Back to the Filesystem

After a decade (!) of experimenting with various kinds of web content management systems to run my personal website, I’ve reverted back to the best CMS around: the file system.

Inspired by the work of Mr. Adam Mathes and wishing for a system that would handle the image-based content of my portfolio, I decided to ditch Indexhibit and write something quick from scratch. The result is this:


Which is the rendered version of this:


What I like about this system is that I can adjust the flow of the content by adjusting the alphabetical order of the files. To add new content to the page all I have to do is drag an image into the folder or create a new text file. A bit of hacked-up PHP watches the folders and re-flows the pages when anything changes. It’s like magic, where magic is defined as a weekend spent hacking in a pair of code languages that I only sort of remember.

So basically there are three points to this post:

  1. Props to Mr. Mathes
  2. There is still a lack of good CMSes for primarily visual material
  3. Oh yeah, my website has been redone


Morning: coffee and to-dos. Lists, logistics, and schedules. Dialing in–that is, tuning, not bytes.

Between: Before lunch rolls around the first crisis has landed. It’s not a real crisis but it’s something that needs attention in a marginally more urgent fashion than everything else. Either that or you’re already asleep somewhere up above 35,000 feet.

Lunch: quick but never hasty. Better when it’s long followed by a longer coffee.

Afternoon: The to-do list is now a half-useless piece of paper. It can neither be used to record new information, being full, nor be thrown away, being not fully marked off. Progress is quicker than expected but never fast enough. Thoughts now turn to medium term goals, defining aspects of projects and qualifying the Things To Be Done. This step feels both useless and absolutely necessary.

Sunset: It’s possible that you observe the sunset through the oval portholes of a jetplane. If so, sleep well. Otherwise, the day’s thoughts about strategy, policy, and “innovation systems” are slowing down.

Night: Where highfalutin thoughts have rested, new bits bubble up: pricing models, impediments, skill profiles, mechanisms of commitment, occasionally a walnut or two.

Meeting, by chance, in San Francisco Ben asked me, “Are you still in convection?”

370 And Counting

An important date slipped by last week without my even noticing it. Caught up in the hubbub of work, the anniversary of my move to Helsinki came and went without a moment of reflection.

I moved.

As the inherited template of Important Days becomes less and less relevant, I find myself seeking events of my own choosing to celebrate with whatever seems most appropriate. Who doesn’t claim to hate celebrating their birthday? And do we really need to keep up the charade of celebrating some guy’s winter birthday by putting up decorated pine trees? I’d rather pick new days and wrap them in new rituals.

The anniversary of moving from one continent to another feels like a pretty significant thing. Particularly this move, as it was the culmination of an awkward and difficult period of migration between Europe and America spanning August 2008 to March 2009. I moved to Finland with two suitcases and a credit card ready for Ikea. I expected a new life but was foolishly unprepared for the extent to which that would become true.

Carbon sequestration

This is an easy place to move to and an easy place to like, but in some ways it’s a difficult place to love. Helsinki, more than many most cities I’ve lived in, holds its cards close. The best moments of my time here have been spent in the homes of friends, tucked in the corner of public spaces, or deep within the irrepressible beauty of Finland’s forests and parks. As with the glorious summer that follows Finland’s long winter, Helsinki rewards commitment and the longer I stay the more its wonders reveal themselves to me.

Three hundred and seventy days later and I finally find myself at home on my own street – in this city I’m starting to know.

Changing the Definition of Design

Readers of this site will know that I am perplexed by the term “design thinking.” This consternation stems from the lack of a good definition, particularly with regard to what separates a “design thinker” from a plain old good designer. Design culture in North America and Europe has seen a profusion of nomenclature in recent years from interaction, to experience, to service design, all in addition to design thinking (I’ve observed the same thing happening in Australia and Asia as well, but I can only speak with direct experience of the North American and European contexts).

Is there a new practice of design brewing? If so, what makes it unique and how do we define it? How do we understand who is a design thinker and who is not? And perhaps most importantly for the readership of this blog, if design thinking can be “practiced by anyone” as Tim Brown suggests in Change by Design, what is it that professionals contribute? What unique things do design thinkers do?

