Studio Snap Shot

leatehrbench

I snapped this picture of my workbench at the end of the day yesterday before I cleaned up. I love my studio. And tools are cool.

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Inventor Spotlight: Florence Knoll

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Iconic architect, furniture designer, and co-founder of Knoll Associates, Florence Knoll, passed away last week at the age of 101. She developed her classic modernist style for corporate interiors in the mid 20th century and it still rings true today.

Knoll studied architecture at the renowned Cranbrook school with masters like Mies van de Rohe and Eliel Saarinen, father of Eero. She went on to co-found Knoll Associates and was the driving design force at the firm. She designed spaces for corporate giants like IBM, GM, Heinz, and CBS, and she commissioned innovative pieces from Bertoia’s wire chair to Saarinen’s fiberglass tulip series (which she had to convince a New Jersey boat maker to fabricate) to van de Roe’s Barcelona chair. The work is timeless.

 

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Knoll Associates

Remembering Florence Knoll (Fast Company)

 

 

Understanding the Environmental and Social Impacts of Commercial Products

Yesterday I saw yet another headline about green packaging. Something like: So and so android phone is changing their packaging from plastic to paper. My greenwashing antennae immediately went up and I asked these questions, “How much of an impact will a change in the packaging make? Does this change offset the conflict minerals used in the phone or the embodied energy in its manufacture and use over the product lifetime? Is changing the packaging for a cell phone solving the right problem?”

Our obsession with eco-friendly shopping bags and packaging is merely a metaphor for how important consumer culture is to us. If only we make green bags to put our purchases in, then everything will be ok. In addition to revealing our values, this focus on packaging also reveals our limited understanding of the environmental impacts of the stuff we make, sell, buy and use.

There’s a framework called Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) that can help us gain a holistic understanding of the environmental and social impacts of commercial products. My explanation here is not for environmental scientists – they already know this stuff. But it’s for designers and inventors. And it’s also for those of us on the ground, average people with curiosity about these things. It’s for people who can handle grey areas without black and white answers. It’s for people who won’t shut down when faced with complexity but rather continue to be curious and questioning.

Life Cycle Assessment – phases

RAW MATERIAL. This is to examine where materials come from. Some questions we might ask are: Are the sources sustainable? Does extracting them have negative impacts? Do they use fair labor practices? Are the economics fair? Do the growers get a fair price for the raw materials they grow (think coffee or chocolate).

PRE-PRODUCTION. Raw material needs to be processed for manufacturing. In the case of reclaimed plastic, it needs to be processed before it’s recycled and turned into new material. As for leather, a material I’m working with now, it needs to be tanned. There are different types of tanning. Vegetable tanning uses a lot of water. Chrome tanning uses more chemicals. You can also look at labor practices including the health impact on workers in this phase.

MANUFACTURING. Questions you might ask here are about the environmental impacts of how a manufacturing shop is run. And what are the labor practices? Some shops that I’ve visited around here have programs that train people who need a second chance to work on the factory floor. This is pretty awesome and the handful of folks I’ve met in these rolls seem grateful. Other factories use chemicals that make their workers and surrounding communities sick. So when voters and their reps complain about regulation being anti-business we need to remember that regulation is also pro-human health.

DISTRIBUTION. The simple question to ask here is how far did the product (and its components) travel before it got into the consumer’s hands. This can be one of the benefits of shopping local. If the merchant you are buying from is selling locally made goods, then the goods didn’t travel far. There are also packaging questions to consider in this phase. Is the product designed to be shipped flat packed and thus take up less space on a ship or truck? And at the risk of causing a distraction, I wonder what impact distributed manufacturing might have on the distribution phase. Distributed manufacturing is what affordable desktop tools like 3D printers enable.

USE. These are the questions asked once the product is in the user’s hands. Let’s look at a home energy monitor. No matter how the product was manufactured, we want to look at the impact on its user’s behavior. Does it cause them to significantly lower their energy use? Or with a dishwasher, does it cause it’s user to use less water? One that’s really complicated is streaming video – how much energy does this use in the home and how much does it use in servers around the world? And if you fly a lot, well jet fuel has a much greater impact on the environment than any shopping bag.

DURABILITY. This phase is often misunderstood as “longevity” with longevity equalling “good.” But that’s not complete. I think of durability as a proportion that looks like this:

HOW LONG IT IS USED :: HOW LONG IT LASTS

With a chair, for example, I might want it to last for 100 years. Or longer if it’s designed to be an heirloom. But for picnic ware for a party at the park, it’s only going to be used for a few hours. So it doesn’t need to be designed to last 500 years in the landfill. Something that bio-degrades might be a better fit.

END-OF-LIFE. This phase is about tracking where the product and parts will go when we are finished using it. A lot of what happens in this phase is determined in earlier phases of the product life cycle. Some products are designed to be disassembled. Some products release toxins when disassembled (think e-waste). Some products are designed to have a second function. Some packaging is designed to be taken back by the company. Some materials keep their integrity when they are recycled and others lose integrity.

So these are the phases of LCA. If you need fewer questions and more quant data, do a search for “LCA calculator.” I haven’t reviewed those but if you find one that you like, let me know!

Design — what is it good for?

The designer’s skill set is seen as a generalist skill set. This might be because designers are trained in two complementary areas: artistic practice and social science. They learn artistic practice so they can master a creative process (sketching, modeling, building, testing, iterating). Designers train in social science so that have tools that help them to understand and collaborate with end users of what they design.

