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The Design of Everyday Things – Don Norman March 11, 2012

Posted by dairui72 in Design Thinking, Design-related Books, [Books] Ways of Thinking.


The Design of Everyday things is an absolute classic in the arena of design and psychology. It was written by Don Norman and first published in 1988. The book has a good balance between theories and examples, most of which are industrial designs and products. Because of the broad range of design topics covered in the book, there is no single author’s point of view except that the design should be user centered – Norman argues issues and principles of product design from the user’s perspective and uses psychological models to explain usability and good designs.

The most important concepts (in my opinion) of design psychology include affordances, models, and mapping.

Affordance is the “perceived and actual properties of the thing”. For example, we know to turn the knob on a door (instead of pushing it or applying other actions) because the knob “affords” turning. The lesson for designers, therefore, is that the shape and build of a product can convey meaning and usage to its user.

Next, Norman argues that the design of a product is the conceptual model of the designer. The design (or presentation) essentially conveys that model to the user, who may or may not develop the same user’s model, which is a result of experiences and perceptions. When the two models mismatch, the product is perceived with poor usability. Then how to develop a better conceptual model? One solution is through natural mapping, a “close, natural relationship between the control and its function”.

Among other issues Norman also dedicates a whole chapter talking about errors. Norman categorizes errors into slips and mistakes: the former being errors from subconscious actions and the latter being errors from conscious deliberations. “To err is human” and as designers we should be proactively thinking about how to design better products to prevent and be able to correct human errors.

Critical analysis
The theories that Norman introduces in the book are valid and fundamental to better understand design from a user-oriented perspective. However, I argue that they are necessary but hardly sufficient to understand the full picture.

Affordance as a concept is centered on the product, emphasizing the physical design of the product conveys certain properties. It is a powerful tool and I use it to look at a familiar product that we take for granted and think of the design that goes into it. For example, we twist and turn the cap of a bottle because the round shape affords turning. We flip open the cap of a shampoo because that particular cap affords to do so.

However, assessing a product by its affordances does not take into account the context in which the product is used. A product can be used in very different ways in reality and can even be repurposed to achieve a drastically different goal. For example, when a water bottle is considered poorly designed by itself, should it still be considered poorly designed when it is not used as a water container but a vase?

With regard to the different conceptual models, a takeaway that I recognize is that as designers of a complex product or system we know it inside out; we know a great many details of how the system solves a problem and we can be inclined to present the product the same way to the end user, who, on the other hand, often only cares about the end result. Therefore, the way to present a system should not necessarily be the same way we design it or the way we solve the problem; rather, the presentation should always be user centered; keep it simple and intuitive.

For a current day example, think about the BART ticketing kiosk. To get a one-way ticket from SFO to Powell, a visitor/user needs to look up the exact dollar amount of the trip separately and enter that amount into the kiosk. But the dollar amount is just part of the solution to the user’s problem: I want to get from point A from point B! The design of the kiosk clearly does not match the user’s model. On the other hand, the best metro kiosk interface I have seen is one where I as a user can simply select my destination on the screen from a map and continue to payment. The control is the map of the metro system, which naturally maps to the function of the kiosk and also my need of getting from where I am to some other point on the map.

On the other hand, I do not think Norman has given enough elaboration on the role of a user’s cultural experiences when forming a conceptual model. There were some generalized discussions in terms of cultural constraints and social behaviors, but I think these factors largely determine how the product is being adopted and used in reality. How they actually help form the user’s model can be explored further.
Not saying that Norman should have included all these issues for the book to be valid, I think it is necessary for readers of the book to recognize them and be able to think about design in an even bigger context.

What is the value of this book?

The book offers valuable frameworks, guidelines, and concepts to product design. Like the book title suggests, these concepts are easily applicable to everyday things. A reader will be able to look beyond just the presentation and aesthetics of a product and practice critical design thinking.

The book joins tangible designs with abstract theories of psychology and it presents both aspects cohesively in a way that is also easy to understand. The theories provide insights into issues such as: How does the designer of a product communicate to the end users? How to make products intuitive to use? How to avoid and recover from errors?

What is the relevance of the book?

