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Robert Blinn

The Core77 Design Blog

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Posted by Robert Blinn  |   7 Dec 2012  |  Comments (0)

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Early iterations of LED-based task lamps welded the bulky armature of a spring loaded swing arm with an airy plane of illuminating diodes. Compared to the fragile bulk of an incandescent, the form factor of the arm rarely did the new technology justice.

Consequently when we first saw the loose and spindly form of the Harvey lamp by David Oxley, we were intrigued. The product specifications state that the featherweight arm comes it at just 0.3 kilos. (that's about 10 ounces to a Yank), making the five pound base seem like a ton, though I'm sure he's done the maths on the balance.

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More interesting to us is the promise of a novel joint technology allowing full freedom of movement using magnets. Perhaps when supporting that little weight, you no longer need springs. Unfortunately, the schematics didn't show a cross section of the joint, so those details weren't illuminated. At 99 quid ($159), we were happy to Kickstart the project, just to receive a lamp and find out.

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Posted by Robert Blinn  |  17 Jul 2012  |  Comments (5)

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In this digital age, an encyclopedia seems downright archaic. Especially in the context of modern manufacturing techniques like EBM ("Electron Beam Machining"), where a beam of electrons bores holes denominated in tens of microns through thin materials—in a vacuum no less, because the electrons could be thrown off by air molecules (!). Into this neo-futurist world, Chris Lefteri has provided the second edition of Making It: Manufacturing Technologies for Product Design to catalogue all of the manufacturing tools modern designers have at their disposal. While it may be possible to find more detailed or technical information on the processes he describes, Making It stands as a robust resource for a product designer looking into a new manufacturing technique, an eye-popping compendium for a scientifically minded student, or, perhaps most valuably, as a vehicle for increasing designer awareness of new innovation in manufacturing.

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Designers live in a mildly cloistered world where they can concentrate on form factors with a vague awareness of parting lines and minimum thicknesses, but really leave it to the engineers to complete their visions. Making It reads like a layman's engineering primer, not a product design book. Each manufacturing technology gets its own 2–4 page spread with a glossy product shot, accompanying text, our favorite buzzword "process shots," and a highlighted info box of the characteristics of the technology.

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Posted by Robert Blinn  |  18 Jun 2012  |  Comments (3)

dyson_alexknox.jpgWith additional editing by LinYee Yuan

Core77 had an opportunity to sit down with Alex Knox, Dyson's Industrial Design Director after his keynote address for the 2012 Sustainable Operations Summit. Knox, one of the longest-serving members of Dyson, has helped the company grow from a small team of engineers working out of a garden shed to a global technology company employing 3,900 people. 17 years later, he continues to lead the design and development of new Dyson machines.

In our conversation with Knox, we learn more about Dyson's long history with issues of sustainability and their current focus on engineering efficiency.

* * *

Core77: In your presentation, you put out a challenge to modern manufacturers. Can you share a little bit about your perspective on "engineering efficiency"?

Alex Knox: We think that the right thing for manufacturers to do is to focus on engineering efficiency. It's not a new concept. It's not contemporary, even. I gave a number of examples of great engineers through history. Isambard Kingdom Brunel, when he was developing the steamships and perfecting the screw propeller, effectively achieved an incredibly efficient design. It's only five percent different from modern day propellers, which is an incredible feat when you consider that he was doing it all on bits of paper and metal scale models. Essentially, he was striving after efficient design because it made it faster and fuel-efficient.

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That's exactly what Dyson tries to do today. It's a fundamental part of engineering discipline. But it's tricky. It's difficult to do; it takes time, it takes money and it might all go wrong. It's no guarantee you're going to succeed.

One of the examples we talked about was Boeing, who'd just done the 787 Dreamliner. They embarked on this massive research and development program for developing composites for the fuselage or wings. It's a pretty incredible undertaking—never been done on that scale before. They suffered all kinds of setbacks and delays, which they got chastised and castigated about, and it was an immense piece of work.
Yet what they'd actually managed to engineer was a plane that had fewer parts. It was lighter, it could fly faster and it burned 20 percent less fuel—that's a huge amount.

Yet they were getting flak for taking a bit longer than when they first planned it out. You got to be brave and have a vision about where you're going with it. And we were just reading in the press that they're now starting to effectively use that technology on smaller planes. If you got the heart and the vision you can get through the difficult bit and start to see the benefits.

Cross-pollinate.

Exactly, and as with all these things, the first time you do it is the hard time. The second generation or third generation—well, it becomes a hell of a lot easier because you've made the mistakes, you've had the failures, you've learned from all of that and that's what Dyson is all about. That's the spirit of it, so we're very fortunate that James [Dyson] is completely wedded to the view that that's the way that we should design machines. What we'd like to see is other manufacturers do the same thing.

