It does, you know. You just have to get it hot enough.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Papanek on industrial design

School is consuming my life, so I’m making notes for future posts to my design journal.   Expect winter break to be a cavalcade of posts on WHY I AM SO AMAZINGLY BRILLIANT…

Today I was talking to a undergrad who is disillusioned with what he’s studying in industrial design studio.  While we were talking, I was reminded of something Papanek wrote that helped me figure out What I Want to do With My Life.

_Design for the Real World_, a book that got Papanek kicked out of the IDSA, really made me wake up and think about what it is I am doing and why.  The revised edition of _Design for the Real World_ is much better than the original, but the first paragraph stays the same:

There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a very few of them. And possibly only one profession is phonier. Advertising design, in persuading people to buy things they don’t need, with money they don’t have, in order to impress others who don’t care, is probably the phoniest field in existence today. Industrial design, by concocting the tawdry idiocies hawked by advertisers, comes a close second. Never before in history have grown men sat down and seriously designed electric hairbrushes, rhinestone-covered shoe horns, and mink carpeting for bathrooms, and then drawn up elaborate plans to make and sell these gadgets to millions of people. Before (in the “good old days”), if a person liked killing people, he had to become a general, purchase a coal mine, or else study nuclear physics. Today, industrial design has put murder on a mass-production basis. By designing criminally unsafe automobiles that kill or maim nearly one million people around the world each year, by creating whole new species of permanent garbage to clutter up the landscape, and by choosing materials and processes that pollute the air we breath, designers have become a dangerous breed. And the skills needed in these activities are carefully taught to young people.

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posted by jet at 21:58  

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Review: Vehicles, Experiments in Synthetic Psychology

A few days ago I finished Valentino Braitenberg‘s Vehicles, Experiments in Synthetic Psychology and I have been letting it gel while trying to figure out how to write about it. Vehicles is a short book written in plain English without a lot of fancy technical talk and yet I feel like someone’s taken my brain and run it through a thing that makes brains different. Braitenberg leads the reader through a series of thought experiments creating vehicles using only sensors, connectors, motors, and a few other basic items. Starting with simple vehicles that can drive around a table top, each short chapter adds a concept or idea to make the vehicles more complex and capable of more sophisticated actions. It’s not long before the imaginary vehicles have the complexity and capability of humans and I found myself going back to re-read chapters thinking I’d missed something. Even before I finished, I was already looking at my cat differently: ‘Is she experiencing a correlation match or causality match with past events? Does she have any comprehension that my head and my hands are connected and related or are they all just correlations?”

This morning I was watching video of some flocking behavior and it it hit me that this is a perfect example of what Braitenberg is talking about in Vehicles when he describes “the law of uphill analysis and downhill invention”. A key reason for using thought experiments is that as outside observers, we are often unable to comprehend why something exhibits a specific behavior and are unable to build or define a structure that would exhibit a specific behavior. On the other hand, we are able to build simple things and understand their behavior because they are things we have created. His suggestion is that rather than spend lots of time and energy trying to analyze behavior from a top-down perspective, try building things from the bottom up and see if we can replicate the sort of behavior we’re trying to understand.

As a software type interested in kinetics and robotics, “top-down vs. bottom-up” is a very familiar argument. Every time I work on a distributed computing problem in CS, I (and my cohort) default to a top-down, control-the-flock algorithm that makes each element of the group do its thing. When I got into MIMD programming on supercomputers, I would solve problems by having different nodes exchange data needed to make decisions, but it was still “Thing A decides what to do after taking orders from or talking to thing B”.

I’m pretty certain birds aren’t having little chats about where they are headed next, and they’re probably not psychic, nor do they otherwise communicate with one another across space and time. My assumption (not being a biologist or psychiatrist) has always been that the “separation, alignment and cohesion” argument explains things; as a software type, it’s something I find easy to implement. How birds can see/think/react so quickly to small objects at a distance is beyond me, but again, I’m not a biologist.

Looking at things from Braitenberg’s perspective, what if it’s a much simpler solution? Perhaps the birds aren’t going through an observe/calculate/act cycle and are instead merely responding to the cues of their neighbors using learned behavior memorized (or evolved) during their lifetime. Pattern A results in Action A, Pattern B results in Action B, etc. If there’s an error — hey, that’s not pattern A — then a quick decision is made to either continue with Action A, go back to the previous action, or react in a new way to try and solve the problem.

