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Last Monday I was invited to participate in a debate as part of the Design Museum’s ‘Script’ series, alongside Tom Barker of the RCA and the Design Museum’s new head, Deyan Sudjic.

Dejan Sudjic at Script, Design Museum

What I was doing in such illustrious company I do not know, and I’m not sure I acquited myself that well having got off a 22hr flight from Australia the day before (that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it) but I had a lot of fun – thanks to the gracious hosts, the thoughtful and funny speeches of my fellow panelists, the intelligent questions and apres-debate pub conversation from the attendees.

Tom Barker at Script, Design Museum

What follows is my recollection of what I said, based on my notes I’d made before hand, and re-written a little to make some kind of sense.

There will apparently be an audio recording of the debate available online shortly so if you’re really bored you could listen to that and come back here to point out I said nothing of the sort at a later date.

Script: Design Museum, Monday 2oth March 2006

The question put to us is ‘are designers slaves to industry?’

It was put to me on holiday by Kyla (thanks for that!) and I must admit I wrangled with it quite a bit. My first instinct was to take apart the question, but my wife (who was a college debating champion!) told me that’s dull and no-one likes it when you do that, so I thought I would just try and connect together some dots that have been on my radar lately as they relate to what I think is the spirit of the question and hope they are good grist for our mill tonight.

Of course, the everyday reality of working in design for industry is far more multilateral and intertwingled than suggested by the question which I guess is designed to make us take some interesting stances.

Kyla told me I wasn’t to bring any slides, but I could bring some artifacts. So I brought a diagram (the walls of our flat are covered in diagrams…) by Charles and Ray Eames. [pass round diagram – Deyan Sudjic points out that it’s by Charles Eames…]

Eames office digram of design (c) Office of Charles and Ray Eames

The diagram features:

  • a shape that represents the concerns of society of a whole
  • a shape that represents the concerns of the client
  • a shape that represents the concerns of the design office

The intersection of those shapes represents the area that the designer might work with ‘enthusiasm and conviction’

Right now, I”d say nearly all of these representative shapes – of the vectors or influences on the work of shaping things – are in flux.

“Shaping Things” is the title of a book by Bruce Sterling which introduces the concept of ‘spimes‘: a neologism for a class of artifact or object which is data first and always, and a material object now and again.

I’d like to read a short passage from it now that describes our transition from an industrial technoculture of mass-produced ‘products‘, through the current age of software-enhanced ‘gizmos‘ towards the age of the ‘spime‘. [read ‘Shaping Things’ page 10-11]

An anecdote that might illustrate that we at the dawn of the spime age. The Tesco CEO – interviewed in a business periodical (I forget the reference for now) was asked what he would say was most important to the continuing success of the business. His answer might be suprising to some: not the properties or the stock on the shelves of those properties – but the database of the Tesco Clubcard loyalty scheme. From that dna of data, of relationships and preferences he could reboot the store.

Spimes could be seen as genes, recipes, songlines – digital incantations for ‘things’. Things that are gaining the ability through the ‘fabbing‘ technology of mass personalisation to sing themselves into existence.

If ‘things’ become transient – haeccities of need, context and available resource, then what does that mean for design?

Sterling suggests that we designers are wranglers, protocrats – choreographing and guiding constant, contigent, bespoke microsolutions rather than mass-producing products in response to general needs.

Moreover, he suggests that ‘citizen designers’ – the people formerly known as consumers in the industrial age – will take over the means of design and production from the elite class of designer put there by the needs and machinery of industry.

Another book that’s fired my imagination recently is John Thackara’s “In the bubble” He echoes this last point of Sterling and points to design as social fiction to deal with this science fictional situation. Service design is growing in importance right now, as we slouch up the slopes of Sterling’s spimeworld.

Thackara also points to growing need for co-creation: end-user community involvement in the design of solutions offered to them. He sees designers are facilitators in this situation – shapers of possibility spaces*, rather than things.

Thackara would suggest that we have nothing to lose but our chains but adopting these practices and becoming sherpas not slaves.

In conclusion: should this flux of multiateral forces: services not things, cocreation not lone auteurship, possibility data not material objects – be seen as slavery to industry, or would indeed it seem that unfamiliar to the Eames?

Perhaps not – they might be even tempted to paraphrase themselves: ‘design is doing the best with the most for the least’ - which to me seems a noble duty, rather than base slavery.

Thank you.

* some things that pop into my mind now which I wish I’d brought up if there was time at the event – Martin Pawley’s “Terminal architecture” and Neil Spiller’s discussion of the ‘architecture of the second aesthetic’ [pdf], perhaps even a mention of what games designers are thinking about auto-generating content and gameplay i.e. Will Wright’s numerous talks esp. about Spore.