My hunch is that the recent usage of the name stems from a professional concern for differentiation and is therefore an attempt to establish a competitive advantage by creating-and being a first mover within-a new market of design services. This has obvious benefit for a group such as Brown’s IDEO as they seek to distinguish themselves from the clamor of the world’s many design firms. Professional practices use names to create territories and things that they own, but what happens when the conversation expands beyond a single corporate entity and begins to encompass a larger community? As groups around the world try to redefine the practice of design, we risk a profusion of names for what are essentially just slightly different variations of “good design.”

To ask it another way, is there any reason that some designers should not be design thinkers?

I’m trying to ferret out whether “design thinking” is a useful term amongst the community of designer-peers or if it’s more appropriate, in a non-pejorative way, simply as a PR tool.

The design community has generally not communicated the value of our various practices very well to the public, so it’s exciting to have a new way of posing a value proposition that people actually buy into! If the term “design thinking” is a tool for differentiation within the market then it’s easier to accept, but now that it’s spilling into schools-and particularly business schools-the term is in danger of creating more confusion than value.

The design community seems to be experiencing an identity crisis compounded by its myriad PR failures. The more I dig into this question, I see the energy put into supporting “design thinking” as two matters that are confusingly grouped under one name:

  1. A renovation of the definition of what it means to be a “good designer” to include systems and strategies as well as enhanced skills in observation, analysis, and communication.
  2. Recognition that the best way to increase the standing of “design” in the eyes of non-designers (read: potential clients) is to educate them through exposure to our process

It seems that the hoped-for outcome is:

  1. Designers who understand their work as integral with a variety of contexts: physical, organizational, market, environmental (#1)
  2. Non-designers (“design thinkers”) value the design process as a contribution to their core business/mission whether this is product based or not. (#2)
  3. An increasing number of designers involved in strategic decision making (result of A+B)

As I continue to try to make sense of “design thinking,” I took the opportunity of a recent flight to read Tim Brown’s new book and conducted a little experiment. I’ve transcribed every most mentions of “design thinking” and “design thinker” as a way of attempting to find Brown’s definition. It’s one of the most coherent available at the moment, but it’s still fuzzy and I’m still having problems rectifying the implications of the following statements with their relationship to the deprecated terms of “design” and “designing.”

Taking lines out of context is a cruel and unusual thing to do to another author’s text, but it’s done in good sport as a quick and dirty attempt to conjure a definition where one does not otherwise exist. Sorry, Tim!

Design thinking Is…

Design thinking is founded upon “The willing and even enthusiastic acceptance of competing constraints.” p.18

“Design thinking is expressed within the context of a project that forces us to articulate a clear goal at the outset.” p.21

“Design thinking is the opposite of group thinking, but paradoxically, it takes place in groups.” p.28

“Design thinking is embodied thinking-embodied in teams and projects… but embodied in the physical spaces of innovation as well.” p.35

“Design thinking is rarely a graceful leap from height to height-it tests our emotional constitution and challenges our collaborative skills.” p.65

“Design thinking [is] a continuous movement between divergent and convergent processes, one the one hand, and between analytical and synthetic, on the other.” p.70

“Design thinking is neither art nor science nor religion. It is the capacity… for integrative thinking.” p.85

“Design thinking… [is] allowing customers to write the last chapter of the story themselves.” p.148

“Design thinking is ideally suited to enhance… [a] human-centered, desirability-based approach.” p.159

“Design thinking is unlikely to become an exact science but… there is an opportunity to transform it from a black art into a systematically applied management approach.” p.176

“Design thinking is being applied at new scales in the move from discrete products and services to complex systems.” p.178

“Design thinking is about creating a multipolar experience in which everyone has the opportunity to participate in the conversation.” p.192

Design thinking principals are “user-centered research, brainstorming, analogous observation, prototyping.” p.224

“Design thinking requires bridging the ‘knowing-doing gap.’” p.227

“Design thinking starts with divergence, the deliberate attempt to expand the range of options rather than narrow them.” p.229

“Design thinking balances the perspective of users, technology, and business.” p.229

“Design thinking is fast-paced, unruly, and disruptive.” p.234

“Design thinking has its origins in the training and the professional practice of designers.” p.241

Design thinking needs…

“Design thinking needs to move upstream, closer to the executive suites where strategic decisions are made.” p.37

“Design thinking… demands divergent, synthesis-based methods.” p.160

“Design thinking needs to be turned towards the formulation of a new participatory social contract.” p.178

“Design thinking… must find ways to encourage individuals to move towards more sustainable behavior.” p.195

