Design and the Cloud

Part of me thinks I might be a bit late to this party. But there’s a couple of new cloud offerings from major players that I can’t stay quiet on it anymore. The obvious connection with this whole Internet of Things discussion is that the platforms that open in the cloud, the more opportunities there are for hardware to interact with said platforms

Let’s start with the well known. Between Google Apps, Basecamp, Dropbox, and several other of The Cloud’s low-hanging fruit the idea of working locally and storing virtually is common enough that it can be called main stream. When grandmothers start throwing around a brand’s name like I’ve heard Dropbox’s name use, you know it is no longer just in the domain of geeks.

I’ve been using solutions like Basecamp for several years now. The premise makes sense. I am still hoping for solutions that are well designed (sorry, Basecamp, you’re not)…but the aesthetics aside, they’re doing many things right. Like most, I still hiccup on the whole what-about-when-I’m-not-connected anxiety. Because, let’s face it, we’re not at the place where data is always accessible…or affordable. Data roaming charges for me when I go down into the States are ridiculous.

What I saw recently that really made sense was Adobe’s latest suite of software that’s available in the cloud. They call it the Creative Cloud. For a monthly subscription I can access ALL of their software. For the equivalent of roughly $300 per year I can produce content for all facets of my creative needs. Web, Graphic, Video, Photo Editing, and even Acrobat functionality all in one place. That’s just a smattering of what’s available, frankly. I was agog at the list of software that is now available to anyone, anywhere. The part I love about it, is that I am not bound by connectivity. I still download and install the software to my machine. I get all of my licensing, and a big chunk of data storage all virtual. I can have designers working on the other side of the planet and all the data is stored with revisions in place.

I read this morning that Autodesk is taking a very similar approach to their 3D CAD solutions. Being that Autodesk has a full suite of software that starts with Sketchbook Pro and runs through 3D CAD solutions, I can see a full productivity process being adopted under one license. If they could wrap in PCB layout into that mix…that could be killer.

I’m curious what other solutions are out there for the design and technology industries? I feel late to this party…but maybe I’m just in time.

 

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Creators, Integrators, and Consumers

I wish I was able to find my post from many years ago on what I call the Creator, Integrator, and Consumer theory. I’m not sure theory is the right word for it. But it is simply the observation I see that there are three links the product development chain. The majority of us are Integrators (but I’ll get in to that shortly). Some might argue that we’re all integrators. For this discussion, however, there is a distinct break between the groups as it helps to define what kind of company you are, and what kind of design process you should be using.

CREATORS

The creators are the Intels of the world. They’re creating a new chip to go into our next gizmo. The people or companies out there that are creating a technology that gets used over and over again in the same form are The Creators. They are creating small pieces of the puzzle, a new technology, that allow The Integrators to make something new and unique which will subsequently be bought/used by The Consumer.

INTEGRATORS

As I said above, Integrators sums up most people in a design or engineering position. We aren’t spending our days creating a new technology, or material. We’re plucking pieces from the Creators and repackaging them in new and innovative ways. For example, Apple is integrating an LCD, a battery, connectors, buttons, processors, and other components into a smartphone. The same goes for HTC and Samsung and others in the industry.

CONSUMERS

This one is pretty straight forward. A consumer is the part of the food chain that buys what the Integrator is providing.

SO WHAT?

The delineation between these three likely doesn’t matter until you start talking about the processes of creation. I argue that Creators are doing Scientific Research & Development. Integrators believe they are doing research and development when in reality they SHOULD be doing User Research & Design. The former is using its research to find new ways to manipulate nature to create something new. The latter is taking insights from user behavior to inform the decision making process when choosing how to integrate parts into a new product.

It’s a subtle difference, but one that seems to get lost when a group starts looking at the development of a new process. There seems to be a general mistake of running to quantifiable research techniques, as opposed to more qualitative ethnographic research. Something that is of great interest to me these days.

Internet of Things and How It Is Being Used

Some call it Machine-to-Machine (M2M), others call it The Internet of Things. Either way you say it, it is about a critical mass that is occurring in the tech industry. Physical size of wireless hardware, increased battery capacity in conjunction with low power components, and the ubiquity of Internet connectivity (both wired and wireless) is allowing for a whole slough of product ideas to come to fruition.

