Archive for the ‘Design’ Category

One of my favourite accounts on creativity

In Beating the Odds, Creative Culture, Creativity, Design on 2010/10/11 at 2:51 pm

Pablo Picasso painted a rare portrait of Gertrude Stein, his patron and friend, in 1906.  Despite some 90 sittings, Picasso completed the painting largely off-site, ending up with a figure with simple masses, and a face that bear more resemblance to an African mask.  It was a visionary work that pre-empted his radically-abstract cubist phase.  When someone commented that the painting did not resemble Stein, Picasso famously replied, “But… she will”!

Creative people alter the way we see the world.  They introduce the surprising, even shocking, alternative to the things we take for-granted as permanent and unchanging.  It must be said that it does not always work, but when it does, our world gets turned on its head.  Suddenly, we wonder how we had put up so long with the bad and the ugly.  Often, we even cry, “Why didn’t I think of that?”, or, “I could have done that!”.  But the sad fact is that we did not, and the truth is that creativity is much harder than it seems.

Creative designers are reconfiguring our world everyday.  They constantly re-visit old problems — such as the way we live, our furniture, clothes, and the tools we use — but frequently re-frame new ones — such as our response to climate change, the ageing population, and security; all striving to make our world a better, safer and happier place.


Why some Ideas take a long time to be taken up?

In Beauty, Design, History, Leadership, Nature, Strategy, Vision on 2010/09/10 at 10:43 pm

I don’t know.

Roof gardens and “sky rise” landscaping is now a rage in many cities such as New York and Singapore.  It’s like, “why didn’t we think of this before?”

Le Corbusier in his 1926 manifesto, Five Points toward a New Architecture” said this:

“The roof gardens. The flat roof demands in the first place systematic utilization for domestic purposes: roof terrace, roof garden. On the other hand, the reinforced concrete demands protection against changing temperatures. Overactivity on the part of the reinforced concrete is prevented by the maintenance of a constant humidity on the roof concrete. The roof terrace satisfies both demands (a rain- dampened layer of sand covered with concrete slabs with lawns in the interstices; the earth of the flowerbeds in direct contact with the layer of sand). In this way the rain water will flow off extremely slowly. Waste pipes in the interior of the building. Thus a latent humidity will remain continually on the roof skin. The roof gardens will display highly luxuriant vegetation. Shrubs and even small trees up to 3 or 4 metres tall can be planted.

In this way the roof garden will become the most favoured place in the building. In general, roof gardens mean to a city the recovery of all the built- up area.”

[Le Corbusier/Pierre Jeanneret: Five Points towards a new architecture. Originally published in Almanach de l’Architecture moderne, Paris 1926.]

Almost 85 years ago, Le Corbusier had figured out, at least in part, the need for landscape to balance the harshness of the urban landscape of the high density “cities of tomorrow”, and had carefully argued for freeing up the ground plane by lifting all building on piloties (stilts) and maintaining ground footprint by cultivating vegetation on all rooftops.

This is a reminder to know our history, our pioneers and institutional memory.

To Brand a Design or To Design a Brand

In Branding, Concepts and Cateogies, Design on 2010/06/09 at 12:54 pm

Brands are designed.  I dare say many designers do not even realise this.

A design — a chair, or a lamp, say — can be made into a brand.  In fact, it can be argued that the design is already implicitly a brand by default; without having to explicitly subject it to a “branding” process.  This is because a brand is fundamentally the distinguishing mark for a product or service, so a particularly “memorable” object, place or experience — by virtue of its distinctive design — brands itself.  Remember that branding has its origins in scorching a mark on the hide of cattle to show which ranch it belongs to.

Even in its origins, a brand as a distinguishing mark had to be designed — in the most general and obvious definition of design as a cognitive and physical process of making.  The appearance of the brand is a unique visual identity, often of graphic and artistic quality, and not merely a serial number.  The indiscriminate proliferation of superficial logos today undermine the significance of our abilities to use symbolic representation to make distinctions in what otherwise would be a world of sameness around us.

Those who understand branding today, subject the “branding process” to design thinking.  This includes “up-stream” ideas for the design of the “brand strategy”, through to the design of the “brand experience” and the design of many aspects of “brand loyalty”.  The brand is designed from inside to out, head to toe, end to end.  Whilst it is possible to brand a design, it pales in scope and possibilities when compared to designing a brand.

