Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘technology’

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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24 JUNE, 2013

The Surprising History of the Pencil

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What medieval smuggling has to do with the atomic structure of carbon.

Having previously explored such mysteries as who invented writing and how sounds became shapes, it’s time to turn to something much less mysterious, a seemingly mundane yet enormously influential tool of human communication: the humble pencil.

“Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak,” states the first of Margaret Atwood’s 10 rules of writing. “But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.” But even though the pencil has fueled such diverse feats of creative culture as celebrated artists’ sketchbooks, Marilyn Monroe’s soulful unpublished poems, Lisa Congdon’s stunning portraits, and David Byrne’s diagrams of the human condition, it has only been around for a little over two hundred years. In the altogether fascinating 100 Essential Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know: Math Explains Your World (public library), John D. Barrow tells the story of this underrated technological marvel:

The modern pencil was invented in 1795 by Nicholas-Jacques Conte, a scientist serving in the army of Napoleon Bonaparte. The magic material that was so appropriate for the purpose was the form of pure carbon that we call graphite. It was first discovered in Europe, in Bavaria at the start of the fifteenth century; although the Aztecs had used it as a marker several hundred years earlier. Initially it was believed to be a form of lead and was called ‘plumbago’ or black lead (hence the ‘plumbers’ who mend our lead water-carrying pipes), a misnomer that still echoes in our talk of pencil ‘leads’. It was called graphite only in 1789, using the Greek word ‘graphein’ meaning ‘to write’. Pencil is an older word, derived from the Latin ‘pencillus’, meaning ‘little tail’, to describe the small ink brushes used for writing in the Middle Ages.

Nicholas-Jacques Conte

But the history of the pencil, like that of many seminal innovations, has a dark side:

The purest deposits of lump graphite were found in Borrowdale near Keswick [England] in the Lake District in 1564 and spawned quite a smuggling industry and associated black economy in the area. During the nineteenth century a major pencil manufacturing industry developed around Keswick in order to exploit the high quality of the graphite.

And yet the pencil industry blossomed:

The first factory opened in 1832, and the Cumberland Pencil Company has just celebrated its 175th anniversary; although the local mines have long been closed and supplies of the graphite used now come from Sri Lanka and other far away places. Cumberland pencils were those of the highest quality because the graphite used shed no dust and marked the paper very well.

The oldest pencil in the world, found in timbered house built in 1630. (Image: Faber-Castell)

Plain as it appears, however, the pencil has evolved significantly since its invention:

Conte’s original process for manufacturing pencils involved roasting a mixture of water, clay and graphite in a kiln at 1,900 degrees Fahrenheit before encasing the resulting soft solid in a wooden surround. The shape of that surround can be square, polygonal or round, depending on the pencil’s intended use — carpenters don’t want round pencils that are going to roll off the workbench. The hardness or softness of the final pencil ‘lead’ can be determined by adjusting the relative fractions of clay and graphite in the roasting mixture. Commercial pencil manufacturers typically market 20 grades of pencil, from the softest, 9B, to the hardest 9H, with the most popular intermediate value, HB, lying midway between H and B. ‘H’ means hard and ‘B’ means black. The higher the B number, the more graphite gets left on the paper. There is also an ‘F’, or Fine point, which is a hard pencil for writing rather than drawing.

Barrow offers the science behind an oft-cited trivia factlet:

The strange thing about graphite is that it is a form of pure carbon that is one of the softest solids known, and one of the best lubricants because the six carbon atoms that link to form a ring can slide easily over adjacent rings. Yet, if the atomic structure is changed, there is another crystalline form of pure carbon, diamond, that is one of the hardest solids known.

For the mathematically-minded, Barrow offers a delightful curiosity-quencher:

An interesting question is to ask how long a straight line could be drawn with a typical HB pencil before the lead was exhausted. The thickness of graphite left on a sheet of paper by a soft 2B pencil is about 20 nanometers and a carbon atom has a diameter of 0.14 nanometers, so the pencil line is only about 143 atoms thick. The pencil lead is about 1 mm in radius and therefore ? square mm in area. If the length of the pencil is 15 cm, then the volume of graphite to be spread out on a straight line is 150? cubic mm. If we draw a line of thickness 20 nanometers and width 2 mm, then there will be enough lead to continue for a distance L = 150? / 4 X 10-7 mm = 1,178 kilometers.

100 Essential Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know: Math Explains Your World goes on to explore such fascinating questions as the origami of the universe, what rugby has to do with relativity, how long things are likely to survive, and more.

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03 JUNE, 2013

Space for Equality: NASA Joins the It Gets Better Project

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“It’s becoming the new normal — you’re being defined by your character and not by whom you love.”

When we lost pioneering astronaut Sally Ride in 2012, many knew that as she boarded the Space Shuttle Challenger in June of 1983, she became the first American woman in space and the nation’s youngest astronaut to ever launch into the cosmos. But few were aware that she was also America’s first lesbian astronaut in space — a quiet but powerful rebel of gender diversity on multiple levels in a field still dominated by rigid stereotypes and gender norms. At the time of her death, Ride had been with her partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy, for the past 27 years. And yet one can only imagine the pressures, both inward and outward, she had to withstand coming of age at a time of extreme orientation-based discrimination.

Hardly any movement has done more to alleviate the spectrum from crippling self-doubt to suicide that young queer people struggle with than the It Gets Better project, masterminded by Dan Savage and his husband of 18 years, Terry Miller. Since its conception in 2010, it has drawn thousands of brave people of various sexual orientations and gender identities, as well as a cohort of heterosexual supporters — from countless individuals to the staffers of organizations like Google, Apple and Etsy to the cast of popular TV shows like House and True Blood to President Obama himself — to face the camera and help struggling LGBTQ youth face themselves with dignity and inner peace. Thirty years after Ride boarded the Challenger, NASA joins the It Gets Better ranks with a heartening testament to the diversity of the LBGTQ community, with space agency staffers ranging from interns to managers, engineers to astronauts, and even NASA’s Chief of Staff.

It almost doesn’t matter anymore — it’s who I am; it’s one part of who I am and not everything that I am.

Complement with Dan Savage’s recently released and excellent American Savage: Insights, Slights, and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love, and Politics, discussed in brief here.

The Dish

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