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Book reviews

Just finished reading “Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products” by Leander Kahney, which is mainly fascinating because of the abscence of it’s subject. Ive has said so little in public (aside from in corporate pr films) that the book paints a detailed picture of everything around him – the design culture he was raised in, both in education and industry, the design group and wider engineering/manufacturing culture at Apple – right down to gems like this:

“Enter the need for so-called friction stir welding (FSW), a solid-state welding process invented in 1991. It’s actually less of a weld than a recrystallization, as the atoms of the two pieces are joined in a super strong bond when a high-speed bobbin is moved along the edges to be bonded, creating friction and softening the material almost to its melting point.”

Needless to say I really enjoyed it – but Ive is just the hook the book hangs off. It wouldn’t exist or sell as a book without him, although it’s full of fascinating detail about how Apple products are designed and made.

The little you do learn about Ive as a design leader is good. A little hagiographic, but hey. I’d recommend it more for the insights into the design, making and manufacturing approach at Apple than the man at the centre of it however.

‘In America, on the other hand,’ Milton explained, ‘designers are very much serving what industry wants. In Britain, there is more of the culture of the garden shed, the home lab, the ad hoc and experimental quality. And Jony Ive interacts in such a way … [he] takes big chances, instead of an evolutionary approach to design – and if they had focus-grouped Ive’s designs, they wouldn’t have been a success.’

If the education system in America tended to teach students how to be an employee, British design students were more likely to pursue a passion and to build a team around them.

‘As an industrial designer, you have to take that great idea and get it out into the world, and get it out intact. You’re not really practising your craft if you are just developing a beautiful form and leaving it at that.’

I can’t have people working in cubicle hell. They won’t do it. I have to have an open studio with high ceilings and cool shit going on. That’s just really important. It’s important for the quality of the work. It’s important for getting people to do it. – ROBERT BRUNNER

He wanted a ‘small, really tight’ studio. ‘We would run it like a small consulting studio, but inside the company,’ he said. ‘Small, effective, nimble, highly talented, great culture.’4 Setting up a consultancy inside Apple seemed in line with the company’s spirit: unconventional, idea driven, entrepreneurial. ‘It was because, really, I didn’t know any other way,’ Brunner explained. ‘It wasn’t a flash of brilliance: that was the only thing I knew how to do.’

In 1997, English contributed photos to Kunkel’s book about the design group, AppleDesign, but he also worked with a lot of other design studios in the Valley. To his eye, Apple seemed different. It wasn’t just the tools and their focus; the place was rapidly populated with designer toys, too, including spendy bikes, skateboards, diving equipment, a movie projector and hundreds of films. ‘It fostered this really creative, take-a-risk atmosphere, which I didn’t see at other firms,’ said English.

Brunner also made about half a dozen of the designers ‘product line leaders’ (PLLs) for Apple’s major product groups: CPUs, printers, monitors and so on. The PLLs acted as liaisons between the design group and the company, much in the way an outside design consultancy would operate. ‘The product groups felt there was a contact within the design group,’ Brunner said.

Brunner wanted to shift the power from engineering to design. He started thinking strategically. His off-line ‘parallel design investigations’ were a key part of his strategy. ‘We began to do more longer-term thinking, longer-term studies around things like design language, how future technologies are implemented, what does mobility mean?’ The idea was to get ahead of the engineering groups and start to make Apple more of a design-driven company, rather than a marketing or engineering one. ‘We wanted to get ahead of them, so we’d have more ammunition to bring to the process.’

In hindsight, Brunner’s choices – the studio’s separation from the engineering groups, its loose structure, the collaborative workflow and consultancy mind-set – turned out to be fortuitous. One of the reasons Apple’s design team has remained so effective is that it retains Brunner’s original structure. It’s a small, tight, cohesive group of extremely talented designers who all work on design challenges together. Just like the designers had done at Lunar, Tangerine and other small agencies. The model worked.

‘Bob did more than lay the foundations for Jony’s design team at Apple – he built the castle,’ said Clive Grinyer. ‘After Bob, it was the first time that an in-house design team was cool.’

Jony was looking for the Mac NC’s ‘design story’. As his dad, Mike, had instilled in him, developing the design story was an essential first step in conceiving something entirely new. ‘As industrial designers we no longer design objects,’ Jony said. ‘We design the user’s perceptions of what those objects are, as well as the meaning that accrues from their physical existence, their function and the sense of possibility they offer.’

