A look at what – and who – is pushing the future in new directions

Posts Tagged ‘Design’

Looking at a Rosie future…

Remember Rosie the Robot from the Jetsons? Well, make room, cause Rosie and her relatives are planning to move in – for good.

From folding your laundry to washing your dishes, these newfangled ‘bots do all the chores that you’ve probably always hated. For years, scientists and engineers have been creating simple robots to replace those menial tasks, but just recently have they perfected more intricate technology. South Korean scientists at the Korean Institute of Science and Technology have designed Mahru-Z, a humanoid robot with 3-D vision to recognize chores that need to be tackled, and plan on introducing Mahru-Z to the wider public within the next ten years. Needless to say, the introduction of such technology into our lives would be a real weight off our shoulders.

But robots can play a much more integral role in our social lives than most of us would expect. While robots might start out by relieving us from such domestic drudgery as mopping the floor and vacuuming those nasty carpets, they may also be our friends. From retirees to only children, robotic companions could play a large part in keeping people company, whether it’s by playing chess or taking a stroll around the neighborhood. After all, robots won’t argue, won’t lie to you, won’t divorce you, won’t fall asleep mid-conversation, and won’t storm out angrily. And while such complex AI technologies will take a considerable amount of time to develop, we’re certainly getting closer.

In the meantime, let’s stick with sipping robot-made lemonade while robots make our beds and dust our rooms. So many new and diverse robotic technologies are being perfected, giving us time to stop and smell the roses.

Flying fingertips and cooling brakes: using what we have

Corporate Bloom Boxes

Innovations in alternative energy, always exciting and unpredictable, are certain bets for the future. But which technology is the biggest gamble – and pays off the most? The latest and most promising one, the Bloom Box, was unveiled this past Sunday. This “little power plant-in-a-box,” which can literally sit in your basement, potentially provides independent and clean energy for home and small businesses alike. Within five to ten years, Bloom Energy hopes to make its Box available to individual residences for below $3,000, quite affordable given the price of a furnace ($3,000+) or installing a central heating heating system (up to $10,000!). Great, right?

But let’s bring this to scale. The Bloom Box won’t be available for at least five years. What do we do until then? In the energy lottery, certainly there are solar, biofuel, natural gas and wind resources, among others. We use everything from algae to manure to moon rocks – but instead of producing new technologies and new sources of energy, why don’t we use what’s right under our noses? Are overlooking the most obvious source of energy – movement?

The great thing about capturing free energy is that it really is everywhere: from crashing (or lapping!) ocean waves to a busy thoroughfare, there are plenty of sources of kinetic movement. The only questions we face are what technologies we need (to develop) to harness kinetic force, and how to scale out these technologies for wide – and so more efficient – use. Even in the most unexpected places possibilities are waiting to be tapped.

Its own powerhouse: the Dynamo

What caught my eye is a new keyboard on the market. Researchers have found a way to return the kinetic energy generated while typing to local utility providers through nanotechnology connecting the keyboard to any standard 110-volt outlet. At $30, and considering Americans, especially young ones, spend increasingly more time on the computer, keyboards like the Dynamo are both cost-efficient and accessible.

Another variation on this theme is a keyboard that recharges the computer’s battery the more you type. The goal one day is to develop a keyboard that will be fully powered with the speedy clicks of a laptop’s keys. We could reduce external energy consumption while prolonging battery life – a pretty perfect situation.

Where else might we be able to capture free energy? In big, high-pedestrian traffic cities like New York and Chicago, design company Fluxxlab wants to harvest the movement created each time a revolving door spins to power that same building. Likewise, the movement generated by city walkers as they rush to their next destination can be harnessed to power traffic lights, street lamps, and other electrical needs. Private company M2E Powerhas designed a microgenerator for troops that replaces the 10-30 pounds of batteries a soldier typically carries: clipped onto the wearer, walking or shaking for two hours powers mobile devices for an hour and a half, an incredible prospect

Where we might install these MotionPower plates in roads to capture free energy from vehicles

Capturing kinetic energy avails us of innumerable opportunities. Yet, we also face challenges in cost-efficiency and scale. While engineers at Free Energy Technologies have developed plates installed onto streets that capture the energy of decelerating cars, and this might generate a great deal of electricity, it perhaps isn’t enough to offset the costs of retrofitting old roads. Likewise, the Revolution Door only makes sense in big cities with high human traffic. We need to strategically and systematically make use of new technologies, and imagine more cost-efficient means of implementing them throughout our lives.

