Review: Everyware

It will be hard for any interaction designer to read Adam Greenfield‘s Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing without feeling like the work we’re doing now is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

A combination call-to-arms, overview, and prophecy, Everyware is a frightening, but engaging, read. Several times throughout the book, I simply wanted to shut its covers, as though that alone would stop its predictions and reportage from coming or being true (smart toilets!). But, as Greenfield lays out with a pretty convincing case, ubicomp is coming whether we want it to or not, and designers, engineers, and politicians simply can’t ignore it. It will be too powerful and too potentially invasive. Its consequences are too great.

A number of books lately, including this one and Shaping Things, have presented a remarkable view of the near future, a near future that we are going to have to help shape. I hope we’re ready, although I know we’re not.

Highly recommended.

Time Shifts: Annoyingly-Overused Narrative Device

A trend I’ve observed in hour-long drama series lately is the desire to show, at the beginning of the episode, the most dramatic moment of that episode. Then, in brief bits, show the events leading up to that. Battlestar Galactica has used this in two mediocre episodes in a row now.

It’s a cheap, easy device to build tension but unlike, say, Lost’s flashbacks that reveal character and add layers of depth, these time shifts do nothing to increase our understanding of the situation or of the characters involved.

Time shifts can be used effectively. A great China Beach episode “Holly’s Choice” was told backwards, but did it to inventively reveal the small choices that led to a major decision. The movie Memento too was told backwards to great effect.

If you need to jump in time to increase tension and spark interest in the episode, my guess is that the story isn’t very strong.

Review: Bruce Sterling’s Shaping Things

Author-cum- design-critic Bruce Sterling has written another great book on design, Shaping Things. Ignore its surprisingly sophomore-typography-project design, with its ugly, Adaptive Path green and wacky type choices throughout; it’s really a must-read for interaction and industrial designers alike.

As he did in Tomorrow Now and his keynote speech at SIGGRAPH 2004, Sterling makes a timeline of objects, starting with artifacts (“things made by hand, used by hand, and powered by muscle”) and going through machines, products, gizmos, and finally spimes, the objects of the future. It’s a great model. Spimes are about sustainability, creating objects so full of information that they are able to be tracked and monitored throughout their entire lifecycle, allowing us to see the impact of each item on our natural environment. Indeed, sustainability is a major theme of this book, much like John Thackara’s In The Bubble.

A great nugget from the book is the idea of metahistory.

“Every culture has a metahistory. This is not the same as their actual history, an account of places and events. A metahistory is a cultural thesis on the subject of time itself. Metahistory is about what’s gone by, what comes next, and what all that is supposed to mean to sensible people…a cultures metahistory helps it to determine whether new things are appropriate…”

Sterling uses metahistory for broad cultures, but I am going to suggest that organizations also have them, and that designers have to muck about with them all the time when creating products (in the generic, not Sterling-sense of the word).

Sterling also goes through probably the best breakdown of Raymond Loewy‘s MAYA principle that I’ve ever read. Part of this breakdown is a discussion of what it means to be “designery.” To whit:

“Being designery is not an affectation. Being designery is how one manipulates MAYA in public. Being designery is what one does, as a practical measure, in order to overcome the reactionary clinging to the installed base of malformed objects that maul and affront the customer. What cannot be overcome with reason can be subverted with glamor.”

Sterling goes into a discussion that should be of great interest to interaction designers about RFID tags (“arphids”) and how, combined with monitors and wireless, they could form an internet of things, communicating with each other and the internet like a swarm. Really fascinating stuff.

Near the end of the book, Sterling reaches a little far into the future for my taste, but then I’m a designer, not a prophet.

For a book with a good amount of theory, it’s very readable. Recommended.

Comic Books and Threaded Narratives

Unpacking from my move, I stumbled onto two boxes filled with the comic books I collected as a teenager from 1983-1986, a habit I got into thanks to walking past a comic book store on my way home from school. Naturally, over the course of the last couple of months I’ve had to re-read most of them. While some of them are pretty badly written, others bear a striking resemblance in quality and intricacy to the best of this era’s TV shows: Lost, Battlestar Gallactica, Prison Break and even some less high-concept shows like Six Feet Under.

As Steven Johnson pointed out in his great book Everything Bad is Good for You, television shows have gotten considerably more complex over the last thirty years. A show like Starsky and Hutch (1970s) might have a single story arc; Hill Street Blues (1980s) might have four. But a show like Lost has around 20 plotlines happening at any given time, both macro- and micro-plots.

Pick up any of the Chris Claremont/John Byrne X-Men issues from roughly #130-#175 (mid 1970s-mid 80s) and you’ll find a very similar thing happening, albeit with a lot more cues as to what is going on than you’ll get in, say, Deadwood. At any given time, you’ve got a dozen or so plots going on, some of them stretching back years, some contained only in that issue. Some are as small (but important) as a personal relationship (love can have devastating consequences in comics), others as big as saving the universe. It’s essentially a soap opera, albeit one populated with people possessing super powers.

