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Grain silos (1984)

Should form equal function? If something is to work well it often must, but that tells you less about what it should look like than you’d think.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the amazing photography of Bernd and Hilla Becher, a German artist couple who spent the last fifty years taking pictures of industrial architecture:

The Bechers first collaborated on photographing and documenting the disappearing German industrial architecture in 1959, and had their first Gallery exhibition in 1963 at the Galerie Ruth Nohl in Siegen. They were fascinated by the similar shapes in which certain buildings were designed. In addition, they were intrigued by the fact that so many of these industrial buildings seemed to have been built with a great deal of attention toward design. Together, the Bechers went out with a large format camera and photographed these buildings from a number of different angles, but always with a straightforward “objective” point of view. The images of structures with similar functions were then displayed side by side to invite viewers to compare their forms and designs. These structures included barns, water towers, storage silos, and warehouses. (from Wikipedia)

Looking at these pictures it’s fascinating to watch different shapes emerge in the designs of each type of building. Even though they are utterly functional and mostly have the same constraints, they still vary considerably. More evidence that, as with the Chords Bridge, creativity can be born out of thinking not outside but *inside* the box.

Here are a few pictures of their works. More here (from their book Typologies) and in exhibitions worldwide.

Gravel Plants (2006)

Gravel Plants (2006)

Framework Houses (1970)

Grain Elevators (1985)
Grain Elevators (1985)

Winding towers (1983)
Winding Towers (1983)

Cooling Towers (1976)
Cooling Towers (1976)

Bonus for photography lovers: the photography of Edward Weston.


Diego Rodriguez, an inspirational member of the IDEO family, is working through 21 design principles he believes in on his blog, Metacool. Go check them out, it’s worth it.

Number six talks about living life in a way which gives you the tools to feed off the constraints of a difficult problem rather than be afraid of them:

Innovation needs to happen at the intersection of desirability, viability, and feasibility.  These three elements make up the legs of a proverbial stool called “it’ll work in the world.”  Too many innovation initiatives focus on only one or two, much to their detriment.  For example, creating something without regard for its feasibility out in the world is not unlike designing a bridge without regard to the existence of gravity: it might work, but the likelihood of it being a reliable, safe, means of transport will be greatly diminished.  And while it might be tempting to “really be creative” by ignoring constraints, a wiser approach is to view constraints as liberating.

The best designs are those which attack a set of constraints head on to create something that can operate within them. That’s why I was so inspired by Ernie Schenk’s book, “The Houdini Solution”, which is full of techniques for thinking inside the box.

For what it’s worth, I think this is such an important principle that it can be separated from the idea of “T-shaped” people, which is wonderful in itself (particularly for how little explanation it needs to be grokked).

All that said, I have to thank Diego for putting me on to the work of Santiago Calatrava who he uses to illustrate his point. The Chords Bridge, pictured above, is a stunning example of elegance which dances on the fine line between beauty, structural integrity (this design is apparently not the most structurally efficient) and of course cost.

This kind of structure can only be built by really understanding the limits of all those dimensions.

Presenting three great people

February 23, 2009


I’ve been spending a lot of time this week at London’ largest literary festival,  Jewish Book Week, and I’ve heard some great speakers. I wanted to share three which struck me for different reasons, and I urge you to listen to the podcasts. 

Each of these people were very interesting and a privilege to listen to, but there was a particular takeaway in each talk that has been an inspiration to me in life and design.

Amos Oz (podcast): powerful focus and brevity

Amos Oz is both one of the world’s most respected fiction authors and one of the most incisive writers about the arab-israeli conflict.

His drive is neither pro-Israeli nor pro-Palestinian – it is pro-peace, and peace now (see Peace Now for more). This is admirable in itself, but what got me was the way he expressed his thoughts.

It isn’t uncommon for a preternaturally smart person to speak at length about their subject. It is less usual to have someone respond directly to the question they are asked, and so concisely, expressively and powerfully that the answer is like a strike to the solar plexus. 

Any person should aspire to this level of precision, and any design that can capture this spirit in answering the user’s needs will stand above the rest.  

Jonathan Miller (podcast):  “making the negligible considerable”

Jonathan Miller started as a doctor and training in neuroscience but then went on to do great things, I kid you not, as an actor, satirist, broadcaster, writer, theatre and opera director and recently sculptor and metal welder. Describing him as multidisciplinary is an understatment.

