Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Design and the Elastic Mind

NOTE: In a few days, I'll announce the launch of our new www.method.com website. As part of the modern condition (and an up-to-date approach to extending our brand), we've got a corporate blog. Some of my thinking will be shifted there. I'll try to cross-post when appropriate. The following post is appropriate.

On Saturday, I took a trip up to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The purpose of my visit was primarily to see the "Colour Chart" exhibit, although I also went with every intention of spending a good bit of time in the "Design and the Elastic Mind Exhibit." Both exhibits were entirely worthwhile, so if you are in New York before May 12th, check them out. But what was remarkable, particularly in comparison to the extremely accessible Color Chart exhibit, was how complete the enthrallment of the capacity crowd streaming through the Design exhibit.

After taking an hour to wander through the exhibit, I took another 45 minutes to simply people watch, to observe how the Saturday afternoon tourist crowd engaged with the various pieces in the show. It was an amazing spectacle, as young and old, bearded and bespectacled, distinctly European and distinctly New Jersey-an were all poring over the tiny and numerous explanations of each installation, leaning over exhibit tables and pressing their faces up against cases to get closer looks at objects, and touching things that they were instructed clearly not to touch. Why? Not because the design objects were immediately and obviously cool. Many of them, in fact, were not obviously cool. They were not shiny metal things, but rather, took a bit of study and consideration to appreciate the value of the object itself..

What quickly became clear was that so much of the crowd was completely taken by the explanations of the design objects -- engaged with the thinking and leaps of imagination that informed the design, as documented in the attached descriptions, or as intuited by the curious museum-goers. As much as the objects themselves, people found delight in unraveling or having explained the smarts that went into making them. The product of design wasn't the only cool thing. Design was the cool thing, too.

So what? Well, working in a design firm, I think that one of the unique challenges we face is to find ways to engage the audiences of our design more deeply in our process. For both the consumers of the experiences we build and for our clients, part of the value that we can add (and part of the delight that we can stimulate) is by helping our audiences appreciate the thinking behind our design. This may be by actually including them in our process, or it might be by designing products and experiences that, in addition to being elegant and valuable, are themselves articulate about the analysis or inspiration or intuition from which they sprung.

Rational Choice: Carrotmob

Two fundamental concepts of economics that have always frustrated me are the following:

1. An economic choice is fundamentally a value decision made by an individual. An economic actor is making an observable choice, revealing their values and preferences.

2. A market (or the market) uses price as a mechanism to efficiently allocate resources, based on supply and demand, fundamentally driven by the sum of the collective individual preferences of each of the actors in the market.

That may be an oversimplification, and it has been a while since I've taken an economics class, but the gist is right.

So, what's vexing? Well, two things. First, while so many of us claim to believe in one set of things (say, environmental responsibility, or justice, or equality) our revealed preferences show a clear priority in valuing a different set of things (say, comfort, or convenience, or entertainment).

Secondly, while we may truly believe in one set of things, we generally do not feel that our economic choices actually can influence the behaviors of "the market." While we are all supposed to be economic agents, who's behavior, in sum, matters, we feel a complete lack of agency, as far as our ability to make choices that will actually change markets.

With these two points running around the back of my head, I comment Carrotmob, both as an ingenious embodiment of these core economic principles, and as a very cool and innovative approach of connecting the individual economic choices that we might make with real world impact. While my understanding is that Carrotmob is just getting off the ground, I fully recommend taking a look at the organization, which has the potential to be a powerful and exciting change agent, and has, at its core, a possibly sustaining business model (probably not making anybody a millionaire, but perhaps sustaining the platform for change that Carrotmob may grow into...)


Sunday, April 20, 2008


I haven't had a chance to read the remainder of the NYT's green-focused magazine, but I expect I may have more to say or share from that. One of the constant challenges in trying to be more green is knowing exactly what to do. There are a wealth of great resources out there and it seems one more has been added to the mix. I haven't yet spent much time on the site, but GreenYour.com is a personal reference service for making environmentally sound choices. I believe the service was started by some folks that I crossed-paths with a few jobs back, and I figure it's Web 2.0-take (judging by the look of it) on going green is at least worth a look. More on it later, most likely.

Why Bother?

