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The Medici Effect and New Design

June 29, 2007


One of my early posts [The Medici Effect] discussed Frans Johansson’s interesting book The Medici Effect: Breakthrough Insights at the Intersection of Ideas, Concepts, and Cultures, which focuses on the value of creating a space in which people from diverse fields of expertise can get together to exchange ideas. In a special report on design, BusinessWeek highlights designers who have created new products by bringing together knowledge from different disciplines [“Pushing the Boundaries of Design,” by Jessie Scanlon, 12 June 2007]. I’m a believer in the Medici Effect, which is why I hire a diverse work force. The results, to say the least, have been interesting for me and have drawn Enterra Solutions® into areas that my background alone might never have taken the company. The designers BusinessWeek highlights are also obvious believers in the Medici Effect. Scanlon writes:

“The Frisbee. The escalator. Reinforced concrete. These very different inventions share one thing in common: They weren’t invented exactly—each was borrowed from an unrelated field. The flying toy was inspired by the metal pie tins of the Frisbie Baking Company that college students of yore tossed for fun. The escalator was originally conceived as a Coney Island amusement ride. And reinforced concrete was first patented in 1848 by a French gardener trying to develop a better flowerpot. These stories of productive serendipity sound almost unbelievable—the urban legends of the inventing world. Even if they are true, you might think they’re nothing more than dumb luck—as relevant to business strategy as a winning lottery ticket. Yet such examples are less rare than you might think. In his 2005 book The Ten Faces of Innovation, Ideo general manager Tom Kelley gathered these examples and more recent ones in a chapter on ‘cross-pollinators,’ those who ‘create something new and better through the unexpected juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated ideas or concepts.'”

In other words, cross pollinators rely on the Medici Effect to generate ideas. I will go as far to say that most of the interesting developments that occur in many sectors (not just design) are fomented at the seams of different disciplines. Scanlon goes on:

“Then, as now, the most exciting work in design happened at the intersection of two or more disciplines, where knowledge from one finds relevance in another. Many designers might say, quite rightly, that they always work at the nexus of disciplines—synthesizing the demands of engineering, business, and human factors, not to mention style. Yet some designers still push beyond the expectations of their profession, breaking down more boundaries.”

Scanlon discusses the work of several designers who have worked in the nexus of disciplines:

“In the work of Richard Liddle, founder of the British Cohda Design, recycling melts, quite literally, into furniture. … The designer showed his new RD4 chair, a seat formed of old plastic bottles. The combining of traditional furniture or industrial design with advanced technologies or manufacturing processes is a fruitful one. A team of product designers and engineers at the San Francisco-based Lunar Design pushed that boundary in its design of the Novint Falcon, a video game controller based on haptic (tactile) technologies, allowing players to experience the sense of touch—and also turning the video game peripheral into a training tool for medical students. Similarly, Hilmar Janusson, a vice-president of research and development at prosthetics maker Ossur and lead designer of the company’s motion-sensing Proprio Foot, draws on artificial intelligence in the design of Ossur’s bionic products. And although he works in a very different medium, Web designer Jeffrey Zeldman’s efforts at the forefront of the standards-based design movement—which has pushed for the use of common protocols that make Web sites far more usable—similarly interweaves graphic design and software code. Recently, many designers have been drawing design into the realm of the public good. A design activist of sorts, John Thackara spearheads multidisciplinary projects such as Design of the Times (DOTT), a yearlong festival of social innovation and design taking place throughout Britain. Also in the realm of the public good, Cameron Sinclair’s Open Architecture Network builds on architecture and open-source technology to create a global design platform that introduces a new intellectual property framework to the architecture world. And goloco.org, the new venture of Robin Chase, founder of ZipCar, sits at the cusp of networking technologies and transportation design—and has the potential to transform our cities’ urban planning. Such aggressive cross-category experimentation is also true of nondesign fields, and what was once regarded as dumb luck is coming to be seen as smart strategy. Today, Procter & Gamble actively cross-pollinates among traditionally divided business units, with results like Crest Whitestrips—a dental product based on the laundry division’s knowledge of whitening agents.”

Scanlon concludes by noting that BusinessWeek selected ten designs for special attention, most of whom were mentioned in the article. A more detailed look at their work was found on-line [“Cutting Edge Designers,” 26 June 2007]. The first designers highlighted come from the San Francisco firm Lunar Design. They were asked by Novint Technologies to design an affordable game controller that would provide participants with a tactile gaming experience.