While all technological innovations push us toward a more progressive future, developing them takes time, funding, and determination. We certainly hope that the Bloom Box will bloom into our own (green) power plants, but at the same time, let’s keep in mind that the safest bet for the future is that portfolio of mixed energy-capturing conservation measures. We need to rely on multiple sources of energy for maximal efficiency. And right now, it looks like the kinetic energy from flying fingertips and cooling brakes is our greatest untapped natural resource.

It’s the Underlying Assumptions, Stupid

Multiple perspectives - illustration by John S. DykesDesign thinking – Designers solve problems and create new possibilities by asking questions. On a new project, designers will invariably ask what designer Bruce Mau calls “stupid questions,” … “the kinds of queries that challenge assumptions in such a fundamental way they can make the questioner seem naïve.”

As in a medical examination or a structural audit on a construction site, the function of the stupid question is to thump around in the context of a product or issue to uncover, understand and test underlying assumptions.  Designer Paula Scher talks to Mau about the value of approaching a problem from the perspective of an outsider,

“When I’m totally unqualified for a job, that’s when I do my best work … If you have too much expertise—if you think you know the answers already—you won’t be as open to offbeat possibilities. But if you’re a neophyte, you’ll ask what would seem to be obvious … From ignorance, you can come up with something that is so out of left field that it has been ignored or was never considered a possibility.”

Mau points out that, “The fear for so many people is that, in asking these kinds of questions, they will seem naïve. But naïve is a valuable commodity in this context. Naïve is what allows you to try to do what the experts say can’t be done.”

Outside of the realm of design (which I believe is a debatable distinction, since most problem solving activities can legitimately stake claim in the category of “design”), this approach can facilitate reconsideration of the foundations of a situation, provide a different perspective on the world, and help us “regain focus and retackle old, entrenched problems.”

Cut to the White House Situation Room – In what has been described as a “head-snapping” moment, high ranking members of President Obama’s Afghanistan review team realized that his approach to emerging military issues in the region was not simply a matter of “updating” his previous strategy, but essentially “starting over from scratch.”

Over a three month period, President Obama engaged U.S. military experts in an “intense, methodical, rigorous, earnest and at times deeply frustrating process for nearly all involved.”  The decision-making exercise became a “virtual seminar” driven by the President’s “insatiable demand for information.” Not only did he invite new perspectives and challenge competing view points to debate, he also listened and asked probing questions a la “college professor/cross-examiner.”

Taking a page from Gordon M. Goldstein’s book on the Vietnam War, “Lessons in Disaster,” President Obama concluded that “both President John F. Kennedy and President Lyndon B. Johnson failed to question the underlying assumption about monolithic Communism and the domino theory – clearly driving the Obama advisors to rethink the nature of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.”

Over the course of the analysis, Obama challenged the veracity of long-held assumptions about nearly every aspect of the Middle East scenario. By adopting the open, imaginative mind-set of the naive outsider/learner, President Obama engaged the U.S. military advisors in a rigorous design thinking exercise.

National security advisor, General James L. Jones spoke to the exhaustive inquiry, “From the very first meeting, everyone started with set opinions. And no opinion was the same by the end of the process.”

What's next in design?

"Future Tense" by illustrator Chris Buzelli (2009), featured on Communication Arts website; oil on wood; 11.25" X 15"; prints for sale.The College of Visual Arts, in conjunction with AIGA Minnesota, recently brought Patrick Coyne, editor and designer of Communication Arts Magazine, to speak at the Minnesota History Center in Saint Paul on the occasion of the publication’s 50th anniversary. Slide after slide of clever, beautiful, remarkable, memorable, brilliant design flashed across the screen as our engaging design-meister/moderator guided us through the revered annals of visual communications mastery. 

