Grace in the Details Kills Bike Helmets

Design is complicated, but often we try to explain it in a quick catchy phrase. There is a saying: “The Devil is in the Details”. Mies van der Rohe is often credited with flipping the concept upside down by saying: “God is in the Details”. Regardless, it means that if you do not pay attention to the details the design will stink.

Since design is such a human endeavor I am not sure that the Devil or God have anything to do with the details and I am proposing we say that “Grace is in the Details”. I have always liked the word “Grace”. It is nice if a boat is fast or fancy, but if somebody also calls a design graceful the designer has done his job.

Regardless, good design is in the details. For something to work really well, all the pieces have to work together and just a small bit of inattention in the design can ruin the whole experience.

Designs with grace in the details ring true. Designs with grace often will ring true forever, and those are the designs that, as antiques, continue be valuable and sometimes never stop gaining value.

The least graceful designs are those designs that simply add stuff to make it work. We have too much of that. In computer parlance those add-ons are called bags. In the United States, one of those bags is called a bicycle helmet. Somewhere in the back of my mind I feel compelled to wear a bicycle helmet in the United States, partially from peer pressure, or maybe a feeling of insecurity on US roads, but also due to the fact that my son actually escaped very serious brain injury in a US bike crash by wearing a helmet.  But I never even think about wearing a helmet when I ride a bike in Holland.

I have often felt that there is a reason for that, but the actual reason has generally eluded me. I knew that maybe it had something to do with the riding position on bikes, which is upright in Holland, or maybe it had to do with fact that motorists are used to bikers in Holland, or maybe the Dutch can accept biker attrition more readily than Americans. But regardless, with all those people and kids riding on bikes, biking head injuries must be common and at some stage this must require attention.

Then I came across “No Helmets No problem, How the Dutch created a Casual Biking Culture”. I knew about Dutch biking culture, but figured that maybe the article could put an answer to my question. The article led me to the answer; it made it clear that the Dutch have been refining bike transportation for decades, if not 100 years. The article described all the things that were done to make bikes work for the Dutch, and work it does, and, as a result, they don’t see a need for helmets. The interesting thing is that the Dutch never designed the Dutch bike system to be helmet free, they simply focused on getting the details right, and, with the details just right, there is no need for helmets.

That is a very important consideration in design. If you do not get the core details right you will end up spending additional money patching the adverse effects. Designers struggle with this every day, but society as a whole does too. I just had a very interesting conversation with a DHS officer in the bar at Sadie’s by the Sea in Pago Pago. (Yes, I am name dropping, but it explains the picture; the internet in Pago Pago is slow and it was easier to take a shot of the view, rather than search for a bike photo.) We talked about the need for bullet proof vests for police officers and their vast increase in use in recent years (all over the world btw). Neither of us could figure out if there was an actual or perceived need for these vests, but when one considers that Grace is in the details, maybe we should look more closely at the design of policing systems, just like the Dutch did with the design of their bicycle transportation system. Refine the design instead of add a bag.

This thought did not come out of the blue, I am in Pago Pago for the review of marine environmental systems, and am being introduced to a culture where US environmental issues are clashing with a developing culture with many interesting twists and turns and even occasional leading edge solutions by the Samoans. The question is not: How to add regulations? The question is: How can we get this to a state of Grace without the environmental equivalent of helmets and bullet proof vests?

In many areas of the United States people are working very hard at integrating bicycles in general transportation. I wonder if eventually we will drop the need for bike helmets, or maybe it is too late, and we can no longer sufficiently integrate bikes in the US transportation system. Is it too late to fix policing? I hope not, those bullet proof vests are hot, I am sure police officers would rather not wear them.