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...