Wednesday, July 19, 2017


Many years ago I began to notice parallels in the vocabulary of different engineering disciplines. For example, both electronics and hydrology use the word current. In one case it is a measure of the flow of molecules of water and in the other, refers to the flow of electrons.

The problem with using seemingly common words to explain things is that it can lead to confusion, or disagreements, as illustrated by this example from Kaiser Aluminum's booklet, Communications;

Another opportunity for confusion comes when we don't see the whole situation, as told in the fable of the Blind Men and the Elephant;

It was six men of Indostan to learning much inclined,
Who went to see the elephant (Though all of them were blind),
that each by observation might satisfy his mind.

The First approached the elephant, And happening to fall
against his broad and sturdy side, at once began to bawl:
"God bless me! but the elephant is very like a WALL!"

The Second, feeling of the tusk, cried, "Ho, what have we here,
so very round and smooth and sharp? To me 'tis mighty clear
this wonder of an Elephant Is very like a SPEAR!"

The Third approached the animal and happening to take
the squirming trunk within his hands, thus boldly up and spake:
"I see," quoth he, "the elephant Is very like a SNAKE!"

The Fourth reached out an eager hand, and felt about the knee
"What most this wondrous beast is like is mighty plain," quoth he:
"'Tis clear enough the Elephant is very like a TREE!"

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear said: "E'en the blindest man
can tell what this resembles most; deny the fact who can,
this marvel of an elephant is very like a FAN!"

The Sixth no sooner had begun about the beast to grope,
than seizing on the swinging tail that fell within his scope,
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant is very like a ROPE!"

And so these men of Indostan disputed loud and long,
each in his own opinion exceeding stiff and strong,
though each was partly in the right and all were in the wrong!

There is another way, which I think of as the Walks Like a Duck principle, illustrated by a story about ideas which come in the night;

Kowloon at Night

On June 24, 1995, the Chief Executive Officer of a worldwide organization spoke at a meeting for regional leaders and their wives, giving them directions to guide their next few years of service in the company. He advised them;

Listen for the ideas which wake you up at night, and respond to them. I don’t know why they happen. I only know that they do. They can come in the day as well, of course. But listen to those night-time ideas. In the middle of the night, ideas have come to me which have been very creative. 

For example, in July 1992 I was responsible for finding space for a new facility in a large and crowded city where land was very expensive. The company had been searching for a new place to build there for a long time. I went to bed one night, feeling unsettled about the decision I had to make. I woke up very early the next morning.

Something very interesting came to my mind; I thought; We already own a piece of property; a district office with small conference room. It is in the heart of the city, in a prime location with the best transportation. Why don’t we build up rather than out or on another parcel? We can remodel the first two floors of existing offices and build more on the top, adding two or three additional floors. Having had that inspiration I relaxed and went back to sleep.

Today in Kowloon, a densely populated section of Hong Kong, a taller building stands where the small office once stood, providing a temporary residence, offices, a library and conference rooms. It is a testament to the power of ideas which wake us up in the middle of the night.

This type of experience is well enough known to have a name; The Eureka Effect. It refers to the moment of insight when a puzzling problem is suddenly solved. It is named after a story about the Greek polymath Archimedes.

The Eureka Effect has another name; Insight, a psychological (scientific) term to describe the event in problem solving when a previously unsolvable puzzle becomes suddenly clear and obvious. Often this transition is accompanied by an exclamation of joy or satisfaction, an Aha! moment. MRI scans showed more connections in the brain —a key element to the creative process.

These two stories are describing the same type of event - call it inspiration or an Ah Ha! moment. What is particularly interesting is that one comes from a scientific perspective, the other deeply religious.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Art and Science of Religion

Universal Genius - from

The Art Institute of Chicago has an article entitled The Enduring Relationship of Science and Art on it's website which is adapted from a lecture by Robert Eskridge titled “Exploration and the Cosmos: The Consilience of Science and Art.”

I'm going to quote from it heavily in this posting, in support of the idea that art, science and religion are nowhere near as incompatible as many would have you believe today and that science, art and engineering naturally overlap. They involve ideas, theories, and hypotheses which are prototyped and tested in places where thought and action come together; model shops, laboratories and studios.

Artists, scientists and engineers are investigators. They study people and things and then transform what they learn into something else. In ancient Greece, the word for art was techne, from which our modern words technique and technology are derived—terms that are equally well applied to artistic, engineering, scientific and even religious practices.