Founded in 1959 by Richard Coyne and Robert Blanchard, Communication Arts — known in art schools and design firms everywhere by its initials, CA — is the largest international trade journal of visual communications in the world, featuring excellence in graphic design, advertising, photography, illustration and interactive media. CA currently publishes six issues a year; conducts five juried competitions; and hosts two websites, commarts.com and creativehotlist.com.

Word on the street is, “Communication Arts magazine is a great source of inspiration, with profiles and features on top designers and work.” It’s a well-designed magazine that keeps up with the latest trends, showcasing excellence in exhibits, styles, designers and design firms — work from both established Big Dogs and pink-cheeked up-and-comers. Even B.C. (before computers), CA Magazine and its competition annuals were held as the Gold Standard of good design. Students would pour over its starkly laid out pages finding inspiration and intimidation all in one swoop.

Starkness by design - Rather than be a designed element itself, CA’s senior management believes that the magazine’s role is to unobtrusively showcase the work of the designers as a “museum of visual communications.”  This could be a big part of the reason why its pages carry themselves as solidly now as they did in the early days. The magazine, like premier designs of eras gone by, has been able to maintain a presence and integrity, communicating on a level that is as fresh and relevant as the day the first perfect bound edition rolled off the presses. Editors note in a section on CA’s current homepage that “[while time and technology have changed many things], they haven’t diminished the power of a compelling image.”

So, the Q&A session was well under way when a student in the crowd asked,

So, what’s next in design?”

Coyne didn’t skip a beat and replied, pointing directly at the guy,

You are. You are what’s next; and I can’t wait to see what you’ll do.” 

He went on to talk about how technology has brought design tools to everybody, … about how anybody can produce a flyer, newsletter or website, … and how the consequence there is that designers are forced to bring value to their clients as strategic thinkers instead of just image makers.  He reassured us that this is a good thing; what used to be primarily communication through graphics and language has become something bigger, deeper and more complex. 

Our own Cecily Sommers ratifies Coyne’s point suggesting that design is rapidly expanding from “things” (the arrangement of visual elements) to “experiences” … from experiences to “perception” … and from perception to “meaning.”  The designers of “what’s next” need to be fluent in the language of meaning … metaphor … symbol … archetype.  Sommers points out that at the structural systems level, a brand, when it works, becomes a steward for a territory of meaning.

“The well-designed brand says, ‘We have a point of view, … we invite you into our world, … a world where experiences, perceptions, objects, humor and tone will be consistent.’  The job of designers, businesses, artists or whoever, is to build a portal that opens up into a world that is designed and engineered to support and promote a continuity of meaning. They need to be able to communicate an experience and its underlying meaning to the marketplace such that people are able to make it their own, to feel that they are a part of a community. If you’ve done a good job, you become a trusted and frequented resource. You can bundle your products and networks with your preferences and P.O.V. … and the whole shooting match reflects your world and the values held therein. You become a curator … a steward of that territory of meaning.”

Curator … the Oxford dictionary defines it as “to look after and preserve” … the NY Times Magazine Sunday Style section defines it as … “a fashionable code word among the aesthetically minded.”  Previously confined to exhibition corridors, the modern curator moniker tags anyone who engages in activities that involve “culling and selecting” …

Now, among designers, disc jockeys, bloggers and thrift-store owners, curate is code for ‘I have a discerning eye and great taste’ … Even news-aggregator websites like Tina Brown’s Daily Beast, promote themselves as cultural curators … sifts, sorts, … Putting things together in a certain way is a creative activity in itself … things like structure, flow and revelation are considered an art.” 

As Coyne and others suggest, in today’s design marketplace, the “what’s next” curation/juxtaposition of variable elements is the new value add. Indeed, even our PUSH Institute “Drill Down” bills itself as “a highly-curated sort and analysis of global trends and issues.”  Looks like what’s next is what’s now. 


