Why Designing for Individuals is Problematic

Designing for individuals is a deeply rooted practice in our culture. When Keeping up with the Joneses is a major concern for customers, designers and advertisers exploit that. And while it’s certainly necessary for some products, it should no longer be the default.

Media theorist Douglass Rushkoff tells an interesting story about urban vs suburban design. When he was a kid growing up in the Bronx, folks in the neighborhood would gather on the street every Friday evening for a bbq and a block party. Each person would bring a dish or something for the grill. They’d bring music or games and it was a great time. But when his folks moved the family out to Long Island, no more block parties. Each house had a fenced-in yard equipped with its very own bbq cooker.

“Design for individuals” influences how we connect with one another. For example, I have a newish car with a real-time average MPG gauge on my dashboard. I track it and lighten my foot on the gas pedal to burn less fuel. It’s kind of fun, like a video game. But the driver behind me has no idea what I’m doing. They think I’m just driving slow and they are annoyed with me. But what if the design of my MPG gauge weren’t for my eyes only, but for the cars and drivers around me (displayed on my rear window or something). Then they’d be in the game too. The could use my gauge to burn less fuel in their cars. This public visualization of real-time behavior would help us work toward a common goal.

More consumer technology should be designed for community. More design should help people engage in, and get feedback on, collective positive impact. We have the technology. Let’s use it to its full potential.

 

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Old into New

There are many examples of turning old things into new things. Sometimes this transformation takes a lot of processing (like turning soda bottles into performance gear) and other times just a little (like turning a milk carton into a birdhouse). This process above by designer Kodai Iwamoto is right in between. Old pipe is cut to size, heated, blown into a mold, and released. The results are gorgeous with the shape and function of something new while maintaining visual artifacts that signal the object’s past.

 

TAKE IT FURTHER

Kodai Iwamoto 

Making a Noguchi Lamp

Valuing and Managing Diversity

Yesterday I went to a kick-off meeting with a new group that I’m working with. I was excited as we went around the room and introduced ourselves because it was clear that the project organizers had put significant effort into gathering a diverse set of people for this group. Yet as we started to dig into the work at hand, I quickly saw how challenging it is to have that range of voices in the room.

The meeting organizer impressed me when he paused the group to say, ‘We’ve gathered this team with this wide range of perspectives because we want push-back. We want reality checks. We want debate. Radical honesty and transparency is necessary for the success of this complex project that we are taking on.’

I agree with my whole heart. Yet, I recognize how challenging it will be to mediate that diversity. It’s a lot of work. It’s hard work. Thankfully there are many models that help us navigate complexity. Roger Martin’s Creating Great Choices is one model that works well (when faced with a seemingly either/or decision, explore alternative solutions that challenge and resolve that false dichotomy).

So this diverse group is in good hands. I appreciate how the meeting organizer explicitly stated the importance of diversity to the project. This transparency, along with the clear project scope and deadline that we have been tasked with, positions us to explore a wide range of solutions and equips us with tools for making smart decisions.

On Resilience

I’ve been working on an illustration of a poppy. I chose the subject somewhat randomly. But as I was drawing yesterday I started to ask myself why I’m drawn to poppies.

It’s because they are a symbol of seemingly impossible resilience. The flower is large and bright and spreads it’s paper-thin petals widely. And all of that sits on top of a long, thin, and winding stem. A poppy appears to be delicate and barely balanced, but if you’ve had poppies in your yard, then you know that they can take quite a beating and still stand tall.

I don’t know anything about their biological and mechanical makeup, but I’m guessing that poppies have just the right material and structure in just the right places–the places that take the most stress in a storm. This is resilience.

Our lizard brains tell us that we need to build walls around a system to protect it. Walls keep out the bad stuff. But they keep out the good stuff, too. So let’s think beyond walls to identify the pressure points where a system is likely to break then design flexibility and resilience into those points.

Dieter Rams and Durability

The work of modernist designer Dieter Rams is the inspiration for many products today most notably Apple products. The modernists strove for “timelessness” in their designs so it comes as no surprise that Rams’s visuals hold up.