Designed by Hand

In Design, Process on 2010/05/13 at 12:48 pm

“Hand-made” used to be an indication of quality workmanship.  A hand-made object was expected to be well-crafted and skillfully executed.  Except for mostly collectibles and bespoke works, it no longer is.  This is because our increasing detachment from do-it-yourself hunting and farming — first accelerated by the agricultural revolution, and then by industrialization and more recently by the information web — has been made possible by tools and processes which are superior replacements for our hands.  Nowadays who expects to buy a hand-made computer, or tennis racket?

However, despite increasing scarcity the hand-made thing will always command our attention and respect — one-off pottery, bespoke furniture, the tailored dress, a sculpture, native basket, vernacular architecture, custom jewelry, the Ikat, hand-made teddy bears, etc.  We treasure these perhaps because we are naturally nostalgic of our human capabilities; and acutely conscious of our human limitations.  More importantly, we sense that these are shaped not only by the hands, but also by the human minds that we imagine could well have been ours.  There is satisfaction in being able to dwell among ideas designed by hand.

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!

Emergent Subshapes

In Creative Culture, Creativity, Design, Emergence, No Readymade World, Strategy, Transformation on 2010/04/19 at 5:11 pm

Visual perception is a key to creative thinking. If there is a ‘correct’ way to see every thing, our world will be uninteresting. Gestalt Psychology tries to explain the perception of the “essence or shape of an entity’s complete form”. In creative thinking, this largely misses the point of discovering ‘hidden’ sub-shapes of the entity, many of which would be surprising and full of potential to develop new ideas.

Take the simple case of “two intersecting rectangles”. The interesting emergent subshapes do not come from a reductionist approach. My favourites are “four rotating chair”, and “four zig-zag paths”! (look for them in the selection of emergence below). There is nothing “correct” about discovering emergent subshapes, but they are hot houses of creativity.  The implications go beyond art and design. It is about profound thinking itself.

Emergent Subshapes

When Productivity is Nonsense

In Beating the Odds, Creative Culture, Creativity, Design, Productivity, Strategy, Value on 2010/03/05 at 11:37 am

The concept of “productivity” is a hangover from the industrial economy. Many try to ‘upgrade’ it to apply to the post industrial (knowledge and creative) economy but it is only as successful as putting aerofoil “spoilers” on a front-wheel-drive car — the downforce is on the wrong pair of wheels. Is the suggested obsolescence that bad?

In Singapore, the spotlight has swung on “Productivity” again. It was one of the most campaigned theme at one time (in the 70s) but has apparently lost it’s foothold despite decades of effort. The Economic Strategies Committee’s (ESC) report (see also my blog: “Design in Singapore’s Economic Strategies“) and the ensuing 2010 Budget and Parliament debate have resurrected the age-old issue again. But this is a different day and age.

The easy target of the productivity debate is cheap labour, usually synonymous with foreign workers, though not always. This is when the “less” in the classic productivity definition of “doing more with less” is achieved by lowering the cost of manpower. Never mind the headcount so long as we remain above the “bottom line”. Do or die. Technically, there is nothing wrong about lowering manpower costs, but, not surprisingly, this has social and political repercussions when the consequent of the ratio is foreigners.

But the antecedent of the productivity ratio is the more interesting. How can we increase the “more” in “doing more with less”? To some this simply means not being paid for overtime! To others it means increasing throughput by automation and info-comm; with or without reducing manpower. This, unfortunately, is what many think innovation is all about. Whether you factor in the overtime and the real (total) cost of automation, the balance-book productivity ratio must come up as a big number or you are still in trouble.

In the bigger scheme of things, productivity is a bit of a nonsense. Whilst it is important, and even crucial, to wring out of productivity all that it can yield in every way thinkable, there are aspects of the post-industrial economy that cannot be adequately addressed by the basic productivity equation.

First is the principle of “doing more with more”. The late Ng Teng Fong, a prominent real estate developer in Singapore and Hong Kong, said that he bided high for land because he could get even better returns from them later. Unlike a banker or trader who primarily depends on the market appreciation of value, the developer creates new demand and new value through intentionally good design.

Second is profitability. It is a different metric to productivity because it is no respecter of rules of the game. The competition for better profit margins and ROI goes beyond productivity, and has a life even after productivity levels off (which it always will). Through strategic design and innovation, the “rules of the game” can be changed to effectively eliminate competition. There are of course associated risks, but the potential opportunities of differentiation usually far exceeds the risks in slugging it out in the productivity battle arena.

