Friday, November 9, 2018

Humility in Design

Boats amaze me.

Borders dissolve and dreams arise as they take you where you want to go. Boats have personality and character infused by those that design and build them. Living in Pennsylvania, it is interesting to look at our namesake Navy ship, the troublesome, original USS Pennsylvania. She was the largest sailing warship built in the US.

She was started in 1816 and finished 21 years later in 1837. Almost...  Over the protests of the locals, she felt the ocean swell briefly as she sailed out of her namesake state on her way to Norfolk, Virginia. There she was dry docked so the hull could be covered in marine growth resistant copper.

The USS Pennsylvania was a huge ship for her time, with four rows of gun decks carrying up to 136 guns. She was 210 feet long, with three masts and a displacement of 3,241 tons. It took a huge crew of over a thousand to operate her.

She was considered by some “the pride of the Navy and the honor of our Union” but was awash in political intrigue and criticism for her expense, antiquity, and lack of purpose. It was a project that would not die. Finally, she was burned at the onset of the Civil War in April 1861 to prevent her use by the Confederacy. A sad life for a great ship.

The USS Pennsylvania acted as a floating barracks for most of her short life, much like the ship pictured above.

Imagine the designers and builders who infused her with their talent, sweat and bruised knuckles. This was a great project to show off to family and friends. Something bigger than themselves. Something that could inspire others. However, it never amounted to anything important. It was basically a jobs program. Another humbling lessons for me as I flounder about pursuing greatness.

My son in his boat, built from what was laying around this pond. A great design and build project, letting him go where he wanted!

A vain photograph of my wife and I with our charter boat, which I neither designed nor built.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

History of the Internet in Four Words





Saturday, October 13, 2018

Professional Obligations

This is an extract about ethics from my latest book, "Intense Design".  I have had five serious ethical challenges in my career and they can be very painful.

You claim expertise in a discipline in order to richly contribute to your field. However, legal implications arise when you assert expertise. Specifically, you can be considered liable if you are negligent in your work. The legal terms will be discussed in more detail later; however, it is helpful to recognize your legal standing as a professional who ‘professes’ expertise in something. This summary of the standard to which you might be held comes from the 1954 State of California’s case law in Gagne v. Bertran, (43 Cal.2d 481). Under the “The Cause of Action for Negligence,” it states:

The services of experts are sought because of their special skill. They have a duty to exercise the ordinary skill and competence of members of their profession, and a failure to discharge that duty will subject them to liability for negligence. Those who hire such persons are not justified in expecting infallibility, but can expect only reasonable care and competence. They purchase service, not insurance (SCOCAL).

Ethical Design and Legal Considerations

Designers understand their products better than anyone. They know what they will and won’t do. However, what do you do when your design is not allowed to be safe? Who defines, “what is safe?” The qualifications of the user often dictate standards of safety. Children are assumed to be untrained and unpredictable (“presumptively capable of negligence,” in legalese). If users are engineers, they should be considered highly trained and technically sophisticated. Those claiming a profession are professing expertise in certain areas and are held to a higher standard of expectations in the safe usage of a product or system.

As a design professional, you can be considered professionally negligent if you are not reasonably competent to do your work, or if you do your work poorly. There is a standard of care expected by the public and you are responsible for preserving and maintaining that confidence. The standard of care delivered by a design professional changes over time. For example, advances in research, instrumentation, and computer modeling raise the expected standard of care. 

Friday, October 12, 2018

Surprises and Trends

A light-hearted summation of things that surprise me and a guess at a couple long-term trends. Food for thought!

  • How we gave away private data to anybody who asked or promised us a little treat.
  • Continuing to use astronauts (and fighter pilots).
  • Bulky smart phones have not yet been replaced by smart apparel.

Long term trends
  • Nomadic workforce. Groups of digital nomads who take their tiny houses and move with the weather, perhaps as entire communities.
  • Biological revolution will follow the IT revolution. Customized organic substances will heal, protect, communicate, and build for us. Genome editing is just the start.

