Thoughts on Design & Things That Don’t Work Well.

For a while now, I’ve been occasionally asking [non-designer] friends what comes to mind when they hear the word “Design”.  For the most part, the answers aren’t surprising and are things like: beautiful kitchen products, IKEA, interior design, fashion design (Uniqlo, Eileen Fisher etc), Melissa & Doug, Apple,, Tesla…etc. These are all  good responses.

But design is also the systems of everyday life, and how stuff works or doesn’t.  I’m not talking here about products that may be poorly made ( though that can be part of the equation), I’m referring to systems of functionality: from little stuff to the large and global. These have a huge, but below-the-radar, effect on all of us; when these break down or are done poorly, it causes stress—-beginning as small irritations or frustrations which build on themselves to become larger stresses.

Today’s subject is quite  a small one: soap dispensers in public restrooms, either in an establishment or standing alone.  Recently, I was in a restroom at a large, well known organic  chain food market, washing my hands…and observed, not for the first time, that soap dispensers are mostly wall mounted over the floor  , ensuring that any excess soap, and the water dripping from the hands of the hand-washer,  falls on the floor, making it slippery, difficult for the cleaning crew, and becoming a rich bacterial community. Who thought of this? Does the resultant slimy wet mess [on the floor] ever really get totally cleaned up? Contractors continue to install these types of dispensers in restroom after restroom, in high end establishments and not, unquestioningly adhering to the construction documents. (Of course, design of restrooms isn’t exactly the glamorous part of architecture, and if my own experience is still true, restroom design is a plug-and-play kind of task, relegated to the most junior intern. Essential as restrooms are, no one has ever heard the likes of Frank Gehry, or other renowned architects, discuss the design of them.)

One of the better solutions to the soap dispenser issue I have ever seen was in a Walmart restroom in Ames, IA. The counter containing the sinks was a length of molded composite material. The brilliance was where and how the—very ordinary—soap dispensers were mounted between each sink. The configuration allowed any excess soap and accompanying water to drip down the sloped counter into the sink. Genius for the users and the cleaners.

walmart sink     walmart sink 3

Note the placement of the soap dispenser. (Also note the higher and lower sinks, accommodating many sizes of users.)

Brexit, Immigration, Trump & other thorny issues. . .

Yesterday’s ‘Brexit’ vote is reverberating around world today. Trump is being his bullying obnoxious self in Scotland. President Obama’s immigration legislation was not passed in Congress.  etc. It’s been a bumpy couple of days.

I was thinking how I would have used this day in a graduate Industrial Design class about function. Peeling away the clutter, emotions  & politics of the current situations —what remains? Nations that for whatever/myriad reasons are not working well. Function is impaired. Users are unheard: angry and afraid.

Neither Brexits nor Trump have any intention of listening to users or repairing anything, though both have successfully ignited the emotions of those who are most effected by lack of function in the nations in which they live.

Before I continue..and let me throw out this question as if I was, in fact, teaching my grad students:   “We are told by the media which nations are solidly successful: Canada,Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, the Low Countries, Poland is creeping right up there too. On the other side of the world, parts of Australia, Tasmania & NZ are also doing pretty well. We don’t often  read how they did it, only that they are great places to live.

(The sociologists are going to chime in now like a Greek chorus: Germany et al  are small homogeneous societies etc etc)

But it is simpler than that.  The people employed in the service industries [in those successful nations]  are well trained, well paid and respected . They are making the society function well  at the most basic level.                                                                                                  This level is very fragile in the US: once tatters begin—and tatters can come in many forms, some as simple  as undocumented immigrants being seen as a threat—the  function breaks down. That is when fears creep in and people on this most basic level  feel vulnerable, unheard & devalued. Once afraid, the charisma of Trumps makes them feel heard & understood , even if it is all lies, bs & shouting.

It comes down to function: the nations which function that well do so because they do it from the bottom up.   Every aspect of sanitation is excellent. Roads are kept in good repair. The air is clean. Manufactured goods are well made. Schools are welcoming, healthy places from pre-nursery onward. Health & childcare care are excellent.  College education and technical training are regarded equally and state subsidized.  Policing is done well.  Transportation is reliable and safe.   When done  by well paid, well trained & well respected professionals, the society runs like a new Audi. No, these are not the  professions parents usually want their children to aspire to—certainly not in the USA—  but looked at as part of a functioning unit, they are the fuel & oil.

How can Germany, for one example,  do what the US cannot?  Germany is certainly not perfect, but, like some other nations, does not instill in every school pupil that going to college is the only way to success ( and let us not go down the path of college debt) and woe betide those ‘losers’ who don’t. Germany does provide training for all kinds of professions.

Who is more important in the grander scheme of a society: a wealthy investment banker or plumber? The plumber. Think about electricians: electricians could bring this world to its knees as quickly  as unplugging a vacuum cleaner.

Its all about the function.

Creating Instructions

This morning I was reading an article about how coders should read the works of Virginia Wolff, that the beauty, clarity and descriptive elegance of her writing are the same skills which should be mastered for good coding.

True. And too many of us—whether our field is coding or not—make (unconscious?) assumptions that we have laid out directions and instructions clearly. Yet, with online memberships, shopping and subscriptions, too often it is an ironic twist on not seeing the trees for the forest.

There is one ubiquitous website coding error that is exasperating to the point of being amusing.  You sign up for a newsletter, or a membership, or any other website which requires a user name and password. You select these two words carefully and type them into the boxes. Only then are you  told, in bright red warning letters,  that your password and user name are not acceptable: they must contain at least 70 characters including four numbers, fifteen capital letters, and a dozen non-number, non-letter symbols. Now you have to start all over again, conjuring up a secure user name and password.