So you think you can design?

Cut&Paste 2009 Global Championship, October 16th, NYCFinally, an answer to the oft asked question – Is there a fast-paced, real-time, interactive reality show for us designers? 

You bet your wireless digital stylist there is!  “… 16 cities … 256 international competitors … 48 champions … competing in 2D, 3D, and Motion Design” for fun and fabulous prizes. In the spirit and tradition of celebrating independent design and creativity, Cut&Paste presents the first ever global design championship, a culmination of the best-of-the-best from the Digital Design Tournament 2009, slated for October 16th in New York City.

“With the broad geographical reach of an Olympic event and the nervy psychological gamesmanship of the X Games, the championship approaches design as a spectator sport and amps it up like never before … As with the Cut&Paste city tournaments, the global championship will feature a tech set up that registers every mouse click and tapped command emanating from the designer’s workstations and projects them live and in real time on large-scale displays.”

Ladies and Gentlemen take your seats, as designers wait behind assigned keyboard/monitors in the darkened arena for the competition to begin. Like a heavy-weight boxing tournament, blaring music and a fast-talking MC transform the usually pensive and internal practice and process of creative thinking into a bawdy, white-knuckled, right-brain design-slam. Contestants must withstand the palpable pace and pressure as judging eyes watch strings of monitors and the minutes tick on down to the final hoorah. No stress here.

This past spring, the Cut&Paste competition traveled to design-centric locations around the world – the circuit, a where’s-where of all things hip and cool – Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Boston, New York, Toronto, Chicago, Amsterdam, London, Berlin, Barcelona, Milan, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo and Sydney, with sponsors that include Autodesk, IDSA, Motionographer, IdN Magazine, Stash, Flavorpill, Wired, Scion, I Amsterdam, Adobe, Wacom, Nvidia, Converse and Pantone.

In addition to fame, glory, and the esteem of their peers, the fastest-on-the-draw will win grand prizes which include a contract with 55DSL to design an exclusive limited edition of their Capsule Collection (t-shirt, sweatshirt and dress) to be sold exclusively at yoox.com … the best-in-show in the motion-design category will receive an opportunity to collaborate with Converse on a special, to-be-announced project. Woot!

And, I must say, Pantone has really rolled it out since the days of the post-holed PMS (Pantone Matching System) flip book. Their push into digital media is fierce (there’s even an app for that) and involvement in the C&P championship, deep. The colorful Pantone ”MyColor/MyIdea” promotion brings each of the 48 designers into the mix — 2D design contestant Allison Torneros from San Francisco (below), for example, is matched with Pantone color #103-1-2-C.  We also get a link to her website, email address, sample of her work, and a glimpse into her own personal “inspirational idea” — “cosmic creativity”. (Sorry, no astrological sign.)  To check out the match on the other 47 designers, or to explore the “1000 most recent color ideas” go to the C&P site.

Capture of Pantone promotional site

The Play-Offs Part 2: It's all about the Box

Snip of pencil-rebel documentaryWho knew that writing about play would be such hard work. There is a lot of stuff out there on “play” … types of play, dynamics of play, the value of play, and so on.  Robin Marantz Henig, for one, writes about the serious side of play. (NY Times Magazine, February 17, 2009) Apparently, for scientists who study play, it is far more than a “frivolous luxury” …

“Play is a key part of neurological growth and development … an important way that children build complex, skilled, responsive, socially adept and cognitively flexible brains.” …

Well, if that explanation doesn’t take all the fun out of it, pondering the evolution of play goes a step further, delineating the myriad reasons why play is not hereditarily recommended:

“When it comes to animal play, scientists basically agree … that it’s a mystery why they do it, since there are so many reasons not to. It all seems incredibly wasteful, and nature does not usually tolerate waste. Play can be costly in terms of energy expenditure … using up calories the young animal could more profitably use for growing. … Frisky playing can also be dangerous, making animals more conspicuous and inattentive, and thus more vulnerable to predators and more likely to hurt themselves as they romp and cavort.”