Leonardo da Vinci is known as an artist whose works were informed by scientific investigation. He observed the world closely, studied physiology and anatomy in order to create convincing images of the human form. He believed that the moral and ethical meanings of his paintings would emerge through the accurate representation of human gestures and expressions. For Leonardo, science and art were different paths that led to the same destination—a higher spiritual truth. His extraordinary drawings are revered as examples of the Renaissance concept of the integration of all disciplines.

Leonardo wrote; "We, by our arts may be called the grandsons of God."

The Astronomer and the Geographer - Vermeer

The Astronomer and The Geographer, paintings by Johannes Vermeer, are other examples of the connection between science and art. Equally interested in this world and the larger universe, the 17th century Dutch were intent on both looking and investigating. It was here the microscope and telescope were first developed. Vermeer’s paintings celebrate science, the work of artists and the materials of the world.  These paintings represents the link between science and art by demonstrating the combined interest in finely crafted objects and scientific systems, such as cartography and astronomy.

On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt - Monet

The effects of color, light and time were key elements of the works of Degas, van Gogh, Renoir, Gauguin, and Monet. 

Monet suggested that our sense of our physical environment changes continuously with our shifting perceptions of light and color. On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt, captures a fleeting “impression” of the landscape through loose brushwork and composition. It expresses feelings, even before the mind labels, identifies, and converts images into memory.  Monet’s captures the oscillation between impression and perception in an instant; the shifting of light and color across the landscape with the passage of time.

A Sunday on La Grande Jatte
As an art student at the Academy of Fine Arts in Paris, Georges Seurat studied the physics of color, with help from French chemists who had recently developed premixed paints, conveniently packaged in tubes, and synthetic pigments such as ultramarine blue, which previously were very expensive.  As poor artists, neither Seurat nor Monet could have created their blue-filled, experimental works without the availability of scientifically and commercially produced and packaged paint.

Pointillism was in a way the forerunner of the full color digital display. Up close, the surface of Seurat's paintings contain thousands of painted dots and dashes, discrete areas of color. He placed dots of complementary colors next to each other. At a distance, they interact to create vibrant blended colors and larger, whole forms, representing the range of the visible spectrum.

Picasso's Portraits of Kahnweiler and Vollars

Picasso combines took Monet’s ideas about the contingency of time and Seurat’s theory about the perception of discrete elements and pushed them into distortion of space, breaking up the figures and objects, even varying the points of view within the same image. Painted just a few years after Albert Einstein published his theory of relativity, understanding Picasso’s Cubist style, like understanding Einstein, requires multi-disciplinary perspectives to be fully comprehended.

The Tetons and the Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

The invention of photography in the middle of the 19th century was a technological breakthrough, both artistically and scientifically. Photography - Light Writing - captures and presents the physical world accurately and quickly, but also the emotional - even spiritual worlds. Ansel Adams' majestic vistas of mountains and rivers embraced the bond between man and nature while recording with astonishing technical accuracy the effects of light and atmosphere.

The ancient Egyptian sky goddess, Nut, arching over the earth.

This connection between art, science and religion is evidenced as far back as Egypt, preserved in the pyramids and hieroglyphics, illustrating again how art, science and religion co-exist in an enduring, evolving, relationship.

Next up; The bridges between feeling, thinking and doing.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Neurological Basis of Design Thinking

Design Thinking;

  • What is it?
  • Who invented it? 
  • Why is it needed? 
  • When would or should you do it? 
  • Where can you learn it? 
  • How is it done? 
These questions, and their answers, point to a deeper set of issues about DT which are rooted in differences in both our vocabulary and points of view which are outgrowths of our brain structure and the ways our tolerance for ambiguity and complexity express themselves in problem solving.

To illustrate this idea, let's build on our current understanding of neurophysiology;

Core to Design Thinking is being Human-Centric. This is an often cited trait of DT, but it is usually mentioned in the context of empathic inquiry. Perhaps more important is the implication that there are humans involved. This is important because humans have brains and those brains work in certain observable and predictable ways. Thanks to real time imaging techniques we've begun to pull back the curtain on how the brain works and how we perceive that activity.

Cross Section of the Human Brain

This remarkable collection of neurons fundamentally operates in three spheres; Cognitive, which we associate with thinking, Emotional, which we associate with feelings and Behavioral which we associate with doing.  Real time scans of neurologic activity in the structures of the Cerebral Cortex, Midbrain and Primitive Brain generally correspond to our experiences of Thinking, Feeling and Doing.

