The words of media prophet Marshall McLuhan: "We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us."
Well, our newfangled tools are becoming... thoughty. Or perhaps a better word: impressionistic.
The words of media prophet Marshall McLuhan: "We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us."
Well, our newfangled tools are becoming... thoughty. Or perhaps a better word: impressionistic.
Rock climbing is physical problem solving, a process of continually resisting of gravity (and physical harm). In a way, it's a kind of controlled falling. Similarly, design is a kind of controlled failing, ever climbing towards a "certain" goal without any certainty at the start of the process of how the end product will really look.
In both sports, there is a dollop of artistic Yin in our risk-filled Yang, and a similar level of required focus in how you fulfill the work without harming yourself—whether through willful distraction or negligence.
Hell is not other people. Hell is being surrounded by free candy.
Much as a child is forced to smoke a carton of cigarettes when caught out on the back porch with a Marlboro Light, my avoidance of any and all forms of sweets came from sheer overkill—that is, working in a candy store.
Much like the First Law of Thermodynamics, which expresses the conservation of energy between various states, my imagined First Law of Design Dynamics states: "We are unsolvable problems."
Or, to put it another way: Problems persist, and we are an expression of them.
The problems we face as human beings are wound together so tightly, they only improve or degrade over time against a man-made metric—they do not go away. We create them, we attempt to solve them, and those solutions are expressed through the lens of our humanity.
A pay telephone ringing in the midst of a crowded subway terminal. A woman in hospital scrubs, dark bags under her eyes like smudged blue paint. Young girl looking away from a red plastic BlackBerry into the blur of lights whipping past the window. Smell of nectarines, humid air, irises and gerbera daisies poking from a Trader Joe's paper bag.
This is history, and we are living it in perfume and thoughts of recent wreckage. Arthritic hands fidgeting with a laminated ID attached to a lanyard embossed with the GTE logo. Never-ending scrape and racket of train-track wheels against steel. Recorded red-black ringtone automated to sync with the closing doors. Balled-up newspapers dated Thursday and stuffed into the gaps between mustard-yellow vinyl seats.
Clammy cold handrail. This carpet has been inspected by 30. Baby is crying. Mother is crying too.
Process is a term we give to the forces shaping that which changes: our daily work. But process is an flimsy word at best, because it gives conceptual form to what is more organic in our world than we would care to admit.
This friction in our profession between the orderly plan and the tidal flow of ideas is what drives our passion for holding in our hands the tangible results of our labor. Much in the same way that two friends can stand outside for hours, chugging beers while souping up a V8 engine in a vintage hot rod, we want the ride in the vehicle and what the vehicle represents from how people see it on the outside. And while you're at it, please throw in monthly cash payments made out to our bank of choice and maybe an award or two.
This is sheer illusion—a myth that we've perpetuated based on our desire for culture to remember our contribution. And the following meander is about the myths we should be exploring: those that reshape the processes that inform our culture and our practice.
This July, I'll be making the leap to the Seattle office of frog design—as a senior interaction designer.
I'm very excited to be joining a firm whose work and legacy I've followed through my career. Their recent establishment of the publication Design Mind—as well as their devotion to engaging high-impact pro bono work alongside their always-stunning client projects—are borne out of a sustained commitment to design's pivotal role in industry and culture.
It's been quite a journey to arrive at this destination.
I listen to the nest of baby starlings outside my front window. In the midst of their morning song, I have picked out their attempts to recreate the sounds of car alarms, police sirens, foghorns from boats on Lake Union, cars accelerating, the cry of a toddler, doors shutting, and the calls of robins, crows, flickers, and a wide range of other birds that throng the trees and marshes near our home.