Ethics in Design

Often discussions of ethics get very academic and consider high visibility failures such as the space shuttle Challenger’s O-rings or Volkswagen’s emission scandal (“Dieselgate”). However, most designers work for companies that are not going to have that kind of oversight. Nobody cares about the shortcuts little Company XYZ takes. No regulatory body is going to bother them, no lawyers will knock on the door, and the media will not pursue them. However, when an ethical issue does arise and an employee does what he or she thinks is ethical, some companies will retaliate. The employee is hung on a pole with the carcass left to warn others, embodied in stories and corporate culture. When others think about ethics versus job security in this type of culture, their feet might quiver and they will not feel like they have sufficient job security to follow their convictions.

Small businesses can have the same challenges if the owner has no ethical scruples. A company’s ethics can be determined by one person. Even though the sense of widely held ethical standards is often supported by statute or regulation, these are far from comprehensive, and the agencies that enforce them are not omniscient. Moreover, regulatory agencies are not nearly as effective in rooting out unethical behavior as a culture where the boss explicitly states that unethical behavior is unacceptable and acts in accordance. This executive commitment is supported when coworkers report infractions and employees feel their jobs are secure when they decide to act ethically. It is further supported when individuals who take unethical actions are individually punished. This type of culture makes ethical standards more than a memo from the CEO or a poster on the wall.

However, CEOs contend with intense financial pressures. Designers don’t work for free, and someone has to make sure money is earned. Sales and marketing personnel have similar challenges. Even though designers often lock horns with them, try operating a profitable company without sales and marketing employeesyou will feel the brute wall of market forces slam against your stylish studio.

Ethical standards need to adapt to changing technology. Artificial intelligence, the internet, and nuclear energy are examples of technology that require a rethinking of ethical standards. However, these are difficult issues. Who gets to decide when artificial intelligence, virtual/augmented reality, and nuclear energy are used for good or bad? Librarians (and others) have been trying to protect intellectual property for decades, but technology such as photocopiers, digital cameras, and the internet have made this goal very difficult.

Designs can have far reaching social impact. Many lives have been ruined or opportunities crushed by benign things such as pain medicines and video games. The internet presents us with images that we don’t ask for, artificial intelligence curates our entertainment and information searches, and there are many enticing technologies that are ostensibly more attractive than a walk in the woods. There is a long history of technology intended for good but used for evil, from nails and chains to electricity and the internet.

This is an excerpt from my new book:

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Friday, October 5, 2018

Honesty in Academia and Art


A well dressed, well-spoken admissions officer told us with a straight face that they read all the student essays at an Ivy League university we were checking out. 35,000 admission essays.

This was ridiculous and deceptive proclamation. The sad part is many applicants spend weeks getting their essay to look perfect. Clearly the facts are different, but we lie to our young people to present some sort of ideal impression. Us older, alas, more cynical people know when the numbers don’t line up.

How many people do you need to read, assess, and quantify 35,000 essays every year? They had an 8% acceptance rate. Why would they bother to read essays from students that didn’t meet other criteria? What are those secret criteria that they mask with their “essay” criterion?

I don’t know what they do with these essays. Logically, they use them for borderline cases and other program goals. Maybe they use keyword searches, discourse analysis, or AI driven evaluations. Maybe they don’t read most of them. The sad part of this deception is the false promise it makes and the wastage of applicants’ time.

And then we have the world of art in which branded artists seem to be more important than the art itself. We have art trying to squeeze into STEM education and thereby belittling art and selling it as design and styling. All with the catching acronym STEAM.

Recently a museum displaying the works of French Fauvist-style painter Etienne Terrus discovered that more than half of their collection was counterfeit. Counterfeits are humbling. The fact that counterfeiters spend time doing this work has a flattering component. However, it highlights the contrived values that can put fine art into the same category of DeBeers controlled diamonds. Perhaps this is why people love Bansky.

