Archive for the ‘Top 10 posts’ Category

A new business model

Wednesday, July 19th, 2006

I’m reading Thomas L. Friedman‘s The World is Flat, in which he discusses the “flattening” of the world of business by the immense political and technological changes of the last few decades. He argues that because technology allows us to commmunicate seamlessly and instantaneously, much of the work previously done in-house will be increasingly outsourced to countries around the globe where workers can do it faster, cheaper, and often better. Companies that manage to adapt to these changing realities will succeed while those that do not will fall behind.

Friedman also talks about the “Business Web” – using the Web to gain access to standardized Web-delivered business tools to keep track of inventory, stay in touch with customers, schedule, budget, word process, store data, and so forth, through online subscription services. Because companies using these services no longer need to buy and update software or maintain cutting edge hardware and need fewer employees to do these tasks, they are able to realize significant savings in operating costs.

Because so much work will be outsourced, successful companies won’t be able to distinguish themselves simply by their ability to develop and use sophisticated technological systems. Rather, Friedman avers, what will separate successful firms from the pack will be their ability to “create a tailored solution” for their clients. In other words, just being technologically savvy won’t be enough – if one company can access technology, so can its competitors. What will enable a firm to capture the market will be its ability to provide personalized service and solutions that uniquely serve each client. Well, Mom-and-Pop stores have traditionally done just this, so it’s interesting to me to hear a modern business guru claiming that this is the wave of the future.

Nevertheless, Friedman’s predictions make sense, so the next question is how will design firms respond? Clearly, firms can benefit from the cost savings associated with the Business Web. Accounting, personnel, word processing, number crunching, and drawing/rendering applications could all be accessed online and the vast amounts of data generated for an AEC project could be stored off-site. Certain core tasks could be outsourced as well – CAD drawing, presentation drawings and booklets, reports, models, and code checking, to name a few. Even some aspects of project management could take place remotely. After all, establishing a schedule and making phone calls can be done from anywhere and the technology for video conferencing is readily available.

The key for design firms is to determine what can not be outsourced – and become the best at that. This, clearly, is personalized client-centric on-site work: face-to-face client interaction, discovering client needs, visually understanding the physical space, brainstorming a unique design, and on-site inspections, for example.

My sense, therefore, is that the design profession will see a shift in fee allocation with greater resources going into the client-contact side of the process and fewer into the actual production of project documents. Firms can save by outsourcing back-office tasks, computer-dependent jobs, and production work that doesn’t require physical presence at the client’s office or the project site. The most valuable workers will be those who interact well with clients and those who have the creative ideas for achieving unique solutions to the clients’ requirements.

A smart generation

Thursday, June 29th, 2006

Here’s an email exchange I had with my 23-year-old daughter that gives me a lot of hope for the future. She is working in internet marketing and full of ideas about harnessing the power of the internet for business, and she is considering an application for post-graduate study in business.

Charlotte: I was listening to NPR this morning and heard two features I thought interesting. One about a site called YouTube where people post their videos for sharing and the other about a gamers’ convention in NY where the game designers are trying to incorporate social awareness into their games. It stirred some thoughts in me that somehow, though I can’t quite articulate it, relate to what you are thinking about regarding using the internet to do business in different ways.

My sense is that your generation has an amazing opportunity to change the way a lot of things are done. The internet has freed you from some of the constraints of the that’s-the-way-it’s-always-been-done business mentality, allowing you to create new approaches. Not only new ways to reach people, but also new ways to do business (and make profit) without destroying the world in the process. It reminds me of Bill McDonough‘s book, Cradle-to-Cradle, a really interesting, highly sensible, and fairly radical approach to manufacturing (design products and industrial processes so they create no waste). I’m sure plenty of people are thinking about this from other points-of-view as well. We also went to see An Inconvenient Truth, which is definitely worth seeing, and since then I am reading and hearing lots of references to the movie and to the reality of global warming. I have a small feeling that something may be tipping in the public’s awareness of the environment (at least the educated public), but perhaps I am too hopeful.

