15 February 2010

The design philosophy of the AK-47

In a recent roundup of thoughts from the Interaction 10 conference, Jan-Cristoph Zoels wrote:

"Unfortunately [Dave Gray] illustrated his engaging talk with a glorification of the AK47 as a ‘powerful tool of change’. His agnostic design philosophy hides an ethical ambivalence and repositions designers as hired hands of industry who do whatever is needed – even weapons of mass destruction. Can’t we find ethical examples which enable people, but don’t kill?"

Jan missed the point of my AK-47 example. There's nothing agnostic about my design philosophy -- a philosophy I share with Mikhail Kalashnikov, the designer of the AK-47. The design philosophy is this:

Don't design for a perfect world, because the world isn't perfect. Design simple things that are rugged, reliable, simple and easy to use; things that work even when conditions are chaotic; things that work even when they are mostly broken.

The AK-47 is a successful weapon because it was designed to work when the world is falling apart around you. When an AK-47 is wet, when it is clogged with mud, sand or snow, it will still work, in conditions where many more precise and accurate weapons will fail.

That's not an agnostic design philosophy, it's a philosophy that is deeply rooted in fundamentals. It's a philosophy that requires a designer to prize simplicity and exhibit strength of purpose; that emphasizes ease-of-use and reliability over feature-richness and perfection.

Now, we can also argue about ethical ambivalence -- whether it's ethical to design a weapon. This is an age-old and probably unresolvable argument. The intent of my talk was to demonstrate the design philosophy in a memorable and dramatic way by telling the true story of one designer.

Mikhail Kalashnikov designed the AK-47 because his homeland had been invaded by an enemy with superior weapons. He wasn't a "hired hand of an industry, doing whatever was needed." He was a tank mechanic who saw fellow soldiers and civilians gunned down and wanted to ensure that it would never happen again.

If Kalashnikov had lived in the west he would be a rich man today (Yes, he’s still alive, about 90 years old). But he grew up in a communist state, so he’s now a national hero who lives on a government pension.

Mikhail Kalashnikov is on record as saying that he would have preferred to have designed something more useful, for example, a lawn mower. But his country was invaded, he was severely wounded and in his hospital bed, his thoughts turned to weaponry. Can we really blame him? It's hard to see him as a profit-seeker or a "hired hand of industry."

He designed a weapon with the intention of repelling invaders, and in fact the AK-47 has to be seen as one of the most successful weapons of all time in this regard. Since he designed it in 1947, Kalashnikov’s weapon has enabled other people to defend their homelands from invaders, even superpowers: It helped the Vietcong drive American troops out of Vietnam, and it helped the Mujahideen drive the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan.

Are there other examples I could have used to make my point? I am sure there are. But as a person who has spoken at many conferences, and also as a person who has sat through many polite-but-boring talks, I choose to make my points as dramatically, engagingly and entertainingly as possible. As a history buff, the story of Mikhail Kalashnikov captivated me, and I was sure it would do the same for others if I could tell it compellingly. When I want to make an important point, I do it with drama, because that’s what people remember. There’s a reason that war movies are more popular than design documentaries.

I would rather stir up a bit of controversy than subject an audience to slow, agonizing death with PowerPoint bullet points. And if you are speaking and I am in the audience, I hope you will do the same for me.

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