We all struggle with honesty. Read John Murray’s “Sanctity of Truth” if you really want to be humbled. I had my own business for a while and if you don’t present your best face to the market you won’t last long. Listing your string of failures isn’t normally a good marketing plan. 

It is humbling that both academia and art, which one would think are purveyors of a type of truth, struggle with what honesty means.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Beauty at the end of World War I

WWI ended 100 years ago. It brought ugliness to people’s lives and the nature around them. Ugliness and beauty – we don’t like to talk about these attributes yet we step on cockroaches and not butterflies.

Several articles have appeared recently about the artist Anna Coleman Ladd’s work on making masks for injured WWI veterans. The facial disfigurements created sad scenarios in which soldiers did not want to visit their mothers. Soldiers’ own children “fled in terror” at seeing their faces. Ladd’s work was appreciated by injured soldiers. One soldier wrote, “Thanks to you, I will have a home. The woman I love no longer finds me repulsive, as she had a right to do.” (1)

Being comfortable with oneself is important; however, we do find some deep appeal in beauty – however that is defined. We preserve what is beautiful in museums and throw the ugly stuff in the garbage.

Fortunately, we can see through surface features. I had a friend who had a very large mole on his face. After knowing him for a while, I no longer saw it. Now I don’t remember where it was.

I have worked with people who have disfigured features and overcoming repulsion is the first step in developing compassion. However, repulsion is something we consider even when awash in self-empowerment education. The struggles with acne, warts, and bad teeth are truly difficult for many. More profound disfigurement can cause even deeper struggles.

We wish to surround ourselves with what is beautiful, we don’t aspire to wear cubic zirconium and wrinkled clothes. Designers need to understand the notion of beauty and its connection with many fundamental elements of design.

Human faces are symmetrical left to right but not top to bottom. We find this interesting and appealing. Variety attracts, sameness is boring. Perfect symmetry and perfect skin appears fake, we are intrigued by small amounts of asymmetry and “flaws”.

Most importantly, we expect to see what we are used to – a visual stereotype. Therefore, we are fortunate that Ladd and other artists and designers restore beauty to the world around us. Even the damage of WWI is replaced by new births and nature’s recovery of battlefields.

(1) Alexander, Caroline. “Faces of War.” Smithsonian Magazine, February 2007.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Food and Friends

I have many regrets. 

A few years ago I was walking(!) to the Ethnography Museum in Abu Dhabi. It was well over 100 F. I stopped at a marina (I love boats) and spoke with one of the employees. He invited me in for tea. I was so focused on getting to the museum, I declined his invitation. How foolish. Being goal oriented is good, but sometimes unwise.

Being invited to eat with someone turns a conversation into a relationship. It seems to be the most basic element of friendship and hospitality. My wife is very good at this, I am not. My idea of a conversation is chatting while standing in a hallway near another person with head, neck, and feet at awkward angles. I don’t sit and eat, sharing intimacy of an ancient sort.

Food is part of my Christian religion, from the apple at the Garden of Eden, to the Last Supper, to the heavenly feast. There is a lot of food involved.

I really need to buy more donuts and kale salad for people.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Speed Bumps in Design: How not to get slowed down

Anything that slows down your design process is a speed bump. Speed bumps don’t belong in conceptual design.

Let’s consider some of the speed bumps that can arise at the conceptual stage:
1)   slow decisions
2)   overthinking
3)   changing design goals.

Slow Decisions
Deciding on a best approach is stressful. You want lots of data and proof. You want to see what your competitors are doing. You don’t want to take risks. You want your bosses’ approval.

The speed bumps presented by slow decision making can be ameliorated by
1) recognizing there is no perfect design
2) authorizing a single decision maker who can decide quickly
3) accepting mistakes as part of the process. The speed of a design is slowed down in an environment where mistakes are not allowed, or when you can’t get a decision that lets you move forward.

