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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 at Tuesday, August 30, 2005 | Comments (2) | Trackback (0)

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