The Farmers Market and Open Source

Food from farmers markets has a lot in common with open source hardware and software. The groups of people that create and use these products want to know similar things: How is stuff made? Where does it come from? How do we fix it when it breaks? Independent makers, like small farmers and open source programmers, make an effort to help people answer these questions. Large corporations, for the most part, don’t.

Can you think of other systems that fall into this category? Other systems that are transparant, repairable, and  accountable?

Nile Rodgers and Figure-Ground

There’s a formal principle in art called “The Figure-Ground Relationship.” In a painting, for example, the figure is the subject of the painting and the ground is the background. But great artists don’t think of the background as something that is secondary to the subject. Instead, they think that backgrounds are just as important. This is why designers value negative space. This is why academics value context. A subject is made more meaningful when placed in a ground or context that’s handled with care.

The interview above with music producer Nile Rodgers illustrates this concept of figure-ground. Rodgers talks about how his rhythm guitar grounds the melody, the figure, in a song.

“The main role that I learned to play in  R&B music was to support those stars that came up on stage and play more of a secondary role. But I wasn’t playing a secondary role. In fact, I was playing a primary role because a lot of the stuff that I was playing — if you take that part out, the song goes away. It’s just not there any more.”

He’s not being arrogant here. He’s just articulating the importance of each piece to a composition. To hear more NR, click here

The “Home Field Advantage” for Humans

I’m a big fan of media theorist Douglas Rushkoff. He predicts the future by looking at the past, pretty far back, to a time before centralized currency. Above is a great interview with lots of gems about a shift towards decentralized currency and manufacturing. This argument is relevant to making better stuff because the global supply chains we work with now are broken. And every time we buy the outputs of that broken system, we vote for keeping it in place. But Rushkoff sounds hopeful that a shift toward something better will occur:

“I think the home field advantage for humans is the local reality; this return to local, whether it’s community supported agriculture and local sourcing and local employment, isn’t just a style. It’s not just some northeast cultural creative, San Francisco, Birkenstock trend.

“There’s a deeper social need being filled here, and part of that is the sense that we can’t depend on banks to lend money to factories and corporations to hire people to give you a job. This long supply chain of employment is not stable, and it doesn’t create security.

“But people in communities are beginning to recognize that there’s a whole lot of economics that they can do with one another, and maintain what I’m calling the home field advantage of a local economy.”

And here’s a gem on 3D printing:

“3D printing is a taste of things to come. It may be a baby, baby taste. It may be to local decentralized manufacturing what the typewriter is to the Internet because right now we’re talking mostly about plastic and metal, and where do you get the plastic, and how does it work? But it helps people envision decentralized manufacturing and production.

“It will end up going one of two ways. Either people are going to get a free 3D printer from Jeff Bezos — he’s going to stick it in your garage and you’re going to be able to use it as long as you’re buying your plans and printouts from Amazon — or it’s going to be some kind of MakerBot, open source thing that will really flip stuff open.

“The real question, though, is what ends up going in the printer? It’s the cartridges. What are we using? If it’s some high-cost, bizarre polymer that requires Africans to dig it out of a slave cave and then ship it over here, then you don’t really change anything.”

transcript here

The Designer Fallacy


Philosopher Don Ihde identifies a phenomenon he calls “The Designer Fallacy.” It takes its cue from an idea in literary theory called “Intentional Fallacy,” which refers to the mistake of thinking that the meaning of a text is restricted to what the author intended; it’s presumed that meanings emerge from texts in various ways. Unintended “meanings” often emerge in design as well. End users of designed objects use them in ways that the designers never intended. The results of this new use can be good or not so good, but I just heard of a good unintended use of a design: there was a bit today in the NYTs on people using parked bikes from NYCs new bike-sharing program in an interesting way:

In a fit of urban guile more likely to affect gym memberships than program memberships, some New Yorkers seem to have identified the newest, cheapest way to tone their lower bodies: hop aboard the seat [of a NYC bike-share bike] and pedal in place — with the bikes still locked — as if the stations were rows of exercise equipment.

Creativity is everywhere, isn’t it?

read the rest of the NYTs piece here

abstract of The Designer Fallacy  here

photo via Thoughtless Acts

Scratch on MOOCs


Scratch is an  easy-to-use web platform for making games and animations. It’s for kids and the cool thing about it is that it nudges kids toward designing games rather than just playing them.

I’ve been dabbling with Scratch in a free online workshop from The ScratchEd Team at Harvard University. They do incredible things with it and you should check them out. But I do weird things with it. Well, at least today I did.

