When Design Blogs Go Stale

It has been about 2 years since I’ve posted anything here.  There are a couple of reasons.  The first is that I found I really did have much that was worth saying, so there was little motivation to keep saying.

I notice that I also haven’t really used my Bloglines account much in the past couple of years either.  This seems to be because not only did I have nothing worth saying about design, no one else seems to either.  And by degrees I stopped reading my feeds altogether.

And the second reason is that I found after leaving my corporate job to run my own consultancy I simply didn’t have the time or energy anymore.  I wonder how many blogs out there are really just the result of corporate inefficiency .

Anyway a recent project has shown me that I may perhaps have something worth saying again.  It will be a lot more technical in nature, but I notice that I’ve still got a few drafts on the shelf I’ll probably dust off and serve up as is just to help get these rusty gears in motion again.

Telnet 2.0 — For the People!

Using IM (instant messaging) to access application isn’t exactly new anymore.  Imified is a good a example.  But really, only geeks develop this, only geeks use this, and only geeks get excited by this. 

Remotely controlling applications by sending text messages through IM is essentially just a new protocol for telnet.

What is interesting is how this very old technology with a new face is slowly percolating from the geek world into the consumer world.  For instance, with Kwiry you send a quick message to control your Tivo.  Or, let’s say you remember a movie you want to see, by reading about it in a paper, seeing a billboard or even eavesdropping on a conversation, just text the name to your Netflix account and it will be on its way to your house.

What’s so great about this?  Couldn’t I just navigate to to the mobile version of Netflix to queue up that movie?  Well, what’s great is 1) so many people are already texting each other, texting is already a common behaviour while surfing the web on a tiny screen likely never will be, and 2) there is no navigating, no wasting time clicking on this or that widget to find the functionality you need — just text a name or a couple words — the end.

Welcome to telnet 2.0 (please note a bit of sarcasm here).

Follow up on Gladwell and Other Aspostles

Wow.  I thought I didn’t care for Gladwell’s brand of slick packaged pop-intellectualism.  It looks like The Register has even less patience than I.

Gladwell has made a career out of handing simple, vacuous truths to people and dressing them up with flowery language and an impressionistic take on the scientific method. Hive minders seem to love this garbage for obvious reasons. 01/20/2007


For some reason, Gladwell is paid tens of thousands of dollars for flimsy stories about companies taking “unique” approaches to solving problems when they aren’t actually doing anything of the sort. In his corporate pep-talks, Gladwell describes a utopian vision that can never be realized, while doling out pithy gems such as, “ability plus experience equals expertise.” 10/09/2005

And lastly

“…In embracing the diversity of human beings we will find the true way to human happiness.”  So there you’ve got Gladwell in essence: he always ends with a Hallmark style greeting telling you something sweet, bland and uplifting – that you already knew.

All very ouchy, and peharps even a little bitchy.  For a more sober, but equally critical perspective on not only Gladwell, but his self-styled economic prophet brethern Surowiecki and Anderson, check out this Gawker piece:

And that fact gets at the heart, I think, of why people are turning against the svengalis of new marketing. They’ve all become hugely famous and sought-after on the 5-figure lecture circuit by penning ephemeral “bibles” about the next big thing, proving only that they themselves were it. Can you really blame skeptics in a time of scarcity for denying them the ability to have their cake and pop out of it, too?

My point here is to wonder if we actually are beginning to demand more and these journalists simply cannot bear the scrutiny, if we are not letting crap win?  Or is this like Soviet communism, where these guys are just getting crushed under the stress of thier bullshit?

Why I’m Such a Curmudgeon

I don’t usually like to write about myself.  But I read something recently from an incredibly unlikely source that crysalizes why I’m such a curmudgeon.  That source is Entertainment Weekly’s article on the 2008 People’s Choice Awards.

The only thing I can hope for is this: When people like Kid Rock and Adam Sandler take to the microphone and crow ever so humbly about how their work is not “for the critics,” but “for the people,” all of us will take a second to remember that there is nothing wrong with a people who are also critical. Whether we use our mouses, our remotes, our blogs, or our hard-earned cash, it is up to us to decide what kind of culture we want to live in. And while it may be easy and indeed quite fun to stand in a metaphorical mosh pit and high-five every shiny famous person who comes down the pike, I happen to believe we as a people are capable of ever so much more. (Need proof? The Dark Knight.) To echo last night’s oft-repeated phrase, Yes we can demand excellence. Yes we can think analytically, write articulately, and speak passionately about art and artists in our society. I go so far as to say it is our responsibility. We cannot let crap like this win.

Yes.  While its easy to be a vacuous cheerleader of bullshit, I too happen to belives that we are all capable of so much more.  We cannot let crap win.


How much change can a system absorb and still remain viable and functional? 

Resilient systems have a high threshold for functioning under change.  The internet is resilient.  It was designed to conitue working during war by instantly rerouting data traffic around damage anywhere in the overall system.