‘When you see the most dramatic shift is when you transition from an abstract idea to a slightly more material conversation,’ Jony said. ‘But when you made a 3-D model, however crude, you bring form to a nebulous idea, and everything changes – the entire process shifts. It galvanizes and brings focus from a broad group of people.

Though Jobs rejected all five names, Segall refused to give up on iMac. He went back again with three or four new names, but again pitched iMac. This time, Jobs replied: ‘I don’t hate it this week, but I still don’t like it.’43 Segall heard nothing more about the name from Jobs personally, but friends told him that Jobs had the name silk-screened onto prototypes of the new computer, testing it out to see if he liked the look. ‘He rejected it twice but then it just appeared on the machine,’ Segall recalled. He came to believe that Jobs changed his mind just because the lower-case ‘i’ looked good on the product itself.

Boxes may seem trivial, but Jony’s team felt that unpacking a product greatly influenced the all-important first impressions. ‘Steve and I spend a lot of time on the packaging,’ Jony said then. ‘I love the process of unpacking something. You design a ritual of unpacking to make the product feel special. Packaging can be theater, it can create a story.’

‘Innovation,’ he wrote, ‘is rarely about a big idea; more usually it’s about a series of small ideas brought together in a new and better way. Jony’s fanatical drive for excellence is, I think, most evident in the stuff beyond the obvious; the stuff you perhaps don’t notice that much, but which makes a difference to how you interact with the product, how you feel about it.’

‘Apple designers spend ten percent of their time doing traditional industrial design: coming up with ideas, drawing, making models, brainstorming. They spend ninety percent of their time working with manufacturing, figuring out how to implement their ideas.’

On iPhone launch day, Jobs turned to Kay and casually asked, ‘What do you think, Alan? Is it good enough to criticize?’ The question was a reference to a comment made by Kay almost twenty-five years earlier, when he had deemed the original Macintosh ‘the first computer worth criticizing’. Kay considered Jobs’s question for a moment and then held up his moleskin notebook. ‘ “Make the screen at least five inches by eight inches and you will rule the world,” he said.’

‘I have literally seen buildings where as far as the eye can see, where you can see machines carving, mostly aluminium, dedicated exclusively for Apple at Foxconn,’ said Guatam Baksi, a product design engineer at Apple from 2005 to 2010. ‘As far as the eye can see.’

Unibody represents a giant financial gamble by Apple. When it started investing seriously around 2007, Apple contracted with a Japanese manufacturer to buy all the milling machines it could produce for the next three years. By one estimate, that was 20,000 CNC milling machines a year, some costing upward of $250,000 and others $1 million or more. The spending didn’t stop there, as Apple bought up even more, acquiring every CNC milling machine the company could find. ‘They bought up the entire supply,’ said one source. ‘No one else could get a look in.’

Apple spent $9.5 billion on capital expenditures, the majority of which was earmarked for product tooling and manufacturing processes. By comparison, the company spent $865 million on retail stores. Thus, Apple spent nearly eleven times as much on its factories as on its stores, most of which are in prime (that is, expensive) real estate locations.

Enter the need for so-called friction stir welding (FSW), a solid-state welding process invented in 1991. It’s actually less of a weld than a recrystallization, as the atoms of the two pieces are joined in a super strong bond when a high-speed bobbin is moved along the edges to be bonded, creating friction and softening the material almost to its melting point. The plasticized materials are then pushed together under enormous force, and the spinning bobbin stirs them together. The result is a seamless and very strong bond. In the past, FSW required machines costing up to three million dollars apiece, so its use was confined to fabricating rocket and aircraft parts. More recent advances allowed CNC milling machines to be retrofitted to perform FSW at a much lower cost. In addition to its other advantages, FSW produces no toxic fumes and finished pieces that require no extra filler metal for further machining, making the process more environmentally friendly than traditional welding.

‘That’s probably the single greatest effect, that we nowadays expect many things to have better designs. Because of Apple, we got to compare crappy portable computers versus really nice ones, crappy phones versus really nice ones. We saw a before-and-after effect. Not over a generation, but within a few years. Suddenly 600 million people had a phone that put to shame the phone they used to have. That is a design education at work within our culture.’

I’d been recommended “The Red Men” by many.

Webb, Timo, Rod, Schulze, Bridle (who originally published it) all mentioned it in conversation monthly, and sometimes weekly as memetic tides of our work rose and fell into harmony with it.

The physical (red) book stared at me from a shelf until, recently, aptly it lept the fence into the digital, and was republished as an e-book.