I don’t know if that’s the right answer, but I’m starting to think about making some Arduino-based flocking robots for a little tabletop exercise. Even as a thought exercise that I never get around to building, it’s an interesting question. Can individual bots learn to flock based on keeping distance from things next to them and learning a set of patterns to repeat based on the movement of their direct neighbors?

If the flocking of birds, the action of ants and bees in colonies can be explained or modeled using this bottom up behavior (I suspect it can), how would we humans benefit by implementing similar, bottom-up mechanisms?

For example, why does Amazon need to collect all sorts of data about me (in an identifiable, non-anonymous database) just so I can get “other people who like what you like” style suggestions? Why do we need a centralized server to track all our listening histories — why not share it with people physically near me as I wander around town or post updates to my “Universal Friends List”?

On a more abstract level, instead of Master Control Programs sucking in data and spewing it back out, why can’t our MP3 players and book viewers and phones and laptops exchange information with nearby peers, constantly updating and exchanging anonymous lists of data, analyzing it, and reporting back to us?

Using the insect world as a parallel, what if all of our electronic devices behaved more like bees in a colony, each doing simple things with nearby (physically or electronically) devices leading towards a greater benefit for all? Do we really need our technology to be set up in a virtual army, taking orders from other systems in a hierarchy run by governments and international corporations?

Vehicles is an easy book to read and a hard book to describe. It really is one of those, “trust me, read it” books that you force on your friends until they read it just to get you to shut the hell up. Which, to me, is one of the best things you can say about a book.

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posted by jet at 10:55  

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Review: hertzian tales

“Before I tell you that story, I have to tell you this one.” — Howard Waldrop

Let me start by expressing my (probably unpopular) opinion: the vast majority of “conceptual art” has failed whatever purpose it was trying to serve. If I have to read a sign or a placard or a guide book to understand your art, then you have failed as an artist because your work did not communicate whatever it is you were trying to communicate. (And if I can’t understand what you’re trying to say after reading your explanation, maybe you should consider a new career.) I’m having a particularly dim view of “conceptual anything” right now, having recently visited the Carnegie Museum “Life on Mars” exhibit. There were some real gems here and there, but I still stand by my one sentence lolcat review:


Now I can tell you this story that masquerades as a book review.

Recently my pal Golan Levin told me I should read hertzian tales in response to my blathering on about computational situational awareness, and I dug up a copy and put it on the “in” stack. When I saw the words “conceptual design” on the jacket I spit up a little bit in my throat and considered putting it way at the bottom of the stack. However, after seeing some of the work in the MOMA “Design and the Elastic Mind” exhibit, I realized I was probably being a little unreasonable and that I should at least give the book a fair chance. (More importantly, Golan is a very sharp sort who wouldn’t suggest I read something that would be a waste of my time.) The last time I was on a plane, I brought along it and a backup book just in case I got more than airsick.

I never cracked the other book. Dunne managed to both educate me about what conceptual design is and isn’t and really get me thinking even bigger questions than before about situational awareness and observing invisible spaces.

hertzian tales has two major components: the relationships between conceptual design, product design, and Hertzian space; and documentation of Dunne’s process in developing conceptual design pieces to investigate Hertzian space.

Dunne starts with a history and survey of conceptual design and product design. I think that many of us outside of capital-d design would probably describe “conceptual design” as “experimental design” — the design of objects not to fulfill a certain set of criteria, but to create either a physical or thought experiment that lets us gain a new perspective on some concept or object. These sorts of things can range from asking questions like “What if I had glasses that kept track of how much TV I watched and went dark if I’d watched too many hours in a given day?” or what sort of products would be useful for a lonely guy that had just been dumped by his girlfriend?

I like both of these because they don’t so much give you real answers as give you answers that make you ask more questions. What if my glasses went dark when I drove by a jumbotron screen, or just as a movie was ending? If I need “Accessories for Lonely Men”, which one should I get first, “Sheet Thief”, “Plate Thrower” or “Cold Feet”? It’s obvious what the products are going to do, who they are for, and why (in theory) someone would want such a thing. Well, maybe not. Do lonely guys really need reminders that they are lonely? Do I really want my TV watching regulated by glasses instead of common sense? Probably not, but thinking about these sorts of imaginary (and humorous, admit it, you laughed or at least smiled) products is a good way to open up one’s mind and think about existing technology and society from a new perspective.

