Saturday, April 30, 2005

First Principles

If one is so presumptuous as to start a blog about 'design' one might consider a remark or two describing what is meant by the term 'design.'

Quickly then, before donning my flame proof union suit, let me claim that design is ubiquitous. The problem is not whether such and so is designed, or not. Everything which requires an actor to shape it: some thing, some event, some place, or some thought, is designed because the actor had to make a decision, or series of decisions, about the action. Still with me? If everything, and any thing, is designed, the obvious next query is: "Well or ill?" To explore one of the many possible means of answering that question is to consider: Designed for whom? Designed for what?

Example: an engineer early in the 19th century had to address a pretty problem. How do you make a device to convey a series of heavily laden carts, repeatedly? His answer, for reasons of durability and ease of construction (relatively), was a pair of iron rails. Since all parts of his problem were still in the conceptual stage, his next choice was the gauge of the rails -- how far apart would they be? He chose something just over 4' because he happened to know that that was the width between the ruts in old Roman chariot roads. That is, he made a choice based on precedent -- 'how did Habarabazab do it?' rather then try to imagine where his new railway might lead and select a dimension based on that future need. Hardly a hanging offense. His selection made both his self and his backers wealthy and pushed the world into the modern age. If that isn't a recommendation ... I ask you!

In a Panglossian universe where everything is quite hunky dory all the time, this seems to be a reasonable choice -- at all times. Alas, in our considerably less amenable world, this gauge, while adequate at first, soon became a drag on development. Since railway cars must be of a certain height to accommodate either freight or passengers, they must be tall, tippy rectangles due to the space between the rails. If that gauge were 8' the wider rectangle would be much more stable. That cross section makes a considerable improvement in safety at all speeds. The appeal of this, of course, is that greater stability lends itself more efficiently to much higher speeds. These options are denied to us because an adequate design decision set the standard which is now too entrenched to easily change.

Who designs, and what they design for, may be the only fair way to judge the quality of the design. Being that we are human (that is, not always fair) the more usual standard is: how useful is this design to my purposes? Here we must wish that the original choice had been different more often then not.

Chew on that a time whilst I go reinvent the wheel. Again.
-- ml

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