Discover the design secrets behind Apple, Tesla Motors and other disruptive companies, and why we should design cities as if they were consumer products. If you're interested in the future of cities or the future of design, you've never heard anything like this, and you won't hear it anywhere else.
What's your favorite product?
Bad design everywhere
5 observations about design
1. Design embodies intention
2. Design resolves false dichotomies
3. Design does not compromise
4. Design factors redundancies
5. Design doesn't happen all at once
Designing greatness [music]
▲ What's your favorite product?
Is there something so indispensable to you and how you live that it helps you be who you are in the world? Hmm. What could it be?
I know. Did you pick your smartphone? Or your vehicle? (Tesla owners, I'm talking to you!) Okay, Maybe it was an article of clothing, an accessory or cosmetic product. Or a musical instrument? Whatever it was, have you considered what makes it great to you?
If you rolled your eyes and thought "design, duh!" you're right. That's our topic today.
Design made Apple great when it rolled out the Macintosh, the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad, the Apple watch ... and design is eventually what made Apple the most valuable company in the world. Year after year.
Design is also what made Tesla the most valuable car company in the world.
Deeply satisfying design is the hallmark of great cultures and human enterprises through the ages. Think of how clothing, architecture, tools, vehicles, art and landscapes have served and distinguished human societies back to our earliest days as a species.
But when I asked you about your favorite product, one thing I'll bet you didn't pick was where you live: your house, your neighborhood or your city.
Yet those are products, too, and they can define who you are (New Yorkers, I'm talking to you!).
But wait a minute. It's clear that houses and neighborhoods are products where design matters. But cities? Isn't it foolish to suggest that we can design anything so complex, with so many stakeholders? Well, the whole point of this entire podcast series is that not only can we design cities, we already do by default—some better than others. We just owe it to ourselves and to the planet to create cities orders of magnitude better than we have so far.
▲ Intro [music]
Cities designed like modern Edens for economic and ecological abundance. I'm Kev Polk, your guide to Edenicity.
Welcome to Episode five, where I humbly lay out my five rules for design greatness.
▲ My lane
Let me start by defining my lane when it comes to design. I'm not a decorative designer, an industrial designer or an architect. I'm a twice certified permaculture designer, meaning I apply ecology to making homes and landscapes habitable. I've co-designed an ecovillage, built organic and neighborhood gardens, earthworks, water storage and three tiny houses. Before that, I designed award winning mobile software and satellite systems. Even though I focus on functional rather than decorative design, aesthetics has played a role in most of my work. I suspect that what I've learned applies to all fields of design, so I'll take a leap of faith here and talk about design in general rather than just functional design.
▲ Design philosophies
There's a lot of great design philosophy out there. In my aerospace career, I was influenced by Eberhardt Rechtin's classic book, Systems Architecting, which was super expensive even in its early, super-short editions. And it was worth every penny. I also digested every word about system design written by Jim Wertz, my boss at Microcosm Inc., a Los Angeles rocket company. If you're a fan of Apple, you can find the six pillars of its late CEO Steve Jobs's design philosophy online in a FastCompany article published November 7th, 2011. It's well worth the read. And I was lucky enough to get a front row seat for Apple marketing guru Guy Kawasaki's live presentation of his famous Rules for Revolutionaries back in 1999.
▲ Bad design everywhere
Design philosophy is one of the most fascinating fields you're ever likely to study. Yet when I look around every day, I see bad design everywhere. Life threatening highway merges. People driving like psychopaths because their vehicles' very shapes and names promote unsafe driving. Housing that is toxic and wastes energy and resources, that expires in less than a lifetime, filled with rooms that are seldom, if ever, used. Food that doesn't nourish. Packaging and single use plastics that pollute land and water. The list could go on for days.
In a world where there's no shortage of design wisdom, how can so many industries fail so badly?
I think where we fall down most often with design is by not understanding how it works and how it's different from other things we do. In other words, we don't get down to fundamentals: why design exists, what it does, and how it's done.
When you work at this level, you can start to use design to understand and predict real world products, behavior and business strategies.
▲ 5 observations about design
With that in mind, here are five things I've noticed about how design works, at least when it accomplishes great things.
▲ 1. Design embodies intention
First: design embodies intention. Seems obvious, doesn't it? How can you design anything without knowing what you're designing it for? But there's a problem with intentions. Actually, three problems.
