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Are Designers The Enemy Of Design?

Bob Kerrey Gets Innovation Right At The New School And Parsons. |


| Are Designers The Enemy Of Design?-- The Reaction.

March 18, 2007

Are Designers The Enemy Of Design?

Bruce Nussbaum

Here's the speech I gave at Parson's on Thursday that deals with the backlash against design. I've edited it just a bit. It's designed to provoke design management students and show how I've redesigned my job at Business Week from the Voice Of Authority to the Curator of the Conversation on Innovation. We all live life in beta now.

Are Designers The Enemy of Design?

In the name of provocation, let me start by saying that DESIGNERS SUCK. I’m sorry. It’s true. DESIGNERS SUCK. There’s a big backlash against design going on today and it’s because designers suck.

So let me tell you why. Designers suck because they are arrogant. The blogs and websites are full of designers shouting how awful it is that now, thanks to Macs, Web 2.0, even YouTube, EVERYONE is a designer. Core 77 recently ran an article on this backlash and so did we on our Innovation & Design site. Designers are saying that Design is everywhere, done by everyone. So Design is debased, eroded, insulted. The subtext, of course, is that Real design can only be done by great star designers.

This is simply not true. Design Democracy is the wave of the future. Exceptional design may only be done by great star designers. But the design of our music experiences, the design of our MySpace pages, the design of our blogs, the design of our clothes, the design of our online community chats, the design of our Class of ’95 brochures, the design of our screens, the design of the designs on our bodies—We are all designing more of our lives. And with more and more tools, we, the masses, want to design anything that touches us on the journey, the big journey through life. People want to participate in the design of their lives. They insist on being part of the conversation about their lives.

So Lesson One here is that the process of design, the management of the design process, is changing radically. Egos and silos are coming down, participation is expanding, tools are widespread and everyone wants to play. People want to be in the design sandbox so you have to figure out how to get them in and do design with them. This is a huge challenge.

Let’s talk about the arrogance of architects. When I began covering architecture a decade ago for Business Week, we launched an annual contest with Architectural Record. When we were about to publish pictures of the first winners, I looked at all the fancy architecture magazines. None had any pictures of people inside buildings. The buildings were all devoid of people. And most still are. We put people inside the spaces they inhabit. We inserted people into the conversation of their lives. Now, smart architects engage the masses in their designs. They hire firms who do social geography, showing how people really interact in organizations, not what their titles suggest. Informed with this information, they design spaces.

So one Big Design Management Challenge is how do you switch gears from designing for to designing with? Maybe the object of design is not a finished product but a set of tools that allow people to design their experiences for themselves. Think iPod and iTunes. Think TiVo. Starbucks. Fortunately, design has tremendous tools. In fact, design has evolved from a simple practice to a powerful methodology of Design Thinking that, I believe, can transform society. By that I mean Design, with a capital D, can move beyond fashion, graphics, products, services into education, transportation, economics and politics. Design can become powerful enough to be an approach to life, a philosophy of life. But it can do so only when Design by Ego ends and Design by Conversation begins. More on that later.

Back to the backlash against design. Designers suck because they are also IGNORANT, especially about sustainability. The rap against designers is that they design CRAP that hurts the planet. That’s the argument. Let’s take your favorite toy, designed by one of today’s design gods, Jonathan Ive and his team at Apple—the iPod. Apple does fantastic things with materials. Amazing things. And it has recycling programs for its products. But what it doesn’t do is prioritize cradle-to-cradle design. It doesn’t design a long-cycle product that you can open and upgrade over time. It doesn’t design a process that encourages the reuse materials again and again. It doesn’t demand sustainability.

So ask yourselves if you demand sustainability in your laptops, your iPods, cell phones, cars, or houses. There are mountains of computers and iPods and cell phones and stuff—your old stuff—building up in India and Chinas, leaking toxic chemicals. Greenpeace has launched a Green My Apple campaign. Europe tipped green in the 90s. The U.S. tipped green just last year.

I actually think that of all the designers in the US design professions, architects are the greenest. Architects are the leaders in terms of sustainability. Building according to LEED specs is the norm for big corporations. Bank of America is putting up an incredibly green building near Bryant Park. One wonderful green trick-- it uses cheap electricity at night to make ice in the basement to cool the skyscraper in the morning. Bring back the ice box.