“The 23-year-old firm’s recent work on the Novint Falcon, a just-released PC video game controller that offers ‘haptic’ effects—or, tactile, textural sensations, such as sinking through viscous liquid—is the latest example of how Lunar’s designers welcome challenging projects that often have no design precedent. The Falcon, for example, is the first mass-market haptic device for PC video games. Jeff Salazar, design director on the Novint Falcon project, Alex Rochat, the lead designer, and an engineering team led by Art Sandoval drew upon past experiences from wildly disparate projects to inform and inspire the Falcon’s groundbreaking design. Lunar’s team also designed it with easy-to-exchange handles so it could be adapted for professional training, such as medical simulations. While formulating their design strategy, the Lunar team looked back at the company’s own past design projects, such as the Oral-B CrossAction manual toothbrush and the robotic da Vinci Surgical System, each of which had no direct predecessor and, therefore, no easy design reference points. … Salazar, Rochat, and Sandoval blurred the boundaries of industrial robotics, personal computing, gaming, and medical design.”

The second designer is Martin Wattenberg, Group Manager for IBM’s Visual Communication Lab. His mission is to encourage a more social approach to data visualization and analysis.

“A software programmer and artist whose computer-based work has been shown at venues such as New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art and who holds a PhD in mathematics from the University of California at Berkeley, Wattenberg is a polymath striving to make the field of data visualization more aesthetic and social than typical ho-hum Microsoft Excel spreadsheets and charts. If Wattenberg has his way, most of us will use some form of the next generation of experimental graphics software that he is working on at IBM to create eye-popping visuals. And we’ll react to them with the revelatory joy of an inventor experiencing an ‘aha!’ moment in the lab. … His goal is to ‘democratize data’ via Web-based software applications that allow anyone, from a junior high school student to a C-suite executive, to present statistics or other information in elegant, engaging visuals, which they can subsequently post online with ease. The data can range from the recurrence of words in the best-selling Harry Potter books to the comparative fuel efficiency of various automobiles.”

Wattenberg’s work reminds me of the innovative visual data displays offered by Gapminder, a Swedish non-profit venture for development and provision of free software that visualize human development. It’s worth a look if you’re interested in development.


The third designer is Richard Liddle, “an innovative champion of sustainable design is turning plastic into the ultimate recyclable material,” who was mentioned in Scanlon’s article.

“How, Liddle wanted to know, could all of that plastic waste be turned into something productive, its energy and value reclaimed? He spent two years at London’s Royal College of Art studying the problem and developing a solution—a proprietary process that melds plastic recycling and manufacturing into a single, seamless process. Then he returned to Newcastle—where he’d earned his master’s—in part because of the region’s manufacturing history. ‘I could take advantage of the deep knowledge in this area and get access to industry,’ he says, and indeed, with some effort, he found a company willing to let him use its industrial machines for some early experiments and trials. And so it is here, in a small studio that looks more like a tiny factory, that Liddle’s Cohda Design refined its process of efficiently converting waste materials into new products. The studio is equipped with the modified industrial machines that can take bottles made of HDPE—a plastic used in the construction, housewares, automotive, and packaging industries—grind them into flakes, melt them, and form that molten plastic into chairs, lamps, and other products using a process he calls uncooled recycled extrude, or URE. Production-ready prototypes, as well as more experimental geometric and woven forms, show the myriad possible designs. In most cases, those could be melted down and fed back through the process again and again—the opposite of what Liddle sees as the built-in obsolescence of most furniture today.”

The fourth designer is Cameron Sinclair:

“As the force behind the Open Architecture Network (OAN), Cameron Sinclair has brought the philosophy and collaborative methods of the open-source software movement to architecture, in the hopes of meeting the housing and building needs of millions of people around the globe. Sinclair is the co-founder and executive director of Architecture for Humanity, an organization that seeks to supply architectural solutions to humanitarian crises, bringing design services to communities. He helped to create the OAN as a free, Web-based platform that is part database of building projects, part design tool, and part community. Some four months after its beta launch on Mar. 8, the OAN boasts more than 5,000 members and nearly 400 projects.”

The fifth designer is Jeffrey Zeldman:

“A Web designer since 1995, Jeffrey Zeldman has created scores of sites for clients including Warner Bros., Advertising Age, and the AIGA, the professional design organization. But Zeldman has made his biggest impact as an evangelist for designing with Web standards—the protocols or pieces of software code that make a site load faster, reach more users, and cost less to design and maintain. In 1998, he co-founded the Web Standards Project, a coalition of designers that convinced Microsoft and Netscape to support the same Web technologies in their browsers. His book Designing with Web Standards, first published in 2003, was an instant classic and is now in its second edition. And A List Apart—the Webzine about best practices for designing and building Web sites he co-founded in 1997—has grown into a traveling event and a book series, further expanding his influence.”