Design thinking does…

“Design thinking… [translates] observations into insights and insights into products and services that will improve lives.” p.49

“Design thinking extends the perimeter around a problem.” p.205

Design thinking “[builds] on one another’s good ideas.” p.225

“Design thinking can not only contribute to the success of companies but also promote the general welfare of humanity.” p.227

Design thinking can…

“Design thinking can be practiced by everyone.” p.149

“Design thinking can help us chart a path into the future.” p.149

“Design thinking can provide guidance… on a large scale and even at the level of the most challenging problems we face in our society today.” p.201

Design thinkers are…

“Design thinkers… cross the ‘T.’” p.27

“Design thinkers [have] the ability to spot patterns in the mess of complex inputs, synthesize new ideas from fragmented parts, [and] empathize with people from different contexts.” p.86

“Design thinkers can ‘build’ prototypes in the cafeteria, a boardroom, or a hotel suite.” p.106

“Design thinkers… can use… empathy and understanding of people to design experiences that create opportunities for active engagement and participation.” p.115

[Design thinkers have] to be comfortable moving along both… axes [of space and time].” p.133

“Design thinkers have been drawn to the greatest challenges” p.203

“Design thinkers have become adept at approaching important social issues from the angle of individual motivations and the behaviors that follow” p.220

“Design thinkers have become activists and are applying their skills to sources of social dysfunction.” p.220

“Design thinkers observe how people behave [and] how the context of their experience affects their reaction to products and services.” p.229

Design thinkers use a “human centered approach” to “inform new offerings and increase likelihood of their acceptance by connecting them to existing behaviors.” p.229

“Design thinkers may be in short supply, but they exist inside every organization.” p.234

Design thinkers ask “‘Why?’ [as] an opportunity to reframe a problem, redefine the constraints, and open the field to a more innovative answer.” p.236

“Design thinkers observe the ordinary.” p.237

Design thinkers do…

“A design thinker will bring into harmonious balance” desirability, feasibility, and viability. p.18

“Design thinkers… have shifted their thinking from problem to project.” p.21

Design thinkers “[help] people to articulate the latent needs they may not even know they have.” p.40

“Design thinkers have upped the ante, beginning with the premise that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” p.56

“Design thinkers… continue to ‘think with their hands’ throughout the life of a project.” p.106

“Design thinkers… anticipate the needs of their customers and build on the ideas of their colleagues.” p.121

Design thinkers will do…

“Design thinkers must also consider the demand side of the equation.” p.199

Design thinkers should be “sitting on… corporate boards, participating in their strategic marketing decisions, and taking part in the early stages of R&D efforts.” p.229

“Design thinkers will connect the upstream with the downstream.” p.229

New Universe

This evening Y Combinator opened up applications for its Summer 2010 round, marking what will be the fifth anniversary of the program, which has funded 171 startups to date. This round is bringing an important change: the program calendar has been moved up by a month, which means that startups will find out if they’ve been accepted at nearly the same time that they’ll hear back from competing programs like TechStars and DreamIt Ventures.

Interesting. YC is essentially a parallel university with its own faculty, (borrowed) dormitories, and in-house curriculum. It was explicitly set up to target college-aged kids who were more ambitious than their CS courses. The model proved so successful that it attracted copycats and, not only that, but the copycats are also successful. So much so that they are clearly starting to pull talent from the first-mover, and YC doesn’t like that.

Now YC is pushing up the announcement date of their incoming class so that this whole segment of youth-oriented VC is now basically right back where it started: YC may have started as a new school, but now it has inadvertently given birth to a whole new university system.

Losing (Our) Edge?

[These groups interested in architectural territory] are creating their own discourse from scratch, outside of academia. Architectural discourse has been supported by schools for so long that it is difficult to remember any other way. The fields of Service and Interaction Design seem to be supported by something more like the feudal corporate patronage structure that architects relied on in the Renaissance. That’s very interesting, no? Not the least because despite any purse or apron strings linking them to the corporate world, they still seem to want to talk about ideas, even some of the more out-there quasi-marxist corners of critical theory that academic architects like to frequent. That’s kind of fun, right?


Fred has a thought provoking post over at 765. The comments are also worth your time, I was certainly inspired to respond.

See also: this and this and this.

From 2000 To 350: Two Numbers

Mathematical Graffiti

One thing we did not intend to do in 2009, but did: visit South America.

