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Just Enough Tail Biting
Tevere MacFadyen
July, 2015

Making interactive exhibits and experiential environments can be breathtakingly expensive, with both design and fabrication costs driven ever higher by the one-off nature of almost everything we do. (As Lyn Wood, principal of the wonderful design/build studio Hands On! Inc. once put it, “Everything bespoke, nothing off the rack.”) So we need to be as efficient as possible, but as we’re huddled together over the conference table or in front of a screen trying to puzzle out the solution to some problem, one of us wonders out loud, “Haven’t we figured this out before?” To which the answer, most of the time, is “Not exactly like this.”

Of course we do reuse standard design details and basic approaches to project organization and communication. Not everything in every project has to be blazingly innovative. (Most restaurants have tables and chairs, but diners seldom complain about how boring that concept is, or how much it’s been done before.) But at its heart our work is about finding fresh, engaging, and effective ways to tell our clients’ stories. Which turns out, no matter how hard we bear down on value engineering or how often we sharpen our proverbial pencils, to be the enemy of efficiency. All too often what we sacrifice in our pursuit of efficiency threatens to undermine the impact of the project, which raises the uncomfortable question, “Why bother spending the money at all if you’re not going to do it right?

What does efficiency mean? Years ago, while I was researching a book about American agriculture, I spent a few weeks on a confinement hog farm in Iowa. The animals were raised indoors, tightly packed into pens inside large, open pole barns. After a while I noticed that an awful lot of the pigs seems to be missing their tails, so I asked the farmer about it. He said, “That’s tail biting, caused by the stress of confinement. When they’re too close together they nip each other’s tails.” I asked him if giving the animals more space could eliminate the tail biting. Of course, he answered, but you don’t want to eliminate it altogether. Too much tail biting was bad because it reduced yields. But no nipping at all was bad too, because it meant you weren’t operating at maximum efficiency. What you wanted, he told me, was just enough tail biting.

Maybe we need a better definition of efficiency.