Designing for the Long-Term

Move fast and break things, sprint, be lean, be agile, ship, iterate. These are the mantras of our digital design world and they have jettisoned us out of the fossilised age of hierarchical edifices and waterfall management. But they have come at the cost of long-term thinking and deep reflection. Rapid iteration and half-broken MVPs are fine for First World problems, but a different kind of lens is critical digital when these platforms and services are woven into the fabric of society.

Many of the essential services in our lives – finance, mobility, communications, healthcare, welfare – are services that existed long before any of us were born. They will be around long after we retire and well beyond our lifetimes. Designing them requires care and humility. In this talk Andy draws upon the fields of space exploration, landscape gardening and architecture to argue the case for thinking long and why this should be part of every designer’s mindset.

Andy Polaine – Design for the long term

I want to talk about our addiction to speed (not the drug). When computers were slow, we had moments to think.

But actually when Andy fired up an old MacOS 7 machine he was surprised to notice how snappy the interface felt. But there was no multitasking, if you had to wait for the computer or printer… you read a book.

Now we say things like “I’m really busy so things need to be faster.” We’re all just making ourselves and others busier. In that mode two things are lost – mindfulness and long-term thinking. Ten year, hundred year thinking.

The digital ephemera problem – we have a culture of free content, which also leads to it being ephemeral and therefor impermanent. It’s free, who cares? But even when we pay we still don’t really care – we get upset about paying $3 for an app we’ll use daily, while we buy a $5 cup of coffee.

Reference: the blink list – helps you read books fast, down to 15 minutes… so you have more time to read articles about time management and procrastination.

We are all guilty of this.

We shape our tools and thereafter they shape us. – J.M. Caulkin / attrib. Marshall McLuhan

The tools and methods we use represent mindset and intent. A calligraphic brush and chisel do not encourage a mindset of thrashing out some content. This is why Bootstrap websites all follow a particular pattern and it all starts to look the same.

Management culture is an artefact of the industrial revolution. Prior to that, you had artisans who would sit and make things and sell them directly to customers, learning what they liked before making the next thing.

After the industrial revolution the Taylorist approach took over. Artisans were replaced with people who just did one part of making the overall thing – putting a wheel on the car, not making a whole car. Suddenly we needed managers, someone who knew the big picture.

Designers need to evolve, there’s so much to know and keep up with. There’s a lot to know and a lot of new technology to understand.

In a longer context we can consider the way people talked about Flash allowing them to make things really fast. People were proud of cranking designs out fast… and it seemed appalling to Andy. Plus the new version of Flash had a thousand new methods and it seemed unattainable to keep up with it. Every time something new came out it felt like you had to start again.

All of this draws you away from honing your craft, you just constantly reset. All the while adding to the digital ephemera. But perhaps none of it matters?

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Mark Zuckerberg faces Congress, photo from Wired

Perhaps none it matters. Until it does. Zuckerberg, despite all his money, still looks tired and scared. “Look at the bags under his eyes!”

First world problems are still problems, and Kendall Jenner can’t help us.

The capability of technology is always over-estimated as a solution to things; and the difficulty of great design is always underestimated.

Most digital products aren’t products, they’re service ecosystems. Perhaps the only true product on your phone is the calculator. It doesn’t connect to anything.

Single touchpoints are contained within a multi-channel service, which lives inside a business ecosystem, which lives inside a PEST (political, economic, social, technological ecosystem).

Part of the job is to be able to move between these layers, to shift between the problems and challenges in each layer when it’s relevant.

Andy loves a good metaphor because it helps reset the mental model. So what can we learn from landscape architecture? Very large estates and manor homes took very long-term thinking. In the 1800s the people creating the garden would probably not live to see its mature state (as close to “done” as a grand garden can get). It took lots of care and attention to make sure it grew in the right ways to reach the original vision.

Imagine if it was like software? “We’ve shipped the garden, we’re done!”

Andy keeps a sketch of the Sydney Opera House on his desktop, to remind him it was once just an idea. The final design wasn’t even the first choice, but it had been created considering the different directions you might approach it. What would the experience be? When you walk up the stairs, there are no skyscrapers behind it.

The Opera House is also a building that faces outwards. Skyscrapers are egotistical, they face into themselves. But the Opera House faces you on each approach.

Jorn Utzon noted that “we made the working drawings just ahead of the actual construction”, so the construction and design actually influenced each other. The sketches would change as the construction continued.

Compare it with a carefully-planned difficult conversation: they rarely go to your mental plan.

The responsive approach to the Opera House is also part of the reason it was so far over budget; and Utzon didn’t even live to see it finished.

A lack of long-term thinking can be deadly, as it was in the Grenfell tower fire.

Compare that with the Voyager space probe, which still works 37 years after people were no longer able to touch it. They are firing the thrusters in tiny bursts with almost a day’s delay sending the signal.

Four principles and a metaphor (and a movie nobody recognises any more, making Andy feel old… students stay the same age but you just get older!)

  1. Design for long-term and worst-case scenarios
    1. NASA is great at this. They only get one shot at the real thing, even when they keep a reference replica on earth.
    2. What are you delivering to future generations? On a shorter scale, what are you handing off to people to build?
    3. Worst case… what if someone 3D prints a gun? The creators thought nobody would do that, but it was one of the first things people tried.
  2. Design for ecosystems, not products
    1. (story of introduced snails on an island destroying the natural ecosystem, destroying the life work of someone who had documented the native snails)
    2. The point here is that small things have huge ramifications.
  1. Balance ego with humility
    1. The life of the designer is to critique everything they see, but you need to be able to assert humility.
    2. The example of Ghandi may be cliched but he does embody the combination of humility and still the ego to demand big things.
  1. Go slow to go fast later
    1. There has to be time for reflection, analysis and training.
    2. Usain Bolt noted sleep was important for his body to “absorb his training”.

The four seasons of design…

Gardens need to be maintained according to the seasons. So perhaps we could think about design the same way.

  • Spring: planning
  • Summer: launch, scale, manage
  • Autumn: harvest, reevaluate, prune, repair, stock for winter
  • Winter: stop, recover, take stock, research, dream, get ready for spring

When we move too fast, we lose winter. The moment to be mindful, to breathe.

So why not start here, in the winter moment? The cycle never ends. We may be thrown into any one of the seasons, they are forced upon you. But you can recognise them and know what to do when they arrive.

@apolaine | slides