The book is highly relevant to our daily life, whether we are trained designers or not. Examples of everyday things such as doors and stoves are easily relatable and they make the book very easy to read. Users of a product no longer have to always blame themselves for not being able to use the product or when they make mistakes – maybe it is the designer’s fault! After reading this book I have become an avid critique of everyday things and I am able to appreciate good designs much more. For example, I went to my kitchen to inspect the conceptual model and mapping of my stoves, which turned out to have the “full natural mapping” as per Figure 3.5 – no wonder they were easy to use. The theories really come alive and I actually enjoy practicing them. In conclusion, the book is highly recommended.

The book has a few limitations, however. It is unfortunate that it was published over 20 years ago and a lot of the examples, although useful, are a bit outdated. When I was reading I could not help but wonder whether some of the problems are still common challenges for today’s designers and/or users, and whether developments that took place in the past 20 years brought up new challenges. In addition, the book centers on industrial design, but in today’s world which heavily runs on computer systems, it is necessary to understand how well the book’s concepts apply to software systems. Last, the book does not offer a methodology of how to come up with a good design. The concepts are good foundations and frameworks to evaluate existing work, but they do not necessarily “teach” someone how to know what the customers want, how to design iteratively, etc. It is difficult to turn some of the theories into actions.


Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson March 11, 2012

Posted by doviknissim in Design Thinking, Design-related Books, [Books] Leadership & Change, [Books] Ways of Thinking.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

“Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do”
(Apple’s “Think Different” campaign, 1997)

I’ll begin with a confession – Steve Jobs was my hero! I found his unique personality fascinating. On one hand, he was the genius with the Midas touch, the man who discovered the secret sauce for designing great products and the subject of legends while still alive. On the other, Steve Jobs was notoriously known for his bad temper and controversial character He was a very difficult man to work with. These contrasts generated a colorful personality that is normally attributed to great leaders and crazy inventors. When I learned that Mr. Isaacson wrote this book at the request of Steve Jobs and with his cooperation, I was eager to learn more about who Steve Jobs really was and what was his secret sauce.


“Steve Jobs” – the book tells the life-story of Steve Jobs and the stories of the companies and products he created. It is beautifully written. Isaacson uses simple language and simple story telling techniques to tell the tale of a complex man. He uses a chronological order, combining commentary from Jobs, his friends, his family, his co-workers, and his enemies, who offer contextual information that ties these beautiful stories to the man and his reputation. The author strips Jobs from his celebrity status and knowingly pays attention to the man behind the curtain, emphasizing that Jobs is not the “Wizard of Oz”

Critical Analysis:

The book gains credibility as it portrays and contrasts both sides of Jobs’s personality: The brilliant creator whose outstanding products changed our lives versus the obnoxious, untrustworthy, manipulator who stole ideas from others. In that sense the book does justice with some of the talented people that worked with Jobs and were hardly recognized. A great example for that is Jony Ive, Apple’s VP of industrial design and the man who should be credited as the designer of the iPhone.

But the book is not perfect. I was particularly disappointed with the author’s failure to pursue and document Jobs’s “secret sauce” for designing great products. While many believe that Jobs only used his intuition, there are indications that he had a set of clear, well-defined design rules (a.k.a. “the secret sauce”). An example for that is the story of both Jony Ive and Steve Jobs separately picking up a beautifully crafted knife in admiration, and then dropping it with disappointment, pointing out the same reason that made the knife’s design flawed. These rules should have been tracked and shared as Jobs’s legacy, as his gift to mankind. The author failed to realize that.

Another disappointing fact is the author’s failure to bring John Scully’s point of view. John Scully was Apple’s Former CEO and the man who mentored Jobs for a while, later on he publicly clashed with Jobs, and finally ousted him from Apple. John Scully played a pivotal role in Jobs’s life and Jobs even mentioned him at his Stanford commencement speech. The choice not to bring his perspective was a poor one.

The Story:

The book begins with a wonderful historical overview of how a beautiful valley filled with apricot and plum orchards boomed to become the Silicon Valley. The author walks us through how it all started when Dave Packard and Bill Hewlett launched their company at a Palo Alto Shed and how Stanford created an industrial park for companies to commercialize students’ ideas, opening the door for a booming economy based on technology – A great read for all residents of the bay area.

