This October 10, 2010 is Powers of Ten day — 10/10/10, a milestone on the design thinking calendar. It’s named for the film Powers of Ten, made by Charles and Ray Eames in 1968. And for designers, it’s an opportunity to both celebrate the Eames Office’s groundbreaking film as well as a chance to recognize the power of scale in shaping our understanding of the world around us. There will be festivities around the world. Check out the Powers of Ten website, as well as the powersof10 blog that lists some events.
If you haven’t yet seen the film, take a moment to watch it.
Powers of Ten is arguably more relevant now than it was the year it was released. The simple idea executed in the film has become a powerful construct for thinking through design problems today. In it, Charles and Ray Eames guide us through a deceptively straightforward exercise — zooming out to 10^24 and then back in to 10^-16 — re-framing a simple scene by showing it within ever-larger and then smaller contexts.
If all the zooming in and out across the visual landscape seems vaguely familiar, think Google Earth. We’ve become very practiced with scaling in and out of satellite images of our earth, using those funny, awkward sliders on the edges of Web maps to peer in on our homes, our cities, and Area 51. But this mass application of Powers of Ten is not the reason we should celebrate the film today. Instead, we need to approach it conceptually, at the level of scale.
Increasingly, designers are shifting scale from rethinking artifacts (whether buildings, posters or toasters) toward whole systems thinking. I would call this a scale shift from, let’s say, 10^1 to 10^5. Prompted originally by environmental thinking and more recently by the rise of networks and globalization, we are starting to recognize that it is impossible to design things in isolation from the larger systems that they live within — whether those are systems of resource extraction, manufacture, distribution, consumption, or waste.
Since our technical systems are wholly mixed up with our natural systems, that creates additional levels of complexity. In order to design within these confounding contexts, we need to be able to scale up and scale down as we design: to consider both the granularity of the things we are designing as well as the much larger contexts within which they exist.
Here’s what I mean. A designer considering urban mobility may start at the level of 10^1and consider only the automobile. But zoom out a bit, and you realize that it’s essential to think not just of the automobile, but also of other competing modes of transportation — buses, bicycles, pedestrians, skateboards — that may determine the speed and feasibility of movement. Zoom out to 10^3, and you must understand the dynamics of the neighborhood, and the impact that automobile traffic has on livability, public health, or retail viability.
At 10^4 the metropolitan area comes into view, and so do issues of individual versus mass transit. At 10^5 we confront national policies that subsidize road-building and the suburban sprawl that often results, frequently at the expense of urban density. At 10^6 we encounter unexpected connections between automobile use and a national obesity epidemic. At 10^7 we realize that our per-capita ownership rate of automobiles, all powered by fossil fuels, is unsustainable as a global lifestyle export. And so on.
The point here is not to get mesmerized — or worse, paralyzed — by the vertiginous ascent through layers of compounding complexity. Instead, Powers of Ten instructs us that before we design, we must try to take account of all of these layers (and there are many more) if we are going to intervene meaningfully into the seemingly simple and local issue of mobility.
The challenge, then, is to deploy the necessary conceptual analytics to figure out at what power of ten it is optimal to intervene. The Eames have simply illustrated the conundrum; it is our responsibility to figure out what to do next.
Filmstrip image © Eames Office, LLC