[…] it was a farewell that he personally designed down to the last detail, capping a long, storied life in design.
[…] it was a farewell that he personally designed down to the last detail, capping a long, storied life in design.
Ed Catmull, president of Pixar Animation, in his book Creativity, Inc.:
Despite being novice filmmakers at a fledgling studio in dire financial straights, we had put our faith in a simple idea: If we made something that we wanted to see, others would want to see it, too.
As a team, work together to make the product you all want to use.
It’s the Faustian bargain we’ve all struck. In exchange for a “free” web, we give you our time.
Paying for products in the currency of our time – our attention – profoundly shapes their design.
Instead of streamlined experiences, filled with quality content, we’ve seen the rise of clickbait headlines, listicles and ad saturated UIs that are slow, cumbersome and sometimes down right unusable, especially on mobile screens.
While these outcomes are incredibly frustrating, the more notable issue is how it colors our approach as designers:
The drive for attention has also influenced the way we talk about products. As designers we’re expected to make things “habit forming”. Get people “hooked”. And turn monthly “users” into daily “users”. The only other people I know who call their customers users are drug dealers.
As I wrote in 2013:
Simply put, most digital products are designed with a bias towards eliciting as much use as possible.
This rhetoric has made companies more and more aggressive about pushing their agenda into our lives. Floods of emails, push notifications, text notifications, daily reminders, and weekly digests are the norm in the attention web.
“Pushing their agenda into our lives.” This is the phrase that gives me pause. To take someone’s time is to take something extremely precious.
Time is more precious than money. Money is a renewable resource. Everyone always has the potential to make more money. Time, on the other hand, is finite. There are only so many hours in a day. By definition, you only have so much time to give.
Therein lies the conflict. An ethical approach to product design results in providing as much value as possible in as little time as possible. But that’s impossible to achieve, when the viability of our businesses depend on providing as much value as possible in as much time as possible.
We aren’t creating human-centered experiences, we are creating attention-centered experiences, which puts the needs of the business squarely ahead of the needs of the customer.
In 2013, I asked:
As digital product designers, what is the measure of our responsibility to encourage moderation (not just maximum use and profit) in the way we design our products to be used?
What would that look like – to provide as much value as possible in as little time as possible? Imagine what the world would be like if all products were designed this way.
A compelling use case for Snapchat: vicariously follow two climbers on their ascent up Everest. It’s as close to experiencing this journey as most people will ever come. What makes it special? It’s not a polished and edited documentary. It can’t be replayed. It’s more real than any reality TV. It’s an opportunity to take part in an experience as it happens each day – something you might look back on and remember.
Two skate videos well worth watching (even if, like me, you don’t skateboard):
Pivot is a pre-war studio revamped into a modern adaptable space containing a secret bedroom. The brief called for hosting 10 for dinner, sleeping 6, a home office, a private study, and an efficient kitchen for a client that loves to entertain, all within a 400s square foot studio apartment.
From New York Magazine’s cover story on Donald Trump’s campaign:
But one factor that’s been particularly crucial to Trump’s rise may be the way that reality television, cable news, and talk radio have shaped the culture’s sense of “reality” — in other words, its relationship to truth. If Ronald Reagan showed us that Hollywood was good training for politics, Trump is proving that the performance skills one learns in the more modern entertainment arenas are even more useful. Talk and reality shows are improvised operations, mastered by larger-than-life personalities expert at distorting and provoking, shifting and commandeering attention.
But a couple of things happen when reality-TV standards are applied to politics: One is that the level of sleaze gets so high that nothing is shocking — casual racism, misogyny, a campaign manager charged with battery, allegations about candidates’ affairs or sexual orientations, constant gossip about “even worse” revelations on all sides to come (“Tune in next week!”). This primary season would seem implausible if it were fiction. But as reality TV, it’s spot-on.
As a society, the (entertainment) products and systems we design profoundly shape our perception of reality and truth.
