Benevolent Design Confluence & My Life Straw Revelation

by Mike Levin

Mike LevinSo, I haven’t blogged for awhile, but it’s not for lack of material. I sometimes think I could blog as a full-time job. So bear with my as I pack maybe a month’s worth of thoughts and serendipity-packed experiences into one long, excessively rambling blog post. It MAY be worth it for about 1 in 10 of you.

My to-blog list on my phone has about 100 items, and just as I’m prioritizing them, a new item trumps the entire list, such as my weekend visit to the National Design Museum on Museum Row in New York City. I was walking along Fifth Ave. with my girlfriend, and noticed some cool billboard graphics of things like collapsible canoes, filtered life straws working off ground water, and a whole bunch of kooky huts and shelters in the garden behind a wrought iron fence.

After a moment of prodding from Rachel, as she identified this as “my thing”, I was hooked, paid the price of admission, and rushed into the garden.

And I was delightfully rewarded when I discovered an actual OLPC (one laptop per child) in one of the global village huts. It’s sort of like Etch-A-Sketch had a baby with the Sony VAIO, and had Al Gore for a nanny. The exhibit was called “Design for the Other 90%”. I was like a hog in mud. I saw water tanks that unraveled like wallpaper from a spool (sooooo obvious, but no less cool). I saw tiny semi-permanent shelters with loft beds that could be constructed in a half-day. I saw a line of products from something called Moneymaker, which lets you make bricks from native mud plus tiny portions of concrete. And I saw a host of water-pumps and filtration devices to ensure that you both had your water, and that it was safe to drink.

Basically, I saw the future catching up with the present. It’s not all about hybrid cars incrementally bringing out-of-control energy consumption of us privileged 10% under control. But it’s about improving the lives and bringing happiness and the ability to bring upper-states of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs to the world–in my mind, maybe the noblest endeavor in human history!

So, this is my element. I’m a frustrated mechanical engineer who realized I should have gone into “applied engineering” who actually got into graphic design as a sort of cop-out. Drexel University’s design arts program in Philadelphia was awesome, and I studied under one of the most talented people I ever met, but it was admittedly advertising-oriented graphic design–and not industrial design, applied engineering, and certainly not one of the super-noble branches of engineering, such as “closed systems” that will ensure the survival of the human race (by giving us viable ways to get off the planet). Alas, I am but a mere graphic designer, who managed to cobble together enough programming skills to make HitTail. And now, I’m seeing the whole world that I shut myself off from by taking the path of least resistance.

So, is this a lost dreams bellyaching post? Not at all! This is an “it’s never too late” post–because HitTail is an interesting intermediary project between graphic design and tangible social good. HitTail allows people around the world to pursue their dreams, and work towards becoming the best in the world at their niche specialty. I’m currently going through the unique experience of clawing my way out of the ticky-tacky little box (watchers of Showtime’s Weeds will get the reference), and into the society of people who get things done and make a difference.

I visited my old haunting grounds last week when I visited the opening of Seth Godin’s book tour, for his new book, The Dip. Seth enthusiastically detailed how many of us should go the entrepreneurial route, and in doing so, try to be the best in the world at some particular thing. Seth made passing mention of Chris Anderson’s book, The Long Tail, which cleared the way for HitTail’s mainstream emergence. And I wanted to make the point about how the “best in the world” concept dovetailed perfectly well with the longtail concept, because first you choose a place in the long tail of underdeveloped businesses, then you become the best in the world at it, turning an otherwise pittance of profits into a plethora of perpetual proceeds.

So, I asked Seth a question when it opened for question and answers, and when it came my turn and I introduced myself, Seth proclaimed he was a fan of HitTail, and invited me to tell the room about the site.

Wow, what a kick!

To have Seth Godin, one of the biggest marketing gurus in the world, to publicly proclaim himself a fan of a site that nothing more than a good idea a year ago. On that merit alone, this is a blog post that needs to be written.

But wait, there’s more!

While I was in Philadelphia on the Walnut Street Bridge at the World Cafe (Seth’s venue in Philly), I decided to slip into Drexel’s Nesbitt Design Arts building (now the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design) and walk right into a few classrooms to see if I could drop in on some of my old college instructors. And low and behold, on my first attempt into the first room, I discovered a classroom of students wrapped up under the tutelage of John Langdon, the fellow getting his 15 minutes of fame (soon) from the ambigrams in Dan Brown’s book, Angels and Demons. This was (shamefully) the first time I saw him in 15 years, but our repertoire was picked up instantly, as we had stayed casually in touch over email. I learned that I missed the premiere showing of the Helvitica documentary by one day. It was a big deal, and one piece of serendipity that I missed in this amazing few weeks.

Now keep in mind, this is against a backdrop of HitTail winning first place in a venture capitalist show-and-tell hosted by Alan Brody of iBreakfast, where we took first prize and won a chance to present at the next VC contest. Plus, we were short-listed onto the potential winners of an international innovation contest being held by one of our high profile clients. So, I’m flying pretty high right now.

My trip back from Philly to New York was ironically rushed to meet a Philadelphian in New York, Josh Kopelman. Now Josh, the founder of Half.com, subsequently bought by eBay, is something of a hero from where I come from. He’s a Wharton Business School graduate who actually followed the dream on the fast path out of college. I saw his building go up by the side the PA Turpike, every time I drove on my way to Scala. I spent about 8 years of my life attempting to pursue the dream at Scala, while my contemporaries like Josh were actually doing it right. It’s never too late to learn. And one success leads to the next, leads to the next. It’s the first one that’s the trick. And the details of what you do later in your life, don’t have to have anything to do with the details of your first venture.

But in the case of HitTail, it’s not a bad thing if they do.

Because my very first real successful venture is about helping people improve their own lives. And who would have thought that the end-result of a career in graphic design would have led to anything in the least-bit altruistic? Which is reinforced by the concept that the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum lays claim to applied engineering under the auspices of design! The world is slowly turning in my direction, and I’m slowly turning in the world’s direction. And the confluence of design, engineering, and the all-around betterment of life for “most” of the people on the planet is a nice trend. And I see in my mind a nice continuous development of HitTail into the dream-machine. Today, HitTail tells you what to write about in order to increase your sphere of influence. Tomorrow, HitTail pairs you with your entrepreneurial partners to actually achieve your dreams and improve the world.

But it’ll take a few years to get there. For now, I’ll be happy issuing writing suggestions and increasing HitTailers’ personal spheres of influence. But the message of this blog post which I still have to deliver in a clear fashion is the same as the message I delivered to Sandy Stewert’s class (who I visited right after John Langdon’s).

Design is everything. Humans design. It’s what we do. And whether it’s graphics, interiors, industry or chip layout, it’s all pretty much the same. Design, combined with the willingness to cross disciplines, coupled with a sense of benevolence, appropriateness, and positive optimism can lead to a very appealing future-scenario. Such scenarios, I believe, are only being heralded by a select few, such as Nick Negroponte of the OLPC initiative, turning him into something of a hero to me. But there are others out there, doing the same from a much lower profile, and more “applied engineering” vantage point. These are people who really make a difference–such as the person who made the life straw–perhaps the ultimate example.

Want more of wacky ramblings like this? Hop onto the Asteroid.

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{ 1 comment }

Mike Levin July 24, 2007 at 12:42 pm

Given all the flooding in England and the scarcity of clean water sources, all the talk is about shipping in fresh water. What about the life straw?

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