Archive for Observed

Social entrepreneurship at its best

19 May 2009


Just learned about the Bamboo Bike Studio in Red Hook, right in my own Brooklyn backyard. Basically, you pay $1000, most of which goes to fund a bike factory in Ghana, and you spend a weekend being guided through the process of building your own bamboo bike. From the story, I can’t help but think that this is an ideal fusion of design, DIY, business, sustainability, and philanthropy, with so many great stories wrapped up in one.

For starters, there’s the fact that cycling’s hot right now, especially given the economy and especially in NYC given the MTA’s impending service cuts and fare hikes (now mitigated, but still a factor). Then, there’s the appeal of DIY. For a large segment of the population, there’s nothing more satisfying than building something with your own hands. I’ve noticed this trend personally, through conversations in passing where people lately seem fascinated by the making aspects of my line of work: the woodworking, modelmaking, welding, etc. I think this is particularly true in a bad economy, where our white collar workforce suddenly has a Billy-Crystal-in-City-Slickers “I sell air” sort of moment. When the tangible output of your work consists of numbers in spreadsheets or bullets in Powerpoint docs, the subjective revaluing of a recession tends make your product feel as ephemeral as clouds. It’s the sort of thing that makes most people want to get their hands dirty and build something, whether that’s with a hammer and a tablesaw, or just a box of Legos.

Building a bike is the perfect outlet for this current cultural craving because it’s just challenging enough to be satisfying, but simple enough that you believe you can achieve it, and at the end you have a usable product. And not just a usable product, but one whose regular use can save you money, make you healthier, and make your feel good about your contribution to the planet.

You’ve also gained a skill, so while you’re paying your $1000 ostensibly for materials and charity, you’re also gaining knowledge that can be applied again and again. People love to interact with companies that teach them something (think Home Depot, Apple, etc.) and it inspires fierce loyalty. Not that many people will be repeat bike-builders, but they’ll recommend it to their friends.

I also love the idea of the connection between the African factory and the Brooklyn Studio. I’m sure it takes a Brooklyn newbie at least 10 times as long to build a bike as an African worker, but this only enhances the development of empathy. And that empathy strengthens the logical connection between the philanthropy and the business. My usual gripe with “socially responsible” business models is that the charity has nothing to do with the business. It’s just charity, and if that’s the case, why pay 10% more to a business to decide who to give it to when I could just keep my money and give it to a cause that matters to me? Those unfocused philanthropy programs don’t do much for a company’s brand value, and in my mind constitute a hugely wasted opportunity.

For me, this partnership between the Bamboo Bike Studio and the Bamboo Bike Project is a model for logically conceived philanthropy that can enhance a brand’s value while increasing attention towards an issue the company cares about.

via Daily Candy

Design-fantasy and design-vanity

15 May 2009

This is a nice bookshelf. Doesn’t it look nice, with its 9 books and its trendy little lamp and preposterously cute little yellow fruit bowl with only perfectly green pears in it?

I’d buy that bookshelf. I’d buy it and take it home, and with this picture in my mind I’d look forward to how nice and uncluttered my space would look once the shelf is set up in my apartment. And then I’d get it home, and lovingly arrange all my stuff in it, and be completely disappointed.

Why? Because I don’t have 9 books, I have 200. I have stacks of magazines I like to keep, and photos of friends and family, and I have random things I like that are not trendy lamps or preposterously cute fruit bowls, but that I like to look at nonetheless. And like most people, I don’t buy 10 pieces of the same kind of fruit all at once.

I know this is a photo from a magazine (Dwell), and that the goal is to sell bookshelves. And for this purpose, the styling in this photo is clearly effective. But the copy alongside the photo suggests that this bookshelf is designed for the way people really use bookshelves, with accommodations for taller and shorter books in different kinds of piles. If that’s really the case, then the promise of this shelf is to make an ordinary pile of crap look orderly and beautiful, which would be a remarkable feat and would merit a lot of magazine space and attention. The photo does nothing to affirm the verbal claim, however, nor does it do anything to educate the user on how they might arrange their stuff to make it look more aesthetically pleasing. If anything, this photo tells us that this is not a functional piece of furniture, but rather a very large decorative element. Like the closet ads that show perfectly organized systems of entirely blue clothes, or pristine kitchens that are gorgeous if you have a full-time staff on hand to wipe the smudges off the stainless steel every hour, these are design fantasies, completely removed from real people and real life.

Designers love beauty. It’s a goal, stated or implicit, of most designers to do work that makes the world more beautiful. But sometimes we fall so in love with the beauty of our own work that we put on blinders to the context in which it will live. We fabricate circumstances to make the work seem beautiful, focusing on how it will look in showrooms and photos, not how it will live in apartments and homes. These exercises flatter our vanity, but they are mostly self-delusion. If we were serious about making the world a more beautiful place, we’d start designing a bookshelf by bringing in a truckload of normal people’s stuff. We’d seek to make the furniture recede and the beauty of the things come forward, or design something that puts the furniture in real harmony with the contents. And once we’d designed this, we’d want to show the achievement with the ugliest mess of stuff we could find. Because if it were truly beautiful, it would shine through whatever we throw at it, and we’d have nothing to hide.

Toy Fair 2009: Not so joyful

18 February 2009

I managed to score a pass to sneak a peak at this year’s New York Toy Fair today. (Thanks, Rikki!) If anything’s going to be joyful, you’d expect it to be toys. So why wasn’t the experience joyful?

First off, I met some sad, sad exhibitors today. It seems like smaller independent toy manufacturers are really hurting these days. Even after I fessed up that I was a designer and not a buyer, I still had plenty of people who wanted to talk. So that made me feel a little sad. Then of course the Toy Fair is at the Javitz Center. Trekking out there in the freezing rain is enough to make a grouch out of anyone. And thirdly I did not manage to score a free sample of the amazing edible play dough, which I clearly needed.

But mostly, the reason Toy Fair wasn’t joyful was that there’s just too much. I don’t know how kids think anymore with all the chaos of today’s toys. Don’t get me wrong—I did see some incredibly interesting and well-designed toys. A lot of the advances in robotics and the science kits just look so much cooler than they did when I was a kid, and a lot of manufacturers are trying to weave in green messages which I think is just great. A few companies are trying to strip out the clutter and make simple things with great sensory appeal and tactile value, like these plush balls I found so irresistible (though I can’t seem to remember the manufacturer’s name) but mostly it’s just a big, loud, overwhelming landscape.

I spoke for a little while with a guy at a booth displaying no-spill bubbles. I asked him why bubbles were joyful. He thought for a second and said, “I think because they’re just so simple.” There may be something to that, and may explain why I left Toy Fair intrigued and stimulated, but not joyful.

Observed 10/08

14 November 2008

My Observed gallery for the month of October is (a little late) now up on Flickr. I got out of the studio a lot last month (unlike this month) so there are a bunch of random photos of things I saw that inspired me.

September inspirations

3 October 2008
For a while now I’ve been keeping files in iPhoto of pictures I’ve taken each month. The subjects are random – just things that I encounter in my daily life that inspire me. I’m trying now to get them all up on Flickr to make them more accessible.

September was a small gallery (maybe I was taking a break after the 700 photos I took in Egypt and Jordan in August). You can find it here.

This is my favorite image of the month, though some people find it gross. I just think there is so much aesthetic value in an oyster – the rutted, stony texture of the outer shell; the fine, flaky edge; the luminous white of the interior shell; and best of all, the watery suspension of pattern and texture inside. I love the toothy ruffled edge of muscle, the kidney shape covered with tiny parallel ridges, the egg-like spots and the leaf-like veining.