December 28, 2008

December 22, 2008

Two, Aargh, Aargh, Eight

On the first day of this year I wrote:

"I like the sound of 2008. It looks like being an interesting year. For me, it is likely to be a time of a number endings and, I hope, some new beginnings. This, I expect, may be echoed more widely. So for all of you who some times wander here, my best wishes and may the coming year offer you new opportunities to move from places where you don't want be and towards the places where you do."

Well it has certainly been an interesting year and may well have been signalling some new beginnings as well as a number of endings. For me, it has largely been one long Full Stop and I have no idea what the following sentence will be. I may not be alone in this.

My sense is that 2008 will more generally be seen as an important punctuation mark. Many of the orthodoxies and certainties that increasingly dominated the English speaking world now look like important contributing factors to the current financial crisis. The whiffs of fear one can detect among many policy makers is a sense that they don't know what is going on and quite what to do about it.

Frankly. I think recognising that we don't know what is going on and what is going to happen next is a good starting point. Curiously, in one of bits of synchronity, that seem to happen over and again, while I was pausing to think about what to write next, I came across an interview with Michael Porter, a leading economic theorist. He, too, regards the current crisis as a positive opportunity for a rethink and new start. While we may all have rather different visions about where we collectively would like to go, may be agreeing that it is time for rethinking and new start is the best present we can give ourselves for the coming holiday season and a fitting end for a year of aargh.

( Thanks to 800-CEO-READ Blog for the tip. You can either watch the interview by Charlie Rose there or here)

Posted by richard at 2:45 PM

December 19, 2008

Empty house, great big gun

"Eisenhower believed that no nation could ever achieve perfect security, any more than we [as individuals] can. We all know that we could walk out of the house tomorrow morning and get hit by a car; that's just part of being alive. Yet nations, particularly the United States, tell their people that it's possible to destroy evil in the world. Eisenhower viewed this as illusory and dangerous. A nation trying to achieve perfect security will never get there, but along the way it can bankrupt itself on several levels: militarily, economically, politically, and of course spiritually.

The picture I have in my mind is of a house: That's America. As America got richer and more powerful, it had all sorts of riches in the house that it increasingly worried about the world envying. As we become more and more of an empire, of course, the barbarians are always at the gate. We become that much more paranoid, like a paranoid tycoon who thinks everyone wants a piece of him. So the richer the house got, the more fearful we got of it being under threat, as ironic as that might seem. So what do you do? You get a gun.

Increasingly, you start pawning the articles in the house to get a bigger and bigger gun. After a while, if you take that to its logical extreme, you will pawn the entire house to get the biggest gun, and you forsake all of the things that made the house valuable. At the end of the day, you're standing in front of an empty house with a great big gun."

( Eugene Jarecki in an interview with Mother Jones)

Posted by richard at 11:14 AM

December 18, 2008

Happy Days for Doomsters

When I started thinking about this post I was going to list a series of links to people who are arguing that things are much worse than we think. But why bother? It doesn't take much effort to find them. Instead, in my Pollyanna like way, I will point you again to Roger Farnsworth's interview with Carlotta Perez, that I have featured before. A useful counter to the cries of doom and good mindset to adopt for the coming New Year. Take hope and watch it here.

Posted by richard at 2:13 PM

December 13, 2008

Aren't constraints enough?

By one of those nice bits of serendipity, I found two pieces that talked about the value of constraints in the design process today. The first is from a long piece by Andrew Blauvelt, "Towards Relational Design":

"Once shunned or reluctantly tolerated, constraints — financial, aesthetic, social, or otherwise — are frequently embraced not as limits to personal expression or professional freedom, but rather as opportunities to guide the development of designs; arbitrary variables in the equation that can alter the course of a design’s development. Seen as a good thing, such restrictions inject outside influence into an otherwise idealized process and, for some, a certain element of unpredictability and even randomness alters the course of events. Embracing constraints — whether strictly applying existing zoning codes as a way to literally shape a building or an ethos of material efficiency embodied in print-on-demand — as creative forces, not obstacles on the path of design, further opens the design process demanding ever-more nimble, agile and responsive systems. This is not to suggest that design is not always already constrained by numerous factors beyond its control, but rather that such encumbrances can be viewed productively as affordances..."

The second is from Kontra of Counternotions:

"Pretenders don’t quite understand that design is born of constraints. Real-life constraints, be they tangible or cognitive: Battery-life impacts every other aspect of the iPhone design — hardware and software alike. Screen resolution affects font, icon and UI design. The thickness of a fingertip limits direct, gestural manipulation of on-screen objects. Lack of a physical keyboard and WIMP controls create an unfamiliar mental map of the device. The iPhone design is a bet that solutions to constraints like these can be seamlessly molded into a unified product that will sell. Not a concept. Not a vision. A product that sells.

