Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘innovation’

06 DECEMBER, 2013

Dame Steve Shirley, the World’s First Freelance Programmer

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“Few things in life are as solid as they seem.”

When she was five years old, Dame Stephanie “Steve” Shirley, born Vera Buchthal, fled Nazi Germany as a child refugee, escaping certain death and plunging into a life that would show her a quieter yet oppressively persistent kind of discrimination and injustice. A girl with a strong passion for mathematics, she had to transfer to the boys’ school to get a proper education, where she first became aware of her gender’s second-class status — but she, a voracious reader, took refuge in the school library and devoured countless books spanning every imaginable field. As a young woman drawn to the computing industry, she saw that signing her name opened no doors, so she adopted the nickname Steve and began signing as “Steve Shirley.” Suddenly, doors swung open.

Steve Shirley went on to become the world’s first freelance programmer and founded the software company F.I. Group in 1962, one of the UK’s earliest startups. It was a revolutionary company, writing software only — an outrageous proposition at the time. It was managed and operated by highly skilled female engineers (“We hired men. If they were good enough.”), who worked from home — also unthinkable amidst the era’s gender biases and social norms. And yet they forged forward, forever changing the course of entrepreneurship and women in technology. When F.I. was eventually floated on the London Stock Exchange in 1996, it earned hundred of millions of pounds. Today, she is bringing that same zest for change and betterment to her work in philanthropy.

This fantastic short film, produced by Google as part of a series highlighting women’s involvement in the early days of computing, tells Dame Steve Shirley’s remarkable and heartening story:

The fact that I almost died in the Holocaust means that I’m very motivated to make sure that each day is worth living, that my life was worth saving… I had built a determination that I was not going to let other people define me, to break through, to build something new, to not be put off by the conventions of the day.

In her memoir, Let It Go (public library), Dame Steve further elaborates on this disposition, tracing how her childhood experience of being sent away into safety by her German parents and raised by kindly strangers in the UK shaped her outlook on life, work, and philanthropy:

I have known failure and heartbreak as well as success, but I have never quite lost sight of two life-defining ideas – both of which I can trace back to my arrival in England all those years ago as a terrified, weeping child refugee.

The first is the conviction that even in the blackest moments of despair there is hope, if one can find the courage to pursue it. Sometimes the worst is less overwhelmingly awful than we fear; sometimes the right attitude can create good even from life’s most terrible situations.

My second big idea is the matching conviction that, even though I ostensibly lost everything when my parents were forced to send me away, I was not just the victim of bigotry and cruelty. I was also the fortunate beneficiary of the unearned generosity of many people: the Jewish and Christian activists who set up the Kindertransport, the Quakers who kept the project going when it ran out of money, the ordinary people who chipped in with the various tedious administrative tasks that allowed the project to function, the Catholic nuns who helped to educate me, and the quiet, middle-aged, nominally Anglican couple who took me in.

Without my being fully aware of what was going on or why, a large number of good-natured strangers took it upon themselves to save my life. It took me some years to digest this fact and its implications. But, once I had, a simple resolution took root deep in my heart: I had to make sure that mine was a life that had been worth saving.

I may not always have succeeded in this aim. But I have at least learnt lessons along the way: about how to make things happen, how to deal with setbacks and how to turn the most improbable dreams into realities.

She reflects on her separation from her birth parents:

Looking back today, from the other end of a life that has been exceptionally rich in nearly every sense, I can see that most of my subsequent achievements can be traced back to that unnatural separation. It marked the beginning of a narrative far more interesting than the one that had originally been scripted for me. But it also taught me, with the ending of my first life, a profound lesson: that few things in life are as solid as they seem; that tomorrow will not always resemble today; and that wholesale change, though often terrifying, is not necessarily synonymous with catastrophe.

Let It Go goes on to trace just how this extraordinary woman turned “improbable dreams into realities” — a story of bravery, determination, and triumphant ingenuity against even the most inauspicious of odds.

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14 AUGUST, 2013

How Einstein Thought: Why “Combinatory Play” Is the Secret of Genius

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“Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.”

For as long as I can remember — and certainly long before I had the term for it — I’ve believed that creativity is combinatorial: Alive and awake to the world, we amass a collection of cross-disciplinary building blocks — knowledge, memories, bits of information, sparks of inspiration, and other existing ideas — that we then combine and recombine, mostly unconsciously, into something “new.” From this vast and cross-disciplinary mental pool of resources beckons the infrastructure of what we call our “own” “original” ideas. The notion, of course, is not new — some of history’s greatest minds across art, science, poetry, and cinema have articulated it, directly or indirectly, in one form or another: Arthur Koestler’s famous theory of “bisociation” explained creativity through the combination of elements that don’t ordinarily belong together; graphic designer Paula Scher likens creativity to a slot machine that aligns the seemingly random jumble of stuff in our heads into a suddenly miraculous combination; T. S. Eliot believed that the poet’s mind incubates fragmentary thoughts into beautiful ideas; the great Stephen Jay Gould maintained that connecting the seemingly unconnected is the secret of genius; Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press embodied this combinatorial creativity; even what we call “intuition” is based on the unconscious application of this very mental faculty.