Dunne’s survey of conceptual design projects is also useful in that he shows how they are relevant to the design of real products or how they change how we think about our relationships with technology and society. He doesn’t declare a bunch of truths because he’s an art professor, he substantiates his opinions with both factual history and well written arguments. As an example, I probably wouldn’t have taken Daniel Weil‘s conceptual radios very seriously if I saw them in a museum, but Dunne gives them a context that helps me understand some of what Weil was attempting to do.

Having led us off with a history of products and technology, Dunne then moves into Hertzian space. The idea of Hertzian space is that all of our electronic devices radiate radio frequencies (RF) as part of their operation, and that is a new space for us to explore and observe. It’s usually not a device’s task to generate RF, it’s merely a side-effect of it being electronic. RF Interference (RFI) from all this radiated energy is enough of a problem that most nations have some sort of legal restrictions on how much RF can be emitted (or “leak”) from a device. In the US, turn over just about anything that uses batteries or plugs into a wall and look for the legalese about “FCC Part 15 compliance”. That’s the manufacture declaring that they’ve followed any rules that relate to how much RF is leaked from the device.

It’s not just radios, computers and mobile phones generating RF, it’s pretty much every technological component of our society. If electrical power runs through it, from the transformers on power poles to the alternator in your car’s engine to the washing machine in the basement or your wireless doorbell and garage door remote, it generates some sort of RF. (If you’re interested in learning more about RF interference or radio theory in general, check out amateur radio websites like the ARRL or EHAM.)

What Dunne asks us to think about is, What can we learn about ourselves from looking at the Hertzian space? What tools do we need to develop or use to look at this space? The book finishes with documentation of a couple of Dunne’s projects in this area, both at the personal/object level and at the city level.

In the end, the book is a kind of conceptual design project in and of itself — it lays out a bunch of information, takes you through a line of reasoning, and then chucks you off a cliff with a bunch of unanswered and open-ended questions about what you’ve just read. Dunne doesn’t make any claims to having answers, he just points you in the same general direction he’s headed and gives you a gentle shove.

Which is probably the sort of book I like reading the most these days. I’m tired of people telling me their answers, I want them to make me ask more questions. Even if you don’t agree with his opinions or like his projects, Dunne will leave you with more questions than answers.

(Edit: Anthony Dunne, on “design for debate” and a Bruce Sterling talk on speculative/science fiction interaction design.)

Anthony Dunne, hertzian tales. MIT Press, Cambridge, 2005.

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posted by jet at 09:12  

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Review: _Why Things Don’t Work_, Papanek and Hennessey

Every now and then, I find a book that I wish I had discovered much earlier in my life. _Why Things Don’t Work_ is such a book, but I think it’s just as useful to read now as when it was published in 1977.

Papanek and Hennessey’s primary focus is on both needless consumption and poorly designed things that people really don’t need. However, instead of a long rant against conspicuous consumption and designed-in obsolescence, they point out flaws in products and systems then suggest alternatives. Starting with the home bath and ending with community-level resources (like fire engines), many things we take for granted or assume cannot be improved upon are looked at with a critical eye. Their line of questioning includes things like, “how can this be improved?”, “why don’t we do this the way people in another country do?” to “do you really need this thing in the first place?”

These questions are ones that I think anyone interested in design or sustainability should be learning to ask about everything they encounter. An interesting proposal in response to over-consumption is shared ownership of resources and objects that one only occasionally uses. We do this for all sorts of things, from fire engines to library books, but why do we stop with institutions created in the past century?

For example, why don’t we share lawnmowers?

I own two — a reel mower that I normally use and a gas mower given to us by a relative. Both of my neighbors also own gas mowers, and I think it’s a reasonable assumption that any of my neighbors who don’t hire a gardener probably own a gas mower. When I use my mower, it’s rarely for more than 20-30 minutes every other week or so; the same is true for all the mowers my neighbors own.

So why do we all have to own our own mower, each requiring a fair amount of regular maintenance even though we only use each for a few hours a week? What if we each put a few bucks a week into the “mower fund” and were able to check a mower out from a local storage shed? (Similar arguments are made for shared deep freezers in apartment buildings and other shared appliances.)

