As a freshman in College I took an intro sculpture class called ‘3D Design’. It was fun but plagued with the indifference of students who had to take it to fulfill a requirement. One of the projects was to design a bridge out of only centimeter thick cardboard and hot glue. It was to support a brick between the walls of a hallway. The designs the class produced ranged from successful ladder/tube structures to unsuccessful cardboard as string nets. My bridge was an arch supported by a web of trusses and triangular supports. Not only did it hold one brick – but it was able to hold three more before even showing any sign of stress.

Not extra credit anymore

Some might say I have a problem over-designing. I try to think things through to the point where I’ve created openings for every possibility I can think of and abstractions for every layer. When working on a school project ‘over-design’ can be a virtue – a source of extra credit. I’ve found that in the real world, over-design can be a real problem.

Over-design in retail

A new restaurant just opened up across from the office. I saw them working on it and building though the summer. The sign on the door proudly letting us know that a ‘Grill and Creamery’ was coming soon. I’m a little worried they wont last though the winter. I’ll be honest I haven’t looked at their costs or revenues, but just general observations have led me to believe that this a dire case of over-design. Walking inside it looks like they had custom fixtures and counters made, not to mention all the little details. Yeah, its nice – but taken in context this all seems like a mistake. First, consider the neighborhood. They’re on the wrong side of Manhattan bridge to really get the families, and the lunch crowd these days is a lot less yuppie and a lot more blue collar. Also, perhaps because of waiting for all this custom work, they opened their doors in October, hardly the time to open an ice cream store. When you place an order you have to confirm the details of your order on a touch screen by the register.

All of these are symptoms of solving problems that don’t exist. Its one thing to preemptively close open loops and sew a patch before the whole gets to big. Its an entirely different to spend time, money, and energy eliminating ‘potential’ problems.

Agile over-achieving

In coding and the web, over-design can be a feature. The fact that you’ve designed for every possible user interaction is zealous though sometimes worthwhile. There is still a line, though, where too much thought and debate over ‘potential possibilities’ can halt a project. Agile development is not under-designing – it’s riding this line. Determine the problem and work towards a solution, solving for possibilities and exceptions on the way. You’ll never be able to catch every possible issue in the initial design. There are always surprises. However, if you or your team is fast enough, you can close gaps as they arise, and sell that ice cream in the summer.

Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/stoner/117939136/

One Response to “Over-design”

Eric Says: #

Under Design?

Aaron– So if over-design is good for college and code but not good for life, when is underdesign valuable?

I am in the process of underdesigning a paper that was due in May. It’s for a class that I don’t need to take– a spanish literature class that was over my head to begin with, with a lazy teacher. The challenge of taking an all-spanish class has really boosted my drive to study, and I’ve been improving on my own and with tutors.

So why do the paper? I don’t need the credits. I just figure it’s better not to have an ugly f on my transcript in case I want to at some point do graduate school. So an “under-designed” paper represents that I’m putting my resources into other classes while still maintaining a decent transcript.

How about underdesign in attire? I am right now wearing a 6 year old sweater that I bought at discount when I was working at lucky brand jeans. It was torn in a fight with some hipsters in 2003 and I got a good tailor to repair it for 10 bucks. Underneath I got my bootleg senior sing t-shirt, also 6 years old. For pants I’m wearing a pair of Dickies double-knee work pants. These cost 28 dollars when you buy them on the website, they work for casual days and medium-dressy days (I use them for work and school). The crease never goes away! And I never get holes in these (I stopped wearing jeans cause I was always getting holes in the crotch).

So aside from a few pairs of Dickies, I haven’t bought new clothes in years. I wear the same old shit everyday. I figure, as long as it’s clean, I’m saving the environment and saving money by completely disinvesting in any kind of look. I just wear neat clean clothes and make sure to shave and get regular haircuts.

Under Design– works for school and fashion.

IN other news, I’m living a life of triangles. I think I described to you when we were at the diner on cadman place how I mark off my time studying or writing in half-hour blocks, symbolized by triangles in a notebook. It has to be serious studying or serious writing (for instance, this blog comment absolutely doesn’t count), and it has to be for a sustained half an hour or more (usually without any interruptions, not even pissing).

I’m proud to report that slowly but surely my daily triangle total is growing, on average. A ten-plus triangle day is still rare (representing 5 or more hours of serious study a day), but these are occuring more and more frequently. And the bonus of keeping the little books is that I can look back at last week and say, well, this monday feels kind of slow, but I am still ahead on triangles, and I still woke up earlier than the last two mondays.

Plus, next year, I’ll be able to look back at 2006 and compare and contrast. I hope to be seeing marked improvement. In fact, I’m considering graduate school just so I have something to do triangles for! (Of course, only CUNY is in my price range, but CUNY will be a worthwhile expense– I can pay for gradschool with all the money I’ve saved by not buying clothes and being completely sober.)

Anyway, I’ve been enjoying your webposts although many of them are over my head. If you get a bike we can hang, but I don’t like to chill just sitting still.

Peace, Eric


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