All posts filed under “Innovation

Buckminster Fuller on Design with Intent

Buckminster Fuller, talking to the New Yorker in 1966, quoted in this article by Elizabeth Kolbert:

I made up my mind . . . that I would never try to reform man–that’s much too difficult. What I would do was to try to modify the environment in such a way as to get man moving in preferred directions.

That’s what this research is all about. Design as trimtab, perhaps, with all the debate, decisions, multidisciplinarity and implementation issues that implies.

Many thanks to Rick Thomas for sending me the quote.

And on the multidisciplinarity issue, Metropolis currrently has a feature on Fuller including this perceptive quote from Chuck Hoberman (of Hoberman sphere fame):

“I think he’s [Fuller] been highly influential as an iconoclastic spirit, who never accepted that the boundaries between disciplines were anything other than something to be climbed over or circumvented in some way. To me that’s not so much a heroic stance as much as a very practical way to proceed in the world today. That’s also why he pre-staged a lot of what’s going on now.”

Thoughtful Acts

Push Table, Jennifer Hing
Above & below: ‘Push’ Table by Jennifer Hing.
Push Table, Jennifer Hing

Jane Fulton Suri‘s wonderful Thoughtless Acts? chronicles, visually, “those intuitive ways we adapt, exploit, and react to things in our environment; things we do without really thinking” – effectively, examples of valid affordances perceived by users, which were not designed intentionally.

Observing how people actually ‘make use’ of/hack the products, systems and environments around thememergent user behaviour – and extracting lessons and ideas which can then be applied developing new and improved products, is a cornerstone of IDEO’s human factors strategy, and it seems to have been very successful. It’s an intelligent way of designing.

So I was excited to see, at New Designers last week, some inspired projects based around exactly this kind of thinking.

Jennifer Hing (Manchester Metropolitan, Three Dimensional Design) has dedicated her work to just this principle (as she puts it, “I design around people’s natural behaviour, bending objects around the fine details of living”) with a pair of beautifully simple, efficient pieces of furniture, the ‘Push’ Table and Hallway Stand, both of which intentionally afford users what they’d like to do anyway, at just the right moment:

Clearing the table is a simple task made complicated by the search for an alternative surface to temporarily relocate anything removed. An easy and desirable solution is to push everything off the surface and out the way, yet this movement is contrary to what culture, experience and common sense has taught us.

This table is based around the ‘pushing’ action. The sloped surface gently catches falling items, containing them until next required. It allows the most basic and initial response to clearing the table to take place.

As someone whose filing system consists mostly of using every horizontal surface I can find to deposit strata of tools, books, papers, components, etc, the utility of the Push Table resonates very much. I can even imagine building (adjustable) separators into the sloped section, to allow a primitive physical filing system to emerge (but see also Anna Harris’s Ifiltro, discussed below).

Push Table, Jennifer Hing
Above: ‘Push’ Table; Below: Hallway Stand by Jennifer Hing.
Hallway Stand, Jennifer HingHallway Stand, Jennifer Hing

The hallway… holds strong routines in preparation for departure, individual to everyone. It can range from busy and hectic to quiet and empty within seconds, it experiences different weights of traffic depending on the time of day and is the instant dumping ground for anything that may arrive through the front door. It is an intense yet brief environment… The Hallway Stand is the amalgamated solution to many of the little actions and issues we have in that particular environment. It provides one collected place for coats, shoes, bags, keys, post and anything else we allow to loiter there. The aim is to simplify and contain this highly functional area.

It’s angled so it can be leant against any wall, with the shelf/drawer/oddment tray horizontal, and has an array of peg-type hooks that by the look of it could be used for lots of different things. Again, almost inviting emergent behaviour. Jennifer’s personal statement is also, very rarely for a new graduate designer, clear and eloquent about what she wants to do: “I want to make better use of and develop people’s initiative alongside bringing ease and fluidity to everyday actions.” I wish her the best of luck: this approach to design really is an open door waiting to be pushed, if only you can find where to push.

