In the Bubble | John Thackara

Summary of: In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World (The MIT Press)
By: John Thackara


Dive into the world of design in John Thackara’s book ‘In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World’, which challenges the way we prioritize objects over people when it comes to designing our environment. Thackara urges designers to rethink their approach and consider the impact of their creations on individuals, society, and future generations. The book summary explores themes such as the consequences of commercializing the Internet, focusing on human time rather than clock time, and the importance of designing with people and their well-being in mind. Discover how the concept of flow can help synchronize modern design necessities with human-centric values.

Designing for the Future

Herb Simon wrote that everyone designs, but are today’s influential creators able to clearly visualize the impact of their designs? Often, the troubling answer is no. Design principles and movements frequently leave people as an afterthought, and the world is now full of complex systems that seem uncontrollable.
As we move forward, designers must prioritize human beings over objects. While they are not solely to blame for the many problems created by economic and technological change, designers can make a difference by being mindful of their design ethic and its consequences. They should reflect on themes such as the impact of their designs on individuals, society, and future generations. Design should always be focused on making the world a better place, not just on creating more stuff.

The Heavy Cost of Light Technology

Despite the promise of a “weightless” economy with the rise of the internet, the reality is quite the opposite. Information technology (IT) products have a large ecological footprint, from the energy and raw materials needed to produce them to their short lifespan and eventual disposal. While no single product may have a significant impact, small design decisions can add up. It’s time to consider a product’s entire lifecycle and find ways to reduce materials, waste, and transportation while exploring natural energy sources and replacing products with services. This is the key to a sustainable future.

Reclaiming Time from Machines

Using technology to prioritize human time over clock time, designers are taking a new approach to product development. This shift includes movements like “slow food” and “slow cities,” which prioritize living a slower, more quality-focused life. Instead of bending to the clocks and constant acceleration, people can use technology in a way that allows them to feel less constrained and rushed. Innovations like “Fluid Time” use wireless infrastructure to connect service providers and customers at available time slots while prioritizing the individual sense of time. The focus has shifted from mechanical time measurements to human-centered experiences, giving people back their time.

The Future of Transportation

As people continue to travel more than ever before, the impact on the environment is becoming increasingly concerning. The number of air passengers is expected to double by 2015, and there are currently over 535 million cars on the road. Despite the rise in virtual communication, business travel remains popular. However, designers are working on “smart” transportation solutions. European engineers are using RFID tags to optimize shipping routes, while designers are working on perfecting mobility substitution. Additionally, some designers are proposing a return to centralized living using the city as a metaphor.

The Power of Locality

Location is no longer the sole factor for business success. The concept of “locality” is becoming increasingly important as people value a sense of place and authenticity. This is evident in the rise of local produce, regional goods, and unique natural settings. Even big companies like Wal-Mart are integrating with local economies. Local cultural artifacts, such as theaters and museums, are also becoming popular. Small cities are connecting with each other, creating a network of units with a shared identity. Designers are exploring ways to create a sense of place through communication networks and GPS, but they must be cautious not to dilute authenticity into consumer-culture simulation.

The Importance of Human Interaction in Design

Architects and planners often forget that buildings are meant to facilitate collaboration among people. Workspaces tend to isolate workers, and even open offices may lack areas for congregating. Similarly, designers of functional spaces like airports often neglect the social aspects of human behavior that arise from their designs. People need to feel empowered as “agents” capable of ensuring productivity, not treated as mere objects. Thus, structures should encourage human interaction and engagement.

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