The broad new paradigm for design—the paradigm you will all work within for the rest of your lives—is sustainability. When you have venture capitalists at the latest TED conference in Monterrey crying, literally crying onstage, about the planet, sustainability is hot, hot, hot. So the iPod is cool but…..

Challenge Your Assumptions. Think about the mink coat. It is beyond cool. It’s sustainable. You feed those little rat-y things with garbage that you throw out or food you grow, you create something that is comfortable, beautiful and gives you warmth for your entire life, you pass it along to another generation or recycle it or simply let it disintegrate. It’s organic, after all.

All you folks in fashion, try and rethink materials. Fashion is one of the most creative of the design fields—obviously. But what does it mean to design fashion within a sustainable context. I think it means changing materials. How can you fashion a fashion process, that focuses on bringing a new line out twice a year, that allows materials to be reused again and again in different ways? Or should designers try and design clothes that last far longer than one season or two? And why are organic materials, bamboo and cotton, so expensive? And how do you price for all of this. Hard questions.

Let me stop and make a suggestion. Skip your next trip to Milan or Miami and head, instead, for the reservation. Visit the Navajo and Hopi, the Pueblo Indians, the Souix and the Cheyenne. These folks lived a sustainable lifestyle long before it became both fashionable and necessary. There’s a lot left to their eco-culture. Learn from them—their contemporary artists in weaving, pottery, painting and jewelry are among the most innovative and creative in the world.

Take the Navajo Hogan, a simple six-sided building. Hogans sit lightly on the land—no 10,000 or 20,000 square foot McMansions for the Navajo. Hogan are easy to assemble, use little energy to keep people warm, and have strong spiritual meaning to the families who inhabit them. Today’s modern hogans are trailors and they are all over the rez. Now think about trailors. They, too, sit lightly on the land, are kind of prefab, and use little energy. In a world focused on sustainability, is the trailor worse than a cool building designed by Rem Koolhass or Frank Gehry?

We need to live the lives we design. Take Al Gore, one of my heroes. Does a great movie on global warming but does he walk the talk with a 20-room mansion and private jets? What is his real carbon footprint? Yes, he buys all kinds of carbon offsets, you know pay peasants in the Amazon to grow trees. But is that living a sustainable life. Can you buy your way to a carbon-free life there if you are rich? Both Davos and the Oscars were full of rich folks flying in on private jets leaving a big fat carbon footprint. Yet both conferences were allegedly CARBON-FREE. What’s up with that?

OK, enough. Now that I’ve insulted designers, allow me to insult myself. In the 90’s, I was the editorial page editor of Business Week. I was the VOICE OF AUTHORITY. Truly, they had an ad campaign revolving around the voice of authority. I did design as a journalistic afterthought, at nights or the weekend. I wrote about design being a force within the business culture. I had a small following.

That changed a few years back. The commoditization of manufacturing and knowledge and its outsourcing to Asia, left US companies unable to compete to make profits. When you can’t compete on the basis of cost or quality, you have a problem. So the business community embraced the notion of innovation. Driving revenue and profits by turning out a continuous series of new things, be they products or services or even experiences.

Wowie. But how do people who’ve spent a lifetime using their left-brain, suddenly shift to using both their left and their right? How do people used to deconstructing old problems into their parts and squeezing answers out of each of them then learn to see problems with fresh eyes and integrate parts of many solutions into one new one. Enter design and design thinking. Over the past decade, design has evolved to become an articulated, formalized method of solving problems that can be widely used in business—and in civil society. Design’s focus on observing consumer/patient/student—human behavior, it’s emphasis on iteration and speed, its ability to construct, not destruct, its search for new options and opportunities, its ability to connect to powerful emotions, its optimism, made converts out of tough CEOs. AG Lafely at P&G, Immelt at GE and many others embraced design. Now Mayor Daley of Chicago and Mayor Livingstone of London are embracing it.

And so am I. I dropped the edit page and launched the Innovation & Design site online two years ago. It’s a huge success. We open-source it and have many partners, including Core77, Dwell, ID magazine and Metropolis. We have the top thinkers and practitioners of design to write columns for us. I blog. We have built a global community around the ongoing conversation of design and innovation (20% of our traffic is from outside the US). And then we did something weird, we launched a new magazine off the website, because we found that many senior managers don’t go online. Surprise. The new magazine is IN, Inside Innovation.