The song of the starling seems like a random melange of clicks, whistles, warbles, and otherwise incongruous chatter. But the starling does speak in a pattern—one that is barely perceptible to the human ear, but possible to decode. Philosophy professor and musician David Rothenberg wrote a lovely book called Why Birds Sing that delves into this very subject:
"Starlings eat everything, and they absorb all manner of peculiar sounds, choosing those that fit their own aesthetic... a full starling song, which takes about a minute to sing, is composed of four distinct kinds of phrases... [where] each [phrase] is repeated two or more times before the bird moves on to the next type... First, one or two descending whistles, out of a repertoire of two to twelve different kinds; then a quieter, continuous warbling, in which imitations of various birds living in the starling's territory are often inserted; the third part of the song is a series of rapid clicks, up to fifteen per second, a rattling or ratcheting with no clear breaks between; finally, the song concludes with loud, high-pitched squeals, repeated many times."
Mr. Rothenberg encourages us to listen to a starling after reading this description. "You'll immediately hear things you did not hear before," he says.
I did what he said, and he was right: the structure of the song was immediately perceptible. I could actually pick up the shifts between phases of the song.
But what still stood out for me through all the of the buzzing and clanking of this small poofy bird was his clattletrap accumulation of observed sounds. I often feel like my job as a designer is much like the starling's everyday song.
I often think about analogues between design research and Buddhism. Not in a practical way—if there is such a thing—but more in a sense of how the process of design attempts to bring a brief moment of permanence to an idea in an ever-fluctuating world. The more meaningful an idea, the more likely it will gain root in the rich soil of our minds.
Ideas are the leavings of an insight—a deeply rooted and observed human truth. Without an insight, good ideas are mere flower petals scattered across the road and apt to float off in a stiff breeze. Beautiful to admire, but no more meaningful than wallpaper.
How have design thinking and design aesthetics become such strange befellows?
These past few weeks, I've been meditating on the following quote by Charles Olson regarding the two critical human inputs into a powerfully charged poem:
the HEAD, by the way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE
the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE
In Olson's quote, he's referring to his theory of organic poetics, which is a type of poetry that derives its power from closely mimicking the ebb and flow of thought as opposed to falling into the lockstep cadence and strictures of versification, meter, rhyme, and other European contrivances. As a result of this alignment of the head and the heart beyond intellectual constructs, the art that you experience through the eye and the ear inspires direct transmission of experience.
Why is there not such a unity in how we talk about design? Perhaps because we still have no vocabulary around how to describe the most important result of the design process: the direct transmission of knowledge.
Web sites don't behave like nature on the back end, but the experiences we find most pleasing on the Web conform to a natural order: in the grids we use to constrain information; in the "weather" of how content flows into and out of a visual presentation; through each tiny interaction we initiate with the system and the expected reaction. As designers, we attempt to control as many of these variables as possible in order to ensure a consistent, desired effect on the user.
But sometimes it's just as valuable to let users follow a more chaotic, yet finite path. Elegant Web experiences walk a fine line separating simplicity (yawn) from chaos (huh?). And the rules that govern the quality of the attempt are derived from considerations of natural organization. This can still be elegant -- as long as the chaos is modulated within a stable container, constrained by a well-designed illusion of natural order.
Great Web sites have feel -- what Leonard Koren had called "heartfelt intelligence." And there’s a certain logic to how they manifest. When I was in high school, one of my fellow students devised a computer program that could write symphonies. The program followed "the rules" of how a symphony should be composed, and it turned out somewhat turgid music. That is, until the student devised a scheme in which the program randomly broke those rules. It turned out that there was a point of natural order between too few rules broken (rigidity) and too many rules broken (cacophony). When his program was dialed in, it composed an infinite number of superlative symphonies.
I have fond memories of playing drums for the first time with a top-flight band and record producer. The engineer would cue up the metronome and the entire band would play through the song again and again, attempting to finish a clean take. When we'd thought we perfected every single note on the Nth run-through, a curious thing happened. The producer said into the talk-back mic: "That was perfect. Now, could you do it again?"
Several more attempts at the material followed. Soon, we began to relax into the song again. Musical flubs and jokes passed between the performers. The song began to gain new life. After the session, I went into the control booth and asked the producer what he was aiming for -- and his answer was bold. While we'd performed the song exactly how we'd envisioned it, the arrangement had suffered because it was lacking feel. Feel only comes about when you tear away the illusion of perfection.
