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Archive for the ‘adaptability’ Category

The Changing Brief

In adaptability, Change, Creative Culture, Education on 2010/06/23 at 5:59 pm

Wouldn’t you naturally feel disgusted if your design tutor or client kept changing the brief?  But then again, isn’t this the real world?  We seem to have no problem accepting and propagating change, so long as we are not the ‘changee’ — the victim of change.

When I was last in Penang, I was impressed by ordinary people who were adaptable to immediate change:

  • Our bus driver agreed to drop us off an unscheduled stop despite the inconvenience of manipulating the big coach in heavy traffic;
  • A coffee shop owner whisked around to rearrange several tables and chairs for a big group of us in a very crowded hour; and
  • A hotel barman zoomed around to look for fresh coconuts for us even though coconuts are not on the menu.

There is a precious simplicity in being able to give and receive spontaneous action.  In an increasingly mass-production and out-sourced world — where one size fits all, and good management means getting someone else to do it for you — it is good to be reminded of the value of the personal touch and spontaneous initiative.

A creative culture should not only be resilient to the changing brief, but thrive on it.  It should not expect the brief to be fixed nor fully formed at the outset. Many factors can suddenly change the brief — from a change of mind, personal crises, business competition, to external circumstances such as financial collapses, disasters, change of government policies and laws, etc.  A pro-active creative culture should engage in the development and evolution of the brief.  To be sure, this would be a messy and complex affair, but design and education in general would do well to inculcate the ability of creatives to think on their feet and not presume that the brief is like an exam paper.  The changing brief should be a regular exercise in design schools, and a pervasive mindset in design practice.

In Sciences of the Artificial, Herbert Simon related a parable of two highly regarded watchmakers, one of whom prospered while the other declined, all because of they way they managed the assembly of their design. The successful one had a modular system of sub-assemblies that did not all had to be abandoned to start form scratch every time he had to answer the phone.  In the case of the unsuccessful one, the watch was a single entity that fell to pieces each time he was interrupted.  This is a lesson in managing complexity and a step towards managing the interruptions from the changing brief.

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Rabbit-Duck Figure Revisited

In adaptability, Creative Culture, Creativity, Emergence, No Readymade World on 2010/05/22 at 11:09 pm

The Rabbit-Duck Ambiguous Figure (Jastrow, J. 1899)

This figure by Jastrow in 1899 has been in the centre of many discussions and inquiries in art, design, creativity, perception, psychology, and philosophy. The famous philosopher, Wittgenstein, referred to this figure in his discourse on why entities can have more than one identity, ie multiple existences. Many people even today expect a stable, cut-and-dry and verifiable world and are therefore uncomfortable with such ambiguities in life. The creatives however thrive on them.

Depending on which way you perceive the creature as looking, all the graphics of the figure ralliy around the form of a rabbit (looking to the right) or a duck (looking left). It is exclusively one or the other, and you can switch between the two at will. Why? The best and simplest explanation I have is the way we label parts of the figure. If we label the appendage “ears”, than we have a rabbit, but if we label it “beak”, then we have a duck. This labeling of objects and their parts is, I believe, at the heart of conceptual thinking and primal to the way our perception system works syntactically to make coherent worlds (eg of rabbits or ducks in the case in point).

The ability to label parts of a object and obtain a coherent whole is so powerful that we often do not need all the defining information to make and act on the incomplete.

The above two words has the same centre letter-figure, but it takes little to treat the second as an “A” rather than a “H” because it makes sense. This contextual labeling is the reason why machine reading, let alone language translation is so intractable. Below is a more complex and interesting example from Wired magazine’s (UK June 2010) article on patent litigation, “Apple vs Nokia vs Goole vs HTC vs RIM”:

"Apple vs Nokia vs Google vs HTC vs RIM" (Wired UK, June 2010)

But the really interesting issue is not so much that we get things correctly labelled (as with pre-school flash cards) but that we can imaginatively label things differently and chart the courses of different outcomes. This is seeing things differently and the critical stuff of creative thinking.

Alternative Value Propositions

In adaptability, Change, Creativity, Design, Leadership, Process, Strategy, Technology, Value, Vision on 2010/05/11 at 2:06 pm

Designers can do better than offer “professional services for a fee”. They can lead by alternative value propositions.

Many creative projects get axed prematurely by key performance indicators (KPI). KPIs are typically controlled by ‘creative’ bean counters (oxymoron?) who are clients or their agents.  They typically shun change and collaboration. Their standard tool is divide-and-rule. eg train stations are transport engineering infrastructure, whilst art and sculpture is culture; therefore there is no budget for the arts as part of station development. That is somebody else’s core business. Familiar?