It’s a valuable skill set. But it’s also broad. It can be applied to just about anything. It can be applied to scaling a product like facebook so that the company can get billions of users addicted to using the platform. Or it can be applied to a non-profit so that they can engage their community in positive change.

These examples are two extremes and of course, there are lots of applications between them. But I want to pause here for a moment and ask the people who are interested in design to ask this question: Design — what is it good for? Why is it important to learn this skill set? Do we learn it so that we can help the 1% get richer which, at the end of the day, is what the facebook application is about? Or do we learn this skill set to genuinely make the world better?

Lizard Brain + Illusion of Interactivity

Douglas Rushkoff of Brian Lehrer

Douglas Rushkoff’s on tour talking about his new book, Team Human. The argument he makes in the book is one he’s been making a while now. But something about the timing this time feels different as the problems he addresses in it are reaching an inflection point.

His argument, like media theorists before him, is that modern technology isolates us. He gets into the economics and the neuroscience and the computer science and other big systems reasons for why technology has this isolating effect. And he offers a solution – to connect with people in our local communities.

But in the interview with Lehrer, he wonders if all of the small interactions made by connecting locally will be enough to make systems-level change. It’s an interesting question. If you ask someone who needs to measure effectiveness with quant data, then the answer will be, “We need to intervene not just at the local level, but at the systems level so we can measure it.” But if you ask someone who finds value in things that can’t be measured, then they might say local intervention is the right path.

Rushkoff is the person who asks us to look at what can’t be measured or put into an algorithm and to cherish that part of being human. But it’s hard to do, isn’t it. I appreciate how hard it is and his willingness to simultaneously offer solutions and express doubt.

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Team Human podcast

Buy the book from an indie retailer

Are You a Strategic Thinker?

The answer depends on who you ask. If you share your strategic ideas with people who genuinely enjoy strategy, then the answer is yes and interesting conversation will ensue. But if you ask people who think strategy can only be talked about by the people who have permission to, then you might be out of luck. By these folks, you are less likely to be described as a strategic thinker and more likely to be described as someone who doesn’t know their place. That latter description has negative consequences.

 

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If you’re the boss, when people around you bring up strategic ideas, encourage them to go deeper. If going deeper yields interesting results, encourage them to share their ideas.

If you have good ideas but don’t feel you have the opportunity to be heard, carry on. You’re ideas will most likely apply to future scenarios. Write them down and keep them in your back pocket til the time is right.

Roger Martin, How Strategy Really Works

 

Inventor Spotlight: Takuma Yamazaki

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a pencil that amplifies the sound of writing

If you use Twitter, then you’ll see that I have the following statement pinned to the top of my feed:

“Technology is an effective amplifier. We need to decide, and then design, what it is we want to amplify.”

So I was delighted when I came across this project, The Sound of Drawing, from young Japanese designer Takuma Yamazaki in which he literally amplifies the action of making marks with a pencil. With this project, he draws attention to an age-old method for writing notes or poetry or drawing lines and images. If you are the type who gets pleasure from moving a piece of graphite across a sheet of toothy paper, then you will appreciate what this project does to heighten that sensation.

Here’s Yamazaki’s statement about the piece: By amplifying the faint noises created by the friction between pencil and paper, this project represents a new way of communicating with stationery. I reflected on the meaning of drawing, and discovered that stationery can be not only writing instruments, with the purpose of leaving visual information, but also musical instruments. By redefining stationery as creative tools for drawing sounds, this pencil offers a fresh creative experience for both people who are sighted and those who are not.

 

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Check out Yamazaki’s portfolio here

Originally posted on Spoon & Tamago

Artist Spotlight: Irene Posch & Ebru Kurbak

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Irene Posch and Edru Kurbak are artists and designers who that integrate handmade textile making with computing. They refer to their work “Macro Electronics” in that their technology isn’t hidden in a black box, but rather, visible and with stories to tell. Their hope is to inspire their viewers to explore computing themselves and ultimately to diversify who makes technology.

 

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Posch and Kurbak in DesignBoom

Interview with Irene Posch

The Credentials We Don’t Have

I read a piece in Forbes the other day that listed 10 reasons why smart people doubt themselves. A point that caught my attention was point number 5: They tend to focus on the experiences and credentials they don’t have, rather than on the ones they do.

This reminded me of my professor for an MBA class I took ten years ago. She gave this advice to all women in the class: get your credentials. Note that she was the only female professor teaching in the program and she spoke from experience. She had not one, but two PhDs because having one wasn’t enough.

I’ve heard other credentialed women give the same advice: get your credentials. ‘You want to be able to get up in front of a group of men and be sure that they know that you can do the hard thing. Then they will take you seriously.’

Being smart never feels like it’s enough. You can write smart papers and present them at prestigious conferences, be invited to speak on panels to share your insights on your research and experience. But if you don’t have the right credentials on paper, it can be a major distraction and yet another reason to confirm the story that you aren’t good enough.

But what if you change the story? What if you catch yourself when you fall into the trap of focusing on what you haven’t done. What if you redirect your attention to the things you have done and ask yourself how you might build on those things? What if you say NO to the old and familiar traps and create something new?

 

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Ten Reasons Smart People Doubt Themselves (Forbes)

Negativity Bias (Psychology Today)

This little drawing from Liana Fink