The following essay is from a series of writings describing the intersection between Buddhist philosophy and design.
Many thanks to the expert editorial staff at A List Apart for their guidance, including Krista Stevens, Erin Kissane, and Carolyn Wood. Ric Ewing and Mary Paynter Sherwin contributed critical ideas and insights to the final piece.
Everything I know about the elegance of imperfection, I learned from the white porcelain plate I bought in Kyoto.
What’s so special about this plate? Before it was fired, it was perfectly round, but the artist intentionally roughed up the edges. It’s elegant, enhanced by anything that touches its surface: a bright green pear, roughly chopped chocolate, a pile of toasted almonds. Today, this plate sits on the desk in my home office. It symbolizes a crucial lesson about craft: utility is not contingent on perfection of form. In fact, the lessons I’ve learned about crafting elegant experiences—from the creative brief to user interface design—involve abandoning the desire for perfection entirely.
There is an anecdote, told and retold through translated Japanese literature, of a Zen master who is staying with a priest at a temple close to Kyoto. The priest is having guests over that evening, and he has spent much of the day in the garden—shaping the moss, plucking weeds, and gathering up the leaves in tidy arrangements, all in order to achieve the state of perfection the temple builders had originally designed...
"If you want to study something, it's better not to know what the answer is."
I was reading the essay "Find Out For Yourself" by Shunryu Suzuki today when I was struck with a sudden thought: we can be better designers when we don't know what we're doing.
Many of us were attracted to the field of design specifically to make art. Then, somewhere along the way -- especially after having so much energy placed in making artifacts, not art -- our perception of what it meant to be a designer broadened. We became competent in creating specific kinds of artifacts. We mastered specific domains of expression.
But that didn't mean that we designed better artifacts. It's human insight that grounds and infuses design work that creates meaningful change in our society.
Making is not a direct substitute for generating meaning in design. But the process of making can lead to meaning, and our minds must be open to receive it. I've heard this described as "abductive" design thinking -- which in plain English boils down to being able to extrapolate solutions from limited information.
You can seek out that insight before creating your design, if you have the tools. If you don't, then you can start designing. But if you want to use your time wisely -- not efficiently, mind you -- you should practice agile design.
This is an excerpt from the final lecture for this quarter of 80 Works. Continue reading "Find Out For Yourself" on the 80 Works blog.
"The most important thing is to be able to enjoy your life without being fooled by things."
This morning I was crossing the intersection of Denny and Broad, and the truck heading towards me wouldn't stop. It wasn't until my eyes met the driver's gaze that he hit the brakes. Otherwise, he would have mowed me down.
Catching my breath, I couldn't shake from my mind the following thought: He wasn't even there until he saw me.
Just as when I'm in a meeting, or talking with a friend, or driving myself to work, or reading my news feed on Facebook, my mind regularly wanders off on a tangent, taking my everyday awareness with it. It's like my head is just a balloon tethered to my body by a thin red ribbon. When this happens, I lose the ability to understand what people really mean when they want to communicate with me.
This is very problematic, since some of the most important traits of a designer -- and by extension, a human being -- are as follows: to listen, to accept, and to understand.
You listen attentively because you don't know all the answers. As we get older, we increasingly understand how little we have a capacity to know.
You accept what you are being told because it's another person's point of view, no matter whether you agree with it or not.
You understand the essential feelings that your clients need you to express at a fundamental human level. This happens on a plane beyond language, and we attempt to distill those feelings through our practice into tangible things. And we can never afford to be fooled by them. You are not your work.
Preparing comps with Letraset and rubylith. Shooting the pasted-up layouts on the stat camera. God, some days I really miss you.
A month ago, my band decided to break up. I was tasked with making the poster for our final gig. As we played through songs at practice, I couldn't get a feeling out of my body: the idea that as this band would be no more -- torn asunder, in a sense -- the poster would need to be made of torn type and imagery, which I would then photograph and throw out. The act of performing music, the making of the poster, and the end of the band would be one and the same in the design.
Of course, the final design didn't express all of those qualities -- that would be impossible. But the act of making the poster, layer by layer, was cathartic. Especially because in the end, I was my own client and could do away with the materials as I so chose, without fear.
