Monday, September 12, 2011

Send In The... Designers!

1) Theo Jansen is a Dutch artist/engineer. He wanted to make something beautiful and lasting, which is not an unusual thing for an artist to want to do.

He also wanted it to be practical, to help solve a particular Dutch problem, the erosion of the beaches or strands. That is not an unusual thing for an engineer to want to do.

So, naturally, he created the Strandbeests.

These lifelike creatures are made almost entirely of pvc-pipe, and were built to walk the beaches, using wind-power, a very Dutch-like trick, and, eventually, to shovel sand from one place to another.

We will not waste words describing this whole process to you, since Ian Frazier does an infinitely better job than we could do in the September 5 issue of The New Yorker. And, even more importantly, Theo Jansen and BBC do a very fine job in just 3 minutes at:
We think that Jansen's Strandbeests are further evidence that we must get our artists, engineers and designers more intimately involved creating elegant and practical new ways of doing things: things like schools, healthcare, tax codes, finance, diplomacy, and all kinds of waste. We keep trying to solve these design-problems with political solutions. Hint: that approach isn't working.

By the way, Jansen was partially supported by grants from the Dutch government, while creating his work. Some would say, based on philosophy or dogma, that it was a waste of taxpayer dough, just like Ferdinand & Isabella wasting their dough on Columbus's silly voyage on which he got totally lost.
Serendipity is a bargain in any age.

2) We take the simplest things for granted, because they become so ingrained in our daily lives. But,  when we face big problems, we forget simplicity and tend to look for big solutions. This is almost always the wrong approach.

I was reminded of this, while dropping-off my daughter at JFK over the weekend, and seeing the departing and arriving travelers strolling through the terminals with S, M, L, XL, and even XXL luggage...

...all on wheels.

Humans have done their best to make air-travel difficult at best and miserable at worst. JFK itself is a great example. We used to drive through "Idlewild," as it was called, on our way to Long Island's beaches just when airlines were introducing the first intercontinental jets. At the same time, renowned architects and designers were crafting what seemed like a space-age depot.

Today, JFK is a mish-mash of poorly designed roads, parking garages, signage, and terminals. Arriving and departing passengers have to walk miles to and from gates and counters. NYC still has no decent public transport to its airports. Isn't it more than a bit strange that we have designed luggage in such a practical way without its losing any aesthetic value, while, at the same time, being completely unable to design any comfort or much intelligence into the rest of the air-travel process?

A family-owned company, Skyway Luggage Company of Seattle, introduced the first commercially successful rolling luggage in 1972, but widespread use of these smart products did not really occur until the 1990's.
Skyway Luggage

Today, no seasoned traveler would even think about traveling without wheels.

But, that's the point; it's such a good design idea, we don't even think about it anymore. More proof that we need designers working on solutions to big problems, not just fashion or entertainment. They tend to see simple, elegant, and affordable solutions. Could an airline or airport authority have figured out the wheel thing? Please.

Why are we wasting so much tech and design talent on ways to entertain ourselves? Let's get talented people working on the really important stuff! Imagine the real JFK exhorting our scientists and engineers to improve color TV or drive-in cinemas and burger joints, instead of getting to the moon within a decade?!

Where is the leadership setting these high goals, exhorting and inspiring young talent to dream much, much bigger than the next cool app, big IPO, few $billion? Why not challenge every high school and college student in the country to offer technical and design solutions to some of our biggest problems?

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