We’re not talking dodge-ball here. Like play, the random and spontaneous dynamics of creative problem solving call upon inner processes which can both exercise the mind and delight the spirit. Case in point, the playful work of Grzegorz Kozakiewlcz, a mixed media artist who uses computer technology, stop motion photography, hand drawing, cut up cardboard, and a glue gun to create whimsical, wonderful miniature scenarios.  As you watch Grzegorz work his magic (below), you can almost hear his parents lamenting in the background, “We buy him nice toys and all he wants to do is play with the box… “ Also, note the hip, cool music. (Everything is so much hipper and cooler with a hip cool sound track.)

Making of Pencil Rebel 1 – Documentary from Pencil Rebel on Vimeo.

I’d like to say something disparaging about this man’s probable trust fund, but I am actually extremely envious of his devotion, capacity and opportunity to romp and cavort on his own inner playground. More maddening yet is his articulate and virtuous philosophical outlook:

“Whatever you use … advanced technology or a pencil, what matters is the initial idea and the process of its creation … Let’s do it a different way, like no one has done before.”

Rather than compelled to “turn off the computer and go outside,” a la Play-Offs Part 1′s interactive software bloke, Neave (rhymes with heave), I am drawn to enter the tiny cardboard world of the pencil-rebel.  There is something comforting, yet edgy, almost poetic, about Grzegorz’s work – small-scale, everyday objects rendered in pencil by the human hand; painstakingly cut out of pieces of brown cardboard; their creation documented and revealed in fits and starts before our eyes; their purpose left in question.

"Hybrid thinking"? … Think again.

Leonardo da Vinci's "Vitruvian Man"; di Vinci is often described as the archtype of the Renaissance manObama lauds innovative spirit … Future economic prosperity depends on building a new, stronger foundation and recapturing the spirit of innovation.” 

Historically, tough economic times have catalyzed surges in innovative thinking - Hewlett Packard and Polaroid were formed after the Great Depression, MTV came close on the heels of the recession in the 1980′s, and Apple’s iPod (developed during a sharp decline in sales and margins of consumer electronics in 2001) joined the “pantheon of game-changing innovations born of hard times, alongside Depression-era breakthroughs such as nylon and the jet engine.” (HBR, July/Aug. 2009) If history repeats itself, the current economic downturn is the perfect storm of opportunity for innovation.

The rustling in the bushes is all there – at the 2009 International Consumer Electronics Show, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer suggests that, “Companies and industries that continue to pursue innovation during tough economic times will achieve a significant competitive advantage and position themselves for growth…” … And, “… companies investing countercyclically in R&D (biz-code for innovation) during downturns tend to outpace their competitors on the upswing.” (HBR)

What all this means is, between random jolts from the Federal Reserve and the pitch and yaw of consumer confidence, companies and industries around the world are rifling through drawers, combing executive profiles, and making the mad dash into the ethers in search of both survival and triumph in the huge pot of gold at the end of the Next Big Innovation. Suddenly, the fluffy and elusive x-factor of creativity/innovation/design has become the imperative “it-force” behind economic recovery and prosperity. From Washington to Wall Street, everyone is using the “I” word, rushing into the vortex with new takes on how to pin down and quantify innovation.

Dev Patnaik, founder and chief executive of Jump Associates, a Silicon Valley growth strategy firm (clients include Nike, Target, and Hewlett-Packard) discusses the underpinnings of innovation in this month’s Fast Company, ”Forget Design Thinking and Try Hybrid Thinking.” Fast forward to his point, Patnaik suggests that there is a unique role that designers and their skill-set/way of thinking can play in making everything — products, services, experiences, and industry-specific entities such as finance, education and government — better.  He then pushes beyond that thought to propose that something bigger is going on in the minds of successful innovators:

“… something bigger is going on, more powerful than the adoption of a single school of thought. The secret isn’t design thinking, it’s “hybrid thinking “: the conscious blending of different fields of thought to discover and develop opportunities that were previously unseen by the status quo …”

We’re not talking about “multi-tasking” here … True hybrid thinkers (you know who you are) traffic in the cracks between traditional areas of expertise and are able to ”connect the dots between what’s culturally desirable, technically feasible, and viable from a business point of view.”  The new face of innovation demands that we “see the world through multiple lenses and draw meaning from seemingly disparate points of data.”

