The death over Christmas of Mikhail Kalashnikov has gone largely unmentioned by the design community. You’d be forgiven for thinking the life of the man who invented the ubiquitous AK47 rifle is not a topic for a user experience blog. Nonetheless, Kalashnikov was an innovator in his field whose achievements offer lessons for design thinkers from all walks of life.
In The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage, Roger Martin identifies that design thinking is driven by ‘intuitive’ approaches to problem solving. Unlike traditional analytical business thinking, the intuitive mindset focuses more on creativity and innovation.
According to Martin, the design thinking process leads one from exploration of a problem (‘mystery’) to a heuristic (‘rule of thumb’) which, successfully validated, becomes an algorithm (a fixed formula for success).
Kalashnikov’s development of his famous rifle exemplifies this process perfectly. Whilst serving as an ordinary soldier in 1941, a comrade asked him: "Why do our soldiers have only one rifle between three men, while the Germans have automatics?"
Whilst convalescing in hospital he began to sketch out ideas for a cheap reliable automatic weapon for mass production. With no formal training, he produced several prototypes – all of which were rejected by the authorities. Kalashnikov however did not let this deter him, in fact he said of this period: “I tried a dozen different modifications that were rejected. But they all served as a path to the final design.”
This understanding that being wrong is a necessary part of the design process is deeply insightful. Today, designers from different fields iteratively prototype and test and reject numerous ideas to identify the strongest ones. Non-design thinkers often expect an untested design to achieve the desired results immediately (and are routinely disappointed).
Other than its reliability and light weight, the other striking feature of the AK47 was its general lack of technological innovation. The theory behind the design had been prevalent for some time, but no other engineer had fine-tuned it to the level of efficiency achieved by Kalashnikov.
Game-changing technology is often not about mechanical innovation. Steve Jobs infamously tended to shy away from new markets in their formative stages. When it launched in 2007, the first iPhone was not in any way technologically superior to its forebears. Apps and touch screen controls were nothing new in mobile handsets by that time. Apple simply took those ingredients, rethought them and delivered them in a way that made more holistic sense than everything that had gone before.
It seems astonishing that it was only 2007 when Apple did this – such has been the pre-eminent position of the iPhone ever since. But consider this – the AK47’s descendants are still one of the most widely used rifles globally. Its impact as a cultural icon of the twentieth century is arguably almost as great as its military significance.
It’s sad that Kalashnikov’s genius for design thinking did not find a less destructive outlet. Like most designers, he was drawn to the abstract challenge of solving knotty problems where he found them, rather than purely military issues. He often expressed his wish that his work had been in other areas: “I wanted to invent an engine that could run for ever. I could have developed a new train, had I stayed in the railway. It would have looked like the AK-47 though.”
Mikhail Kalashnikov – The Guardian (UK) obituary - 23 Dec 2013