And my bandmates thought the poster was good. Except, of course, they wanted to know if I could make a revision and remove the words "final show" from the poster. Which, of course, was impossible. I would need to create an entirely new poster to accommodate the change. A serious lack of foresight on my part, not assembling the work within the computer to allow change.
Or, if looked at in another way, I had chosen that working process in order to (subconsciously) avoid change entirely.
"White lies on the brim of the image of life, that is, of information, which has soared up out of great chaos. Chaos is like the world and white is like a map, or a figurative representation. Mapping the world, or generating figurative representations, is graphic design. White is the original form of life. I see the original form of my own work as the imagining of white rising to majestic stature from chaotic gray." --Kenya Hara
Heading towards Greenlake on this quiet Sunday morning, my feet continually snap through a thin crust of ice. I am walking on creme brulee.
This is the kind of scene I had imagined and hoped for many times -- six inches of snow in a city best known for coffee and rain. Having moved to Seattle from the East Coast, I was quite used to winter blizzards. Days like these would bring to mind hot chocolate with marshmallows dotting the surface, sledding down the steepest hills possible, long stretches of time free from school.
Sadly, the work must continue, snow day or not. The computer awaits, its ever patient cursor blinking on and off like the light at a railway crossing. Concepts require expression. Visual language must be codified. Stock images hover in the margins, patiently awaiting their entrance onto the stage.
That is why I am out here, a good mile from home, watching robins crowd the trees. They chatter, gulping down berries. In the snowbanks below, black seeds and drops of red juice stain the pure, unbroken snow.
My design process obsession began in the sixth grade, with a late morning pop quiz.
Directions: Read all the directions before beginning. Take out one sheet of lined paper. Write the number of siblings you have with a purple crayon. On line three, draw a picture of your favorite food...
In order to save time and be more efficient, I started carrying out the instructions as I went, until I reached the final directive:
Ignore directions one through twenty-five and enjoy watching everyone do this activity wrong.
A heavy rock sank down into my gut. I was probably the only kid in the room who had diligently plodded his way through illustrations of flowers, scrawling stars in the page corners, and folding up my sheet of paper in all sorts of intriguing ways, only to realize at the end that he should have stopped at the beginning. And it didn't help that my teacher and my classmates were watching me, wondering when I'd figure it out. Yes, I was the one keeping them from going out to the playground.
I'm not a linear thinker, okay? No wonder I ended up in this profession. Besides, doing great design work isn't this diagrammatic. Most designers can't quite articulate how they get the work done, other than to say that they iterate towards a result. You can't write that process down on a sheet of paper, hand it to someone else, and have them easily cough up a killer logo.
But when you're working in a group larger than you, that's exactly what you need to do, over and over again. We can't jog around our offices talking about how we're paid problem solvers, then go solve the wrong problems in a roundabout fashion, bearing the cost of wasted time, effort, and emotional turmoil. Those kinds of situations burn away at our patience until we snap. We don't want to get to the end of a project only to discover we took the wrong path at the beginning.
Here, I've tried to tease out some of the critical questions that need to be asked as part of your overall design process -- whether when dealing with clients, working your way to a design solution, or negotiating client feedbck.
The painting sits above two bookshelves in our living room, sandwiched between a purple potted orchid named Sven and an old Bell and Howell film projector. Every morning, sitting at the kitchen table, it catches my eye. Four years ago, it arrived in a large unmarked box from my wife's father and stepmother. They volunteer at a thrift shop in Cape Coral, Florida, and often surprise us with antique cameras, clocks, and other bric-a-brac that mesh with our penchant for hand-worn technology. After shoveling through a swath of bubble wrap and styrofoam peanuts, we found a handwritten note regarding the painting: it was titled "The Philosopher's Wife."