My Table, Tiina Hakala
Above & below: My Table by Tiina Hakala
My Table, Tiina HakalaMy Table, Tiina Hakala

Tiina Hakala‘s My Table embodies some similar thinking (as does her Stor chair):

This project started as a research how people misuse items, for example how we often sit on tables or hang our clothes on door handles. This ‘unintentional design’ worked as an inspiration for My Table. We often use our desks for something totally different than working… I tried to keep this in mind and find a storing solution for the endless items, lamps, pens, paper folders, etc, we keep on our desks.

My Table offers endless possibilities to customize your workspace. The re-configurable sheet metal parts slide between two tabletops that allow you to move them around and organize them in an order that fits perfectly for you.

Again, this is a clever and neat approach – the variety of parts reminded me of the kinds of add-on bins, brackets and workpiece holders often found around machine tools where experienced machinists have adapted their environment to match their workflow. (Looking in detail at how other people set up their workshops/studios/desktops (in all senses) is endlessly fascinating.) Tiina’s system uses a table top with a slot all the way round to hold the tab on the add-on parts, but a system with adjustable clamps (sprung or threaded) could also work very well, if perhaps not as elegantly.

In addition to the utility value, there’s also the ‘personalisation’ benefit, as Tiina (UCCA Rochester, Furniture & Product Design) mentions on her website: arranging these holders, lamps, bins, hooks and so on does allow a workspace to match the user’s mental model much more closely, while displaying some personality. (Still, I’ve held by the “messy desk a sign of a sophisticated mind” philosophy ever since seeing a newspaper article with that title stuck to the underside of another kid’s desk lid at the age of 8 or 9.)

ifiltro, Anna Harris
Above & below: Ifiltro table by Anna Harris
ifiltro, Anna Harris

The Ifiltro table, by Anna Harris, is very clever indeed. As the accompanying cards explained:

Remove items from your pockets – Drop or place the contents onto the Ifiltro table top – Small items such as keys and money will filter through to a drawer below.

I don’t know if Anna’s thinking was along the same lines as Jennifer and Tiina’s, but the design’s addressing a very similar area, and it’s something that’s simple and, fundamentally, elegant.

It reminds me of an example I saw in a (GCSE?) design & technology textbook, where a student’s design for a ‘machine to sort two different sizes of marbles’ (a brief which may conjure up images of sensors, comparators, gates, etc) was simply two diverging steel rails made out of coat hangers, with two trays underneath, so that as they rolled along the rails, smaller marbles dropped into the first tray and larger marbles into the second. We don’t see that sort of design thinking often enough – I guess it’s a kind of analogue computing (I know I’ve gone on about it before).

What do all these projects have in common? They’re fundamentally about matching the product’s affordances to what the user would like to be able to do in a situation, based on observations of users’ behaviour and unintended perceived affordances found in artefacts. That’s quite a mouthful. We could call it designing for behaviour, maybe. It’s design to match behaviour rather than design to cause behaviour (which is most of what I talk about on this site).

But then, the affordance of, say, the sloping section on Jennifer’s table, means that a user will perceive it and be more likely (probably) to use it, than sweep stuff onto the floor. So it does ’cause’ user behaviour, in a way, as does all design.

I’ll come back to this idea, as once we start looking at products with more technological content, it perhaps becomes easier to distinguish the ideas of ‘product behaviour’, ‘user behaviour’ and ‘overall behaviour’ (an idea I’m grateful to Ed Elias for).

Interview with Sir Clive

Sir Clive Sinclair (BBC image)Chris Vallance of Radio 4’s excellent iPM has done a thoughtful interview with Sir Clive Sinclair, ranging across many subjects, from personal flying machines to the Asus Eee, and touching on the subject of consumer understanding of technology, and the degree to which the public can engage with it:

Your [Chris Vallance’s] generation really understood the computers, and today’s generation know they’re just a tool, and don’t really get to grips with them… When I was starting in business, and when I was a child, electronics was a huge hobby, and you could buy components on the street and make all sort of things, and people did. But that also has all passed; it’s almost forgotten.