One thing we intended to do in 2009 but did not: write this post about the bookend numbers of the decade. A small observation.

The first decade of the 21st century started with Y2K and ended with 350 – two expressions of our fear that the collective technological creations of humanity will also be our destruction.

As a lingering concern from the tail end of the 20th century, we entered 02000 affraid that the computer systems running everything from our stoplights to medical devices would call it quits as their internal clocks reset from 99 to 00. People stockpiled food, escaped to remote areas, and there was a collective holding of breath as we stepped into that unknown territory together. By the end of January 1, 2000 fears of massive computer meltdown had already dissipated and “Y2K” was thrown out with the party favors from the night before.

December 12 2009: World leaders gather in Copenhagen to discuss an international treaty that would limit the presence of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere by establishing a cap of 350 parts per million. At the end of the decade we were again confronted with the unexpected consequences of human progress.

Although the possible disaster that was Y2K fizzled quickly, all informed parties agree that 350 is a much more menacing number that we are not likely to escape. I’ll remember the decade as a transition from 2000 to 350, a persistent fear of technocollapse concretized into two essential numbers. Hopefully 350 won’t become this decade’s Y2K, forgotten as soon as it’s widely recognized as a problem.

On Things Elastic, Idle, and Vast

I am lucky enough to have an incredible job which puts me up to unusual things. Like visiting five continents for research. In one month. November was pretty unique. I visited London, New York, Santiago, Sydney, Torquay, Melbourne, Singapore, and Beijing in the span of 25 days. Seeing such a wide variety of climates (meteorologically, economically), geographies, and cultures has stretched my brain in new ways. This trip will leave a mark on me.

long trip


Employed by Idleness

On my first visit to mainland China the most striking thing was the sheer number of people who are employed by idleness. My experience was probably a bit skewed by staying in the middle of the embassy district where literally every building is attended to 24 hours a day by a plank-straight guard, but buildings all over the city are similarly kept company.

The way that idleness is handled seems to me a useful way to understand a culture. In India something like a simple transaction in a store involves two or three more people than it would in the west. Cultures in warm climates generally tolerate a greater degree of loitering – doing nothing but watching the sun pass through the sky. In Europe and North America we stuff our idle people into offices. On paper these people look employed but there’s a reason that Windows comes with Solitaire installed. In China everything is guarded.

Vanishing of the Vanishing Point

Obligatory Beijing smog + giant bldg shot

Arriving around Midnight, I slip into Beijing under the cover of darkness. The cold is a shock after being in the southern hemisphere for two weeks but everywhere it smells lightly, pleasantly of burning things. From the width of the roads alone it’s clear that Beijing is a big place, but it’s not until the next morning that I wake up early and hop in a cab to visit some sites that the size becomes palpable. That smell of burning reveals itself as a mix of coal and dust and who knows what. Avenues fade to blue; everything beyond 100 meters is a silhouette in the smog.

As a visitor it’s pathetically easy for me to put aside the sad reality of the pollution and its long-term effects on the people who live there. For the moment I’m in thrall with the incredible optics of a city that is so vast it yields the potential for, but ultimately denies, infinite vistas with vanishing points in every cardinal direction. These forever-boulevards literally choked by smog are tragically beautiful with something akin to the sad sadism of foie gras. In so many ways, Beijing is the foie gras of cities: ethically complicated but undeniably exquisite.

It’s a city that any kid who grew up with video games already knows: the Z-buffer culling of distant objects to reduce render time is exactly what dense smog produces. Successive layers of massive buildings and leafless trees rendered as increasingly pale outlines encapsulate you in a little sphere of existence, your own little microcosm of the endless city, as if seeing the whole thing at once would simply require too much processing power from your human brain. Please upgrade your buffers before you visit the city of the future.

Beijing has vanquished the vanishing point. What’s next?


Between the events of my personal life and the myriad places I’ve visited and people I’ve met for work during the course of this year, I keep returning to an earnest appreciation for the ultimate elasticity of the human condition.

On every continent, in every income bracket, under diverse conditions, what I’m in awe of these past few months is the ability of humanity to cope, to make due, and to recover. I’ve watched people close to me suffer life threatening injury, give birth to children, get married, get divorced, freak out, cash out, break things, die. But we keep going.


