Sunday, January 22, 2012

Observations on Surviving a Disaster: A Costa Concordia Concord

I've never been attracted to cruise ship vacations and I'm even less interested now that I've seen the news of the Costa Concordia disaster. But any disaster also makes me imagine what it must have been like to be there. My guess is that the chaos of the evacuation and subsequent rescues were quite typical of many disasters even though the Captain of the Costs Concordia appears to have been especially inept.

Being able to quickly and safely evacuate something as big as a town, particularly when it happens to be in the middle of the ocean seems like a tall order under any circumstances let alone when the ship is sinking. Cruise ship companies say they can evacuate everyone on board within a very short window of time but I wonder if their projections take into account passengers of various mental and physical abilities, the inevitable crew problems, and the fact that escape routes will be changing as the ship sinks. It makes me wonder whether the race to build ever bigger cruise ships is right from a safety perspective. Beyond the specific players of the Costa Concordia, it seems like there are lessons to be learned here for any disaster.

In the critical minutes after disaster strikes, those in charge may be in denial of the scale of the emergency
This certainly seems to be the case with the captain of the Costa Concordia. Passengers may need to question decisions if they don't jibe with what you're seeing. Admitting the problem and calling for an "abandon ship" is perhaps the best and worst thing a captain might have to do from a career perspective so he or she may be reluctant to do so even when all signs point to it's necessity. You should expect a lack of clear communication. Worse, they may also feed bad information to subordinates who will then be feeding it to you. The many calls for passengers to return to their cabins was an example of this. If my cabin was any lower than the top level, I'd be high-tailing up to the open decks to keep my options open.

Drills and exercises may not adequately prepare crew members for the chaos of a full-on disaster
In the face of extreme emergency, almost anyone is likely to be overwhelmed or perhaps experiencing disbelief. Highly functioning organizations like the Navy Seals, the Marines, and fire departments drill over and over so reactions become second nature. On a cruise ship, the crew's normal day-to-day "drill" is running a hotel, keeping guests happy and literally re-arranging deck chairs. Should we really expect them to act as well as a marine or paramedic in the face of death and disaster?

Even well-thought out emergency plans have to change in reaction to the specifics of a disaster
Ever since the Titanic, cruise ships have to carry enough life boats for everyone on board. But what happens when a sinking ship quickly lists to one side? Do they carry twice as many life boats as needed? Life boats on both sides of the Costa Concordia became inoperable when the ship tipped under water on one side and got stuck on the other, high side. Timing is also an issue. Can lifeboats be filled and deployed right away or do denial, chaos and disorganization conspire to delay some boats and send others away half empty.

There are many stories of survivors from other disasters who lived only because they took matters into their own hands and scrambled for exits while others hesitated and died. Perhaps the one smart thing the captain did among the many bad things was to aim the ship for land and beach it close enough for some to jump and swim to shore. This allowed a few brave souls to take matters into their own control. Beaching the boat also seems to have allowed lifeboats and other nearby ships to make multiple trips to and from the ship while others remained incapacitated. There were stories of some crew members unable to steer the boats away from the ship once they were full. Until you're experienced, steering a boat can be counter-intuitive. Yet another example of inadequate training. The drills probably extend to getting the boats lowered into the water but do they include experience once under power?

I hope I never know what it's like to experience a disaster of this magnitude. But if I do, I plan to listen to what officials have to say, decide whether the plan makes sense and then play an active role in my own survival.

Friday, January 06, 2012

In Time, "Form Follows Function"

In Louis Sullivan's classic statement, "Form Follows Function" it is function that is usually seen as the dominant member of this design duality. It was one of the first design tenets that I learned in college and one that remains a core part of my design philosophy to this day. That said, I can't think of a single design project where the opposite wasn't true at least some of the time. The truth is that we are visual beings. We are often quick and astute judges of form. We know when something looks right and when it looks wrong, even if we haven't studied design. On top of this, function can rarely be judged at a quick glance. By definition, you must use the object, building, shirt, service before you can truly judge it's functional quality. The net result of this is that many designs are judged based on their form first and function second… despite Sullivan's admonition.

In my experience, most designers remain faithful to one camp even as they evolve to see both sides of the coin. I see many function-minded designers create mockups that address many of the requirements but result in a design that is awkward and ugly. I also see many form-focused designers who are almost incapable of creating an ugly mark on a page but who excel at ignoring or forgetting key user needs. The best products are the result of hard work at addressing issues on both sides of the fence.

I also notice this dialog happening in my own design process. I remain focused on function in my heart but I've acknowledged how often this has resulted in a proposal that, though more functional has lost out to a more stylish alternate proposal. I find myself removing details from concept proposals to postpone discussions of thorny requirements. As I was pondering this issue while reading some of Don Norman's teachings, I realize I am not the first functionalist to come to this understanding.

I remember hearing Don Norman speak at TED about his revelation that function was not everything. If I remember it correctly, he talked about a response to his concerns about light switches and burner controls on a stove. In both examples, the mapping of the controls usually relates poorly if at all to the mapping of the actual lights or burners. So, in order to prove his point, he redesigned the light switch for his living room so it featured a floor plan with the switches placed in close relation to the light switch it controlled. The result was highly functional but one of the most ugly light switches I've ever seen. Apparently his wife agreed and told him she hated the switch and wanted the old, less functional one back. I remember seeing the light switch in his book and thinking it a monstrosity of design. I recall a similar scenario with train schedules in Edward Tufte's first book, "The Visual Display of Quantitative Information".

Mies Van der Rohe was such a big proponent of "form follows function" that he is often credited with penning the quote. Mies is famous for his simple, Germanic designs both in elevation and plan. Details are all thought out but as minimal as possible. A skyscraper is a series of vertical I-beams with Windows in between each I-beam. Mies' belief in this tenet was so strong that he broke his own belief on his design of the Seagram Building to make the point. Though I-beams are a basic element of every skyscraper, it is rare that the beams are left exposed. Most of covered in fireproofing and then hidden behind a cladding or wall. Mies Van der Rohe's answer to this on the Seagram Building was to basically add a decorative I-beam to the outermost edge of his facade. These I-beams are pure decoration… no different than the heavy rustication used in Renaissance villas or the highly ornate terra-cotta tiles on many of Louis Sullivan's early skyscrapers.

All of this makes me think of the original statement. Mies started the building with the best of purely functional intentions. But he knew in his heart that there was an aesthetic to what he was proposing and that he sometimes needed to stray into the realm of form to make his functional ambitions clear. Sullivan's early skyscrapers are known as much for the heavy use of ornament… maybe as a way to soften the shock of the sudden appearance of tall structures in the urban landscape. Perhaps his strong belief in his own statement took for granted that ornament (one type of form) would always be present. As one element of a building, ornament should be applied in a way that follows the lines (function) of the building rather than in an otherwise unrelated pattern.

Since I am grounded on the functional side, I can not speak for the process of those that are on the form side of the equation. For me, I start with function, then proceed to adjusting the form to make a more visually pleasing solution. So, from a scheduling perspective, form does follow function. My success is for others to decide but that is my process.