The basic starting point of Graphic Design Criticism as a Spectator Sport is “I could have done better.” And of course you could! But simply having the idea is not enough. Crafting a beautiful solution is not enough. Doing a dramatic presentation is not enough. Convincing all your peers is not enough. Even if you’ve done all that, you still have to go through the hard work of selling it to the client. And like any business situation of any complexity whatsoever, that process may be smothered in politics, handicapped with exigencies, and beset with factors that have nothing to do with design excellence. You know, real life. Creating a beautiful design turns out to be just the first step in a long and perilous process with no guarantee of success. Or, as Christopher Simmons put it more succinctly, “Design is a process, not a product.”
Doing design in the real world is rarely about design. It’s about working with people amidst complexity. Bierut writes about graphic design, but the same parallel he draws around the layman’s heightened awareness of graphic design extends just as much, if not more, to software design. People care deeply about their relationships with software products. Substitute “app” for “logo”:
But perhaps the question in these logo discussions could be more than: could I do better? Perhaps we could also ask: what was the purpose? What was the process? Whose ends were being served? How should we judge success? But we seldom look any deeper than first impressions, wallowing instead in a churning maelstrom of snap judgments. Should we be surprised when the general public jumps right in after us?
Where is the thoughtful, articulate criticism for software product design? Bierut’s quotation of Massimo Vignelli’s call to action is apt:
It is time to debate, to probe the values, to examine the theories that are part of our heritage and to verify their validity to express our times.
They achieve a kind of tranquillity, not because they’ve decided to do nothing, but because they’ve achieved focus and purity of will. They have enough self-confidence, and impatience, to say no to some things so they can say yes to others.
From this perspective, middle age is kind of inspiring. Many of life’s possibilities are now closed, but limitation is often liberating. The remaining possibilities can be seized more bravely, and lived more deeply.
In life as in creativity: limitation is liberating.
A helpful list of five key narrative points for a compelling pitch:
- Name the enemy
- Answer “Why now?”
- Show the promised land before explaining how you’ll get there
- Identify obstacles—then explain how you’ll overcome them
- Present evidence that you’re not just blowing hot air
This might get weird for a minute: some couples don’t go to the bathroom together. [Helen laughs] And that blows my mind! How have you never gone to the bathroom with that other person in the room? What I’m saying is, I believe you need to have an incredibly open and comfortable relationship if you’re going to go into business together.
Fuzzco’s other co-founder, Helen Rice:
Exactly. You have to be vulnerable and feel like the other person is truly your partner. You need to be aware of avoiding power struggles and making sure each person has their own, defined role. That’s the best way to work together.
And when you’re in the bathroom together, you can get some shit done.
Having long admired Fuzzco’s work, it was a delight to read this husband-and-wife team’s TGD interview.
Radical Candor is one of the most impactful articles I read last year. It’s one I foresee revisiting frequently. Here are several of my key takeaways:
The single most important thing a boss can do, Scott has learned, is focus on guidance: giving it, receiving it, and encouraging it. Guidance, which is fundamentally just praise and criticism, is usually called “feedback,” but feedback is screechy and makes us want to put our hands over our ears. Guidance is something most of us long for.
Picture a basic graph divided into four quadrants. If the vertical axis is caring personally and the horizontal axis is challenging directly, you want your feedback to fall in the upper right-hand quadrant. That’s where radical candor lies.
The vast majority of management mistakes happen in the quadrant that I call ruinous empathy
Challenging others is difficult for many people; saying anything short of positive feels impolite. But once you become a boss, it’s your job to do be equally clear about what’s going wrong, and what’s going right. […] I would argue that criticizing your employees when they screw up is not just your job, it’s actually your moral obligation.
HHIPP: “Radical candor is humble, it’s helpful, it’s immediate, it’s in person — in private if it’s criticism and in public if it’s praise — and it doesn’t personalize.” That last P makes a key distinction: “My boss didn’t say, ‘You’re stupid.’ She said, ‘You sounded stupid when you said um.’ There’s a big difference between the two.”
Caring personally makes it much easier to do the next thing you have to do as a good boss, which is being willing to piss people off.