Three Cultures

Note: What follows is a ramble reflecting the eroding memory and personal views of its author more than an historically accurate recounting of the people and events mentioned.

Last weekend I spent two days in Torquay, Australia amongst designers, educators, and a general cohort of smart people on the invitation of Ken Friedman, Dean of the Design Faculty at Swinburne University of Technology. The theme for the weekend was “design thinking,” a term which I have a lot of misgivings about. Nevertheless, the tone and content of the conversation was refreshing. Upon returning from Torquay I twittered:

having spent the wknd at a “design thinking” cnfrnce I have to say that architects have their shit figured out compared to “designers”. hrmm

Rightfully, Matt Jones and Chad Carpenter called me out on this comment that is ill-suited to a tweet-length post. Perhaps I can put a little meat on those bones. We were asked to consider three man questions through a series of roundtable discussions (remembered as best I can):

What is the specificity of design in design thinking?

What are current and future successful applications of design thinking?

What are the skills that we need to educate design thinkers?

As soon as the conversation began there was already disagreement about the relevance of “design thinking” as a term and further confusion about whether the focus should be on designers or “design” more broadly.

The group fell into two loose camps: slightly more than half seemed intent on “design thinking” being something that is equally relevant to all people whether they’re design practitioners or not. The other camp was more concerned with the ways in which design education, and to a lesser extent practice, needs to change to take advantage of the opportunities now existing as, in the words of MP Ranjan, the scientific era reaches a stage of diminishing returns.

Nerds Unboxing 3/3

Listening to what was generally an older crowd talk about the need to change design education made me feel very fortunate for two reasons. From the sound of their conversation, they had a much more rigid design education than I did. I heard tales of ruthlessly focused Bauhaus masters who only cared about form and composition with little concern for anything beyond the craft-based skills of a guild master. Fair enough: that’s not the sort of education I would wish upon anyone in any discipline.

Personally, I was lucky enough to go to a pretty good design school that excels at being cross-disciplinary in both formal and informal ways. The RISD community is extremely integrated by social fact. Situated in the middle of Providence, RI with relatively cramped facilities, the school yields a remarkably interdisciplinary atmosphere. Soft factors are important too. As one of my first professors put it, “find yourself a girlfriend in the jewelry department and you will always have the best models.” While I never did date a goldsmith, I certainly did benefit from sharing courses with people from just about every department in the school - later making occasional use of their shop facilities or sharing beers.

Neither my undergrad or graduate education involved what I would call “a lot” of teamwork, but there were definitely times when it was encouraged or necessary. It came up at Torquay that teamwork, and especially the ability to effectively collaborate across disciplines, is a necessary addition to design curriculums. While I can agree that more teamwork would be useful, it seemed to me that the tone of the conversation was a little behind the on-the-ground reality. Or perhaps my view is disproportionately framed by recent visits to leading design schools such as the RSA. This is also an area where the nature of the design work plays a determining role: the scale of architectural projects tends to include enough work that teams are a necessity more than an option. From what I see coming out of departments like Design Interactions this is also the case in more advanced conversations around product design.

There was a lot of discussion around the place of the designer in larger teams. Does the designer need to continue importing skills from social sciences and other disciplines or should they be more prepared to “know when they don’t know and be ready to look for help?” The latter happens to be where my personal opinion lays, and it’s something that I again feel privileged to have had some exposure to already through my education as an architect.

In the worst Randian cliché the architect is an ego monger hell bent on manifesting their vision in the world. If we look around with fresh eyes, particularly at younger practitioners, this perspective is increasingly an endangered species. In small and necessary ways, architects cooperate with more trades than ever in the form of an increasingly wide array of consultancies ranging from structural engineering to audio/visual systems. But so too are interests spreading as architects seek collaborations with computer scientists, behavioral experts, philosophers, economists, and others. And in some cases vice versa.

For Matt and Chad, this is what spurred my wine-fueled twitter above. After listening to educators lament how their industrial design students only work at one scale it seems like architecture has a built-in advantage. But again, it depends on the specifics of your education. Even at the best schools it seems that there’s still room to improve the collaboration models. Persnickety things like individual evaluation requirements got in the way of many official, graded collaborations at the GSD. That’s seems like a poor reason to restrict collaborative projects, or at the very least an unnecessary complication.

