Thursday, November 10, 2016

Ancient Words

I like poetry.  Reading ancient poetry reveals the similarity of emotional concerns over time.  I was looking at 10th century poetry from Arab Andalusia (southern Spain) and noted it shares the lyric tradition of Sappho 1600 years prior.  I can image the evening soirĂ©es where this poetry was read, what a way to end a day!

I particularly identified with a poem by Ibrahim ib Ulthman’s “Apology” that who shows a respectful treatment for the “gift of the Muses”.

          Don’t cross me off as fickle
because a singing voice
has captured my heart,

One must be serious sometimes
and lighthearted at other times;

like wood from which come
both the singers’ lute
and the warrior’s bow.

This poem was attractive to me because it characterizes my personality.  Someone who enjoys laughter and even being silly yet my underlying temperament can be deadly serious.  Humor does not preclude serious opinions and emotions.  The fact that someone one thousand years ago can describe me is a pleasant reminder of the commonality of humanity and the shared traits across time and culture.

Imagine this peaceful scene of friendship, food and drink as illustrated in Abd al-Aziz ibn al-Qabtrnuh’s “Invitation”:

Your friend invites you
to enjoy two shimmer pots
already giving off
a savory odor,
some perfumes,
a carafe of wine,
a delicious place

Although in somewhat of a contrast, I encountered an epitaph that highlighted the fear and sadness we also share with the ancients.  The ancient Greek scholar, Kallimachos (c. 294-235 BC) recited the following epitaph for a son: “His father Philip laid here the twelve-year old boy Nikoteles:  his dearest hope.”

I am left graced by the walk through these poems and pleasantly satisfied that one can speak with a neighbor of so long ago.  I am very thankful for translators who handled these difficult works!

Monday, November 7, 2016

Philosophical Foundations of the Maker Movement

Science has limits. The scientific method gets touched by social forces, at least according to philosophers such as Kuhn and Feyerabend.  Into this gap in science flows the notion of design by building and the maker movement.  Here we can design and build things with fewer of these social forces guiding our ways.  The following is extracted from my talk at the 4th International Conference on Design Creativity last Friday.

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“For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize” opined Aristotle who understood the importance of human curiosity and the notion of wonder. The maker movement reflects our appreciation of wonder, joy of discovery, and venturing into the unknown.

Data usually drives paradigms, from grounded theory approaches in the social sciences to inferential statistics. Other formal approaches to confirming hypotheses from data have been developed. For example, the Bayesian approach strives to quantify how data confirms one hypothesis over another. More evidence can elevate the “degree of belief” to a higher value and cause a convergence of mental models. However, data, or in a general sense evidence, are a product of data acquisition methods. Evidence is also routed through biases connected with epistemology and context. Moreover, evidence is routed through paradigms. All of these issues, whether data errors or biases are a threat to objectivity. The interface of evidence and bias can be summarized by Heisenberg’s assertion that the world cannot be separated from our perception of it.

Applying the notions of the philosophy of science to making may seem to push certain connections too far. Creating physical objects can create Locke’s notion of ‘sensitive knowledge’ in which sensory ideas are produced by an experience one does not understand. However, making, at least in the realm of inventing, relates to science in terms of empiricism and are seeking some flavor of usefulness. If one asserts that science contains helpful truths, makers can apply distinctive hermeneutics to pursue their goal. Interpretive epistemologies such as ethnography are common in making. A maker may use participant ethnography to investigate the needs of his or her community.

The philosophies of science provide helpful insights in recognizing that science has constraints in the forms of paradigms, group dynamics, intellectual ecologies, bias and errors. Furthermore, new objects and experiences can be created when working outside these constraints. Makers are free to work outside established paradigms and intellectual ecologies. Moreover, the sheer volume of production developed by makers can provide evidence of success in unexpected areas and favor participant based ethnographic design approaches. The melding of the voluminous potential of makers with information technology provides a tremendous resource for future advances.

Taken from my presentation at the 4th International Conference on Design Creativity. Complete paper available at:

Monday, October 17, 2016

Visual stereotypes in design

Visual stereotypes in design

Visual stereotypes in product design derive from mechanistic requirements as well as concessions to mass produced items, transportation and material heritage such as can be seen in items ranging from sewing machines to trucks. The human body can motivate certain proportions and dimensions (anthropometrics) as seen with medical devices, bicycles and the like. Stereotypes are hard to break even in the fine arts. You see breaks as artistic revolutions such as cubism, impressionism etc. In the mechanical world, stereotypes become a marketing grip so they are difficult to divorce.  Therefore, a toy gun looks like a real gun and a current staplers look like one from 50 years ago.