Seems like there is a common thread to all these things, but I’m not quite sure what it is. Maybe it is connectedness. Maybe the internet has so thoroughly connected us that we’re finally beginning to realize that what happens in one place affects everywhere else and that resources aren’t finite. What you are working on is clearly based on connectedness too. Maybe the thread is creativity. Casting aside old assumptions and approaching problems from a completely new (and technologically enabled) viewpoint.

Kate: YouTube is just one of a zillion examples of social networking and self-publishing (self-proclamation?) exploding all over the internet, fueled primarily by people of my generation. The result is a LOT of garbage, but every now and then, you find the occasional individual gem. And that bit gets spread around social networks like Word-of-Mouth on speed – to the point that within a week 60% of all internet savvy 20 – 25 yr olds will have viewed the same video, read the same email, or visited the same site – to the point that the original piece of content becomes a pop cult reference. In a week! Popular culture trends change faster today that they ever have, because of the internet’s unfathomable speed of accessibility. But more importantly, with “web 2.0” programs like YouTube, Flickr, Digg, Blogger, WordPress, Photobucket, etc, that make content creation and sharing extremely easy, accessibility to internet promotion is becoming increasingly unbiased. Anyone can make a home movie, upload it, and become a popular icon in a week. Did you know that [two friends’] spoof music video to Call on Me ended up getting over 4 million hits and became a brief Asian pop cult phenomenon?

The result is that people of my generation have an over-inflated sense of self importance. With the internet as our media channel, its like everyone is the star of their own reality TV show. But at the same time, there’s a hightened sense of closeness to people who may not be physically accessible. Thanks to email, blog comments, cell phones, etc, you can get in contact with pretty much anyone you want to. And furthermore, there are people always looking to get in contact with you.

On top of HOW people are creating social networks, I’m really interested in WHAT people congregate around. The best way I can describe it is a Cult of the Ridiculous. The stuff that becomes pop-culture reference material is always the same thing: Hilarious. Debauchery, wit, silliness, and sarcasm. I love that humor is our point of commonality and not stupid humor or slapstick jokes, its always smart person humor – because my whole generation is smart.

That’s another thing! For the most part, everyone in my generation was raised to be smart, active, and in some way or another, excellent. How else did we expect to get into college? Everyone is a valedictorian, everyone is a team captain — AND right now, everyone is coming out of college with a captain’s attitude, but no one knows exactly what to do about it. It’s not like college where you go to an activities fair and pick one, and start being excellent. Most people waste a year (or several) figuring out where to be and what to do, because its not listed out for them in an orientation packet.

So… what we’ve got is:

1) Everyone is accessible
2) Information is easily shared
4) One person can start a pop-cult revolution
5) My generation is universally linked by a specific type of humor
7) My generation is smart and active, but unguided
8) At the end of the day, everyone wants an excuse to be social

So…. It seems like the potential to create change on a massive scale is huge for my generation. But people just need a little direction. Fortunately, good-will business practices, sustainability, and general humanitarian moralism are super trendy. But still, no one knows what the hell to do about it. No one wants to go door-to-door handing out fliers or any of the traditional non-profit B.S., but everyone would love to be involved, if it meant, say – getting together for an improv event, or going on a massive bar-crawl, or something that is both social and activist. You just have to look at the cost-benefit from a new perspective. Cost is about time, benefit is about sociability.

I’m feeling really good about this new generation. Pay attention, Business. The 20-somethings have a lot to teach us.


Friday, May 12th, 2006

In browsing through a website called HouseBlogs, I came upon House in Progress. This site is a diary of the restoration of a bungalow in Chicago. One entry, Uncluttered Living, Part I, sounded appealing, so I read on. Well, this post and the author’s subsequent Part II and Part III posts really touched home.

The author is a packrat at heart and so am I. Over the years, I’ve collected materials, tools, books, and sundry other things (see previous post, Tools) and it’s nearly impossible for me to let them go. After all, someday I might need something . . . and, to tell the truth, I frequently do need something and it’s satisfyingly handy to go down to my basement and simply bring it up. This packrat tendency does lead to an almost oppressive abundance, however, and the author has some good approaches for reducing the clutter.