In Torquay there were many calls for designers to deal with problems that are more complex as practice for the nature of today’s real world challenges. This, too, seems like an area where architectural education has a natural advantage. As a matter of basic fact, architectural problems operate at a scale large enough that they require the coordination and resolution of multiple systems. That the full complement of potential issues contained within a building is so vast provides an essential motivation for architects to develop their work systemically - as a logical system of relationships between components in various levels of definition.

I’m speculating here that what makes design tasks at the urban and architectural scale unique is that they begin to incorporate systems with widely divergent, even opposed, systems of order. To use a mundane example, if followed to their own logical conclusion the structural, the HVAC, cultural, and the formal systems of a building would all yield uncooperative exquisite beauties. Architecture is in the business of making careful monsters through the preferencing of one system over another at critical junctures such that these independent but necessary components may be integrated into a single material whole. (Dear interaction designers: we’re still a long way from changing the stylesheet on a building, let alone outputting it as a multiple different flavors of XML that you can live in.)

Because it’s virtually impossible to scrutinize every minute aspect of a building proposal, the architectural critique is an analytical act set up to illuminate the high level structures that orchestrate local decision making. Discussions about how a stair is disposed or why an elevation has taken on a certain characteristic are w
ays to test the rigor of the system that a student has established for themselves. Material evidence is always linked to the analytical frame that motivated it – that made it be just so – and thus the project is nothing without an analytical feedback loop.

It also seems important to note that at its best the overarching tone of (most) architectural conversations is one of plausibility rather than possibility. Perhaps I’m being a tad conservative here, but the fact that architectural projects have a lurking liability to the inescapable real world of structures, construction, and inhabitation is a useful starting point for holding the work to a high level of rigor. Admittedly, this is a requirement that many architectural educators choose to leave out of the equation.

But this gets at an important question about the nature of education. How can we effectively approach levels of “real world” rigor? In Torquay I heard a number of people express a desire to “educate students through real world projects” and while this is a noble goal it’s a difficult one to scale up. There aren’t that many “real world projects” out there for students to take on. So the question is how we hold ourselves to high levels of rigor despite still operating in a realm of exploration?

Asked another way, what makes an architectural proposal more meaningful/valuable/useful than a sketch from a Hollywood set designer? As someone who is highly invested in designing projects proceeding from a strong base of research, it to me seems like there’s a difference between speculation and proposition. If you’re going to propose, you have to be ready for someone to say yes. A rigorous process is about preparing for that eventual yes. By no means is this something that architectural education has all figured out, but from the conversation in Torquay it seems like a disproportionate number of industrial and graphic designers are still struggling to move beyond questions of style and form. I was surprised by this.

Everything I’ve written above is probably naive to the point of being chauvinistic (way to play to the Randian stereotype, eh?) but I’m genuinely interested in hearing from people who have a differing opinion. What other sorts of design problems have the essential complexity of design at an architectural or urban scale? It strikes me that the recent and developing interest in service design is not only a recognition of the importance of the intangible (which I’ll get to below) but also a desire to operate on a larger scale out of recognition that engagement with more than one system at a time is fundamentally more challenging and more natural. It seems like we could talk about the disciplines of design as having scales which they center on, but that no practice should ever be locked away in a single scale. Cue Saarinen. The same should be said for the socio-econ-cultural-environmental context. Designers (should) trade in things in the Latouring sense, rather than objects. Our projects fundamentally exist within a spectrum of scales and contexts. If there was one crystalized message from Torquay it’s that all design professions need to be more agile in working between these myriad scale & context dispositions.

Thinking, Doing, and Professional Practice

The reason I went to Torquay uneasy about “design thinking” is because it shortsightedly favors half of design. Design is not the most sophisticated way of thinking. Nor, for that matter, is design a more sophisticated way of making than, say, fine art. Only at the intersection of thinking and making does design become a meaningful act. What I’ve been puzzling through over the past few months is why the thinking part has been getting all the attention these days. Is it simply a buzzword that has a lot of traction? If so, why?