These are expected proportions of a hot dog, pickup truck and drill

                         New York’s Chrysler building representing Art Deco

Repetition of design features in Dyson and Lamborghini products

First step in design?

Methodical approaches to product design can be especially helpful when designing for a foreign culture or working within a strict brand identity. One helpful design technique is identifying the typical shape or form of an object, referred to as the visual stereotype. This identified form represents an archetype upon which to start a design or as a baseline to compare a new design’s non-mechanistic appeal in qualitative analyses.  

Visual stereotypes are exemplars of shape or form that provide a culturally relevant expectation of category, experience and function. The visual stereotype helps us understand such things as the product’s role or its brand association. A good example of the power of visual stereotype is seen in American pickup trucks in which the proportions have remained unchanged for over 40 years.

The visual stereotype can also present a design feature conveyed through a family of designs. This feature could be a subtle part of brand image and is a complimentary feature to include in designs seeking to embrace a brand identity. Certain features are identified with design movements such as repeating geometric lines and streamlined forms in Art Deco. Features are also repeated in brands such as the organic forms in Dyson vacuum cleaners or facets in the newest Lamborghini automobiles. Color has long been used in brand identity but there is a movement towards color customization  that reduces this unique brand affiliation.

Because the amalgam of product shapes leads to a stereotype, outline drawings derived from photographs   can  be   superpositioned as data in establishing stereotypical outlines. Photographs can be digitally enhanced to produce high contrast, at which point they can be imported to CAD. After profiles are outlined, they are superimposed upon one another, a process that creates the visual stereotype that establishes proportions.
When a visual stereotype is identified, designers can use it to provide a foundation for starting a design or for guidance in incorporating subtle design elements into brand sensitive designs.

Changes in painting

Fishing Boat Example

 One example of using a visual stereotype was in design work I did in Malaysia in which I identified a curve fit of the sheer line of a 'Class B' fishing boat. An equation was developed that represented a curve running between the high point at the bow, the low point amidships and the high point at the stern that was used as a starting point for my design.  This improved the objectivity of this ethnographic design pursuit by using the identifiable feature of anticipated form and proportion.  The lines drawing below shows the final design and you can see its origins in the identified visual stereotype.


Range of profiles, Mersing, Malaysia

Some of this writing derives from my book, “Engineering for Industrial Designers and Inventors: Fundamentals for Designers of Wonderful Things" ( 

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Do we still need engineers?

I use gut instinct and math when I design things.  I use tables when I need them, equations where I can.  Good old traditional engineering -- standing on the shoulders of giants and moving with baby steps.  However, so many programs take a CAD file and do magic upon them in such a way that I feel like a Fiat at a top fuel drag race.

We are awash in AI driven knowledge embedded programs that take basic layouts or full blown parametric models and give fascinating results.  My jaw has dropped more than a few times and I am left with phrases like:

     “But do you know what is really going on?”
     “Do you really trust these results?”
     “Are you sure it’s not just a pretty picture?”
      And finally, “garbage in, garbage out.”  The words of all             middle aged know it alls.

However, there is a lot of meat on these analysis programs. 

Engineering is no longer math – it is deep, textured insight into a design.  In the mechanical world, it is understanding how loads, temperatures and flows affect things.  It is knowing how something can be used and misused.  Human insight is the spark we bring to analysis.  Engineers and others in the design professions also bring creativity and beauty to design in a way that these smarty pants programs can only dream of.

Whenever the next dazzling revision of engineering (or rendering) software comes out, pick up your jaw and put your pencil to the napkin.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Makerspace Roundtable Discussion

Here is a roundtable discussion on the makerspace movement.  I talked too much but I was excited.