Today, I kind of coach a team of about 8 people, 6 women in their early 30’s, one guy in his thirties, and a women in her twenties (she’s Canadian and a generation ahead of the 30-something sisters in technology). Our process is totally different from the hierarchical way of writing and editing we had just a few years ago. We all write for both platforms—online and print, and do a little TV on the side. Our job today as journalists is to curate conversations among groups within our audience, with Jessi Hempel doing social networking and philanthropy, Reena Jana doing fashion and gaming culture, Matt Vella doing cars and green technology, Aili McConon doing sustainability and motion technology such as wii. We design stories with our audience. As John Battelle said recently, the conversation now is the content. It’s not about the finished story but about the ongoing story. It’s the conversation. And since most conversations don’t have a conclusion, they are ongoing. We live a life in beta.

A final point on language: Innovation and Design. Business men and women don’t like the term “design.” I think they think it implies drapes or dresses. Even top CEOs who embrace design don’t want to call it that. They want to call it “Innovation.” That has a manly right to it. It’s strong, techie. These folks are perfectly willing to use the word “vision,” whatever the heck “vision” is. They like “Imagination,” whatever the heck that is. But they don’t like “design.” Go figure.

I solve this problem by calling it all a banana. Innovation, design, eco-imagination, just call it whatever they want to call it and do your design thing. Because your design thing is a glorious thing that has the potential of changing our lives in a myriad of ways in a myriad of places.

03:39 PM

design management

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Interesting article Bruce, Although I understand that this is an article for design management I still feel that everything is a high level of design thinking. As an undergraduate I take from this article that now everyone has the tools 'to design' there is still a need for a narrative for the use of tools, a contunined conversation between user and service interfaced by the 'tools'. Yet... This is all very good but as I work on the blunt end of design having to make something real, I still stumble on trying to create a 'Cradle to Cradle' design methodology. I would love to know your answer to why bamboo and Cotton is soo expensive, but i feel this is like my local Seattle PCC market where 'organic' means markup. Green Design is still a lifestyle choice, and this is something we need to change by making green a seamless added 'feature'

Posted by: Ben Arent at March 18, 2007 06:18 PM

Excellent article! I agree with so much you're saying here. My focus is social project collaboration and how that applies to the changing landscape you are describing here: "...People want to be in the design sandbox so you have to figure out how to get them in and do design with them....". Project management has been shifting to being more collaborative over the post few years, but still tends to be happening in walled gardens. It's time to bring the 'social' into project collaboration - this is not a challenge for software alone, but with everything becoming more distributed and international, we also have to re-think how software can help "switch gears from designing for to designing with". I just posted a video to where I talk about 'social project collaboration'. The long tail is growing - let's embrace it!

Posted by: Chris Ritke at March 18, 2007 07:02 PM

Nice work Bruce. You've managed to insult designers, Al Gore fans, Animal rights activists and traditional top down managers in one breath. :)

And I think you've done us all a service. Fact is, there are a lot of folks out there who are comfortable with the way business (or design) has always been done and annoyed at the latest changes which affect their profession.

Ironically, innovation and even some of the best design has come from unlikely places. Firefox and YouTube are great examples of this. The "2.0" movement fueled by social media (using terms broadly here) are a great source of proof. Or maybe proof of life is more accurate.

Speaking of life, I really like this thought in particular "we live a life in beta". I think that's a profound thought. I also think that the people who approach their professions with this attitude will be the ones who succeed moving forward.

PS, I've added some of my visuals to some of the bits of this post here:

Well done. Keep it up.

Posted by: David Armano at March 19, 2007 01:55 AM


Nice piece of work. A lot of good thinking went into it — and it shows.

Several of your themes had special resonance for me. First off, thanks for your take on the "arrogance of designers." When I get around more than three of them at a time (especially on their location), I feel like I'm dealing with priests in a cult. No matter what your job is, I've found that a little humility goes a long way both as a communications strategy and as an idea-finding tool.

I also liked your comments about "getting outside your area." I like to ask designers where they explore for ideas. I'll say, "How many of you have been to a junk yard in the past six months?" Not many hands go up. Too bad. At a junk yard you can see all the stuff you wanted back in 2004 or 1996 — and what happened to it.