The author uses stories to rationalize Jobs’s complex personality. A good example is Jobs’s famous “reality distortion field” (e.g. his ability ignore certain realities when he didn’t like them or when he thought they were insignificant, like his cancer). The author uses the story of how Jobs’s foster parents treated him as the “chosen one” to rationalize Jobs’s belief that certain realities did not apply to him as he was “enlightened”

Similarly, the author tries to track the origins of Jobs’s design perceptions. He describes how Jobs’s father, while building a fence around their house, taught him how important it was to perfectly craft even the parts you could not see. The author also mentioned Jobs’s admiration to the clean design of his childhood home (built by Joseph Eichler) that instilled on him a passion for making great designs at an affordable price for the mass market. Furthermore the author ties Jobs love for simplicity, utility, and beauty to his trip to India to search for enlightenment and his interest in Zen Buddhism.

The author uses the early years of Apple to emphasize Jobs’s unique understanding of user needs and market trends, his strategic thinking, and his business sense – Apple wouldn’t have existed without these “superpowers”. Conversely, the author uses Jobs’s ousting from Apple as a platform to emphasize some of his weaknesses, such as: his a-political nature, his mood swings, his difficulty in building relationships, and his obnoxious behavior towards his colleagues.

But by far, the best part of the book tells the story of Jobs’s “restoration”, his second run to greatness. The author emphasizes Jobs vision, design principles, and business acumen as the main reasons behind the tremendous success both Apple and Pixar had. The author also uses detailed descriptions of the different product launches (iPhone, iPad, and iTunes) to emphasizing Jobs’s intuition and his attention to details.

Steve Jobs was a man on a mission and the author emphasizes that through his descriptions of his sickness. Cancer did not define him; in fact Cancer was pushed to the background. It focused him on what’s important (in his mind), it motivated him to pursue his destiny and create some of Apple’s boldest products.


Oh and one more thing, the last words of book are Steve Jobs’s own words about what his legacy would be. After reading these words, I couldn’t stop but thinking how different and how much better our world would have been if only Steve Jobs was given one more year to live.

The relevance of the book:

The book shares some of Jobs’s thoughts about design as a competitive strategy. These are, in my opinion, the “tip of the iceberg”, indicating why there was only one Steve Jobs. Here are some of those thoughts:

Jobs about design principles:

  • Less But Better: Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. Jobs made devices simpler by eliminating buttons, software simpler by eliminating features, and interfaces simpler by eliminating options.
  • Simplicity comes from conquering complexities, not ignoring them: Simplicity is not just minimalism; you have to deeply understand the essence of a product in order to get rid of the parts that are not essential
  • Design is not just about how the product looks like: it reflects the way the product was engineered, manufactured, packaged. A manufacturing mistake will ruin the greatest design.

 Jobs about designing great products:

  • It is not about the money, it’s about making great products!
  • Figure out what people are going to want before they do: People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. Never rely on market research. 
  • Focus: deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do. Free your resources to focus on what you do best. 
  • Design a great user experience end-to-end: tailor the purchasing experience, the ritual of un-wrapping the product – such experiences should be theatrical, and tell a memorable story.
  • Design drives engineering, not the other way around: Innovate via the design. Engineering will fit the boards and wires into the new design.
  • Do not allow hacks or customizations to your product: that way you control the user experience and make sure it executes your vision. 
  • Constantly refine your art: If you are not busy being born, you are busy dying. 

Jobs about the design process:

  • Ban PowerPoint Presentations: “People who know what they are talking about don’t need PowerPoint” 
  • Build models you can touch: instead of endless design documents and convoluted diagrams. Iterate often. 
  • Use intuition, instincts and fluid conversation as a review mechanism:  instead of formal design reviews that often lead to major disagreements.
  • If it’s not right, do not be afraid of making last minute changes: even if such changes will cause significant delays. It has to be right. 
  • Design all products in one place: gives you a sense of how all the newly designed products relate and connect with each other.


Living With Complexity February 6, 2012

Posted by Joshua Higgins in Design-related Books.

Do you view technology as “the application of scientific knowledge” or as “new stuff that doesn’t work very well?”  In our society, technology has unfortunately come to symbolize the latter more often than the former.  Don Norman sets out to discuss the reasons for this in his latest book Living With Complexity.

Professor Norman’s central premise is that the world is complex, but it doesn’t need to be confusing.  Technology has come to symbolize confusion and difficulty because inept designers have failed to take into account how humans will interact with the technology they create.  Poor design creates confusion and frustration, good design creates satisfaction and empowerment.