Michael Pollan with a wonderful essay in the New York Times arguing for the importance of personal choice in making a difference in the face of climate change (and an argument that can easily be extended to a wealth of other environmental, social, and economic factors). Pollan's essay touches on issues that have long troubled me. Among the positives are framing environmental responsibility as a fundamentally moral choice (albeit, in the positive sense of moral, not the finger-wagging, school-marmish sense) and framing environmentally responsible acts as pleasurable (for me, living in a city, for Pollan, planting a garden and growing your own food). More vexing is how to convince people to embrace personal change when confronted with the overwhelming sense that the problem is too large to impact, or when faced with concerns of developed countries somehow falling behind in a consumer arms race with their counterparts in China (the traditional bogeyman) or elsewhere. And kudos to Pollan for re-raising the profile of Wendell Berry, an essayist who deserves a much wider following. Read on:
For us to wait for legislation or technology to solve the problem of how we’re living our lives suggests we’re not really serious about changing — something our politicians cannot fail to notice. They will not move until we do. Indeed, to look to leaders and experts, to laws and money and grand schemes, to save us from our predicament represents precisely the sort of thinking — passive, delegated, dependent for solutions on specialists — that helped get us into this mess in the first place. It’s hard to believe that the same sort of thinking could now get us out of it.

Thirty years ago, Wendell Berry, the Kentucky farmer and writer, put forward a blunt analysis of precisely this mentality. He argued that the environmental crisis of the 1970s — an era innocent of climate change; what we would give to have back that environmental crisis! — was at its heart a crisis of character and would have to be addressed first at that level: at home, as it were. He was impatient with people who wrote checks to environmental organizations while thoughtlessly squandering fossil fuel in their everyday lives — the 1970s equivalent of people buying carbon offsets to atone for their Tahoes and Durangos. Nothing was likely to change until we healed the “split between what we think and what we do.” For Berry, the “why bother” question came down to a moral imperative: “Once our personal connection to what is wrong becomes clear, then we have to choose: we can go on as before, recognizing our dishonesty and living with it the best we can, or we can begin the effort to change the way we think and live.”

For Berry, the deep problem standing behind all the other problems of industrial civilization is “specialization,” which he regards as the “disease of the modern character.” Our society assigns us a tiny number of roles: we’re producers (of one thing) at work, consumers of a great many other things the rest of the time, and then once a year or so we vote as citizens. Virtually all of our needs and desires we delegate to specialists of one kind or another — our meals to agribusiness, health to the doctor, education to the teacher, entertainment to the media, care for the environment to the environmentalist, political action to the politician.

As Adam Smith and many others have pointed out, this division of labor has given us many of the blessings of civilization. Specialization is what allows me to sit at a computer thinking about climate change. Yet this same division of labor obscures the lines of connection — and responsibility — linking our everyday acts to their real-world consequences, making it easy for me to overlook the coal-fired power plant that is lighting my screen, or the mountaintop in Kentucky that had to be destroyed to provide the coal to that plant, or the streams running crimson with heavy metals as a result.

Of course, what made this sort of specialization possible in the first place was cheap energy. Cheap fossil fuel allows us to pay distant others to process our food for us, to entertain us and to (try to) solve our problems, with the result that there is very little we know how to accomplish for ourselves. Think for a moment of all the things you suddenly need to do for yourself when the power goes out — up to and including entertaining yourself. Think, too, about how a power failure causes your neighbors — your community — to suddenly loom so much larger in your life. Cheap energy allowed us to leapfrog community by making it possible to sell our specialty over great distances as well as summon into our lives the specialties of countless distant others.

Here’s the point: Cheap energy, which gives us climate change, fosters precisely the mentality that makes dealing with climate change in our own lives seem impossibly difficult. Specialists ourselves, we can no longer imagine anyone but an expert, or anything but a new technology or law, solving our problems. Al Gore asks us to change the light bulbs because he probably can’t imagine us doing anything much more challenging, like, say, growing some portion of our own food. We can’t imagine it, either, which is probably why we prefer to cross our fingers and talk about the promise of ethanol and nuclear power — new liquids and electrons to power the same old cars and houses and lives.
Read the rest.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Flight Pattern

Pretty cool data visualization of FAA flight data. Courtesy MM.

Thursday, April 10, 2008


Congratulations to JJK and DM for a listing in Engadget. Siftables certainly aren't ready for the prime time yet, but I do count myself among the set who thinks that more analog/physical means for manipulating digital information is both cool, useful, and has a market. Keep pushing...

You Can Pay Me Later: Hello, World!

Two ideas for you to steal and make:

An iPhone app where you can type in number, turn the phone upside down, and have them display like an old-school calculator with an LCD display. So, like MM says, you can pick up more nerdy girls. You can send me money for this whenever you like...

A contest for the best hack of an TI series graphing calculator. There must be in excess of several million of these floating around in the United States, for all the high school and college students who were required to buy these in the middle-90s. Are they still in use? And to be clear, the standard I am expecting would include augmented features like lasers or the ability to operate other, larger devices. Or time travel. The TI-85 was a pretty powerful package, as I recall.
And while I'm searching Flickr for photos of calculators, here is where I got my start. Little Perfesser, how I owe you...