Cybernetic Systems in the Designer’s Palette

There’s a great article on Ars Technica about the design of the first stealth fighter. An airplane that’s invisible to radar has all sorts of interesting constraints. The shape of its surfaces isn’t dictated by what is most aerodynamic, but what will deflect radar. This results in an odd-looking airplane that is less stable than conventional ones.

Of course, the airplane must still fly without crashing. The solution? Fly-by-wire controls that compensate for the airplane’s inherent instability. With such a cybernetic system in place, designers could push the plane’s form. They could offset the stability requirement to a different subsystem, and so optimize surfaces for radar-deflection.

This has me thinking about my projects. How many of the constraints I’m dealing with could be offset to cybernetic systems? (After all, every interaction in a digital information environment is fly-by-wire.)

TAOI: Twitter Threads

The architecture of information:

I have a love-hate relationship with Twitter. On the one hand, it’s served me as a virtual water cooler, allowing me to stay in touch with friends and colleagues. (Especially important when I lived in a part of the world that lacked an active design community.) But Twitter has also become a source of anxiety, frustration, and abuse. This is partly due to the place having grown despite being devoid of a vision of what it ought to be.

One of the signs of this lack of vision is how many of Twitter’s key features have been adoptions of user hacks. Addressing people by their @-name, hashtags, and retweets were all user inventions. Tweet threads is the latest such innovation adopted by Twitter.

Threads first emerged as a way to overcome the platform’s 140-character post limit. Users would reply to their own tweets, often numbering them to create a sequence. While threads are useful (in that they allow for longer ideas), they’re are also difficult to write and read. This new feature should fix that.

I’m glad Twitter has added a way to make threads easier to create, but I don’t understand why we need this at all. We already have an effective medium for long-form writing. It’s called a blog, a format that has many advantages over Twitter threads. Given that you’re reading this on one, you know where I stand on this.

Book Notes: “Finite and Infinite Games”

Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility
By James P. Carse
Free Press, 1986

Some of the best books are hard to categorize. You could say Finite Games and Infinite Games is a philosophy book, but it’s unlike any other philosophy book I’ve read. Parts of it sound like a manifesto; an urgent (yet level-headed and even poetic) call for us to shed our delusions.

The book opens with a duality:

There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite.

A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.

Carse explores the implications of this idea as it applies to various social constructs: religion, patriotism, culture, sexuality, politics, etc. Examining the world through this lens allows us to see it differently, and to think differently about the degree of agency we have in changing the way things are. Achieving positive impact requires that we think of ourselves as infinite players: people who aim to keep the game going.

This way of being affects all aspects of our lives. Here’s a passage that spoke to me from a professional perspective:

An infinite player does not begin working for the purpose of filling up a period of time with work, but for the purpose of filling work with time. Work is not an infinite player’s way of passing time, but of engendering possibility. Work is not a way of arriving at a desired present and securing it against an unpredictable future, but of moving toward a future which itself has a future.

This paragraph sums up much of the book’s power for me: it’s an appeal to stop with the stupid fears already and take action, joyfully. We’re at play in a field of possibilities! An empowering message in times of uncertainty.

I first read Finite Games and Infinite Games about fifteen years ago. It impressed me then, and returning to it now makes me realize time has not diminished its power. Everyone is engaged in the sort of gameplay Carse talks about; it behooves us to know which types of games we’re playing so we can go about it more conscientiously.

Buy it on

The Power of Constraints

I learned one of the most important lessons in my career during my first semester in architecture school: there is great power in exploring the constraints of a design project.

Jeff, the instructor who was leading my very first design studio class, asked us to create a three-dimensional composition using a limited number of elements: wood dowels, foam core planes, wire, etc. The constraints seemed very limiting. Still, this was one of the very first things we’d been asked to design and my fellow students and I aimed to make them “cool.”

When we came together to share what we’d done, all of the compositions looked oddly familiar. It seems we’d all assumed we were supposed to be modeling spaces; all the compositions featured elements that looked like scaled walls and columns. Jeff asked us why we hadn’t considered using dowels with a diameter bigger than their height, or very thick foam core. He hadn’t specified any of these things; we’d assumed they were supposed to be a certain way.