When I listen to the loudest voices in the “design thinking” space, they’re mostly commercial. Frankly, this scares me. Design firms have traditionally been involved in projects towards the end of the development cycle. Product designers come in after the product is defined; architects after the assumptions about spatial needs mostly made. When “transformation” and “innovation” consulting became popularized practice among design offices the hourly rates went up. To be overly simplistic and just a little brutal, design practice has been incentivized by the market to favor the “thinking” end of its service spectrum. When you run a for-profit company, particularly one with the typically low margins of a design firm, you have little choice but to gravitate towards the those services which yield more profit. High-level consulting is a win-win since it’s generally at a higher hourly rate and has lower overhead costs. In other words, “design thinking” makes more money than “design doing” and thus it’s no surprise that the conversation has been leaning heavily in that direction when the loudest voices are speaking from within corporations, however altruistic and collegiate they may be.

On the contrary, the quick wins of some big ticket consulting sessions sell our discipline short by pretending that design is some magical elixir that can be poured into a situation and zammo everything is fixed up. Like accounting, medicine, and just about every other profession, design is a practice which is persistently useful at regular intervals. If anything, during this transitional period where business and government are slowly coming to terms with the potential yield of having design as an integral part of the conversation it behooves us to collectively seek longer engagements, not shorter. That means transformative conversations in the board room as well as being embedded within client organizations to act as stewards during the implementation. If “design thinking” becomes the mainstream discourse of the broader community, design is in danger of becoming the new moniker for management consulting thanks to the domination of business schools in this conversation. Yes, design processes can be very useful for a variety of communities, but we need to do a better job of collectively valuing our own expertise.

Over dinner a few nights ago I asked the VP of a major multinational how he made the decision to hire the Idea Factory, a design firm based in Singapore, to help him sort out some of his business challenges. He was frank: to his eyes as a client, the Idea Factory looked like a management consultant. If the empty slot left in the wake of management consultancy is a first foothold for design firms to enter new, more profitable engagements that’s great news. However, we should collectively be careful that these board room opportunities do not becoming defining. In other words, I would hope that the trend is towards design firms being opportunistic rather than capitulating. Design practices should be flexible (and always truthful) in pitching their services so that they can capture these opportunities, but not abandon their core methods, competencies, and attitudes in the process. Personally I don’t know any designers who are satisfied with just thinking and talking - it’s a culture of doing, of making, of sticking around till the job is done.

I should be very clear that I’m an entrepreneur at heart and have absolutely no problem with people profiting from their work. And while I generally like lopsided things, I really don’t like lopsided conversations. This is why the weekend at Torquay seems important to me: the academy and other neutral actors nee
d to speak with a louder voice in the conversation about the future of design so that it maintains a useful balance of consultation and implementation.

As we saw at Torquay, there is a lot that propositional (as opposed to analytical) thinking can contribute to the endeavors of business and government. To paraphrase Stuart Candy, society needs to be better at imagining possible futures - and a dash of design is instrumental in developing this capacity. This is largely the promise of “design thinking.” Designers also tend to be pretty skilled at holding complex and contradictory inputs in play while searching for ways to make sense of the jumble without resorting to oversimplification. Developing a synthetic understanding of the problem is one of design’s value propositions, but the other half of the contribution is a persistent care for realization.

Design has an in-built concern for making. This manifests itself as a cycle of reality checks that reign in “thinking” within achievable brackets as well as sustained attention throughout the process of implementation (or fabrication or construction) which always requires tweaks and adjustments of course as the contingencies of the material world come to bear upon the exuberance of ideation.

Through the practice of producing Things, designers acquire an expertise in the framing of problems, an agility required for executing on ideas, and a particular understanding of material and spatial consequences within manifold contexts. This is the fundamental differentiator of design as a discipline and it’s the foundation of the expert that we call a designer.


Ken Friedman closed the conference with a proposition that CP Snow’s Two Cultures of knowing, science and the humanities, needs to be rewritten to be expanded to include design as a third. In my own monkey brain this works out to something along the lines of science = search for fact, humanities = search for truth, and design = search for opportunity. While my noggin is still churning on that one, it does seem like a valuable framework insofar as it establishes the so-called “design thinking” not as a proprietary skill of the designer but a general cognitive mode which all humans exhibit to some degree or another. As my colleague Marco Steinberg eloquently put it the other day, anyone can be musical but that doesn’t make them a musician.

I Saved Latin

I’ve been dealing with email these past few days, tidying up shop and whatnot. Found this, which was in response to a post on my old website.

From: adonis
Subject: Architects
Date: July 12, 2004 8:33:22 PM GMT+03:00
To: Bryan Boyer

How many buildings did Le Corbusier build? Almost nothing. Have your ever hear of Frank Lloyd Wright?

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