Innovation & Design

Noah


I can't remember anything anymore. Lying in bed, I rummage through my unresponsive mind, then ask desperately, "What's her name?"

"Whose name?" my wife answers.

"The woman in the movie. Don't ask me what movie. I can't remember that either."

"It's in there somewhere," she says.

"That reminds me of a story. Hector Berlioz once lost patience with an orchestral brass section that couldn't play a passage from 'Symphonie Fantastique' the way he had composed it. He screamed at the musicians, 'The notes are in there somewhere! It's your job to get them out!' "

"It's your job to go back to sleep," she says.

A few hours later I sit up in bed, triumphantly exclaiming "Myrna Loy! 'The Best Years of Our Lives.' "

"Thanks for not making me wait until morning to find out," my wife says. "Anyway, I was right. You can remember. It just takes longer now. It's a side effect of aging."

"Aging is a side effect," I say.

"What do you mean by that?" she asks, falling asleep again before I can think of an answer. Just as well, for I didn't really mean anything. It occurs to me, though, that what I said may have meant something, irrespective of whether I had or not. Namely, that side effects are built into our lives gyroscopically, to keep the world in balance. No gain without pain. The bitter with the sweet. Win some, lose some.

I admit to a lifelong predilection for sides. At a three-ring circus I always ignored the center ring, concentrating on the two at the sides. In fact, I preferred sideshows to main events. I liked carnivals better than circuses, because carnivals were all sideshows, pure distraction, unalloyed by anything in particular to be distracted from. Sideshow barkers held an allure no ringmaster could match. The high wire act in the big tent carried the suspense of danger. But it lacked the suspense of mystery, the delicious tension in wondering what secrets of flesh and spirit might, as the barker promised, be revealed, if you paid the extra quarter, in the dark of the tent behind the tent.

We are already wearyingly familiar with side effects in a medical context, where Federal regulations and the fear of torts force pharmaceutical manufacturers to deliver mandatory admissions posing as voluntary expressions of compassion. After each hyperbolic declaration of miracle cures, the voiceover drops to a softer tone, cooing a litany of hazards so seductively that you're almost charmed to learn that "taking Hypofraudocin may cause nausea, anxiety, behavioral disorders, gastrointestinal bleeding and, in rare cases, death." Then the voice switches to a straight-talk inflection, acknowledging frankly, "Hypofraudocin is not for everybody. Ask your doctor if Hypofraudocin is right for you."

One evening I made a list of eleven different medications advertised that way, and the next morning left a message for my doctor, asking if they were right for me. He has not returned the call.

Nothing we swallow is without side effects. Neither is anything we invent or design. Like cholesterol, side effects come in good versions and bad. They can even be good and bad. The introduction of corked wine bottles meant that wine did not have to be drunk immediately upon fermentation. A side effect was the ritual of uncorking, swirling the goblet to boost aeration, studying the color, sniffing, decanting, with the host pouring the first few drops to assure that the guest's glass is free of corkage. True, the excessive show of sniff, study, and swirl threatens to turn a pleasant side effect into a pompous side affectation; but even pretentious ceremony has its place.

Now, however, oenologists have discovered that plastic is superior to cork, and are hinting that screw tops are even better. But the plastic corks don't come out with the same satisfying smooth pop; and opening a bottle of vintage Bordeaux with the same twist one uses to take the cap off a bottle of mouthwash will lift no one's spirit. Although the alcohol is potent as ever, without the side effects we get less kick from champagne.

The more innovative the product, the further removed from previous experience, the more difficult it is to predict side effects. E. B. White suggested that if Alexander Graham Bell had anticipated the trauma of telephone conversation, he might have called the whole thing off. Charles Eames observed that "a plastic cup seems like a very reasonable thing. Who could have guessed that one would actually miss feeling the heat of the coffee or the coldness of the lemonade? Or that the constant neutral temperature of the material would give some of the disoriented feeling of Novocain in the lip? Who would have guessed that one would be disappointed in not hearing it clink when set down, and feel slightly cheated at the thought of its bouncing when dropped?"

Two of my favorite euphemisms come from the medical profession. Iatrogenic illness is illness resulting from a visit to the doctor. Nosocomial illness is illness brought about by a stay in the hospital. Both are applicable to design practice and design programs. Bad side effects are perceived as failure, but they are just as likely to be the product of success. It was the automobile's utility and affordability that led to highway congestion, the computer's limitless adaptability that brought us spam, the cell phone's functional convenience that turns it at times into a public enemy. As architectural planner Jane Thompson says, "Every problem comes from a solution." Or, to put it another way, every silver lining turns out to be under another cloud.

The most memorable side effect in literature is found in Charles Lamb's "Dissertation on Roast Pig," the tale of a prehistoric Chinese village where Bo-bo, the teen-aged son of the swine herder Ho-ti, carelessly let his father's cottage burn to the ground with all of the family's pigs inside. As Bo-bo agonized over what to tell his father, "an odor assailed his nostrils, unlike any scent which he had before experienced." Feeling one of the pigs to see if there were any signs of life, he burnt his fingers, stuck them in his mouth and, Lamb tells us, "For the first time in his life (in the world's life indeed) he tasted-crackling!

"The truth at length broke into his low understanding, that it was the pig that smelt so, and the pig that tasted so delicious; and... he fell to tearing whole handfuls of the scorched skin with the flesh next it, and was cramming it down his throat... when his sire entered amid the smoking rafters, and finding how affairs stood, began to rain blows upon the young rogue's shoulders."

Bo-bo paid no attention and kept on eating madly while his father beat him. "O father," he cried, " the pig, the pig, do come and taste how the burnt pig eats."

At last his father stopped pummeling Bo-bo long enough to taste the pig. The two then sat down together and devoured the entire litter.

Soon the neighbors observed that Ho-ti's cottage kept burning down with alarming frequency. Once they discovered why, their own cottages began going up in flames repeatedly, until "there was nothing to be seen but fires in every direction." To facilitate the process, people made their rebuilt cottages increasingly rickety, building "slighter and slighter every day, until it was feared that the very science of architecture would be lost to the world."

And that, Lamb tells us, was the origin of cooking. Further development awaited design intelligence. For not until someone saw the possibility of roast pork without the necessity of residential conflagration, could woks and stoves and grills and pots and pans and chafing dishes be conceived and fabricated. Design has always depended on the imaginative reinterpretation of side effects.

For more information: http://designforum.aiga.org

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Steve Ballmer, Power Forward
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