The Design Thinking framework also has three main areas; Humanity, Technology and Business which have their associated expressions of Desirability, Feasibility and Viability.  This correlation isn't accidental. As humans, we use our multifunctional brains to ThinkFeel and Act our way thru the process of learning and problem solving. What is learning but simplifying the complex and clarifying the obscure? (a.k.a Handling "Wickedness")

The DT Triad

Note the three other correlations between these areas in the DT framework;
  • Thinking is about what happens in the Technology space.
  • Feeling/Emotions are at play in the Desirability space.
  • Viability is what is tested and proven in the Busi-ness (action) space.
What sets the DT apart from other approaches is its consideration *all* aspects of the situation; Emotional, Cognitive and Behavioral. It provides a comprehensive "whole brain" framework to uncover and address the known and unknown elements in all three domains when discovering and developing solutions. This point is often overlooked when discussing DT, which leads to a great deal of confusion, particularly when being compared to mainly rational frameworks like the scientific method.

A Circular DT Model

One Pass thru the DT Phases

DT also acknowledges a core aspect of dynamic systems; It takes time to converge on a predictable solution; This has an analog in Control Systems in the concept of Damping or Feedback.

Even with optimum (critical) damping, oscillating systems don't settle in the shortest amount of time until about the third cycle, which is why in we plan for at least three express-test (prototyping) cycles.

Degrees of Feedback vs. Cycles to Settle

Design Thinking's prototyping element addresses the need to manage risk (ambiguity and complexity) by using inexpensive tools to rapidly model ideas and outcomes, thereby discovering errors and problems more quickly. Prototyping also highlights the need to turn customer needs into quantifiable requirements with tolerances as soon as possible.

Rapid Prototyping Tools

The practical implications of this correlation between how your brain works and the Design Thinking framework are powerful and simple;

Thoughts + Emotions + Experience = Deep Learning  

If you have an idea, you have a theory.
If you have an emotion you have a reason to act.
If you have acted, you have first hand knowledge.

Put all this together and you have a comprehensive approach to solving a wide range of problems. Design Thinking brings your full range of mental tools, methods, and actions to the table.

It is also what differentiates DT from other problem solving methods which emphasize analysis, ("scientific") or emotion (the "arts") or "business" (managing people, time and money) to solve (or create) problems.

Design Thinking is using all of your your tri-part brain, to act, feel, and think, in solving problems or create new realities, which increases the quality of your solutions.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Rapid Prototyping


Here is a terrific example, from the folks at NTD, of what you can do with some cardboard, superglue, hot-melt, a handful of plastic syringes and some fish tank air line. This video can also be viewed in much higher resolution by clicking HERE

Rapid Prototyping is an extremely useful tool in the early stages of concept development. Doing something  like this might uncover a latent flaw in an idea which wouldn't otherwise surface until much later if using a top-down design process.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Being Analog in an Increasingly Digitized World

Donald Norman is one of my favorite Odd Ducks. He has been blending technical and human sciences since the 1950's.

In 1957 he received a BSEE in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, went on to earn a M.S. and a PhD in Mathematical Psychology which is "based on mathematical modeling of perceptual, cognitive and motor processes, and on the establishment of law-like rules that relate quantifiable stimulus characteristics with quantifiable behavior."

Next, as an associate professor in the Psychology Department at University of California, San Diego Norman was a founder of the Institute for Cognitive Science and an organizer of the Cognitive Science Society. 

Norman left UCSD to join Apple Computer in 1993, initially as an Apple Fellow as a User Experience Architect, using "User Experience" in his job title, and then Vice President of the Advanced Technology Group.  Don was an early advocate of "user-centered design."

"Design is a way of... determining people’s true, underlying needs, and then delivering products and services that help them. Design combines an understanding of people, technology, society, and business." - Donald Norman

But there is a ghost in the machine which Norman attempts to exorcize in an article entitled Being Analog, that was originally published as Chapter 7 of his book; The Invisible Computer.
(Being Analog is a very thought provoking piece, which you should read.)

Norman strikes at the heart of the matter in the first sentence;

"We are analog beings trapped in a digital world, and the worst part is, we did it to ourselves.

We humans are biological animals. We have evolved over millions of years to function well in the environment, to survive. We are analog devices following biological modes of operation. We are compliant, flexible, tolerant. Yet, we have constructed a world of machines that requires us to be rigid, fixed and intolerant.

