A Sunday stroll about design and professions and all that jazz

For years, I’ve been told that people in IT are obsessed with “the technology” without really understanding “the business”. This has been good for some people, with the creation of a hybrid role [“Don’t worry, Superman is here; I’m a normal person who speaks geekish as well, and I will save the world for you”].

Over the years, over many organisations, I’ve seen many skirmishes between “finance” and “HR” and “operations” and “IT”. As the years passed, and as skirmishes became battles, they became boringly familiar. I’d seen the movie before, and even slept through it. Each battle went through four steps:

  • My profession is more important than yours.
  • In fact it is so much more important that you won’t even understand what I do.
  • But I understand what you do, and it is simple. I don’t understand the fuss.
  • So I will spend my time pointing out that difference to my management whenever I can.

Until I read Andrew Abbott’s The System of Professions I was blissfully unaware of all this, of the implications of the blurring that’s taking place, of the reasons why this was happening. But enough of that, it’s the subject of a different post. But.

Where I work, we’ve done something very different. As an industry, we’ve been selling “convergence” to the market for a long time without actually being converged ourselves. So we’ve fixed that. One year ago, we merged our product, process, network and IT departments into two new ones, calling ourselves Design and Operate. [As far as I am aware, no telco worldwide has taken such a radical step.]

All my life I’ve been fascinated by design, but as an amateur. My training was as an economist, so the passion for design was driven by natural curiosity, a willingness to observe and the commitment of an amateur. Whenever I looked at things, I liked making observations, largely to myself, about the design of the things I was looking at or using.

Here are some examples:

Walking around Bologna recently, I loved seeing the porticos that dominate the architecture of the town. Bologna has more than 32 kilometres of porticos, aesthetically pleasing, eminently practicable, a pleasure to observe and to use.

Shelter from rain or sun should you need it. A place where shops and stalls and restaurants can encroach upon within reason, to change and enhance the customer experience. A trademark for the town, standardising it yet allowing for considerable variety and ingenuity.

Here’s a second example, again from the architecture of the town.

It’s taken at the Piazza Maggiore, the heart of the town, an open where the sun seems to shine its strongest. Yet the sense of cool that pervades this little passage above has to be exeprienced to be believed, and you can see the light and shade effects for yourself. Once again aesthetically pleasing yet immensely practical.

Just round the corner from the Piazza Maggiore, I came across this, in one of the porticos I was referring to:

Bookcases holding secondhand books, placed in the portico in front of the bookshop. Beautiful curves in the aged wood cases, easy to lock and secure, yet lovely to look at and with a great visibility-to-blockage ratio.

Given the examples above, you may surmise that the only aesthetics-meets-practicality examples I see are all in the past. Not true. Here’s something from the hotel I was staying at:

For many years, when it came to hotel room directions and numbers, I’d seen Braille support, as in the example below:

Which was fine if you were standing right in front of the room, for people with strong sight; for blind people, it was fine once you got there in the first place. The use of the carpet to signal room direction seemed a good thing to me, good for people with normal sight and for partially sighted people as well. I also liked the fact that I could look down a corridor and see approximately where my room was, giving me a sense of depth I didn’t have before.

Incidentally, while researching this post, I came across thisisbroken.com, a site well worth visiting. They have examples like this one:

There’s a lot that still intrigues me and confuses me about design. One of the themes that I’ve been kicking around of late is the concept of “horizontalness” and “verticalness” in design, what that means for the customer, why vertical patents are not good for customer experience.

What am I talking about? Let’s take the car industry as an example. One manufacturer patents side-impact airbags. A second patents “control-your-CD-player-radio-on-a-stick”. A third comes up with integrated rear child seats. And so on.

The patents are for “horizontal” products, yet implemented in vertically-controlled platforms called manufacturers. We need to reduce the cost of transferring such innovation between vertically integrated platforms, while at the same time ensuring that the creator of the patent gets rewarded for the creativity and original investment.

Something to think about. Comments welcome as usual.

4 thoughts on “A Sunday stroll about design and professions and all that jazz”

  1. Interesting to note that also I am also an economist by training, I was always very involved with design of forms (as in industrial design), machines (automobiles), and more recently processes (as Sales processes), which I find even more interesting even though less obvious. I find creativity in form and utility is one of the most satisfying human experiences.

  2. The secondhand book shopes remind me of the old Moore Market in Madras.
    Has anyone wondered why in this day and age, cars still don’t come with a user manual that actually talks about the things your particular machine does actually have, instead of ‘where applicable/present’ ?

  3. Chandru, the issue you bring up is true for most white goods and electrical appliances as well, and as you say there is no longer a good reason. Other than the obvious. People just don’t care enough about the customer.

    That will change.

  4. I like this because it also puts creativity in a new perspective. Well of course not new to me, he said with his nose in the air. But bringing design to business processes can certainly be a highly creative process. I also wonder what SOA is in this sort of thing. Service Oriented Architecture? Service to whom? Somehow this architecture loses sight of the customer/person. Good design or architecture is a form of (virtually) tactile communication in my opinion. It is the cutting edge or twilight zone between communication and hard facts.

Let me know what you think