According to Patnaik, “hybridity” matters now because the problems we need to solve are too complex to be handled by any one skill-set. Gone are the good old silo days where depth in a single field trumps breadth in multiple areas. Audiovox design executive Lou Lenzi asserts that those who want to innovate, must be “one part humanist, one part technologist, and one part capitalist.” 

Well, “hybrid thinking” might be a catchy modern phrase, but it isn’t a new concept. In the spirit of “Everything old is new again,” hybrid thinking can march to the back of the line behind lava lamps, lime green and liberal arts.  Two words for Dev: 1. da; 2. Vinci.

Intro to design

dylan_poster-v2-202x300So, this is the first in a series of blogs on and around the topic of “design.”  The first in a series of anything is always tough … it hangs out there, with no real context or reason for being.  This first blog is going to be like that clunky riff of small talk at the beginning of a real conversation. We size each other up, make our introductions, set up some unspoken expectations, and plunge into whatever comes next.

The plan for this forum is to present a design find — something immensely informative, enlightening, inspiring, entertaining, or even enraging (which can be fun); do some thinking, pondering, ruminating, conjecturing, and reflecting on it; and then, open up a dialogue around the issues that need to be raised and the questions that need to be asked.

In this exploration, I’m hoping we’ll get close enough to touch the elephant, but also back-off to a broad enough perspective that we can behold the bigger animal. As for tone, look for something between academic and improv. Note: I am totally aware that chances are good that you will know a whole lot more about all of this than I do, which begs the open invite to step up and share your thoughts, wisdom, snark, whatever. Me blog es su blog.

Design defined — A nice tight definition of terms can be a good way to wade into a broader discussion — except that the concept of “design” is so elusive and complex that even the ubiquitous resource Wikipedia had trouble nailing it down. Design is a noun and it’s a verb, it’s a philosophy, it’s subjective, and it’s omnipresent. There’s applied design, graphic design, industrial design, fashion design, interior design, information design, process design, interactive design … good design, bad design, provocative design, and “designs on you.”  Some random perspectives that speak to design defined include:

  • “Design is the planning that [provides] the basis for the making of every object or system … as a verb, “to design” refers to the process of originating and developing a plan for a product, structure, system, or component with intention … as a noun, “a design” is used for either the final solution/plan or the result of implementing that plan in the form of the final product of a design process … more recently, processes have also been treated as products of design, giving new meaning to the term process design.”  — Wikipedia (See what I mean?)
  • “Design implies a conscious effort to create something that is both functional and aesthetically pleasing.” — more Wikipedia
  • “Design is about doing something — a process more than a product. Design is about identifying problems, asking good questions, and finding better answers.” — betterbydesign.org.nz
  • “Great design is deceptive … it looks so simple and obvious. Great design only works — only happens — when it goes right down to the heart and soul of the [entity] that produces it.” — Rod Oram, Journalist and Adjunct Professor at the New Zealand Centre for Innovation & Entrepreneurship
  • “To design is to communicate clearly by whatever means you can control or master.” — Milton Glaser
  • “… to inform and delight.” – more Milton Glaser
  • “Design is thinking, materialized in objects and environments, inscribed in patterns of use, and addressed by analysis and planning.” — Ellen Lupton, Curator of Contemporary Design at Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
  • “About half my designs are controlled fantasy, 15 percent are total madness and the rest are bread-and-butter designs.” — Manolo Blahnik

Ok, so, maybe a pithy definition of design isn’t going to help us as much as catching design in action — design created in the minds of people – revered icons, dewy-eyed students, purists, practitioners, … folks from all walks of life, trafficking in different disciplines and realms of influence, and impacting aesthetic and material experience in all corners of the globe.

Look for some of that in the blogs ahead.