But for Rams and his contemporaries, timelessness was more than just a look. It was about durability. They believed in high-quality products that lasted a lifetime. Throughout his career, Rams lamented the wastefulness that he saw around him. From a talk in New York in 1976:

“I imagine our current situation will cause future generations to shudder at the thoughtlessness in the way in which we today fill our homes, our cities and our landscape with a chaos of assorted junk.”

Indeed. Rams’s values about wastefulness and sustainable design have only grown stronger. I like to imagine him leading a consumer electronics team today. Surely he wouldn’t stand for the disposability that is designed into today’s electronics. As a systems thinker who cares about the consequences of the choices that designers make, he’d find a timeless solution. Not only one that looks beautiful, but one that gets better with age.

For more of Rams’s thoughts on sustainable design, read this interview from 2015: If I Could Do It Again, I Would Not Want To Be A Designer

 

 

Visualizing Air Quality Data

baloons

 

 

 

 

 

This semester my Ithaca College students in Make Better Stuff Studio are collaborating with Wicked Device Electronics Co., the makers of Air Quality Egg–an affordable, web-connected air quality sensor made in Ithaca, NY–to design an exhibit for EdTech Day at IC. Make Better Stuff (MBS) Studio is a pilot course in IC’s Department of Environmental Science. In the course, students learn sustainable design principles and design methodology through hands-on projects.

Last week we had one of the egg’s inventors, Vic Aprea, visit our class and help us install an egg in the lab. The students enjoyed meeting Vic and gained a sense for what it takes to get a complex product like the egg up and running and collecting data.

The question I’m asking the students to consider for the exhibit is this: How might we inspire people to engage in air-quality monitoring and activism? The students have been brainstorming, paper-prototyping, and testing creative responses to this question. Their next step is to take their ideas from prototypes to reality. To help them, they will learn to use some new tools: a laser cutter and the arduino.

For laser cutting, we are visiting Elliot Wells, a member of the local makerspace Ithaca Generator, to learn how to create 3D objects with a combination of laser cutting and good old-fashioned wood glueing and clamping. Then next week I’ll introduce the class to arduino and we’ll program color-changing lights. The laser cutter and the arduino are the two dominant tools in a discrete “box of crayons” the students have to work with for the project. These “constraints” will help make the exhibit pieces from each of the six teams display as a cohesive whole. I’m excited to see what they do with these tools and how they respond to the challenge at hand.

AQE in FastCompany

AQE facebook page

Ithaca Generator makerspace

IC EdTech Day

Arduino

image

 

From Maker to Manufacture – we speak for the trees!

oak maybe

This summer Jenn C and I are taking a prototype that we made at Ithaca Generator makerspace and developing it for local manufacture and distribution at Rev Ithaca Startup Works in their Hardware Accelerator Program. What’s a Hardware Accelerator Program you ask? It’s like an arts fellowship for product developers. The program offers space, support, materials, and knowledge so that folks can take their prototype to the next level.

The prototype we have is a smart lamp that celebrates leaves. Why leaves? Because civilized people can identify more corporate logos than leaves and that ain’t right.

At present, our prototype is low resolution: the electronics work but they are enclosed in a yogurt container. (It’s empty and clean but still!)

We’ll share evolutions of the product as we go through them. In the mean time, if there’s a leaf that is your favorite, post a pic in the comments. We are collecting…

photo: scanned oak leaves collected from Taughannock Falls State Park in April 2015

Generative LCA for 5th graders

This time last year I did a workshop with the 5th graders at Fall Creek Elementary on Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) in the context of toy design. LCA is a tool used by sustainability engineers to assess the impacts of industrial products, services, and systems on the environment and on people. Even though I don’t normally work with kids, I love working with this bunch. It’s such a great exercise to prepare content for 5th graders. It forces me to be clear and to get to the point!

Last year I started the workshop with a belief I have: I believe that kids can make better toys than the ones they can buy in stores.