The common thread in all his work is this beautiful idea that art is “making the negligible considerable”. He credits his medical training with giving him the ability to spot the small details and behaviours that make his acting and directing believable. In his talk, he explained why he thought his version of Hamlet had worked so well (it received rave reviews). He put it down to one thing – making his characters believable by not shying away from the way real people act.

For example, when Hamlet holds up the skull of his dear Yorick, he doesn’t solemnly chant his famous speech. No one would – skulls and dead people are smelly, grotty and deeply unpleasant, and to get a performance which really connects you have to show a realistic reaction. More importantly, it’s in these details that you communicate something fundamental about people. It’s in these details – the negligible – that you get art.

The exact same thing is true of design. A good design feeds off the most negligible details of our behaviours to create a considerable experience – though if done right we hardly realise how seamlessly the design fits the task we need it for. The designer’s job is to spot and take care of the little details before the user even becomes aware that they are in the way. 

Susan Greenfield (podcast) : choosing betwen living in context or living in the present 

Susan Greenfield is a neuroscientist by trade and generally a phenomenally busy person (she is the Director of the Royal Institution in London and has managed to receive 24 honorary degress from around the world). Interestingly, she was originally trained in the liberal arts. She is one of those rare scientists to be both extremely insightful and able to express those ideas in popular writing and broadcasting (as an aside, it’s a pity that the scientific community looks down on popular science writing, which is why it was so good that Paul Krugman won his Nobel prize).

On Tuesday she spoke about her new book, which lays out her view on the consequences on society and the brain of growing up surrounded by screens and “literal” experiences rather than books and imagination. Here’s the big idea:

  1. The brain makes sense of the world by making connections between neurons, which link up concepts. Everything we perceive can only make sense in terms of everything else. Meaning comes from being able to relate our experiences to each other and to abstract concepts.
  2. The more connections you make the more sense you can make of the world. Books are great for this – you have to somehow conjure up an entire world based on glyphs on a page. Complex bodies of knowledge and environments where the way things work is not immediately obvious force us to work out those connections, which then allow us to see where these experiences fit into the bigger picture. 
  3. The problem comes when you are surrounded by screen based experiences. Technology makes it easier to create experience which are too literal and easy to consume (such as simple computer games and movies or oversimplified educational software). In these kinds of cases, you spent far too long immersed in a narrow environment where your mind doesn’t have enough material to make wide ranging connections. In these cases you move away from constructing a web of meaning and more towards living in the moment.

Disturbingly, living in the moment is something that compulsive gamblers, obese people and Phineas Gage (another good link here) know all about; Susan Greenfield’s theory is that there is a danger that the wrong kind of stimulation might lead to the same kind of impaired frontal lobe behaviour in large chunks of a generation raised on overly literal experiences.

The fascinating thing about the talk, however, is that rather than bashing these new technologies, she focuses on how to make the most of them. There is no reason why it shouldn’t be possible to design rich, meaningful software and games which stimulate and educate. This is a call to action for designers, and an area I hope to study in the future.

The book festival runs until the end of the week and there’s some great stuff coming up – i’ll be checking out Jon Ronson and Alain de Botton, both on Sunday.

When accounting is fun

February 16, 2009


Xero is a web application which describes itself as “The world’s easiest accounting system”. Jakob Nielsen’s alertbox agrees, and goes further:

“But Xero might be a more interesting example, simply because it targets the traditionally dry domain of accounting. One of its main features lets users automatically reconcile bookkeeping entries with bank account transactions. As a match is made, the 2 matching entries are removed from the list of stuff to be reconciled. Users compared this interaction to playing Tetris and described it as fun and addictive. Come on, making accounting fun? That’s an award-winning design.”

It really is lovely. Check it out here.

What if all productivity software took its cues from classic games?

A framework for flow

February 8, 2009


A few years ago I read a massively important book called “A Theory of Fun” by Raph Koster, master designer of massively multiplayer online worlds and responsible for Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies.

Buy the book. Seriously. But before you go any further spend five minutes reading the presentation that inspired it, which you can get here on his blog.

Its main thesis still blows my mind with its simplicity:

“Games are puzzles – they are about cognition and learning to analyze patterns. When you’re playing a game, you’ll only play it until you master the pattern. Once you’ve mastered it the game becomes boring

To keep the game fun the game designer has to delay this point for as long as possible, but if the game is too hard nobody will play it. A perfect balance between the ability of the player and the game’s difficulty must be reached.