Designers are in a good position to propose alternative value propositions. But they need to be laterally creative and not be so naive about how bureaucrats and bean-counters work. A creative win-win is often the only way.

Take the task of designing an Expo exhibition pavilion. The no-brainer is to put up a building simply for the duration of the Expo — closing both eyes to what happens after the show is over, and visitor-ship KPI is history. Better still, have the pavilion built by somebody else and “leased back” for only the exhibition season; this way it shows up in the books as rental and not a capital-intensive inventory item!

What if the Expo building is designed in the first place for a permanent use, even if it means designing a kit of parts to have the pavilion become a school building or library where it is needed badly, say in an isolated rural location or disaster-relief area.

The challenge for designers is to find a way to collaborate with the initial client to include stakeholders who can take over the kit of parts. In return, the emotional and social benefits of the cause can be a powerful differentiating feature of the pavilion’s presentation. In Expos such as the one in Shanghai now concerned with “better cities, better life”, such an action will speak louder than the words and demos so typical of those who only think of the Expo as only a glorified sales pitch.

Some things don’t change

In adaptability, Beating the Odds, Change, Design, Technology, Transformation, Vision on 2010/04/27 at 4:51 pm

Change can be extremely slow and surprisingly resilient. This of course can be a good or bad or indifferent thing. Apparently, the extinction of dinosaurs was due largely on their inability to change in time.

Take car design for instance. Consumer expectations on one hand and tough laws and regulations on the other have kept the car not that much different in the last 50-60 years. Practically all have ‘eyes’ (headlights) and ‘mouth’ (grille) even when new lighting and air intake technologies are available. They all have license plates, usually unceremoniously screwed into the bodywork. (I once saw the license plate of a Royce Royce fastened with a pair of rusting screws like those of everybody else!) . They all have wing mirrors and wind-shield wipers — the last frontier of innovation!  And they all have an assortment of disks and stickers on the wind-shield for road tax, club membership, season parking, etc.  All these are not about to change.  At the rate we are going, they may all be still around even when cars go air borne.

Some things don't change

Some things don't change

What about the house? When cars go air borne, the house will likely to be still brick-n-mortar, concrete-steel-glass.  Chairs will be chairs and tables will be tables. Why?

I was once on a construction site when the builders laughed at the oversized calculator that our Quantity Surveyor was using. “Surely you can afford a more compact calculator”, they said.  He replied, “but my fingers are not getting smaller!”

So, why is change so tough?  Perhaps because we are fundamentally conservative human; full of terrible as well as wonderful ‘flaws’.  For better or worse, get over it!

Best Progress

In adaptability, Awards, No Readymade World, Transformation on 2010/01/22 at 7:10 am

It’s a different world when recognition goes to progress rather than achievements.

Today marks the 9th Anniversary of a modest award I started in 2001 to encourage architecture students at the National University of Singapore (NUS).  The award, funded from my consultancy work, goes to 3-5 students each year who make the “best progress” in their respective course of study, ie biggest jump in grades or marks.  The rules of the award does not rule out the best students, but interestingly they have never won this award because they have not actually progressed!

The idea for the Best Progress Award came through my son. Ten years ago, he received a Best Progress award from his school for Mandarin, a subject he never passed. That year he made a massive improvement (a doubling of marks I recall) but still below passing grade. Nevertheless, he achieved ‘better’ than those top students who were all staurated at close to perfection. The teachers and students clapped for him at assembly and he was very happy and proud of his award.

I believe that it is more important to encourage and foster a spirit of making progress than of achieving pinnicle perfection. Don’t get me wrong — high achievers and top brains are priceless and must be handled with care. But their recognition and reward come more naturally and are often already built into the value they bring. But we need to understand that life for the rest of us is not measured in GPA (or CAP in NUS).

Moreover, the rules of the game do change. Those who survive are those who are most adaptable to change [Dawwin].  That is, those who can make progress. The best are not necessarily the most adaptable. I remember a very good architecture student of mine who refused to draw in ink because he was extremely good in pencil.  Peers and examiners would pour oos and ahhs over his beautiful pencil drawings. But I was afraid that unless he breaks out to something else as well — something he would not be immediately good at — he may go the way of dinosaurs.

Look to make good progress.

Read Straits Times report on Tuesday 26 Jan 2010: Awards for most improved

Best Progress Award 2009 receipients: (l to r) Loh Zixu, Fiona Tan and Aileen Koh