Charles and Ray Eames on Design

Charles Eames’s diagram explaining the design process. From the Oakland Museum of California’s outstanding Charles and Ray Eames exhibit.

I saw the Charles and Ray Eames exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California this past weekend. (Thanks to James Cham for prolifically tweeting about it. It was really, really good.) Among the many highlights was this 1972 interview on design. It’s short and sweet, and you should read the whole thing. Here are my favorite excerpts:

What is your definition of “Design,” Monsieur Eames?

One could describe Design as a plan for arranging elements to accomplish a particular purpose.

Is Design an expression of art?

I would rather say it’s an expression of purpose. It may, if it is good enough, later be judged as art.

Is it a method of general expression?

No. It is a method of action.

Is Design a creation of an individual?

No, because to be realistic, one must always recognize the influence of those that have gone before.

Is Design a creation of a group?

Very often.

Is there a Design ethic?

There are always Design constraints, and these often imply an ethic.

Does Design imply the idea of products that are necessarily useful?

Yes, even though the use might be very subtle.

Is it able to cooperate in the creation of works reserved solely for pleasure

Who would say that pleasure is not useful?

To whom does Design address itself: to the greatest number? to the specialists or the enlightened amateur? to a privileged social class?

Design addresses itself to the need.

Managing Complexity: Exploring the Cockpit of a 1960s F-5 Fighter Jet

The other day, I visited the Western Museum of Flight with my friend, Ed. It’s a tiny, volunteer-run museum next to Zamperini Field in Torrance, California, and it boasts several original prototypes of some iconic fighter jets, which I enjoyed seeing. But the surprising highlight of the visit for me was sitting in the cockpit of an F-5.

I was largely apathetic about the F-5 at first. It’s an older jet (first deployed in the early 1960s), and it was mostly an export and training plane. However, it was the only plane where we got to go into the cockpit, and I had never sat in the cockpit of any fighter jet before.

My first reaction was surprise at how comfortable it was in there. Much better than my office chair! (I need to get a new office chair.)

My second reaction was overwhelm. Take a look at this instrument panel:

Here’s a more dynamic view:

That’s a whole lot of dials and buttons and levers to track, all while flying at the speed of the sound and dogfighting with other fighters. I felt awe and appreciation for the pilots, who somehow were able to monitor all of this complexity in real-time.

After I got over my initial overwhelm, I took a closer look. To my surprise, everything seemed to make sense. Dials and buttons were clearly labeled. Color-coding helped me quickly figure out which buttons I should avoid. The buttons and switches felt good when I pressed and flipped them — not enough resistance to be hard, but enough to feel solid and high-quality. It doesn’t hide the complexity, but it makes it manageable, even enjoyable. Look more closely at the weapons panel on the lower left:

Notice the diagrams and descriptions. Notice the spacing — dense, but comfortable.

When you think about it, of course the inside is well-designed. A jet is a high-performance device, and the pilot’s life literally depends on their ability to process massive amounts of complexity in real-time. Still, I found the design inspiring. I wish all of my dashboards were designed as well.

Here’s a more zoomed out look at what it’s like to sit in the cockpit, along with some additional commentary:

Grant Achatz, Small Business, Worldly Impact

Life, on the Line is the remarkable story of Grant Achatz, chef/owner of Alinea in Chicago and widely acknowledged as one of the best chefs in the world. It’s a compelling play-by-play of the commitment, vision, and tenacity required to be the best. It’s also a beautiful tale of the mentorship (from Thomas Keller), partnership (with Nick Kokonas, co-owner of Alinea and coauthor of the book), and friendship (with Keller, Kokonas, and many others) that kept Achatz on track. There’s even a bad guy (Charlie Trotter).

Oh yeah, and then there’s the tongue cancer.

In 2007, barely into his 30s and shortly after reaching the pinnacle of the restaurant world, Achatz was diagnosed with Stage IV tongue cancer. The prognosis was horrible. Most people with this form of cancer lose their tongue, half their face, and part of their neck. Only 50% survive after surgery. Achatz didn’t see the point of living this way and was ready to give up. Then he got lucky and found his way into a clinical trial at Northwestern. He managed to survive, tongue and face intact, but he also lost his sense of taste for many months (a story well-documented by the New Yorker in 2008).

The book was a page-turner in so many ways, and it’s a great read for anyone into food, high-performance collaboration, design, or new media. It’s a well-told story overall, but in my current state of exploration around impact, there was one brief, throwaway line in the Epilogue that caught my attention:

Alinea is a small business run by a small group of people.

After reading all of the great things that Achatz accomplished, and knowing the broader context for his story, it was remarkable to see his restaurant described this way. I was somewhat incredulous, so I ran the numbers using hints from the book. Sixty covers a night at an average of $200 a cover, five nights a week, 51 weeks a year for the flagship Alinea (not counting his other two restaurants, book royalties, appearances, etc.) — about $3 million in annual revenue. Given the downtown Chicago real estate, the cost of sourcing countless top-quality, often obscure ingredients, and 60+ salaries, it’s a miracle that they make any money at all.

So yes, it seems quite accurate to call Alinea a small business. Somehow, I found this comforting and inspiring. I want to live comfortably and joyfully, and I want to make an impact. I think it’s easy to get into the mindset that you have to create some sort of global, financial monolith in order to achieve that kind of success, but I don’t think that’s right. I like small business. I’ve started two of them, and I’d like to be part of another one. You can do that and make an impact.

Achatz’s story offers somewhat of a playbook for doing that. (It’s not the perfect template. Work-life balance is clearly not important to him. Maybe that’s an inevitable trade-off, but I haven’t quite succumbed to that belief yet.) I think the basic formula is simple, reminiscent of Steve Martin’s career advice to young comics:

Be so good they can’t ignore you.

There are lots of things that have to happen in order to scale your impact, but it starts with constantly working on your craft, constantly striving to be the very best you can be. Do that, be a good person, and all that other stuff will eventually fall into place. This book was an excellent reminder of that.