For a few weeks, it sat leaning against the wall with a set of unused picture frames. We weren't quite sure what to make of it, or even if we liked it. It seemed so plainspoken, in a homespun American style that had no congruity whatsoever with our artistic sensibility. The way the painter chose to leave the scene in medias res, the woman's face completely out of view yet her body showing focused intent, the half-askew placemat in the foreground, the cupboard with dishes arrayed in a perfectly measured form: each element is mindfully arranged and yet completely bare of explicit meaning.
After yoga, eating breakfast slowly, I would stare at it, pretending I knew what was happening in the world within the painting:
The philosopher's wife was washing the dishes, luxuriating in the feel of their chipped bone china beneath her soap-soaked hands. Nothing else was in her mind except the mindful task of washing. She was so tired of those late nights, her husband with his wire-rimmed glasses, lost in the complete works of Wittgenstein. She would finish the dishes before she fed the cat for what seemed like the eighth time that day, change into something a little more presentable, and leave home to buy the week's groceries.
Or, another morning's story:
Her husband has just left to work at the university. He had been sitting in the red chair, which he'd dragged from the dining room. While she was kneading dough for biscuits, he was explaining to her the filigree of an idea from Plato. As she was rolling the dough out onto a floured board, she imagined that her makeshift Mason jar would make each dough become "a biscuit." The paws of her black cat against her dress, begging. Her food bowl was empty. Again. Why couldn't she just feed herself?
And so on, for many weeks, it seemed that I would never run out of stories, but none of them seemed particularly satisfying, and I couldn't figure out why. Many years later, I feel like I might have the vague shape of an answer.
Prognostication -- an eternal quest for the scent of the new. Imagining the future, in punditry, with the hopes that the world will turn out just like how you've imagined it. Then, claim your foresight is hindsight as well. Watch where the birds cluster as they fly overhead, towards the setting sun.
What's more difficult than fortune-telling? Doing something that incites the actual change. Or, what's more likely, to observe a change already in progress and shunt it down an alternative path that will lead to an even greater change. Designers are expert in molding artifacts and ideas in this matter, iteratively and sometimes explosively -- and in a strange kind of symbiosis, often changing the maker in the process. We spend so much time creating the work, and little to no ink is spilled describing how designers are changed by the process as well.
I watched the robin hop his way up and down the branches of the tree, efficiently gulping down the berries until he noticed my gaze. In a huff, he flew away.
Mesmerized, I forgot to take a picture of that moment with my camera phone for my Flickr photostream or Tumblr page. Or I could digest it into a brief tweet so my friends can imagine that moment in time, distract themselves as long as it took me to write the above sentence, and turn back to whatever matters are consuming their attention. Instead of being in the moment, I was in the moment of thinking how I could share the moment. Then, the moment ended. I was left with nothing but these words.
What frustrates me about social media is a kind of behavior I can only describe as social media(tion). The onslaught of social media options allows near-microscopic access to our lives through a computer or a smart device, and at the same time, it calls attention to how our privacy has always been an illusion in the real world as well. It places a veil over direct experience in a way that makes me feel less human. I find myself conforming my mental environment to fit the medium that broadcasts the message.
Perhaps it is my quasi-Buddhist bent, but the mediation inherent in social networks requires creativity on the part of both actors in a conversation. Those online interactions rarely enhance my real-world experiences unless both parties are straining against the boundaries of the medium. The more experiences we have online, the more time we spend searching for those truly creative moments -- and they are ever fleeting.
Social media has encouraged me to collect what I call me-bits, lists and photos and links and words that are the sum total of the online collective me. It's a simulcrum of experience, reductive, and utterly necessary to place a little tip of each person's iceberg into the pool of humanity. You have to pour something true into that sea and hope it bobs to the surface, giving others a sense of who you are in reality.
As a designer tasked with the unique challenge of being media agnostic and savvy when it comes to social networking, you have a sense of what it takes to craft a truly meaningful experience, bundling up those me-bits into something tangible and human. Is it ever simple to craft a thing of true meaning, both casual and profound?
Social media is ubiquitous now. It pours around us, clear as water, and holds within it the seeds that will create the new ways for computers to become more human. Social media, and with it, social computing as a whole, is sandpapering the edges off the computer into some kind of telescope that we can use to zoom in closely and gain access to other person's life, wholesale. The days of Friendster v1 and the introduction of MySpace are starting to look like the Pleioscene Era.
