Spotted at Papirøen:
Art can be confusing, I suppose.
My friend Anthony Townsend turned me onto this entertaining rant against Post-Its and design thinking: Jamer Hunt argues that the Post-It filled wallboard has become a wrongheaded symbol of creativity.
The predominant image of design in the 21st century is that cliché of the empty conference room or studio–just after some feverish brainstorming extravaganza–plastered with Post-it notes … as if the act of design had suddenly morphed into some strange game of pin the Post-it on the mind map. How is it possible that the wonderfully complex process of design has devolved to the point that we now commonly represent it by the leftover artifacts of quickie ideation? Is that all there is?
As someone who's written pretty extensively on the use of paper media and paper spaces in collaborative creative work, naturally I was intrigued by Hunt's argument, but he seems a lot more concerned about the Post-it as symbol of design. He doesn't seem to be arguing that it's a tool that leads you to do bad work, or is too weak to support good work. So what's wrong with the Post-it as symbol?
The problem is that in serving as a substitute for the whole of design, the Post-it represents only a small fraction of what makes design uniquely effective. It papers over the fact that ideation without materialization is not design. Designers discover as they turn ideas into thing (even when those things have no physical form). We gain true insight in the act of making a mark on a page or pushing pixels on the screen. We don't need to over-hype those processes, but to ignore them means that we shortchange the practice of design. Clever ideas are a dime-a-dozen–about the cost of Post-its.
Fair enough. The idea that ideas are what matters, and that the actual thing is kind of an afterthought is one of the scourges of our age. This kind of creative Platonism downplays (or just misunderstands) the difficulty of actually making good things, and the role that solving production problems can play in innovation. (I was turned onto this by two very different sources: Bill Leslie's work on Bell Labs and Western Electric, and Matthew Crawford's Shop Class as Soul Craft) To the degree that those of us in the delirious professions treat brainstorming (and its material/visual expression) as an end-point rather than a stage in a bigger process, we sell ourselves short, and do a disservice to our clients.
For a long time, I've been interested in getting an electric bike, especially after I saw the Optibike at the California Academy of Sciences. Via the Daily Dish, I came across an MIT hybrid bicycle project that looks like just the thing: the Copenhagen Wheel. Check out the video:
Not completely clear from the video exactly how it works, but I like how elegantly it attaches to a bicycle (some bike motors look like real kludges), and that it also is a smart device:
Smart, responsive and elegant, it transforms existing bicycles quickly into hybrid electric-bikes with regeneration and real-time sensing capabilities. Its sleek red hub not only contains a motor, batteries and an internal gear system – helping cyclists overcome hilly terrains and long distances – but also includes environmental and location sensors that provide data for cycling-related mobile applications. Cyclists can use this data to plan healthier bike routes, to achieve their exercise goals or to create new connections with other cyclists. Through sharing their data with friends or their city, they are also contributing to a larger pool of information from which the whole community can benefit.
It's called the Copenhagen Wheel because the bike-friendly wants to increase the number of people who cycle, and worked wit the team to
to investigate how small amounts of technology could improve the cycling experience and how the four main obstacles to getting people on bikes – distance, topography, infrastructure and safety – could be overcome. What has resulted is the Copenhagen Wheel: a new type of electric smart-bike which utilizes a technical solution for overcoming distance and topography (a motor and batteries with regeneration capabilities that can provide riders with a boost when needed) and a real-time data network and series of applications to support infrastructure creation and foster a sense of safety.
Trading intelligence for resources; encouraging mergers of people and devices on human terms rather than device terms; bringing information to users in context– all great examples of an end of cyberspace device.
A good critique by Russ Wilson of the Futures Company of the limitations of tag clouds to actually explain things:
I have two main issues with Wordles [a tag cloud generator], and they’re exemplified in the wordle above, based on David Cameron’s coalition speech. First, they remove the word from its immediate context. Take the word interest, represented as one of the more frequently occurring words. But it could equally indicate curiosity and engagement or interest payments.
The second issue is that frequency is being proposed as an indicator of importance, but that’s not how we actually interpret speech…. Frequency of use is simply that – frequency of use.
Both of these are classic problems in information management– or to use the old school term, indexing. When I was at Britannica, people often used the example of "depression" in the same way Wilson talks about interest: the Britannica had articles on the geological kind, the economic phenomenon, and the psychological condition, but it was hard for most automated systems to distinguish between them. Users, in contrast, could do so quickly– because they brought (or could quickly surmise) the specific context in which an instance of the word appeared.
And a moment's reflection should make clear that frequency and importance are not the same thing. Sometimes they are. But how many times is the word "like" over-used to the point of meaninglessness– ether as a verbal tic, or, thanks to the flattening of the term by Facebook, as the Web equivalent of Valley girl-speak?
Great article in Slate about attempts to build cars that will claim the Progressive Automotive X Prize, and how these efforts benefit from a quirk of recent history. For most of the history of cars, automobile racing and everyday innovation were connected:
The track wasn't just a marketing tool; it was a proving ground, a place where engineers learned new tricks that filtered down to the American consumer. Well into the 1960s, when Ford challenged Ferrari in the European endurance race known as the 24 Hours of Le Mans, automakers lavished money on their racing teams, believing they'd earn it back in expertise and sales. The link between motor racing and the cars in our driveways turned into a mantra for the industry: Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.
