Another Design is Possible: 10 Contrarian Design Patterns & Projects

Tim Volume 1 – a serio-farcical book concept about design and anti-design.


“Oblique Strategies” card deck, 1975, by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt

(with thanks to Steven M. Johnson, “whimsicalist, possibilist,” and inspiration).
originally from November, 2012.

Like many of my projects, this began as a joking suggestion.

Given my growing catalogue of lateral project ideas and other “news from nowhere,” one might ask: perhaps the list is the project?  I’ve been inspired in this, or let’s say given permission, by a long tradition of admired, useful fantasists and comic-literal provokers, such as Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt with their 1975 “Oblique Strategies” card deck, Claes Oldenberg’s great 1969 book Proposals for Monuments and Buildings, and Steven M. Johnson’s fantastical, social-critiquing inventions.

Proposal for floating monument on the Thames, by Claes Oldenburg.

Proposal for floating monument on the Thames, by Claes Oldenburg.

Perhaps, then a book of semi-imaginary creations to cap my <cough> mostly imaginary fame and renown. Why not? After all, these days one can easily enough, and no doubt here need to, “self publish”. (that phrase which, I will remark, contains a usually unremarked paradox. Surely publishing is, in some philosophical sense, something other parties do, by granting you attention?).

However, as noted below, all of projects in my imaginary book proposal actually are in some state of implementation, development, discussion, published form, or funding application, etc. Like the hopeful say about long-suffering social network Google+, it’s a long strategy.

As with other forms of critical design, détournement, imaginary architecture, utopian proposal, startup version 1, etc., the purpose is not necessarily or entirely to “implement” literally what’s proposed. Or you could say, the aim is to be generative of unspecified and various implementations. Therefore they also may be a critique or boundary perspective on the idea of design as “problem-solving”: or as I’d suggest, they re-articulate the “problem-forming,” non-instrumental dimension of problem-solving.

But so much for the design theory, and on to design humor. As the old Borscht Belt joke said, don’t worry! some of my best jokes are Jewish. 

title suggestions

Absurd But Effective
Thinking Products
The Adjacent Possible
Another Design is Possible
Oblique Design Strategies
Beginners Mind: Non-Expert Proposals

Subtitle suggestions
10 Absurd, Lateral, & Oblique Product Solutions
10 Contrarian Design Projects & Principles


  • Living (1,6,7,9)
  • Publishing (2,4)
  • Learning (3,5,8,10)


  1. Introduction: the “adjacent possible” (Steven Johnson); “oblique strategies” (Brian Eno); design research; design by absurdity (Steven M. Johnson)
  2. Houselets: mobile housing units for urban parking spaces
    Contrarian Pattern: Design From and For the Marginal and Vagabond.
    See “Parking Houses: modular housing to fit on city parking spaces” (, August 30, 2012).
  3. Scholarly Socialbots: robot helpers to help scholars do social media
    Contrarian Pattern: Scholarship Needs To Be More Ubiquitous and Unintelligent — Swarm Scholarship. Owls Need Insects.
    a grant-supported prototyping project, aka Sloan project part 1, “Social Scholar.”
  4. SmartEreader: designing reading tools as if reading mattered.
    Contrarian Pattern: Dumb Rules Make Us Smarter, Smart Tools Make Us Dumb.
    proposed prototyping project, and invited topic for article series on O’Reilly Media’s Tools for Change site. Aka Sloan project part 2, behavioral e-reader app.
  5. emBooks:  mobile-phone sized, mass-customized, print-on-demand microbooks
    Contrarian Pattern: New Technologies Recast & Combine With Old Ones.
    Technology is Stuff That Doesn’t Work Yet. Good Technology is Invisible.
    Obsolete Tools Are Often More Effective.
    Status: developed in Fall 2012, investigated with mediaX Stanford, paper prototyped, pitched to KonicaMinolta. 
  6. Multipreneurship: the value of splitting your time, focus, & commitments.
    Contrarian Pattern: Not All Startups, Founders, or Ideas Work By “Jumping off a cliff and building the plane on the way down.”
  7. Waywalking: mobile tools and smart streets for people rather than cars.
    Contrarian Pattern: Responsive Environments For Unreasonable People Like Me.
    Design From the Perspective That You Are Always Right.
    See: “Waywalking” (July 3, 2012). 
  8. Parking Space Liberation Front: citizen-sourced documention, marking, & registry of unused but parkable spaces.
    Contrarian Pattern: Design For the Enemy. The Enemy is Us. You’re Not in Traffic, You Are Traffic.
    Status: I periodically re-propose this in various forms to San Francisco Planning Department (hello again, David Alumbaugh!), the SF Mayor’s Office of Innovation, the Urban Prototyping Festival, etc, city council hearings when they don’t spot my disguise at the door, etc. 
  9. Collaborative Compensation Calculator Project: a public, transparent, collaborative model to analyze and compare any job’s total real compensation.
    Contrarian Pattern: Tactical Neutrality.
    See: “Tools for political truthiness: the public, total-compensation calculator” (August 12, 2011).
  10. SafeTexting: a Design Thinking approach to texting while driving.
    Contrarian Pattern: Illegal and condemned practices often indicate unmet needs and opportunities. Prohibition Is the Opposite of Design.
  11. Sparse Connectivity: how to use a smartphone with no carrier or subscription.
    Contrarian Patterns: The Rich Purchase, The Poor Innovate. (“Jugaad” Innovation etc.)
    The Best Connections Are Partial.
    Design by De-Augmentation and Subtraction.
    See 2-part series in ReadWrite, November 8-9, 2012:
    What Life Is Like For A Smartphone User Without A Data Plan” and
    How To Drop Your Data Plan And Keep Using Your Smartphone.”

