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#25 Never-ending houses, Kluges and Re-design
It’s Design Lobster #25. This week we’re entering hauntingly unfinished houses and finding new uses for familiar things. Get a spanner and roll up your sleeves. 🔧
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Question: When does design become pathological?
Many designers reading this will recognise the urge to continually tinker with their work. As the saying goes: design is never done. But what if it really isn’t ever done? The Winchester Mystery House offers a cautionary tale.
In 1881, upon the death of her husband, Sarah Winchester inherited an enormous fortune, roughly $534 million in today’s money. She also gained 50% ownership of the Winchester Repeating Arms company, manufacturer of the Winchester Rifle, a highly commercially-successful gun. After her daughter also died, Sarah, in grief and also haunted by the ghosts of all those killed with Winchester Rifles, visited a medium who said she must move to the West Coast and continuously build a house for the rest of her life.
Doing as she was told, Sarah bought a farmhouse in Santa Clara which became a construction site for the next 38 years until her death in 1922. Growing in a piecemeal fashion without any plan, the property has become famous for its false doors, windows overlooking other rooms and stairs that lead nowhere. The house is the physical manifestation of the disorder of the poor woman’s mind.
To give you a sense of the confusion I present below just one of the floor plans. 😱
Iterating on a design can have an addictive quality. When you are working closely on something it turns over in your mind – improvements or additions occur to you which in turn cause other improvements or additions to occur. The case of Sarah Winchester shows a pathological surfeit of this designerly tendency, where the repeated act of construction or design has become pure superstition.
Don’t be like Sarah! Iteration is important, but we must also learn the judgement to know when enough is enough.
Design takeaway: Do you know when to stop designing?
Lose your mind in this gallery of photos.
Object: Wrench door handle
I found this scrappy and inelegant door handle on an online forum. A wife was complaining that her husband kept breaking door handles around their house and replacing them with wrenches like this. A near-perfect example of a kludge, here is a design that looks a bit crap and won’t last but will just about do for now.
Pronounced klooj, a kluge or kludge is defined as an inelegant but expedient solution to a problem, or a solution done hastily that will eventually fail. Our lives are littered with them, from props to keep windows open in hot weather to sections of computer code that developers never quite get around to rewriting.
Even though I am a designer and perhaps should know better, I really enjoy examples of kludges like this door handle. They show an active engagement and a resourcefulness that is very designerly in spirit. In his book Overcomplicated, the writer Samuel Arbesman has talked about how our lives are ever more embedded in technological systems which we know increasingly less about. Rather than dismissing some technology we don’t understand (like the mechanism of a door handle) as magic and call in a mechanic, he argues we should approach it more calmly and tinker with it, building knowledge with what we already have to hand. Kludges, though messy, are a bridge to understanding our designed world better.
Design takeaway: What kludges have you made or encountered recently?
More on the etymology of kluge and the first computer ‘bug’ in this article.
Quote: “…we understand the reality is that we’re always reacting to something, because everything has been built. We’re not in a world where we’re starting from scratch, and I think what tends to happen is most people think of design, or the world around us, as a blank sheet of paper.”
– Antoinette Carroll, founder of Creative Reaction Lab
In this quote Antoinette Carroll reminds us that all design is redesign. As designers it’s important to approach new situations with humility, mindful that we are intervening in situations that have long preceded our arrival on the scene. Design is not just the act of creating something new, it’s crucially also the process of discovery that happens before.
So, keep discovering. 🦞
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