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Designer Charades

I'm proud to welcome our very first guest columnist. She is a writer, teacher, and public speaking coach, and has been a collaborator for much of the thinking on this blog since its inception. She was also my co-author for the e-book Creative Workshop: Teacher's Guide. Welcome to ChangeOrder the first full post by Mary Paynter Sherwin.

A group of us have a Wednesday night ritual. We sit around at our local burger place and kvetch about work and life and design. Every burger comes with fries, no questions asked. No extra effort. But you can get onion rings, and there’s a Mafia-like dialogue that occurs when orders come around. Onion rings are powerful, because you can get lots of fries for a single ring. We have to make sure that sides of rings and fries are equally distributed. If three of us get onion rings, everyone else has to get fries, or the whole thing goes off kilter. There’s probably a decision tree on some humor website about how this all works.

I’d been obsessing over these onion rings all day long. I hadn’t had them in weeks, and come hell or high water, they were going to be on my plate that night. Our favorite waitress came around to serve drinks, and I ordered first. And ten minutes later, my plate showed up with French fries. Because that’s what I ordered.

Why, after all of that planning and drooling, did I suddenly change my mind? If I really, really wanted onion rings, why didn’t I order them? Everyone else had to pick their fries or onion rings accordingly, based on my preference. A preference that wasn’t really my preference.

I ate an order of French fries because I couldn’t speak the words, “onion rings.”

My brain has electrical problems. From time to time, my ability to speak what’s in my head escapes me. I can see the word “cat,” can look at a cat in a book, and out of my mouth comes “Christmas.” More often than not, nothing comes out at all, and I just sit and wait. Eventually, the right word makes it through the synapses to my mouth. Or it doesn’t, and people think I’m really tired. Or on drugs, a popular theory in high school. Last night, though I was frantically thinking “onion rings,” that was as far as it got.

I’ve had a lot of years to deal with this glitch. And yes, I’ve had a full medical workup and, though it’s pretty clear what’s happening on an EEG, I’m fine. But it wasn’t until last night that I realized how much my inability to communicate about simple and familiar things could influence other people around me. Because I wanted something that I couldn’t articulate, and because I had no way of communicating that failure, everything else changed.

We get caught up in finding exciting ways of expressing and solving old problems. In the ancient world, messages were conveyed by heralds. They traveled by horse, but if the terrain was difficult, they went on foot. The most famous of these runners, Pheidippides, supposedly sprinted the twenty-five or so miles from the battlefield at Marathon to Athens to tell the people that the Persians had been defeated. When you strip it down, the newest mobile phone is a simple, but bold, progression from this legendary Marathon runner.

But no one ever says, “Gee, I’d like a better Marathon runner. Preferably one who didn’t die after delivering his message.” That wouldn’t be groundbreaking at all. Instead, there’s an abstraction: We are reinventing information delivery. It’s fast and reliable, and works across great distances and in variable conditions. Game-changing system, people.

Often, our clients cannot tell us what they actually want. Because they want something that no one’s ever seen before. And it’s our job to figure it out and deliver it; the push for new is overwhelming. We think outside of the box every single day, constantly striving to reinvent and reimagine. To see what has never been seen before, as the song goes.

This is where my sparky brain comes in.

I have heard people say that we don’t want to use too many specifics in our descriptions, because it may limit people’s ability to think outside of that magical box. If I’m constantly explaining that the iPad is just a version of a clay tablet, even though it’s true, those descriptions dilute the power of the technology. It’s an overly simplistic way of referring to an advanced application of a preexisting system. We do not want people thinking that it’s just another clay tablet. Because it’s not. And thinking about it as another clay tablet is certainly not the way that designers decided it could teach children how to read, track terrorist organizations, or assist people with cerebral palsy.

At the same time, because I frequently lose the ability to talk about clay tablets in the first place, I can’t help but think that we will never get to innovative if we don’t have a solid grasp of the simple. I felt stupid because I had taken my speech for granted. But I was also disconcerted at how my friends did the same thing. No one thought to ask me if I wanted onion rings.

This is not to say that we have to second-guess our friends, our colleagues, and our clients when it comes to concepts. If someone asks for a black pen, we probably don’t have to clarify if they actually want a blue pen, just for the off-chance that she can’t say the word “blue” today. Operating like that can quickly devolve into condescension. We aren’t always toddlers learning new words.

Last night, though, I didn’t want something new and exciting. I wanted onion rings, a familiar expression that was already available to me. Those rings didn’t have to be invented; they were a “known,” to use a different word. But it was too embarrassing to explain what I wanted, specifically because it was a “known.” If I was being tripped up by something, it had to be because I was at a loss for words to explain an exotic and new desire. It had to be because I wanted innovative and fresh—I wanted a side of crab cakes and a souffle—not because I couldn’t phrase the simple and workaday.

But everyone moved forward. I changed the dynamics of my table. I changed what we were eating. Last night was a missed opportunity because we all lacked the ability to recognize when to investigate the common. My friends live in the world of smartphones, and when I was sitting at that table, I was a Marathon runner.

How can we develop a system to deal with these occurrences? To know when people have simply lost the ability to talk about what’s right in front of them? I believe these hiccups happen when we move too quickly from studying the present to envisioning the future, and I believe they happen more often than we’d like to admit. How many opportunities have been missed because we weren’t able to adequately explain the options that were already available? How many technologies have gone to market that just reproduced previous models, simply because people didn’t have a firm enough grasp on the basic principles that drove the work?

We settle for French fries. Or we rely on prevalent mindsets—that the current selections are usually lacking—and we go looking for new things. But all the while, the best choice might already be there. And being able to order the onion rings, or to provide them to someone who can’t order them for themselves, doesn’t make us design rock stars. It doesn’t push the envelope, and it doesn’t win awards.

Instead, it makes the electricity pulses in a student’s brain more manageable. It changes what her friends order and what the kitchen produces. It allows her to earn a living and teach other people how to communicate. In a very simple way, it makes life a little bit better than it was last Wednesday.

Here’s where I should say something about how making life better is the true purpose of great design.

And I would. But I’ve just forgotten the words.

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