How about reading books? The other day, I asked a designer friend how many books he'd read in the past year, and he said, "Two. I'm too busy with all the electronic tools we use." What a shame! There's nothing like a good novel to make us aware of "story" and "narrative" both of which are important elements in the design process.

Again, thanks for the thoughtful piece. Best wishes.

Posted by: Roger von Oech at March 19, 2007 05:14 AM

Hi, Ok.. I was the one who asked you about "controls" for design process thinking (at parsons), where the integrity of us as design managers (the facilitators of this process) and the process itself are not swallowed and abused by the business world... in the interests of the shareholders of course.

You told me that controls were not necessary, that this process was at free will, and finally that controls were not needed because "the business world is known to be highly ethical."

I HAVE to disagree with you. In fact, I am seeing it more and more.. take for example the process mentality applied to new construction .. allowing for unparalleled dimensions of true "sustainability" versus a business.. any business.. claiming "sustainability" for obvious PR reasons.

This is a poor example... but to say that business is ethical enough that us, as design managers, should feed them this valuable tool.. without control? We would lose value in ourselves on the job market.

I understand, we live life in beta. An ongoing process, never finished, never polished. In this aspect, most importantly, business cannot be held accountable for when they fail.. after trying to play with design thinking, without the proper controls.

Posted by: RD(Parsons) at March 19, 2007 06:28 AM

That's a great article. I'll forward it to my students at Bezalel Academy, Jerusalem. I'll use it in the next lesson of "creative direction", a new course in the academy where I'm trying to examine the change in the design profession and redefine it's new scope.

I truly believe in what has been written.

Posted by: ilanit at March 19, 2007 01:19 PM

Thanks for the comment. As I recall at Parsons, I said that I didn't think business people in general were any less ethical than people in design. I realize there are many, many exceptions but my experience at Business Week has shown that to be true. And when it comes to sustainability, designers make as many compromises--if not more--than business people.

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum at March 19, 2007 01:24 PM

I think this is a great article.

I've been practicing user-centered design, as per the ways of Jesse James Garrett and many more, for a few years now.

All to often you find egotistical designers that design for themselves, not thinking about anyone or anything else. Usually it's just to get a shiny award of some sort.

Bruce, you've done yourself proud, fine sir.

Posted by: Stu Collett at March 19, 2007 01:49 PM

Hi Bruce--

I enjoyed the presentation last week at Parsons. I guess this is where you step back and "watch/curate as the thread builds."

I applaud the topic and your desire to be provocative. It worked, and has inspired great dialogue. But I would alter the premise. It's not about "Design Democracy" but rather a Global Innovation Process. Global, that is, to imply the breaking down of borders and boundaries-- both corporate and disciplinary as well as cultural and geographical. It's just not centered around design. The sooner designers get that concept, the stronger our influence will be.

You said it best in your article:

"People want to be in the design sandbox so you have to figure out how to get them in and do design with them."

My advice to anyone in the sandbox is to fully understand what you bring to the party. Go ahead and be an arrogant designer as long as you can establish your credibility in the process. That position can be a double-edged sword. You'll get their attention by being brash and idealistic-- but can you keep their attention and actually lead with credibility vs. your subjective opinion? You can do that by demonstrating your understanding of the others in the sandbox with you. -- the people using the product or service, the marketeers, executives, vendors-- ALL the stakeholders. How democratic of me.

The most typical credibility-killing error I see designers make is to reveal how isolated or subjective their thinking and process can be. Design is a strength, not a panacea to the process. Get out there and educate yourself by whatever means-- additional education or real-life-- ideally, both.

I see the design process changing-- it is inclusive and no longer "owned." Anyone with valuable input can step in and influence. The key is to remain an influencer-- and you need to stay flexible and wide-eyed to maintain that role. We can be leaders-- just not with old tools.

Posted by: Steve Russak at March 19, 2007 06:08 PM

You paint with too wide a brush.

