System Design

How to Kill a Designer

In a past post I wrote about the mysterious design genius of Bitcoin creator Satoshi Nakamoto and on BBC television recently was a documentary about another internet shaper – Aaron Swartz, who played major parts in developing RSS feed technology, Creative Commons implementation, and the social news website Reddit. The documentary is called The Internet’s Own Boy and is available (courtesy of Creative Commons) through The Documentary Network.

I urge you to watch this to gain an account of how global politics is lumberingly, awkwardly, waking up to the democratic power of the web and how that, paradoxically, is threatening democracy, or at least what passes for democracy in the western world, post Wikileaks and Edward Snowden. It is a hopeful, then utterly heartbreaking, account of how someone with technical genius and political skill, someone devoted to democratic ideals of openness, and with the energy, creativity, and organisation to really achieve change, is slowly and deliberately brought down.

I hadn’t heard of Schwartz before I watched the film but it is clear how much hope was invested in him. What I was struck by was a T-Shirt he wears in a brief scene about half-way through the film (shown below):

Design can Save the World

Aaron Swartz’s T-Shirt: “Design will Save the World”

“Design will save the world”, it says, and it’s easy to see why he might have seen design as a key force in the projects he was involved with: creating forums for knowledge exchange, making ‘private’ research information public, and allowing creative outputs to be used by all. But designing at this level is becoming a dangerous and political business, which probably means it is absolutely vital that we try to protect and support those people who know how to do it.


Meat-themed Advent Calendars: The Butcher at Christmas

Just around the corner from my flat in Hove is Canham & Sons, a butcher of the highest order, with queues snaking out of the front door at weekends. If you’re in Hove and you need raw flesh, Canham & Sons is the place to go.

Christmas time is especially busy for butchers and I came across an interesting piece of systems design when I called in for a scotch egg today.  The photo below shows the inside of the shop and it’s worth clicking on the image to see the large version and full detail.

Canham & Sons, a popular butcher at Christmas time in Hove.

Canham & Sons, a popular butcher at Christmas time in Hove, with their ‘wall of orders’.

It shows a bustling butchers, full of people waiting to be served, sausages and game hung in the window, joints of beef on show, and eggs piled high on the counter. But take a look at the back wall, which normally consists of a tiled and mirrored surface. Virtually all of it is covered in leaves of paper from a simple notepad. Each one represents a Christmas order: a small turkey for Jeremy, a large goose for Rosemary, a whole smoked ham for J. Reed, and a rib of beef for 8 people for Hartwell – just four of over five hundred orders.  All orders have a name and a number and are hung more-or-less alphabetically in a defined grid.

Instantly one sees what Christmas, or more precisely Christmas Eve, means for a butcher, and can understand the customer base that supports the business.  The ‘wall of orders’ fulfills a number of functions simultaneously and therein lies its design genius.

First, it’s a simple visual representation of how popular the butcher is – 500 people can’t be wrong! Second, it provides a sense of a well-managed and well-ordered butcher. Third, it values every single customer by giving them, equally, a small piece of real-estate on the wall (and providing a nice reminder should anyone want to check that they really did make that order). Fourth, as it builds up it provides a sense of the coming event, like a meat-themed advent calendar.

Most of all, however, it works on Christmas Eve, when a whole team need to match their customers to their meat. Rather than having an order book to rifle through, or a database to access – both ‘one-at-a-time’ processes – it provides a parallel but pretty much failsafe way for multiple people to work together. It also provides another visual reminder of how many orders there are to go, as they are taken off the wall, one by one. This time a reversed, meat-themed, advent calendar.

The simple understanding that such a system provides – to employees, to customers, to the passing photographer – represents a kind of joie de vivre that few commercial design systems produce, and all without a Post-It note in sight. Christmas orders could so easily be a drudge of queuing, checking, confirming, but at Canham & Sons they are turned into a performance of, if not democracy, then at least benign dictatorship, or something like community.

Design Education in the Wired Weird World

I was at an interesting talk last week at the Royal Society of Arts and Manufactures in London. The talk was on ‘Design and Democracy’ and was given by Alistair Parvin, co-founder of WikiHouse, an organization that promotes open-source construction (in opposition to the developer-led variety). It’s well worth watching, as he brings the threads of modern architecture and market economics together, and you can see it here.

