Innovation Inspiration #015—Make Something That Can Kill You

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No, really.

Build a submarine, a plane, or (if you’re a carpenter) a manned rocket which you will personally pilot or travel in.

The concept occurred to me last week when something made me recall the CEO of the first company I worked for, the late Lee Ham. He and his civil engineering firm designed much of Foster City.

But there were two qualities I most admired about him. The first was that he built airplanes in his spare time (biplanes, as I recall). The second was that he was the antithesis of the Type-A CEO, rushing around pumping up their blood pressure.

Lee was always calm and cool—methodical to a T. I was young and brash, and would run around the office (literally) when on deadline, because I thought that’s how you got things done more quickly. But he would gently admonish me whenever he caught me at this foolishry. Looking back, I don’t think I ever saw him exceed the pace of a nice leisurely Sunday stroll.

Those two qualities are not unrelated. If you want to do something well, you must do it carefully. And it’s damned hard to do things carefully when you’re rushing around like a bat out of hell. You lose focus, peripheral vision, and concentration.

This is one of the best ways to find the motivation needed to focus enough to do deep design. But you must do it with that purpose in mind. If you’re doing it because you’re an adrenaline junky, your motivation is to flirt with death instead of improving something others will use.

This method works because:

  • You have a personal stake in the outcome.
  • You will come to fundamentally understand how little details can make a huge difference in the final product.
  • You will come to deeply understand what quality means.
  • You will become intimately familiar with more than just a pretty outside, and care about things like manufacturability, serviceability, etc.

All of these will help you design simpler superior  things that work better than your competition’s.

So go build something dangerous, and start learning this new game. (But please wear a helmet when you take it out for a spin.)

Author: Peter Sheerin

Peter Sheerin is best known for the decade he spent as the Technical Editor of CADENCE magazine, where he was the acknowledged expert in Computer-Aided Design hardware and software. He has a long-standing passion for improving usability of software, hardware, and everyday objects that is always interwoven in his articles. Peter is available for freelance technical writing and product reviews, and is exploring career opportunities in interaction design. His pet personal project is exploring the best ways to harmonize visual, tactile, and audible symbols for improving the effectiveness of alerting systems.

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