Right now you can’t swing a cat without hitting a new kitschy concept for how to add connectivity to something. The ones that seem to be getting the most airplay coming out of tech circles are connected appliances. Think refrigerators with touchscreens that tweet if your milk is running low. The combination of all the different pieces of technology allowing for super tiny wireless devices is opening up a world of possibilities.

Not all M2M products are being made for logging data. Some are being made for data on logging. GigaOm reported about a company that is helping the Brazilian Government track down illegal logging organizations. They’re strapping low power radio transmitters to trees that sense when the tree has fallen over. The article doesn’t go into detail on this, but you can extrapolate out of it, that these things are small enough that they likely will be overlooked by the loggers. The tree will get loaded onto a truck, and eventually will reach a location where there is cellular coverage.

There’s a bit of a Wild West mentality right now on this whole Internet of Things topic. The main thing I see falling out of it all, is that the tech industry is going to have to start remembering that hardware is just as much of the equation as software. If you can’t swing a cat without hitting a kitschy M2M concept, you can’t swing a boa constrictor without hitting an new app accelerator or web-based start-up. Web and app software development has overwhelmed every discussion I’ve been part of in tech circles for the past 5 years. “Wireless” forums aren’t talking about wireless, they’re talking about apps that reside on hardware that utilizes wireless connectivity. This shift of discussion towards The Internet of Things is bringing hardware back to the center of the discussion.
My barometer is reading that we’re on the cusp of an explosion of hardware development and investment. The world has far more Things that can, and will, be connecting to the Internet that use more than a smartphone. To be clear, app development isn’t going away. It will be companies that know how to create a product that can blend meaningful software development with connected hardware that will be the focus in the future.
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The Design of Microsoft Surface

Microsoft Surface

I know I am a bit late to this party. It is pushing two weeks since the release of the Microsoft Surface and surely more eloquent individuals have stated what I am about to say. But some things you just have to address when they feel as though they’re a significant step forward for the design industry. The weekend after Microsoft announced its new Surface tablet and Windows 8, I happened to be in Seattle and decided to take an extra few minutes and stop in to the Bellevue Square Microsoft Store. If you’re not familiar with the Seattle area, basically I walked straight into Mordor. To get to the store I had to drive by the Microsoft campus. Normally, this wouldn’t have been something to mention, but my feelings for Microsoft have changed over the years. I have not been shy with my comments on the debacle that was Zune. Even in an era of “good enough”, they couldn’t get it right. Windows ME and Vista were veritable gong shows. Windows 7 felt as though it had them back on track to doing things right. But Surface….Surface is the first step Microsoft seems to have taken towards understanding that design is an integral part of their product offering(s).

Microsoft Surface

What I noticed first about Surface was that it is SOLID. As in, it is a rock solid piece of hardware. I picked it up and it instantly gave the impression that it is a well built piece of electronics. Tight tolerances everywhere. The right weight. My first reaction to the snap on keypad flexible keypad was that it would be better off without it. A simple cover on the tablet would be sufficient. If I really need to type, I’d go for their type-pad. The type-pad has spring loaded keys and feels like a keypad.

Microsoft Type Pad

This brings me to my problem with Surface, and subsequently Windows 8. It has an identity crisis. I get what Microsoft is doing. They’re trying to appeal to their old constituents that claim that they need things like a keyboard for productivity. The old constituents that can’t let go of the legacy of things like the Windows button bringing me to a desk top, and confusing me as to where I am within the OS. I tend to think that if I were to use a Surface for a week or two, I’d quickly get past this. But I can’t help but think on first blush that the Windows 8 interface is the Achilles heal of Surface. It is holding on too tightly to the past, and therefore keeping the product from being everything I expect from Microsoft.

My Expectations of Microsoft

I have very high expectations of Microsoft. I hated Zune because they could have done so much better than a me too version of a music player. I hated Windows ME and Vista because they were so tragically flawed and a company like Microsoft should not be putting out tragically flawed product. They’re better than that. They should want to be better than that.

That leaves me hoping that the current path that Microsoft is on, with the success of XBox and the strong design of Surface, that Microsoft is on track to being the world leader I expect them to be. I can’t put Windows 8 on that trajectory, yet. I definitely feel as though they’ve gotten it wrong having a touch screen on a laptop…but again, I need to get one in front of me for a while to allow myself to remain open to the vision they’re trying to bring to my laptop experience.