The sixth designer is Hilmar Janusson:

“Hilmar Janusson is working at the cross-section of artificial intelligence and prosthetics. The lead designer at Icelandic medical-device maker Ossur supervised the production of the award-winning Proprio Foot, released in fall 2006, which applies motion sensors and proprietary bionics to provide amputees with reactive replacement feet that move in realistic motions. Janusson’s approach to prosthetics design is to develop original technology specific to amputees’ needs, rather than the more traditional approach of borrowing or adapting from other industries. The artificial intelligence of the Proprio Foot, for example, can be programmed to reflect an individual’s unique gait; less advanced designs force an amputee to adjust his or her natural walking motions to accommodate a stiff prosthetic. The foot is also designed to point downward when an amputee sits, giving a more natural look.”

In a world that remains filled with landmines, prosthetics will be needed for years to come. A good prosthetic can mean the difference between being a productive member of society or an outcast in some developing countries.


The seventh designer is Lisa Strausfeld:

“Known for designing informational exhibition displays that offer seamless navigation of both physical and digital realms, Lisa Strausfeld recently led a team at Pentagram (with collaborators Christian Marc Schmidt and Takaaki Okada) to create a radical new interface design for the One Laptop Per Child project. Instead of using the traditional desktop metaphor, Strausfeld and her colleagues created dynamic, animated icons that signify concepts such as ‘home’ and ‘friends’ to guide young children, many in the developing world, through their first computing experiences. The child using the laptop is represented by a human figure at the center of the screen—a radically physical approach to interface design. Strausfeld is also a senior scientist at the Gallup Organization, where she advises on data visualizations of poll results and related topics.”

I have previously written about the One Laptop Per Child project [Connecting the Poor and An Update on Connecting the Poor].


The eighth designer is John Thackara:

“A former design journalist and publisher, and tireless educator and event producer, Ganges (France)-based John Thackara is in the business of meshing innovations driving social change with design. A self-styled ‘symposiarch’—someone who designs collaborative events, projects, and organizations—he’s currently focusing his attention on Dott 07, a biennial of design that tests examples of ‘one planet’ living across the Northeast of England (a push to promote sustainable lifestyles). This yearlong festival includes a project in Middlesbrough to demonstrate that local food production can both reduce a city’s ecological footprint and improve living standards for residents. With the support of the UK Design Council and One North East, Dott 07 projects are intended to be examples of sustainable design principles implemented by communities working jointly with design professionals. In his efforts to foster collaborative innovation, Thackara connects a network of designers with concerned citizens to bring about real change. He also runs Doors of Perception, a design network that convenes every two years at a celebrated conference in India.”

The ninth designer is Robin Chase:

“In 2000, Robin Chase founded Zipcar, a car-sharing organization offering a practical alternative to car ownership. The company now has more than 90,000 consumer and business drivers worldwide, while it has also served as something of a wakeup call to the car rental industry at large. Numerous public agencies, including various urban transit authorities (Washington, D.C.) and educational establishments (University of Michigan) have replaced their fleets with Zipcar contracts. After leaving the company in 2003, Chase went on to study transportation policy, urban design, and city planning as a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University, while she’s still working at the edges of blending sustainability principles with transport design. Her new venture, Goloco.org, capitalizes on the growing ubiquity of social networks by connecting drivers and travelers, who can sign up online to share rides of all distances and thus build community—and cut down on traffic on the roads.”

The final designer is actually a design company, Anomaly:

“Co-founded in New York by industry stalwart Carl Johnson, Anomaly promised to be yet another agenda-smashing advertising and marketing company. But since its inception in 2004, the founders and directors have truly shown a different way of doing things, blurring the borders between providing traditional marketing services and working as a business development partner. Eschewing the traditional client/agency relationship, Anomaly works to develop intellectual property for both itself and for its clients, including Virgin America, for which it recently developed a line of luggage with Burton—profits are split among the three partners. Another recent introduction was ShopText, a U.S.-based mobile commerce platform Anomaly developed in-house, which is now being used by the likes of publisher Condé Nast. Shown here is work in progress for Eu, a premium range of skin-care products Anomaly developed that will launch this fall.”

As Scanlon noted, the common thread that ties these designers and design firms together is that they deliberately work in the seams between disciplines searching for ways to use innovations in one area to benefit challenges found in another. That is precisely the aim and value of the Medici Effect.

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