While some shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer reportedly acknowledge their debt to comic books, my guess is it goes a lot deeper than that. My hunch is that a lot of the TV shows we’re watching now are staffed by people who grew up reading comics and have simply imported that sensibility over to TV. Shows like Alias simply feel like a filmed comic book. And let’s not forget that on Lost, Walt was reading a comic book with a polar bear in it before the plane crashed…

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.

Come Back, Raymond Loewy: All is Forgiven

Anyone who thinks the problems of today’s designers are unique should read Raymond Loewy’s 1951 book Never Leave Well Enough Alone. It’s a glimpse into a time when another design discipline, industrial design, was in its nascent stage, just like interaction design is today.

Loewy, for those of you who aren’t up on your design history, was one of the premier industrial designers of the mid-20th century. He (or more correctly his firm) did a staggeringly broad selection of designs, from refrigerators to trains to logos, and changed the look of products forever. His most famous dictum is the MAYA principle: Most Advanced Yet Acceptable.

Reading Never Leave Well Enough Alone as a 21st century designer is a little like looking into a warped funhouse mirror. So many of the issues and problems he tackles during his career echo the same ones we face right now with our digital devices. Of course, you have to look past the casual sexism that pervades the book, which should probably be expected from a book written in 1951 by a middle-aged French businessman. You also have to get past Loewy’s not-inconsiderable ego. But some of the tidbits are worth it.

After arriving in New York after WWI, Loewy began his career as a fashion illustrator. Through a series of chance encounters and chutzpah, he ended up designing cars and in the process helped launch the discipline of what became known as industrial design. Listen to his description of the industrial products of the early 20th century and see if they don’t sound like the digital products of the early 21st:

“The first mechanical products were put together by men of ingenuity and resourcefulness. Their prime objective was to make the contraption–whether a coffee grinder, a lifting crane, or a steam engine–work. Will it work? was the question. No one gave a thought to cost and far less to appearance. Products were “engineered as you go” and they betrayed this technique by their haphazard, disorderly look.”

Windows 95 anyone? Hell, for that matter, three-quarters of the software, websites, and devices out there.

Loewy starts working for Chrysler to redo the look of their automobiles and is immediately told by the engineers everything he can’t do. He spends months working on designs only to have them ignored or misinterpreted or implemented incorrectly by the engineers. It’s frustrating, but slowly he builds trust (he spends his own money building prototypes often) and his business.

The business side of things is interesting as well. In an uncharacteristically quiet moment for him, Loewy describes the toil of the business trip:

“I would like to be able to forget those business-getting trips in the Middle West, pushing doorbell after doorbell of small plants and factories…these trips were an ordeal…the long wait in the November rain for the sad streetcar that would bring me back…to my hotel, tired and feeling grippy, disillusioned, lonely–and empty-handed. But above all, so tired.”

Loewy’s business philosophy was pretty simple: 1) do something well, 2) deliver it on time, and 3) stick to your word. His other rules sprung from this philosophy and his experience: 1) deliver designs on time, 2) do careful follow-up with the client’s engineering staff, and 3) constantly check on the client’s competition. And his one unalterable rule was this: “Nothing is to come out of the R.L. offices until it has been checked and double-checked for practicability and manufacturability. Heads of divisions will be held directly responsible for the observance of this design policy.” By 1939, after about a decade of work (most of it during The Great Depression) in a field that hadn’t previously existed, Loewy had over a hundred people working for him and a penthouse office in New York. Impressive.

Loewy’s book is filled with anecdotes, some pointless, some poignant. He relates a story of being taken to a client’s factory in Dayton and shown the hundreds of men working there, and reminded of their dependents and of all the people not in the factory involved in the product he designed, three hundred and twenty thousand people in all “directly affected by the success or failure of what you put on paper.” “We never lose contact with reality,” Loewy later reflects. “and we do not underestimate our social responsibilities. As we have over one hundred clients on our list, it may well be that the soundness of our designs affects the lives of millions.” It’s refreshing and rare to hear a designer acknowledge such a deep connection to his clients. When Loewy became head of the Society of Industrial Designers (now IDSA) the first thing he does is establish a code of ethics.

At the end of the book, Loewy touches on the future of industrial design and its ultimate goal: to create peace of mind.

“The countless and incessant complexities and disturbances of everyday life are so many handicaps making this goal all the more difficult to reach. Sensory unpleasantness created by ugly form, color, feel, noises, temperatures, or smoke are so many obstacles on the road to our destination…Transcending his early purpose, which was merely surface styling, the industrial designer becomes an integral part in the planning of every product, service, or structure. His presence at the inception stage will increase assurance that the end product shall be as free as possible of annoying features…the designer will try to make it more pleasant for you.”

Amen, Raymond Loewy, amen.