Your turn! any thoughts on the above, or got some new items, projects, or patterns to suggest? Let me know via comment box below, or email me: tmccormick at gmail dot com, or Twitter, etc.

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From reading drift to reading flow: how to reclaim focus (and self)

(3rd in an occasional series on Designing for User Agency).

Cognac distillery, from from Diderot's Encyclopedie, 1763.

Cognac distillery, from from Diderot’s Encyclopedie, 1763.

1. Introduction
2. Model: from Find-Read to Find-SORT-Read
2b. “Bookpiles and Distilleries”
3. Tools to weave a personal web

4. Further Steps, a): analytics
5. Further Steps, b): idea for a Personal Peer Review Journal

6. Afterword: Objections, & why doesn’t Google do this now?


Last year I presented to Quantified Self Silicon Valley about my explorations in “Healthier Information,” such as evaluating all my information sources for their value (to me). In that talk & slides I also discuss some key methods for reclaiming your attention in general, such as turning off or tightly managing all forms of alerting on your phone, computers, and email.


Recently I’ve been intensively exploring ways to manage and improve the media engagement we select for ourselves, such as Web articles, books, and video. In this post I’ll describe both how I think about the problem, and the specific online/reading tools I’ve set up to (try to) address it.


Hydra, of Greek mythology. Two heads grow back for each cut off, like email.

People rarely try to manage their attention deliberately across all media; but it seems to me they are rarely very satisfied by how well they’re doing it at all. Many people seem to experience their  information flows as a sort of Hydra, the Greek mythological many-headed beast which grows back two heads for each one you cut off.

Or as just ennui, dissatisfaction, or (in work) stupor — like the sadness of channel-surfing or Facebook use — usually aimless drift rather than the joyous and productive, engaged state of flow described by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi.

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The objects in my life, Part 2: Better engagement through pens

Muji fountain pen. I have one of these.

Muji fountain pen, Japan; on top of a Clairefontaine notebook, France.  It looks like stock photography, but for real, I have one of these pens, and it was only $15.

Part 2 in the “Objects in my Life” series, aka “Small objects in my tiny life, defended.” See also “Introduction: ‘useless stuff’ versus perfect things.

I didn’t know quite how to categorize my survey of objects, and I didn’t attempt anything correct, complete, or philosophic.

I just surveyed objects in my life, made notes, and grouped them under labels I made up. As Notorious B.I.G. said: It ain’t no more to it.

So, moving on, let’s start from objects closest to me and move outwards. The first item then is the ankle bracelet tracker I wear for my probation after — just kidding! Also, nothing inescapable like a titanium rod, replacement joint, or wedding ring.


