Tom Chi  

Our Responsibility to Design

October 23rd, 2004 by Tom Chi :: see related comic

As I lounge comfortably in my classic Eames chair, let me take a minute to explain this week’s comic about industrial design. I am not saying that the world does not need nice-looking tables and chairs, only that there are so many things worthy of design that industrial designers never touch. Instead, disproportionate effort goes into tables, chairs, and flatware that while beautiful, are hardly world-changing.

What else is there to design, you ask? Well let’s examine a few examples. One that springs to mind is new permutations of Mohammed Bah Abba’s pot-in-pot cooling system. While the original design is elegant, it has not been optimized for transport, stacking, or mass production; and it requires repeated human effort to re-wet the cooling sand.

Another entire category is medical equipment design. While tons of industrial design work has been done on portable monitoring devices, how about the basics? Like designing a hypodermic needle that can’t accidentally prick you? Or a hospital bed that can help prevent bedsores?

As designers, it is true that we can change the world — but our efforts are currently biased toward redoing mass consumer goods which have already been done quite well. It ‘makes sense’, since this is where the money is. But perhaps it is time to take a step back and shift our focus toward actual world-changing endeavors.

Kevin and I are looking to launch a new mini-project that connects non-profit/not-for-profit causes who need help with their online presences with experienced usability, visual and interaction designers (and developers!) who are willing to volunteer a couple hours of their time and expertise. We are looking for the sort of sites that could benefit from our skills, but who typically couldn’t afford a day of our time (especially at KC’s rates!). If you have ideas for organizations that could benefit or are interested in volunteering a couple hours, leave a comment or send mail to: ideas /at\

12 Responses to “Our Responsibility to Design”
Kevin Cheng wrote:

Hang on.

We are looking for the sort of sites that could benefit from our skills, but who typically couldn’t afford a day of our time (especially at KC’s rates!)

My current rate is $0/hr. Who can’t afford that? :)

(Whether I do any work at that rate is another question)

Tom Chi wrote:

Sheesh. Your rates have really gone down. Despite your situation, I don’t think you can qualify as being a ‘non-profit’…

Imanol wrote:

Well, out of rates topic, just giving thnx for meeting me with Mohammed Bah Abba’s pot-in-pot cooling device (and Godakumbura’s safe bottle, hendriksen’s q-drum and so on). It’s not usual at all to find a such melting pot of design, ergo/economics, development, growing and, basically, real world problems solution finding. A very good example both for the topic point, world changing endeaviours, and general one, designing for the need.

So, thnx again and keep the good job (at $0/hr, it’s quite hard to believe *grin*)

Moi wrote:

Your project sounds interesting, but are you aware that there is already something similar? Have a butchers at

Tom Chi wrote:

That is excellent information, Moi. We’re definitely not trying to out-U.N. the U.N. I do think that there is room for both efforts though, since many organizations that need help wouldn’t fit what they are focusing on… How about your local senior center? Or the organization to clean up River X? Or a non-profit organization that recycles cars or bikes to give to underserved neighborhoods?

Granted, we still have yet to see if we can make something out of this — but I’m hopeful.

Leo wrote:

The “meme” of ID and I(a)D seems to be popping up more frequently these days, or perhaps I’m just more sensitive to it.

Some who attended CHI2004 in Vienna may have been aware of the adjunct conference between Industrial Designers and Interaction Designers. ( Based on the participants’ feedback it was an effort worth doing over again.

While the specific learnings from that engagement are worthy of several papers, I (as one of the organizers) was both delighted and surprised to learn how rarely each discipline has had the chance to work together in our “day jobs.”

The question I am still seeking answers to: what is the impact on design of embedding autonomy into our everyday objects? (The Eames lounge stands, or sits, alone, but what purpose would it serve to make it “smarter?”)

Hopefully, future mini-conferences on this confluence of disciplines can continue to raise the question.

Bob Salmon wrote:

I suggest that you start with a local meatspace volunteering organisation. They will already have contacts with people who need help. In the UK, try your city or district / borough council, or CVS (the voluntary organisation, not the source control system).

I think that if you’re trying to avoid re-inventing the UNV wheel, it will have to be local to get e.g. the small environmental groups etc.

It’s more fun and better for the ego to build one’s own empire, but it might be a more efficient use of time to use an existing volunteering mechanism.

The definition of “local” is possibly a bit tricky if you want a unified OKC effort, or even Tom Chi + Kevin Cheng one, but that’s for someone else to answer!

As for the area in general, it’s something I’ve envied the nuts and bolts type of engineers for a while. There’s something like ITDG where you can address fundamental, universal needs like heating, cooking, food production, rather than web design which is a bit more esoteric.

Tom Chi wrote:

I guess the idea is that existing volunteering mechanisms are set up so I show up at 8:00am with a hammer and a saw. While it is a great feeling to help people in this most immediate way, it is not the way that I can contribute the most. While I am not bad at building things, I’m much better at creating usable technology frameworks and sensible interaction design.

In this way, the OKC audience is different than your typical group of volunteers — our skills are in a place where we can contribute significantly in ways that other volunteers could not. Granted, I’m still tyring to figure out the shape this all should take, but I do think that we can do something that has not been done well yet.

Bob Salmon wrote:

Maybe I live in an area run by an enlightened City Council. Cambridge City Council has been running a project for several years called Cambridge Online City. Part of it is ensuring free public internet access, and part of it is volunteers helping groups such as an advocacy and support group for people with learning difficulties. It sounds rather like the kind of thing you’re interested in.

Kevin Cheng wrote:

From the UNV site:

Who can host Online Volunteers via this service?Any non-profit organizations actively working in or for developing countries. The first step is that you will need to join and then register your organization as a Group. Once your organization has been approved, you will be able to post Online Volunteering assignments.

Based on that, I’d say “local” is anything outside of that. I agree that the Cambridge City Council effort has some elements of what we’re talking about but we’re not exactly looking to provide free internet or webpages to a community so much as use our professional experience to help the online presence of online organizations. Or at least that’s my interpretation for the moment, it’s a developing idea.

dave wrote:


Great question. First off, not everything needs to be made “smarter”. But the example you gave is interesting. If we could make it responsive to weight of the human, responsive to ambient environment such as temperature and light I could see being interesting things. I wouldn’t do much to change the form of such a classic, but I might work to change the guts a bit. ;)

But like I said, not everything needs interaction. Many of the areas of confluence of IxD and IndDes seems to me to be in areas where the virtual and the physical need to merge b/c of the product itself, as opposed to merging them artificially such as the question that you are asking. I mean it is obvious, but the “iPod” is the perfect case where form in the physical and the virtual interaction (and structure in this case) are of vital importance to be done together.

Moi wrote:

I wasn’t really suggesting you compete with the UN :-) just saying, “there’s something already out there.” Why not see if you can work with it instead of in parallel? I definitely think it would be worth getting in touch with them and seeing in what ways you could co-operate, particularly since you’re looking at different “market segments”.

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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?