Design as politics in a changing world

A well-written argument that “politics”–built from mindfulness, personal commitment, and creative design–is as important to the climate crisis as science and technology:

[We have], basically, two ways out. One is extraordinary technology…[the other] is extraordinary politics: politics that goes beyond the usual interest-swapping and sets new commitments for the country and the world…

Does our culture still have the courage–and the harmony–to commit to real change based on moral beliefs?

Consider the end of slavery—not in the US, but in the British Empire, which abolished the practice thirty years before the Emancipation Proclamation, by an act of Parliament, with compensation to slaveholders…the historians’ view these days is that British emancipation was, in fact, a wildly expensive and disruptive moral commitment, executed through extraordinary politics…

[We need], in incremental and experimental ways, to keep building up a real politics of climate change. That politics will be both environmentalist and human-oriented, because there’s no separating the two in the age of climate change. It will have to ask how the peoples of the world are going to live together and share its benefits and dangers, and also how we are going to use, preserve, and transform the world itself.

That sounds like real design to me. See also Dan Hill’s Dark Matter & Trojan Horses.

Some hair on it

Obama, in David Remnick’s New Yorker article:

I have yet to see something that we’ve done, or any President has done, that was really important and good, that did not involve some mess and some strong-arming and some shading of how it was initially talked about to a particular member of the legislature who you needed a vote from.

Because, if you’re doing big, hard things, then there is going to be some hair on it—there’s going to be some aspects of it that aren’t clean and neat and immediately elicit applause from everybody. And so the nature of not only politics but, I think, social change of any sort is that it doesn’t move in a straight line, and that those who are most successful typically are tacking like a sailor toward a particular direction but have to take into account winds and currents and occasionally the lack of any wind, so that you’re just sitting there for a while, and sometimes you’re being blown all over the place.”

My favorite movie design moments

Documentary or drama, I’m a sucker for watching people be creative. Here are a few of my favorites:



  • Making The Incredibles (some clips; the DVD has the best stuff) – My all-time favorite. About 90 minutes of in-depth stories and explanation about the process of making the film, with a ton of similarities to great product design. I watch this at least once a year. My notes.
  • The Mystery of Picasso – Picasso painting on an illuminated sheet of glass, so you see the strokes build and change into something completely different than he started with. The paintings at 1:00:00 and 1:04:30 are mind-blowing.
  • Comedian – Jerry Seinfeld tries to follow up his outlandishly-successful sitcom career by getting back on small comedy stages and writing a new standup act. Inspiring to see the courage and introspection that goes into it. My notes.
  • Sketches of Frank Gehry – Gehry’s experimental way of developing buildings combines art and science in a unique way. My notes.
  • A Day in the Life of John Lassetter – Lassetter seems like a wonderful leader and his optimism is infectious. My notes.
  • Art and Copy – I find advertising has a lot of parallels to concept design, and this film collects the thoughts and processes of several different advertising luminaries. My notes.
  • The Pixar Story – The way they build collaboration among roles in a team is unparalleled. My notes.
  • Tough Room – Ok, this is just audio (from NPR) but The Onion’s headline pitch session is amazing. I love how they judge stories by the headlines alone.
  • Six Days to Air (not currently online) – How each South Park episode is made in a week. The forced constraints have created a lot of innovation in process and technologies.

A different kind of direction

A nice comparison of film directing styles by David Galenson, ranging from the conceptual dictator to the experimental collaborator. Also draws parallels to the different design approaches of Apple and Google.

[Robert Altman] encouraged his actors to improvise: “What I want to see is something I’ve never seen before, so how can I tell someone what that is? I’m really looking for something from these actors that can excite me.”

Altman considered collaboration the essence of creativity: “If the vision were just mine, just a single vision, it wouldn’t be any good. It’s the combination of what I have in mind, with who the actor is and then how he adjusts to the character, along with how I adjust, that makes the movie.”

Galenson expands on the two styles in a post exploring the “lifecycle” of creativity.

How to be gracious

I find it fascinating that there are thousands of articles and books written on how to succeed and win, and so few on how to be a good person–even though the two are so intertwined.

This is a nice one:

So listen. Be attentive to what people say. Respond, without interruption. You always have time. You own the time in which you live. You grant it to others without obligation. That is the gift of being gracious. – Tom Chiarella

The genius copout

If they were just like us, then they had to work very hard to do what they did. And that’s one reason we like to believe in genius. It gives us an excuse for being lazy. If these guys were able to do what they did only because of some magic Shakespeareness or Einsteinness, then it’s not our fault if we can’t do something as good.

I’m not saying there’s no such thing as genius. But if you’re trying to choose between two theories and one gives you an excuse for being lazy, the other one is probably right. – Paul Graham

To which I’d add that if you think you’re a genius, you’re probably just being lazy and too impatient to do things the right way.

Here’s a good alternative:

(How to change cars forever – Dodge Dart)

Ask, don’t tell

The leader of the past knew how to tell, the leader of the future will know how to ask. – Peter Drucker

Got them both!

“To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan and not quite enough time.” – Leonard Bernstein

3 steps to great product design

Step 1: Find the best, most experienced, most professional product designer you can.

Step 2: Ask them what to do.

Step 3: Do what they say.

Profit! Ok, maybe a little more detail would help.

