When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty. I only think about how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution isn’t beautiful, I know it is wrong.
— Richard Buckminster Fuller
Today is the birthday of Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller. For those of you who don’t know him, he was an amazing architect, systems thinker, writer, inventor, designer, and futurist. In short he was a thinker and doer. He considered himself, “an experiment to find what a single individual can contribute to changing the world and benefiting all humanity.”
For Fuller, beauty wasn’t just something nice to look at. It was something to strive for when designing things, services and ourselves.
To many, Fuller was perhaps too utopian in his thinking. What they fail to realize is that this ‘utopian’ tendency was fundamental to his design capabilities. His goal was not to make something that was ‘good enough.’ His goal was to contribute to designing a world in which 100% of the human population could reach its highest potential with 0% negative impact on the environment and larger systems in which humans are integrally intertwined.
This concept of “ideality” is an important concept to remember and one of my favorite ways to generate innovative ideas. (Ideality is essentially the ratio of all the positive benefits of something divided by the sum of all the negatives. ) A more practical way to think of ideality is to think of it as a machine that does everything you need it to do but without any negative consequences. For example, a bicycle that moves me from Point A to Point B without pedaling is an ‘ideal’ bicycle. From a personal energy standpoint, a motorcycle is an ideal bicycle. However, in order to be truly ideal, there should be no negative impacts at all levels of the system. While a motorcycle is ideal with regards to conserving personal energy, it’s not ideal with regards to impacting the environment with its exhaust, and when its lifespan is over and it needs to be disposed of. (Learn more how Ideality is at the root of designing products in the highly recommended book: Cradle to Cradle .)
Ideality is powerful in that it forces people to think of the ramifications of what they are doing. It also forces designers (us) to look at contradictions in the problem solving process. The longer we can hold on to those contradictions and bounce them off of each other with the goal of designing a solution that transcends the contradictions, the better the chances we can come up with solutions that are closer to the ideal solution. Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management, in his book, “The Opposable Mind“, calls it Integrative Thinking.
An often overlooked benefit of designing towards to the ideal is that it forces us to look inside the problem itself for the solution. (Want to create the ultimate experience of eating chocolate and drinking your favorite cordial but you hate washing the glasses afterward? Make the drinking vessel out of chocolate!) It is this quality that makes the Ideal solutions beautiful. Once you experience it, you just know.
This quest for the ideal was key to Fuller’s thinking, and in this day and age, we shouldn’t be satisfied with half-solutions that cause more problems than they solve. We need to start embracing the Ideal in politics, society, businesses and in our personal lives. The future of “Spaceship Earth”, (as Bucky called it), may very well depend on it.
If you’d like to learn more about Buckminster Fuller’s thinking, below are some resources:
Design Science – A Framework for Change – A fascinating and insightful presentation on Fuller’s Design Process thinking.
Everything I Know: 42 Hours of Buckminster Fuller’s Visionary Lectures Free Online (1975) – There’s a link to the transcripts if you’d rather read.
Buckminster Fuller Gives a Lecture About Semantics at San Quentin State Prison (1959) (At one point he told the inmates: There are no throw-away resources,and no throw-away people.” )
Critical Path – Perhaps the best and most accessible summary of his thought.
The Buckminster Fuller Institute – A great resource on everything Bucky!