Trained as an architect it was enlightening hearing his views on design education in the Q&A following the talk (also in the video above). In the UK, architectural education is regulated by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) who set out the basic requirements for curriculum. Becoming a qualified architect takes six years. Part 1 involves 3 years of study at a University, there then follows a year of working in architectural practice, and finally Part 2 involves a further 2 years of study. At the end of all that you can just about call yourself an architect.

Parvin remarked that, for his peer group, coming back to study for Part 2, following working for a year, was a strange experience. The general view was that the world that they thought they were being prepared for in their Part 1 qualification didn’t really exist. The commercial business of architecture had completely overridden their fledgling theoretical and ideological concerns. Architecture, as they had been taught it, seemed like a figment of imagination; a flight of fancy.

What has changed? Like many creative professions there is a paradox at the heart of architecture. While espousing free-thinking, and indeed helping to create large scale changes in society, the institutions that educate and regulate creative professions are themselves deeply resistant to change. The institutions are institutionalised! Old and established traditions and methods are rehearsed and repeated year after year as wide-eyed graduates emerge, blinking, into a wired and weird world.

So the web has changed the world; in terms of information, communication, connectivity, global consciousness, social mores, you name it the web has changed it.

The real question is how has design education changed? The answer is, not much at all. The design-tutor-sitting-across-the-table-from-the-student-and-critiquing-their-work model is alive and mostly well, albeit played out in slightly different environments – at the computer rather than the drawing board, though, even now, often still at the drawing board.

There are signs of wear and tear. Expertise, it seems to me, is so distributed now, and insight so available, that tutors are fast becoming institutional ciphers; the necessary but increasingly ignorant gatekeepers to qualifications. If, for example, I wanted to teach you about democratic design, why would I not direct you to Parvin’s video and ask you to critically examine the concepts he talks about? We could talk about that thing about ethics at the end – who is responsible if an open-source structure falls down? Or his idea that democracy is problematic – does that hold water? and is democracy an unalloyed good thing anyway? Or I might ask you if the commercial business model he sketches at the beginning is reasonable and viable?

In short, Parvin has already done a lot of my teaching work, there on the web. My task as a modern teacher is more curatorial – to select, explain, criticise, and interpret – rather than to attempt to transfer knowledge (my out-of-date knowledge!) from my head to yours. Design education, rather than teaching technique, is finally free to think about larger issues of value, connectedness, system, responsibility, or maybe just how the wired world is such a weird place.  Perhaps design education is scared of the freedom?

Another thing that you can find on the web (right here) is a well-worked blueprint for a different kind of design education.

In 1957 Charles and Ray Eames were invited by the Indian Prime Minister Nehru to make recommendations about how the poor quality of consumer goods could be addressed through better education. They spent six months travelling around India trying to put their fingers on the problem and came up with one of the most elegant and spare solutions I know of: an institute and curriculum for design education.


Charles and Ray Eames 1958 India Report

Their 1958 report, at a mere 15 pages, outraged many in the Indian government who had expected a rather thicker tome. The long-but-short size, at 272 x 145mm, suggestive of legal documents, is about as far away from a golden section as you can get but adds a modern integrity to the contents. Its structure, though graphically not strictly consistent, is a model of economy and clarity. In its sparseness is its beauty and in its beauty is its longevity; each sentence – each phrase – carefully constructed to address the local context but to sound overtones of general, and still relevant, significance.

Part 1 outlines the problem:

“the change India is undergoing is a change in kind not a change of degree. The medium that is producing this change is communication; not some influence of the West and East. The phenomenon of communication is something that affects a world not a country.” (p.3)

Take away ‘India’ and place ‘the UK’ or ‘the US’ or ‘China’ in its place and you’ll see how up-to-date this analysis remains.

A well-chosen example of current practice illustrates the potential. The Indian Lota, a drinking vessel, is deconstructed to its constituent parts – size, materials, use, transport, manufacture, heat-transfer, cost, pleasure, aesthetics – parts, now consciously itemised, but never consciously designed. The potential is the transfer from unconscious to conscious.

