Jan 15, 2010

Design Thinking


Design Thinking - from ideo.com.

I went to a presentation at CCA Thursday by Tim Brown, CEO of Ideo. The presentation was structured as a conversation between Tim Brown and Mark Breitenberg, CCA's Provost, who himself has a record of leadership in design. In the talk, Tim Brown plugged his new book, Change by Design, which I haven't yet read.

During the talk, Tim Brown and Mark Breitenberg frequently used the term Design Thinking. It is a fairly new term to me and I didn't really understand what they meant by design thinking - at least in a way that distinguished it in my mind from thinking on the one hand or design on the other. I did hear lots of descriptive words - prototype, experiment, build, iterate, change, collaborate, reflect, observe, or analyze. In the end, though, I realized design thinking is a misnomer. What emerged (consistent with here and here) is that design thinking is not a type of thinking, like, say, analytic thinking or creative thinking, but rather it is a label for a methodology or process model, like the waterfall or spiral methodology. Design thinking is a shortcut for referring to the process that designers typically follow.

My first response was to wonder: in these days of interdisciplinary teams, how is it helpful to adopt a label for a team process which privileges one discipline over others? Design thinking hints at hubris. It is liable to lead to turf wars. I imagine non-designers seeing this as a branding tactic that positions the designers as the source of cool.

Next, I thought: it is a clever label. Designers are cool, after all. So this methodology must be cool too. And because it involves thinking it must also be smart, in the same way Adidas shoes are intelligent. What could be better? If I had to pick between, say, "human centered design methodology" and "design thinking" I know what I would swing for.

Clever labels are not necessarily good ones. I'm reminded of George Orwell's great essay on Politics in the English Language. Orwell notes that language is full of tired metaphors that people use automatically and without thought. He argues that we should always seek out fresh metaphors that evoke clear images and assist thought. As a metaphor, design thinking is fresh and appealing. However it is far from a clear image that assists thought. Quite the opposite, design thinking is so vague and sounds so good that people (myself included) immediately want to use it regardless of what it actually means. The result is a cacophony of claims. We learn that design thinking is "what all the creative people do", or it is "about innovation and creativity." It is "a human centered systems thinking that enriches life." "Design thinking converts need into demand" writes Tim Brown. Design thinking is the change agent that will lead us to a better world, where complex problems are addressed in a transparent, inspiring, transformational, participatory, contextual, sustainable way.

Design thinking has grown to become far more than a label for a process. It is a movement, a group of people sharing a vision for how to make better things. Coming from the software industry, I've seen similar movements there, all aiming to overlay some kind of roadmap over the chaotic moshpit of innovation. Scrum, extreme programming (xp), test driven development, agile, ... I could go on. Coders are a vanguard of process innovation. They are also in the unique position of being able to build software tools to assist in and instrument these methodologies. You could argue (eager as I am to use the term) that coders have been applying design thinking to the problem of software design for 25 years.

What have we learnt? That we haven't finished yet. The core of the problem is that innovation involves building things that haven't been built before and thinking things that haven't been thought before. To innovate you have to leave the map. Methodologies, on the other hand, always produce a map, structuring what innovations are possible. Methodologies only help innovation to the extent that the map they produce doesn't get in the way. In other words, the team using the methodology must realize that it is not the methodology that innovates. Design thinking does not think in exactly the same way that Microsoft Word does not write. Thought takes place in the complexity of dissensus, where we leave behind labels like "designer", "coder", "user" and "product".

Ultimately, it is about what works. In software, I've seen teams that adopted rigorous methodologies only to crash and burn, and teams who followed almost no methodology who then thrived and excelled. In my experience the methodologies that work best are those which start with modest claims and a lightweight infrastructure, provide a barebones of management scaffolding, and then slip into the background. The more sophisticated, complex, ambiguous, ambitious or vague the methodology, the more steps there are, the more room there is for debate about the methodology itself - all of which is time taken away from getting it done.

Will design thinking stick? It is probably too early to say. But, even if we question the label, or wonder at the efficacy of the methodology, we should agree with the intent of design thinking: our goal is to expand human-centered approaches across our organizations and companies. Meanwhile, back to the moshpit.

Jan 12, 2010

LED Lighting


Flexible LED lighting from Elemental LED

My friend Bob referred me to Kick Lighting and to Elemental LED. They both sell LED lights on flexible rolls that can be powered with 12v. I haven't quite figured out what to use them for yet, but I was really impressed by the sample Bob showed me. The LEDs and control circuitry are mounted directly into a flexible circuit strip. You just tape it up somewhere, plug in 12v and you have light. You can get small power dimmers too.

Jan 10, 2010

Avatar 3D


Zoe Saldana plays the warrior Neytiri in "Avatar" (from NYTimes)

I went to see Avatar 3D IMAX today (NYTimes review here). It is the best visual smorgasbord I've seen in film in a while, with an astonishing level of attention to detail, especially in the nature scenes. The film takes 3D visual effects to a new level. I loved the flora and fauna, and thoroughly enjoyed this aspect of the film. However, ultimately the film left me disappointed.

The story contrasts a dystopian military-industrial society with a utopian primitive-natural society. The military-industrial society consists of entirely bad guys, people out to exploit purely for profit. Meanwhile all of the natives are constitutionally good - there are no liars, cheats, thieves, cowards, drunks, slobs or lazy aliens. Straddling these two, a tiny group of heroes must decide where to take a stand.

The two societies collide and then bounce apart. In the end (spoiler alert) the men with their machines exit, and the heroes join the "noble savages" to return to their graceful state in harmony with nature.

This is a massive rewriting of colonial histories, one that pretends we can close pandora's box and return the gift of fire. Bring back the Dodo, let the natives win, Cameron suggests. Nice idea. Of course, we know the men with machines will be back with bigger guns and better bribes. And at least some of the natives will discover they have more leverage if they switch from warriors to miners and traders. Isolationism is only a temporary solution.

We expect nostalgia and fantasy from Cameron, whose previous films include Titanic and Aliens. Cameron's films rely on binary oppositions, on WW2 narratives of good and evil. But today these binary oppositions seem faded and naive. We crave stories that embrace the both-and world of globalization and post-colonialism. We want characters who deal with the gray slushy middle ground of issues like integration, assimilation, control, and liberation. Avatar's making is a case in point - the film's astonishing 3D visuals are only possible because of technologies born out of the military-industrial complex the film aims to critique. We live in the circular, the meta and the post. Our stories must live there too.