17 December 2008

Elegant design, elegant frugality

In his seminal work Design for the Real World, Victor Papanek discusses the very essence of design, which he suggests is embodied two characteristics: precision and simplicity. He goes on to suggest that these two characteristics are best captured in the (scientific) notion of elegance, that which is gracefully concise, simple and admirably succinct. (In addition to intellectual satisfaction, Papanek suggested that aesthetic satisfaction can also be derived from reducing something from "the complex to the simple", into what he called elegant solutions.) Elegant design or elegance in design is something that has been touched upon by others, including author and professor M. J. French referenced here. Unfortunately, the term elegant design has not really caught on, perhaps because of the more typical associations made between elegance and interior design, etc. Yet, elegant design deserves another look as it embodies key guiding characteristics or principles.

Of course the narrower scientific definition of the elegance has great relevance in these times of climate change and resource scarcity, and the term "elegant frugality" appears to be gaining currency (see Porritt and Lovins for example). However, elegant frugality does appear to be something of a tautology as the simplicity and precision suggested in the definition of elegance above connote "economy in the use of resources", which is the definition of frugality. No matter. Its import is that commentators are increasingly articulating the very real need to look anew at how resources are consumed, whether in a product or service, at the level of the individual, the community, the nation. When one considers that, for example, 70-80% of a product's environmental impact is determined at the design stage, the importance of elegant frugality cannot be overstated.

Our economies are hung over from over-indulgence and greed. Resource scarcity, from credit scarcity to food and water scarcity, will shape our world for the foreseeable future. These are challenging times, and whether designer, innovator or architect of change, it is propitious to consider the guiding values of simplicity and precision, and efficiency and economy, that underly the notion of elegance.

11 December 2008

The Age of Scarcity

The current financial crisis has shown the terrible effects of wanton risk taking and resource gluttony (in this case other people's hard earned monies). The resulting credit scarcity has devastated individuals, families, communities and businesses. Yet, the credit scarcity is but one of many that will force changes in everything from the life styles of the poor and the wealthy, to the geopolitics of nations.

In short order there will be a range of other resource scarcities to contend with - food, fuel, water, shelter, raw materials, labor, etc. We are entering a period of time that will be shaped by pressures felt not only at the individual level, but more critically at the community and national levels - from the lack of water in many parts of the world through to the lack of energy sources in others. Individually, these scarcities will impact nations in different ways, but the impact will be felt globally. The disruption brought about by scarcity in one region will be felt elsewhere as our interrelated and systems based world no longer allows us the luxury of geographical immunity. Geopolitics will be shaped by those nations that have resources and by those that clamor for them. Competition for resources will occur at the individual level and the global level with dependencies on other nations for the provision of resources (of any kind) creating a whole new dimension of security risks. Some have suggested that water will be the next oil. That is to look at the issue far to narrowly - think rather of the global scarcity of sustenance and shelter! What is certain is that the insidious politics of oil provide but a foretaste of the politics of scarcity.

The question for our times is now how will we address the inevitable and endemic resource scarcity that individuals, communities and nations will face, possibly for the foreseeable future?

Further reading: The Guardian, BusinessWeek

Design, recession and Smart Consumption

On the Industrial Design group list in LinkedIn, the following question was asked "What products are people willing to buy in a crashing global economy?" The question prompted me to think about product design more generally. Given that we are in times characterized not only by credit scarcity but also resource scarcity, perhaps the issue is not so much what products will people buy in hard times, but rather what products should people expect and demand in times defined by scarcity? My answer to the above on the list was a little glib, but its applicability is more general:

Products that don't have sell-by dates, products that eschew built-in obsolescence, products that eschew built-in waste, products that are elegant (simple and precise, built for purpose), products that last beyond the first firmware update, products that are not disposable....

If we are in heading into new times, times characterized by moving from want to need as Bruce Nussbaum suggests, then as consumers we should demand and expect more of product manufacturers and service providers. Change can be mandated, but real sustaining change will have to be driven by empowered and savvy consumers and communities, embracing "Smart Consumption", that which encourages greater product and service effectiveness, efficiency (in terms of resource utilization, etc.) and longevity.

05 December 2008

A flaky post

So for something of a lighter nature. Many are familiar with the classic chocolate bar the Cadbury Flake. This a chocolate bar lover's delight - light, flaky milk chocolate in an iconic wrapper that is known around the globe. From a user's or consumer's point of view there was one drawback: an annoyingly large number of the light flaky flakes always ended up on one's clothes, the tabletop, the car seat or wherever one used to eat the bar. So the elegant solution (simple and precise, without diluting the brand, etc.) is the Flake Dipped. So what is illustrative about this variation on a theme? Certainly, its no innovation, but it is an evolutionary step that keeps the crumbs to a minimum, increases a chocolate lover's delight, and builds the range and reach of the brand.

Design and social services

Over at Participle, Hillary Cottam and colleagues are pondering the re-design of social services. The UK's Design Council is also looking at the public sector as a part of a major initiative of their entitled "Public Services by Design". (Also worth a look is the product of the Design Council's RED "do tank".) This public sector-focussed work is important, and relevant to any developed nation where the structure and delivery of social/public services tend to be a generation or two behind the other organizational design and services provision thinking. The Participle effort looks at re-humanizing and decentralizing social services - in other words getting the services back to those who truly need them and giving them a sense of ownership; a no-brainer you might say, but not where public authorities are concerned. The big challenge is that public services are not really for the public anymore. They usually suffer from the "check the box" syndrome which results in poorly structured and inadequately provisioned services that do little to enhance the well-being of the public (which is what public services were supposed to be all about in the first place). Public services are a foundational component of community, and one of the reasons that service provision is so abysmal is that we have lost any real notion of physical and human community, and our responsibility for and to them. Whether the discussion revolves around social or public services, the bigger challenge is how we re-architect community to encourage a renewed sense of ownership and empowerment - people are not going to take ownership for services that are poorly designed and delivered, and if the requirements of the individual and community (user-centricity) are not guiding service design then any new efforts are stymied from the start.