Some helpful links for living small:
Last month, my evening bicycle commute up 8th avenue was interrupted by the face of Pope Francis emerging from the whitewashed side of a building. I pulled to the curb, snapped a picture with my iPhone, and continued home. I repeated this ritual four times the following week, thus documenting the painting of a wall mural advertising the Pope’s visit to the USA.
Why did I stop and take notice? Years ago, before living in New York, I watched the short film Up There, which offers a behind-the-scenes look at the rare individuals who hand paint walls for a living. It fascinated me. The opportunity to see many hand-painted walls – and their progress – first-hand is one of the unique joys of living in New York.
Before this week, I had assumed that the Nelson Marshmallow Sofa and the Nelson Ball Clock were designed by their eponym, George Nelson.1 This is untrue, as I learned in an epitaph written by Michael Bierut this week:
RIP Irving Harper, quiet designer behind George Nelson’s iconic products
Irving Harper, the designer responsible for these objects, passed away last week at the age of 99. An obituary in the New York Times describes his role working with Nelson:
Mr. Harper was famously obscure, working as an industrial designer from 1947 to 1963 for George Nelson, who was often credited with the company’s creations for the Herman Miller furniture line.
Researching Harper’s career reveals a body of work that is as diverse as it is inspiring. For example, he designed the iconic Herman Miller “M” logo, without necessarily intending to do so. DWR’s profile of Harper describes the circumstances:
One of his early projects for Nelson was Herman Miller’s first-ever ad. There was not yet any photography of the furniture, so Harper instead rendered a large “M” – for “Miller” – which is essentially the same logo design that the company uses today. “There was no project to do a logo,” he says. “It was probably the cheapest logo campaign in advertising history.”
Harper described himself as a generalist and executed an impressive body of graphic design work in addition to his industrial design work. Perhaps even more astounding is the world of sculptures Harper created within his home over the span of 40 years. These works are incredible and prompted both a gallery exhibition and a book. However, this was never Harper’s intention. His sculptures were private works created as an antidote to the stressful projects he worked on during the day. He initially considered knitting, but the medium of paper proved a more natural fit for his hands. In a video made for the exhibition, he describes the effects of his work:
Many of the things I do require repetitive behavior, and then they build up to something else. The reason I like the repetition is that I found it relieves stress, and it was very soothing. (5:12)
He didn’t think of himself as an artist:
I never thought in terms of being an artist. I never envisioned myself as an artist. I just made them as they occurred to me and then I went on to the next after it was all done until I ran out of space and I stopped. (6:12)
And he never stopped to think of the commercial value of his creations, as quoted in Herman Miller’s WHY:
“I never sold any of my pieces,” Harper says today. “I had all the money I wanted. Then I would have lost my sculptures and just had more money. I just wanted to have them around.”
If Harper was born of this generation, I can’t imagine him ever tweeting or Instagramming his work. I don’t think it would have occurred to him. In a world where over-sharing is the norm and every creative act is seemingly purposed to exhibit, sell, or self-promote, not only is Harper’s incredible body of work inspiring, but his quiet approach is a fresh breath of air.
Also, be sure to read Sam Grawe’s personal remembrances of Harper in the last years of his life. Taken together with Herman Miller’s video, it offers a heartwarming glimpse into Harper’s home and life.
It is worth noting that both Herman Miller and DWR credit Harper in their descriptions of these products. ↩
Some friends recently purchased a Chemex coffee maker, prompting me to remember that it was created in the 1940s (1941 to be exact). Details from the story of the design and its designer, Dr. Peter Schlumbohm, are fascinating and include:
These details are not to be found on the History page of Chemex’s website. Instead, they’re found in One Hundred Great Product Designs (1970) by Jay Doblin. Doblin corresponded with Schlumbohm to get the full story. As the book is out of print, I scanned the relevant pages. View the PDF.
Here’s a simple, well-designed app that I’ve found myself using recently: Moment: Overcome Procrastination With The Pomodoro Timer.
It’s based on the Pomodoro Technique, and I’ve found it to be surprisingly effective in helping me to focus and make good use of my time.