Apple's Design Patents

Businesses can be built on utility patents – we would pack as many independent claims as possible into them.  Design patents are desperate measures to create legal hurdles.  The US Supreme Court is getting involved with a court decision that originally won Apple $1 billion in claims against Samsung.  Easier than working I suppose.  While the settlement got reduced to nearly half this amount, it still represents a lot of money.
As a sometimes visual artist, I appreciate the protections afforded to works of art and design.  However, if someone buys your painting – they own it.  If they decide to cut a notch out of it so it fits around a window frame that is there business, although I think the artist should have the right to have his or her name removed from the work.  However, industrial design is not art, it is a commercial enterprise that creates alluring products and environments for consumers.  While the talents expressed can include aesthetics and manifest themselves with intriguing form factors and color palettes – these are subtle element and do not deserve the same protection as the technology that operates behind them.
The US Supreme Court will now look at who owns “rounded corners” and boxy forms.  This slippery assault will always be a losing battle.  The 1987 Braun ET66 calculator looks a lot like the Apple iPhone and so do some of the rocks I find in nearby creeks.
Minimalism is in vogue now but it is a difficult design attribute to protect.  So move on and keep designing.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Flying in airplanes to get on cruise ships

I’m a big fan of ethnographic design and design thinking.  However, I have lived through many fads and the "right" approach to design will never be found, it is some blend of intuition, smarts, guts and ambition that doesn’t follow a well worn path.

So here is my simplified flow chart for successful designs:

Yes, a lot is missing but the missing parts are particular to a specific industry, application, market etc.   Just imagine arrows going all over this chart, backward, forward, up and down.  Design is not a neat line with an arrow head on it.  You do not ideate and then prototype.  You do not develop empathy and then define.  You are mixing these together in a blender until the words and arrows are ripped to shreds and what remains are dangling participles and confusion as to how you got to the point you are at.  While there can be system and structure -- there is a place for mind maps, affinity diagrams, experience maps and all the tools of the professional designer.  But they are your tools, not mandates.  Do you always use a spoon when you eat dinner?

Understanding the user and other stakeholders can be derived using tools ranging from ethnography to economics.  You are seeking not only what they want but what they could want.  The biggest design advances are when a product or system is developed that satisfies a user need that is not yet fully recognizes.  Who would imagine we would be sticking giant rectangles into our pants pockets or flying in airplanes to get on cruise ships?

Money is important too, it drives commercial design.  I love working in the void of market forces but these are ideas that live in sketch books and never see the stores.  I paint too….  Of course the financial environment isn’t just determining what the market will pay but how the market could grow.

Breaking down the stakeholder portion into another oversimplified infographic gives the following.  Note the neat lines:

Friday, June 24, 2016

The mind, the body, or the lifestyle?

Shouldn’t universities worry exclusively about the student’s mind? 

Goethe opined that, “every day we should hear at least one little song, read one good poem, see one exquisite picture, and, if possible, speak a few sensible words.”  Now students are more likely to hear some simplistic slogan, read an STD warning, see an offensive advertisement, and write a Facebook update.

Universities interrupt the development of the mind with many topics that might be characterized as indoctrinating rather than educating.  We speak of critical thinking and synthesizing ideas but then we immerse students in topics related to becoming “a better person.” These tend to take the form of health issues and contemporary social challenges. While well-meaning, these programs do not nurture critical thinking skills and repeat similar information from secondary school.

If we conduct a seminar on the importance of physical fitness, we are taking time that the student owns and, to add to the indignity, asking them or the taxpayers to pay for it. Are we presuming the student never had physical education in earlier years?  Sensitivity training in all its forms makes the same presumption: You are ignorant, we have the truth; you will pay and give your time to learn our truth. Shouldn’t an adult student be able to make these decisions?

Universities have increasingly developed paternalistic attitudes toward students, compelling them to learn about lifestyle questions, whether directly, through subsidized speakers and signage, or through the reach of their academic programs. Students might question universities’ concern with physical fitness when, at the same time, residence halls offer all-you-can-eat buffets. These eating arrangements don’t promote healthy eating and are financially unfair to women, who typically eat less than men. At the same time, universities have embraced the entertainment business of college athletics as a source of revenue and vehicle for recruitment, yet don’t pay their athletes.

We need to recognize that students can receive vocational training on their own or through non-university organizations. The Internet lets us learn how to play a pan flute from experts in Paraguay or how to operate a computational fluid dynamics program. This is the new face of education.

Studies in the humanities and social sciences can also nurture a student’s mind. When carefully crafted to avoid indoctrination, they compel students to think deeply. They provide helpful epistemologies and offer alternate methods of inquiry outside of scientific discipline’s positivistic framework.

Universities best serve the student and the public when they tend to the mind of the student.  They need to discard unilateral proclamations and allow students to “speak a few sensible words.” 

