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The Design Fail Behind the Notre Dame Cathedral Fire

Welcome to Business x Design, a new newsletter on the power of design. In this email, Clay Chandler discusses the consequences of design that isn’t human-centric. What else would you like to see from us? This newsletter is a work in progress supported by you, our readers. Reply to this email with your suggestions and feedback.

Greetings from Tokyo. I landed here this evening in preparation for Fortune’s Brainstorm Design dinner with Japanese architect Kengo Kuma (we shared an invite in a previous email). The flight from Hong Kong is only four hours, but felt even shorter this time, because I spent most of it engrossed in a new book called User Friendly: How the Hidden Rules of Design Are Changing the Way We Live and Play. (I wasn’t paid to write this review.)

True to its title, User Friendly offers a lucid account of the rise of human-centric design—one that doesn’t require a degree from design school to appreciate. Cliff Kuang, a former Fast Company design editor, wrote User Friendly in collaboration with Robert Fabricant, a London-based designer.

Kuang argues design failures are to blame for many “monumental machine disasters,” including plane crashes and even this year’s tragic fire at Notre Dame cathedral. (“A state-of-the-art fire system with inscrutable controls led to a bungled inspection while the blaze grew unchecked for thirty minutes.”) I was hooked at the first chapter, which explains why the 1979 near-meltdown at Three Mile Island nuclear reactor—the worst nuclear accident in American history—should not be considered as a problem caused by faulty equipment or operator error, but as an epic design fail.

In a sense, User Friendly can be read as a counterpoint to another design tome, John Maeda’s How to Speak Machine. Whereas Maeda argues that people need to adapt themselves to the capabilities of new tech, User Friendly reminds us that when the people who build the machines don’t try hard enough to understand the people who use them, the results can be catastrophic.

The idea is now so pervasive it seems obvious: Designers should know something about how people behave; they should “empathize” with those who use their products.

But it wasn’t always so. Kuang traces origins of human-centered design back to the dawn of the Machine Age. He gives due mention to the Bauhaus and American designers like Raymond Loewy and Norman Bel Geddes. And Kuang has special affection for Henry Dreyfuss who, from humble beginnings as a Broadway set designer, became the first American industrial designer to insist that design was more than just styling.

Kuang chronicles, through the Great Depression and the two World Wars, the rise of designers who understand user experience. He discusses the early days of IBM, the rise of IDEO and “design thinking,” and the birth of the Stanford d.school.

And he shares an unexpected connection between Three Mile Island and Apple computers: It turns out that Donald A. Norman, who gained fame in the 1980s for publishing The Design of Everyday Objects and invented the term “user experience” in the 1990s, was commissioned by Congress to investigate what went wrong at the nuclear plant. Two decades later, Norman was hired by Apple where he became an early champion of Jony Ive, the company’s former chief design officer.

These kinds of quirky connections make User Friendly fascinating. It’s erudite and steeped in big ideas. But its main strength is great storytelling. Kuang traces the broader narrative of design’s rise by weaving together what he calls a “tapestry of personalities, happenstance, and ideological struggle” to be accessible to experts and laymen alike.

More design news below, curated by my colleague Eamon Barrett.

Clay Chandler

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