Design TEDTalks

Design a life with intent: John Hockenberry at TED2012

Posted by: Helen Walters

Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Journalist and commentator John Hockenberry takes the stage to share an incredibly personal insight into thinking smartly about design. For one thing, he says, we should think about it in terms of music. Cover versions that don’t add anything to the original are creepy; cover versions that make a tune into something different are exciting. “Broadly speaking,” says Hockenberry. “Design is the courage and brilliance to cover an original and make it different, make it universal.”

Design has been a part of Hockenberry’s life as long as he can remember. Jack Hockenberry, his dad, was a designer at companies including IBM, Kodak and Steelcase, and while it often wasn’t entirely clear about what Jack actually did, one of his catchphrases has remained important to Hockenberry Junior throughout life: “Good design is about supplying intent.” Designing with intent is the focus of the rest of Hockenberry’s moving presentation.

First, he explains why he’s in a wheelchair: “36 years ago this week, I was in a poorly designed automobile that hit a poorly designed guardrail on a poorly designed road in Pennsylvania, plummeted down an embankment and killed two people in the car,” he says bluntly. “I was not one of them, so I’ve got that going for me… But now I also have the wheelchair going for me.” People’s response to his wheelchair presence has infuriated him over the years, as mothers snatch up their children, or people fail to make eye contact (or make too much eye contact.) Design helped him transform his own experience. As he demonstrates for the delighted crowd, simply adding some sparkly lights to his wheels totally changed his life. Now, “instead of blank stares and awkwardness, people say ‘those are awesome!’ Kids ask for a ride!” The difference? Intent. By adding electric flashing lights to his wheelchair wheels, “I’m no longer a victim. I chose to change this situation.”

Hockenberry tells stories of his own family, comprising two sets of twins conceived through IVF technology — “about as intentional as agriculture.” (A hilarious aside, Hockenberry met the man who invented sperm extraction techniques for spine-injured men, a veterinarian, who had designed similar probes for many animals. “You’re right between horse and squirrel, John,” the doctor told him.) Then he tells of the unexpected conception of his fifth child, who he’s hoping will one day thank him for the name Ajax. “You can’t get more intentional than that.”

He tells a story of reporting the fall of President Mobutu in Zaire. “There was rioting in Kinshasa, it was a horrible, horrible place,” he remembers. Yet his presence in a wheelchair in the middle of the chaos lent him an invisible shield of protection. “I didn’t look like a looter. I didn’t look like a journalist, and I didn’t look like a soldier, that’s for sure,” he describes. “I was the background noise of the misery of Zaire.” Then, all of a sudden, a young man in a homemade tricycle wheelchair rolled around the corner. And the two of them stopped right there, in the thick of it all, to sit and compare wheels, tires, spokes, tubes. “His was a chariot of pure intent in a city out of control,” Hockenberry remembers. “Design blew it all away for a moment.” And this matters, he adds, because “an object imbued with intent has power. It’s treasure; we’re drawn to it. An object devoid of intent is random, imitative, it repels us.  It is junkmail to be thrown away. This is what we must demand of our lives, of our objects, of our things, our circumstances: living with intent.”

To conclude, he goes back to the day of his accident, on February 28, 1976. His first question when he awoke from his coma was to ask the date, and to realize he’d missed the Leap Year. From that moment, “I had no option but to make up this new life without walking. A life with intent, lived by design, covering the original with something better. it’s something for us all to do or find a way to do in these times: to get back to this, to get back to design. And as my daddy suggested, to make the song our own.” With that, he pulls one foot onto the other leg, picks up a guitar and gives an impromptu, TED-themed version of The Beatles’ song, “Get Back.”