And if we are all going to own so many mowers, do we all need gas mowers? I’ve mowed my yard with both the reel mower and the gas mower, and the reel mower tends to be faster, quieter, and easier to store. Factor in down-time for refueling, tweaking the spark plug, and the cost of gas/oil, and the reel mower starts to make a lot more sense, at least for smaller lawns. I’m pretty certain that my reel mower will also last much longer than the gas mower, and it cost about half what a new gas mower would cost.

Taking their argument a step further, why do we have grass lawns that require so much maintenance to begin with? Just because they were popular with the Victorians doesn’t mean we need to waste water growing plants just to keep them closely cropped. On a personal level, we’ve started redesigning our own front yard so that we will no longer need to mow or water it other than occasional spot watering during a drought. It just doesn’t make sense for us to water and maintain 500 square feet of grass simply because it’s green.

It’s this sort of process and thinking that makes the book of value. While many of the specific suggestions they make are irrelevant today (such as rethinking typewriters), the processes Papanek and Hennessey use to critically look at the world around us and improve things for the better.

Cite (if you’re interested in my generating BiBTeX refs in future reviews, please speak up):
Hennessey, James and Papanek, Victor. Why Things Don’t Work, Pantheon Books, 1977, 0-394-70228-X

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posted by jet at 15:16  

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Review: Nomadic Furniture

[EDIT:  James Hennessey points out the book is in print again from Schiffer, ISBN 0764330241.]

An area I get distracted by often is tools for nomadic living. I grew up moving around a fair bit and I’ve spent much of my adult life dragging around a portable office of one sort or another. It used to be a leather Day Runner(tm), notebooks, a Sony Walkman(tm) and random art supplies; these days it’s a laptop, tri-band ham radio, sketchbook, iPod(tm), and random tools for safety and personal care.

What I haven’t thought enough about is the next step up from the overstuffed courier bag, actually taking my entire house and all my possessions from place to place on a regular basis. It’s one thing to move my office from home to cafe every day, but moving all my stuff from town to town on a regular basis? That’s something a bit more complicated, especially given how much crap I (as well as everyone else) tend to own.

Becoming a truly nomadic person seems to boil down to two simple steps:

Step 1: Get rid of all the crap you don’t need or put it in some permanent place. You’re going to need to do this before you get to the next step…

Step 2: Own only those things that are easily transported and that you absolutely need. One thing that most of us absolutely need is a bare minimum of furniture, and that’s where Nomadic Furniture comes into play.

Nomadic Furniture , by designers James Hennessey and Victor Papanek, is by not an exhaustive examination of all nomadic furniture but a basic overview of the fundamental types of furniture that people need and how those living the nomadic lifestyle can travel with the furniture they need.

It’s an interesting read now, as it was written in the 70s during the first big oil crunch. The attitude is dated but at the same time completely relevant in terms of the need to conserve energy, reduce consumption of resources, and follow the general model of reduce, reuse, recycle. (If you’ve read Cradle to Cradle, some of this will seem oddly familiar.)

Hennessey and Papanek don’t just show you pictures of furniture you can buy, rather they show you how you can make most furniture on your own. The diagrams are simple and straightforward and are such that they are easily modified and scaled to meet individual needs. Some of the plans are very much in the style of Danish Modern (or IKEA) while others seem a little quaint by contemporary standards. I doubt the dimensions for LPs and cassettes will be useful for many people making storage shelves in this century.

There are a couple of groups of people that I think would greatly benefit from reading this and photocopying some of the plans. The first group are college students who move on a regular basis and for whom saving every penny possible on furniture is worth a little labor. The second group are the true nomadic types, say hardcore burning man participants or people who travel and camp for weeks at a time. There are some creative sleeping and storage solutions in Nomadic Furniture that I will be trying out before our next trip to the playa.

There are only two problems with Nomadic Furniture that I feel the need to point out. The first is that it’s no longer in print, but used copies are easily found on and The second problem is the nearly unreadable typography. I’ve been a huge fan of hand-illustrated and lettered manuals since my first copy of Muir’s How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-By-Step Procedures for the Complete Idiot, but the strange typeface used in Nomadic Furniture is too much for me. It’s alien enough that the book is an amazingly difficult read, a distraction from the quite clean and readable illustrations.

Find it used, photocopy what you need, then sell/trade/give it to someone else who would find the information useful.

Cite (if you’re interested in my generating BiBTeX refs in future reviews, please speak up):
Hennessey, James and Papanek, Victor. Nomadic Furniture, Pantheon Books, 1973, 0-394-70228-X

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posted by jet at 18:07  
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