The opposite of resilient is brittle.  General Motors is brittle.  It is a centrally controlled corporation whose weakest link, its central control and management, is diseased killing the entire system.

To really oversimplify things, here’s a little free association:

Brittle Resilient
Large parts Small parts
Complex parts Simple parts
Small quantities Enormous quanitites
Co-dependency Independent interconnectedness
Specialization Generalization
Low redundancy High redundancy
Command and control Evolutionary
Fewer but more vulnerable links More but less vulnerable links
Rigid Adaptable
Monolithic Diverse
General Motors The Internet
A cheetah An ant colony
Lions Hyenas
Ritual warfare Guerrila warfare
Concentration Distribution
Complicated Simple
Easy short term profits Long term sustainability

Damage to brittle systems quickly matastasizes acrcoss the entire system leading to catastrophic disruptions and collapse.  Meanwhile resilient systems keep damage localized allowing the entire system to continue functioning normally while things either get repaired or culled.

The scope of our current economic troubles are I think a direct result of global financial systems that have become increasingly brittle over the past many years–making the entire system extremely vulnerable to what would have otherwise been local fraud and corruption. 

Where did this brittleness come from?  Traditional business management sees redundancies as inefficiencies to be rooted out, strives to make small into large economies of scale, and fids distribution freightening due to a lack of control.  

When things are good business can realize greater profit from brittle economies of scale and centralization than it can from resilience.  Of course when thigs go bad and the brittleness shatters, business tries to hold a taxpayer stick-up.  Reach for the sky, suckers!

What does this mean for design?

Well, resilience (even more than simplicity, because it assumes simplicity) should be a primary design priniciple.  The more change our designs can withstand before they collapse the better.  And if that means less short term profits, fine because the long term benefits are greater.

To survive I think we need to leave behind industrial modes of thinking and begin to think small, think simple, think coordinated.

As Schumacher says, small is beautiful beacause that’s the scale on which we live our lives.

Gladwell – tasty, but not nutritious

Everyone is talking about Malcolm Gladwell and his new book.  And everyone now includes me.

Gladwell and excellent writer.  He is one of the very best storytellers you’re likely to read.  But telling a great story and revealing great insight are two very different matters.  And I have never experienced any real insight from reading anything Malcolm Gladwell has written. 

As Josh Kaufman at Personal MBA says, he writes abundantly interesting, but functionally useless stories.  Of course the problem isn’t his lack of useful insight–its the pretense to useful insight .

In his own words:

“People are experience rich and theory poor. My role has been to give people ways of organizing experience.” (New York Magazine)

This of course is prefaced by some faux humility bullshit like:

When I wrote ‘Tipping Point,’ my expectation was it would be read by my mom and that was it. Now I realize I have a bit of a podium, so it seems silly to put it to waste

Just for your mom.  uh-huh.

The reality of Gladwell’s work is that he writes a kind of intellectual entertainment.  It make you feel smarter.  Sort of like the way people buy gym memberships but never go–simply buying the membship has made them feel like they’re doing something without the strain of actually doing anything.

I liken him to the WWE’s sport entertainment, or to the Ted conference’s intellectual entertainments. 

And speaking of Ted… I’ve never been myself, but I’ve watched dozens of presentations online.  At first I was blown away by all the smart people with smart ideas.  But with each presentation I found myself a little more unsatisfied.  Until I realized there there was nothing nutritious in them.  They are like eating a bowl of Cheerios–the box says they’re part of a balanced breakfast and contain 11 essential nutrients and vitamins, but on reflection the stuff is empty. 

Ted presentations are little more than intellectual performance art, displaying all the outward appearances of communicating great insight (making everyone feel smarter) without delivering any meaningful insight (so no one actuals becomes smarter).

I’d like to leave with a few words from Michael Pollan (one of Gladwell’s colleagues) which curiously come from a completely different subject, but relate to the exact same problem.

Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants… That’s what I mean by the recommendation to eat “food.” Once, food was all you could eat, but today there are lots of other edible foodlike substances in the supermarket. These novel products of food science often come in packages festooned with health claims, which brings me to a related rule of thumb: if you’re concerned about your health, you should probably avoid food products that make health claims. Why? Because a health claim on a food product is a good indication that it’s not really food, and food is what you want to eat.

New Themes: Disposability and Resiliency

A couple themes have been perculating in my head over the past several months: disposability and resiliency.  While they may seem related, I don’t intend a connection–they’ve just bubbled to the surface at about the same time.  Here is the gist…

1. Designing disposable experiences may create more value than deeply transformative experiences.

2. Large systems are brittle.  Small systems in large volumes are resilient.  We may be at the end of “economies of scale” and at the beginning of “resilient systems”

Just some stuff to kick around in the old brain pan.

Rotman’s Dean Martin Wrong on Business and Design

A couple months back Dean Martin (that cracks me up) of the Rotman School at the U of T wrote a piece  on the Creative Class blog titled Creativity that goes deep.

