August 2005  

John Thackara's new book In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World is, for the most part, a real downer. If you are feeling good about the world or Web 2.0 or whatever, just read the first chapter.

One of Thackara's main themes is this: the artificial world isn't sustainable, and most of those problems begin during the design process. It's not really evil corporations destroying the world, it's us. We're doing it in small tiny increments that when added up, result in huge problems. The lightbulb you leave on. The shower you take. The manufacturing of the device that you are using to read this. Letting that device idle. All these small, seemingly harmless, things add up and are slowly destroying the environment. The internet will soon need 200 million or so IT people just to keep it running.

The book is crammed full of such facts, and unfortunately, the answer (or at least Thackara's answer) to this crushing problem is that designers need to be aware of what they are designing: the materials and the environmental and social impact of even the most discreet thing. Now, I certainly believe most of what he's saying but this is an awfully large burden for designers to bear. Or at least, bear alone. Our partners in manufacturing, development, and printing need to take on some of this burden as well.

In the Bubble is delightfully Euro-centric, which is refreshing for me as an American, but unfortunately many of the claims Thackara makes, while probably true for European cities, are decidedly not so for American ones. For example, Thackara says at one point that people are starting to buy only produce grown within 50 miles of where they live. Even in San Francisco, where I live, this would be a challenge, but probably nearly impossible in cities like Chicago, New York, Atlanta, and Los Angeles, where 50 miles out are still city suburbs.

The final chapter of the book, "Flow," works as an excellent summary of the book's ideas and of many forward-thinking ideas in Design with a big D right now. Among them:

  • From blueprint and plan to sense and respond. Moving away from thinking about design as form and structure.
  • From top down design to seeding edge effects. Imagining relationships and connections where none existed previously.
  • From blank sheets of paper to smart recombinations. Designers are constrained by the myth they have to reinvent everything. Instead we should search for solutions that have already been created in other fields, industries, and the world at large.
  • From designing for to designing with. Open models to create mass participation in the creation of a service or situation.
  • From design as project to design as service. My favorite line of the book: "In today's ultranetworked world, it makes more sense to think of design as a process that continuously defines a system's rules rather than its outcomes."
This chapter should be required reading for anyone seriously thinking about design.

As an aside, In the Bubble is really a terrible name for this book. The title refers to a phrase used by air traffic controllers to mean when they are in flow, in control. But It's more common usage (being trapped in a situation a la the bubble boy or being out of the loop) is far from positive. Who wants to design in a bubble?

All in all, a recommended read, especially the last chapter and for fans of sustainable design.

Originally posted on Tuesday, August 30, 2005 | Link | Comments (2) | Trackback (0)


Personas Gone Wild

In case you haven't seen it yet, my first essay for Adaptive Path, "Persona Non Grata," is now online.

Originally posted on Thursday, August 18, 2005 | Link | Comments (0) | Trackback (0)


Thoughts on Consulting

I have a lingering distrust of consultants. Which is ironic because I work for a design consultancy and have earned my living as one off-and-on for years. But I've also been on the other end of the equation, the consultee, and have never forgotten the experiences I've had with "experts" from outside the company, people who come in and, based on a few days of poking around, shake up the company (and charge six figures). I've worked at places that have taken disastrous turns and hired incompetent idiots based on recommendations from consultants.

This is not to say that there is no value in consultants; there is and I wouldn't be one if I didn't think there was. Sometimes, as my old professor Dick Buchanan used to say, "you need person from out of town with a briefcase" to give perspective and tell the truth. And having an outside perspective can be helpful; often the people on the inside are too busy doing their jobs to have any perspective on them. They can't see the forest for the cubicals. Consultants are also good for supplementing your workforce in areas outside your core competency. But you know this; it's Business 101.

One problem with consultants is that too many of them have an agenda far outside of making your business better. They are selling their snake-oil cure-all for your company. ("All you need to do is follow our 27-step process and your company will be healthy again!") You have to buy their agenda before you buy their solution. Your solution is tailored to their agenda, whatever that may be. With too many design firms, this means you have to buy into their exact, rigid method. There is a set way of doing every project, big or small, whether a step makes sense or not. Processes and deliverables aren't tailored to fit the project or the client.

Another sad fact is that too many consultants don't care about the success of their clients. Which seems insane, but it's true. It's easy, sometimes too easy, for a consultant to just walk away from the mess he just left for the client to clean up. Consultants should recall Raymond Loewy's story about visiting the factory and realize the success of clients is our success as well. People's financial and emotional fates are tied to ours, whether we acknowledge it or not.

I'm not implying that I'm immune from any of these criticisms; I'm not. But I'm aware of them. I'm acutely aware that whatever crazy ideas I come up with, someone's (usually many people's) jobs will be on the line when implementing them. I'm aware that as a design consultant, I'm an outsider, there for a few days, weeks, or months, not a part of the company, but as anything from an interloper to a savior, sometimes both at once and everything in-between.

Designing shouldn't be taken lightly, and people's careers and livelihoods shouldn't be either. Consultants are called in to make things better, not worse. We should adopt the physician's creed as our own: First do no harm.

Originally posted on Monday, August 15, 2005 | Link | Comments (4) | Trackback (0)


What's Your Adjective?

When ABC anchorman Peter Jennings died this past weekend, a ridiculous amount of obituaries and tributes (New York Times, Washington Post, Financial Times, AP, CBS News, and a host of others) all used one word to describe him: urbane. Despite the obvious plagiarizing, it's a good word, and one that aptly described my favorite news anchor. What cool word would you like to see in your obituary? Mine's erudite.

Originally posted on Tuesday, August 9, 2005 | Link | Comments (4) | Trackback (0)


Barking in the Yard

I just finished probably the best book I've ever read about what it's like to be a designer, analyzing and discussing the every-day paradoxes and dilemmas that one encounters while doing the job. It's American Mutt Barks in the Yard by David Barringer.

It's really one long, sprawling essay, but very engaging and thought-provoking. The writing is lucid, funny, and intense. It's probably the first design book I've ever read that I wished I'd written. Highly recommended.

Originally posted on Wednesday, August 3, 2005 | Link | Comments (0) | Trackback (0)



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