Oh, the last thing I have to say is that the Microsoft store was great. It felt just like an Apple Store (yes, that’s a back handed compliment). This plays into the same feelings of my expectations. I am tired of seeing Microsoft sliding in on other people’s successes. A group with as deep pockets as they have should be experimenting and putting out their own vision for the world. I guess I don’t see them as visionaries, but that’s what I want them to be.

 

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How Might We?

Bill Moggridge died yesterday after a battle with Cancer. That pretty much trumps anything else I could have written about today. If you’re not familiar with the name, you’re familiar with his influence. Everyone has touched a product that has been influenced by Bill Moggridge. I am certain that I am not overstating that fact.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Bill speak, and I have shaken his hand. I never got to speak with him on any deeper level than in and amongst a throng of others wishing to get their chance to meet Bill. I have, however, spoken with many people who call him friend. I have talked with them about him and the influence he’s had over their lives.

Above is a short little video about Bill put on by the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in honor of Bill. It is worth the few minutes to learn a bit about him and how he’s influenced the world. If you pay attention to anything in there, it is the last 15 seconds where it shows an illustration of a dandelion puff with the words “How might we….?”. As far as I am concerned, there are no three words that better describe what our world needs to embrace.

How might we…?

Insert anything into the above sentence fragment and you might begin to see what I mean:

How might we get to Mars?
How might we cure Cancer?
How might we…?

We spend more time, as Humans, telling each other how we can’t do something rather than asking how we can. Just look at the current political bullshit in the American election. I am going to try to remember those three words and see if I can’t let them drive the way I do things moving forward.

Rest in peace, Bill. I didn’t know you but you’ve made a difference in my life.

 

 

 

Three Design Lessons from Star Wars

If you know me, this next statement will not come as any shock:

I’m geek and I love Star Wars.

This isn’t profound by any stretch of the imagination.  I am a small voice in a cacophony of Star Wars Geeks.  In fact, I am probably not particularly far along the spectrum when it comes to Star Wars geekery.  I love that a movie that I saw when I was 5 is still alive in my imagination and I have passed that love on to my kids.  My daughter likes Star Wars.  But where the torch of geekiness is being passed, is to my son.  He is now 5 years old, and I have had my Mom send out all of the Star Wars toys my brother and I played with as kids. There’s the plastic Darth Vader action figure case (with the original Darth Vader action figure and his vinyl cape, et al), the Millennium Falcon, the AT/AT Walker, the Cloud City Pod Car, and the Rebel Snowspeeder. Yes, I love playing with my son by running around the house yelling “peww, peww, peww”, and “Han shot Greedo first”! I might possibly have even maybe played with some of the toys myself once or twice after he’s gone to bed.  But nobody was around to see it so you can’t prove it…and I’ll deny it if you try and say I did.

This past weekend, Spike TV had a Star Wars marathon.  My son and I, even though we own all the DVDs, got caught up in watching the commercial laden version of Episode 2. While I was sitting there, my mind did start to wonder how Star Wars applies to Design. I tend to think that there are several design lessons to learn from Star Wars.

1. Create the Vision then Let Go 

I’m going to say this, more to publicly get it off my chest than anything else.  George Lucas sucks as a Director.  Seriously, he’s horrible. What he’s good at is being a visionary. When he comes up with the story, guides it, shapes and molds it but let’s it go, he allows for magic to happen.  If you don’t believe me, go back and watch Episodes I, II, III, and IV. All directed by Lucas, and all of them are horrible from a cinematic perpspective. With the same set of actors and same visionary at the helm, Irving Kirschner created the epic Empire Strikes Back which is pure genius.

Steve Jobs did this…or so his archetype goes. He created the vision and acted as the final say on all products. But he let his team do the work.  He let the Designers design, Programmers program…etc.  He held everyone to a very high standard, but he knew he wasn’t a designer.  He, in his words, knew it when he saw it but was unable to do it himself.  I wish, after the original Star Wars (Episode IV), Lucas would have done the same. Don’t fall into this trap with your product.  If you are coming up with a new product or company, you are probably an amazing visionary.  Create the vision, guide, shape, and mold, and hire a Design Team. Then get out of the way.

2. Remember Your Archetypes

Every product has a personality.  As does every company.  Star Wars, and every other Lucas epic, is wrought with the simple idea that archetypes are king.  Sometimes the archetypes are instilled from the beginning, other times they’re forged by time.  Here are a few examples:

Han Solo/Apple/Steve Jobs – The Outlaw archetype is the guy that shoots from the hip (maybe even first). He does things different(ly) from everyone else and rules are merely ideas to consider.  He tends to have a chip on his shoulder.  Everybody loves the Outlaw, but there’s always an element that keeps you on edge for feeling that love.

