Friday, May 16, 2014

Making Good Design Decisions

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There’s a popular misconception that NASA spent millions in a failed attempt to create a space pen while the Russians just used pencils. The implication is that good design is simple in the sense that it is simplistic or obvious.

Simple design is often simple for the user but complicated for the creator. They really do use pens in space. It turns out pencils don’t perform well in space because wood and lead shavings in a zero-gravity, oxygen-rich environment can be dangerous for both fire and as debris. The true story of the space pen is that it was not a failure, wasn’t designed by NASA, and wasn’t even designed for space. The space pens’ design goals were ink that wasn’t exposed to air so it wouldn’t dry up, didn’t rely on gravity so it wouldn’t leak, and could write underwater and function at temperatures ranging from -30 to 250 degrees Fahrenheit. The pen turned out to also be well-designed for space and was renamed to the space pen.

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