Nevertheless, it is not these suggestions that I find the most compelling about this post. Rather, it is the author’s comments on design. She seques into design through an analysis of why she feels driven to save everything, concluding, in part, that her stuff allows her to “distract my eye from the room itself.” Thinking back to apartments she had lived in in the past, she notes that the actual size of the apartment was less important than how the apartment was conceived and built. The space in which she felt the least comfortable was one of the biggest, but was “a dwelling that symbolized a complete failure of imagination.” Awkward room shapes, cheap materials, drab colors, and dead end passageways left her feeling “itchy and restless.” She contrasts that apartment with another much smaller space that she loved that had well-maintained hardwood floors and lots of natural light.

Here’s her conclusion, which I think is right on all points:

Now I am beginning to get it. The design of the space needs to stand on its own. So much so that if I moved into a room with only a large pillow and a vase of tulips, I could call it welcoming and warm and live comfortably there.

“The design of the space needs to stand on its own.” This is what one of my professors was attempting to get across when he objected to the nice plants I wanted to plop down in the corners of one of my school projects. At the time I ruffled my feathers a bit – I love plants and this seemed a bit snobbish – but now I too am beginning to get it. Good design really does make the difference between an “itchy” space and one that is livable and alive.

So what are the keys to good design? If I had the answer I’d probably be rich, but at the minimum good design requires truly thinking about the problems of a space and the needs of the humans that will occupy it. My sense is that bad design occurs when it’s cheap, fast, and what-we’ve-always-done.

Thinking about this stirs me up. I’m appreciative of the training I’ve had, extraordinarily eager to learn more, and – I’m not sure what words to use – incredulous, exasperated, and bordering on belligerant about the preponderance of poor design. So, other than finishing school and getting that first job so I can actually put my passion about this to practical use, what’s next? Perhaps I’ll start with my closets.


Wednesday, February 15th, 2006

Creative Generalist, one of my favorite blogs, had a post that caught my eye. Entitled Versatilists, the author discusses a book by Thomas Friedman called The World is Flat in which Friedman offers up the term “versatilist” to describe people who are “able to apply a depth of skill to a progressively widening scope of situations and experiences” (quote from the Creative Generalist). Here’s an excerpt that the Creative Generalist took from the book:

Specialists generally have deep skills and narrow scope, giving them expertise that is recognized by peers but seldom valued outside their immediate domain. … Generalists have broad scope and shallow skills, enabling them to respond or act reasonably quickly but often without gaining or demonstrating the confidence of their partners or customers. Versatilists, in contrast, apply depth of skill to a progressively widening scope of situations and experiences, gaining new competencies, building relationships, and assuming new roles.

Although I haven’t read Friedman’s book, the idea of a versatilist intrigues me. As I’ve discussed in a previous post, I’m interested in how the design market perceives generalists vs. how they view specialists. My first impression is that large design firms prefer specialists and that generalists are more valued in smaller firms. But now here’s another category that seems to bridge both worlds. Would a designer with generalist tendencies be able to find happiness in a large firm as a versatilist – specializing, yes, because that’s what the market may require, but having freedom to learn beyond one narrow area and apply skills to a number of specialties?

The Creative Generalist goes on to question the concept’s sustainability in the real world, however, arguing that the way of contemporary business requires employees to be either generalists or specialists. I’m not sure I agree. It strikes me that while having a staff of specialists ensures that project teams have deep knowledge, it’s not a bad thing to have a few talented people around who can lend a larger perspective to a project and be useful if project needs don’t neatly fit into the available specialists’ areas of expertise, specialists get sick or need extra personpower to meet a deadline, or some other unexpected gap arises.

Being a versatilist could be a decent solution for generalist pegs who are being forced into specialist holes. Seeking out versatilists for staff postions could be a wise investment for large firms.

A&D community – what’s the reality here?

Left brain, right brain

Wednesday, January 25th, 2006

Is design the hot career for the future?

I read an article by Daniel H. Pink in Wired magazine entitled Revenge of the Right Brain. Pink argues that the traditional left-brain thinking of the business world and its offspring, the Information Age (characterized by emphasis on “sequence, literalness, and analysis”), is being supplanted by a new way of conceptual right-brain thinking (characterized by use of “context, emotional expression, and synthesis”). He avers that the current business world requires more than the linear thinking of the past, rather “artistry, empathy, seeing the big picture, and pursuing the transcendent.” He says:

We’ve progressed from a society of farmers to a society of factory workers to a society of knowledge workers. And now we’re progressing yet again – to a society of creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers, and meaning makers.

