Tag Archives: design

Pace layering

Another one of those observations that just rings true on so many levels is that a single system has components that change at different rates. It was identified by Stewart Brand in his book How Buildings Learn

The concept of pace layering (Brand 1994, Morville 2005) sees a building as a series of layers that have differing life spans. The site itself has an eternal life, whereas the building structure might last 50 to 100 years. Other layers such as the external cladding of the building or the interior walls might have a life of 20 years with internal design, decoration and furniture lasting for 5 to 10 years. In a rapidly moving world it makes sense to locate the capacity for change in those items with the potential shortest life span and avoid, if possible, creating some layers, such as internal dividing walls, that have a medium term life span and are a potential barrier to accommodating changing activities.

Taken from JISC, via Tom Graves’s post.

In architectures of any kind—software, enterprise,or physical—failure to accommodate for this will ultimately tear your system apart. In any case, accommodating different rates of change, as in gears in a machine operating at different speeds, requires careful design of the interfacing points. Another reason that designing good and enduring interfaces is hard.

Innovation and commercial design

If you make a living from design, then you need to be closer to the edge than if you make your living from selling widgets. So when your widgets are design objects then your risk profile is higher than other widget companies. Apple is a poster-child for a product company trading on its innovative and elegant design, but so is Alessi, maker of famous kitchen accessories and other items. The McKinsey interview with Alberto Alessi, current CEO of Alessi, shows the sort of focus and approach that a design company has, when compared to the others. The commercial aspect is there, of course, but it’s almost secondary to the idea of expression, and the necessary level of risk that is required.

As Alessi says:

Well-organized, mass production companies try to work as far as possible from the borderline. They cannot afford to take too many risks. But by all producing the same car, the same television set, and the same fridge year after year, those companies are making products more and more boring and anonymous.

The destiny of a company like Alessi is to live as close as possible to the borderline, where you are able to really explore a completely unknown area of products. The problem is that the borderline is not clearly drawn. You cannot see with your eyes where it is. You can only sense these qualities.

His metaphor for his role in the business is as a gardener, and, as with gardens, you need to cope with wet seasons and dry seasons.  From the article:

We consider our core activity to be mediating between, on one side, the best possible expressions of product design from all over the world and, on the other side, the final customer’s dreams. I prefer discussing “customer dreams” instead of “the market,” because market is so rough.

Deep down, I feel that my activity as an artistic mediator in product design is not very different from the role of a museum director or even a filmmaker—putting together and organizing talents in different fields to get to a result, which is not a mass-produced product in the traditional sense, but a product that’s trying to speak to the masses in a new sense, like a well-made film.

To do this, we make use of some qualities that are more and more rare in industrial culture today, such as sensibility, intuition, and the desire to accept a bit more risk.

It’s a refreshing message.