Bucky Fuller and the Power of Small Acts

Last week was quite a downer for those who plan to live on Earth a generation or two from now. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its report on climate change and the findings are, to say the least, not good. In a nutshell, we’re barreling even faster toward a catastrophic rise in temperatures that will drastically alter the habitability of the planet. If we hope to even curb this tide, we have 10 years to drop our carbon emissions by almost half and about 30 years to reach net zero…..or [insert one of many available visions of dystopian future].

It’s such an insurmountable task that it’s easy to despair. But people like environmentalist and actor Jeff Bridges are out reminding people that we still have the opportunity to create the future we want, as long as we’re all willing to be “trim tabs.” Wait, what?

He’s referring, of course, to Buckminster Fuller’s own philosophy on life. Architect, inventor, philosopher, Bucky Fuller believed that we shouldn’t rush headlong into the thing we’re trying to change. Instead, we should do low pressure things habitually that will have an impact on larger entities and forces. His metaphor to explain this was the trim tab.

Bucky spent time in the Navy during WWI. That’s when he made an observation that influenced his outlook on work and life for decades to come. Big ships are hard to move. Really hard to move. They have massive rudders that guide them through the water, but it’s the little rudder on the big rudder — the trim tab — that gets it to move. It just puts along, gently putting pressure on the big rudder, nudging it in the right direction.

It’s helpful in these times to remember that the small things do matter.  I was reminded of it twice this week: once when I encountered this helpful little sign at an Intelligentsia around the corner from my office. The second was when we were working through the details of an app’s UI with a client. The small behavior we want users to adopt will actually have a really positive impact on the system as a whole, especially if a lot of people do it. So we think about how we can communicate that benefit and encourage people to take the desired course of action. Is it an opt-in or an opt-out? Is it active and inactive states, or do we change messaging when they select the undesirable action? Is it a toggle or a radio button or a regular button? Do we straight up hide the thing we don’t want them to do? How can we entice them into being trim tabs?

As designers, we constantly make decisions that nudge people’s attitudes and behaviors one way or another, sometimes for good (the example above is good, I promise) and sometimes for not-so-good (Facebook’s addictive quality is no accident). With it, we have the responsibility and the opportunity to use it wisely.