An Architecture + Systems Thinking Reading List

A friend asked me for a syllabus on architecture and cybernetics. I don’t have a comprehensive syllabus on the subject, but I did send him a short list of readings that have informed my thinking about architecting from a systemic perspective. I thought you may get value from this list as well, so I’m sharing it here. The resources are in no particular order.

What major resources have I missed? Please let me know.

Three Lessons From the Work of Charles & Ray Eames

Last weekend I had the opportunity to take my kids to see an exhibit of the work of Charles and Ray Eames at the Oakland Museum of California. The Eameses are among the most famous designers ever, so little of the work on display was unfamiliar to me. Still, seeing so much of it together in one place was inspiring and enlightening.

The Eameses had a compelling mix of rigor and joie de vivre that has universal appeal. The show captures the playfulness of the resulting work. (My kids were a bit apprehensive about going to see a museum exhibit but got into it once they realized some of the items on display were toys they could play with.)

Three ideas stood out to me in this visit that I thought worth sharing. They apply to design in all domains.

Framing is a creative act

Careful composition and selection — determining what to leave out of a problem domain — opens up new ways of understanding and approaching familiar problems. As Brian Eno has written, “A frame is a way of creating a little world round something… Is there anything in a work that is not frame, actually?”

So much of the Eames’s​’​s work was about creative framing of ordinary things. In their myriad photographs, framing was the central (and literal) creative gesture; Powers of 10 moves the frame up and down levels of granularity to change our understanding of our place in the universe; the Case Study Houses re-frame the materials, construction techniques, and aesthetic of housing.

Accommodate a range of experiences

In the part of the show that presented the Eameses’s Mathematica exhibit, a quote from Charles Eames stood out to me; it reflected their aspirations for the exhibit. He said, “[Mathematica] should be of interest to a bright student and not embarrass the most knowledgeable.”

A physical model of a mobius strip, part of the Eameses's Mathematica exhibit. Image by Ryan Somma CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
A physical model of a mobius strip, part of the Eameses’s Mathematica exhibit. Image by Ryan Somma CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The idea of accommodating a range of experiences is very important, and in some cases, challenging. Sometimes we must design for users that have very different perspectives and degrees of experience. This calls for 1) a solid understanding of the problem domain, 2) maintaining a beginners mind, and 3) testing and iterating.

It’s structure all the way down

I’ve always been inspired by the breadth of the Eames Office’s output. They excelled in film, graphic design, industrial design, architecture, exhibit design, and more. Beyond the obvious joy the Eameses got from experimenting with media, materials, techniques, and craft, the unifying conceptual drive behind all of this work was an acknowledgment that it was all underpinned by structure.

Photo by Cliff Hutson on Flickr
Photo by Cliff Hutson on Flickr

A building has structure. House of Cards — a delightful toy that consists of playing cards with carefully placed slits that allow them to be interconnected with each other — has structure. So does a chair, and a film. Even given the wide scope of their work — and the fact that most people saw them as “designers” — Charles Eames saw himself as an architect. “I can’t help but look at the problems around us as problems of structure,” he said, “and structure is architecture.”

The World of Charles and Ray Eames runs in the Oakland Museum of California until February 18, 2019.

SF Architecture Walking Tour

In the last couple of years, I’ve led small groups of colleagues at the Enterprise UX conference on a walking tour of the architecture of downtown San Francisco. UXmatters just published a writeup of this year’s tour.

My tour focuses on how we create mental models of environments, based on the framework laid out in Kevin Lynch’s book The Image of the City. It also explores things UX designers can learn from the architecture of the built environment. We do this by looking at landmarks in downtown SF.

I learned about many of the architectural facts and locations I talked about from a fabulous walking tour of the city led by architectural historian Rick Evans. Looking at the UXmatters writeup, I’m struck by how much of what I talked about I picked up from Rick’s tour. I haven’t given him enough credit, and hope to change that with this post.

If you have a morning or an afternoon to spend in downtown San Francisco, one of the best investments of your time would be to take Rick’s tour. It’s enlightening and a great value.

