|Review of The Plenitude by Joyce Carpenter|
|Review of The Laws of Simplicity (Maeda)|
|Review of The Design of Everyday Things (Norman)|
By Gerd Waloszek, SAP AG, SAP User Experience – March 31, 2008
This review takes a personal look at Rich Gold's book The Plenitude.
The Plenitude: Creativity, Innovation, and Making Stuff
The MIT Press, 2007
ISBN-10: 0262072890, ISBN-13: 978-0262072892
Gold (1950-2003) was an artist, composer, designer, inventor, lecturer,
and writer. Equally at home in the worlds of avant-garde art, academia,
and business, he worked at various times for Sega, Mattel, and Xerox
PARC. Gold's book The
Plenitude has been published posthumously in 2007.
After reading Rich Gold's inspiring book The Plenitude, I had a problem with reviewing the book: I was afraid that I would not be able to do it justice. Thus, instead of writing a lengthy review, I might as well have written: Read the book for yourself, find yourself laughing from time to time and gain a lot of insights into creativity and innovation. Learn why humans are so crazy about making stuff – thus creating the plenitude, a word that Rich Gold uses for the huge amount of man-made things that surround us – and what we can do, or not do about it. This would have been my shortest review for the SAP Design Guild, and maybe, one of the better ones. But in the end, I decided to fight hard and get the review off the ground. So, here it is.
Rich Gold was probably one of the most creative and multi-faceted persons of our time. Born in 1950, he performed as an experimental musician, designer, and artist in the seventies. Thereafter, he worked at various times at diverse locations, such as Xerox PARC and the toy companies SEGA and Mattel. In his later years, Gold was also a sought-after speaker. He gave presentations about creativity and innovation to groups as diverse as "sailors in the Coast Guard, scientists at IBM, artists at the Adelaide Art Festival, designers at the Aspen Design Conference, ..., and CEOs at the World Economic Forum." In the last year of his busy but regrettably too short life – he died of cancer in 2003 – Gold wrote The Plenitude, a short inspiring book, which captures his ideas about creativity, innovation, and the human desire for "making stuff." The book can be regarded as Gold's legacy to the world. It has been en"rich"ed by cartoons from the author that he had used during his many lectures. Some people say that The Plenitude is a cartoon book. While I would not agree with this characterization, the cartoons underline and illustrate Gold's points well and in a humorous manner. Eventually, it is the whole book that reflects Gold's humorous, nonetheless serious view of the world that we create and live in.
The Plenitude is introduced by a foreword from John Maeda, the editor of the "Simplicity" series, in which the book appears. Referring to an encounter with Gold, he pays his personal tribute to the author. Insights into the person Rich Gold are provided by the preface written by his wife Marina de Bellagente LaPalma. She traces Gold's life, particularly in his early adulthood and recalls his intellectual and cultural influences. Returning to his roots, she discusses his background in the avant-garde tradition, which inspired his manifold activities. These were mostly installations and performances embracing design, music, and writing. Often, however, these also combined art with ideas from computer sciences, such as investigations into artificial languages. In the preface, and much to my surprise, I stumbled across KIM, a kit for evaluating the MOS Technology 6502 microprocessor. However, while I had used it for controlling simple psychological experiments, Gold "created cultures with myths and math and languages of their own that were able to adapt and learn over time" – all within the KIM's 1 KB of memory. LaPalma also discusses the main ideas and concepts that influenced Gold, such as dadaism, structuralism, computer science, linguistics, and math, his interest in and desire for writing and reading, and finally, the influences of the visionary thinkers Dick and Debord on his thoughts and actions.
The main part of the book consists of three sections. In the first section, Gold presents the "four creative hats" he has worn, namely science, art, design, and engineering. Then he discusses "seven patterns of innovation," examining why they are so attractive and what their problems are. Finally, Gold turns to the plenitude itself: After characterizing it and discussing why people are so eager to make stuff, he identifies five problems that the plenitude causes. Then he discusses seven approaches that have been proposed to solve the problems.
Gold points out that creativity is highly prized in our society. But it is not simply making stuff, it is not making new stuff, it is "making something new that also opens up a new category, a new genre, or a new type of thing." There are different method(ologie)s for such creation, or "well-worn paths that we have turned into professions" – Gold calls them "hats." During his life, he has taken on and off all of these four hats, sometimes even wearing them simultaneously: thinking and working as artist, scientist, designer, and engineer. Gold shows himself in a cartoon wearing the hats. However, for copyright reasons, I have to show a similar cartoon with myself wearing them:
Even though many reviewers refer to the uniqueness of Gold playing all four roles, for me the notion of the four hats makes complete sense. I would even state that most of us wear more than one hat. Certainly, we do this not in the pronounced way Gold did. Many people may believe that they wear just one of them and behave accordingly. But I believe that they simply are not aware of wearing one of the other hats at times...
