10 principles round doing things right

Dieter Rams, Financial Times
Published: Sep 08, 2007

The fundamental thinking, the design philosophy, if you like, that has influenced me and my fellow designers was summed up in the early 1980s in 10 simple statements. They are a helpful means of orientation and understanding. They are not binding; good design is in a constant state of redevelopment - just like technology and culture.

1. Good design is innovative.

It does not copy existing product forms, nor does it produce any kind of novelty for the sake of it. The essence of innovation must be clearly seen in all functions of a product. The possibilities, in this respect, are by no means exhausted. Technological development keeps offering new chances for innovative solutions.

2. Good design makes a product useful.

The product is purchased in order to be used. It must serve a defined purpose - in both primary and additional functions. The most important task of design is to optimise the utility of a product.

3. Good design is aesthetic.

The aesthetic quality of a product - and the fascination it inspires - is an integral part of the product's utility. Without doubt, it is uncomfortable and tiring to have to put up with products that are confusing, that get on your nerves, that you are unable to relate to. However, it has always been a hard task to argue about aesthetic quality for two reasons. Firstly, it is difficult to talk about anything visual, since words have a different meaning for different people. Secondly, aesthetic quality deals with details, subtle shades, harmony and the equilibrium of a whole variety of visual elements. A good eye is required, schooled by years and years of experience, in order to be able to draw the right conclusion.

4. Good design helps a product to be understood.

It clarifies the structure of the product. Moreover, the product speaks, in a sense. Optimally, the product is self-explanatory and saves you the long, tedious perusal of the operating manual.

5. Good design is unobtrusive.

Products that answer this criterion are tools. They are neither decorative objects nor works of art. Their design should always be neutral; they must not be seen; they must underline their usefulness.

6. Good design is honest.

An honestly designed product must not claim features it does not have - being more innovative, more efficient, of higher value. It must not influence or manipulate buyers and users.

7. Good design is durable.

It is nothing trendy that might be out-of- date tomorrow. This is one of the major differences between well-designed products and trivial objects for a waste-producing society. Waste must no longer be tolerated.

8. Good design is consistent to the last detail.

Thoroughness and accuracy of design are synonymous with the product and its functions, as seen through the eyes of the user.

9. Good design is concerned with the environment.

Design must contribute to a stable environment and a sensible use of raw materials. This means considering not only actual pollution but also the visual pollution and destruction of our environment.

10. Good design is as little design as possible.

Back to purity, back to simplicity.

...without words

Cognitive dissonance

From NYTimes: In 1956, Jack Brehm, a Yale student of Leon Festinger, carted some of his own wedding gifts into the lab (it was a low-budget experiment) and asked people to rate the desirability of things like an electric sandwich press, a desk lamp, a stopwatch and a transistor radio.

Then they were given a choice between two items they considered equally attractive, and told they could take one home. After making a choice (but before having it snatched away), they were asked to rate all the items again.

Suddenly they had a new perspective. If they had chosen the electric sandwich press over the toaster, they raised its rating and downgraded the toaster. They convinced themselves they had made by far the right choice.

On happiness

From NYTimes: Happiness seems fairly cheap to manipulate. In one experiment, subjects were asked to answer a questionnaire about personal satisfaction after Xeroxing a sheet of paper. Those who found a dime lying on the Xerox machine reported substantially higher satisfaction with their lives.

Positioning through pricing

Pricing plays an important role in branding. The luxury brands have been the first to "discover" such an interplay, wholesalers cannot be too far behind either.

Consumer markets in developed economies have been facing steady dollar inflation and rise in commodity prices.

From a branding/positioning perspective, the status qvo for companies selling into the US market is being challenged.

US imports come from the following areas:
  • China for trinkets--whose currency is pegged to the dollar;
  • Europe for upscale products--since the "discovery" of (affluent)consumers in emerging markets they are no longer that dependent on the US consumer;
  • Japan for automobiles and electronics--pegged currency;
  • Latin America for agricultural products--prices have come up since such products are imported mostly by US brands.
Exporters into the US have several options:

As examples for gimmicks, consider the socks at Wal-Mart that are shorter and sell at the same price. Trash bags at Costco, sold under Kirkland Signature brand, are weaker. Import cars, due to the annual cycle of "innovation" and reduced Detroit competition have been able to play the "segmentation" game to their advantage and passed along cost increases. Moreover, sensing the market share opportunity play, automotive luxury brands are coming in with cars at lower prices.