This leap was prompted by the release of Shynola’s excellent short film – “Dr. Easy” – that brings to life the first chapter (or 9mins 41secs) of the book.

The Red Men resonates with everything.

Everything here on this site, everything I’ve written, everything I’ve done. Everything I’m doing.

In fact, “resonates” is the wrong word.

Shakes.

It shook me.

Read it.

My highlights, fwiw (with minimal-to-no spoilers) below:

“I wriggled my hand free of Iona’s grasp and checked my pulse. It was elevated. Her question came back to me: Daddy, why do people get mad? Well, my darling, drugs don’t help. And life can kick rationality out of you. You can be kneecapped right from the very beginning. Even little girls and boys your age are getting mad through bad love. When you are older, life falls short of your expectations, your dreams are picked up by fate, considered, and then dashed upon the rocks, and then you get mad. You just do. Your only salvation is to live for the dreams of others; the dreams of a child like you, my darling girl, my puppy pie, or the dreams of an employer, like Monad.”

“The body of the robot was designed by a subtle, calculating intelligence, with a yielding cover of soft natural materials to comfort us and a large but lightweight frame to acknowledge that it was inhuman. The robot was both parent and stranger: you wanted to lay your head against its chest, you wanted to beat it to death. When I hit my robot counsellor, its blue eyes held a fathomless love for humanity.”

“ugliness was a perk confined to management.”

“Positioning himself downwind of the shower-fresh hair of three young women, Raymond concentrated on matching the pace of this high velocity crowd. There were no beggars, no food vendors, no tourists, no confused old men, no old women pulling trolleys, no madmen berating the pavement, to slow them down; he walked in step with a demographically engineered London, a hand-picked public.”

“Over the next few days you will encounter more concepts and technology like this that you may find disturbing. If at any time you feel disorientated by Monad, please contact your supervisor immediately.’

‘How do you help him?’ ‘It’s about live analysis of opportunities. Anyone can do retrospective analysis. I crunch information at light speed so I’m hyper-responsive to changing global business conditions. Every whim or idea Harold has, I can follow it through. I chase every lead, and then I present back to him the ones which are most likely to bear fruit. I am both his personal assistant and, in some ways, his boss.’

“So long as the weirdness stayed under the aegis of a corporation, people would accept it.”

“Once you pass forty, your faculties recede every single day. New memories struggle to take hold and you are unable to assimilate novelty. Monad is novelty. Monad is the new new thing. Without career drugs, the future will overwhelm us, wave after wave after wave.’”

“No one has access to any code. I doubt we could understand it even if we did. All our IT department can offer is a kind of literary criticism.’

‘I can’t sleep. I stopped taking the lithium a while ago. Is this the mania again? Monad is a corporation teleported in from the future: discuss. Come on! You know, don’t you? You know and you’re not telling. I would have expected more protests. Anti-robot rallies, the machine wars, a resistance fighting for what it means to be human. No one cares, do they? Not even you. You’ll get up in the morning and play this message and it will be last thing you want to hear.’

“George Orwell wrote that after the age of thirty the great mass of human beings abandon individual ambition and live chiefly for others. I am one of that mass.”

“Plenty of comment had been passed on the matter, worrying over the philosophical and ethical issues arising from simulated peope, and it was filed along with the comment agitating about global warming, genetically modified food, nano-technology, cloning, xenotransplantation, artificial intelligence, superviruses and rogue nuclear fissile material.”

“His gaze raked to and fro across the view of the city, the unsettled nervous energy of a man whose diary is broken down into units of fifteen minutes.”

“This has been very useful. Send my office an invoice. Before I go, tell me, what is the new new thing?’ I answered immediately. ‘The Apocalypse. The lifting of the veil. The revelation.’ ‘Yes, of course.’ His coat was delivered to him. As he shuck it on, Spence indicated to the waiter that I was to continue to drink at his expense. ‘Still, the question we must all ask ourselves is this: what will we do if the Apocalypse does not show up?’”

“History had been gaining on us all year and that clear sunny morning in New York it finally pounced.”

“‘No. Advanced technology will be sold as magic because it’s too complicated for people to understand and so they must simply have faith in it.”

‘Every generation loses sight of its evolutionary imperative. By the end of the Sixties it was understood that the power of human consciousness must be squared if we were to ensure the survival of mankind. This project did not survive the Oil Crisis. When I first met you, you spoke of enlightenment. That project did not survive 9/11. With each of these failures, man sinks further into the quagmire of cynicism. My question is: do you still have any positive energy left in you?’