Luke Skywalker/Google/Sergey Brin and Larry Page – The Hero archetype saves the day by choosing the path of good over evil. The temptation of doing evil is constantly pulling at The Hero, and while he may be tempted by the Dark Side he always stays true to his feelings that good prevails over evil.

Darth Vader/Microsoft/Bill Gates – Ruling the Galaxy is a taxing job and nobody is better suited for the job than the Villain archetype.  As the villain, you are going to make a lot of people unhappy along the way, especially when you use the force to choke your opponents into submission. Deep down, you may be good but you have embraced the dark side and have no problem leaving a path of destruction behind you as long as you get to the top.

This is all a very fun way to say, give your product or company a personality. Choose your archetype, even if you don’t overtly announce it to the world.  If you don’t at least consider what archetype your product is to be, you increase your risk of ending up with a product that has a severe identity crisis. I believe it was Yoda who said it best, “If confused you are, confused your customers will be”.

3. “Use the Force, Luke”

At the end of the day, Design is something that requires a good gut. It either feels right, or it doesn’t.  If you’re a Designer, you get it.  You feel The Force all around you.  It comes from years of observing product trends and learning how people interact with products.  Color theory is second nature and the knowledge that changing something by a fraction of a millimeter can make or break the success of a product doesn’t shock you.

If you’re not a Designer, you need to hire a team to design – and I am going to sound like a broken record – then get out of their way.  Being a visionary is one thing.  But having a vision but being unable to share your vision is another causes a lot of grief.  You need to have what you want spelled out very clearly.  If you don’t, you are going to run into exorbitant cost overruns, you’re going to frustrate your designers, and be sitting at the end wondering where it all went wrong.  If you don’t have that vision, be prepared to pay for it.  In either an organized way by allowing your Designers to interview you and then create a visionary document for you which you will sign-off on, or in the painful way of playing the game of “I know it when I see it”.  I suggest staying away from the latter unless you have a very deep pocketbook.

Even with these little tongue-in-cheek metaphors, the bottom line is that developing a product is difficult, expensive endeavor. You can save yourself time, money and headache if you just sit down with a bag of popcorn and watch a few hours worth of Star Wars. Even if you don’t gain any insight into how you can develop your next product, you will at least have a little bit of fun along the way.

ADD :: Beauty is Worth 3 Minutes of Your Day

While I am an industrial designer I also studied Photography while I attended Purdue University.  I actually always considered myself a better photographer than a designer.  I tend to know beauty more when I see it as opposed to extracting the beauty from my mind and portraying it to the world.  Photography always seemed to tap into that part of me.

Now, if you add moving pictures to that…that’s something that taps into my soul.  An example would be trying to explain the feeling of inspiration I get walking out of a good movie.  Especially something that is visually creative (e.g. Anything Pixar and/or animated).

Where, as a designer I don’t get “moved” by good design to the same degree.  I am impressed by it.  Even amazed.  But it doesn’t reach through my chest and squeeze some part of me I didn’t know existed before.  I know that the lines of a well designed vehicle does that for some people. Or maybe it’s the harmony that comes from a well balanced illustration (actually, that does it for me more than an object tends to).

I believe that my affinity for photography is tied to A.D.D. With design – Industrial Design in particular – you need to put in the time to create beauty.  Rarely does beauty fall out of your head onto paper.  And most definitely it doesn’t fall out of your head into a tangible, 3D object. But, especially with the advent of digital photography, the results are essentially instantaneous. It is also why I believe I went into Industrial Design as opposed to photography.  Photography was pure, it was real, it was easy.  It was something that I could do my whole life and not turn it into “a job”.

Then, I come across a blog post that reminds me about my love for photography.  And to take it a step further.  I come across a blog post that takes landscape photography and merges it with time lapse video.  The result is beautiful.  It is a simple reminder that beauty is all around us.  Sometimes we have to slow down and realize that to achieve beauty, you have to put in the time and effort.  It is more than the right shutter settings and pressing a button.

I highly recommend you have a look at Dustin Farrell’s video.  It is about three minutes long…and beauty is always worth 3 minutes of your day!

