Friday, February 22, 2008

Design is about articulating vision of what is to be

In my reading and conversations and thinking lately I keep coming around to this phrase: design is about articulating vision of what is to be.

I was struck by this thought several times yesterday, including late last night while reading a passage in Henry Dreyfuss' autobiography, Designing For People. Dreyfuss was, IMO, the most important industrial designer of the twentieth century. Among other things, he designed the Twentieth Century Limited locomotive, the classic John Deere tractor, the Honeywell circular wall thermostat, the classic Hoover vacuum cleaner, and perhaps most iconic of all, the Bell model 550 telephone (the classic desktop phone). It was Dreyfuss' passage about the model 550 that stuck me. Here are some snippets from a section that is about three or four pages long:

Toward this goal, we proceed slowly, discarding more innovations than we accept.

Every conceivable kind of handgrip was considered...     Laboratory and field tests by typical telephone users...pointed up advantages.

...the phone began to fall into shape. This is an easy way of stating that something like 2500 rough sketches were scrutinized and narrowed down to half a dozen...

It would serve no purpose to confound the reader with the infinite mass of statistical detail that had to be carefully studied, the suggested changes that were agreed upon, rejected, or modified, and the compromises effected between engineers and industrial designers. Inherent limitations dictated much of the design.

Our office was in turmoil for weeks over what was called the "ROH Battle" - receiver off hook...

Sketches were made of all these variations, then accurate layout drawings. These were followed by full-size "breadboard models" of the components. When several designs appeared likely, they were modeled in clay, which can be easily modified as ideas develop. Later they were cast in plaster, sculptured and lacquered. This high polish was important so that the model could be analyzed for light reflection that might prove annoying or tiring. Some were equipped with mock components such as handset dials, cords, and number plates to simulate the finished product. When all decisions were made, a bronze master was made of the final design.

Is this any different than what those of us in software product design do, other than we don't work in the physical realm but in the software realm? I think not. All of these things ring true - the discarded ideas, the formative testing, the endless sketches and detail, the interaction between developers and designers, the inherent limitations of the software architecture, and the weeks of turmoil over thorny design problems.

And what Dreyfuss is describing, to me, is the many different ways of articulating vision of what is to be, every step of the way.

There's a side topic here too, about the role of "specs." Too many software organizations, I think, confuse design with "writing the spec." I think design is all of those other ways of articulating the vision of what is to be, each one reducing uncertainty and answering questions and focusing the idea. Then you write the spec, if needed, when things are pretty well nailed down. Not unlike how the telephone bronze master wasn't made until all the decisions were made about the final design.

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