To flourish in this age, we’ll need to supplement our well-developed high tech abilitites with aptitudes that are ‘high concept’ and ‘high touch.’ High concept involves the ability to create artistic and emotional beauty, to detect patterns and opportunities, to craft a satisfying narrative, and to come up with inventions the world didn’t know it was missing. High touch involves the capacity to empathize, to understand the subtleties of human interaction, to find joy in one’s self and to elicit it in others, and to stretch beyond the quotidian in pursuit of purpose and meaning.

This sounds a lot like a job description for a designer. We are trained in just the sort of right-brain thinking Pink is writing about – creating artistic beauty, finding patterns, crafting visual narratives.

Certainly architects and interior designers are thinking about new ways to provide efficient yet human workplaces and hospitals, retail spaces that succeed because they are welcoming and exciting, and educational facilities that make it easier for students to learn and teachers to teach. Some corporations are beginning to understand that providing a human touch helps them attract and maintain employees and clients, leading to greater productivity and more profit.

But is Pink’s vision overly optimistic? The reality is that short-term economics drive the majority of business decisions. Designers, the very people who are best equipped to provide the “high concept ” and “high touch” approach Pink espouses, are paid by corporations – either directly or indirectly – and most corporations are more interested in profit than in “pursuing the transcendent.” Many companies don’t have the budget or the interest to hire designers at all. I’d like to think that times will change sufficiently so that all layers of the business world will employ Pink’s ideas, but I am not holding my breath.

Nevertheless, public awareness of the need for right-brain thinking in business is good news for designers. If Pink is right, designers may be well-positioned to have a broad influence in the future.


Tuesday, January 17th, 2006

I’m a tool junky. I have tools everywhere, tools for everything, even tools for the tools. My kitchen tools have boiled over and oozed down the stairs to the basement where they occupy three additional floor-to-ceiling shelves. My sewing and craft tools have staged a coup d’etat in the family room and my drafting tools are in adverse possession of the living room. My building tools fill a room 16′ by 6′ and then some. My garden shed houses yard tools and my study is full of office gadgets. I’ve got power tools and hand tools, large tools and small tools, everyday tools and rarely-used tools.

I’m in a constant state of readiness with all these tools. Say I’m building some shelves and need a plumb bob – no problem. My hand saw is dull – I’ve got files and a saw set. I want to make a wedding cake – I’ve got 50 cake decorating tips, plastic columns, and a set of graduated cake pans ranging from 4″ to 18″.

This seems a bit excessive at times, but without the right tools, I can’t get the job done.

I amass tools for my hands, but other kinds of tools are equally important – books, education, and work experience. I like to think that what we design students are doing in our classrooms is gathering non-tangible tools for being designers. We’re learning the vocabulary and the processes of design, we’re learning how to formulate ideas and present them, and we’re learning how to be curious and to want to learn more. These tools are as valuable as our T-squares and Sign pens.

What will happen when we graduate and go out into the design profession? I’ve certainly been in a lot of jobs where the proper tools weren’t provided – bad chairs, inefficient systems, poor lighting, lack of training, discouragement of learning. Is the design profession the same? I’d like to think designers have greater access to proper tools than most. After all, designers are charged with finding solutions, not just maintaining some sort of corporate status-quo, and it’s nearly impossible to build something without the right tools.

Designers not only need tools but we also provide tools for our clients. Lighting, circulation, storage, branding, HVAC, furniture, safety. These are all tools that make for good design. They make life easier for clients.

Making life easier – this is what tools are all about. For me, it’s also about understanding how things work, feeling satisfaction in being able to do something myself, and of course getting a job done.

It’s nice to think that when I graduate from grad school and finally enter the design field, I may be able to translate my love of tools into a real profession.

The dilemma between art and humanitarianism

Saturday, January 14th, 2006

How do designers incorporate social and humanitarian concerns into their work? How does anyone do it?