BONUS LINK #1: Hot Thackara-on-Sterling spime-laden macroscopic action

BONUS LINK #2: Anne Galloway’s pulsing, growing, bibliography /ongoing police-action of the ‘internet of things’.

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Rather than a Rokr (and you have money to burn, can’t wait for n91, live in Japan)- how about Chris‘s idea of sticking a Nano on the back of the Talby? Probably still thinner that the Rokr.

Depressing quote of the day for anyone working in mobile experience design from Engadget:

1:27pm – Garriques [President of Motorola’s mobile phone division] on the ROKR: “It’s a great ARPU story.”

Sheesh.

—-
UPDATE: Peterme asks what “ARPU” is. I apologise – it’s jargon, much used in the cellphone industry, for “Average Revenue Per User” – the grail is finding applications and services that drive it skyward, and mobile music is seen by a lot of the industry as one of those.

newsonb

Engadget picked up on new phone concept designs by Japanese brand AU, but didn’t mention that one seems to bear the mark of Marc…

Very groovy and appealing ipod/dog-tag aesthetic, begging to display itself on a lanyard.

Perhaps reporting the death of the candy-bar form factor is premature? Instead perhaps it will flip to being a fashion statement – standing out from the crowd of clamshells…

Om Malik and Rajesh Jain have been thinking about a Massputer, a $300 device that

“should be able to do basic tasks like writing documents, Internet surfing, email and perhaps some business-related tasks like data entry.”

I am guessing that this is different to the much-touted “Simputer” of a couple of years ago, in that it is not designed to be mobile, ruggedised or adapted in any way other than to be affordable.

Om writes:

“The $300 sticker is vital- it keeps the devices affordable, and at the same time allows the corporation selling this massputer makes a decent profit. Gizmos such as color televisions, washing machines, refrigerators and air conditioners were snapped up in large numbers once they were priced right around $300. The proliferation of mobile phones in the emerging world is proof that at the right and affordable price people everywhere will adopt the right technology. There was a time when a mobile phone cost $400 and a mere 10 million people had the service. Now more than 400 million phones will be sold this year and 1.4 billion people, many in not very rich countries, will make mobile calls. That is because the price of the phone at $100 is now affordable in these emerging countries. More users means the price-per-minute has come down as well. In short, everyone benefits.

The social implications of Massputer cannot be underscored. Popularity of cell phones and text messaging promoted social revolutions, and peaceful protests in hitherto turbulent societies in Asia. Philippines comes to mind. I believe the availability of a Massputer connected to the Internet will help develop more educated, more informed and more open societies. If rest of the world has to embrace the principles of free markets, they need the tools. Massputer is a perfect example.”

Unlike the Massputer, The Simputer and other projects to create affordable, accessable ICTs have followed the dedicated, simplified ‘information appliance’ design route, assuming that the societies that need access to ICT need robust and simplified products to begin with.

Sugata Mitra’s work at the NIIT showed that even in rural areas with little exposure to technology and lower level of literacy – people, especially children learned to use computers (albeit with ruggedized input devices) in short order with no training.

Ultimately, people who want access to information and computing power want access to the same as everyone else, not a ‘special’ user-experience which keeps them on the wrong side of a new type of digital divide. Om and Rajesh make a great business argument for the Massputer also – let’s hope someone takes them up on it.

From the N-Gage site today:

“The N-Gage QD game deck has all the gaming features of the original game deck, plus a few welcome adjustments – like hot swap for your game cards. We trimmed off the MP3 player (and some of the price!), gave it a slick, non-sidetalking design, and shrunk it all down so it fits better in your pocket… Hey, you talked, we listened!”

Seeing phone design iteration cycles in the console world, even the portable gaming world is exciting – also that the N-Gage folk got the joke, listened, acted and then co-opted the gag…

This should probably be in /play, but whatever. They just played all 8mins of Kashmir on 6music. If you’re familiar with the overblown Zep epic, then there’s a really, really good breakdown in the middle with Bonzo’s drums, some strings and Plant mumbling and wailing a bit. They work it for a while, but just as it’s getting funky, they swerve back into the chugging riff that is the song’s trademark.

Which is a longwinded intro to making a LazyGadget request.

I’d like a small amount of sampling/looping/effect generation capability on my iPod/personal music device which I could access and manipulate with one hand. Just to muck around and extend bits like the breakdown in Kashmir long enough to ruin them for myself…

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