Here we are, wandering about the world, bumping into things, forgetful of details, with a poor sense of time, a poor memory for facts and figures, unable to keep attention on a topic for more than a short duration, reasoning by example rather than by logic, and drawing upon our admittedly deficient memories of prior experience. 

When viewed this way, we seem rather pitiful. No wonder that we have constructed a set of artificial devices that are very much not in our own image. We have constructed a world of machinery in which accuracy and precision matter. Time matters. Names, dates, facts, and figures matter. Accurate memory matters. Details matter.

All the things we are bad at matter, all the things we are good at are ignored. Bizarre."

A troubling question is hiding on a deeper level; Are we, as children, parents and grandparents, becoming a bit too much like our digital systems? Norman's list of human traits; being compliant, flexible and tolerant, stands in striking contrast to those of the binary machines we have created which are rigid, fixed and intolerant. He says our machines demand that of us and that we, as the creators of those machines, have done it to ourselves. That is true, but falls short of the mark;

What we - as consumers - have done is allow the designers to give us technology the prolonged use of which may be turning us into beings who are becoming inflexible and intolerant. At least some of us.

Looking at the current discourse in the wake of the most recent election, what are we arguing and seeing others argue, about if not matters of accuracy and precision, time, names, dates, facts, and figures, memory and details.

As the ambiguity and complexity grows, left unaddressed, this situation will only get worse.

So, the question is; what can be done about it? Can designers save themselves and their customers from themselves?

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Reflections on René Descartes

You stink, therefore I don't give a darn.

Rene Descartes is generally considered to be one of the greatest minds of his day and the father of the scientific method of inquiry.

Of Descartes, wrote;

Rene Descartes (1596-1650) was not only one of the most prominent philosophers of the 17th century but in history of Western philosophy. Often referred to as the “father of modern philosophy”... he rejected the final causal model of explaining natural phenomena and replaced it with science-based observation and experiment.

On a much more personal level, the Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews review of Desmond Clark's 2006 book; "Descartes: A Biography" makes some very candid observations about the father of modern scientific thinking, adding credibility by stating that the book is notable for its exhaustive detail, drawing helpfully upon Descartes' voluminous and revealing correspondence to reconstruct as best as possible Descartes' movements and mindsets throughout his almost 54 years of life... Clarke provides for the reader to better understand Descartes as a person and as an intellectual. 

NDPR points to three related themes which "edge repeatedly to the forefront throughout the book;"
  • Descartes' seemingly endless travels and his eventual isolation in voluntary exile;
  • Descartes' own largely unflattering character;
  • The ubiquitous and sometimes menacing presence of others exercising an influence over Descartes' life and work, especially his scientific work.

What follows are some edited extracts from the review;

Beeckman, one of Descartes earliest close friends, remarked, on one occasion, that Descartes saw travel as a replacement for study in schools and through books, of which he read few.

His aversion to the ideas of others extended to his avoidance of learned people

In fact, as he matured, he tended to avoid all contact with people, and his adult life was lived primarily in isolation.

Clarke's characterizes Descartes as lonely, paranoid, and generally unpleasant: "He had become [by 1638] a reclusive, cantankerous, and oversensitive loner, who worried incessantly about his place in history and the priority he claimed for various discoveries."

Clark writes of Descartes' "sensitivity to criticism and the certainty that he claimed, prematurely, for his own view", stating further that Descartes "fought with almost everyone he encountered while constantly announcing that all he wanted was 'the security and tranquility' required to complete his intellectual projects".

Among Descartes other flaws Clark lists; lack of modesty, paranoia and suspicion, reluctance to concede intellectual points, a tendency to bear grudges, duplicity, and manipulative treatment of people, even of supportive friends.

Descartes seems to have been in almost constant battle with one or another critic or erstwhile friend, while describing himself as 'docile' and reluctant to speak in his own defense.

Perhaps the least attractive of his many failings was Descartes' duplicity. "He sends pairs of letters to Queen Christina and to Chanut presenting sharply divergent attitudes toward the Queen's invitation to Sweden. 'These parallel letters… ', writes Clarke, "show Descartes at his dissembling best."

I close this post with three questions;

  • How does this seemingly self taught, argumentative, arrogant and self serving critic of everyone and everything but himself end up becoming the father of modern philosophical thought and scientific inquiry?
  • How can one be a fan of Descartes methods now termed :scientific" without simultaneously harboring similar traits, or at least sympathies, within one's self? 
  • Is the Cartesian mindset a necessary precursor for being a competent designer, scientist or engineer? 