Critics frequently ask for simplicity and complain bitterly about overly complex products, but simplicity is not really what they’re after.  They are seeking a straightforward way to manage the complexity that is inherent in everyday life.  Simple tools don’t make life easier; it’s easy to understand interfaces to complex and robust tools that accomplish this task.

If you find yourself frustrated with the complex interfaces you encounter in your everyday life, you should read this book because it will give you some solace in knowing that you’re not crazy and you have the right to expect the things you interact with to function more logically.  If you believe that there is a tradeoff between simplicity and complexity, then you NEED to read this book before you unleash any further sins of poor design unto humanity.

Norman argues that the trade-off between simplicity and complexity is a fallacy, complexity is a fact of life and simplicity is a state of mind.  People wrongly assume 1) that this tradeoff exists at all, and 2) that it describes a zero-sum game.  He offers:

“Human behavior can be deceptively complex: social behavior is even more so.  We must design for the way people behave, not for how we wish them to behave.  People function well when the devices they are using make things visible, provide gentle nudges, signifiers, forcing functions, and feedback.”

Norman’s keys to simplification are familiarity and organization and the value of his book is in the way he uses simple examples to illustrate his points.  You might have not thought much about toilet paper roll dispensers in the past, but you will look at them differently going forward.

There are small frustrations with this book, such as Norman’s discussion of complexities of written language and musical notation without seeming to take into account the value inherent in network effects of current forms – it’s almost as if he forgets his earlier point about familiarity being a key component of good design here.  Also, he spends an entire chapter on the design of waiting in line without really doing a great job of tying this topic back to the book’s central premise, but overall this book is outstanding and whether you’re designing business processes, furniture, or MP3 players, this book is worth reading.

Don Norman discusses Living With Complexity:

Serious Play March 31, 2011

Posted by joaquincabreracanabal in Design-related Books, [Books] Ways of Thinking.

Serious Play – How the world best companies simulate to Innovate. (by Michael Schrage)

Review by Joaquin Cabrera, MBA candidate 2011 at Haas School of Business.

Serious play is about how leading companies prototype and simulate to innovate. The main argument the author conveys in this book is how different companies’ prototyping processes drive innovation. Across the book and with several examples, Schrage illustrates how simulation and prototyping serve as building blocks of companies’ innovation culture.

One of the central arguments Schrage makes in the book is that value creation steams from not only the prototypes but also from the interactions that flourish in the process of prototyping and simulation. By means of interactions and people’s behavior around different versions of prototypes, companies can “seriously play” with prototypes, create value and innovate.

The book is structured in three different sections, each exploring different perspectives of what makes prototyping one of the most important media for innovation.  Starting by addressing how prototyping redefines the rules of innovation, the book also explores the cultural and technological issues associated with prototyping as well as how to stimulate innovation through simulation.

There are several arguments made by Schrage with which I deeply agree. First, I totally agree with the concept that is easier to articulate ideas by “playing” with prototypes rather than by simply enumerating prototype requirements. I can recall episodes of my professional experience in which I heard from clients “You have given us what we asked for but it is not what we want”. As stated by Schrage, “People do not order ingredients from a menu, they order meals”. It is much easier to deliver the right solution to clients by continually interacting with them over prototypes (“serious playing”) rather than following a list of specifications. By means of playing with “Quick-and-dirty prototypes”, clients can see ideas evolve and better solutions are achieved.

Second, the idea that is behavior rather than technology what really drives innovation is very compelling. Value creation resides not only in the prototype but also in the interactions around prototypes. While reading the book, I remembered a personal experience in which interactions around a complex finite-element engineering analysis fostered innovation in the ways the team exchanged information. It was not the prototype but the interaction that had the most impact in our team.

Third, I like the concept that the unexpected may prove more valuable than the reason the model was built in the first place. Encouraging surprises (instead of mitigating them) can bring new perspectives or can challenge assumptions, adding value.

Fourth, I agree with the idea that the rougher the prototype the more questions it encourages. Several times I have confronted a beautifully designed model in which it was almost a crime to suggest modifications. As prototypes start to accomplish perfection, “playing” with them becomes harder, hampering new ideas generation.

Last but not least, I like the idea of learning from reworking not only the most creative prototypes but also the most creative interactions. The “serious play” behind the creation of a failure prototype may add more value than that from a successfully developed prototype.