It’s true, of course, that there are still plenty of hobbyist-makers out there, including in disciplines that just weren’t open before, and if anything, initiatives such as Make and Instructables – and indeed the whole free software and open source movements – have helped raise the profile of making, hacking, modding and other democratic innovation. It’s no secret that Clive himself is a proponent of Linux and open source in general for future low-cost computing, as is mentioned briefly in the interview, and the impact of the ZX series in children’s bedrooms (together with BBC Micros at school) was, to some extent, a fantastic constructionist success for a generation in Britain.

But is Clive right? How many schoolkids nowadays make their own radios or burglar alarms or write their own games? When they do, is it a result of enlightened parents or self-directed inquisitiveness? Or are we guilty of applying our own measures of ‘engagement’ with technology? After all, you’re reading something published using WordPress, which was started by a teenager. Personally, I’m extremely optimistic that the future will lead to much greater technological democratisation, and hope to work, wherever possible, to contribute to achieving that.

I’ve worked for Clive, as a designer/engineer, on and off, for a number of years, and it’s pleasing to have an intelligent media interview with him that doesn’t simply regurgitate and chortle over the C5, but instead tries to tap his vision and thoughts on technical society and its future.

Silicon Dreams

Incidentally, Clive’s 1984 speech to the US Congressional Clearinghouse on the Future, mentioned in the interview, is extremely interesting – quite apart from the almost Randian style of some of it – as much as for the mixture of what we might now see as mundanities among the far-sighted vision as for the prophetic clarity, with talk of guided 200mph maglev cars and the colonisation of the galaxy alongside the development of a cellular phone network and companion robots for the elderly. Of course, the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.

Talk of information technology may be misleading. It is true that one of the features of the coming years is a dramatic fall, perhaps by a factor of 100, in the cost of publishing as video disc technology replaces paper and this may be as significant as the invention of the written word and Caxton’s introduction of movable type.

Talk of information technology confuses an issue – it is used to mean people handling information rather than handling machines and there is little that is fundamental in this. The real revolution which is just starting is one of intelligence. Electronics is replacing man’s mind, just as steam replaced man’s muscle but the replacement of the slight intelligence employed on the production line is only the start.

And then there is this, which seems to predict electronic tagging of offenders:

Consider, for example, the imprisonment of offenders. Unless conducted with a biblical sense of retribution, this procedure attempts to reduce crime by deterrence and containment. It is, though, very expensive and the rate of recidivism lends little support to its curative properties.

Given a national telephone computer net such as I have described briefly, an alternative appears. Less than physically dangerous criminals could be fitted with tiny transporters so that their whereabouts, to a high degree of precision, could he monitored and recorded constantly. Should this raise fears of an Orwellian society we could offer miscreants the alternative of imprisonment. I am confident of the general preference.

Some thoughts on classifications

Over the last couple of years, this site has examined, mentioned, discussed or suggested around 250 examples of ‘control’ features or methods designed into products, systems and environments – many of which have come from readers’ suggestions and comments on earlier posts. I’d resisted classifying them too much, since my original attempt wasn’t entirely satisfactory, and it seemed as though it might be better to amass a large quantity of examples and then see what emerged, rather than try to fit every example into a pre-defined framework.

As I start work on the PhD, though, it becomes more important to formalise, to some extent, the characteristics of the different examples, in order to identify trends and common intentions (and solutions) across different fields. My thinking is that while the specific strategy behind each example may be completely disparate, there are, on some levels, commonalities of intention.

Abstracting to the general…

For example, paving an area with pebbles to make it uncomfortable for barefoot protesters to congregate – U Texas, Austin and a system which curtails a targeted individual’s mobility by remotely disabling a public transport pay-card have very different specific strategies, but the overall intention in both cases is to restrict access based on some characteristic of the user, whether it’s bare feet or some data field in an ID system. In one case the intended ‘strength’ of the method is fairly weak (it’s more about discouragement); in the other the intended strength is high: this individual’s freedom must be curtailed, and attempted circumvention must be detected.

