Sunday, September 30, 2018

The Mind of Design at the Dagger End

Where Can Design Intelligence exert the greatest effect on project success?   At the fuzzy front end, in the brain stage

“Cultures select and shape technology, not the other way around, and some societies have rejected or ignored even the gun or the wheel.”   --David E. Nye,* Technology Matters (MIT, 2006)

American culture is action-oriented. You hear it in our everyday expressions, such as “Don’t just stand there, do something!” Nike sells shoes with the slogan “Just do it!” The London-born actor Michael Caine once noted that the English make what they call “talking pictures” while we make “moving pictures.” Our role models are people who do things. We don’t make the same fuss over people who think about things.

Name a famous American philosopher.

We have them. Just name one.

I’ll wait.

In Asia, the Japanese, in contrast, will spend a decade thinking and planning before they develop and launch a new product. The Chinese work to twenty-year plans. Americans are more concerned with being first to market. As a general rule, we tend to start things in what other cultures would consider the middle of the process, then deal with obstacles when (not before) we hit them. We are a rich country. In government and in business, we tend to deal with problems by throwing money at them.

 As a result, we waste far too many resources on correcting mistakes and crisis intervention. Yet the design studio, desk, or laptop—and ultimately the human brain-- give us far more leverage for far longer at the lowest cost…before staffing, scripting, fabrication or even models are on the schedule.  As you move up and away from the brainwork of creating and mentally testing concepts, everything intensifies: time, labor, energy, and of course, the dollar costs and commitments. 

Before development costs money and materials and time, problems are best solved in the brain, the place where all design begins and ends (first from the creator’s then to the user’s brain).  It’s said that the mad genius physicist Nicola Tesla could run entire systems, test inputs, and detect issues--entirely in his head.  This saved a lot of development cash in his electricity-transmission work.  

Problem Definition

And the design problems to be solved may not manifest as people report them in surveys and focus groups—or in their own in-house meetings.  Food shortages have much to do with a lack of water, as do many health problems.  Human conflict is most often a matter of our universal tendency toward ethnocentrism (tribal ethic), flocking with our own kind.  Our sociable nature as primates is great—but equally leads to violence (tribal rivalries) – witness baboon battles.  In dress, jewelry is not about adornment, but about symbolizing and advertising our bonds with other people important to us – chains of office and the wedding ring.  And the theme park was invented to provide gated entertainment based on shared values and stories that last a lifetime, which gave them an edge over the short-lived physical thrills at amusement parks and carnivals.  That’s why the people who thought of, developed, and created Disney parks were called Imagineers - combining the concepts of thinking and doing.

Design is the drafting stage where concepts and supporting details still remain fluid.  In fact, virtually all of the work in the art of writing is in drafting, then revision after revision of ideas until either perfect or at least publishable (a wide range indeed).   In writing, the act of creation is in designing and redesigning, drafting dozens of times – each draft a thinking stage in the process.  However, to the reader, all of this work is quite invisible, so it looks easy.  As any writer can tell you, it isn’t. 

Bill Nye (The Science Guy) trained as a mechanical engineer, so he has an engineer’s appreciation of systems and cause-and-effect relationships.  His thoughtful work on problem solving, Everything All at Once (Rodale, 2017), sets up the case for the mind of design in chapter 12, “The Upside-down Pyramid of Design,” in which he urges young inventors to “Be Part of the Start” (image adapted from Nye’s, p. 137).


Nye’s advocacy of taking time with the design is another way of saying “Be part of the problem [statement], not just the solution.”  Design is the upper brain of building new creations, and his guide to problem-solving addresses this process in advancing entrepreneurship.  He uses his experience at Sunstrand Data Control, quoting designer Jack Morrow: “If the design is bad, no matter how well everyone else does their job, the result is never going to be any good.”  It’s “easy to get things almost right…” which is to say that “they do not work at all.”  The narrow point at the bottom of the pyramid is the theme-setter, the guidance systems for the rocket above.  As Nye says, “Filter information carefully so you can home in on the best way to solve your problem, and then develop your ideas fully in the hypothetical before you execute, so that the resulting system really does what you intend to do“ (p. 133).

For example, Nye attributes the crisis in automotive engineering in the 1970s to a failure to spend the serious thinking time required of complex machine development.  He cites the Pinto and Vega as two disastrous examples, contrasting these to French and Japanese achievements like the fourth-generation Miata.  And as he points out, design is the cheapest stage of the development process for anything, and the one involving the fewest people.  After the design is set, all subsequent stages are the ones where real money starts being spent: procurement of materials, fabrication, and marketing costs.  And all this expense is never going to be any better than the starting concept of the bottom of the larger triangle supported by insight and research. 

A good design may not guarantee a good product, “but you will never, ever, have a great product without a very good design.” Bottom-up thinking privileges conceptual thought---the themeing of ideas to combine and take shape in the service of the user and the user experience.  This is the meaning of reverse engineering in cultural terms. 

So—it’s essential to have a design that takes into account the culture it will have to operate in.  Identifying any problem in cultural / human terms first, before technology gets applied, is the way cultural analysis approaches the design pyramid.  Is there a problem or opportunity in search of a solution, or just a solution to nothing in particular you want very badly to bring to the marketplace?  90% of all new products fail--because they don’t actually need to exist.  It’s simply that a designer or his company wants to see them built.  That is why it’s so important to put human wants and needs first, at the pointy dagger-end of the pyramid, where they can support an invention or idea that really begs to be realized.

(P.S. We’ll be doing our bit to spread the word. Cultural Studies & Analysis will be presenting at Penn State’s 10th annual Global Entrepreneurial Week in November.)


*no relation to Bill