For a conversation about this, check out the Q&A section at LinkedIn.

"New and Improved"

Consider the recent blow-up at Medtronic, which "[...] estimated that about 2.3 percent of patients with the Fidelis lead, or 4,000 to 5,000 people, would experience a lead fracture within 30 months of implantation. Those patients will require a delicate surgical procedure to replace the lead, experts said.

Replacing leads on a heart device like a defibrillator is considered by experts to be far more dangerous than replacing the device itself.

The Fidelis lead has been used with Medtronic defibrillators since 2004, and most patients who received Medtronic defibrillators since then have them.

Vice President Dick Cheney uses a Medtronic defibrillator, but it was implanted in 2001, before the Fidelis lead was introduced."

I think this is just one illustration of the "new and improved" drive for revenue. Grocery or home improvement shoppers know that stuff keeps "changing" all the time.

For more on the "new and improved" tactic to branding/product positioning, check out the discussion at LinkedIn Q&A.

Belief, lubricant of capitalism

"Liquidity" is a figure of speech, describing the following situation:
  • A is ready and able to buy an asset from B on short notice
  • At a price B considers reasonable
  • Which usually means C has to be willing to lend money to A
  • Which means C believes A is solvent and the asset is good collateral
  • And if A is a dealer, A and C both have to believe that the asset could be readily sold to D
  • Which means they both have to believe that there is an E willing to lend money to D.
In short, liquidity is about group belief in the solvency of counterparties and the reliability of prices, reminding us that "credit" and "credo" have the same root. When no one is sure who is broke, and there is high uncertainty about prices, we will discover that liquidity has vanished, however plentiful it may recently have seemed.

To alter Shakespeare a bit: "Tell me where's Liquidity bred, In the heart or in the head?"

At the end of the boom, in the heart, not the head, unfortunately.

(From a Letter to the FT Editor by Alex J. Pollock, Resident Fellow, American Enterprise Institute)

Enabling group creativity

Creativity, through group interaction, can be achieved when several of the following conditions are met:
  1. Clear goals (expectations and rules are discernible and goals are attainable and align appropriately with one's skill set and abilities).Concentrating and focusing, a high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention (a person engaged in the activity will have the opportunity to focus and to delve deeply into it).
  2. A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness.
  3. Distorted sense of time - one's subjective experience of time is altered.
  4. Direct and immediate feedback (successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behavior can be adjusted as needed).
  5. Balance between ability level and challenge (the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult).
  6. A sense of personal control over the situation or activity.
  7. The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action.
In fact, the above points describe the conditions for flow, as defined by Csikszentmihalyi. He goes on to say:
When in the flow state, people become absorbed in their activity, and focus of awareness is narrowed down to the activity itself, action awareness merging.

Source: "Beyond Boredom and Anxiety," Csikszentmihalyi

First, eat your own (...) food

Another great question from LikedIn reads: Do You Taste This Stuff Before You Release It? To which I replied:

I suggest an answer from a slightly different perspective than usual.

In the light of today's (lowered) numbers from Wal-Mart, I was wondering if its executives (the guys responsible for its well-being) ever shop at their own stores. Moreover, while the story about the WMT numbers was told in the background, the images where showing a scene from a store where a Wal-Mart employee, sporting the "how may I help you" message, was passing by shoppers without showing any of the solicitude implied by the message printed on their vests. I wonder if the employees even know that message (in form or meaning) since many a time I find myself lost, without any help at Wal-Mart--in contrast to Costco or Whole Foods.

To take it next to the tech-sector, anybody has any doubts as to where the internet info is coming from for Bill Gates or Steve Balmer, Is it MSN Search or Google?

So, by extrapolation, chances are that (the equivalent of) a product manager at your regular food company shops up-market.

Building a senior management team

A recent question on LinkedIn reads like this: How to build a strong senior management team? To which I responded as follows:

Since there are several answers covering the competency aspects, I only add CHEMISTRY, which is just as important this early on. It's so easy to ignore that what you hire now is what your organization will look like when/if it matures--you are building the organizational DNA.