FrankLloydMike, a student blogger from Wentworth Institute of Technology participating in the Archinect School Blog Project, submitted a post entitled A Silent Sigh that I think eloquently conveys the confusion that students feel about how they can do right in the design profession. He contrasts architecture that focuses on artistic expression and its power to transform people (exciting, but generally available only to the rich) with architecture that seeks to provide relief to social problems (he cites, for example, Architecture for Humanity). He states:

I feel torn between these two different aspects of architectural practice and how I’d like to use my design ability in the future, and I’m not sure how to reconcile these very dissimilar interests.

When I was a 20-something, I was very fired up about social issues and the importance of doing something to help. But it never happened. I went to law school hoping to advance environmentalism or women’s rights, landed a job through the Honors Program at the US Department of Justice during the Carter administration, and ended up defending the federal government against environmental challenges. (However, in most of my cases the government wasn’t really a bad guy. Also, Jimmy Carter puts his money where his mouth is and really does humanitarian work.) I made some efforts to hop over to the non-profit side, but those jobs were difficult to get.

Years went by, with greater personal and financial responsibilities, and here I am middle-aged and I’ve never done much besides sound off about the issues that continue to matter to me. I’m hoping I’ll do better as a designer, but that remains to be seen. I’m having the same dilemma as FrankLloydMike.

Feeling torn between a traditional career route and a humanitarian-focused path must be fairly common among young students. I’d like to think that some of these students will follow their hearts and work for social good. The world needs it more than ever. But the reality is that most probably won’t. It’s hard enough to earn a living as a designer for rich corporations; probably close to impossible as a designer for the poor. But, FrankLloydMike, I fervently hope you’ll hold on to your ideals and do better than I did.

Designing with waste

Thursday, January 12th, 2006

In his convincing book, Cradle to Cradle, Bill McDonough argues that we need to eliminate the concept of waste. In a nutshell, he states that everything we manufacture should be able to be returned either directly to the earth with no toxic byproduct or back into the manufacturing cycle with no loss in quality of materials. With such a system, nothing is wasted.

I was reminded of McDonough when I read an article in the New York Times by Jim Robbins, entitled New Uses for Glut of Small Logs From Thinning of Forests (January 10, 2006, page D4), which reports on the growing interest in using logs that previously were considered waste because they were too thin to be marketable. Generally such logs are simply burned. Recently, however, some small outfits have created a market for this “waste.” One company featured in the article, North Slope Sustainable Wood, markets small diameter larch for flooring and other building components.

Reusing waste is still a pretty radical idea despite years of environmental activism and growing environmental problems. Yes, we do have fairly wide-spread recycling, and companies are beginning to adjust their manufacturing processes to reuse or recycle their waste products, but by and large, our society is still a throw-away culture. It’s easier and cheaper to junk something than to get it repaired, assuming you can even find someone to repair it in the first place.

Consider the issue on a personal level. I have a big supply of old hinges and knobs, electrical wire, wirenuts, switches and receptacles, nails and screws, tools, scraps of wood, rolls of screening, tarpaper, insulation and plastic, and paint stored in my basement that I comb through when I need to build or repair something. I like tinkering with things and coming up with patches for the small problems that pop up at home. Fifty years ago, making do with what was available was common, but I don’t know many people who do this anymore, at least not in the metropolitan area where I live. What has become of the “handyman”? (Let’s call it the handyperson, even though the term seems a bit awkward.)

Perhaps we need to create more of a handyperson approach at a larger level, within the entire design/build community for example. Hopefully, more companies like North Slope will pop up, marketing useful products that were previously considered to be waste. Because designers are the source of product information for their clients, I believe we have an ethical obligation to spend time educating ourselves as to what’s available and consider recommending these products in our projects. Reusing a resource that would otherwise be tossed is just one aspect of sustainable design and one step toward eliminating the concept of waste altogether, but its an important one.

This is, in effect, designing with waste. It makes sense.

What makes a design good?

Saturday, January 7th, 2006

I was browsing the Herman Miller website recently and came across a reference to a book entitled Humble Masterpieces: Everyday Objects of Design by Paola Antonelli, a curator of MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design. The book highlights small objects that not only function well, but also, as the book’s publisher expressed it, “are true masterpieces of the art of design.”