I made three discoveries during this workshop that confirmed my belief. I’ll list them here, then flesh them out below:

1. All of the students picked up LCA quickly

2. At least half of the students knew what a 3D printer was

3. One of the students made an amazing insight about USE phase of LCA

1. INTUITING LCA.  To teach LCA to this group, I held up a plastic french fries toy and asked “How did this come to be in the world?” Their answers sounded a lot like the phases of LCA: Design, Pre-production, Manufacturing, Sales, Distribution, Use, Durability, End-of-Life (EOL). Of course I had to give them prompts every once in a while, but overall, it came from them intuitively. All they needed was to be asked the right question.

2. 3D PRINTERS. You may wonder what 3D printers have to do with kids making toys. Well, up until very recently, if you wanted to manufacture something, you needed millions of dollars and connections to all kinds of equipment and services that were hard to access. Plus, even if you made something, you had no way of selling or distributing it to the people who wanted it. Enter the desktop manufacturing revolution. Today kids have access to the tools of production and distribution. And many of them know it. They expect to be able to come up with an idea on the computer and manufacture it on a machine in their garage, online service bureau, or local maker space. So not only can kids come up with better ideas for toys, they can actually manufacture and sell them. Incredible.

3. USE PHASE of LCA. So the use phase of LCA looks at the energy or resources that a product uses while in the hands of the consumer. A great example is a washing machine. If you are assessing a washing machine, yes, all of the other phases of LCA are important, but “use” is huge because the machine is used daily for many years. Thus, we want to know how much energy and water is used in each wash. But with a plastic french fries toy, it’s hard to assess the use phase. Except for one student who said, “What about the message that the toy conveys while in the hands of the user?” I almost fell over. Yes, plastic french fries promote values about nutrition, don’t they? The values that an object conveys while in use is huge and I’m going to cover this explicitly in this upcoming workshop.

All of that said, when I asked them to come up with an idea for a new toy using at least one phase of LCA as inspiration, that connection didn’t happen for a lot of them (at least not during the 50 minute session I was working with them). And I get that, it’s a lot to synthesize in a short amount of time. So this year I might prepare a pair of worksheets to help them synthesize more quickly. One worksheet for the plastic french fries (the before) and another worksheet for their toy invention (the after). I’ll ask them to highlight the LCA phases they took inspiration from on the “after” worksheet. A lot to pack in to a 50 minute session. But they are young and full of creativity. I think they’ll do great.

related:

LCA on EPA.gov

online 3D printing service

Marketing fast food to kids

Crafted Products

cp

There will come a time when it will no longer make sense to mass manufacture and ship products all over the globe. This will happen when the convenience and low cost of tools and components for making products in small local factories wins out over the economic and environmental costs of shipping to and from abroad.

When that time comes, there will be a great opportunity for entrepreneurs to manufacture and sell crafted products — products made in small customized batches, manufactured as needed. The products might be anything from small electric toothbrushes to big boxy refrigerators.

This will go down in one of two ways:

1. Large firms will emerge with a franchise model

2. Individuals will do it on their own, create their own networks of knowledge and resource sharing.

The former perpetuates the top down, centralized, mass solutions that we have today. The latter promotes regionally specific innovation and collaboration with the advantage of global knowledge-sharing network.

Or perhaps there is a third option. If so, what does that look like?

related:

ARTISANAL CAPITALISM

http://www.economist.com/news/business/21592656-etsy-starting-show-how-maker-movement-can-make-money-art-and-craft-business

ARTISANAL MANUFACTURING

http://www.forbes.com/sites/bruceupbin/2013/12/11/artisanal-manufacturing-creating-jobs-to-produce-things-in-america-again/

CHRIS ANDERSON COINS “LOCAVORE MANUFACTURING”

http://longnow.org/seminars/02013/feb/19/makers-revolution/

THE HOME FIELD ADVANTAGE FOR HUMANS

http://makebetterstuff.org/2013/06/20/421/

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?