The process of design usually causes interpersonal friction. You contend with the “my way or the highway” mentality as well as the harmonizer who takes a democratic approach to design. The harmonizer tries to make everyone happy. The autocratic route is efficient, but could miss the design goal, and the harmonizing path makes everyone unhappy. Sometimes the customer doesn’t even know what he or she wants.

‘Paralysis by analysis’ is a well-known aphorism. You are trying to do excellent work and create an excellent product. You want everything to be perfect. Unfortunately, design requires some intuition and guessing. This makes your stomach churn and anxiety swell. You want to solve a math equation and all we get is a mass of partial information. While you can structure qualitative information into themes and process it statistically, you rarely get pointers saying “this is the right design.” Designers make something from nothing. That is our burden. Nothingness is scary.

A good way to handle the overthinking part of design is to rely on time tested approaches that are commonly shared in design guides produced by manufacturers and professional associations. During my career, I have created several of these for a variety of products and systems. They are usually well thought out and completely grounded in real world experience. This may appear to close doors but it lets you move forward quickly. After a product is fully created, you can go back and optimize things.

Changing Design Goals
Changing design goals and “mission creep” are common, even though every bit of management advice you will read warns against this. However, in the world of product design, goals are established with incomplete information. While a product’s mechanistic goals might be clearly articulated at the start of a project, it often isn’t clear at the onset whether the goals are achievable. This goal glare is especially true for advanced designs that explore new territories of science, technology, and human interactions. The time, talent, technology, and resource requirements are speculative. Moreover, the connection with non-mechanistic elements can be difficult to initially identify. In addition, through market research and product experimentation, you may see that your original goal is not practical. Safety concerns and product regulations can redirect what can be accomplished with a new design.

Therefore, project schedules and Gantt charts need tweaking, and goals are often more fluid than we like. These design goal changes can be minor or so large they derail a project. Nevertheless, they can easily be the biggest speed bump in the design process.

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Design Checklist

These are helpful checklists to ensure you have thought through many of the problems your design might encounter and environmental assessments. It comes from my book, Intense Design: Product Design Lessons From Cold War Era Skunk Works.

I would be happy to send you these as Excel files if you email me at

Form 1
Design Considerations
Likelihood of Associated Problems

Definite        Possible      Unlikely      Never
Stress Concentration
Thermal Expansion
Material Compatibility

Dust and sand
Long nights
Monsoon Rains
Temperature Swings
Body heat
Pressure Difference

Inexperienced Users
Irrational Users

Form 2
Environmental Report Form

Initial Sensory Perceptions
1.      Initial reaction words
(What are the first three words that come to mind?)
2.      Dominant visual
3.      First color observed
4.      Dominant color
5.      Dominant sound
6.      Dominant smell

Human Observations
1.      Density (crowded, intermediate, sparse)
2.      Traffic flow or patron movements through the environment
3.      Patrons’ age
4.      Patrons’ attire
5.      Patrons’ activities
6.      Employees’ attire
7.      Employees’ activities

Environmental Perceptions
1.      Lighting (sources, intensity, color)
2.      Air movement (velocity, sound, temperature, humidity)
3.      Background sounds (music, type of noise)
4.      Flooring (type, color, texture)
5.      Ceiling (type, color, texture, height)
6.      Walls (type, color, texture)
7.      Architectural features
8.      Furnishings

Other Observations and Perceptions

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Designing with Conviction

Designers create order out of chaos, but design is not science. We need more than science and engineering in our quest to manipulate our environment.

Conviction versus Doubt

Doubting is easy, conviction takes work. This is true in most parts of your life, from religious faith to writing fiction. Doubt is nurtured by laziness and cynicism. Conviction about what you believe and your course of action takes guts, work, and humility. It may require going against the cultural currents and will cause grief, frustration, and a lot of work. What do you really believe? What do you think is the right approach? These are questions which are easy to ask but are difficult to answer.