The concept, in fact, was perhaps best explained by Albert Einstein, who termed it “combinatory play.” (Einstein famously came up with some of his best scientific ideas during his violin breaks.) From his Ideas and Opinions (public library) — the same invaluable volume that gave us the beloved physicist’s timeless wisdom on kindness and our shared existence — comes Einstein’s single most succinct articulation of how his mind works, driven by this powerful combinatorial creativity. The 1945 letter was written in response to French mathematician Jacques S. Hadamard’s survey of the mental processes of famous scientists, inspired by polymath Henri Poincaré’s famous meditation on the subject and published as An Essay on the Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field, with Einstein’s missive included as a “testimonial”:

My Dear Colleague:

In the following, I am trying to answer in brief your questions as well as I am able. I am not satisfied myself with those answers and I am willing to answer more questions if you believe this could be of any advantage for the very interesting and difficult work you have undertaken.

(A) The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be “voluntarily” reproduced and combined.

There is, of course, a certain connection between those elements and relevant logical concepts. It is also clear that the desire to arrive finally at logically connected concepts is the emotional basis of this rather vague play with the above-mentioned elements. But taken from a psychological viewpoint, this combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought — before there is any connection with logical construction in words or other kinds of signs which can be communicated to others.

(B) The above-mentioned elements are, in my case, of visual and some of muscular type. Conventional words or other signs have to be sought for laboriously only in a secondary stage, when the mentioned associative play is sufficiently established and can be reproduced at will.

(C) According to what has been said, the play with the mentioned elements is aimed to be analogous to certain logical connections one is searching for.

(D) Visual and motor. In a stage when words intervene at all, they are, in my case, purely auditive, but they interfere only in a secondary stage, as already mentioned.

(E) It seems to me that what you call full consciousness is a limit case which can never be fully accomplished. This seems to me connected with the fact called the narrowness of consciousness (Enge des Bewusstseins).

Ideas and Opinions is superb from cover to cover, the kind of book you return to again and again, only to find new layers of meaning with each reading. Complement it with this vintage technique for producing ideas and Einstein on the secret of learning anything.

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25 JUNE, 2013

Bill Moggridge, Designer of the First Laptop, on Human-Centered Design

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“It doesn’t occur to most people that everything is designed — that every building and everything they touch in the world is designed.”

Legendary British industrial designer and educator Bill Moggridge (June 25, 1943–September 8, 2012) championed interaction design, co-founded IDEO, served as Director the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and designed the very first laptop. In Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits (public library) — the same compendium of fascinating interviews on life in a material world with such celebrated thinkers as Daniel Pink, Seth Godin, Malcolm Gladwell, and Wally OlinsDebbie Millman sat down with Moggridge in 2010 to peel the curtain on the extraordinary mind that heralded the modern movement of human-centered design and brought into focus the relationship between people and objects.

Of his fascination with what people want from everyday things, Moggridge says:

If there is a simple, easy principle that binds together everything I’ve done, it’s my interest in people and their relationship to things. … I’m interested in why people like things, and what gives them a feeling of long-term reward, what gives them pleasure, and what excites them. Ultimately, my interest centers on the effect that design has on someone.

Brands, Moggridge argues, are the vehicle for precisely those relationships:

DM: Why do you think people like certain brands or certain things? What is the primary reason someone will choose one thing over another?

BM: I think you build a relationship with something that you know and use. At the moment you buy it, you may not be quite certain about it. But as you get to know it better, if your relationship gets better, then you enjoy it more. You may not notice the change, but after a time, a sort of satisfactory relationship between you and that thing emerges. That is the foundation for a brand relationship.

More than a mere relationship, however, Moggridge sees the brand as a sensemaking and navigation tool that eases our cognitive load amidst the paradox of choice that is modern life:

DM: I recently read that the average supermarket has about thirty-five thousand different products in it, and that— believe it or not— there are over one hundred brands of nationally advertised water.

BM: When you do a Google search, it’s very tempting to go for the “I’m feeling lucky” option, so you get the single page that comes up. Similarly, the brand is the thing that allows you to recognize that particular kind of water that you had before, and that you probably don’t mind having again.

So it simplifies your relationship to this confusing morass of possibilities. And although I wish that water wasn’t bottled, the fact that there’s a choice of brand helps us get through that confusion.

