Six Questions from Kicker: Julian Bleecker

Julian Bleecker is a designer, technologist and researcher at the Design Strategic Projects studio at Nokia Design in Los Angeles and the Near Future Laboratory. He investigates emerging social practices and networked interaction rituals. His focus is on hands-on design, physical construction, prototyping, observation, prop-making and designed science fictions as a way to raise questions, tune in weak signals, reveal hidden insights and yield innovations that could make the world a more habitable, playful place. He’ll be talking about all of this and more when he joins us at Device Design Day next month.

Julian has a BS in Electrical Engineering and an MS in computer-human interaction. He earned his PhD from the University of California, Santa Cruz where his doctoral dissertation focused on science, fiction, technology and culture.

1. What is the most cherished product in your life? Why?

My most cherished product right now is my Nikon camera—or my modest Nikon camera collection. It’s what’s on my mind quite a bit these days as I spend more and more time with learning a new kind of photography. It’s easy to obsess over the gear and accessorize your accessories’ accessories and all that, which isn’t necessarily a quality I cherish—it’s a functional obsession, like being a functional drunk or something.

But, I appreciate the clarity that’s expressed in the design of a well-built camera. The camera is also something that’s been around for enough generations to comprehend what is is and where it’s going. You can see these changes in behaviors surrounding photo-taking machines and then the camera becomes a useful prop for talking about the ways objects talk to us and inform us, and how they shape our behaviors and expectations. I’ve been spending lots of time in skate parks near my home in LA and sometimes I bring a crap SLR with me and give it to one of the teenage skaters to take some photos. Often enough they try to look “through” the LCD on the back of the camera, not really getting this idea of looking through a glass viewfinder. They’ll hold the whole thing at arms length and try to sort it all out, and then I’ll show them how this old-fashioned sort of photography works. They get it of course, but as a signal of evolving practices and so on, these sorts of generation-gap things remind me that things are always changing, and change is good because it means things can be otherwise.

I also cherish my bicycle. It’s one of the last USA built Cannondale’s—a black anodized Bad Boy. The other day its voice just dropped: it became a single-speed.

2. What’s the one product you wish you’d designed, and why?

One day, someone had the imagination and clarity to put wheels on luggage. I’m sure there’s a business case study somewhere on that one. I prefer that it be told like a designer’s fairy tale because the path to that simple stroke of insight seems so simple, but then materializing that idea and making it part of the world is magical.

Sadly, good ideas can be stymied by the misalignment of goals and aspirations. The misalignment happens in-between design sensibilities to do good in the world and business priorities to make business. Together, those two things make up a maelstrom of entanglements that is often referred to, in polite company, as product design.

For me, “wheels-on-luggage” has become like an incantation to raise the spirit of design clarity in the studio. It’s a signal of a kind of perfection in design: one thing done exceptionally well that makes the world a little bit better than it used to be. Wheels on luggage is also a simple idea that somehow took 50,000 years to materialize in a widespread fashion. It’s simple, but not this capital-s “Simplicity” thing, which somehow needed a book to remind people of the idea, which ironically makes the idea more complex. The wheels on luggage thing is a wonderful marker that stands for a kind of design that makes the everyday quotidian things a little better, rather than obsessing over deeply complex, baroque mishegoss that makes things so barnacled that they just tip over and sink the whole design. So, generally speaking? When I see a product of someone’s imagination that materializes this “wheels-on-luggage” simplicity, I get a collegial, healthy jealousy and wish I had made that.

3. What excites you about being a designer? Why do you keep doing it?

I’m excited by the expectation that a designer should reflect on his practice and redesign the way the design is done. This seems to happen with quite good energy and spirit and commitment in the studio I’m in, which makes it a great place to Get Your Design On. That sort of self-reflection is something I learned more about studying scientists and engineers in grad school when I was learning how scientists make knowledge. The tricky thing there is that scientists and engineers couldn’t really be reflexive about what they were doing or they’d get in trouble with the knowledge cops. They couldn’t look at themselves and do the Bill and Ted thing of stopping suddenly and saying, “Dude. We’re, like…making science that’s going to change the way people understand the world. How fucked up is that?” Unlike science, Design can question itself routinely—asking about itself, questioning its assumptions and practices and redesigning itself in the midst of the design work.

The other thing that makes me excited is that in design one makes-to-think and thinks-to-make. There’s no hard line between wondering about something and making that thing in the machine shop. The two go together without a hard distinction between thinking it up and making it up. In a design studio—or, I should say, the one I’m in because it’s the only one I’ve been in—the making is also the thinking. We don’t figure everything out and then just build it. Both of these materialization rituals are the same and interweave in a simple, clarifying way. It seems impossible to just divorce design from either thinking or making and that translates nicely into a ruthless commitment to simultaneously do, for example, UI design at precisely the same moment as the industrial/object design. I love that sort of stuff. It tickles the generalist in me and teaches me everyday about the craft of design.

4. When do you first remember thinking of yourself as a designer?

It couldn’t have been more than a year ago—a colleague here told me to stop excusing myself for not being a properly trained designer. And he’s a designer’s designer so I did as I was told. I never went to design school and never had those sensibilities schooled into me in a formal way. I’m an engineer with a doctorate in history of ideas—with that it almost seems like I could only but be a designer, if I think about it. That or a rueful, contemplative barfly.

5. What is the most important lesson you’ve learned and who taught it to you?

Follow your curiosity, even if the weather smells like Rapture, everyone around you is loosing their heads and the creek is rising pretty quick. Instinct rules out over any sense of rationality or attempts at an objective view on things. I learned this from my dad. He never said that directly—that’s a translation of decades of a good father-son relationship. But—doing what you know in your gut is right by you? That kind of sensibility and clarity is something I continue to learn from, even in the mistakes.

6. What are 5 things all designers should know?

1) Humility.
2) Listening skills.
3) How to find 3 positive, thoughtful observations about something that you dislike.
4) Designers should be more adamantine about saying “no” to PowerPoint.
5) You’re not the only one to have thought that up, ever.

Don’t miss Julian’s presentation, “Design Fiction Goes From Props to Prototypes” at Device Design Day, August 20 in San Francisco. Register now