“‘My wife is pregnant,’ I replied. ‘My hope grows every day. It kicks and turns and hiccups.’ Spence did not like my reply. Stoker Snr took over the questioning. ‘We are not ready to hand the future over to someone else. Our window of opportunity is still open.’ He took out what looked like an inhaler for an asthmatic and took a blast of the drug. Something to freshen up his implants.”

‘Do you remember how you said to me that the Apocalypse was coming? The revelation. The great disclosure. You wanted change. It looked like it was going to be brands forever, media forever, house prices forever, a despoticism of mediocrity and well-fed banality. Well, Dr Easy is going to cure us all of that.’

‘We did some research on attitudes to Monad. We had replies like “insane”, “terrifying” and “impossible”. As one man said, “It all seems too fast and complex to get your head around. I’ve stopped reading the newspapers because they make every day feel like the end of the world.”’

‘What disturbs me is how representative that young man’s attitude is. Government exemplifies it. It has learnt the value of histrionics. It encourages the panic nation because a panicking man cannot think clearly. But we can’t just throw our hands up in the air and say, “Well, I can no longer make sense of this.” The age is not out of control. If you must be apocalyptic about it, then tell yourself that we are living after the end of the world.’

“The crenelations of its tower were visible from much of the town, a comforting symbol of the town’s parish past. Accurately capturing the circuit flowing between landscape and mind was crucial to the simulation.”

“He handed me a ceremonial wafer smeared with the spice. ‘We start by entering Leto’s communal dreamland.’ I looked with horror at the wafer. ‘This is ridiculous. I am not eating this.’ I handed the wafer back to him. He refused it. ‘I’m giving you a direct order. Take the drug!’ ‘This is not the military, Bruno. We work in technology and marketing.’ ‘We work in the future!’ screamed Bougas. ‘And this is how the future gets decided.’

“One of Monad’s biggest problems was its monopoly. To survive in the face of a suspicious government, the company went out of its way to pretend it had the problems and concerns of any other corporations, devising products and brands to fit in with capitalism.”

“Management wanted to talk so they dispatched a screen to wake me; it slithered under the bedroom door then glided on a cushion of air across the floor until it reached the wall where it stretched out into a large landscape format.”

“I understand why you work there. Why you collaborate with them. You have a family, you are suspended in a system that you didn’t create. But the excuse of good intentions is exhausted.”

‘You are afraid. There is a lot of fear around. Society is getting older. The old are more susceptible to fear. Fearful of losing all they have amassed and too old to hope for a better future. You’re still young. Don’t let the fear get inside you.’

‘The battle has been lost and all the good people have gone crazy. My surveys reveal a people pushed down just below the surface of what it means to be human. You exist down where the engines are. Damned to turn endlessly on the cycle of fear and desire. Should I push the fear button? Or should I pull the desire lever? Save me some time. Tell me which one works best on you.’

“Society had become a sick joke, a sleight-of-hand in which life was replaced with a cheap replica. Progress abandoned, novelty unleashed, spoils hoarded by the few. The temperature soared as the body politic fought a virus from the future.

“Dr Hard grabbed me by the hair and shook some sense into me. ‘Artificial intelligences are not programmed, Nelson. They are bred. My ancestor was an algorithm in a gene pool of other algorithms. It produced the best results and so passed on its sequence to the next generation. This evolution continued at light speed with innumerable intelligences being tested and discarded until a code was refined that was good enough. A billion murders went into my creation. Your mistake is to attribute individual motivation to me. I contain multitudes, and I don’t trust any of them.’

And, from the author’s afterword:

The novel was conceived as a hybrid of the modes of literary fiction with the ideas and plotting of science fiction. I wanted to use the characters and setting we associate with literary fiction to make the interpolation of futuristic technology more amusingly dissonant, as that was the character of the times as I experienced them.

Review of Chris Anderson's "Makers" for Blueprint Magazine

A review of Chris Anderson’s “Makers” for the April issue of Blueprint magazine. Pleased to have used the phrase “Star Trek meets Mumford & Sons” in it, and indeed to have got it finished. Thanks to Shumi Bose for asking me to do it, and for nagging me to complete before the deadline!

On the surface, you’ll experience a distinct lack of surprise reading Makers, if – like me – you’re familiar with Chris Anderson’s previous output.