Myself, I'd look also to further define competency in terms of capability more than (only) expereince. In other words, it's not only people from targeted markets/industries I'd like to hire, but also versatile individuals who've been top achievers along their (professional) lives.

communicable misspellings

You probably recall the FCUK brand--clever play on a taboo word that fueled the imagination of clients and 'pros' in subliminal advertising alike. Have a look at the following text and think what it can do for you:

fi yuo cna raed tihs, yuo hvae a sgtrane mnid too Cna yuo raed tihs? Olny 55 plepoe out of 100 can. i cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid, aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno't mtaetr in waht oerdr the ltteres in a wrod are, the olny iproamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whotuit a pboerlm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Azanmig huh? yaeh and I awlyas tghuhot slpeling was ipmorantt!

Any idea(s)? Suggestions, as always, welcome.

A quant's view of models

Q: You're a creator of models, but you also work with real live traders. How far do models go? Where does their value stop? When can you put too much trust in them?

Emanuel Derman: I've been forced to be fairly pragmatic about them. There was a trading desk head who said that giving somebody a Black-Scholes calculator doesn't make him a trader. The models give you some way of thinking about the problem you're tackling, but they don't necessarily give you the answer.

I like to think of models as a Gedankenexperiments-the imaginary experiments physicists used to try to think about something they couldn't do, like sitting on the edge of a light beam and travelling at the speed of light.

I think that's what models are good for in finance. In most cases the world doesn't really behave in exactly the way as the model you've constructed. You're trying to make a poor approximation of reality, though it has big advantages. You can ask, "What happens if volatility goes up or interest rates go down?" It allows you to stress-test your view of the world in some way and then come up with a price based on what you can understand.
No paradox here, just to make the distinction between the accuracy and usefulness of models.

Fools ignore complexity. Pragmatists suffer it. Some can avoid it. Geniuses remove it.

These epigrams of Alan Perlis, a computer scientist, are relevant not only for engineers in general, but also for those professionals dealing with complexity in their environments. The ones I found particularly interesting for the effective manager are in bold type-face.