There are some suggestions I would make to the book. First, the book reinforces the idea that continuous iterations enhance benefits that outweigh costs but it lacks recommendations about when to stop iterating. As an engineering design manager, I have been exposes to the “Christmas tree” problem in which features are added to a prototype as ornaments are added to a Christmas tree. Moreover, during simulations, analysts may easily fall into “analysis paralysis” in which the simulation process ends up filling the simulation time available. It would have been very valuable if the book would have included a more in depth analysis of these issues and recommendations on how to determine the point of diminish returns, both in terms of product features and simulation.

Another issue that could have been treated differently is the analysis of the tradeoff between prototype’s complexity and its approximation to reality. This is a critical issue since the ideal prototype complexity level is neither clear nor easy to determine. When I started reading this book, I expected to get a better understanding of how to address this issue but the book did not provide a clear view.

Also, the book could have included recommendations about how to integrate prototyping to companies that do not have a “prototype driven nature”. Certain industries that could (and should) rely on deeper prototyping see this process more as a cost rather than a benefit.

Finally, I found some minor issues about the book’s structure. For instance, I found  the book a little bit repetitive with arguments coming up again and again.  Also, I would not have spent a whole chapter in how spreadsheets have change prototyping practice or at least I would have include other examples such as CAD modeling which indeed has revolutioned areas of design, manufacturing and engineering.

All in all, I feel Serious Play it is a great book and encourage people to read it, especially to those interested in managing innovation initiatives successfully. Personally, I would try to use the main takeaways of this book on my upcoming professional career.


The Design of Everyday Things March 7, 2011

Posted by Sophie Wong in Design Thinking, Design-related Books.

The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A. Norman

Review by Sophie Wong, PhD student in Bioengineering

In The Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman describes the psychology of users when they encounter products. Dr. Norman emphasizes that design is based on the “needs and interests” of the user, a philosophy called the user-centered design. Products should be usable and understandable without requiring the user to consult the user manual. If a mistake is made, it is never the user’s fault, it is due to poor design. Every day, we are bombarded with choices such as pulling, pushing, sliding, flipping, pressing, etc. How do we determine what to do? Design cues are supposed to point us in the right direction. Through examples of everyday objects such as doors, sinks, faucets, and telephones, Dr. Norman outlines the guiding principles to good design.

The seven principles for transforming difficult tasks into simple ones are listed below.

1. Use both knowledge in the world and knowledge in the head.

2. Simplify the structure of tasks.

3. Make things visible: bridge the gulfs of Execution and Evaluation.

4. Get the mappings right.

5. Exploit the power of constraints, both natural and artificial.

6. Design for error.

7. When all else fails, standardize.

Knowledge in the world relieves the user from memorizing every detail about how to use a certain product. However, knowledge in the head allows for more efficiency when performing tasks.  Thus, Dr. Norman argues that a product with external physical cues and easily interpreted internal relationships that allow the user to understand intended actions provides the user with the most comfortable experience.

The overall take home message is that successful products will provide the user with visibility and feedback. The user must be able to figure out what to do with the object and be able to understand that an action has been completed. I particularly agreed with and enjoyed the chapter on developing conceptual models and mapping features to functions. When there are fewer features than functions, the user becomes confused because the “hidden” functions are not immediately obvious. However, too many features can also be confusing and create a learning barrier for the user. While reading this chapter, I was reminded of the modern day TV remotes, especially the Sony Google TV remote vs. the Apple TV remote.

Sony Google TV remote and Apple TV remote

The Sony Google TV remote has many buttons that are the same shape and size – it would be difficult to use in the dark while watching TV.  This design must imply that the remote is capable of many functions, but what a nightmare to learn! On the other hand, the Apple TV remote only has three buttons. How would the user input channels? Both of these products are at the extremes of design: one has too many features, the other doesn’t have enough features.

I also strongly agreed with the analysis of conceptual models: the design model, the user’s model, and the system image. The design model is the designer’s concept of the product; it is what the product is meant to do. The user’s model is how the user explains and interprets the way the product functions. The goal is for the designer’s and user’s models to be the same. However, as we all know, this isn’t always the case. The system image is how the designer communicates with the user. The challenge is for the designer to ensure that the system image (the product) has the proper appearance, function, and feedback that is necessary for the user to understand how to operate the system.

