Annals of design

I came upon a whiteboard marker with a foam eraser on its cap in one of our seminar rooms yesterday and entered a fugue state whose themes were “Wow, this is a big improvement!” and “What took them so long?”.   Unfortunately, it’s too late for the most important design choice for these common items, which would have been to standardize on a hexagonal barrel.  In a world full of cylindrical permanent markers, users (who, usually speaking to a group to make a point, are not focusing on the tools) need to know by an instant tactile signal whether they have grabbed an erasable one or something that will (i) vandalize the whiteboard until someone comes along with a can of lacquer thinner and (ii) upstage their talk as soon as they try to erase something.  This convention would have precisely zero cost in terms of the thing’s usability (and as a freebie, prevent it from rolling off a sloping lectern).

Until these markers came along, whiteboards had a speckled history, literally in the case I observed when Harvard opened its then-new architecture building.  The classrooms had push-pin walls painted flat white with smooth white panels for writing inserted flush with the surrounding wall.  The idea was to use water-washable markers on these panels, and to erase them, each room had a bucket of water with a sponge in it.  Until anyone actually used it, this seemed like a pretty good idea, and visually elegant.  However, the bucket water after a single use became pigmented brown with washed-off ink squoze out of the sponge, and architecture profs turned out to be failures at coloring inside the lines. Indeed, they erased quite sloppily across the whiteboard/pinup wall boundary, carrying colored smears that did not easily come off onto the surrounding absorbent wall, so the typical condition of the room was a nice clean white rectangle surrounded by multicolored sunburst rays.   Not too long afterwards, another feature revealed itself: it turned out to be irresistible for someone finished with a damp sponge, and offered a bucket on the floor against a wall, to throw the sponge, perhaps just for fun from three-pointer range.  Depending on the vigor of the toss and the angle of approach, this terminal gesture threw up a fountain of colored water on the wall (or put a drooling spongeprint directly on it).

It was a matter of months before the architecture school, um, threw in the sponge, and put up a bunch of chalkboards.

Standardization is an underappreciated role of government.  As Schelling pointed out, it’s a lot more important that everyone drive on the same side of the road than that we settle on the correct side (which most of the world hasn’t: because the defensive reflex of a right-handed person is to put one’s right hand up and to the left and left hand down and to the right, there’s a small advantage to a system where imminent risk makes most people steer toward the shoulder instead of into oncoming traffic).  I don’t suppose there should be a Bureau of Writing Device Form Control in the Commerce Department, but was it really good for society that every low-voltage electronic doodad had a unique voltage, polarity, and connector, so no-one’s wallwart would work with anyone else’s cellphone?  Interestingly, the market has drifted into some agreement about using a mini-usb connection and made its peace with the 5v delivered by a USB (though some phones seem to demand something on the signal pair , so chargers that only deliver the power voltage don’t work).   Machine screws are well standardized now within the respective metric, UNC/UNF, and (fading fast) Whitworth regimes without any real regulatory authority by nonprofits (in this case, ASME; I have no idea who oversees keeping writing paper at a constant 8-1/2×11″), as are lots of building materials (4×8 foot panels of almost anything, and electrical parts that fit together no matter who made them).

The problem remains, however, that proprietary parts, like a distinctive battery size, constantly tempt manufacturers hoping to get some rents by controlling the supply of spares even if there’s no real functional advantage.   Has American creativity and self-expression been importantly hobbled by the stupefying sameness of all our toilet paper roll dimensions? Have our worst instincts been suppressed (or our haul of game much increased) by the exuberant variety of firearms cartridges?

We occasionally regulate for standardization where safety is at stake; in the 30s, automobile headlights that had replaceable lamps in a demountable assembly of lens and reflector, all of different designs, were so poorly maintained and corroded that the government ordained so-called sealed-beam units in which the reflector, lens, and filament were one piece that had to be replaced all together, and standardized for all vehicles.  This was a big step forward, but as headlight designs improved over the years, it anchored vehicle lighting to outdated performance until the rules were revised in the 80s to allow, again, proprietary designs.  There are always tradeoffs, and the one between efficiency now and in the near future, and technological advance further out, is especially poignant.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

4 thoughts on “Annals of design”

  1. This will sound completely bizarre, but a good book on the subject of intra-industry standard setting is _Effective meetings for busy people: let's decide it and go home_ by William T. Carnesi, who spent many years as the chair of such a group for the avionics industry. The book is also good on how to run a meeting (one tip–never use Robert's Rules), and as the subtitle suggests, it is a fairly entertaining read.

  2. Regarding driving on the correct (ie, left) side of the road, the reason why we do this in the UK, and subsequently, many places in the former empire (for example, Malaysia, where I live now. Interestingly, many other countries in this part of the world that were never part of the British Empire, such as Thailand, Indonesia, alo drive on the left), is very simple.

    In the days of horse-drawn coaches, it was very important not to entangle one's whip in the tree branches over the road. That meant one's whiphand, generally the right hand, being as close to the centre of the road as possible, which required right-hand drive, on the left hand side of the road. No-one has yet demonstrated, as far as I'm aware, a practical reason to change this.

    Europe changed this practice under Napoleon (maybe he just wanted to be contrary to Blighty), and have kept to LHD and right hand lane. I suspect he might also be implicated in the uptake of this arrangement on the West side of the pond.

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