 

Steve Jobs :: The Other Side of the Coin

I recently posted about Steve Jobs and his proficiency at being a complete asshole.  As with many things in my life, I put something “out there” then I take a while to digest what I’ve done.  After lamenting about how I see Jobs’ personality as something that prevents me from propping him up on some kind of internal iconic pedestal, I also see a side to him that simply makes sense.

Malcolm Gladwell just published an article in The New Yorker about Jobs’ role in history as “A Tinkerer”.  Someone that riffs on previous inventions/ideas and makes them better.  Apple didn’t invent the mouse, they made it better.  They didn’t invent portable music devices, they made them better.  You can see the pattern already.  He had a vision for what he wanted from products and he imposed his will upon that vision to make it real.

His personality aside, what he did that I believe was at the core of his success was to be the final say in every aspect of the product.  The archetype that is Steve Jobs is a man who did not allow anything to be designed by committee. If the product, in its final form, did not meet his stamp of approval it didn’t go out the door.

Now, this is a pretty ballsy approach to business that I don’t think most people have the…well….balls to take on. The flip side to taking the credit for the success of the product, you’re also the goat when it doesn’t succeed. So if you’re in position to be where the buck stops on all decisions, you have to be prepared to get kicked in the teeth when your decisions fail.

I look at products that I admire most, I venture to guess that most of them had some kind of visionary at the helm.  Design by committee is the number one way for your product to become mediocre.  A group of people who approach their product development as a joint effort are going to take twice as long, have more complexity, and be more watered down than if it follows a single vision. I believe there’s a place in the world for both options.  The Microsoft and Apple paradigm will carry on in every industry well after I’m pushing daisies.

So, where does this leave me?  It leaves me wondering if there is a way to create a strong vision, take the lead on the vision, inspire those around you to follow that vision, take the pounding from everyone around you telling you that your vision is wrong, and doing it all without being an asshole along the way.

If you have thoughts, or comments…I’d love to hear them.

Industrial Design in Taiwan

I just finished a week long stint in Taipei, Taiwan attending the International Design Alliance World Congress and the Icsid General Assembly.  I am not being flippant by saying that the experience was life changing.  I was able to meet and interact with many of the world’s best minds in the world of Design. Taipei is an interesting city with some amazing culture that proved to be a fantastic backdrop for a conference that was discussing the topic of Design.

There were a few things that hit me in a big way.  The main one being the investment that I saw from the Chinese/Taiwanese Government into Design.  The scale of this conference was staggering. It was bordering on overdone.  But, in retrospect, a conference that is – at its core – about trying to make the world a better place can’t be overdone.

Another take away was the level of exposure to Design that the Taiwanese Youth gained from the IDA Congress taking place in Taipei.  I was walking around the Design Expo which was being housed in an old tobacco factory (that was a designer’s fantasy in and of itself). It was a collection of about 12 or so studios with exhibits displaying all sorts of design pieces from Industrial Design to Graphic Design to Woodworking. It was an impressive, if not typical, display of items from a multitude of Design disciplines. The part that struck me most was the amount of kids in the expo.  We’re talking bus loads of them. Kids ranging from elementary to high school aged were being brought to these exhibits and exposed to Design.  If you had this same exhibit in North America not only would you be devoid of the children in the exhibit, but I would go all-in on the idea that you could shoot a cannon through the exhibit and you would be hard pressed to hit a single person.

I’ve often said that Design is a canary in a coalmine.  You can use layoffs from Design-oriented companies as a barometer for the economy.  If company’s are laying off designers, that means that fewer products will be produced 9 – 16 months from now. Fewer items being produced, means less export, etc.

Using this same thought process, you can see the rising trends as well. With the unprecedented exposure to the field of Design the Taiwanese children were receiving, I look to the likely world dominance of the Asian Design Community in the next 10 – 20 years. There is no questioning the expertise, and level of quality that Asia has mastered in the realm of manufacturing.  If you begin go tie that in with the innovative nature of Design, there is no way you can ignore the potential of what you saw happening there.

If you’re a designer, I highly recommend getting involved in the International Design Community.  After spending some time there, I tend to believe that it is as important, if not more important than involvement in your local design community.  We’re living in an ever shrinking planet where the mixing of cultures and ideas is easier than ever before.  I saw enough in one week to convince me that Design can help bring about change for the good, and it is more than just a passing fad.  The International Design Community is where it’s at.