Intentions can't anticipate every use or misuse of a design. On September 11th, 2001, three passenger jets became weapons in the hands of terrorists. After that, airlines installed locks on the cockpit doors. So whatever your intentions when you first designed something, understand that they will expand in actual use, and your design may have to evolve to keep pace with changing circumstances.
The second problem with intentions is that there could be a sharp mismatch between the intentions of designers and of customers. There's only three ways a business can increase its revenues. You can increase your number of clients, increase the average size of a sale, and finally, you can increase how often people purchase or repurchase your product.
William Wrigley famously made his fortune in selling gum because everybody was happy purchasing and repurchasing a very small quantity of gum every day. So the number of clients was huge. The size of each sale was tiny, but people bought every day, and this was great. It made everybody happy—except maybe whoever sweeps the streets!
But the same law of revenue applies to all products, including computer products. So I've been very happy with my iPad since 2014. But I just recently discovered—Whoops!—I can't install Garage Band. What's going on? Well, it requires the latest operating system, and my iPad doesn't support it. So even though there are many benefits to having computers improve year after year, in this case, it didn't benefit me that my iPad looks like it's obsolete. And it does benefit Apple Computer to have people re-buying their hardware every few years because that increases the frequency of purchase again.
Let's talk about toilets. Those old water saving toilets didn't work very well. I replaced a couple of them in 2015 with Aqua Source, which was a really great thing. It was $120 at Lowe's. It had incredibly great performance and still a very low water volume flush. A plumber friend tells me that I got lucky. They don't carry that exact model anymore and what they do carry has been downgraded. The water nozzles are smaller now, so they calcify much sooner. Result: you have to replace the toilet much sooner. He says it's the same story throughout the plumbing industry. A manufacturer puts out something great at a low price, and once this gives their brand a reputation for quality, they downgrade it and cash in on their good reputation for decades to come—again, making money on increased frequency of purchase when their products wear out. This is also why landlords don't like to replace lightbulbs with more efficient ones unless they're paying for the electricity, too.
I spend a lot of time thinking about Edenicity's financial design so that I can align intentions rather than putting them at odds with one another. I'll talk about the big financial picture in Episode 8.
The third problem with design intentions is that when you design without clear intentions, it puts you at the mercy of third parties. When you see people trying to increase or decrease something on a massive scale, they're not designing at all. Road and highway interests, for example, have successfully pressured cities to expand streets and highways. But far from alleviating congestion in the long run, this induces further demand—further congestion—and literally paves the way for ever expanding suburbs. The lower density that results stretches tax dollars so much that it gets harder to provide basic services as the city cores empty out.
So remember, design embodies intention. If you know whose intentions are at play in a design, you can predict the outcome.
▲ 2. Design resolves false dichotomies
My second observation is that design resolves false dichotomies.
There are many dichotomies in the world. Would you rather live large or keep it simple? Would you rather live in the city or the country? Would you rather be free or be safe? But some of these things, like that last one, only seem to be opposites, at least when it comes to design.
When I moved to the college town of Athens, Ohio, there was a nightmare intersection. Traffic would back up for blocks. Even on a good day, I routinely waded through four or more signal changes to get through. It was awful to sit in a sea of exhaust pipes, overheating engines and grumpy drivers hitting their horns, and it was dangerous. It was a four way stop with three turns each way, so traffic flowed in 12 different directions. People raced through just as yellow turned to red. There were a lot of high speed side impact collisions. The perfect design for random suffering.
A well traveled friend of mine laughed at America's profusion of traffic lights. She thought it hilarious that we who value our freedom and mobility above all, should grid our streets with little robot dictators that order us to stop and go it arbitrary intervals.
But soon Athens did something very smart. The town installed a roundabout at that intersection. Once that went in, even on a homecoming Friday, I never saw a queue more than five cars deep, and it seldom, if ever, took more than a minute to get through. Most other times, I could go through without even coming to a full stop.
As for safety, a study of 24 new roundabouts by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that collisions decreased by 36% and serious injuries, including pedestrians, by 90%.
You know you got the design right when you can measure vast improvements in domains that seemed opposed in the old design. Things like freedom or convenience versus safety.
▲ 3. Design does not compromise
Design resolves false dichotomies, and therefore my third observation is that design does not compromise.