Part 2 outlines the solution:

An Institute for Design – students, staff, projects, methods, estate, and impact – of which the Eames identify only architectural education as a precedent for the type of educational experience they have in mind, and then only a poor one:

“As a group, young architects are apt to be involvable in general social problems and in theatre, dance, music and other aspects of communications. They tend to have a higher than average potential for enthusiasm. This is important because if they are enthusiastic enough they might discover some of the values that exist in the commonplace things that surround them. There are some good clues in the everyday solutions to unspectacular problems, in vernacular expressions that are so often ignored” (p.7)

Mostly, however, they advocate a mix of disciplines for both students and staff. Possible students could be engineers, economists, mathematicians, philosophers and (yes) housewife, while staff should teach physics, physiology, music, graphics, logistics, statistics, and demography (to name a few). The Eames are clearly framing the institute as a place of further learning where existing disciplinary and professional knowledge is brought in to service through the lens of design. Proto Design Thinking in other words.

And then there are the projects: A, B, C, and D. Each a little off the beaten track, but all complexly connected.

Project A is aimed at understanding what is valuable in the world around us; what would you take from your house when it burns down, for example? What do you keep in your purse or wallet?

Project B is an open-ended study into a design theme, shelter or lighting for example, with the aim of producing prototypes, histories, models, future visions which can then be communicated through exhibitions, films, and literature.

Project C is to look at the design of a system, in terms of its values, identity, components, dress, technology, relationship to government. The post office is chosen as an example (note: I would include a discussion of Thomas Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 59 on this project!).

Project D is to design for an occasion: a parade, investiture, or sporting event, and illustrating the Eames’ analogy of the designer as a host. An occasion is a tricky problem, they write:

“it seems light but demands a knowledge of prime objectives [and] demands unity” (p.13)

And that is the report in a nutshell. You think it is light, but it states objectives clearly, provides an integrated solution, and has a unity and depth that belies its presentation.

There is a brief section outlining how the institute should engage industry and government, jointly working on contemporary problems, and that’s pretty much it.

What stuck me is that what the Eames advocate is pretty similar, across almost six decades, to what Parvin advocates: design is about understanding the world, and making good connections in that world. He said something that I thought was valuable and to which, I think, the Eames would have assented. So, as the wired weird world demands, I Tweeted it to the community.

A Tweet is not exactly a Lota, but it’s not far off, so maybe it’s a good place to start for tomorrow’s design education.

Nakamoto’s Last Theorem

A couple of weekends ago I was at the Latitude festival and happened on a rather good talk by Sunday Times journalist Andrew Smith. The talk was a cross-legged affair, in a shed, in the woods and was about the inventor of Bitcoin, Satoshi Nakamoto. Nakamoto, it turns out, is a bit of mystery. He, if indeed it is a ‘he’ solved a mathematical cryptographic problem that the rest of the world couldn’t, as a necessary condition for inventing a peer-to-peer currency. The neat thing about a peer-to-peer currency is that it doesn’t need a central repository to guarantee its value. That’s bad news for governments and banks everywhere if it becomes mainstream, and potentially destabilising/energising for national economies.

But Nakamoto has disappeared. After introducing the currency, and impressing the pants off mathematicians everywhere, he dropped off the radar and hasn’t been seen since. A bit like Pierre de Fermat and his famous last theorem or Keyser Soze from The Usual Suspects. The ‘disappearing genius’ is a good, human-interest angle for journalists and Smith is now on something of a detective trail fueled by potential conspiracy at every turn. Part of that trail is in looking at the fragments that Nakamoto left behind and talking to the people that interacted with him online, another part is trying to figure out the characteristics of the person by looking at the qualities of the ‘thing’ he created. That second part is a bit like the so-called ‘argument from design’ – inferring the nature of God by looking at the world she created – a tenuous exercise at best, as David Hume showed in his Dialogues on Natural Religion, but a fun game all the same.

Shed of Stories

Shed of Stories

I’ve been following Bitcoin in the news for a while now, without ever really understanding what it is exactly, never having used it. The talk, however, brought home design aspects to the currency, and implications for its use, that I found intriguing. One comment that Smith reports Nakamoto as saying, on one of the discussion lists he was part of was that, in figuring out his currency:

“much more of the work was designing rather than coding.”