Simple mappings in the system image can go a long way. Natural mappings that take advantage of the user’s knowledge in the head help increase aesthetics and reduce confusion. Dr. Norman emphasizes that good design does not require extraneous labels or signs to describe the intended action. A door handle should be designed in such a way that would be obvious whether it was meant to be pushed or pulled or slid or flipped. Light switches and stove controls should not have to be labeled. The steering wheel is used as an example of natural mapping. Users instinctively know that spinning the wheel clockwise will cause the vehicle to turn left and vice versa. This action makes sense because the clockwise turn points to the left side, which is the same direction the vehicle will turn. This natural mapping doesn’t require posted signs next to the steering wheel that says, “spin wheel clockwise for left turn”.   The balance between aesthetics and practicality is essential to a successful product.

The chapter on constraints was also provoking. It helped me re-examine the purpose and nature of everyday objects. Physical, semantic, cultural, and logical constraints work together seamlessly to help users determine how to approach an object without having to consult a manual. The example of a well designed car key that works in both directions never occurred to me until I read the book! I had taken for granted the ease of always being able to open the car doors immediately. I realize now that 60% of the time when I open regular doors, such as my apartment door, I use the key in the wrong direction and have to flip it over.

At the end of the book, Dr. Norman stresses the importance of planning for errors and keeping systems consistent.

Given that this book was written in 1988 (originally named The Psychology of Everyday Things), Dr. Norman’s vision of technological advances is impressive. Many of his descriptions of how things could improve have actually been developed in the modern world! For example, on pg. 74 Dr. Norman asks the question,

“Would you like a pocket-sized device that reminded you of each appointment and daily event? I would. I am waiting for the day when portable computers become small enough that I can keep one with me at all times. I will definitely put all my reminding burdens upon it. It has to be small. It has to be convenient to use. And it has to be relatively powerful, at least by today’s standards. It has to have a full, standard typewriter keyboard and a reasonably large display. It needs good graphics, because that makes a tremendous difference in usability, and hook up to the telephone; I need to connect it to my home and laboratory computers. Of course, it should be relatively inexpensive…it will exist in imperfect form in five years, possibly in perfect form in ten.”

Apple iPhone 4 (source)

What do we have today that perfectly fits this description? Welcome, the iPhone and Android phones. The first smart phone, the IBM Simon, was released in 1993 (five years after the book was published) and the most recent iPhone 4 was released in 2010 (22 years after the book was published). These products demonstrate how attentive observation of everyday objects and user experience can help us design better products. I wonder what Dr. Norman thinks of today’s technologies and what improvements he suggests we need to make for the next ten years?

I highly recommend this book to everyone who wants to realize the difference between “good” and “bad” design. The book is entertaining because anyone can relate to the frustrations of the everyday objects that Dr. Norman uses as examples. The writing style is easy to follow and the arguments are sound. Although the examples are quite outdated, the underlying principles remain applicable in a timeless fashion.

The only criticism I have is more of a curious question for the readers: If visibility and feedback are so important why do designers who make “high-end” products that are also very expensive tend to disguise the product’s function? Does the monetary value of these seemingly aesthetically pleasing products reveal how society values non-user centered design? For example, how do the doors open in this image (bathroom stall doors)?

Bathroom design by architect Thomas Heatherwick. Pacific Place Mall in Hong Kong.

Image sources:

Design from nature March 28, 2010

Posted by David Cooperman in Design-related Books, Systems Thinking.

A review of Biomimicry by Janine Benyus

In several of the design lectures I’ve attended over the past few months, the speaker has pointed to the desks and lights and computers in the room and claimed that everything except nature is designed and is thus the domain of the designer. Biomimcry is an ode to the design genius of the natural world and a call to society to make use of the elegant solutions that living things and ecosystems can offer us.

This book makes a strong case for devoting more of our resources to studying biological models for energy generation (photosynthesis), farming (diverse perennials), disease treatment (plant-derived drugs), computing (protein communication), manufacturing (room temperature, non-toxic, and waste-free), and business models (the closed-loop efficiency of a forest). These are big ideas that would cause huge changes in human society. Benyus makes them inspiring and accessible by introducing us to the researchers at the forefront of each of these areas.

As an environmentalist, I found the real beauty of a biomimetic approach to be the following: solutions that work with the planet by design are invaluable as we attempt to reign in our polluting, resource-intensive ways. Biomimicry is thus a powerful approach for sustainable design. Indeed, many of the ideas that Benyus highlights have gained traction in the 13 years since Biomimicry was published. Nanotechnology is now a household word, and books like Cradle to Cradle have further articulated the biomimetic approach to a product’s lifecycle. Most large corporations have completed at least partial lifecycle analyses of their major products. Broad substitution of natural processes and products for petroleum-based synthetics has not occurred, however, pointing to a continued need for expanded biomimetic research.