One of the most pernicious myths about design is that it involves compromise. Even designers who I deeply respect sometimes mention compromise in their writings on design. It's an easy and widespread mistake to make. It seems like a reasonable and soft path to take. But even a little compromise sets harsh, rigid limits on a designer's creativity.
Design involves choices and trade offs; never compromise.
Compromise is zero sum, and the outcome is that both sides get less than everything they want.
Every child wants to hog all the candy and all the toys all the time. But they learn to share, don't they? You can't have everything you want all the time, but you can have less than everything some of the time.
Say you walk into a market and it's your lucky day: they're giving everything away, so you can take what you want and you don't have to pay. Sounds great, doesn't it? Meanwhile, sellers would love you to just hand them money without taking anything. But in the end, what happens in reality is that you pay something more than zero and the sellers have to part with some of their goods. You both get less than you really want, and a fair market does a great job balancing those desires so everyone gets as much of what they want is possible.
Compromise is essential in politics, negotiation and business. It's important, but it's not design.
Compromise is zero sum. Design is not zero sum. It uses creativity, science and geometry to resolve false dichotomies.
We're used to thinking about problems on the way in rather than the way out, so it's natural to think of them as zero sum, and they are zero sum until we complete a successful design process.
Traffic circles, not to be confused with roundabouts, are kind of a visual compromise between a roundabout and a traffic light. These are confusing, chaotic and a lot less safe. A modern roundabout gets rid of traffic signals and stop signs altogether. That's a choice, not a compromise, and it gives you both more freedom and more safety.
Before Tesla, when it came to cars, you had to compromise between safety, fuel efficiency and performance. Choose one. But through great design, we now have best in class vehicles in all three categories with across the board five star crash test ratings, ludicrous speed and an EPA equivalent fuel economy of 120 miles per gallon. Tesla didn't get there through compromise. It got there through many strategic design tradeoffs, such as building more parts in house at a greater initial cost, and design choices such as never building a gas powered vehicle of any kind. It never considered building a hybrid or leveraging existing gas stations. Instead, at initially greater cost, it built its own network of thousands of charging stations, which is often under hostile siege by people who resent change.
Compromise is nothing more than the temptation to tuck your tail between your legs and scamper back to the status quo. If you want to design something great, don't compromise.
▲ 4. Design factors redundancies
My fourth observation is that design factors redundant elements. An element is any aspect of a design that you can control.
In a four way intersection, for example, some of the major design elements include all of the directions that you have to look at once. Cars go through the intersection in four directions, but they could go straight or turn either left or right, so that's 12 total ways a vehicle can move through the intersection. As a driver, your safety depends on watching for cars moving in five out of 12 possible directions, and pedestrians moving in four possible directions. Now, given that you're only able to really focus on an area the size of a thumbnail at arm's length (everything else is blurry), that's a lot of looking!
In a roundabout, you watch for pedestrians from the left or right in the crosswalk. Then you pull forward and deal with the car traffic separately. And in this case, all you have to do is look left for traffic moving in only one direction, not five. That's why there's only a yield sign, not a stop sign. Then, once you're in the roundabout, just look right for traffic. You never have to look multiple directions at once.
In my design vocabulary, this design reduces your cognitive load, that is, your intention and decision making, by a factor of 6 to 12.
The first line in Eberhardt Rechtin's book on systems architecting read something like: "aggregation is the first function of architecture," and we're used to products that create value by aggregating (or combining) functions that used to require multiple products. A smartphone is also a map with GPS, a calendar, a camera, a video and voice recorder, a game console and so much more. In my vocabulary, the smartphone factors out those now-redundant products.
I used factoring to make my software 400 times faster than standard algorithms. Tesla uses factoring all over the place in its electric cars. Electric motors have a tiny fraction of the part count of internal combustion engines. Tesla also does a lot in software that used to happen in hardware. This lets them innovate rapidly and make many updates via the Internet without delays due to the physical parts and labor that would have had to go into each car.
In Episode nine, I'll go deep into how design factoring can similarly revolutionize land development and provide giant gains in performance. This is how we'll meet the goal that I mentioned in Episode two of shrinking our land and resource use by 95% or more, while providing a much higher quality of life for everyone.
Anyway, for now, it's enough to say that a good measure of the quality of a design is how well it factors longstanding redundancies.