In the case of the pebbles, we might describe the method as something like “Change of material or surface texture or characteristic”, which would also apply to, for example, rumble strips on a road; the method of disabling the pay-card might be described as “Authentication-based function lockout”, which could also describe, say, a padlock, at least on the level of keyholder authentication rather than actual identity verification. (Note, though, that the rumble strip example doesn’t match the access-restriction intention, instead being about making users aware of their speed. Similar methods can be used to achieve different aims.)

…and back to the specific again

Of course, this process of abstracting from the specific example (with a specific strategy) to a general principle (both intention, and method) can then be reversed, but with a different specific strategy in mind. The actual specific strategy is independent of the general principle. Readers familiar with TRIZ will recognise this approach – from this article on the TRIZ Journal website:

TRIZ research began with the hypothesis that there are universal principles of creativity that are the basis for creative innovations that advance technology. If these principles could be identified and codified, they could be taught to people to make the process of creativity more predictable. The short version of this is:

Somebody someplace has already solved this problem (or one very similar to it.)
Creativity is now finding that solution and adapting it to this particular problem.

Much of the practice of TRIZ consists of learning these repeating patterns of problems-solutions, patterns of technical evolution and methods of using scientific effects, and then applying the general TRIZ patterns to the specific situation that confronts the developer.

So, following on from the above examples, where else is restricting access based on some characteristic of the user ‘useful’ to some agency or other? (Clearly there are many instances where most readers will probably feel that restricting access in this way is very undesirable, and I agree.) But let’s say, from the point of view of encouraging / persuading / guiding / forcing users into more environmentally friendly behaviour (which is the focus of my PhD research), that it would be useful to use some characteristic of a user to restrict or allow access to something which might cause unnecessary environmental impact.

An in-car monitoring system could adjust the sensitivity (or the response curve) of the accelerator pedal so that a habitually heavy-footed driver’s fuel use is reduced, whilst not affecting someone who usually drives economically anyway. (A persuasive, rather than controlling alternative would be a system which monitors driver behaviour over time and gives feedback on how to improve economy, such as the Foot-LITE being developed at Brunel by Dr Mark Young). Or perhaps a householder who throws away a lot of rubbish one week (which is recorded by the bin) is prevented from throwing away as much the next week – each taxpayer is given a certain allocation of rubbish per year, and this is enforced by an extension of the ‘bin-top spy’ already being introduced to prevent the bin being opened once the limit has been reached (OK, cue massive fly-tipping: it’s not a good idea – but you can bet someone, somewhere, has thought of it).

Both of the above ‘control’ examples strike me as technical overkill, unnecessarily intrusive and unnecessarily coercive, but thinking on a simpler level and extending the ‘characteristic of the user’ parameter to include characteristics of an object borne by the user (such as the key mentioned earlier), we might include everything from the circular slots and flaps on bottle banks (which make it more difficult to put other types of rubbish in – restricting access based on a characteristic of what the user’s trying to put in it), to narrower parking spaces or physical width restrictions to prevent (or discourage) wider vehicles (such as 4x4s) from being used in city centres.

At this stage, these thoughts are fairly undeveloped, and I’m sure the methods of classification will evolve and mature, but even writing a post such as this helps to clarify the ideas in my mind. The real test of any system such as this is whether it can be used to suggest or generate worthwhile new ideas, and so far I haven’t reached this level.

Design & Punishment

Design & Punishment chair, by Ben Cunningham
Design and Punishment, by Ben Cunningham. Photo from the Arts Institute at Bournemouth‘s 2007 Three Dimensional Design graduate directory.

Very neatly linking the themes of the last two posts (devices to make users aware of their energy use, and intentionally uncomfortable seating) is the Design and Punishment chair by Ben Cunningham, a Three Dimensional Design graduate from the Arts Institute at Bournemouth.