Jeff explained there is a great deal of freedom in constraints: instead of facing the intimidating challenge of a completely blank slate, you’re tasked with exploring the boundaries of a limited domain. I’d never heard this idea expressed like this before, and it blew my mind. I spent the rest of my career as an architecture student exploring the boundaries of projects, and finding great joy in doing so. (I still do.)

Some of my favorite work comes from smart people exploring the constraints of a problem domain. Two examples, in particular,​ come to mind when I think about this.

The first is the icon system Susan Kare designed for the first Macintosh computer. Kare was dealing with incredibly limited constraints: a 512 × 342-pixel screen that could only display 1-bit color. These constraints meant icons needed to be relatively small, and could only use two colors: black and white. The clarity and charm that many people associate with the Macintosh come directly from the beautiful and subtle balance that Kare struck with her icon designs for the system:

Image: Fast Company
Image: Fast Company

Kare went on to design other icon sets for computer systems with more colors and higher resolution graphics, but they don’t have the power, simplicity, and personality that her original Mac icons do. I attribute this to the constraints she faced in the project.

The second example comes from the work of the musician and producer Brian Eno. In 1994, Microsoft asked Eno to design the startup sound for its then-new operating system, Windows 95. This OS was a great hit when it was released, so many people got unwittingly exposed to Eno’s work. Here it is, in case you haven’t heard it:

The commission for this piece came with a very interesting constraint that liberated Eno. He relates what happened in an interview:

The idea came up at the time when I was completely bereft of ideas. I’d been working on my own music for a while and was quite lost, actually. And I really appreciated someone coming along and saying, “Here’s a specific problem — solve it.”

The thing from the agency said, “We want a piece of music that is inspiring, universal, blah- blah, da-da-da, optimistic, futuristic, sentimental, emotional,” this whole list of adjectives, and then at the bottom it said “and it must be 3 1/4 seconds long.”

I thought this was so funny and an amazing thought to actually try to make a little piece of music. It’s like making a tiny little jewel.

In fact, I made 84 pieces. I got completely into this world of tiny, tiny little pieces of music. I was so sensitive to microseconds at the end of this that it really broke a logjam in my own work. Then when I’d finished that and I went back to working with pieces that were like three minutes long, it seemed like oceans of time.

I’ve had similar experiences, where a project’s constraints make me see it (and the rest of my work) in a different light, triggering a flurry of creative activity. Every time I encounter this situation, I thank Jeff for teaching me that lesson so many years ago: There is incredible power in constraints. Don’t fight them; embrace them.

Making Time for Noodling

Every morning before I go to work, I take my dog Bumpkin on a long walk. My iPhone doesn’t come with us; it’s just Bumpkin and me. Because I will spend most of the rest of the day working with computers, I see this as an opportunity to reclaim my ability to be present in the world.

Some of my best ideas come to me during these walks. I remember things I heard or learned the previous day, find connections between them, explore different directions. When one idea catches my interest, I focus on it, mulling it over until various angles and perspectives become clear. When I get home, I write it down. (They often end up on this blog.)

I cherish this ability to noodle around with ideas. For me, it’s a form of release from the goal-directed thinking that constitutes the bulk of my time; mental play I undertake with no motivation other than the pleasure of exploring relationships between concepts. This sort of play is important for my development, so I look for opportunities to create space for it in other aspects of my life. (For example, by playing around with new tools and technologies.)

Psychologists say that undirected free play is important for the development of children. Among other things, it teaches them social and mental skills and allows them to exercise these skills; to build cognitive muscle. We have no reason to expect that this need for growth and exercise ends at some point in our late childhood. As adults, it’s important that we dedicate time to noodling; we should strive to make it not just socially acceptable but expected as part of our professional and personal development.

Self-image Ideals

Ideals of self-image have varied over time. In pre-industrial times, when many people needed to work the land for a living, having a tan was a sign of labor, and pasty-white skin was considered a sign of privilege. These semiotics of melanin flipped after the Industrial Age: labor went indoors, so a tanned skin became a sign of leisure. In both cases, evidence of the person’s exposure to UV radiation was taken as a signifier of the degree to which he or she was free to determine how they spent their time.