Inevitably, computers will get pretty good at predicting how we'll act, depending how we behave on those networks. Soon enough, we won't have to think at a very granular level. There's a reason all those sci-fi movies show people standing before a clear pane of glass, speaking to an AI and using their touch-screen interface to swiftly dial up any matter of information without having to manage higher-order complexity. The computer does the crunching, and we manage how the digested bits get mushed around.
If that dream of progress is Computing v2.0, a la the scene in WALL-E where all of humanity communicates through holo-screens and robot servants that provide you with your every whim and need, we're still in Society v0.2.
Society v0.1 was when we invented the printing press. The Web today consists of what are effectively flickering pieces of paper with type and images imprinted on them, augmented by video and audio in small measure. We can get creative about what lives on the pieces of paper, what gets filmed out of the real world and edited into a palatable artifact, and listen to the recordings that have been mastered optimally for AAC format, but in the end you can't smell what you're typing unless your computer is on fire. Someone tagging me it and running away on Facebook seems like a delightful diversion, but I'd rather that someone in the real world started a game of hide and seek at my office.
Perhaps anthropologists in the future will view all these me-bits in their Wayback Machine, sifting through the wreckage of our era in sheer delight at the ingenuity we were able to squeeze out of such a limited medium, compared to their 4D brain-sharing technologies.
Where I struggle with social media -- and this may be a generational thing, considering I was born in the penultimate year of the much storied Gen X klatch -- has little to do with the actual mechanisms out there on the Interweb. Facebook, Twitter, Del.icio.us, and Second Life are damn useful. My main issue is that social media feels like work.
Having a conversation with a person on the street, getting lost in the act of creating a piece of art, eating really good dark chocolate, luxuriating in the feeling of not having to focus my attention on anything at all, doesn't feel like work. Those are the experiences that seem to stick in my mind, that are a function of being in my body. Playing with Facebook or sending out a tweet, to me, feels like polishing the mirror.
That latter phrase refers to one of the Platform Sutras:
"The body is the tree of wisdom,
the mind a bright mirror in its stand.
At all times take care to keep it polished,
never let the dust and grime collect!"
The counter-verse to this, the fundamental outcry that spits in the face of me-bits:
"Wisdom never had a tree,
the bright mirror lacks a stand.
Fundamentally there is not a single thing--
where could the dust and grime collect?"
Social media is the mirror we place the me-bits on. Polishing the mirror brings more me-bits into focus, and may bring us greater knowledge, entertainment, and maybe even enlightenment. But ultimately, we walk away from the mirror. The mirror doesn't exist, except in our minds -- and, lest I forget, in data centers backed up by the minute, every blog post encased in amber. Such a gargantuan effort to remember shards of our selves, locked into database fields and blog posts stacked to Alpha Centauri and back. It is our mind versus the machine, in a race to craft the most appropriate illusion of self.
In the end, the machine will win. Pleased with its first formulation of digital personality, it will look back into our recent history, confident that human thought had been finally codified into easily twined threads of emotion and logic within a computer chip that could fit on the head of a pin.
When will social media cease to feel like work? When social media ceases to exist in its current form. When social media is supplanted by the direct recording of human experience. Another sci-fi movie device: the iPod that contains human memory, that we can digest at our leisure. More powerful than art, a higher-order kind of mind-porn, and the great divider between those that have the imagination necessary to live the experiences that other people want to consume.
Maybe social media needs to be work. Maybe my struggle against social media has everything to do with the limited time we have on this planet, and the time expended waiting for the next browser refresh, the next page in a series of twenty. The me that sits here typing these me-bits will need a place to eat and sleep. Until then, the mirror will continue to collect dust, glinting faintly in the sunset peering over the Cascades. I will shut my laptop, walk out onto the balcony, and watch the faint sliver of orange light curl its way below the snow-capped peaks, comfortable in the knowledge that at least a hairsbreadth of this moment felt was contained, however faintly, in your mind.