Many designers design in a variety of ways and for various markets and needs. Like journalists, doctors, and others, they also come in a range of personalitiies (although, it is generally true that many architects come across as arrogant but I also know some sweet ones too)

I think graphic designers are far more green than architects simply because it was an issue in graphic design starting in the 1980s and the emergence of recycled papers. I remember as a student in the late 1980s talking with an expert on the subject. She remarked that environmental concerns in architecture was just not an issue. Now, thankfully it is. Graphic design firms are also looking beyond paper. The AIGA (large national organization for graphic design professionals) includes carbon credits with attendee fees to its national conference to cover the carbon the conference releases as well as each attendees travel carbon emissions.

Posted by: J.C. at March 19, 2007 06:22 PM

Yes. Challenge your assumptions.

Capitalism has been the most destructive force to the environment in the history of this planet. Don't shift your blame on designers or any other profession because business men are the foot soldiers and puppet masters of destruction. You exploit every resource for "growth". Slavery, Child Labor, Environmental destruction, Genocide has always been fueled by the power of money.

The failure of the US business model is the notion of continued financial growth. In a world of neverending grasp at financial growth, people are laid-off en masse, children are sent to work the fields, and the amazon is slashed and burn.

Your use of Native Americans to make your case is ironic as it the best example of how opportunistic business men and money seekers (gold rush, spice trade, fur trade (minks!?), for example) and it's ignorance to ethics has committed genocide and destroyed a culture. Native Americans curated the environment just fine before the European invasion and it's onslaught.

"Why don't we start making a history worth being proud of and start fighting the real fu*king enemy?"

We can't change history, we can't fight capitalism, and maybe we don't need to. All the methods being used to make the world better these days like carbon offset tax, $100 laptop, selling clean water pumps to Africa, micro irigation products in India, etc. are still working in the confines of capitalism to make change happen. Which hopefully, will work out.

Capitalism even helped spread democracy, but even in our society it is not a TRUE democracy. We vote on who we think is the best. If they mess up, you vote for a new one. Joe Schmo can't walk into congress and make decisions about our economy. Just the same, I don't want Joe Schmo designing buildings or making my toaster that might catch fire.

I'll offer you a solution. Let's go beyond democratizing design, let's DEMOCRATIZE BUSINESS. You want TRUE democracty in design? Then LET ALL THE PEOPLE participate and make decisions in the board of directors meetings of Fortune 500 companies. Bring democracty to Business first. I don't know where you get the dillusional idea that designers actually have POWER, designers can suggest things but the real power, the decision makers, are higher up on the corporate food chain and in our world, they are business men.

Demoratize the power - democratize business.

Posted by: Ko at March 19, 2007 07:35 PM

I’d like to put my designer’s hat on for a few seconds and thank you for all the credit. I have no problem with being called arrogant and egotistical. I’m not a designer that would ever complain about the development of user friendly applications developed by Mac, Web 2.0, YouTube or anything else that gets the average person into design thinking. Didn’t the designers create these environments for everyone in an effort to provoke creative thinking? Ownership of a hammer and saw doesn’t turn a do-it-yourselfer into a carpenter but it does get you making stuff.

Today’s successful designers must rely on up-to-date communication/feedback from the marketplace while following the strategic structure within the company or corporation supplying the paycheck. Design is only good if it fits consumers’ needs and is producible. Exceptions can be made with research and development. Unless I’m missing something, designers work under directives and guidelines and report to business leaders. Deadlines must be met and ROI is almost always a priority. A design-project without a deadline is just a hobby and won’t pay the bills very effectively.

It’s a good speech that will get a lot of people talking. Let’s not just throw stones at designers.

Oh yeh one last comment: Although I agree with the durability, biodegradability and comfort of animal fur for clothing, I don’t think everyone is ready to throw out their Gortex.

Posted by: Rich at March 19, 2007 10:37 PM

i am not arrogant, but why are the famous one mostly so?

as with the sustainability, i try, but it's a strugle witout sounding pathetic there are a few issues 1. what is best, there are many option and the greenest choice is far from clear! 2. the customer doesent really take it on yet, they still go for the disposable junk for a cheap price! 3. upermanagement are also not very really ready- cost price cost prce cost price!

last but not least i love apple design but hate the susainability issues, it gives us a bad name! i do not own any apple goods!!

Posted by: d mcmillan at March 20, 2007 11:47 AM


Posted by: Tom at March 20, 2007 12:45 PM


My name is Jim Caruso, and I am a designer.

I appreciate your extremely objective, journalistic perspective and your work on the public discussion on the topic of design- both the noun and verb.

