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Posted in delhi, good design, what really matters by hemmant jha on August 6, 2012

It’s been a while since the TATA Nano was launched in India, and it has seen its share of ups and downs. Never in the history of automotive development have electrical faults and fires been a selling point, and the tendency of the first batch of Nanos to burst into flame did nothing to help matters. Using ‘cheap’ as an USP seems not to have worked either – this approach alienated those looking at the Nano as an aspirational product (a move up from the scooter or the motorcycle) and alienated those who may well have considered the Nano a perfectly fine urban runabout, and a replacement for any number of significantly higher priced Japanese automobiles.

Many see the Nano as a failure, and measured by all the traditional yardsticks, it probably is. Seen in light of the images below, however, it is a success – never in the history of modern motoring has a vehicle existed that is a perfectly plausible replacement for the scooter or motorcycle when used as a family vehicle. At just about USD2000, it is cheaper than most scooters sold in the US, and about twice as much as most scooters sold in India. It seats five in relative comfort, keeps them dry, and gets them where they need to go. It’s not the last word in anything, really, but the only four wheeled automobile available that delivers on the promise of the peoples’ car.

Still have doubts? Put yourself in the place of either one of the kids in the pictures below. In Delhi. On poorly surfaced roads slick with rain.

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Posted in what really matters by hemmant jha on May 16, 2011

Le Roi est mort, vive le Roi!

This past week, I attended a conference. It was brilliant and enjoyable, and hosted by people I respect.

I think it was meant to be a design thinking and strategy conference, but it was opined by several speakers that design thinking was not really a term to be used anymore, that it was a term overused, perhaps abused. And this was opined by the very voices that had proposed we use this term a couple of years ago. This is what makes such conferences fun – they are not the venues where the world’s most pressing problems are solved, but where coinage is generated. To consultants [sometimes called innovation consultants, or similar] and to pundits, coinage directly translates to coin.

Coinage is coin.

To generate coin, one needs coinage. It is my belief that we will now see a phase out of design thinking and innovation consulting, to be replaced by facsimiles sufficiently different, new enough and profound enough, capable of supporting a trove of new terminology or generating a new lexicon, yet not so different that clients who were sold on the last generation of nomenclature will be seriously miffed.

The best pundits will bathe aglow in a new light, and ones in the second tier will bask in reflected glory.

Through our work in industry, and our contact with those who have availed of the services of these pundits, we know that clients are starting to tire of innovation plans, books and documents. Document and plan generation is a highly profitable business for the pundit – it makes for a profession generally devoid of responsibility for successful implementation or the consequences of failure. But a graphically pleasing plan still needs to be translated to action, into products and services that the client is in the business of making and selling. Without this, the plan leaves the client pretty much where they started, but marginally less well off. And sometimes substantially more ticked off.

Some of you may already know this, and will consider this little piece a rant rife with naiveté. To those few, I apologize – but then, they will probably not be reading this anyway. I predict that ‘innovation consulting’ will be removed from the phraseology of these design organizations before 2013 is upon us. Prove me wrong, and you get my GR21 [a great camera, samples here].

To summarize, I borrow heavily and shamelessly from the French, Monk, the X Files and Philips [from a while ago] : Le Roi est mort, vive le Roi!    It’s a jungle out there.    Trust no one.    Let’s make things better.


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Posted in not good design, what really matters by hemmant jha on March 17, 2011

Whither detail?

As designers know, good design has a lot to do with details. To the uninitiated, let it be known that God is in the details. Helvetica would be just another font if not for carefully resolved detail. And the straight six BMW M motor would be just another engine. And the suits of Jil Sander just a piece of clothing. And if detail is so critically important to a product, why is it being done away with?

There’s still detail everywhere you look – maybe it’s just not the right kind. Let’s visit the Apple iPad2. This svelte little powerhouse photographs well, works well, sells well. But so much has been stripped away from the design to absolutely, totally, completely pare it down that it is bloodless, practically devoid of character. It’s still very nice, and better than anything the competition will make anytime soon, but it is too simple.

What is too simple? In aesthetic terms, it has no hooks for our design gaze to linger, for our design instincts to latch onto. It’s nice, but it’s not charming, clever or terribly interesting. While there’s fabrication and assembly to admire, there’s not much to love, and certainly nothing to hold onto. It has a slippery shape that lends itself to flight – right from your fingers to the floor. In the quest to make a super slim machine, so much has been removed that basic functionality suffers. And when the very hands you’re trying to place these machines in are not given due consideration, that’s not good design.