This signifier is still with us in our post-industrial “Information” Age. This isn’t surprising since most of us still spend the bulk of our time indoors. That said, it’s becoming a less useful indicator over time: Many people now know that too much exposure to the sun can cause health problems, so even those who have lots of leisure opt to protect themselves. So there are other ways in which we project our status in the Information Age. Given that information is the focus of value in our time, the first ideal we’ve driven towards is proof of our ability to access information. This has manifested in our drive to possess and flaunt devices that allow us to do so: computers, smartphones, smartwatches, smart thermostats, etc. (As Bruce Sterling has said, today’s Apple makes jewelry.)

I expect this to switch at some point. As it becomes increasingly obvious to people that information environments are exploiting their attention and personal information (“If you’re not paying, you’re the product”), the degree of agency over access to networks will become the new ideal. Those who can afford to will control the means to claim​ their attention. Some may be very open to intrusion while others will be almost impossible to get to. The gist: it’ll be their call to make. The rest of society — the people using all the “free” and “cheap” services — will live subject to constant demands on their time and attention, their ability to sustain focus compromised by a psyche that is continually being yanked in seemingly random directions.

The question is not whether this will happen — it’s already here. (Ask yourself: are you able to turn off notifications for messages coming from your boss? Your ability to do so says something about your position in the pecking order of the Information Society.) The question, rather, is how we will indicate this elevated status. Perhaps it’ll become déclassé to flaunt devices like smartwatches or smartphones. (But again, the gist here is agency, not access. I can control what notifications I get on my watch, for example.) More likely, the signs will be psychological: a peaceful demeanor, an increased ability to listen for a minute or so without reacting, to reason calmly. A Zen personality will be the surest indicator that you’re dealing with a person of great power.

Third Places

I’m typing these words in a Starbucks store. It’s Sunday, and I’ve come here to work on my book. For the price of a cup of coffee, I have access to an environment that allows me to focus for a few hours. There are other people here; some are working on computers as I am, some are reading the newspaper, others are just chatting. Starbucks offers us all a place to sit for a while to do our own thing. The coffee is not bad, either. It’s a great deal.

This is by design. The Starbucks website explains the company’s origin story thus:

In 1983, [Starbucks founder Howard Schultz] traveled to Italy and became captivated with Italian coffee bars and the romance of the coffee experience. He had a vision to bring the Italian coffeehouse tradition back to the United States. A place for conversation and a sense of community. A third place between work and home… From the beginning, Starbucks set out to be a different kind of company. One that not only celebrated coffee and the rich tradition, but that also brought a feeling of connection.

The concept of the third place was coined by the sociologist Ray Oldenburg. In his book The Great Good Place, Oldenburg pointed out that important aspects of our lives happen in three “places”: home (“first place”), work (“second place”), and venues such as corner stores, coffee shops, and parks. These “third places” are where we socialize, play, and catch up with each other and the world. They’re important to healthy civil societies. Starbucks and its competitors aim to fulfill this role; the number of people in this store and others like it is a testament to the strategy’s success.

At a time when so much of our communications happens online, it feels good to be in a roomful of people — some neighbors, some strangers — of varying ages, races, backgrounds, etc. All of us are doing our own thing, but also enjoying each other’s company. We exchange small courtesies; we exercise our civility. The coffee is a small price to pay for an important social need — especially when you consider the currency we’re paying with on the online social networks: our attention and personal information.

Through the Looking-Glass

Every weekday morning I commute to work on BART. When I look around at my fellow passengers, I’m always struck by how few of them seem to be fully present. Some seem incapacitated due to chemical intoxication, but many of them — often, most of them — are staring into little glass rectangles in their hands. Their bodies share this train car with me, but their minds and attention are somewhere else.

I sometimes catch glimpses of what they’re doing: chat bubbles, games with colorful candy explosions, videos of Bollywood dancers, a news website, a cat GIF, Facebook. Sometimes a smile or a frown flashes on their faces, cued by an interaction the rest of us are oblivious to. Their focus is intense; they only come back to the here and now when the train pulls into a station or makes an unexpected stop.

While they’re focused on their glass rectangles, we’ve somehow stopped being in the same place together. The boundaries of the physical environment we share no longer constrain their consciousness. They’re participating in something — a political argument, a shopping expedition, a flirtatious encounter — that’s happening somewhere else.

Where are these people?