Turning to the heart of his philosophy, Moggridge defines what he means by “human-centered design”:

If you think of innovation as being depicted by a Venn diagram, human- centered design is the overlap between technology, business, and people. If you look at people who are going to business schools, they tend to start with a business proposition, but in order to innovate successfully, they have to find the right technology and the right customers. If you look at people in science and technology, they tend to start with a new technology, which is true of many Silicon Valley companies. Then they go to a venture capitalist and try to get some money, and they think about what kind of customer is right for the product. We were interested in the “people first” point of view.

In fact, one of the greatest affronts to the social value of design is the solipsism with which many of its practitioners approach it, placing ego over empathy:

[A]s designers and engineers in general, we’re guilty of designing for ourselves too often. One of the things that we have to be careful to remember is the very simple principle that not everybody is like us. For example, if you’re designing something like a chair, you’re not going to design the height of the seat only for the average person, are you? You’re going to design it for an adjustment, so that it can accommodate the smallest person that might sit in it, or the tallest, as well as the heaviest person and the lightest person. So, we’re always looking at a range that accommodates extremes, and for that reason, looking at the extremes is usually very useful.

One of Moggridge’s most timeless and timely insights has to do with that peculiar way in which new technology can flounder, only to flourish once reintroduced at a later time — proof that “successful innovation requires the meeting of the right people at the right place with just the right problem.” He observes:

This is often the case with new technologies. They seem as if they’re about to work, and somebody creates an experimental version that looks great. But then nothing happens. And then the right time comes along, and the right set of attributes come together, and suddenly the new technology flourishes.

Among Moggridge’s greatest accomplishments, however, is his remarkable legacy as an educator and the persistence with which he invited the general public to understand the profound value of design as a cross-pollinator of art, science, and everyday life. He tells Millman:

The important characteristic of design is that it creates a bridge between the sciences and the arts. People understand the necessity of education for the sciences, and there is a renewed movement to bring that back into education. They understand something about the arts. But I don’t think many people understand the power of design to join these two things together. Why do you think that there is such a barrier to the public’s understanding of design? I don’t think that anyone has really told them what design is. It doesn’t occur to most people that everything is designed — that every building and everything they touch in the world is designed. Even foods are designed now.

[…]
… So in the process of helping people understand this, making them more aware of the fact that the world around us is something that somebody has control of, perhaps they can feel some sense of control too. That’s a nice ambition.

At the crux of interaction design, which Moggridge helped pioneer, lies a deep understanding how necessary cross-disciplinary collaboration is to innovation and creative progress. Moggridge reflects on the crucial role of leadership in fostering that:

I’d like everyone to have the mind-set that whenever you have a challenging, seemingly intractable problem, then you need to solve that problem with an interdisciplinary team. No individual can succeed alone. In order to help business leaders succeed, we need to put together those interdisciplinary teams, and they need to use design processes. We can help explain that and help make leadership aware of it.

Referencing Moggridge’s oft-cited assertion from his groundbreaking Design Interactions“What makes humans special first and foremost is that we can model the world, and we can predict the future. Then we can imagine the future.” — Millman inquires about his own vision for the future, to which he responds with a beautiful model for design’s concentric circles of cultural relevance:

I think the context of design is changing and expanding. And you can think of that in three concentric circles.

Think of the inside circle as the individual. The second circle is the built environment, and the one around that is the overall, holistic environment. Each concentric circle is changing and moving in a design context that is itself expanding.

In the past, we thought about designing things for the circle at the center. So your PDA, for example, is something that you use as an individual.

The slightly more expansive context is to think about the health and well-being of the individual, rather than the specific things the individual uses. This more comprehensive view requires broader thinking about people. Rather than thinking about the things in isolation, we’re thinking about the whole person.

Similarly, when you think about the built environment, we historically have thought about architecture. But as we move towards an expanding context for design, we find that we’re thinking more about social interactions and innovations as well as buildings. It’s not that one is replacing the other — it’s that the context is simply expanding. Now we’re thinking about social connections as well as the built environment we’re living in.

And then when we think about the larger circle, sustainability is the big issue. In the past, we thought of sustainability as being about materials: choosing the best material and designing for disassembly. But now it’s absolutely clear that a sustainable planet is one that’s completely connected.

Globalization has shown us that the effect of industrialization on the world is of planetary concern. We can’t just think about designing materials, we have to include a consideration of the entire planet. And that, again, is an expansion of context.

Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits, the follow-up to the equally fantastic 2007 anthology How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer, is indispensable in its entirety. Pair it with Moggridge on design, knowledge, and human intelligence and his fantastic final book, Designing Media.

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