1. One man's constant is another man's variable.
2. Functions delay binding: data structures induce binding. Moral: Structure data late in the programming process.
3. Syntactic sugar causes cancer of the semi-colons.
4. Every program is a part of some other program and rarely fits.
5. If a program manipulates a large amount of data, it does so in a small number of ways.
6. Symmetry is a complexity reducing concept (co-routines include sub-routines); seek it everywhere.
7. It is easier to write an incorrect program than understand a correct one.
8. A programming language is low level when its programs require attention to the irrelevant.
9. It is better to have 100 functions operate on one data structure than 10 functions on 10 data structures.
10. Get into a rut early: Do the same processes the same way. Accumulate idioms. Standardize. The only difference (!) between Shakespeare and you was the size of his idiom list - not the size of his vocabulary.
11. If you have a procedure with 10 parameters, you probably missed some.
12. Recursion is the root of computation since it trades description for time.
13. If two people write exactly the same program, each should be put in micro-code and then they certainly won't be the same.
14. In the long run every program becomes rococo - then rubble.
15. Everything should be built top-down, except the first time.
16. Every program has (at least) two purposes: the one for which it was written and another for which it wasn't.
17. If a listener nods his head when you're explaining your program, wake him up.
18. A program without a loop and a structured variable isn't worth writing.
19. A language that doesn't affect the way you think about programming, is not worth knowing.
20. Wherever there is modularity there is the potential for misunderstanding: Hiding information implies a need to check communication.
21. Optimization hinders evolution.
22. A good system can't have a weak command language.
23. To understand a program you must become both the machine and the program.
24. Perhaps if we wrote programs from childhood on, as adults we'd be able to read them.
25. One can only display complex information in the mind. Like seeing, movement or flow or alteration of view is more important than the static picture, no matter how lovely.
26. There will always be things we wish to say in our programs that in all known languages can only be said poorly.
27. Once you understand how to write a program get someone else to write it.
28. Around computers it is difficult to find the correct unit of time to measure progress. Some cathedrals took a century to complete. Can you imagine the grandeur and scope of a program that would take as long?
29. For systems, the analogue of a face-lift is to add to the control graph an edge that creates a cycle, not just an additional node.
30. In programming, everything we do is a special case of something more general - and often we know it too quickly.
31. Simplicity does not precede complexity, but follows it.
32. Programmers are not to be measured by their ingenuity and their logic but by the completeness of their case analysis.
33. The 11th commandment was "Thou Shalt Compute" or "Thou Shalt Not Compute" - I forget which.
34. The string is a stark data structure and everywhere it is passed there is much duplication of process. It is a perfect vehicle for hiding information.
35. Everyone can be taught to sculpt: Michelangelo would have had to be taught how not to. So it is with the great programmers.
36. The use of a program to prove the 4-color theorem will not change mathematics - it merely demonstrates that the theorem, a challenge for a century, is probably not important to mathematics.
37. The most important computer is the one that rages in our skulls and ever seeks that satisfactory external emulator. The standardization of real computers would be a disaster - and so it probably won't happen.
38. Structured Programming supports the law of the excluded muddle.
39. Re graphics: A picture is worth 10K words - but only those to describe the picture. Hardly any sets of 10K words can be adequately described with pictures.
40. There are two ways to write error-free programs; only the third one works.
41. Some programming languages manage to absorb change, but withstand progress.
42. You can measure a programmer's perspective by noting his attitude on the continuing vitality of FORTRAN.
43. In software systems it is often the early bird that makes the worm.
44. Sometimes I think the only universal in the computing field is the fetch-execute-cycle.
45. The goal of computation is the emulation of our synthetic abilities, not the understanding of our analytic ones.
46. Like punning, programming is a play on words.
47. As Will Rogers would have said, "There is no such thing as a free variable."
48. The best book on programming for the layman is "Alice in Wonderland"; but that's because it's the best book on anything for the layman.
49. Giving up on assembly language was the apple in our Garden of Eden: Languages whose use squanders machine cycles are sinful. The LISP machine now permits LISP programmers to abandon bra and fig-leaf.
50. When we understand knowledge-based systems, it will be as before - except our finger-tips will have been singed.
51. Bringing computers into the home won't change either one, but may revitalize the corner saloon.
52. Systems have sub-systems and sub-systems have sub-systems and so on ad finitum - which is why we're always starting over.
53. So many good ideas are never heard from again once they embark in a voyage on the semantic gulf.
54. Beware of the Turing tar-pit in which everything is possible but nothing of interest is easy.
55. A LISP programmer knows the value of everything, but the cost of nothing.
56. Software is under a constant tension. Being symbolic it is arbitrarily perfectible; but also it is arbitrarily changeable.
57. It is easier to change the specification to fit the program than vice versa.
58. Fools ignore complexity. Pragmatists suffer it. Some can avoid it. Geniuses remove it.
59. In English every word can be verbed. Would that it were so in our programming languages.
60. Dana Scott is the Church of the Lattice-Way Saints.
61. In programming, as in everything else, to be in error is to be reborn.
62. In computing, invariants are ephemeral.
63. When we write programs that "learn", it turns out we do and they don't.
64. Often it is means that justify ends: Goals advance technique and technique survives even when goal structures crumble.
65. Make no mistake about it: Computers process numbers - not symbols. We measure our understanding (and control) by the extent to which we can arithmetize an activity.
66. Making something variable is easy. Controlling duration of constancy is the trick.
67. Think of all the psychic energy expended in seeking a fundamental distinction between "algorithm" and "program".
68. If we believe in data structures, we must believe in independent (hence simultaneous) processing. For why else would we collect items within a structure? Why do we tolerate languages that give us the one without the other?
69. In a 5 year period we get one superb programming language. Only we can't control when the 5 year period will begin.
70. Over the centuries the Indians developed sign language for communicating phenomena of interest. Programmers from different tribes (FORTRAN, LISP, ALGOL, SNOBOL, etc.) could use one that doesn't require them to carry a blackboard on their ponies.
71. Documentation is like term insurance: It satisfies because almost no one who subscribes to it depends on its benefits.
72. An adequate bootstrap is a contradiction in terms.
73. It is not a language's weaknesses but its strengths that control the gradient of its change: Alas, a language never escapes its embryonic sac.
74. It is possible that software is not like anything else, that it is meant to be discarded: that the whole point is to always see it as soap bubble?
75. Because of its vitality, the computing field is always in desperate need of new cliches: Banality soothes our nerves.
76. It is the user who should parametrize procedures, not their creators.
77. The cybernetic exchange between man, computer and algorithm is like a game of musical chairs: The frantic search for balance always leaves one of the three standing ill at ease.
78. If your computer speaks English it was probably made in Japan.
79. A year spent in artificial intelligence is enough to make one believe in God.
80. Prolonged contact with the computer turns mathematicians into clerks and vice versa.
81. In computing, turning the obvious into the useful is a living definition of the word "frustration".
82. We are on the verge: Today our program proved Fermat's next-to-last theorem!
83. What is the difference between a Turing machine and the modern computer? It's the same as that between Hillary's ascent of Everest and the establishment of a Hilton hotel on its peak.
84. Motto for a research laboratory: What we work on today, others will first think of tomorrow.
85. Though the Chinese should adore APL, it's FORTRAN they put their money on.
86. We kid ourselves if we think that the ratio of procedure to data in an active data-base system can be made arbitrarily small or even kept small.
87. We have the mini and the micro computer. In what semantic niche would the pico computer fall?
88. It is not the computer's fault that Maxwell's equations are not adequate to design the electric motor.
89. One does not learn computing by using a hand calculator, but one can forget arithmetic.
90. Computation has made the tree flower.
91. The computer reminds one of Lon Chaney - it is the machine of a thousand faces.
92. The computer is the ultimate polluter. Its feces are indistinguishable from the food it produces.
93. When someone says "I want a programming language in which I need only say what I wish done," give him a lollipop.
94. Interfaces keep things tidy, but don't accelerate growth: Functions do.
95. Don't have good ideas if you aren't willing to be responsible for them.
96. Computers don't introduce order anywhere as much as they expose opportunities.
97. When a professor insists computer science is X but not Y, have compassion for his graduate students.
98. In computing, the mean time to failure keeps getting shorter.
99. In man-machine symbiosis, it is man who must adjust: The machines can't.
100. We will never run out of things to program as long as there is a single program around.
101. Dealing with failure is easy: Work hard to improve. Success is also easy to handle: You've solved the wrong problem. Work hard to improve.
102. One can't proceed from the informal to the formal by formal means.
103. Purely applicative languages are poorly applicable.
104. The proof of a system's value is its existence.
105. You can't communicate complexity, only an awareness of it.
106. It's difficult to extract sense from strings, but they're the only communication coin we can count on.
107. The debate rages on: Is PL/I Bachtrian or Dromedary?
108. Whenever two programmers meet to criticize their programs, both are silent.
109. Think of it! With VLSI we can pack 100 ENIACs in 1 sq.cm.
110. Editing is a rewording activity.
111. Why did the Roman Empire collapse? What is the Latin for office automation?
112. Computer Science is embarrassed by the computer.
113. The only constructive theory connecting neuroscience and psychology will arise from the study of software.
114. Within a computer natural language is unnatural.
115. Most people find the concept of programming obvious, but the doing impossible.
116. You think you know when you learn, are more sure when you can write, even more when you can teach, but certain when you can program.
117. It goes against the grain of modern education to teach children to program. What fun is there in making plans, acquiring discipline in organizing thoughts, devoting attention to detail and learning to be self-critical?
118. If you can imagine a society in which the computer-robot is the only menial, you can imagine anything.
119. Programming is an unnatural act.
120. Adapting old programs to fit new machines usually means adapting new machines to behave like old ones.
121. In seeking the unattainable, simplicity only gets in the way.