Third is creative culture. Productivity is a particular nonsense in the heart of creative culture. It is unable to contribute to creative outcomes principally because it is calculative and pre-determined in nature, whereas basic creative culture tends to be speculative and qualitative. Productivity in architects’ and designers’ studios is limited to drawing and project management, and not anywhere near the critical design conceptualisation and design development stage (which wins the work in the first place). There will be an appropriate time for productivity issues to kick in when creative work are eventually executed in the ‘real’ world, but if the creative is not creatively competitive in the first place, productivity is nonsense.

We do not live in a ready-made world. It must be designed.*

In Creativity, Design, No Readymade World, Policy, Strategy on 2010/02/26 at 12:05 pm

“Designers are, one way or another, futurists” — Richard Seymour

Problem solving is to design, only as much as wheels are to cars. It is a given. The strategic value of design lies in a different dimension. While the context of problem sets and innovation are typically “industrial”, design creativity has the natural capacity to go “post-industrial”.

In the post-industrial world, the origin of creation — research and design — will be more important than the origin of manufacturing or assembly. Take Apple. Every Apple product has this declaration, “Designed by Apple in California”. Secondarily would be the ubiquitous words of the industrial world, “Made in China” or “Assembled in Singapore”.

It should not require a rocket scientist to figure out that Apple can choose to manufacture or assemble its products in any country that “makes sense”, but they will always be of California and Silicon Valley origin. Consumers already accept that global brands such as Nokia, Nike, Gap, Canon, HP, and even Toyota, outsource their production away from the home country of the company. The processes of global outsourcing are now so effective that it practically does not matter to most people where their things are made. So, in the industrial economy, place increasingly does not matter. But, does place matter in the post-industrial economy?

The environment to foster post-industrial creativity is very much harder to create and maintain than that for industrial manufacturing. Creative thinking, say, for design, is not just a production process (with all its connotations of optimisation, systems controls, parallel and distributed processing, analytics, etc.), but also needs vibrant social and cognitive milieus that are talent-centric. The recent financial recession has helped to expose the myth of “rational market-driven” (read: objective) decision-making. The key drivers of the post-industrial economy are no longer technology, finance, policies, or education. They come in warm bodies: talent. They may pursue their ideas in solo, but they cannot achieve creative status for themselves or their creations, without interacting with the wider local and international community of interested experts. Creativity is not defined by individuals.

* Forward in the Icsid World Design Congress 2009 handbook. Singapore: DesignSingapore Council.

The Writing on the Studio Wall

In Creative Culture, Creativity, Design, Policy, Strategy on 2010/02/23 at 10:27 pm

For a long time, I championed along with many the design studio as the heart of design culture. This was — and to a large extent, still is — the common wisdom of design and architecture schools the world over. No question. It is assumed that the studio is the best rehearsal of the “real world” of practice where the apprentice students were all headed in a beeline; it’s like the moot court to train lawyers. This is the logical “no-brainer” if (big if) practice is all that there is to design culture and design education. But the universe has changed.

Studio Drawings and Models -- means or ends?

In the post-industrial economy that we are arguably already in, the desired outcomes of markup from end-product cost, and fee for service are still relevant but seriously dated. The new value propositions and business models for design are subtlety shifting to a knowledge-based economy, where the value of design is in the intrinsic value of ideas rather than commodity pricing or professional fees. If, by contrast, the pursuit of design is in knowledge terms, what goes on in conventional design studios and practice is extremely wasteful: projects are done to clear hurdles rather than for collective knowledge. Studio projects have no value and are unceremoniously trashed at the end of each exercise. What an unsustainable shame.

A Schema of Strategic Design Culture Copyright 2010 Milton Tan.

The design studio is typically “active” and “propositional” in nature. For a more self-sustaining design culture of the 21C, these top-level attributes need to be augmented by the “reflective” and “representational”. This means that the venerable studio needs to be repositioned away from the spot light and re-grouped with 3 other key components in a 2-by-2 matrix of “Active- Reflective” and “Propositional-Representational” axes.

The Active-Propositional component is the Design Studio, the Active-Representational the Design Conference, the Reflective-Propositional the Design Museum, and the Reflective-Representational the Design Library. Collectively they form the “Strategic Design Culture” that I believe is the new structure for 21C design education, research, practice and culture.

The writing is on the wall for the standalone studio.