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Archer's Systematic Method for Designers

L Bruce Archer's Systematic Method for Designers was published 1964 by the  Council of Industrial Design in London and published serially in Design magazine in 1963 and 1964, revised, with additional material.

It is an impressive work, comprising seven sections, described in 13 pages;

1) Aesthetics and logic
2) The nature of designing
3) Getting the brief
4) Examining the evidence
5) The creative leap
6) The donkey work
7) The final steps.

Each section is loaded with the wisdom and advice of a seasoned practitioner, organized with the rigor of an academic mind.

In the introduction, Archer comments about the tectonic shift he saw under way in the design profession;

"The most fundamental challenge to conventional ideas on design, however, has been the growing advocacy of systematic methods of problem solving, borrowed from computer techniques and management theory, for the assessment of design problems and the development of design solutions."

With regard to aesthetics Archer observed that "as soon as two people start to talk abut design, misunderstandings arise. Some... are due to over-leaping vocabularies, such as those of the engineer and the architect, where the same term can mean slightly or completely different things. Many misunderstandings, however are due to fundamental differences in value and logic."

"Some of our most successful designers have been able to draw a line between sense and sensibility, logic and intuition, function and aesthetic, which needs neither analysis nor justification. They probably think that there is a deal too much talk and not enough action. Others, however, remain racked with prejudices which make them lash out at words like 'analysis', 'logic' and 'method' - or even at words like 'good taste' and 'style'. It would probably do them good to talk about design a bit more."

Phase 4 - Develop Prototype design(s)

The arc of Archer's thinking shifted over the years, as he struggled to close the gap between thinking, feeling and doing as foundations for a grand theory of design. After many years pursuing the idea that computers could help manage the immense complexity of a process which filled 13 pages, had 228 steps, plus five pages of accompanying arrow diagrams, embodies in six phases;

1) "Receive the brief, analyse the problem, prepare detailed program and estimate.
2) Collect data, identify and analyse subproblems, prepare performance specifications.
3) Prepare outline specifications.
4) Develop prototype designs.
5) Prepare and execute validation studies.
6) Prepare manufacturing documentation.

This detailed, top-down approach dovetailed nicely with the well organized planning methods being developed in government managed military and aerospace at the time.

Note that some of the arrows in the diagram point left, indicating some recursion in the process flow. (This is also true of the other five phases.)

 Archer's Eight ways an idea can be expressed

In Part five: The creative leap Archer states; "When all is said and done about defining design problems and analysing design data, there still remains the real crux of the act of designing - the creative leap from pondering the question to finding a solution." Several paragraphs later he observes; "...there can be nothing unscientific about the traditional reliance on intuition and inspiration in design." Confronted with the then recent discoveries of the Transactional school of perception, he concluded; "We are thus brought face to face with the reality of the need for rich, wide and fruitful experience among designers, as well as the capacity for flexibility and fantasy in thought." Archer also asserts that this leap is something which the designer must do alone, although I suspect he was referring to the idea that our thinking occurs within our individual minds first, rather than a collective, shared consciousness.

For all his process rigor, Archer understood the value of cut-and-try. He wrote; "In some industries - furniture, for example, it is often quicker and cheaper to build a prototype and submit it to user tests than it is to carry out extensive detailing and stress calculation. The advantage of suck-it-and-see (cut and try? -df) methods is that however subtle the variables, a direct measure of the overall success or failure is possible. The chief disadvantage is that so many problems of construction must be wholly or partly solved before performance testing can even begin."

Archer's family donated 34 boxes of documents to the Royal College of Art in 2007. The RCA's website states; Different stages of Archer’s model for the design process would later be understood in now-familiar terms such as ‘quality assurance’ or ‘user-centred research’, Unfortunately, access to the documents is limited due to their not having been converted to digital formats.

He did use the phrase "design thinking" on page 1 of Systematic Method for Designers, in context it reads; "Ways have had to be found to incorporate knowledge of ergonomics, cybernetics, marketing and management science into design thinking. As with most technology, there has been a trend towards the adoption of a systems approach as distinct from an artefact approach."

I'll leave it to the reader to determine if they think Archer was referring to a formalized method of design in that statement. My read is that he was speaking of the way designers think, as opposed to a formalized method - and, based on his work, writings and teaching, he clearly was interested in developing an expression of a repeatable design process.

Contact me for more information on Archer's work.