Designing for your design's death

The-Decay-of-Digital-THings-Andrew-Lovett-Barron-600x438Last night I went to an exhibition of concept designs for a d.school pop-up class called "The Decay of Digital Things." IDEO designer and class teacher Andrew Lovett-Barron presented the class's challenge as follows:

In a culture full of new projects, new businesses, new products, what happens when these products die, when these businesses fail, when these projects are abandoned?

What can we as designers do to make sure that there is a healthy transition from that initial promise of 'this idea will take off, change the world, live forever' to the reality when this doesn't happen?

One set of ideas from the class is to have a better way to deal with dying machines, by giving them new life or by ritually dispatching them. My husband, Kursat Ozenc, a trained designer, designed a ritual service for your dead laptop, that has been living in your drawer unopened for 2 years because you cannot say goodbye to it.

Kursat Ozenc - Ritual Design Farewell to your dead laptop

Andrew had another idea: take the mobile phone that is dysfunctional or out of vogue, and give it new life as a stationary creature.  When the battery no longer runs you can use it as an ambient display, a recording device, or a weather screen.

The pop-up's teaching team arrived at a useful analogy for dead hardware: the buildings we live in.  Buildings are layered. Some of these layers are stable and long-lasting, others are strippable and disposable.  We change the paint, the plastering of our homes even as we keep the foundations and infrastructure.  If we look at our cell phones in the same way, we may dispose of certain software and batteries when they lose function or fashion, but we can keep the other layers and design new purposes for them.

Another stream of ideas dealt with dying online data. Two master's students designed a Decomposition of Past Relationship Data.

After a break-up, the memories in your brain naturally fade away. The students' design creates a similar fade-away process for the online data trail of your relationship.  Photos of you and your ex get pixellated & blurred.  Messages, chats, and status updates become harder to search for, the text starts falling away and being replaced with randomness, until it eventually disappears altogether. In this way your computer can act much the same way as your mind, gracefully erasing the memories of your now-dead relationship.

Decay of Digital Things - Margaret Hagan - decay of online relationship data

The exhibition got me thinking about how we at the d.school are sitting on a huge graveyard of ideas. We have boards and sheets full of sticky notes, each containing an idea or multiple ideas.  We have class after class pumping out maps, pitches, sketches, storyboards, and insights.

What happens to all of these projects that do not move beyond the classroom? How can we make sure that all of that work doesn't die in obscurity?  How can we give new life to these old ideas? Better yet, should we? Perhaps, it's more natural to just let them die.

d.school Compost heap - by Margaret Hagan

Here's my idea: Each class makes an Ideabook.  It would contain quick sketches and descriptions of concept designs that emerged out of the class.  These Ideabooks can live on, either online or in a corner of the d.school. People can peruse them and, hopefully, be inspired. It would be the d.school's compost heap.

The other idea is to have the Big Book of Failed d.school Designs. This would be a repository of designs that have actually been launched into the world, as pilots rolled out, apps published, or businesses started-up, and which have subsequently failed.

The Big Book of d.school Failures - by Margaret Hagan

We talk a lot at the d.school about the designs that have come out of classes here and then succeeded with huge numbers of users or venture capital funding, like Embrace, Ravel, and Pulse.

But I want to hear about the failures -- what went wrong, what could have been done differently, and what takeaways could be useful to young designers. I have been a part of failed design projects, and they have been some of the richest sources of learnings and insights, to feed into future work.