Creating Enjoyable Earthquakes

Bearing the brunt

Everybody loves a good disruption, don’t they? Especially if it disrupts the competition’s business (and not your own). But wait a minute. Look around. If you do that, you might hear an entirely different story about disruption. As a matter of fact, people hate disruption they can’t control, they hate to be at the receiving end of sudden, decisive change without being given prior warning or an opportunity to adapt. If you listen to what „normal“ people (and also many sysadmins!) say about disruption, you might find out a majority of them has had just about their fill with all those disruptive developments in the last twenty years or so, thank you very much. Naysayers, complainers - right? Unfortunately, those naysayers and complainers are your audience, your customers, the people you want to sell all your disruptions too. So, for the sake of the argument: what will
your favorite disruptions - if they’re any good - do to other people?

Design is not about polishing apples

Let’s dwell a little longer on that curious contradiction between the love (of the few) for disruption and the hate (of the many) for the very same thing. Am I exaggerating? Of course. Yet in Germany, a whopping 23% of the potential internet users care so little about the net they don’t even have - or look for - access. If you think all the others are happy campers in Digitaland, you are very much mistaken. In fact, many of the people inhabiting this new world built by the experts lead a digital slum life. They don’t like to be here, they are confused and afraid, and in case of problems they tend to be flailing about without much sense of control. These are the people who couldn’t care less for another wave of disruptions, because they haven’t even processed the one which got them here. If you see creativity as intelligence having fun, the intelligence of these people is mostly taking place somewhere else. Because they aren't having fun here, like, at all. What went wrong?

Only recently I visited the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany. Vitra designs mainly furniture, chairs to be precise, and besides their ever changing expositions on all things design, they proudly show off specimens of the high quality chairs they've been doing over the years. Among them is the
Heart Cone Chair, originally designed by Verner Panton in 1959. I didn't like it. It had that overwrought look decisive (post-)modernism sometimes fell for after 1945, and because I'm all for usability, I was deeply skeptical about forcing that heart shape on a place to sit on. It just didn't make sense. And then I took a seat. I could instantly feel coming a smile to my face. Rarely had I sat on a chair more accommodating to my body and posture. Actually, it felt like it had been designed for me. Immediately I wanted to take a book out (or my iPad) and read. Playful it was, yes, but it was also immensely useable.

How does this little story relate to disruptions? Obviously the Heart Cone Chair is a perfect example for a job well done, but what exactly had been the job? From the viewpoint of disruptology it had been Panton's job to make people comfortable in the world they were about to enter in 1959. The design of this chair is saying something like this: "Postmodernism is ok. Plastics, computers, going to space and all those other things are ok, they could even be fun. Take a seat, we'll be in there together." This comforting message could still be heard in 2014 - which says a lot about the ingenuity of Verner Panton's design.

Why are there so very few Heart Cone Chairs in the interconnected world we are about to enter? Why do many people feel so ill at ease here - even if they don't always admit it?

So here's a definition my little experience with the Heart Cone Chair was the inspiration for:

Good design is the language of a transition well managed.

Immediately the question arises: how will
you design your disruptions so that people can enjoy them?

Striving for invisibility

Technology has always implied networks. In the context of disruption this spells major trouble, because disruption and networks make for uneasy bedfellows.

Networks of infrastructural relevance are invisible for two reasons: they are too big to be seen, and most of the time they just work - they have to, because they’re too big to fail. They’re only ever glaringly visible when they have been disrupted the wrong way. There’s many, many ways for infrastructure of systemwide relevance to be disrupted catastrophically. There is a workaround however.

We know the disruptions are coming. „Big data“ and „the internet of things“ already seem to be behind us, but only because the buzz has abated for the time being. Truth is, we haven’t even scratched the surface of this. Quantum computing might be needed to manage it all - implemented in earnest, it could turn out to be the mother of all disruptions. I’m sure there’s a host of things we don’t even have the slightest idea about yet. The technological challenges will be absolutely enormous. But the real work of integration begins when the tech works. Because then, you have to deal with people - their fears and expectations, their brilliance and shortcomings, their plans and intentions. After the experts have fought to make their infrastructural creations elegantly invisible, the only way to make them tangible for their users is to demonstrate their usability. Which means: all that stuff humming along in the background has to be good for something the users really, genuinely, deeply care about. Sure, they can be
made to use it all, but if they don’t enjoy it, the whole construct will never live up to its full potential. What a giant waste that would be.

In other words, the real, the positive disruption disguises as integration and evolution here, and it will take an unprecedented amount of thought about design, language and culture to make this kind of integration work. How will
you invite people to the future?

© Marcus Hammerschmitt, 2014