Top-down/Bottom-up

One of the most frequent objections I hear about approaching design work more architecturally is that architecture is “top-down.” By this, my interlocutor usually means that architects come to problems with a prescribed solution that they impose onto the situation, In contrast, of course, to a solution that emerges more fluidly from understanding the context and people served by the thing being designed.

It’s understandable that they’d come to this conclusion since many of the famous architects people know about produce work that doesn’t look intuitive or contextually relevant. It’s hard to see, for example, how Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao is the result of a user-centered design approach. The worst offender here is perhaps Le Corbusier, whose urban Plan Voisin for Paris would’ve razed large portions of the city in exchange for a de-humanizing grid of skyscrapers:

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The War Room

Most spaces serve as shelter; they keep us safe, warm, and dry. That’s the baseline. But some spaces go beyond that: They also help us think better. One such space is the war room.

A war room is a space that allows the team to focus on a project or initiative. It allows team members to see the latest developments in the project, but also trace its history; to see where critical decisions were made (and why.) The war room extends the cognitive abilities of its inhabitants. It creates a shared context that allows them to have intelligent discussions about the project.

Walking into such a room focuses your mind on that project. You and your teammates are (literally) surrounded by the information you need to make decisions about the direction of the project. The room functions as a substrate for working towards a shared goal. It’s an inhabitable shared notebook that allows for real-time collaboration.

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Screens, Screens Everywhere

Yesterday I got back from UXPA 2018, which was held in a beach resort near San Juan, Puerto Rico. It’s a long way from the Bay Area, so the trip required me to spend some time waiting in airports for connections. At Newark International Airport, I was surprised by the proliferation of screens everywhere. Finding a place to enjoy an undistracted meal proved futile; after much walking around, I resigned myself to the fact that every restaurant seat in this terminal would come equipped with a screen. This, after a three-and-a-half-hour redeye flight in which I couldn’t sleep, my insomnia due in no small part to the passenger next to me not knowing how to turn off the screen in front of her. (As with many other airlines, United now conveniently provides a “personal” screen to every passenger in their airplanes.)

I’m not particularly fond of air travel. But one aspect of flying I’ve long enjoyed is that it affords me the ability to “turn off” for a while — to not focus on what’s happening in my mailbox, or Twitter, or what have you. Instead, I use the time to read or listen to music or audiobooks. Yes, I’ve traveled with an iPad for years. That’s where I do most of my reading. Sometimes I’ll also watch a movie or TV show on it, or even play a casual game. So I’m not new to having a screen in front of my while I travel. But it used to be my choice as to when and where it comes out. Now these things are everywhere during the travel experience. They’re in front of you when you’re in your seat in the airplane. They’re in front of you when you’re eating a sandwich at the terminal. They’re even in front of you when you’re paying for the sandwich. (Most shops in the terminal I was in at Newark have replaced convenience store attendants with self-checkout stations, all featuring iPads as the primary user interface.)

I’m guessing the proliferation of screens during the air travel experience is the result of airlines and airport operators discovering the value of your attention. In the “bad old days,” you’d buy your food and then sit there doing “nothing” (other than eating) for thirty minutes to an hour. If you’re like most other passengers, you’d be flying alone, with no-one else to talk to. Yes, you probably had at least one other screen on you (such as an iPhone) to keep you entertained, but the airline/airport operator couldn’t easily monetize your attention on that screen. So now they provide you with devices where you can access an information environment of their own devising: one in which you can continue to order more food or products or what have you. As a nice side benefit, this probably also reduces the costs of each transaction, since they don’t need as many people working in these restaurants and shops if every seat comes equipped with its own self-service checkout register.

Win-win-win, right? I’m not sure. I felt exhausted just looking at that sea of screens. When arriving for a connection such as the one in Newark, I’m usually tired and a little dazed after sitting for hours in a confined, uncomfortable space. I’m also trying to get a read on the physical environment of the terminal: I need to know how to get to the gate for my next flight, how much time I have until it starts boarding, and (not infrequently) where the nearest restroom is. As a result, my attention is often already compromised in these places. The proliferation of screens trying to “engage” me doesn’t offer respite in this environment; it does the opposite. I found myself pining for a quiet corner where I could have a cup of coffee without stuff flashing in my face.

