Monday, January 18, 2010

The Design Post--January 2010

In this blog post:
Great Design Ideas / Design Idealism Gone Wrong Astray / The Best d. Schools / Classic of Design Writing

At the Training Director’s Forum several years ago, one of the keynote speakers made an amazing insight: “Sometimes our best ideas come from non-competitors.”

What he meant was that we often look to our competitors for ways to act in the market, whether it be companies mimicking the products and processes of other companies or professionals mimicking the strategies used by the peers.

That mimicking may make us feel like we’re part of the in-crowd, but the solution to the problem we’re trying to address might actually lie somewhere else.

So, as we instructional and information designers move forward in the coming year, perhaps we can look to other branches of design for some inspired ideas.

In this post, I share some great design ideas, reflect on a case of design idealism gone astray, talk about the best d. schools, and close by recalling a classic piece of writing on design.

Great Design Ideas
Last month, the New York Times published its annual Year in Ideas Supplement. The ideas represented a spectrum of ideas and many are cross-listed under two or more topics.

In terms of design, here are some that caught my eye:
  • “Man-made greenery,” a tree-like device that looks like a “giant fly swatter” (actually, I thought it looked like an oversized cheese grater) and that acts like a tree, and absorbing carbon dioxide. and emitting cleans carbon emissions (December 13, 2009, Visited December 13, 2009).
  • Cul-de-sac-less developments which, as you might guess from the name, are suburban developments without the popular cul-de-sac. Although they might add value to properties, cul-de-sacs apparently are bad for snow removal and even worse for traffic (in fact, they may be the reasons that main streets are so clogged). Virginia is the first to experiment with the ban (
  • “The kitchen sink that puts out fires” does exactly what its name suggests. It uses sensors and misting technology used on oil rigs and cruise ships (there’s that looking-to non-competitors-for-ideas idea in action) attached to kitchen sinks to put out common kitchen fires, including grease fires (
  • "Good enough is the new great," a design philosophy that, as its name suggests, that consumers are increasingly contented with good enough products, ones that work 99 percent of the time, and they’ll put up with the glitches. Consider the difference in quality between nearly always-on land-line telephones and “oh, my line dropped you for a second” mobile phones. No one seems to complain too much. Didn’t say I loved the idea—just that it caught my eye. And as a pragmatist, I have not only seen this in action, I admit to having had practiced it (

Design Idealism Gone Wrong Astray
One of the coolest stores for design aficionados is Design within Reach, which carries replicas of classic mid-twentieth century furniture and design objects. But an expose in Fast Company suggests that the store is in disarray (Jeff Chu, December 1, 2009,

It’s a familiar story: entrepreneur/dreamer starts a web-based business and it takes off. The business gets a new round of venture capital, starts a heavy growth path so it can make an Initial Public Offering of its stock and make all of the investors and the founder rich.

Focused only on growing, the founder leaves, and a string of hacks take over the business and try to make it grow, without understanding what made it a great business in the first place.

To cut costs, Design within Reach designed and manufactured its own knockoff objects; and shabbily handled communication with the vendors who were being cut off (shabbily as in the store ended up in a bunch of lawsuits). So much for authentic reproductions. (The issues raised by the knock-offs are actually worthy of a separate post.)

It also stopped a policy of keeping guaranteeing immediate delivery of certain popular items.

The chain tried to expand into tools (I visited one of the prototype Tools within Reach shops this summer) and kitchens (apparently selling just one kitchen last year), to miserable results. From this readers’ perspective, the expansion sounded more like an homage to the CEO’s meglamania than a sound business strategy.

A new venture capitalist essentially acquired the company last summer, and installed a new CEO. Doesn’t sound like anyone will miss the old CEO but the real question is, can Design within Reach restore not only its profit, but also its credibility and luster.

The Best d. Schools
If you weren’t aware of it, Business Week, which has long track record of supporting design and innovation, ranks the best design programs in the world. And when they say the world, they’re not kidding. The top 30 listed represent every continent.

Most of the programs are based in business schools, a few in art or engineering schools. None focus on information or instructional design.

Check out the list at

Classics of Design Writing
As some of you might be aware, I’m on sabbatical this year. One of the treats is taking time away from everything and catching up on articles and books that I admit I should have read a long time ago, but was too busy doing something else (perhaps at one of the scores of committee meetings I attend each year, perhaps helping a student, or perhaps watching TV or checking this week’s specials at Target).

Here are two on design that put the art and science of design into perspective.

  • Nigel Cross’ Designerly Ways of Knowing: Design Discipline versus Design Science from Design Studies ( (He actually published several articles and books under the name “Designerly Ways of Knowing.”)
  • The Design-Based Research Collective’s 2003 “Design-Based Research: An Emerging Paradigm for Educational Inquiry,”(volume 32, issue 1, pages 5-8) in Educational Researcher outlines the rationale and methodologies used in design research. If you are like me—concerned about the practical challenges in implementing great designs for learning—this methodology offers some exciting options. (

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