May 26th, 2016
Head, Hands, Heart & Voice
I gave this talk on May 20, 2016 at a meeting of the Dallas chapter of Creative Mornings. I’m glad I was given this opportunity, as it allowed me to synthesize several disparate ideas that I’ve explored in my grad school and personal writing into a more cohesive format. You can download the slides here, and a complete transcript is below.
You can view a video of the talk here.
Today I’ll be considering how we, as designers, work with technology as humans. How we keep our processes human-focused, both in concept and execution.
I want to consider the inherent advantage that we have over machines, that is, the uniquely human potential to care strongly about the things we make, and to constantly strive to view the world in new ways.
In a sense I will be addressing a topic that is popular these days, “human-centered design.” However, while this phrase usually refers to considering the individual impulses of users, I’ll be approaching it today as a consideration of the individual impulses of creators.
It’s worth acknowledging that I am personally approaching this topic from the perspective of a graphic designer, specifically an interactive designer, and so a fair amount of my verbiage and references will probably relate most literally to that field.
But when I say “designer” or refer to “design”, I want you to understand that I am talking about design as the discipline of creating things with purpose, on purpose. The deliberate building of things that did not exist before.
This definition, from my perspective, extends to everyone here today.
As they say, “design is a behavior, not a department”
First, let us briefly consider The Machine.
I’d like to read a brief excerpt from E. M. Forster’s short story, The Machine Stops:
“I want to see you not through the Machine,” said Kuno. “I want to speak to you not through the wearisome Machine.”
“Oh, hush!” said his mother, vaguely shocked. “You mustn’t say anything against the Machine.”
“You talk as if a god had made the Machine,” cried the other.
E. M. Forster
The Machine Stops
In Forster’s chilling narrative we grapple with what it means to live a life that is largely facilitated by technology. In this 1909 tale, the characters are largely limited to communicating through impassive technological conduits, rarely seeing other people, content to be served by the technology that they created.
What is the purpose of striving if you can be served?
What is the inherent value of pushing beyond contentment? These are the questions that Forster presents to us, and even now we struggle every day with looking into the mirror of technology and evaluating if we like what we see.
In interactive design, for example, these struggles are no less apparent than they are in other areas of life. What exactly do we do that could not be done by a machine?
Are we not, in the end, merely engineers of natural law?
Experts at both creating problems and automating their solutions?
For example, in the context of web design, our naturalistic design abilities are challenged by web services such as The Grid and Squarespace, tools that largely automate the web design process for modern users.
While The Grid has in recent months failed to realize the automative potential that its creators originally proclaimed, when the product was first launched its creators declared,
“The Grid harnesses the power of artificial intelligence to take everything you throw at it – videos, images, text, URLs and more – and automatically shape them into a custom website unique to you.”
The examples are impressive: face recognition, layout automation, and “mood” elements (is this website serious? Is it fun?) do seem, in unison, to create a relatively functional iteration of a modern website.
And that’s just it; the websites created by The Grid’s AI engine seem to be eerily good,
…at least in the context of the popular web vernacular of today.
However, on some level this speaks not necessarily to the quality of the AI’s work, but instead to the stagnation of our own imagination as it relates to the web as a design medium.
As happens with all areas of design eventually, we find ourselves in a period of “standardized unoriginality” online, a web of ubiquity that can be reproduced ad-hoc by a bunch of code in a computer.
We like to have arguments about “flat” things. “Bootstraps.” Video backgrounds of people typing on MacBooks. This is our own stagnation of modernism, and the entire designed web is our Helvetica.
So, what are we going to do about it? What value do we as designers have, now that the modern encapsulation of popular aesthetic can be reproduced by an iPad?
If design is actually human-centered, it’s time for us to be shaken from our reverie and start to think again about what we, as humans, are capable of.
But how do we even begin to do this?
We can start, as I referenced before, by recognizing that we, as designers, are capable of caring deeply about the things we create. We are capable of obsession, frustration, and conversation. Of iteration. Of exploration.
Design can be a universal language, but it can also be a trap if a designer falls into the same patterns and solutions over and over again.
The iconic graphic designer Neville Brody once stated, “I want to make people more aware, not less aware.”
This is our task.
While I personally tend to thrive in the questions and abstractions, since you all came to Uptown and parked and are perhaps being bitten by a mosquito or two I thought I should come up with a few action items, maybe some ideas to consider as you move through your creative processes in the near future. I know what you’re thinking: It’s great to remember from time to time that we are human, that we can care, but then what?
And so, what I’d like to present to you is my brief list of the callings that we have as designers. I specifically chose the term callings instead of responsibilities, because no one is going to hold you accountable to these things. These are all about you, your process, and your perspective.
These are the impulses I desire from my design staff, my interns, students, etc.,, the things I love talking about with anyone, really whoever is willing to listen to me blather on for any amount of time. The attributes that I personally value in other creators, the things that I think make those people particularly inspiring and effective.
In simple terms, these callings can be broken down into four categories: Head, Hands, Heart, and Voice.
First, let us consider the Head.