Uni-ball Roller Micro. I’d never use a blue one like this, though, just the best Google Image Search did for me today. I only do off-black if it’s subtle fountain-pen near-black inks. Amazon $9.06 for 12-pack. Also, levitation.

No really, then let’s start with pens — usually a particular particularity among design folk. Sort of an anchor-point for us, or deadly money-sink, fatal albatross.. but I digress.

Recently, I have returned to sometimes using the above Uni-ball Roller Micro model which I used way back in high school. I mean, this thing is real vintage stuff, as high-tech pens go. Sharp, great for detail work though.

Uni-ball Vision Needle Micro

Uni-ball Vision Needle Micro

However, I had some years ago defected to, and am still using, the successor Uni-ball Vision Micro, Elite, and lately, Needle models; still ultra fine-point, but later and freer-rolling, higher-ink-volume cousins to the Roller. The choice between them, like the choice of any pen, is a choice of stances towards life. Roller does finer details, but sometimes scratches or runs on the dry side; Vision is expansive, vigorous: more like Whitman’s “barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world,” relatively speaking.

Background note: Uni-ball pens are made by the Mitsubishi Pencil Company of Japan. In fact, just about all of the more advanced mass-market pens in the world are made by Japanese companies, although sometimes resold under other brands like Sanford. Japan, and the Japanese of all nations, are a sort of separate planet when it comes to high-tech mass-market pens.

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The objects in my life: ‘useless stuff’ versus perfect things

Dürer. “Saint Jerome in his Study,” 1514.

1. Introduction: Objects, and being in the world

People sometimes say to me, you’re quite particular about… forks, say. Or notebooks, or wrapping paper, or of course, pens. I’d like to think they mean, say, tasteful, or perceptive, but I’ve learned, that’s generally not it. No, there’s some suspicion about appreciation and attentiveness to objects, beyond a point. Why is that?

We’re also told that objects aren’t the path to happiness, may often hinder it: as for example in the New York Times piece, “But Will It Make You Happy?” (August 7, 2010) that originally prompted me to write about this. The author notes, in summary, “people are happier when they spend money on experiences instead of material objects.” It cites the notion in psychology of “hedonic adaptation,” meaning that changes in circumstance, such as a new possession, tend to quickly stop affecting you.

However, conceding the point that our happiness may relate more to having strong relationships and good experiences — for some — I’d like to see the care for objects as something equally basic and valid, deep in our homo faber (tool-maker) natures. More particularly, I think of it in the tradition of moral/social/aesthetic reactions to industrialization: such as the 19th-century Arts and Crafts movement, and its descendent Modernism and latter-day movements (“Maker,” etc.).

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Proposal: experiment to compare open vs paywall publishing

Update 24 August: Designing for Diffusion

this proposal comes out of a discussion today on Twitter, regarding the imminent publication in Science of a paper by Lev Muchnik (Hebrew University of Jerusalem), Sinan Aral (MIT), & Sean J. Taylor (NYU):

actual paper:
“Social Influence Bias: A Randomized Experiment”
Lev Muchnik, Sinan Aral, Sean J. Taylor

Science 9 August 2013: Vol. 341 no. 6146 pp. 647-651
DOI: 10.1126/science.1240466

Abstract (from Science): 

Our society is increasingly relying on the digitized, aggregated opinions of others to make decisions. We therefore designed and analyzed a large-scale randomized experiment on a social news aggregation Web site to investigate whether knowledge of such aggregates distorts decision-making. Prior ratings created significant bias in individual rating behavior, and positive and negative social influences created asymmetric herding effects. Whereas negative social influence inspired users to correct manipulated ratings, positive social influence increased the likelihood of positive ratings by 32% and created accumulating positive herding that increased final ratings by 25% on average. This positive herding was topic-dependent and affected by whether individuals were viewing the opinions of friends or enemies. A mixture of changing opinion and greater turnout under both manipulations together with a natural tendency to up-vote on the site combined to create the herding effects. Such findings will help interpret collective judgment accurately and avoid social influence bias in collective intelligence in the future.

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Proposal: the Open Scholar Rating

Danah Boyd, of Microsoft Research and NYU, on Monday put out a much-circulated question on Twitter, asking “how many academics have a personal commitment to #openaccess — that is, free public online access to published research. Conversation ensued:

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