Sunday, April 27, 2008

Changing Things.

So, the first thing ‘design for the next guy’ makes me think of is the principle of living with the 7th generation in mind, or thinking about what’s going to make something easier for the people after you. The funny thing about designing for the next guy is that it usually makes designing for yourself a little harder. There are a few ways I can look at design for the next guy:

Option 1: Make everything the same

Today we see this all over the place: for something like building a house, a car, or a computer, people have created standards for things like sizes and energy ratings. This makes things a lot easier for example, when someone has a mouse or a printer you want to use (hurray for USB)! Now, if you want to change things, you can just go buy another version of whatever it is you want that fits into the same place as your old one! This works out pretty well for most people, if you think of ‘next guy’ as the rest of the current population, rather than someone in the future who’s trying to change things. There are a few problems with this though.

As far as manufactured products go, say you wanted to change the way that your computer fundamentally works. Of course, the way we do things now probably isn’t the only (or best) answer. What if you could do it better? Well..honestly, it’s probably not worth it. If I make something amazing that can’t interface with anything else, it’s either going to be pretty useless or it’s going to be a new adopted standard. You can see where this is going..

First, this can work pretty well with a physical requirement, but what about with some kind of a system, like a college? What would doing the same thing that everyone else does mean? Well…it would mean that the faculty are comfortable there in the sense that they won’t need to spend as much time learning the ropes as they would at some place that’s radically different than everywhere else. It would mean that students would more than likely know what they’re getting into when the decide to go there. It would mean that when people working here needed to change jobs, they wouldn’t need to go into hours of explanation about what the place they’ve been working at is, and why it’s legitimate. It would also mean that graduate schools would accept our students, and know by the titles of the courses what they learned.

But what else does this imply? For a place like Olin, this would mean that we’re the same as everywhere else. This would mean that we don’t question the way we do things: we just do them that way because it’s easier. But for something like a college system (something that’s not a manufactured product), how hard is it really to have a different system everywhere? Are there more benefits than drawbacks?

Option 2: Make everything change

What are the benefits for a college to be different? How do you define Design for the Next Guy in the context of something that’s its own internal system?

Well, to start off, Olin has its very own identity. Most schools do. I feel like Olin has a little more of that than most places. Why? We’re new. We’re tiny. We’re redefining engineering (or at least that’s what we say we’re doing). Since I don’t want to end up talking about Olin and what it is for too long, I’m going to bring up a few of the points from President Millers talk:

“Olin College Open Doors”

This was one thing that President Miller kept saying, over and over again. Olin College opens doors. We’re not here to define a future for someone. We’re here to make possible whatever can be made possible. This view is incredibly different than anything I’ve heard anywhere else. But I’m going on with the amazingness of Olin..Let’s change the subject.

I think this quote is most relevant here since it shows how schools and systems can have their own very radical identities, but still work in the world.

Think about the way we define ourselves: What are our values?

One thing that a lot of us complain about at Olin is that not everyone is in line with our set of values. But then, what are our values? Olin was designed to be constantly changing and reinventing itself. I mean, our mascot is the Phoenix. And what’s cool about this is that we don’t just have people here who agree with us. Having all sorts of people here to be committed to the college, but also to push it in a slightly different direction leads to a lot more discussion than there would be if we all agreed all the time. And that discussion leads to a huge questioning of beliefs, which in my mind is much better than just blindly moving forward. If your beliefs can survive that questioning, you know they’re true for you. If not, well, it’s a good thing someone made you question them.

The ability to change our values also does ensure design for the next guy, I think. Olin can become whatever we want it to be. We do have a few rules and guidelines, but this place is incredibly flexible.

Scrap Everything-It all expires.

This reminds me of something from a philosophy class I took in high school. My professor was talking about Buddhist monks, and how every so often they’d make this elaborate picture out of colored sand. Just on the table. And when it was done they’d brush it all away and make a new one again later. It represents how ephemeral everything is. And this works with ideas and systems as well. They’re designed for a very specific time and set of circumstances. And just because they used to work, and work well, doesn’t mean we should keep using them. This doesn’t mean we should get rid of them completely either, but it does mean recreation is a great way to make sure we’re still keeping things within our set of values (or within our newly defined and revised values!)

So What is Design for the Next Guy?

It’s making things changeable. And how do you do that in a massive system? It takes a lot more work, a lot more time, and a lot more effort. But it makes things flexible. It doesn’t mean that something is set in the way it is until someone come along with the drive to change it. It means things are easily changeable and always changing J.

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