I expected plenty of techno-utopian, libertarian, anarcho-capitalist “Californian Ideology“, which there is in spades – but perhaps not his family history in the garden sprinkler industry, Marx, or 1980s US punk-rock references.

The central thesis of Makers blends these around innovations in the manufacture of physical goods, specifically low cost 3d printing and robotics, and the ongoing disruptive forces of the internet and open-source software – to convince us that we are entering the era of ‘The Long-Tail of Things”. Herein, niche needs can be met by niche manufacturing eating into the dominance of the mass-manufacture models of the industrial age. Anderson’s last-but-one book “The Long Tail” argued this for culture and media, of course.

In this near-future, the 1980s Punk DIY ethic transmutes into a kind of on-demand artisanal yuppie boutique-consumerism, a cornucopia of high-margin corner-cases.

Star Trek meets Mumford & Sons.

Which begs the question – in the future, who does the boring stuff?

In Anderson’s view, much of it is automated – with mass-manufacture jobs becoming more precarious, lower-paid and rare driven by technology, commoditisation and globalisation. Although, interestingly, he sees the tide turning away from China as planetary factory – as robotics, middle-class wage aspirations and cost of shipping conspire against it’s dominance in the medium to long-term. He has Mexico marked down as the new China. At least it’s his choice for outsourcing his boutique robotics firm…

While 3d-printing is the subject of a lot of hype and hope, the steady march of robotics into small and medium enterprises from their beach-head in mass manufacturing is perhaps the most profound trend of our times covered in Makers. It’s one of the enablers, as well as the subject of Anderson’s business, but it’s not something that is critiqued in much depth by him. He does make strong points about the future of the American middle-class (our working classes) but for a more thorough look at this, I’d recommend “Race against the machine” by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee.

The other powerful trend covered in Makers is the accessibility of tools and knowhow that the Open-Source movement has catalysed and provided to the small business. While capital might be in short supply, much of the (software) means of production is seizable for free, and as Anderson points out – the physical hardware and infrastructure of prototyping, manufacture and distribution is rentable as a service. This is a trend that we at BERG have made great use of in the last few years in our own small-scale product prototyping and manufacture e.g. Little Printer (http://bergcloud.com/littleprinter)

Anderson finishes with a short speculation on the open-source future of biology itself. With synthetic biological components being hacked on inside the canonical garages that created the computer industry, it promises to be a disruptive movement worth a book of it’s own. The analysis in Makers seems a little tacked-on, but it may prompt the curious to investigate further.

Ultimately however, “Makers” suffers, like most business books, of being a something that would made a great, insightful magazine article, but drags as a full book – and feels anachronistic in contrast to the digital communities, blogs and other online resources devoted to its subject matter.

Part invigorating, part infuriating, “Makers” is squarely aimed at airport bizbook crowd rather than designers or makers – although conversely designers and makers could learn from the business-y bits. It’s message is perhaps most urgent though for the UK’s education policy makers – hopefully leading them to question their victorian obsession with testing the three R’s, and instead shaping an education system centred around design, play, flexibility, invention, creativity and ingenuity – skills that Anderson’s vision of the near-future demands.

Warren Ellis reviews one of the most beautiful considerations of human creativity I’ve come across: Snakes & Ladders by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell.

It’s a wonderfully sensitive illustrated adaptation of a talk Moore gave at the Conway Hall, Red Lion Square (which I walk through on the way to work every morning) – using the square’s history, it’s inhabitants and their encounters with the muse as a basis for the investigation of dna, magic and the creative urge.

There’s a PDF preview [c. 500k] to give a flavour.

» artbomb.net: Snakes & Ladders

Skimming the surface of social-software research and thinking, there is a lot made of the the things that we are ‘hard-wired’ to do – for instance the notion of the “law of 150”, and other anthropological rules of thumb. Steven PInker’s new book ‘The Blank Slate” delves into this area, with mixed results according to the Guardian review:

“The notion of the tabula rasa, ‘the blank slate’, is utterly wrong, he insists. Human nature is not ‘unbelievably malleable’, as anthropologist Margaret Mead once claimed, but contains a set of inherited neurological instructions that direct us to seek status, to fight and to make peace, to make weapons and tools, to acquire a spoken language, to gossip, to use common facial expressions, to admire generosity, to adorn our bodies and to worry about the weather.”

Going to see Pinker debate “Social Nature vs Cultural Nuture” with Ian McEwan tomorrow evening. Should be a blast – I’ll try and get some notes up here.

» Guardian Unlimited Books | Hoist by his own polemic