▲ 5. Design doesn't happen all at once
My final observation is that design doesn't happen all at once. It's really a common misconception that design, especially architecture, is a once in done process. We have this image of a brilliant creator somewhere intelligently, designing something, than handing it off to the engineers to implement. But as we saw with locks being added to airline cockpits after 9/11, design intent often changes over time. This can lead to modifications, new versions and obsolescence.
Even getting a product working in the first place can require lots of iterations. It famously took Thomas Edison thousands of experiments to make a light bulb good enough for commercial use. And now, over a century later, light bulbs are finally giving way to LED bulbs.
Designs evolve. But our ideas of what design is capable of can fossilize.
President Trump directed the E.P.A. to look into revising rules for low-flow sinks, toilets, and showers because, in his view, they don't work. CNN quoted him on December 7th, 2019 as saying "people are flushing toilets 10 times, 15 times as opposed to once!"
Hey, I've felt his pain. After all, his first fortune came from property development, and those early low -flow toilets were really miserable. I replaced three of the wretched things myself. But the new models were wonderful. One flush handled, um, everything. And because they were even lower flow than the toilets they replaced, their sleek little tanks held enough water for three flushes. Not that I ever needed that! But rapid-fire flushing is a great feature when it comes time to clean them.
Designs don't just evolve. They can undergo a deliberate cycle of constant improvement. This has driven progress in the computer industry for over 50 years. As a result, today, billions of people have phones that put more computing power in their pockets than existed on the entire planet when astronauts landed on the moon.
The prime directive of Silicon Valley is: "shorten your design-build-test cycle." Tesla Motors has relentlessly applied this to cars, increasing its production tenfold in five years with all kinds of innovations, such as auto pilot.
Design doesn't happen all at once. This applies to cities, too, and we need to handle the design iterations of cities with much clearer intent.
▲ Designing failure
Today we've looked at how design works. By way of summary, let me list the ways design can fail:
First, we can abandon intention. Road widening projects benefit the road building lobby, but don't relieve congestion in the long run. And their unintended consequences include lost tax revenues as city centers hollow out.
Second, we can amplify false dichotomies. Without creative design, neighbors lock horns in nonsensical battles over safety versus convenience, and we falsely believe that we have to choose between toilets that don't waste water and toilets that work at all.
Third, we can think that we're designing when in fact we're just negotiating and compromising. We end up with traffic circles and hybrid cars, which postponed the benefits of roundabouts and electric vehicles. Or, looking to the future, we let ride sharing and self driving cars compete with existing traffic, massively increasing congestion, rather than putting in bike lanes, metros or underground loops.
Fourth, we can degrade quality through redundancy, reduced functionality and increased cost of maintenance. We end up expanding highways and multiplying our costs down the road.
Fifth, we can let our thinking fossilize and base our decisions on obsolete designs. Think of those low flush toilets again.
Throughout the world, the global industrial economy has replicated the same obsolete designs in almost every city. Cars, highways, proliferating rings of detached suburban homes, lives spent in transit rather than in community, cosmetic lawns rather than crops, channelized drainage that parches the land.
But throughout the centuries, it's a harsh fact that cities rise and fall. In his book Collapse, Jared Diamond showed how fast the fall can be: often within a single generation.
The ecological reality is that our cities cannot survive long in their present form. They will fall of their own accord, and in chaos, unless we get very intentional about redesigning them.
What should those intentions be?
▲ Designing greatness [music]
Can we have more freedom and more security? Get richer while saving the planet? Have more social and environmental justice? Can we savor the tranquility of country life at the same time and in the same place where we enjoy the connection and the intensity of city life? Can public transit be faster by far than private transit? Can we make it easy to get to know our neighbors again? Can children walk to school, play outside and visit friends on their own again? Can we live on 5% of the land that we now occupy, while lifting millions out of poverty? Can we make the hard choices, unleash creativity without compromise, and build cities as great as we know they can be, learning and evolving through each cycle of design and renewal?
The whole point of Edenicity is to answer all these questions with a resounding YES! Over and over again until our greatest defining product becomes ... the place we live.
If you enjoyed Episode 5, please be sure to subscribe so you don't miss an episode. And please join me next week when I lay out a plan to put an extra $1,000,000 in your pocket by helping to heal the planet. No, you don't even have to move to an edenic city to make it happen, though of course, that would help.
I'm Kev Polk, and this has been Edenicity.