For Step 1, your goal is to find the person with the most experience designing products that will work with you. This may or may not be someone with the title “designer”; if you find a “product manager” or “engineer” who has successfully led a dozen projects to good results, that might be the best person to trust. You’re looking for quantity of past work (remember the ceramics class) and quality (defined by whatever metric is most important to you and the project–innovation, aesthetics, market success, reliability, etc). Whatever their title, you should make it clear to everyone on the project that this person is the lead designer.

Don’t know any great designers? Ask everyone you know who their favorite designer is, then ask that designer about the best person they know. Repeat until you run out of time and/or money.

Step 2 is pretty straightforward but often forgotten. In the heat of the moment, most people revert to voicing their own answers rather than asking questions. Designers work best when their opinion is sought out, not when they have to shout to be heard. Their job is to make design decisions, so bring them everything you can. A good designer will be humble enough to say they don’t know when that’s the case.

The wrong way to interpret Step 3 is to assume every lead designer should act like a dictator–shouting orders and demanding obedience. A great designer will first set up a design process that includes everyone on the team in the right way. They’ll probably ask more questions than give answers (see Step 2), and will want to understand all the various options and known constraints.

But at some point decisions have to be made (specified in that process) and at that point you have to follow the person you’ve entrusted with design authority. A project where only half a design is followed can turn out worse than one with no design. A great design is holistic and integrated, and if you choose to compromise it–through impatience, penny-pinching, or simply lack of appreciation for the design quality–your product will not be great. On the other hand, products that do fulfill their designed form and function are a breath of fresh air and a shock to a world accustomed to mediocrity and imitation.

Three steps. Easier said than done…but worth trying.

On knowing

When I was a senior in high school, a teacher asked me to join the impromtou speaking team. In this competitive speech event, you received a question from a predefined category–for the category “transportation”, it might be something like “Should seatbelts be mandatory?”–and had just 6 minutes to prepare and deliver a speech on it. I had previously acted in drama events, and even improv comedy, but never spoken seriously without preparation.

The first time I tried it, alone with the teacher, I nearly cried. Standing in front of the room, I stumbled through a few points loosely related to the question, forgot to express an opinion, and trailed off to silence after only a minute or two. Undeterred by my failure, my teacher showed me a few tricks to help connect my thoughts and pace my speech better. After a lot of practice and a few competitions, I began to feel more comfortable and deliver better responses. Eventually I made it to the state finals, alongside competition who had much more experience than me.

The most interesting thing I learned from my impromptou experience was the power of nonsense spoken with conviction. I found that with just 5-10 unique stories or data points on a category (e.g. “transportation”), I could string together a compelling argument for almost any question. It wasn’t important that I believed what I was saying, or even that my arguments were consistent across questions. In fact, I would frequently use a single anecdote or data point multiple times in a single day to argue completely opposite things–and as the judges were different for each question, my shifting opinions were no problem. The important thing was that what you said sounded believable on the first pass, which was influenced as much by how you said it as what you said. My bar for “knowing” something was lowered to pass anything that received superficial approval and sounded confident.

As you might expect, this taught exactly the wrong lessons to a self-centered and overconfident teenage boy, which I’ve spent years painfully unlearning in the real world. As I progressed through university and various jobs, working on increasingly difficult and complex topics, it became clear that falsely knowing–and acting as such–was a liability, not an advantage. My polished speaking skills, and the belief in my own ability to spin believable solutions out of thin air, combined to set me up for a bigger fall when I encountered situations I wasn’t actually prepared for. The questions I worked on now demanded real, not postured, solutions, and the critiques I received were not from sympathetic teachers at weekend student events, but from brilliant and exceedingly logical friends, mentors, and colleagues searching relentlessly for the truth.

This problem actually gets worse as you gain experience. It’s natural to believe that your years of experience have given you an instinct for “what works” and what doesn’t; that because you’ve been around for a while you can skip some of that boring background work. But in a rapidly-changing world–and anything worth working on seems to be “rapidly-changing”–the facts themselves are shifting so fast that prior experience can also be a handicap. The more you learned on the last project, the more you need to unlearn on the next. It’s the cognitive equivalent of the Innovator’s Dilemma: as soon as you get good at something, it becomes useless and your investment in it becomes a burden.

What’s the alternative to this? For me, the solutions have all involved humility and patience: learning to say “I don’t know”; asking for advice; listening more than I speak. Practicing mindfulness through reflection and meditation, to recognize when things have changed and require new approaches. Recognizing that knowing takes time, especially when you’re experienced, and planning extra time to figure things out.

People often think leadership is about personality; that no one knows the right answer, and that you just need to act like you do. Steve Jobs said early in his career, “Pretend to be completely in control and people will assume that you are.” With his recent geek-beatification, people are taking this statement as gospel, and acting confident despite not knowing a thing. I’ve personally watched an entire generation of product managers and designers turn into wannabe-Pied-Pipers based on this advice.

But that’s exactly the wrong lesson to learn from Steve’s work. Instead, look at what he actually did–continually disrupt his own past successes. Apple under Steve Jobs was a place that repeatedly cancelled successful products and replaced them with new ones; Steve himself would make outrageously opinionated statements about product features and then completely change his mind with the next generation. In some cases this may have been calculated misinformation, but in others he clearly made an about-face on something he had strongly believed.

Don’t act like you know when you don’t. It’s ok to not know right now. Wait and work until you do know, and recognize that what you knew yesterday may be holding you back today.