Running around being cynical and doubtful is not a virtuous state. Once you are convicted of something, you need to work it out in your own mind so it is not a conviction that is contrary to evidence. How do I know if I have a good idea? Part of the inquiry can be mental, thinking through the design carefully, but part of validating your conviction is experimenting and testing. You have to build the thing you are designing and test it. It doesn’t have to be a high-quality prototype. It just has to be something physical that you can work with. Many designers are reluctant to quickly move to a physical model—it is more peaceful to push a pencil or mouse.

One of the problems with 3D printing is you can tend to use existing designs because it is easier to throw those digital files at your printer than it is to create a time-consuming CAD model. You may be very reluctant to change a design after you have spent hundreds of hours drawing a model. That is human nature.

There are ways to avoid this problem of near plagiarism or overinvestment in CAD. Build your idea in cardboard, foam, clay, or wood, to name a few approaches.

Build your idea quickly. Test out dimensions, geometry, and mechanisms. Does it fit in your hand? Does it look like something will easily break? Does your design have a chance of doing what you think it should? These issues will be very clear with a simple model. Check on control actions with hard wired motors or actuators. You can couple your simple prototypes with a microcontroller, PLC, or circuit board taken from a device similar to what you are working on. Don’t requisition materials and issue purchase orders—just scavenge stuff and use some of your coffee money and buy what you need. Cardboard, tape, hot glue, and string aren’t expensive.

You can be creative with how you test things. I have tied thin strings to the discharge hose of a Shop Vac and moved it around a model to see air flow behavior. This system makes a great poor man’s wind tunnel. I have tapped into a self-service car wash to provide high pressure water for testing. You can throw things off cliffs, hit them with hammers, immerse them in water, and perform all sorts of other home testing before you move forward with your design. I learned this early in my career when I was trying to optimize a pneumatic starting system and had our machine shop make several air constricting orifices. These didn’t work very well so I just started experimenting with squeezing a flexible hose with a vice grip. This was a cheap and easy approach, and I was able to get an idea of what would work. I have done many other simple, embarrassingly low technology tests, even with medical devices (using screws and wood as a human analog before moving to cadavers.)

However, humility is required. Complex or high-speed devices will only operate reliability in a narrow band of optimized dimensions, tolerances, surface finishes, material specifications, etc. Complex machines require much more than hunches to make them work reliably. They involve solving a myriad of subtle issues that may not be identified in a lovingly guided working prototype.

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Monday, August 6, 2018

Accelerating product design in 14 steps

1. Get insight

Albert Einstein said, “If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it.”
Understand the essence of the design problem. Insight doesn’t come from a customer statement or data—it comes from understanding the desired final result.

2. Take risks, develop extreme designs, and retreat as needed
Develop extreme designs—push the envelope of what can be done. Think broadly, then come back to the real world. You will not be respected as a designer if you proffer some small evolutionary tweak and never mention radical ideas to transform the product or entire market.

3. Identify deal breakers
Recognize foundational issues that will make your proposed design fail. The high temperatures produced at Mach 3 prevented aluminum from being using in the Blackbird.

4. Make decisions quickly
Identify baseline decisions required for your design. These are the big decisions that let you start. In addition to being fast, the SR-71 was recognized as needing to be a flying fuel tank.

5. Think of your design as part of a system. Be willing to change the system.
Does the system that supports it have to be changed or should a new one be created? Remember the SR-71 could not achieve its missions without aerial refueling. The F-117 could not be flown by a pilot; a computer operated the actual flight controls.

6. Trust your gut and chase your hunches
Design is not analytical or linear—it is something else. Trust your hunches. You are a creative beast. Your computer is not. You can process information and do magical things. Human insight is the spark we bring to design and engineering analysis.

7. Design by building
Move quickly from mental concepts to sketches to rough prototypes—at home if necessary. Flesh out concepts in a no pressure environment—not at work.
The SR-71 engineers were a short walk from the shop floor, so they could try out ideas quickly. Making an object real reduces dumb mistakes and helps you work more communally.

