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.

Keep in touch! Sign up to get updates and occasional emails from me.


Unknown said...


Great entry!

Chris B said...

"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."

How much easier would our lives be if THIS was more often the design brief. Yes, I love beautiful elegant designs, but not at the expense of usability. If that gorgeous kitchen tool doesn't function the way I need it to, then it becomes just "stuff" that clutters up the place no matter how beautiful the lines may be and what design awards it may have won.

Michael Daehn said...

The AK-47 is a brilliant illustration of good design. It's also a good example of marketing since it relayed your point in a memorable manner.

Well done IMHO.

Nicolette said...

Great response. I believe you both have two great arguments, but I understand your point fully and agree begrudgingly with you even though I was first pulled in by Jan's observation.

bob tomorrowland said...

Fascinating story and well-written response to the critic. Definitely looking forward to more posts.

Don Moyer said...

Thoughtful post. Intriguing thoughts on the history of a weapon. But even better is the attitude you reveal about your audience. According to you, an audience deserves an engaging experience. Damn right.

I especially liked this wrap up, "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." Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Yes. We need more consideration for the end user in any consumer good, from blenders to software. It is often assumed that customers want more features, but sometimes we would rather have something that "just works".

Unknown said...


loved your post on design lessons from AK. Have done a repost on my blog as well.. Thanks a lot !


Dick said...


Great post, great response.

It would certainly be a better world if weapons like the AK-47 didn't exist because they weren't needed.

We don't live in that world and until that changes, they at least need to reflect good, robust design which the Kalashnikov does.

Simple and well designed is a philosophy I wish more folks would adopt--especially those designing presentations which are all-to-often pretty deadly!

Unknown said...

I am posting this comment from Alia Noelle Lamaadar because I accidentally deleted it due to a VERY confusing Blogger interface (Are you listening Blogger?)

The design brief could be better summed up as "easy enough that a child could use it". In which case, congratulations Kalashnikov, the estimated three hundred thousand child soldiers in the world are a real testament to the success of the design.

'He was a tank mechanic who saw fellow soldiers and civilians gunned down and wanted to ensure that it would never happen again.' Did Kalashnikov succeed in ensuring this goal with his design? Isn't the unintended consequence of such a design that it merely compels more advanced methods of remote retaliation from the enemy and likely greater collateral damage?

There is no ethical ambivalence about weapon design, at a stretch I can concede ethical naivete or outright ignorance. Jan's summation is astute and I think a noble challenge to you.

Your example is not drama as you contend; it's melodrama. People don't remember melodrama, they remember inspiration. Surely it can't be that difficult to think of inspiring examples of design rather than glorifying weapons of mass destruction?

Even as far as the design of the AK-47 goes, Kalishnakov's failure to consider the implications of his creation offers a frightening parable to designers. Though Kalashnikov blames politicians for allowing his design to become the weapon of choice for terrorists around the world, it seems to me unreasonable that he should not have understood the implications of such a weapon from the onset.

This is the age-old lament of so many fathers to weapons of mass destruction. Gatling, Nobel, Oppenheimer, all regretted the impact that their designs had on the world and what their subsequent legacies became.

There is most certainly a valuable design lesson in here, though I believe by painting in such dramatic brush strokes you have missed it. Perhaps, Eisenhower can do a better job:

"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. The world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, and the hopes of its children."

Unknown said...

Well Alia, I do believe that Kalashnikov did accomplish his goal -- to my knowledge Russia has not been invaded since 1947.

I never expressed ethical ambivalence -- or indeed, any kind of ambivalence -- about anything. You and Jan both seem to have somehow constructed that idea. Jan's challenge and yours are based on either a misconception or misrepresentation of my ideas.

Re: Drama vs. melodrama: Well that's a value judgment you are free to make. I happen to think you're overreacting.

Unknown said...

Dave... you just beat me in commenting on this one from Alia. As I hit publish button, I see your response coming up in mail.
Well, I think like Jan, Alia too missed the point. Its seems to me a typical case of an activist missing the point in a hurry to raise a moralistic/ethical dirt!
I think AK-47 as an example was just to illustrate the "approach" to design than the "reason" for design itself!

Unknown said...

Thanks for your comment Sachin! On the day when nothing I say is controversial and nobody's leaving comments on my blog, I will know that I have become truly boring. Till then I will keep doing what I am doing. Thanks for participating!

Anonymous said...

hmm...hired hand of industry in communist Russia - make sense or NOT :)

Ashish Sarode said...

Hi Dave,

Your blog is great. I am enjoying most of the posts.
One problem - it would be great if your provide old posts in tree format (it allows reader to read post name in archive section). One more poblem if I click on the title of the post nothing happens :(.

Unknown said...

Hello Ashish -- I am not sure I know what "tree format" is or how to make the change. But if you want to search old posts you can use the Google search at the top right of every page.

Ashish Sarode said...

Hi Dave,

Thank you for reply.

You can see this blog as an example -

On the right side of page I see blog tree. Which shows old blogs in format =:
- Month
-Entry name

This is good way to browse through someone's blog tree (specially when you have started following that person when 50 posts are already published). Google search on top of page is great tool - but it is useful for getting information about specific topic.

Unknown said...

Sorry Ashish, I am afraid I don't have the technical skills to implement that. Unless you can give me some code that I can add to my blogger template.


Ashish Sarode said...

Try this -
1. Go to blog dashboard
2. Select Layout
3. In Layout - click on "Add Gadget"
4. In Gadgets options select basics
5. There is gadget "Blog Archive" - it is safe because it is provided by blogger itself.

Setting image provided on this blog post are useful (you can ignore rest of the post) -

Hope this helps you. Sorry if I am spamming comments section of your blog with external links, please delete my comments in that case after you do the changes.

Unknown said...

I am on the old version of blogger. To do this I would lose all of the customization I did to my old template. Sorry but I don't have the time to do that.

Les Dunaway said...

Your AK-47 example is awesome. I will suggest that you left out the one design consideration which is most widely applicable - the AK-47 was designed to be used by untrained people who could counted-on to fail to give it even the most basic maintenance. That is, the normal user of most things built, including nations.

Tom Heck said...

About the AK47 -- Terry Gross, host of NPR's "Fresh Air" program, recently interviewed C.J. Chivers about his new book "The Gun" which provides a history of the AK47. It's a great interview. Google "AK47 Fresh Air" and you'll find it. Or try this link: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=130493013

John said...

Ti should also be noted that not only is the AK-47 a fantastic design, but it is / was paired with an equally well designed cartridge.

Like the AK-47, the 7.62X39mm cartridge is a master peice of compromises:

It is powerful enough to "knock down" opponents, it avoids over kill and is not so powerful that it cant be fired on automatic by a light weapon.

Likewise, it is light and compact to the extent that a user can carry many rounds.

Adam Sobotka said...

Well, this is about customers you have. Sometimes, you can simply apply Parot principle, sometimes you have to think deeply about reliability. In most cases I experienced, you have to amaze your customers, supply more then they demand, have a coherent vision behind product.
There is a nice post about that from Steve Denning here: http://www.agilia.cz/2011/09/steve-denning-agility-is-not-enough.html