Get that balance absolutely right and you get flow, possibly the most important feeling designers should try to induce in their users.

Not just for games!

From Raph again:

“Flow doesn’t happen very often, but when it does it feels pretty darn wonderful. The problem is that precisely matching challenges to capability is incredibly hard. For one thing, the brain is churning away and might make a cognitive leap at any moment, rendering the rest of the challenge trivial. For another, whatever is presenting the challenges doesn’t necessarily have any sense of the level of understanding posessed by the player.”

“As we succeed in mastering new patterns thrown at us, the brain gives us little jolts of pleasure. But if the flow of new patterns slows, then we won’t get the jolts and we’ll start to feel boredom. If the flow of new patterns increases beyond our ability to resolve them, we won’t get the jolts either because we’re not making progress.”

Flow is so important that designers should consider it in everything they work on, whether it is as simple as a folding chair or as complex as an operating system. But it’s hard, very hard to implement, particularly as you move away from games towards less intrinsically entertaining tasks.

Why is it so hard?

There’s plenty of factors. Here are two.


  • The designer’s control over the system. In a closed system where the designer has full control over the rules, he can tune the level of challenge to better match the skills of the user.
  • Users. Even the most cleverly designed closed system will find it harder to match challenge to skill when more than one person is involved. The obvious reason is that the two players will have different levels of skill. More subtly, when you inject more people into even the simplest system you also inject their foibles and psychology, drastically increasing the complexity and making it harder to reliably create flow.

This should give a clue to what a designer needs to be aware of when designing for flow.

If the world is yours.

Gaming (1 user). “On the rails” games such as the astonishingly successful Guitar Hero, House of the Dead and to a lesser extent Mirror’s Edge are perfect examples of designed flow.

The gameworld and challenge is completely under the control of the designer, and the player can generally adapt the difficulty to better match their skills, with progressively harder content unlocked as they improve.

Dancing (2 users). A perfect example of this from outside gaming is dancing, particularly ballroom dancing. In this case the “design” is the type of music, which usually fits within a set rythm and tempo, and the dance, which consists of a set of rules and moves.

The additional complexity someone designing a dance would have to take into account is the interaction between the two dancers; flow is achieved by creating a common language through the music and the rules of the dance.

Driving (Many users). The driving environment may seem complex but its elements are relatively fixed: the road, the traffic signals, the highway code.

Within these constraints, billions of people with different destinations, priorities and frames of mind drive safely every day.

What if you can’t control the challenges?

This is where the most difficult problems still lie. In all these cases, the designers have only control over a limited part of the environment and must hope that they can exert enough influence to improve the whole.

Productivity software (1 user). Operating systems and productivity software are both tools which help their users achieve some end, whether writing a paper, analysing financial performance or… designing something. The problem is, Microsoft can perfect Word, for example, until it is a masterpiece of writing and page layout, but if the writer is uninspired they will still be blocked.

What can it do to help (Clippy, go away!)? Once it has the basic usability and is out of your way, what patterns can the software introduce to kickstart the user’s thought process and get them back into flow?

Dating (2 users). Stepping away from software for a second. Imagine you are designing a restaurant which in which two people will have the perfect date.

Obviously you cannot control the biggest element of all: the chemistry between them, but you can control enough elements of the environment to smooth things along. What food to serve? What lighting? What cutlery? What furniture? What music?

Civilisation (Many users). Here the problems for designers become monumental. How do you design tools which can help teams of tens, hundreds, thousands of people to effortlessly work and build something together.

How do you design a city so that it’s inhabitants experience flow?

And most colossaly of all: how do you design a society so that its members can experience flow? How do you direct them to flow in tasks which built the next layer of civilisation?

Apart from being associated with fun and satisfaction, if flow is the perfect match between challenge and abillity it is the quickest way to achievement.

How can we flow more?

PS: Never thought i’d write the sentence: “Civilisation (Many users)”


As reported by the very stimulating Ideas + Images, PBS have set up a minisite for Helvetica where you can find out when it’s on in your area. You can also play a game to answer that life altering question: “What Font Are You”.

Sierra – I feel your pain. Apparently I’m Times New Roman too…

The movie is on from the 6th Jan. Don’t miss it!

For more info and other trailers, the website is Not to be confused with The Helvetica Scenario, of course.