innovations are probably less important overall than the continual refinement and combination of existing technologies, and like late 18th century England, the possibilities are endless. Yet we often overemphsize singular technologies over whole system thinking. In the building design and construction industries, green design is often viewed as simply adding one "green thing" (recycled bamboo floors, geothermal heat pumps, or especially a green roof with a tiny little wind turbine spinning merrily on top of it) to an otherwise unintegrated, piecemeal, business-as-usual inefficient design, when using standard off-the-shelf components in an intelligent design would produce much better results. 

Opportunities for tweaking are everywhere. Many design improvements are driven by a regulatory factors - for example, refrigerators in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and access to buildings after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed in 1990. Each achieved the intended goal (dramatically improved energy efficiency in the case of refrigerators and better access to buildings with ADA) but also produced surprising unintended "side effects" (externalities?). Refrigerators not only saved a lot of energy, they became cheaper, bigger, and performed better. Buildings and facilities not only became easier for the disabled to use, they became easier for everyone. Oxo was wildly successful translating this idea to consumer products. In short- better design was achieved, not at ultimately higher cost, but at a lower cost, while achieving multiple other objectives- an efficient outcome. 

Square credit card reader
The democratizing effects of bringing higher quality products and services to a wider market can be profound- we can start with clean drinking water, cheaper energy, and adequate food and shelter to the lower income population of the world. ( Maybe I'll do a blog about that, I'll call it Water Fire Shelter Food). One of the natural effects of energy and water efficiency is to do exactly this. The best combination of strategies is design improvements in these areas together with policy and political reform. The positive political effects of good design are becoming apparent: bringing cheap communication to the masses played a key role in the Arab Spring, which helped to ignite popular uprising in "developed" countries with the Occupy movement. Square, developed by Twitter founder Jack Dorsey and team, allows small retailers and anyone else to bypass banks and make and accept credit card payments on their cell phones. If you haven't noticed, bypassing banks is a pretty popular idea these days. Occupy Wall Street started primarily as an outlash specifically against banks and financial institutions, who have accrued undue power and basically shafted Ma and Pa Public. Occupy is the first stage of redesigning capitalism, government and the economy.

Much of good design entails getting the "default" settings right. As Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein point out in their excellent book Nudge, default settings play a huge role in how we behave and make decisions, partly because they play well to our risk aversion, but mostly because we're too busy or just plain lazy. Adjustable shelves are never adjusted. Software that comes with your computer gets used first because it's there. Autofill information in online forms sets the direction of "decision paths" far more than we realize. The problem today is that the "default" settings for life are becoming untenable. For the banks the default setting is shafting the public, and for government it's doing what big corporations want. I see a basic hostility to the user, the customer, and the environment in so many things, even in generic commodity products. We can reset the defaults, and let good design be more of a guiding principal in how we organize our lives in all respects.

There are so many relatively invisible product categories and industries that are ripe for redesign, where resetting the defaults will not only provide better product quality but yield huge energy and water efficiencies, create jobs, and stimulate the economy. On the product side, what comes to my mind first are things like lighting, HVAC, building control systems, and insulation. On the industrial side, most large scale, energy intensive processes, like glassmaking, mining, oil refining, wastewater treatment, and even data centers are fertile grounds for process improvement. Rocky Mountain Institute has been doing important work in this area for decades. In approaching this broad redesign initiative, the biggest marketing message that has to be conveyed is to equate quality with improved efficiency. This hasn't quite happened yet, people still see "green" as more expensive, but we will change this perception.

Not to get all "intelligent design" on you, but efficiency is a natural product of excellent design and engineering, and evolution is the supreme designer/engineer. For this reason we can look to biomimetic design as a great source of ideas, and not only about physical form. One of the most fascinating things about biomimicry is how it explores how social and behavioral patterns in the animal world can suggest more optimal social organization in the human world.

Good design necessarily has a political dimension to it, in that it takes into account not just materials, ROI, manufacturing and distribution, but the social, environmental, and behavioral conditions under which systems, products, or services are planned, refined, executed, and maintained, and how they evolve over time. Design  is a fundamental human activity, at the "center of art and science and business." In order to create a more stable and balanced economy and social contract, one of the things we need to do is to set much higher standards for design in many, if not most, areas of life.

1 comment:

  1. Wow...fantastic essay! Thoughtful and thought-provoking. From Lori, development manager, Asian Neighborhood Design