Enabling Transactions

You place a pack of chewing gum on the counter at a convenience store. The store attendant looks at the gum and says, “one ninety nine.” You place two dollar bills on the counter. The attendant takes the bills and hands you back a shiny one cent coin. You thank her and walk out, peeling the cellophane from the gum package as you head back to your car.

This minor episode reenacts a ritual members of our species have conducted for tens of thousands of years. We call it a transaction: two parties meet to exchange something of value. You want something; another person who has that thing establishes the conditions under which s/he would be willing to part with it; you reach consensus; you hand over something of value that satisfies those conditions; the other person gives you the thing you wanted; you both go on your ways. Ideally, both parties are better off after the transaction has concluded.

In some ways, history is the story of how we’ve perfected our ability to transact with each other. At an earlier stage, you and the store clerk would’ve had to negotiate over the relative value of the goods you were exchanging. (“A pack of gum? That’ll be a chicken thigh, thank you.”) Eventually we abstracted value into currencies we could all agree on, and then abstracted it even more. Eventually, it became pure information; today you can pay for the gum by waving your wristwatch over the counter — a magic trick that would’ve baffled our forebears.

The valuables we exchange musn’t be pecuniary. The penitent man confessing to a priest is transacting; he’s sharing intimate information about his life in exchange for peace of mind. Few such interactions stand on their own; more often they’re part of a sequence of interactions that follow one another, building trust one step at a time. The act of confession likely isn’t the penitent man’s first transaction with a priest; more likely he’s been in many prior interactions with other church functionaries that led up to this point in his life. Some of them served as gating factors that mark a significant transition in the person’s life. For example, the man had to become baptized at one point; i.e. he gained membership in a community in exchange for part of his identity and independence. That, too, was a transaction.

Architecture exists to support such transactions. The convenience store makes it possible for you to purchase gum much in the same way that the confessional makes it possible for the man to relieve his conscience. Buildings set aside parts of our physical environment for particular uses; the convenience store has all the necessary components to ease the exchange of gum for currency.

Information environments are also created to support transactions. I have a bag of rock salt sitting in my Amazon.com shopping cart at the moment. (My kids’ birthdays are coming up and I’m going to make ice cream for them.) I can’t buy it yet because this particular product is what Amazon calls an “add-on” item, which means I must buy other goods amounting to more than US$25 before I can purchase the rock salt. So now I’m wandering Amazon.com looking for other things I can buy. When I do find something, I will add it to my cart. Eventually, I will check out: I will click on a button that marks my consent, setting in motion a process wherein my credit card will be charged and a series of machines (and some humans) will gather the things I’ve requested and convey them to me.

I will undertake this transaction without overthinking it, much as you do when you pay for a pack of gum at the store. But this transaction is much more complicated than the exchange of money for a pack of gum. So much has had to happen beforehand for me to be able to do this. First finding out about Amazon.com, opening an account in the system (over a decade ago!), making my first purchase, eventually trying to purchase an “add-on​” item and figuring out that it’s a different type of good… All transactions, all critical moments that led up to this most recent purchase. (And those are only the transactions that involved Amazon — I also had to transact with my bank in order to secure the necessary credit to pay for the rock salt.) Information environments supported all of these interactions successfully, to the point where I now take them for granted.

In the past, at least one other human would’ve been required for me to be able to buy rock salt, but all we need now is a place designed to enable the required sequence of transactions. In buying the rock salt, I’m not transacting with another person in the way the penitent man transacts with a priest or you transact with a store clerk when you buy gum. When I shop on Amazon.com, I transact with the environment itself. People are still involved, but indirectly; some who work in logistics will fulfill my request (although one suspects their involvement, too, will whittle away in time) and those who designed, built, and manage the place where the transaction is happening. Increasingly the responsibility for enabling the exchange of value in our societies falls on the designers, developers, and the managers of the environments where we transact.