8. Design for 99% of optimal
Who wants to be 99 percent excellent? However, approaching perfection takes time. It can drain every resource available and the somewhat less than perfect answer may be the most efficient.
Ben Rich, one of the Cold War presidents of Skunk Works, put it this way: “The only areas where the final result must be one hundred percent are safety, quality, and security. That final ten percent striving toward maximum perfection costs forty percent of the total expenditure on most projects.” Skunk Works required that a design only be “80 percent effective” and look at what they designed!

9. Don’t be a zealot
If something can’t be made to work, redesign it. Don’t fall in love with your design. The fighter/interceptor (YF-12) role was not a good one for a Blackbird and was discontinued (although it would serve as a flying wind tunnel for NASA for many years).

10. Champion your design
Groups of people are good at generating ideas and providing helpful contributions; however, communal decision making can lead to bad things as you try to make everyone happy.

11. Share ideas
Make sure you bounce problems off of coworkers and anyone else who will listen. The solitary genius makes a great movie or magazine article, but this is rarely the case.

12. Use existing designs where you can
Keep the big picture in mind and use products or systems that have had commercial success. You don’t want to reinvent the nut and bolt—or the wheel. The SR-71 cockpit is a tried and true oldie with nearly no innovation. However, it worked and could be trusted.

13. Don’t be enslaved to procedure
This comes right from Johnson. The design is the goal, not the procedure.

14. Test until you can sleep soundly
Your tendency will be to achieve a good night’s sleep by developing designs that are ultraconservative or overbuilt. It is easy to overdesign things and make products that are too strong or have too much redundancy. You need to fight this tendency. Overdesign increases embodied energy, environmental impact, and cost, among other things.

Design Efficiency
It seems hard to be a non-zealous product champion who takes risks, offends friends while seeking their input, and strives to design something less than perfect. Welcome to the world of professional design.
However, let’s not be melancholy. You know how to aim for perfection, how to create something radically new, and how to love your design. You just elect not to do these things for the sake of time and efficiency.

This is an excerpt from my new book, "Intense Design: Product Design Lessons From Cold War Era Skunk Works"

Check out my YouTube Channel too!

 Image Credit: By Paolo Villa - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Friday, August 3, 2018

What kind of employees did Skunk Works hire during the Cold War?

Skunk Works had developed a unique culture—one that motivated employees to develop remarkably creative products. The employees worked on projects that were personally interesting to them and they had a clear design goal. Major technical decisions were quickly provided by [management] as required, to maintain the flow of development. Lockheed management would rarely challenge these decisions and designers did not worry about backtracking or nefarious political consequences.

The designers worked in an environment where paper work was shunned, sketches were preferred over time-consuming, detailed drawings, and small groups eliminated major communication problems. They were isolated from the Lockheed parent company’s bureaucracy, and worked with the esprit de corps of an organization entrusted with vital government needs. The designers were generalists who were selected because they had a wide range of experiences within technology. Skunk Works managers tried to avoid people who viewed all problems through their own field of specialization.

Kelly Johnson defined the organization that he created as “a concentration of a few good people solving problems far in advance—and at a fraction of the cost—of other groups in the aircraft industry by applying the simplest, most straightforward methods possible to develop and produce new projects. All it is really is the application of common sense to some pretty tough problems” (Johnson 171). Gary Ervin, a vice president of Skunk Works, corroborated the concept of a critical mass of suitably talented people. Ervin claimed that the Skunk Works’ creative and productive environment resulted from small groups of scientists and engineers who were selected based on their propensity to be “free thinkers, creative, and don’t let conventional boundaries get in their way” (Sawyer 2). A critical mass of talent can be a powerful force, as is demonstrated by such collections of talent ranging from the artists in Paris during the 1860s to the engineers in Silicon Valley during the 1970s.

This is an excerpt from my new book:

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