Calling #1: A designer should seek out new perspectives. While design is inherently a communication discipline, or in some instances simply a functional one, it does no one any good to continually communicate the same messages in familiar ways. Designers must constantly bend their minds, along with the minds of their audience, in new directions.
In simpler terms: A designer should be curious. You should be curious. I believe that there is so much value in being driven by the things you don’t know instead of by the things you do.
Michael Beirut, the legendary graphic designer, stated that “Every designer I know has a real curiosity about what they’re doing. With that, it doesn’t feel like work.”
In fact, I’ve gone so far as to describe designers as being the “professionally curious.” Our job, essentially, is to connect unexpected ideas to each other in a brand new way.
Once we can transcend the algorithms, the patterns, the status quo, the expected, then that’s when we can stop being limited by reality and start creating reality. That’s how we keep riding the bleeding edge of culture.
In short, always walk with your eyes looking upwards. Pay attention to your world.
Second, let us consider the Hands.
Calling #2: Designers should be “anti-disciplinary.” This term “anti-disciplinary” was originally coined at the MIT media lab, and is defined as going against the accepted wisdom of a discipline. To me, being anti-disciplinary is going one step beyond being multi-disciplinary.
In essence, I believe in striving to avoid specialization in the interest of always learning. This is counter-cultural in a field that has gradually become more and more specialized.
There are user experience designers, user interface designers, interaction designers, publication designers, developers, designer/developers, and typographers (not to mention photographers, architects, playwrights, and poets.)
However, I personally, believe that cross-disciplinary exploration is the best way to truly grow as a designer.
As Walter Gropius, founder of the iconic Bauhaus design school once put it, “Our guiding principle was that design is neither an intellectual or material affair, but simply an integral part of the stuff of life, necessary for everyone in a civilized society.”
The stuff of life. Life is multi-disciplinary.
Specialization can breed stagnation. But how can you strive to avoid this stagnation? This once again goes back to being curious, but this is an applied curiosity. This is a question of process, and then of practice, and then of being open to new conversations and opportunities.
How can we guarantee that our unique perspectives, our human perspectives, remain sharp and continuing developing?
My admonition to you would be to focus on refining your own creative process. Develop a way of working that cannot be replicated. Find exploratory niches where you can continue to hone your craft. Create a way of exploring your work that is uniquely your own.
Continually refining your craft through practice, repetition, love and mistakes.
We can learn from our mistakes: this is a uniquely human attribute in some sense, or at least strictly biological attribute. Machines cannot intuitively learn from their mistakes. You can.
As Oscar Wilde put it in The Picture of Dorian Gray, “Nowadays most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one’s mistakes.”
Refine your skill set. Learn design history. Learn to recognize the details and nuances in the tactile aspects of what you are doing.
Try to treasure the unpredictability.
Third, let us consider the Heart.
Calling #3: Designers should “seek the good.” The good causes. The good clients. The good messages. The good technique. The good typefaces. The good materials. The good people.
This is one I get kickback on regularly. What does “good” even mean? Why can’t you be more specific?
My reason is this: our calling is not necessarily to align ourselves to one objective definition of good, but instead to recognize that as designers we have the responsibility to have an opinion.
So often we emphasize the service aspect of our business, the client perspective (which of course is important, and a key part of our disciplines), but it’s also important to remember that as designers we are not a neutral force.
We are the purveyors of ideas, the professional propagandists.
Even those designers who condemn the expressive tendencies of other designers can have some pretty strong opinions.
“When you center Helvetica you have a massacre.”
– Massimo Vignelli
So, while what is considered “good” might vary from designer to designer, the important thing is for each professional to be true to his or her perspective. Taking this into account will result in honest, engaging, relevant work.
This leads us to our last point.
Finally, let us consider the Voice.
Calling 3b: A designer must be Human (and not just in the biological sense.)
I think this as 3b because of how intimately it’s tied to the heart. The voice is merely the expression of the heart. This is where we tie everything back to where we started, back to the Machine, back to flipping the lever.
As we have discussed, modern technology in many instances has reached the point where mindless algorithms can accomplish much of what was originally in the realm of human designers, or at least graphic and interactive designers. Grids, layouts, and typography can all be systemized and standardized to the point that a computer is able to “design” things that are quite appealing.
However, as designers, we have that “passion advantage.” The power to care. The ability to constantly strive for unpredictable, individual, human-centered solutions.
The ability to find the connections and commonalities that we have with our fellow humans on this Earth. The freedom to use our head, our hands, and our heart to design the built world.
As the famous educator Rudolf Steiner noted, we have the freedom to not only focus on what we do, but on who we are.
That’s our reality.
So, in conclusion, I’ll leave you with this question:
What drives humankind to create? What is this instinct we have to live in a built world? What propels our need to design the things we use?
These are the big questions that drive my passion for the craft. Design isn’t simply a vocation or a question of composition and visual aesthetic, but is instead a lens through which we can view life and human interaction.
The ability to conceive of design is intrinsically related to being human. Since it is so intimately entwined with the human pursuit, our pursuit of good design is a noble one.
This is what I believe design to be, after all: to design is to be human. It is the optimistically obstinate belief that we can build our own world, and through that, understand our own place in it just a little bit more than we did yesterday.
This, in short, is my reality.