That’s an interesting comment to me. It sort of implies that there was a ‘hard’ problem to solve, followed by a lot of design problems: working out how Bitcoins could be ‘manufactured’, used, kept secure, and how they might capture the imagination of people.

For what it’s worth, here’s how I think Bitcoin works. A Bitcoin is basically a number, though not any old number. It’s a number worked out by a computational process that allows anyone to ‘mine’ Bitcoins. Early on in the currency it really was anyone (with a computer and the right software) that could mine Bitcoins, and many did. But Bitcoins are finite, like the total amount of gold in the world, so they get progressively harder to mine. The analogy that works for me is of prime numbers – numbers divisible only by 1 and themselves. The first few are easy to work out: 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29, 31, 37 but as you get higher and higher, the numbers get harder and harder to ‘mine’, to the extent that it is only since the invention of the computer that we’ve been able to ‘discover’ large prime numbers. The latest, discovered in April 2014 (Wikipedia is a wonderful thing), has 17,425,170 digits to it. And that’s the crux of it; to mine Bitcoins now, you need extensive computing power. There are server farms now set up in the cold half of the northern hemisphere with the sole purpose of mining Bitcoins. That’s a lot of energy, but then mining for gold takes a lot of energy too.

So basically you get a number when you mine a Bitcoin and when you exchange your Bitcoin for goods, services, or other currency there is a process that checks both that you have a valid Bitcoin – in our analogy you really do have a prime number – and that you have not already spent your Bitcoin.

That may, or may not, be a good explanation but it’s about as far as I can go. If you want more detail I’d recommend you read Andrew’s book as a starting point. What I’m really interested in though are two things. First, the process of design leading to Bitcoin and second, the potential disruptive implications of Bitcoin. The two, of course, are linked through the enigma that is Satoshi Nakamoto.

What I like first is the use of gold as a metaphor for Bitcoin. Gold instantly tunes you in to the kind of currency you’re dealing with; one set up with olde world values. Gold coins, mining, ingots stored in safes, buried treasure, mediaeval tradesmen shaking out ducats from leather pouches. Gold fires the imagination; intuitively you seem to know what you’re dealing with – it gets its value, unlike pound notes or euros, from its scarcity. That must have taken some thinking out by Nakamoto, to keep that metaphor in mind while doing the serious coding.

The serious coding, the ‘hard’ problem mainly seems to have involved making Bitcoin hack-proof. All currency is based on trust and once that trust is breached you don’t have a currency any more. If false Bitcoins can be mined as valid Bitcoins then trust in the currency breaks down.  But Nakamoto appears to have covered the bases through the architecture of his software, having a central (and simple) core, which can deflect any potential attack to satellite components; a solution which has been acknowledged by mathematicians as an elegant one. I’ll spare you the details because, to be frank, I don’t know them. What I do know is that making Bitcoin secure involved imagining how possible threats might emerge, and what to do about them. That is, how does the product respond to misuse? A classic design problem.

Of course Bitcoin must also be efficient and easy to use – no point in waiting a week for a transaction to be confirmed. Again, Nakamoto must have imagined potential use scenarios at the point of exchange. How is validity checked? How long does it take the purchaser to know that they have a real Bitcoin? How easy is it to make an exchange even? These are all potential barriers to the take up of a new system, and design problems that Nakamoto systematically solved. Nakamoto looks more and more like a very good designer.

There is more to good design than just the design, though. Good design sets the mind thinking about new directions, consequences, and effects. A good design, like a character in a novel for an author, takes on a life of its own and is able to show the designer the possible implications of the thing as it relates to a broader vision of society. Bitcoin is more than just good code, it is a way of thinking about the fundamentals of what money is and does.

That is where the (potential) disruption comes in. We have got used to our pound notes, dollars, and euros. Money is regulated by central banks and managed for us by high street banks. The whole financial system pretty much runs on transaction charges. Like a casino – and the gaming analogy is apposite – the house always wins. And, as the recent financial crisis has shown, if a bank loses it still (almost always) wins – the government can provide a bail out, say ‘don’t do it again’, and print more money as a sticking plaster. Because money, in this form, and unlike gold, is, in theory if not in practice, infinite.