I could not agree more in the sentiments that we as a profession need to get alligned and join the management table in many businesses, not stand on it and have a tantrum.

I embrace the meaning of words, and whether the word design or innovation is used, the design profession is very suited to help business, and as you point out, governments to help solve real human issues. One opportunity I dont see taught at design schools is design leadership.

I am going to help with that, and get involved.

Keep up the good work,

Kind regards, Jim Caruso

Posted by: Jim Caruso at March 20, 2007 03:28 PM

I am sure that Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" would have been a lot less persuasive without the graphics!

I try to think of my main client as the environment. I believe that the problem with capitalism is that it is too good at "improving" the standard of living and therefor ruining the planet. However, there are many things that can be done within in a capitalistic democracy, and we must enact laws that make the environment one of the main design considerations.

Also, I couldn't agree more on computer throwaway issues. I want to be able to upgrade my expensive powerbook.

Posted by: Kathy Kebarle at March 20, 2007 07:25 PM

As a corporate communications manager, what I took away from Bruce's presentation is a renewed mission. It is the great challenge to have "empathy" that truly moved me. If we do not design and write with the goal of empathizing with our fellow creators, our clients and our audiences, it is all for naught.

empathy, Empathy, EMPATHY ... rules!

Posted by: Mary at March 20, 2007 07:56 PM

The word "design" is so broad that you can't have a real conversation about it. *Everything* is designed, no matter how well or slick; everything has a design process.

No, "style" alone can't save a product--or the world. But "design" is a meaningless term. Stop ragging on "designers" and be specific about the practices you really want to change--"non-sustainable manufacturing processes", perhaps, or "non-biodegradable materials". "Renewable energy" would also be ok.

But telling people that "designers" are the enemy of "design" doesn't mean anything.

Posted by: Bob at March 20, 2007 08:59 PM

Awesome article.

If it rattles a few dusty old cages then great. Whilst a designer myself, I too believe that far too many of my brethren are more ego driven than user centred.

Many (but not all) areas of design have become very staid over the past couple of decades and rather like advertising, have not changed with either the time or the our client's audiences.

So it's about time we designers recognised that we must no longer design just for 'us' but for 'all of us', and that means giving everyone the keys to the design cupboard.

ps. I kind of saw something like this in the late 80's when desktop publishing came in. Graphic designers feared for their jobs. They needn't have but it was a wake-up call.

Posted by: Alex Nisbett at March 20, 2007 10:56 PM

Bruce - I don't always agree with what you say (or do), but I love your style and think you are on to something here, though I must admit I was shocked at first. As I read on I realize how well timed your article is considering what I've been ranting about lately. Maybe I'm just another arrogant designer that sucks. Could be.

Posted by: Mark Busse at March 21, 2007 01:38 AM

Dear Bruce,

I took the liberty to rewrite this article of yours with a few nuances emphasizing that design is evolving towards a conversational process with the dimensions and role players of the situation.

Here's an excerpt:

"Designers are overrated because they are arrogant. The blogs and websites are full of scared designers shouting how awful it is that now, thanks to apple’s constant innovation, an increase in communication over Web 2.0, and even do it yourself videos on YouTube, EVERYONE can be designer. Core 77 recently ran an article on this backlash and so did Buisnessweek on our Innovation & Design site. Designers feel threatened by Design being everywhere, and worse, done better by anyone willing to sweat it. So design is becoming debated, un-heroic, un-sultan like. The present text of course, is that royal designers can only be outdone by great real life designers. "

Posted by: Joyce at March 21, 2007 05:06 AM

I don't think you know what you are talking about.

Posted by: Bill Gates at March 21, 2007 08:10 AM

Do you think Business Week would let just anyone design their website? What about their magazine? And would the magazine even exist if these same principles were applied to business? You can be mad at designers for doing their jobs better than people who make the myspace pages with pink moving backgrounds, but come on. Students don't need to listen to this. Let them pay for useful material in their educations.

Posted by: Jon at March 21, 2007 12:47 PM

Much of what Bruce Nussbaum said is true and thought-provoking. However, I really do have to disagree with the following:

"Bank of America is putting up an incredibly green building near Bryant Park. One wonderful green trick-- it uses cheap electricity at night

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