So unless you’ve had your head in the sand over the past year I’m sure you’ve noticed your day to day readings have become plagued with people proclaiming the importance of Design, particularly in the technology industry. I’ll blame the New Yorker for fanning the flames but I think my complaint is best outlined with a grandiose, self-indulgent story:
Not long ago I went to the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, thinking that if it was voted the most innovative museum in Europe, it had to be interesting. I wasn’t sure if that was a good or a bad thing but the weather was a bit shit and I had time to kill so off I went.
Now most people I spoke with thought of this museum as a collection of objects from painful breakups, allowing visitors to have a curiously perverse look into the lives of others. I can’t say that my opinion was much different but as it turns out the museum is so much more, going far and beyond the idea of love and loss into questioning exactly what constitutes a relationship. I can’t speak highly enough of the experience – Don’t go out of your way to see it but if you’re in Zagreb it’s worth an hour of your time.
One of the final pieces in the museum was an old Linksys router, with the classic charcoal and blue styling. It was accompanied by a plaque that described how the relationship lasted only 4 days. They tried but ultimately they were incompatible. While funny on the surface, it made me think about the changing relationship we have with technology. We’re not purchasing items as tools anymore; instead they’re becoming extensions of ourselves. You’re not so much buying a piece of technology as you’re entering into a relationship with it.
I reflected on this as I walked back to the hotel and remembered a trip to the London Design Museum I took recently. I wanted to see their Design of the Year awards and HealthTech exhibits, so one rainy Sunday after a sensible morning roast I submitted to the extortionate admission fee and went to check things out.
The Design of the Year exhibit features 72 nominees over 6 categories: Architecture, Digital, Fashion, Graphics, Product, and Transport. I wish I had taken more photos to capture my disappointment. It wasn’t because the ideas weren’t good, it’s that they felt like they had been under-executed.
For instance, the cycling lights they featured prominently don’t cast sufficient light to ride in dark conditions, have a horrible attachment mechanism that doesn’t work on things that aren’t tubes, and apparently the battery mounts break easily. But you can lock them to your d-lock so you don’t have to walk around with your lights when you park your bike, so lets give them an award nomination even though they fail at their one primary function OF BEING LIGHTS.
Or how about the street lamp that uses rather clever infrared cameras to “play-back” your shadow to you after you walk through it but the delay on the shadow is so long that you think it’s broken and the image segmentation algorithm isn’t good enough to render your shadow, unless you’re a blob monster. Again, really great idea but needed another few months to tweak it to really set it off.
Or the LoopWheels, shown above, which “need 50mm space between the outer edge of the tyre and any part of the frame to give enough clearance for the movement from the hub.” What. You just made a wheel that’s incompatible with the majority of frames in existence. It’s the standards problem all over again.
My complaint is that we, the public, love these sorts of innovations. We like things that are new and edgy. Look at the runaway success of many kickstarter campaigns, and then do some digging and see how many people are actually satisfied by their products.
We’re deifying Design over proper engineering and getting shitty products as a result.
If you’re an engineer, go to your designers and tell them how much you appreciate their work. Get them involved in the project from the start. Make sure you’re speaking a mutually understandable language. Collaborate, don’t dictate. Recognize that certain aesthetic/functional features will influence underlying engineering, and that certain engineering requirements will influence dimensions and physical presence.
If you’re a designer, stop showing fantastic designs to a client before showing them to engineering because it’s a hell of a lot harder to shoehorn an elephant worth of sensors and hardware into the stiletto of a design you just wowed the client with than if you had involved engineering from the beginning.
You need to work with each other to help stop the flood of beautiful yet broken products.