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You also mentioned that now "green" is a term that's ambiguous enough as to be almost meaningless. What's the alternative?

In terms of an engineering point of view, rather than trying to stick green labels on something that doesn't mean anything, what we're interested in is actually creating a good engineering solution. If you have a good engineering solution, you're already considering efficiency because efficiency is just a fundamental part of an engineering approach to something. So, if you've done a good job, you'll end up with something that is efficient in the way it performs, efficient in the use of materials and efficient in the use of energy. And as you know, for some appliances energy usage is the biggest one to get right from a sustainable point of view.

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Posted by Robert Blinn  |  29 Mar 2012  |  Comments (3)

paper_sketch.pngImage above courtesy of Paper

We had the opportunity to preview the new sketching application Paper by FiftyThree for the iPad. The web video showing their application makes it look easy and beautiful, but, as they say, art is hard. Our previous efforts with iPad sketching applications (Alias Sketchbook Pro) looked nothing like Jim Lee's Batman. No surprise there.

The finger has always been a blunt instrument, unless you happen to be gifted with especially pointy ones. Transparent Capacitive styluses allow a slightly better correlation between the visible contact surface and the actual point, but there is no substitute for pen and paper (though the Wacom Cintiq comes close).

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Paper favors gestures to click menus and "napkin" sketches race by compared to other applications we've seen. The ability to overlay watercolor on existing drawings makes highlighting and indication a breeze. Much as they may try, design professors attempting to make students "loose" often fail because we can't help but be precious. By limiting the toolset, and especially due to the absence of layers, zoom and brush size, there isn't really any way to be fussy with Paper although I certainly tried. Instead of spending lots of time with one idea, the hope is that you create many.

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Posted by Robert Blinn  |   1 Mar 2012  |  Comments (2)

The current era sees a great deal of cross-pollination between "interaction" and "product" designers, in part because their goals aren't that different. While one may push pixels and the other a mill, ultimately, they both serve users. What the iPhone and iPod demonstrated is that experience design trumps form factor every time. The iPod wasn't just a product; it was part of an ecosystem. Historically, product design also stood as a cousin to architecture, and 50 years ago Jane Jacobs observed that architecture itself could only be evaluated as part of an ecosystem, that of human behavior. Cross pollination doesn't end there.

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Jon Kolko's new book, Wicked Problems tackles problems where the product itself is only part of the problem. Kolko aims to tackle are social and policy problems, and he subtitles his book "Problems worth Solving," though the very formulation of wicked problems undermines the notion of a particular "solution."

The solution is confounding in part because wicked problems are extraordinarily difficult to categorize or define. Indeed, in his original formulation, Horst Rittel listed ten characteristics of wicked problems, including the most troublesome first characteristic: defining wicked problems is in itself a wicked problem. From a philosophical standpoint, that's a vicious circularity... a paradox, not a problem. Basically, a wicked problem is one where (1) knowledge of the problem is incomplete (2) many stakeholders have varied opinions, (3) the economic impact is large and (4) the problem is interconnected with other issues, aka problems. Sounds like pretty much any issue working it's way through congress, right? Religion? Check. Healthcare? Check. Poverty? Check. Taxes? Check. War? Check.

Wicked problems are without a doubt interesting. That's why they make good dinner conversation, or why a discussion of global warming can turn to energy policy, post-colonial economics, war, puppet-dictatorships, and then the secondary and tertiary effects of the Russian conflict in Afghanistan, but it could keep going from there. While intellectually appealing, the very idea of a wicked problem suffers from reductio ad absurdum. Just like a four year old asking, "why?" any problem can be made or regressed into a wicked problem. Perhaps there's just one wicked problem: life.

Kolko, however, didn't "define" the term, he's trying to tackle it, which is only marginally easier/harder? In his appealing and insightful "Call to Action," Kolko derives a number of interesting conclusions, namely that social change requires companies to escape the constant drive for quarterly profits. Since most working designers get paid, and payment is a mode of capitalism, even the simplest activity takes place in a system of wicked problems. Quoting Kolko, "When designers have been in the workforce for 12–15 months, a curious thing happens with a tremendous level of regularity, and in equal measures in corporations and consultancies. These designers come to realize that their work is meaningless." We could certainly use a citation on that reference, but anecdotally, it's probably true. Kolko observes that even the simple act of designing a hammer can have diffused consequences, where the humble hammer designer may leave damaged fingers or deforestation as secondary results of an apparently simple act. He does not, however, explain how to resolve the question. Perhaps that's asking too much. When faced with an infinite regress, where does one stop?

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