Simply, the concept is a chair which progressively collapses as the user’s home energy use becomes excessive, and restores itself when corrective action is taken (such as turning devices off):

Chairs are designed to support a person’s weight: this is taken for granted, but what if that feature were taken away from the user until they have done their bit? This is a way of forcefully highlighting the issue, so they cannot ignore it any more.

The idea is for a range of products with similar ideas – one of Ben’s lecturers, Christian McLening, also mentioned to me the idea of a light cord that retracts gradually the more energy is used, and a bookshelf that similarly tilts gradually. The light cord sounds intriguing, but by making the cord more difficult to reach (to turn it off), it perhaps signifies the opposite of what’s intended. Along the lines of what Crosbie Fitch suggested here, lights which gradually dimmed as the house’s energy consumption increased might be an interesting alternative. But Ben’s aim was very much to play with the ‘punishment’ aspect:

Design and Punishment was, to begin with, a look at designing a product that could make saving energy in the home easier through better awareness. The products force the user to cut down on their energy consumption. Instead of trying to make energy saving easier, the range of products forces the user to save [energy] or suffer a punishment.

Again, the line between forcing the user (physically) to behave in a certain way, and persuading him or her to change behaviour, is not a distinct one; as Toby commented here, both are methods of control, and both are powerful, but in cases such as this where the user would have to choose to purchase the chair voluntarily (Ben’s chair is only a concept product, but the principle stands), the persuasion/coercion would be two/three-pronged: inspiring the purchase in the first place/motivating the user to use it where more convenient alternatives are available, and the actual forcing aspect when the user’s behaviour is changed, rather than the product being abandoned in frustration/annoyance.

Changing behaviour: water meter taps

Three student projects on show at Made in Brunel earlier this month took the idea of moving the function of a water meter to the tap (faucet) itself, to act as a ‘speedometer‘ and thus encourage users to reduce their water usage (or wastage). The three projects, while similar, have slightly different emphases:

Tap Meter, by Henry Ellis-Paul

Henry Ellis-Paul’s Tap Meter, above, which was also exhbited at the Ideal Home Show, shows the user the amount of water used in that particular instance. As he says, “this information changes the user’s habits and behaviour through involvement and emotional attachment to the product” – it could also presumably be used to measure out the amount of water used for recipes or to ensure that we each drink the right amount each day.

Water & Energy Saving Tap, by Stefan Grosvenor

Stefan Grosvenor’s Water and energy saving tap (above) additionally addresses electricity usage due to hot water, combining both water and electricity usage in an ‘equation’ to make users more aware of the total impact they have each time they turn the tap. The project was intended as a future concept for the Red Cross, to be used as part of a campaign which would “both help others less fortunate, as well as educating users with their potential.”

Squirt, by Meghana Vaidyanathan

Meghana Vaidyanathan’s Squirt (above) is specifically intended for children, hence the bright colours and anthropomorphism of the design:

At our current consumption rate, it is predicted that we could use up to 40% more water in the next 20 years. Squirt is an awareness-based water meter designed for children aged 3 to 6 and aims to instil conservational etiquette in the mind of a child. Squirt has a child-friendly interface and displays the amount of water consumed over a period of time from the tap to which it is attached.

The term “conservational etiquette” is interesting – how easy is it to instil a social constraint of this kind in western societies where the resource is (apparently, at least) in abundance? Most of us have a conservational etiquette regarding money, and thus many ‘speedometer’-type devices – such as Wattson – incorporate a display translating the energy usage into its financial consequences.

This could, of course, go further – as Crosbie Fitch comments,

[Car] fuel economy would probably be greatly improved if there was a UI that could simulate the consumptive clink of a particular denomination of coin (at the users’ choice).


I’m not sure how many owners of gas guzzlers would like to enable the sounding of a cash register ding each time 10 pence worth of fuel had been consumed.

Just imagine the cacophony whenever the Chelsea tractor driver uses kick-down.