How easy—and how rarely done ( though the better sites do it)—is it to state these instructions up front, so that what we type immediately meets the requirements ? Do the coders & website designers who create  websites assume we all know the [generally accepted] requirements ? How could we—every website has a slightly different set of rules for those user names and passwords.

Thoughts on Fitbits & Their Ilk. . .

The other night over drinks, I was listening to a friend recounting his efforts to get his  10,000 steps that day. Another one of our group was chastising herself because she’d only managed 2,000.

I like the idea of these personal movement/fitness monitors, particularly  when they are used in office or corporate settings . The informal competitions and necessary group interactions focused on an activity—and something other than office work—can be a great thing, particularly as we learn more  about the benefits of even a little exercise.

What I don’t like, I find, is that these beautifully designed slim wristlets turn every movement  into yet another competition, or the wearer constantly checking their wrist for updates. Why can’t we just go for a walk, or a run or a swim…or go dancing, or cycling for the pure enjoyment of it, without having to keep track, without having to compete with others ( and ourselves), on yet another electronic device?

Yes, I appreciate that many people find an activity monitor a necessary goad for maintaining a health regimen. Great. But for heaven’s sake stop turning it into a brag-fest or the topic of every conversation.

Design can bite itself in the ass.

Knowing when it is time to move on.

seth godinJust as a project can be over-designed,  just as over seasoning a dish can rather spoil it, knowing when to stop “philosophizing” is important to the validity of what is being said.

But ending something well–a project, a book, a film–is as difficult as starting. Perhaps even more so.

I have nothing against Seth Godin. In fact, I have valued his thoughts in daily emails. Now, however, it is time for him to move on. His thoughts are becoming stale and hackneyed; there is little that is new. His emails have begun to sound a bit lecture-y . I think he’s stuck.  I think he is spinning out this material because #1 he doesn’t quite know how to say: “Its been swell, but its time to move on to a new project.” #2  He doesn’t know what the new project can be & that might be scary, and #3 ( the most likely) He’s loving the sound of his own voice so much that he doesn’t want to lose the foothold he has with his audience.

In show biz they used to say: “Get the Hook!”. He could gracefully exit stage right, or he runs the risk of just becoming dust on the shelves of the internet.

Everything can be over-designed; like your projects, don’t fall in love them.




Today  in the Washington Post there was yet another reference to STEM studies. The writer, a mother, describes  her children as “. . .good at STEM.”. ( For those of you who might not be aware—though you must have been living on Mars—STEM is the educational theme du jour, and is the acronym for Science Technology Engineering Math.).    This fixation, of course, can trace its roots back to the launching of Sputnik, nearly 60 years ago.  Girls, especially, are the intended targets of STEM ed.  Yet a truly balanced education also includes the liberal arts—for both sexes.

I’m an industrial designer by training and profession; a profession that mixes the tech and arts worlds. Because of that, we designers often view issues and problems in unusual ways. So it seems odd to me that, in this frantic rush to get girls and young women into STEM studies and professions, the education world has not apparently considered it urgent to get boys and young men into the arts & liberal arts. Why is this?

Operating on the old premise that girls aren’t drawn to/aren’t good at maths & sciences, here we are ushering them into these fields and they are thriving. Why not simultaneously usher boys into the arts and liberal arts with the same zeal?  Would they not also thrive if the same measures were being taken with them?

I started casually asking friends and colleagues about this phenomenon: the range of responses was revealing: ” The arts and liberal arts don’t pay very well.”, “Boys aren’t good in those areas.”, “Only gay guys do those things.”, “Women are more emotional, they can do those jobs in the arts and social sciences better.”, ” My son is all boy, he’d never sit still long enough to do the liberal arts.” and so on.

This has not always been true; men used to be champion typists, skilled at handwriting, were poets & teachers, etc ( they were even cheerleaders!)  and were respected in those fields. ( In the film “Saving Private Ryan”, the character played by Tom Hanks was a teacher by profession.) So what has  happened?

Is our nation’s sexism that deeply entrenched?  Or is it that as a nation we are guided to believe that the arts and liberal arts are a frivolous waste of time? Has the modern media —TV, films, videos, apps, even the news—instilled a certain type of attitude? I don’t know that there is one answer. Is this a situation in other first world industrial nations?

What I do think is that we are doing our young people–both girls and boys–a terrible disservice.




A design book review.

Because I am an industrial designer, a friend recommended Warren Berger’s 2009 book on design: CAD Monkeys, Dinosaur Babies and T-shaped People.

This is not a book about design and design processes. This is a paean to [the Canadian designer] Bruce Mau; one actually wonders how much Mau paid Berger to write it. In the first 44 pages alone, Mau is mentioned no fewer than 70 times. I wasn’t interested in reading beyond that. I am deeply offended by this book and other designers should be, too. ( IF this was meant to be a Bruce Mau profile, that should have been made clear in the title.)

Berger is way too obviously striving to be the Malcolm Gladwell of design. Despite the kudos toward him on his website and elsewhere, he fails.

CAD Monkeys won Business Week‘s Best Innovation and Design Book of the Year . I don’t even want to see the runners-up. For a book about design, CAD Monkeys is so poorly and patchily illustrated—and with no captions–as to be stupifying. Pie charts made in ‘Word’? Really? And Berger wants us, the readers, to take him as a serious authority on design?

I rarely throw books away; my feeling is that someone, somewhere, will read something I’ve decided not to keep. I am throwing this one away.