So, if you can create a stable financial system without banks, that would be a big thing; a way of reshaping the whole financial system and perhaps stopping the wealthy, at least those in finance, from getting wealthier. And all from a number. The interesting thing is that it’s not clear what politics Bitcoin has, though it appears to have come about with political aims. Smashing the system seems like good old socialism, while creating new financial models sounds like rampant capitalism. That seems like an indicator, to me, that it is a potential way forward, and if it is, it has been cleverly thought through.

Bitcoin, though, has not received a good press. Silkroad, a website for buying illicit goods – the Amazon of the dark side if you like – uses Bitcoin as its currency because (another key thing) it preserves the anonymity of the people carrying out transactions. As a result the exchange value of Bitcoin has fluctuated widely from almost nothing (bad press) to something huge (good press). But it abides, and therein lies the challenge to existing financial frameworks. While crypto-currencies like Bitcoin remain, a possible future also remains. So if anything, Bitcoin looks like material for a new architecture, although that architecture remains largely to be constructed. There are interesting applications emerging though. Transactions too small for transaction charges to be feasible, so-called micro-payments, is one area of potential growth; for small chunks of web content, for example. Emerging economies are another area of Bitcoin development, where currencies, banks, and financial services tend to already to be unstable.

You might think that such a fascinating subject would attract a reasonable crowd at a festival like Latitude. Well, see the photo above, I could have counted the audience on both hands.

Panini and the Design of Experience

As the 2014 World Cup creeps up on us, a favourite from my youth has returned once again – the Panini sticker album. Based in Modena, Italy (though long since bought and sold themselves and stuck into a multi-national portfolio) Panini have masterminded the pre-world cup lives of schoolboys worldwide since 1970. What a good, simple, and long-lasting idea this is: produce a blank album and sell the stickers to fill it up. Once you’ve started sticking it’s difficult not to get obsessed with filling every empty slot, particularly if you are predisposed to a collector mentality.

Panini England

Panini World Cup 2014: The partially complete England team.

The first world cup album to be produced featured 271 stickers and was for the 1970 Mexico world cup that England were fancied to win, but didn’t, losing an early 2-0 lead to the Germans in the quarter finals. The numbers for the 2014 world cup tend to work against you though. With 32 teams taking part that means a total of 639 stickers to collect and at 50 pence for a pack of five stickers that means £64 if every sticker was unique, but therein lies the problem. In reality you’re likely to spend well over £100 to get anything like a full album.

Fortunately, a whole e-cottage industry has grown up, helping you to get just the stickers you need far beyond the school playground. Swapping forums, eBay, and Amazon all come in handy and even Panini helps you out: “using the internet to order your missing stickers is quick and easy”, the back of the 2014 album states, although the maximum you can order is 50 stickers.

The sticker album idea relates to design and education quite well I think, after all, in a superficial way education is nothing more than collecting a series of grades from assignments that are set. You need the knowledge and experience of course – that is where the teaching comes in – but essentially you are sticking stickers into an album.

That makes the design of the album interesting. Panini strike a nice balance with their album design. Although it looks fine without the stickers, you realise that as you add stickers, the pages take on a nice weight, like a medieval document. Through adding stickers the album itself becomes more substantial, which makes the activity inherently motivating .

Panini: Italy

Panini World Cup 2014: The not-too-far-from complete Italy team.

The album/sticker combination is valuable in another way because, as the stickers are collected over a period of time, it naturally implies an extended time-based, experiential element. You learn about making deals, about markets, about scarcity, and about strange attachments.  Unlike other kinds of designed product, the final product is only officially complete if the users put the right things in the right places, the ‘things’ being tokens of a deeper level of experience.

Another collection experience this weekend illustrates this further: a cycling randonee, or series of checkpoints on a route around the Isle of Wight.

Isle of Wight Randonee 2014

Completed 2014 Isle of Wight Randonee Check Card

The image above shows a stamp for each checkpoint I visited along the route. The first checkpoint gives you the card (or album) and the each subsequent one gives you a stamp on your card – six stamps for a full-house! And between each checkpoint you have an experience; a riding-along-a-road experience that takes in landscape, odd processions of motorcyclists, brief conversations, cute dogs, nailed-on tudor houses, overgrown gardens, and leafy woods saturated in birdsong.  Behind the stamp is experience, and behind experience is wonder and learning.

The sticker album is a framework for learning, and that should always be a well-designed framework.