Gold also defines a two-by-two matrix of the four professions for defining the relationships between them:
For example, based on his own experience, Gold sees artists and scientists much more akin than designers and scientists.
The most important point for Gold is, however, that all four professions contribute to the plenitude – even though some members of a profession might come to believe that they are just doing the opposite. And this is the problem of any of them: They increase the amount of stuff that piles up in our world.
In the second section of the book, Gold takes a closer look at the ways how innovation takes place. He comes to the conclusion that all professions share only a limited set of method(ologie)s or patterns for the creation of new stuff. Using the magical number seven, he identifies seven patterns of innovation and lists their attractive points and also drawbacks. These patterns are:
This list looks very different from the things that you typically learn in books about creativity – this is definitely a very aloof characterization of approaches to innovation. Nonetheless, Gold finds it useful, particularly in moments when he is "stuck" and also for understanding new products and why they successfully became parts of the plenitude. In my opinion, one pattern is missing from Gold's list. In German we call it the "Wenn eine Kuh den Schwanz hebt..." (translation: "when one cow lifts its tail…") principle, meaning that most so-called innovation is created from using a mixture of imitation and slight variation (in order not to infringe any patents or copyright regulations). Just visit a car museum and stroll through the rooms where cars of different eras are exhibited – you will find that the differences between brands are much smaller than those between eras...
After presenting the professions and the methods that create the plenitude, Gold finally turns to the plenitude itself. According to him, our desire to create new stuff, stuff that has never existed before, is "at the core" of our Western culture, contrary other cultures. Copying existing stuff even results in legal punishment. Therefore, "it is only through creativity and innovation that we survive." This is the heartbeat of our industries – and what we call progress: New does not only mean "different" but also "better." In addition, this year's stuff must not only be different from last year's, there must also be more stuff every year. Efficiency is important here, because it means making more stuff in less time. Mass production is one vehicle to create the plenitude; customization on the other hand hides the "mass" aspect and allows for diversity in the products.
At this point, Gold imagines his readers divided into two fractions: One loving the plenitude and one hating it. He admits that he is divided, too. One of the problems with stuff is, according to Gold – and we gladly believe him – that it "piles up." Eventually, it may even ruin our livable world. While Gold would like to address the plenitude from a moral point of view he does not feel qualified to do so. So he addresses some of the problems of the plenitude on a more concrete level. He discusses five problems, one of them being the just mentioned issue that "the plenitude may very well destroy the world". Then he discusses seven possible solutions that have been proposed to solve these issues, many of them offering "sustainable" solutions, such as "reject the plenitude" or "quality over quantity." In the end, none of these proposals seems to offer a viable solution to Gold. His final "solution" is: "Just love it. We are invisible at the scale of the universe." After all, Gold adds a "moral fragment," actually a quote from Stuart Card, which he often cited at the end of his talks: "We should be careful to make the world we actually want to live in."
Thus, instead of offering a conclusion, Gold closes his book with a kind of a "moral." Some readers may find this ending disappointing. However, expecting a solution would have asked far too much from the book – this would mean that Gold were able to solve many pressing problems of mankind within 111 pages.
When I read the book, I often found myself chuckling or even breaking out into laughter, so to the point are Gold's characterizations of the different creative "archetypes," approaches to innovation, and the plenitude itself. Generally, Gold's writing style is simple and often of a refreshing frankness. Again and again, I said to myself: "Yes, he's absolutely right." However, the fact that Gold uses a simple and clear language does not imply that his reasoning is simplistic. Gold definitely knows how complex the issues that he discusses are, and he presents them thoughtfully. If he had been a simplistic thinker, he would certainly have come up with a conclusion – but he prudently did not.
I highly recommend The Plenitude to all people who are connected to design in one or the other way, be they user interface designers, industrial designers, or working in any other design field – and of course to artists, scientists, and engineers as well. In the end, this is a book for everyone, because, in the sense of Gold, we are all contributing to the plenitude and thus ought to reflect on what we are doing. While this is definitely a book for everyone, it is hidden in the "Simplicity" series published by The MIT Press. Regrettably, it is very unlikely that it will ever "hit the masses," although it fully deserves to.
Review by Joyce Carpenter (Computerworld blogs): blogs.computerworld.com/good_and_plenty