The way-it-should-be-ness

The BBC have published an audio slideshow called Chair Champions on Charles and Ray Eames, designers best known for their furniture. The Eames Lounge Chair is probably their most famous work.

I like well-designed things. Not in the sense that they look a particular way, but that they fulfil a specific function extremely well. The couple designed objects that were both functional and stylish. The following from the end of the slideshow has stuck in my mind:

“Charles and Ray had this idea that good designs had ‘way-it-should-be-ness’. If something was really well-designed, then the idea of it being designed shouldn’t come up at all.”

I love this idea of ‘the way-it-should-be-ness’. In my own work, I try to find solutions to problems that are elegant. I want my solutions to have ‘way-it-should-be-ness’. Writing my MRes report led me to reflect on the last year and I’ve noticed that this desire to get the perfect solution has actually been a bit of hindrance.

I spent far too long sat at my desk searching the literature for the best solution. When I finally settled on a plan, it was a bit of a long shot. If it worked, it really would have been awesome. But it didn’t. The paper that I based my idea on was almost certainly suspect.

Around the time I was working on the dodgy reaction I read Tim Harford’s Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure. It’s quite good. He’s like a better Malcolm Gladwell. Harford summarises the way Russian engineer Peter Palchinsky, who ended up being executed by the Soviet government for criticising them, solved problems as three ‘Palchinksy principles’:

  1. Seek out new ideas.

  2. When trying something new, do it on a scale where failure is survivable.

  3. Seek out feedback and learn from your mistakes as you go along.

I like them. I do the first, but my problem lies with the other two. Over the last year everything depended on this one reaction—a risky, naive strategy. There was little feedback and refinement. I ended up rushing another reaction towards the end so that my report on ended on a high note. After all, no one likes a sad thesis.

I bet Charles and Ray Eames didn’t come up with their objects overnight. There must have been hundreds of drawings and prototypes of the Eames Lounge Chair, but it’s easy to forget them as you only think of the final product. They probably worked in a similar way to Palchinksy.

Now I’m making an effort to work more iteratively. I still think of rather grand ideas, but instead of going for it in one enormous optimistic leap, I’m working towards them bit by bit, in a process of steady refinement.

I’ve already had some success last week working in this way. It gives much more positive mindset of working too. Hopefully I’ll soon have my own chemistry equivalent of the ELC and after refining it down I’ll look at it and think “yep, that’s the way it should be.”