Descriptive and Prescriptive

In the field of design, we make a big deal about using descriptive language over prescriptive language when leading teams. To be descriptive is to articulate a problem and to be prescriptive is to issue a solution. The problem with prescriptive language is that when we use it, we are assuming that there is only 1 right answer to a problem. But if we use descriptive language, we empower those around us to come up with an array of creative solutions. And in design, we like to go for quantity when problem solving. Just like a photographer takes 100 pictures to find that perfect shot, design teams often consider 100 different solutions before choosing a few  ideas to prototype and test.

This video illustrates this descriptive/prescriptive debate in action. When children are instructed to complete the painting in “the right way” the (prescriptive) instruction inhibits their creativity.  But when they are simply told to “complete the painting” (descriptive) the children are much more creative.

To be honest, this is a tough skill to hone. Through almost ten years of practice, I’ve found that combining descriptive language with a few constraints works well. That is when I have the presence of mind to lead in this way. When I’m tired or frustrated, I tend to be more prescriptive. But practice makes perfect, right?

What has been your experience with descriptive and prescriptive language and leadership?

Make Better Toys


Last week I facilitated a discussion with two classes of fifth graders at Fall Creek Elementary in Ithaca about the social and environmental impacts of toys. We used a tool called “LCA” which stands for Life Cycle Assessment. It’s a tool that designers can use to understand the social and environmental impacts of manufactured goods. It’s an important tool for designers because unlike the one-of-a-kind pieces that artists make, designers make stuff that gets reproduced in batches of 100,000. Manufactured goods have exponential impacts on the planet and people.

LCA identifies seven phases of a product’s life cycle: 1. design, 2. pre-production, 3. manufacturing, 4. distribution and sales, 5. use, 6. durability, and 7. end-of-life. The fifth graders totally got it and surprised me with their insights. For example, they were concerned about the values that the toy pictured above promoted in the USE phase of its life cycle. That was deep!

After our LCA discussion, I gave them some guidelines for brainstorming then challenged them to come up with ideas for better toys than the plastic french fries we assessed. No problemo!

Sustainable Toy Design for ages 5-6


For the past 10 weeks I’ve been collaborating with Xraise Lab for Science Outreach and the Ithaca Generator to offer toy-design workshops to kindergardeners and first graders in the GIAC after school program. Creating projects for kids that demonstrate concepts like “design-for-disassembly” has been fun. Kids this age understand and are frustrated with “closed” design because they have all had toys break on them that they haven’t been able to fix. But after building their own toys in this program, they seem to appreciate “repairability” as a design feature. Pretty cool!

More pics at the Ithaca Generator website

repost: Is Social Business the 2.0 of Humanitarian Design


Bruce Nussbaum has a provocative post over at FastCo Design Blog titled “Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?” In it he relays two recent instances in which Western designers present their humanitarian projects to Eastern audiences, which engenders some tense exchanges between the two groups. This is a tension that you’ll see a lot if you’re paying attention. It arises whenever one group calling themselves “experts” tries to help another group that, the experts assume, has insufficient knowledge.

At the end of the post, Nussbaum asks some really interesting questions. Here they are:

…Should we take a moment now that the [humanitarian design] movement is gathering speed to ask whether or not American and European designers are collaborating with the right partners, learning from the best local people, and being as sensitive as they might to the colonial legacies of the countries they want to do good in? Do designers need to better see themselves through the eyes of the local professional and business classes who believe their countries are rising as the U.S. and Europe fall and wonder who, in the end, has the right answers?

In short, yes to all of the above. Now, we love humanitarian design. And it’s so great that more and more students and design firms are interested in it. But as we all know, the toughest part of a design problem is finding the right approach. With humanitarian design, the risks are really high. It’s not like designing consumer products. It’s not just about delivering the coolest new gaming device to junior so that he can have some fun after his cookies and milk. With humanitarian design, people’s lives are at stake.

Western designers must take a fresh approach to humanitarian design. They must check the know-it-all attitude at the door, adopt some humility, and think beyond designing and distributing gadgets that save the world.

One approach that is really interesting is Muhammad Yunus’s Type II Social Business. Now, a Type I Social Business is pretty much where humanitarian design is at now: Western designers design and distribute do-dads that solve a social problem. But Type II Social Business goes deeper – it creates jobs. When you design a Type II Social Business, you design it, or rather co-create it, with the poor people who you’ve set out to help. The assumptions are that all people are creative, have valuable knowledge, and possess an entrepreneurial spirit. Type II Social Business not only seems like the right approach to humanitarian design, it’s also so much more interesting and challenging than Type I. And we all know how designers love a good challenge.

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