Monday, June 20, 2016

Order out of chaos

Designers create order out of chaos, but design is not science – we need more than science in our quest to manipulate our environment.  My mechanical engineering education was a theoretical, calculus based presentation of concepts.  Much time was spent in deriving equations and quantitative analyses.  When I worked as a product engineer, I found that this knowledge didn’t serve me well.  I couldn’t analyze something I hadn’t designed.  Even after concepts are agreed upon, the detailed design of a part requires many decisions that allow it to be lighter, stronger, cooler or whatever the design goals are.  You had to put your best guess up for analysis.  The multiple design decisions on an objects’ thickness, radius, roughness etc. are based on having an intuitive feel for how solids, liquids and gases behave.

Typically design methodology calls for a sequence of events, which in their simplest form are the clear definition of design requirements, development of concepts, and finally engineering the final design and manufacturing approach.  However, many more ambiguous factors get introduced into the design process.  Because design is done by humans and typically for human use, a long list of factors are introduced into the development of designs, ranging from the sociological forces of group identity and organizational behavior to an organization’s politics, individual egos and ethics.  Aesthetics assert a subliminal force even on the most non-consumer design.  Moreover, technical and business issues arise to provide design direction, such as ergonomics, performance, longevity, capital costs and profitability.  Regulatory forces such as safety standards often provide some baseline for starting a design while corporate attitudes toward environmental sustainability and manufacturing preferences can suggest design approaches.

Traditionally design requires technical skills and experience to ensure that the product or system works in the way it is intended.  Therefore, product design is often left to the engineers.  However, intangible forces become integrated into the design and direct the final appearance of the design.  The sometimes subliminal forces can be brought to light through an interdisciplinary study such as occurs in the industrial design discipline. Although industrial design has technical aspects, the discipline carefully considers aesthetics, social, cultural and organizational forces -- the non-technical affairs that make a product fun and relevant.  I think all good designs have surprise and playfulness.  We all have the capability to engage many disciplines in pursuit of excellence in creating products.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Maker movement

Design by building

It would be foolish to design without a plan – sometimes.  It would be foolish to design without engineering analysis – sometimes.

However, sometimes we should design by building.  Conjure general ideas in our mind and start building, making mistakes, fixing the mistakes and moving steadfastly forward.  While many projects can never be done this way, especially civil engineering projects and complex mechanical and chemical schemes, there are times when designing by building lets us create in a very natural way.  It can lead to marvelous designs as shown with this scratch built loom.  It evolved one piece at a time, with gears made with a scroll saw and additions to the mechanism as needed.

Avoid designing large structures by building...

Friday, May 27, 2016

More Poetry

Summer Wounds

I’ll put a swab of goop here and there

And lay a bandage with silly care.

“That scratch is ok, that how it’s should look

The bruise is small and we can sew that tear.”


You will limp for a minute (and I for a day)

“Let’s keep going, we all want to play.”


A summer day leaves us,

With grins and a bruise,

To remember the day

We did what we choose.

Gray Morning

 To bus in gray highlighted darkness

The yellow an ochre smudge.


Climb on in promising promise

To grab what they present.


Learn between the pages

And your teachers’ chats.


They learn what is there

While we wait in fear.


















Bird slides a stick into a warming nest.

Callused hand lain on a frightened head.

Mother’s heartbeat calms a worried soul.

I too bring my love like water

Gently wrapped around a smoothened stone.

Gently Aging

The morning walk grows late

Sun warms my skin clad skull


Pleasant moment, where is future’s cry?

Frayed blanket dulls falcon’s glare
Slowing my skates in heavy snow
The winds lie silent while I wait

Love walked with steady gait

But left passion astride

Don’t let it wane

When biology is done


Please walk further and feed my brain


I know the taste of a comet’s tail

And the pulse of the ocean’s swell

I remember a rainbow when it was worth a long gaze


Now I see over curved vistas

And leave the present to the mites


My hair is not washed by wisdom

But simply gray

My walk is stifled by joints ground flat

These gifts of the rush of time


Please leave me my senses, my future, my dreams


Moments have raced through

Raising the height which wonders must leap

To turn my neck and draw eyebrows up


Passion walk with me further

Let a new car’s smell make magic stir

Let a wife’s kiss sparkle my eyes

And a child’s call stop my cries


Let a rainbow stop me for a delicious moment.