Category Archives: Philosophy


Lebbeus Woods, the architect, has started a series of posts on his notebooks. It sounds like this was a practice he went through and “finished” at some point, before moving on to other ways of working. That’s a little disappointing and goes against what I see as a lifetime practice. Still, I guess that depends on what activity replaced this form of sketching. Probably another form of sketching.

I loved this quote:

“Notebooks are portable. They can be kept secret, or published. Technically, they are simple to make. Pen and paper. The hand, eye, and thought. Freed from any sort of burdensome apparatus, thought becomes more agile in confronting itself.”




Should we stop designing for purpose and use?

This sentiment from Lebbeus Woods, on the meaning and purpose of architecture really resonates with me when it comes to thinking about technology. He’s talking about how people should adapt to space, rather then space be totally pre-conceived with use and purpose in mind. I think the same can be true with technology.


“One of my earliest statements about the meaning and purpose of architecture was: “We should make our buildings first, then learn how to live in them.” Born into a world we did not create, this is always the task facing us: to adapt ourselves to the world as we find it, or the world to us.

Why should we find only architecture limited to some assigned purpose? Why should architecture limit its potential to create space to satisfying the demands for the already known, for some normal ‘program of use’? Architecture should be freed to follow its own rules and ways to its own spatial, and spiritual, conclusions. Architecture should awaken in us new understandings and knowledge, and inspire us to embrace previously unimagined experiences. It should demand from us a level of invention of our own lives at least equal to the level of invention that brought it into being.”

We tend to think that the correct process for the design of software and hardware experiences is with a specific use or situation in mind, with a pre-imagined scenario of how people will interact with a “thing”. But many of the technology tools and objects that we use every day didn’t come with those pre-conceptions in mind. They may have come with SOME pre-conceptions, but invariably they didn’t match the real way in which the technology has ultimately come into everyday use.

SMS (texting) is a classic example, as it was designed as a general broadcast technology rather than for one-to-one communication:

‘According to Cor Stutterheim from CMG, “It started as a message service, allowing operators to inform all their own customers about things such as problems with the network. When we created SMS (Short Messaging Service) it was not really meant to communicate from consumer to consumer and certainly not meant to become the main channel which the younger generation would use to communicate with each other,” added Stutterheim.’

I’d argue that the Internet is shifting our design processes from those with purpose and use in mind, to those that are open and free for interpretation. We’re presented daily with a stream of services that we don’t quite know what to do with, at the outset. Use becomes emergent.

Flickr emerged like this – initially intended as the photo repository for a massively multiplayer online game, it’s value as the public repository for the Internet’s photos (which is what you could argue it is becoming) is unexpected. It’s value comes through the choice to make photos visible publicly by default, rather than private, going against the grain of many other photo sharing sites. Public photos create their own value, as a source for shared experiences, shared themes and the collaborative documentation of the world at large.

Services like Twitter and Facebook are in the middle of the throes of this process, where patterns and etiquette of use are still being developed, much like e-mail in its early years, and even the core purpose of the services has still to emerge.

It’s cheap to try this process online – fairly straightforward for an individual or small group to knock together the notions of a site, and put it out there in the public domain to see what sticks. I wonder what the equivalent is for hardware? Maybe we’re already seeing purposeless hardware happen through sites like Make, which put out recipes for hardware that invites reinterpretation, and new, componentised hardware sensors and devices, that allow us to interpret use for ourselves.

Getting your hands dirty

I did my undergraduate degree in Industrial Design at Brunel University in West London. I call it a jack-of-all-trades in which we did masses of hands-on as well as theoretical work. In the workshops we did welding, sand casting, jewellery, plastics, woodworking, metal work. In our electronics labs we designed and built our own PCBs, programming them in Assembly language through old BBC B computers. We learnt how to do product renderings with markers, and engineering drawings using Autocad.

Once I got my serious day job in the software industry I dropped most of that. It’s fair to say I’ve spent my last 12 years with a mouse as my only tool. But I’ve found myself getting my hands dirty, dusting off some of those old shop skills, since I started working here in Cambridge. Judging by this New York Times article I’m not the only one loving the energy and satisfaction that you get from building physical things, and how that feeds back positively into the way you think about virtual things.


Coding Horror: Quantity Always Trumps Quality

Another great blog entry supporting the idea that doing and repeating is better than doing once and aiming for perfection that solitary time.

“The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay. “

Francis Bacon

I really enjoyed this 1985 interview of Francis Bacon on the South Bank Show. It’s amazing how many ‘geniuses’, once you get close to them are quite, quite pragmatic about how they go about their work. Frank Ghery was similarly straight-forward when I saw him speak in Seattle a while ago. I like the honesty that good work is hard work, that you have to make time to work in order for good things to spring from it. Nothing comes THAT easy. And mistakes matter.