If there are epigrams, there must be meta-epigrams.

122. Epigrams are interfaces across which appreciation and insight flow.
123. Epigrams parametrize auras.
124. Epigrams are macros, since they are executed at read time.
125. Epigrams crystallize incongruities.
126. Epigrams retrieve deep semantics from a data base that is all procedure.
127. Epigrams scorn detail and make a point: They are a superb high-level documentation.
128. Epigrams are more like vitamins than protein.
129. Epigrams have extremely low entropy.
130. The last epigram? Neither eat nor drink them, snuff epigrams.

The leadership mix

Upon his retirement from Intel, Andy Grove was asked how he kept his employees motivated. His answer was:
Well, part of it is self-discipline and part of it is deception, deception in the sense that you pump yourself up and put a better face on things than you start off feeling. But after a while, if you act confident, you become more confident. So the deception becomes less of a deception.

Idea for the purveyors of HDTV sets

For the past year, and culminating with the holiday shopping spree, flat screen HDTV sets have been selling like hotcakes. Judging by how hammered the stocks of HDTV manufacturers and sellers got, one would expect a flattening of the adoption curve for a good part of 2007. Indeed, come 2008 and the obligation for HDTV programming will be fact. However, should the manufacturers want to do anything about sales in the meantime, why not offer trade-in options for the current owners of perfectly fine, yet older, TV sets? This way, the upgrade decision can be accelerated for those late buyers held back more by the psychological cost of replacing something that works than the marginal economic cost.