The following might seem a little nitpicky. But its important to remember, this is a guy who runs a business school that claims to be one of the world’s best. This is a guy who positions himself as an expert in matters of business and design. This is a guy the government turns to for policy answers.  With experts like this its no wonder the world finds itself in the mess its in.

Now, on with the rant…

My first disagreement is a bit of a quibble. The claim that the topic of design is “hot as a pistol” demonstrates a certain out-of-touchenss. Yes it was hot back in 2005 with the hyperbole of folks like Tom Peters and BusinessWeek’s Bruce Nussbaum. But that was the peak, and its pretty moldy now.

(update: Ha! This article really was written back in 2005 for Business Week. I knew it had a nasty passed-the-sell-by-date smell. But it is telling that the author considers this piece still relevant enough to serve it up again).

My second disagreement is with the claim that design as a practice and design firms as a manifestation of that practice are so unique, and so radically different from standard corporate operations, that a corporation must undergo a radical and fundamental change to include design.

This claim implies 1) that there is some standard way corporations operate, 2) that design firms operate different from this standard, and 3) these two different ways are incompatible.

I think all three of these implications are utterly absurd. Both corporations and design firms operate in wildly varying ways. Some design firms act more like accounting firms, and some corporations act more like frat houses. In other words there are no standards, and as a result it is impossible to claim any inherent incompatibility between such non-existent standards.

My third disagreement is with the characterization of corporate workflow consisting of static permanent roles, and of design firm workflow consisting of projects with defined terms. I’m not sure how these are incompatible as the article suggests, but let’s assume they are.

Just as corporations have directors, AVPs, VPs, so many design firms have traffic managers, art directors, creative directors, account managers, etc. Each role has well circumscribes responsibilities, and exists in a hierarchical relation to each other. Sure not all design firms have these roles, but not all corporations have AVPs either.

And yes design firm operations are centered on projects. But so are corporate ops (hence the corporate ubiquity of project managers and program managers). Indeed the internal flow of capital within many corporations is usually tied to projects, with team members billing their time against specific project budget codes—projects with start dates, end dates, resources and budgets. My experience working in big corporate America is that outside of manufacturing and customer support, nearly everything is project based.

So the author’s characterization of the organization and activities of both corporate and design firms is so wrong that I have to wonder if he has any first-hand experience working within either corporations or design firms.

My fourth disagreement is with the implication that corporations *should* change to be more like design firms. Corporate America may be full of dyfunction, but anyone who has worked in a design firm can tell you the design is every bit as dysfunctional–and two dysfunctions don’t fix the problem.

And lastly, mentioning Apple or the iPod as an example of anything in the context of business or design is a giant red flag that the author knows very little about both business and design.

So what’s my point here?  Well my point is to show how so many “experts” are little more than sophisticated bullshit artists.  Just because someone is a b-school Dean, or a published author, doesn’t mean they know what they are talking about. 

Be critical folks, and don’t get conned.

More People Recognize Canada’s Digital Backwardness

A CBC blog has a short but observant post about Canada’s digital backwardness.  More interesting are the comments.  One commenter writes:

If Canada wants to draw creative, educated professionals, it’s going to have to foster a progressive environment which is attractive to digitally-able, post-materialist, 21st-century citizens.

Wow.  Not sure I could agree more with this.  Hopefully this cathces on and people start to recognize how important technology, knowledge, and creativity are to this country’s future economic growth.

Canada Won’t be Competitive in the 21st Century


Its dangerous to draw conclusions from history that is too fresh, but I’m going to anyway.

Canada is a country with an essentially pre-industrial economy.  What I mean by that is our economy is based almost entirely or natural resource extraction.  Sure our extraction methods are more advanced today, but in essence ours is still a pre-industrial economy. 

In other words this country is a one trick pony.  This is fine when everyone wants that trick, like when commodity prices are high and demand is strong, as has been the case for several years now.  But what happens when demand craters, and prices tumble, as we’ve seen over the past couple months? 

Canada’s near complete economic reliance on natural resources is a dangerously precarious position, and one the entire country has willfully ignored while the good times rolled.  Unfortunately the good times are over and no one know when they’ll be back. 

This isn’t to say that low oil price mean the country is going backrupt.  Rather it is to say that while times were good and money flowed out of the ground anywhere you stuck a shovel, we had the greatest opportunity we ever haveto diversify what we offer the world, and make sure those good times keep on rolling.

However we squandered this opportunity.  Worse we as a nation do not even realize what we have squandered.  And the consequences will likely be a slow unraveling or global relevance and economic prosperity.

It didn’t have to be like this.  Canada has an incredible education system, and the kinds of cultural freedoms necessary to allow bright people to try crazy ideas.

Unfortunately Canadians are saddled with the most crushing complacency you’ll find anywhere.  Your typical Canadian’s highest aspiration is to get a government job.  Candian minds and spirits have been left fallow, and so the best leave while the rest remain to exacerbate the problem.

Canada should have the creative, cultural and knowledge industries to pick up the economic slack of crumbling commodity prices.  But we don’t have these industries because the human mind is the one natural resource this country sadly couldn’t care less about.