Understanding Technology's Behavior
All design work is problem solving. If there's no problem to solve, no specific vision to be arrived at, there is no point to design. While we can set out with the best intentions in our efforts to simplify design problems the reality is that a motor vehicle, cel phone, or a boat is a collection of a broad range of diverse and highly specialized technologies.
Economist Matt Ridley makes the point that while one person can craft a stone axe, the design and manufacture of a computer mouse, an object of the same size, is the product of thousands, maybe even millions of technicians, designers, engineers and managers, and yet not one of those people knows how to make a computer mouse.
"Quite simply the knowledge of how to make a computer mouse, from the manufacture of the plastics through to the point of sale, is not in the the head of any one individual human".
Ridley's point is that we should trust collective intelligence rather than relying on individual experts. I would argue we already do that in spades.
In Notes on the Synthesis of Form Christopher Alexander builds on Ridley's observation and makes the point that the various technologies are not aways successfully integrated.
"If we look at the lack of organization and the lack of clarity of the forms around us it is plain that their design has often taxed their designer's cognitive capacity well beyond the limit".
While Ridley points out that while we engage a broad range of technicians and specialists in resolving the complexity that defines our manufactured products, what Alexander proposes is a structured approach to solving complex design problems by creating a "hierarchy of concepts".
Alexander sets out to illustrate this approach using diagrams and some mentally challenging mathematical equations.
The effectiveness of Alexander's methods is wholly dependent on the effective classification and organization of the various concepts that comprise the whole. This "problem" of classification is a topic that has been addressed by a number of designers and authors, but to my knowledge without any definitive explanation of how to do this. I think it's really up to the individual designer or product manager to devise a classification process that works for their particular product or working methods.
Kevin Kelly has stated that to work with technology's force rather than against it we need to understand technology's behavior (see previous post) and I believe it's possible that thinking of our sailing vessels as energy systems provides us with a very useful tool for analyzing, classifying and optimizing the products we design and manufacture.