If These Walls Had Ears

In early 1896, the Lumière brothers exhibited one of the first motion pictures ever made: THE ARRIVAL OF A TRAIN AT LA CIOTAT. With a run time of less than a minute, THE ARRIVAL OF A TRAIN isn’t long. It also has a straightforward premise: the movie consists of a single stationary shot of a steam train pulling into a station, and the subsequent disembarkment of passengers. The shot is composed so the camera points down the track, with the locomotive coming towards it. You can see the film here:

THE ARRIVAL OF A TRAIN is famous not just because it was the first movie shown in public; it’s also famous because of the legend that’s grown around it. Supposedly, the first showings caused audiences to panic, with some people scrambling to the exits. Unaccustomed to moving pictures, these early movie-goers somehow thought there was a real train barreling towards them, and ran for their lives.

Whether this happened exactly as described is inconsequential. The story speaks to the power of the motion picture medium to conjure illusions and has therefore become enshrined as the founding myth of cinema. It also speaks to how information can alter our sense of place, especially when we’re interacting with it in novel ways. As such, it’s a good analog for some uncanny experiences we are encountering today.

Recently, a Portland woman named Danielle received a call from one of her husband’s employees. “Unplug your Alexa devices right now,” this person said. “You’re being hacked.” The employee then described in detail a conversation that had happened earlier inside Danielle’s home. Apparently, the family’s Amazon Echo device was recording their conversations and sharing them with others.

In the subsequent investigation of the incident, Amazon’s engineers concluded that somebody had uttered a particular set of phonemes during the conversation that the Echo interpreted as its activation command, followed by a command to send a message to the person who then received the recordings. In other words, it wasn’t a hack; it was an unintentional triggering of one of the Echo’s features. (You can read about this story on The Verge.)

I can’t help but wonder ​how this incident has altered this family’s relationship with the physical environment​ of their home. When people first experienced THE ARRIVAL OF A TRAIN at the end of the 19th Century, they had never seen anything like it — except in “real life.” The first audiences were inexperienced with the new information delivery medium, so it’s understandable that they felt confused or even panicky. Whatever their reaction was, undoubtedly their experience of being in a particular place was radically transformed by the experience.

Even now, over 120 years later, it still is. Think about the last time you went to a movie theater. The experience of sitting in a movie theater is very different before and after the movie is playing. How long does it take for you to stop being conscious of the physical environment of the theater as you become engrossed by the film? (This is one of the reasons why contemporary movies are preceded with reminders to turn off your electronic devices; you’re there to draw your attention away from our physical reality for a couple of hours, and you don’t want anything yanking it back.)

Always-on smart devices such as the Echo, Google Home, and Apple HomePod change the nature of our physical environments: They add an information interaction layer to the place that wasn’t there before you turned on the cylinder in the room. Unlike a movie, however, these devices aren’t designed to capture your attention. In fact, these devices are designed to be unobtrusive; you’re only meant to be aware of their presence when you summon them by issuing a verbal command.

One can only assume that the form of these things is a compromise with the constraints imposed by current technology and the laws of physics. The ideal form for this class of devices is completely invisibile; we want them to be perceived not as devices at all, but as a feature of the environment. But is this really the ideal? Is it desirable for our physical environments to be always listening to us in the background?

Partly due to their design, we’re responding to these smart cylinders in a way that stands in stark contrast to how we received THE ARRIVAL OF A TRAIN. Instead of panicking and running out of the room, we’re placidly deploying these instruments of contextual collapse into our most intimate environments. What does the possibility of inadvertent broadcast do to our ability to speak frankly with each other, to rage with anger, to say sweet, corny things to each other, to share with our kids the naughty delight of “pull-my-finger” jokes?

Those panicky Parisians of 1896 would run out of the theater to a perfectly ordinary street, no threatening locomotive in sight. I bet they initially felt like fools. Soon enough, the novelty would pass; eventually, they’d be able to sit through — and enjoy — much longer, more exciting film entertainments. What about us? Is panic merited when we discover our rooms have ears and that others can listen to anything we say? Will we be able to run out of these rooms? How will we know?