Through the 1980s and '90s, that connection eroded. The IndyCar and NASCAR circuits were flooded with sponsorship cash from tobacco and beer companies, which didn't care about automotive innovation. They just wanted the races to be entertaining…. It used to be that the goals of racing and consumer R&D were one and the same—to make better road cars. Now the automakers' consumer divisions are searching for the holy grail of fuel efficiency while the brilliant engineers in their racing divisions make tweaks to the latest gas-guzzling V8s. It's a tragic waste of human capital, as if Silicon Valley's elite programmers had spent the last two decades optimizing video-game code instead of creating search engines.
Let's leave aside the question of whether Silicon Valley's elite programmers really have or haven't been optimizing video-game code, and whether that was a good thing (better simulations, anyone?), and note that this situation has created an opportunity to 1) acquire strong design talent, and 2) apply it in constructive and interesting ways. The article talks about one company that's doing just that, Edison2:
Edison2 was founded by a 48-year-old German real estate developer named Oliver Kuttner. Ever since he was a kid, Kuttner dreamed of running his own car company, and when the major automakers slashed their racing budgets to save costs during the recession, laying off thousands of engineers and mechanics, he saw an opportunity. He hired half a dozen of the most talented castaways, including Ron Mathis, a Brit who had designed champion F1 cars for Audi, and Bobby Mouzayck, a journeyman mechanic on Corvette, Viper, and Audi race cars.
edison2 cars, via flickr
As their Flickr photostream shows, the cars look pretty insane. But it's a very different kind of utopianism driving (as it were) Edison2 than, say, the Aspen Institute's hypercar:
Until now, much of the thinking about the future of transportation has been done by people who find cars irritating. For them, fuel efficiency means more people walking around and riding bicycles. They're busy drawing the chalk lines of a post-car America: high-speed rail, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods, congestion pricing, bicycle lanes, sentient herds of Urban Smart Vehicles…. The car people who are now entering this conversation—the true gearheads—aren't utopian city planners. They're pragmatists who know that you can't transcend the car without building a better car first. And history tells us that a better car often starts with a dopey desire to go ridiculously fast.
Actually, prizes have been another significant source of innovation in the history of technology, and are more popular these days in promoting targeted innovation in science and technology (I had an elegant piece on this in Signtific, but for whatever reason IFTF took that million-dollar investment offline months ago and has never seen fit to put it back online).
Years ago, I read Richard Harper and Abigail Sellen's Myth of the Paperless Office. For me, it's like Annie Hall or Houses of the Holy or David Brownlee's modern architecture class: it's one of those works that blows you away when you first encounter it, and still resonates years later. Almost immediately after reading the book, I started thinking about how paper media and their affordances are used– usually quite unself-consciously– by futurists in expert workshops.
The result is an article titled "Paper Spaces: Visualizing the Future." Like many of my articles, it's taken an unseemly amount of time to get into press, but it's finally coming out this spring in World Futures Review. A PDF of the latest draft is available here.
Here's the big argument, from the introduction:
We tend to think of space as irrelevant in creative work, or at best only indirectly influential: for example, architects may use a mix of open office plans, natural lighting, and bold colors to create stimulating, useful workspaces. But for workshops, and for the kinds of visual processes that many futurists use, the relationship between space, ideas, and creativity is much more intimate. Ideas are embodied in materials; they become cognitive and physical spaces that literally surround groups; and the process of creating those spaces can promote a sense of group identity and common vision for the future.
I use the term "paper spaces" to describe these environments, and to highlight several things. First, we're used to thinking of things made of paper as physical objects whose qualities help shape the experience of reading, but it's useful to pay attention to their spatial and architectural qualities as well. Large visuals aren't just things: they're spaces that possess some of the qualities of desks or offices. Workshops exploit their scale and physicality to promote social activity between workshop participants. In this case, the spatiality of paper is fairly self-evident; but many of our interactions with paper, books, and writing have a spatial quality. Scholars could gain much by analyzing print media using conceptual tools from architecture, design, and human-computer interaction, as well as literary theory and book history.
Second, it warns us against taking too passive or formal a view of visual tools in business, of treating them like paintings on a wall. In the way users interact with them– they're annotated, extended, argued over, and played with– they're more like Legos than landscapes. The process of creating maps, and the maps themselves, both reflect a set of attitudes about how to understand and prepare for the future, one that emphasizes user involvement, and the need for actors to develop and possess shared visions of the future. (Ironically, there may be more studies of large interactive displays and other digital media, than of the old media they're meant to displace. )
Third, the term "paper spaces" highlights their hybrid, ephemeral quality. They work because they're simultaneously interactive media and workspace, but their lives are brief and easy to overlook: they are designed to support idea- and image-making, but leave little trace of themselves…. [Despite this, though,] paper spaces are ubiquitous: most of our interactions with texts and other media have a spatial dimension that affects the ways we read, think, and create.