Einstein got it right when he said “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

There are simple details that could save the day – nothing jarring, nothing sudden, something barely there and just indicative of due consideration. In the iPad2, they’re MIA, and that’s a problem. To us, that signals a shift in thinking – it places machine over user, image over functionality. It’s especially troubling because functionality and pleasure of use is what Apple was all about, starting with their very first products. Sexy looking design sells, but it is important to remember that people are pretty imperfect – compared to a machine, we are laid back, unfocussed dreamers. We have been known to drop things. We have soft hands and soft fingers, and that soft pudginess needs a little something to grab on – give us a bit of resistance, a lip, an edge, a furrow, a texture, something, anything!

Rather than asking us to change who we are, and necessitating change in our behaviour to match the needs of our devices, devices ought to conform to our needs. And designers ought to be able to anticipate those needs, and design and detail for them. That’s user focused design, and ultimately that’s good design.

There are examples of products that fulfill the need for grip. Above is the Ricoh GR1S – a classic camera, a street shooter that builds a perfect grip into its design. That one grip detail has been a constant presence over 30 years and has even survived the transition from film to digital.

Below is the Sony TA-E88B, a classic audio component. The volume knob is machined from the same metal as the iPad2, but is softly faceted to provide just the right amount of grip and tactile feedback – and as the knob is turned, we readily associate travel with the progressive change of volume. See it here on thevintageknob.org.

The Fixpencil 77 by Caran d’Ache fits beautifully and effortlessly in the hand. It is plain in appearance, compared to most other mechanical pencils – not due to the absence of detail, but through the skillful and subtle implementation of essential features. While other pencils emphasize the gripping area with knurled or grooved surfaces, machined finishes, little rubberized bunions and the like, the Fixpencil 77 simply incorporates a textured surface in that area – similar in color to the rest of the pencil. Visually and functionally, it provides grip when you need it, not when you don’t. See it here on Leadholder.com.

Ultimately, consider this post an impassioned plea to Apple. Dear Apple, you’ve done great so far, and you’re the bastion of good design in mass produced consumer products, but cracks are starting to show – take a vacation, have a stiff drink, do less, not more, but for God’s sake, keep it together.

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Posted in our work, what really matters by hemmant jha on December 23, 2010

Kittens. Really?

Yes, they’re cute, but they’re killing us in the Pepsi Challenge. Good People, we need votes, and we need them now. If kittens don’t get you going, imagine driving something designed in the 1940s, for the 1940s. Everyday. I imagine our lives are very different from what they would have been in the 1940s, and our expectations from our tools for living, including those we use for mobility, are quite different as well.

Why are wheelchair users being made to live in the past? There are a lot of reasons for this, and we’re tackling these in our design for a new kind of wheelchair for people with spinal cord injury. Details here, and here.

Getting a product like this designed and out the door is an expensive process, and with this grant, we can build prototypes and go to user testing. Our winning this grant depends on how many votes we can get. Please get the word out. Votes can and should be cast every day, online at http://www.refresheverything.com/wheelwell and by texting 104725 to 73774.

To help get the word out, we’ve created some posters with our message. The format is small, the message condensed. Ideal for emailing to all your friends and connections. Perfect for printing and copying cheaply in black and white. Put them up in your building, your gym, your favorite coffee shop, your school and office, local dive bar, design studio, school, strip club, Whole Foods, or anyplace with foot traffic.

Click on poster to download. Distribute electronically. Make copies for your friends and colleagues. Spread the word.

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Posted in our work, what really matters by hemmant jha on December 13, 2010

Thank you for supporting Wheelwell @ the Pepsi Challenge! And for your votes!

We’re currently at #175, which is not a great number. In fact, the only good numbers are #1 and #2. For the next couple of weeks, we’d like you to continue supporting this good cause. What’s the cause? See it here, and here.

To help get the word out, we’ve created some posters with our message. The format is small, the message condensed. Ideal for emailing to all your friends and connections. Perfect for printing and copying cheaply in black and white. Put them up in your building, your gym, your favorite coffee shop, your school and office, local dive bar, design studio, school, strip club, Whole Foods, or anyplace with foot traffic.

Click on poster to download. Distribute electronically. Make copies for your friends and colleagues. Spread the word.

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