Benyus presents biomimicry first as an engineering approach. Nature has it figured out when it comes to producing energy, food, houses, medicines, and knowledge storage devices (brains). Re-engineering industrial society in nature’s image is thus a great idea.

She expands her definition of biomimicry to include a deep respect for the natural world as not only a source of knowledge but also as a support system for human society. We can’t just plug in nature’s solutions where they will drive profits. We must also design within nature’s limits and thus away from our oil and coal-fueled, throw-away economy. Only by respecting nature and opening ourselves up to its intricacies and limits will we as designers find truly sustainable solutions.

So how does a designer balance the human user’s needs and wants with the long-term health of the planet? In many cases, as Benyus reports, the models we find in nature are truly elegant solutions for both. Problems arise, however, when biological models conflict with human social and economic systems. For example, the carpet company Interface had to fight an uphill battle to convince customers that it was more sustainable to rent carpet tiles, which would be replaced and recycled if damaged, than to simply purchase carpet. People resist change, and making the switch from human-made industrial products and systems to nature-inspired alternatives will hurt a lot of egos. Harnessing and imitating nature’s ingenuity means admitting that we might not have all the answers, that we might not need to design everything.

And yet nature cannot show us how to navigate human social motivations. We might marvel at redwood forest, but most of us wouldn’t want to live in one. Our aesthetic includes modern architecture and paved cities and chemically supported cornfields. Thus biomimic ‘engineers’ need designers at their sides. A designer’s ability to empathize with users, distill out their needs, and incorporate those into a user experience is essential to adoption of nature’s beautiful design solutions.

At the same time, I think that designers would benefit from reading Biomimicry because it opens the door to nature’s astounding body of work, all of it in place long before humans showed up and decided to make buildings, plastic toys, and computers. Design usually exists in the context of the built environment and the industrial economy. This is where our clients live. This is how we tend to define our profession. Biomimicry (and E. O. Wilson’s Biophilia) shines a light on the appeal of the natural world. We are drawn to that redwood forest, and the designers who can understand that attraction will facilitate the transition to a more sustainable human existence. It is both humbling and inspiring to think about the beauty of nature’s designs and their power to improve society—with our help.

Control the Risk, Radically Innovate December 15, 2009

Posted by Carlos Lievano in Design-related Books, [Books] Ways of Thinking.
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On his book titled Design-Driven Innovation, Roberto Verganti, an Italian researcher, talks about common threads in radical innovation. He very rarely mentions the most common type of innovation, which is the incremental one. In the world of innovation, game-changing radical innovations are followed by a continuous series of small and incremental innovations. These smaller innovations can be done by the creators of the original innovation, or they can be done by the competition.

For these reason, radical innovations tend to be the ones that change the rules of competition, and can present a company with an opportunity to define and capture a market. For an example, think of the iPod and iTunes platform developed by Apple. At the time, many other digital players were already in the market, but the radical innovation in content access coupled with a simple interface, allowed Apple to dominate such market. However, if you look at the devices throughout the years, you can see that a big deal of their evolution is minor improvements to the original device: incremental innovation.

Successful companies do both. Radical innovation takes longer periods of time to achieve, while are riskier to undertake, as often the ideas aren’t proven by any market. As stated in one of the first anecdotes accounted in the book, the CEO of a company focused on radical innovations was quoted saying “Market? What market? We do not look at market needs. We make proposals to people.” There you have it, risk at its prime, with the uncertainty of proposal rejection.

However, the book claims that this isn’t an uncontrollable risk, allowing companies to increase their expenditure in radical innovation, or design-driven, as the book calls it. The book uses a three step process to achieve this. The first step is listening, in particular to what Verganti calls the Interpreters. These are people that are in business or knowledge domains that are related to those pursued by your own organization, and present you with an opportunity to create, validate, and reinforce your vision of the way people are going to give meaning to your products within the socio-cultural and technological context. The step of coming up with your own meaning proposal is the next step, and the book calls it the interpreting step. The cycle is closed with an addressing step, where you search for the proper means to communicate your proposal to the people the company will try to address with the innovation.