This reminded me of a discussion in one of my graduate design studios. Our professor had asked us to bring in something we thought was well designed. All of us brought in things that functioned well in our lives – A Swiss Army knife, a cell phone, a child’s sippy cup. My choice was the Oxo Good Grips potato peeler. Oxo’s products are fabulous – they are easy and comfortable to hold, they are solidly constructed, they function as they are meant to function, and they are affordable.

My professor brought in an object of his own. It was a stainless steel ring, about 4 inches in diameter, meant to weigh down a stack of facial tissues in lieu of the less-than-attractive cardboard boxes in which tissues are packaged. What made this a good design? It functioned perfectly; it was simple, with no extraneous parts or decoration; its lines and material were sharp and elegant.

Nevertheless, nearly all of us reacted surprisingly negatively toward this object and I was among the detractors. If I tried to picture this object in my house, instead of a neat design solution, I saw a cat-clawed, child-skewed, and probably dusty pile of tissue creating a mess on my windowsill. The object seemed to be a product only a well-to-do family with a housekeeper, no cats, and some strick rules about what children could touch could successfully possess. Obviously, this is not true, but I think this classroom experience holds some valuable clues to the question of what is good design, not only for objects, but also for designed space.

I asked my professor to give us some guidance on how to differentiate “good” and “bad” design and he couldn’t really provide an satisfactory answer – for there really isn’t an answer to this question. A couple of things are clear, however.

  • First, design has a very personal component. What works for my professor’s lifestyle wouldn’t work for mine. This means that it’s important for us to fully understand our clients’ needs before we begin a design.
  • Second, design has to be functional. If it doesn’t work, and work well, it’s bad design. Paying attention to how a designed object or space will actually be used, whether the design works as it is supposed to work, and whether the design will cause negative impacts to the user or the environment are key.
  • Third, functionality alone is not sufficient. A well-designed object or space has to possess some pleasing qualities – a good feel in the hand, for example, or attractive lines or materials – and some component of ingeniousness, elegance, or timelessness.

So where does this leave students and new designers who are trying to develop a sense of design? Magazines showcase the work of a few designers, but it’s not entirely clear how projects are selected and whether they truly represent the best in design. Design schools ought to give us some help, but few of my professors broach this topic. Ultimately, we may be on our own, having to rely on our own perceptions and experiences. Over time the answer to this question should become easier – the more we learn, see, and do, the more tools we’ll have to make this determination.

Perhaps the small objects of everyday life are a good place to start.

The generalist in a specialist world

Wednesday, January 4th, 2006

Life is complex and pretty exciting. Nature, science, the human mind, history, all the things people can do – everything is fascinating and I want to learn it all.

I’ve had this attitude a long time. When I was a kid, in fact, I spent long hours lying in the hall next to the red-painted cabinet that held our World Book, reading article after article. My own children think that is the strangest thing, but they’re not much different. Instead of the encyclopedia, they surf the internet.

So, whenever something catches my attention, I read and experiment with it rather obsessively until I get to the bottom of it. In the past few years, this has led me through the Civil War, kaleidoscope quilts, geology of the Piedmont, knitted scarves, Photoshop, herb gardening, Medieval history, Tai Chi, stonemasonry, and a bunch of other things that slip my mind. My collection of how-to books, tools, and raw materials has taken over the house.

All this exploration has made me rather a generalist, and that brings me to the question I mean to pose in this post. Is there a place for a generalist in today’s increasingly specialized design market?

Recently I spoke with a partner in a large architecture/design firm. He told me that the firm was successful because everyone who worked there was a specialist in something – programmers collected data, space planners worked out layouts, some designers drafted walls and ceilings and others picked out furniture, and other specialists did nothing but contract documents. It sounded as if different teams of specialists only worked on specific segments of projects and that very few were involved in a project from start to finish.

While I can appreciate the benefits of this approach, it’s discouraging as well. For me, enthusiasm lies in the learning, not in regurgitating what I already know. Yes, it is extremely important for designers and architects to be experts in what they do – health and safety concerns require it – but I wonder if some of the creativity and joy that comes from being completely excited about something new isn’t diminished for designers who are channeled into a specialty.

For some who are naturally specialists, this may suit them just right. For others of us who are by nature generalists, where do we fit in?