It turns out that when capable designers are given real constraints for real products they can end up creating great results. In Apple’s case, groundbreaking products like the iMac, the iPod and the iPhone. Constraints have a wonderful way of focusing the mind on the fundamentals, whereas concept products can often have the opposite affect.

Concept products are like essays, musings in 3D. They are incomplete promises. Shipping products, by contrast, are brutally honest deliveries. You get what’s delivered. They live and die by their own design constraints. To the extent they are successful, they do advance the art and science of design and manufacturing by exposing the balance between fantasy and capability."

Thinking about these two quotes, reminded me that Charles Eames had talked about the value of constraints. A quick google and a few false starts led me to this extracts from Charles Eames's piece "Design Q&A" on metacool:

"Q. Does the creation of design admit constraint?
A. Design depends largely on constraints.
Q. What constraints?
A. The sum of all constraints. Here is one of the few effective keys to the design problem-the ability of the designer to recognize as many of the constraints as possible-his willingness and enthusiasm for working within these constraints-the constraints of price, of size, of strength, balance, of surface, of time, etc.; each problem has its own peculiar list.
Q. Does design obey laws?
A. Aren't constraints enough?"

Nuff said.

Posted by richard at 5:38 PM

December 12, 2008

In these times

It's good to get a bit of unexpected cheer in these times when there is so much dreary news around. A few moments ago I had such a moment of unexpected joy. Almost by accident I came across Professor Richard Wagner's statement about his teaching philosophy. For those of you in despair about what is happening in Higher Education go and read the whole thing here. As a taster here is his conclusion:

"Some of you might have seen the television show on Bravo, Inside the Actors Studio, hosted by James Lipton.  Toward the end of the show, Lipton asks each guest the same few questions.  One of the questions runs something like "what word or sound do you hate."  Another question runs something like "what word or sound do you love."  If I were asked what sound I hate, I would answer "the sound of a student asking 'will this be on the exam?'"  If I were asked what sound I love, I would answer "the sound of a student asking 'here’s an idea I think I might be able to do something with, what do you think?'""

Give this man a medal.

Posted by richard at 10:19 AM

December 9, 2008

December 8, 2008

December 7, 2008

Collaboration rules

I often go to Pat Kane's site "The Play Ethic", in part in the hope that he has posted something new, but more often to look at his Delicious entries, which invariably take me to some unexpected and interesting places. Today,I came across a real gem, a piece by Richard Sennett from the Times back in February. He's talking about craftsmanship and how we teach skills in the UK. This extract seems to sum up the heart of the argument:

"Take the creation of the mobile phone. This essential bit of modern kit resulted from the joining of two technologies, the radio and the telephone, which in the 1980s were not easy to link up. The technical problem lay in the switching mechanisms between the two. One approach to crafting a better switch was pursued by Motorola and Nokia, which encouraged engineers, salesmen and designers to collaborate in an open, easy fashion. By contrast, Ericsson emphasised benchmarks and targets for its various offices working on the switch; each office tried to make its mark in a firm that was internally highly competitive.

The Motorola/Nokia way proved more productive, quicker if messier, people pooling their thoughts and doubts about how to fashion the switch without worrying so much about getting ahead or standing out personally. Cooperation improved the skills of the Motorola and Nokia groups; competition inside the firm slowed Ericsson down.

The creation of the mobile phone switch is a model for how skills develop best. There’s nothing new about this model; medieval craft guilds enshrined collaboration in their rules. Perhaps the more modern note here is the emphasis on open-ended experiment, which took flight in the scientific revolutions of the 17th century. Good scientific craft emphasises the virtue of curiosity, which now, as then, means curiosity about what others know, think or doubt."

The whole article is well worth a read and I just hope, without much hope, that those running our education and training system, who have largely taken the Ericsson route, will take heed.

Posted by richard at 5:31 PM

December 4, 2008

December 1, 2008

How the light gets in

My friend Gill Wildman pointed me to a column by Howard Jacobson in the Independent, which in turn led me to the lyrics of Leonard Cohen's "Anthem". In an earlier post I asked, "Where is the light?" Well maybe Cohen's lyrics points to the kind of places to look:

"Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in."

Which in turn reminded me of a quote from Theodore Zeldin I have used before:

"Nothing influences our ability to cope with the difficulty of existence so much as the context in which we view them; the more contexts we can choose between, the less do the difficulties appear to be inevitable and insurmountable. The fact that the world has become fuller than ever of complexity of every kind may suggest at first that it is harder to find a way out of our dilemmas, but in reality the more complexities, the more crevices there through which we can crawl."

So cracks and crevices it is then.

Posted by richard at 6:03 PM