UT DESIGN EXCITES ME.
I love design. Everything about it excites me. Everything that surrounds it is interesting to me.
I love typography, industrial design, user experience, and visual design. I love sound design, landscape design, architecture, service design, information design, organizational design, ikebana, interaction design. The list goes on.
If you look around you, everything you see has been designed by someone, somewhere, for some reason. All of these objects and artifacts around us make up an entire spectrum of products and services and experiences. They are the things that we use every day. What does their design tell you about the designer? What does it tell you about society, the zeitgeist, or the state of business? What about the state of the world? What does it tell you about yourself? Is there great care and attention, or does the design feel like an afterthought?
How designers think about the things they make is directly reflected in everything you see around you. Look closely and you can see the painstaking lengths to which the devoted designer will go in order to create something of wonder. They have accepted their role as the creator. They will bring something into this world, where, before there was nothing. It is these painstaking lengths that interest me the most. It’s the deep and perpetual work that excites me about design. It is the deep work of the designer that is essential.
John O’Donohue, quoting the thirteenth-century mystic Meister Eckhart: “So many people come to me asking how I should pray, how I should think, what I should do. And the whole time, they neglect the most important question, which is, ‘how should I be?’”
If we were to explore one question about design, it would be exactly that: As designers, how should we be?
It’s an important question because design organizations today are putting all of their chips on short-term design processes—think generally, build quickly, test, learn, and iterate. It’s a practice that I absolutely endorse, but not without having one eye always on the long-term, and preferably at a high enough level where you can take in its impact on the wider system. Design processes that prioritize short-term thinking prevent designers from anticipating the longer-term impacts of their work. It compels them to simply produce work. It asks them to remain on the surface. They’re essentially told not to get better.
The real magic happens when we go deeper. We have to split our thinking if we want to design better products, better brands, better experiences.
The Bhagavad-Gita illustrates this nicely. Arjuna is told that it is his duty to go to war. He can’t just refuse to fight because he has a moral objection. It’s not just his duty within his role in society, it’s also his dharmic duty. He’s given methods to better understand his dharma and the duty he must take up. He agrees to rely on what Lord Krishna says: Do what you do, but keep its greater purpose in mind.
And so the designer also needs methods if they intend to make a greater impact on the world through their work. Thomas Berry says that “We are in trouble just now because we are in between stories.” The old stories—mythology, one of my many fascinations—helped people understand the meaning of life and it’s purpose even in spite of its trauma and suffering. They sustained cultures for hundreds of years. Today’s stories, however, have a much shorter shelf life, and our design methods are contributing to this phenomena.
The moon landing (an argument of Joseph Campell’s) gave us a glimpse of our world from above. The event fulfilled the functions of myth that Campbell had written extensively about: It gave us a sense of awe and an understanding of the vastness of our universe and reminds us that human progress is a societal goal rather than just that of one nation.
What stories will we be telling five-hundred years from now? We seem to be repeating only the good parts of other people’s stories, believing that they could (or should) be our own. We are experiencing systems of desire and fear and successfulness rolled up into one complicated emotion. (Side note: this is why I love the meme; they are designed to express things for which we do not have words.)
One perspective—which is still relevant for designers today—was that of Soetsu Yanagi. Writing about Mingei in Japan—a folk craft movement similar to Arts & Crafts—he believed that the ordinary craftsperson should be able to produce large quantities of simple, useful, everyday objects. Objects that were local to the region in which they were produced, affordable to most, useful, and durable. No amount of blind and selfless repetition was too much. And this was precisely what the industrial revolution and the machines and factory workers were doing: Mass production of useful, durable goods, with adequate levels of craftsmanship to satisfy the consumer.
Today, that durability and usefulness has all but disappeared, and products have become almost entirely concentrated on the benefits to the maker and promoter—not the consumer. Similarly, designers are often in positions where their work is of more benefit to the employer, the client, and the advertiser. The user and the designer are afterthoughts. Their needs frequently are unmet.
“Repetition is the mother of proficiency. Large demand calls for massive supply; massive supply requires repetitive production; repetitive production eventually results in technological perfection. This is particularly true with division of labour, where one skill can be polished to consummation. The process of manufacturing consists chiefly of this simple cycle, drawing over and over the same pattern, forming over and over the same shape. Those who have mastered these skills are no longer aware of the techniques they use. They have become one with the task at hand, free of all self-awareness and thoughts of artistic manipulation, effortlessly applying themselves to the job at hand. They may be cheerfully talking and laughing as they work, but most surprising is their speed. Speed is necessary if they are to make a living. Thousands of times, tens of thousands of times, it is this repetition that frees their hands from thought. It is this freedom that is the mother of all creation. When I see them at work in this way, I am astonished beyond words. They have complete faith in the power of their hands. There is not a smidgen of doubt. The free flow of the brush, the dynamic formation of the shape, the natural unshackled aura … Their hands appear no longer to be their own but under the sway of some external force. This is the secret of their craft. Its beauty is the necessary result of mass production.”
—Soetsu Yanagi, The Beauty of Everyday Things
A Stanford Social Innovation Review article titled “Creating Breakout Innovation” very beautifully describes one of its core principles: Legitimize all ways of knowing. The author could have easily made this point in a more innocuous way but they decided to go all in. They could have simply said, “Include different viewpoints.” And that would have been sufficient. But to legitimize all ways of knowing is a different thing entirely. It means suspending judgment and taking in everything as it is—not how we believe it should be.
One of the aims of COMMONWEALTH is to give designers new ways to see, while helping lead them to discover and learn about new ways of knowing. It exists to help people use design to do good, to make better products, and to help others.
Empathy, compassion, flexibility, and self-discovery can be developed over time and contribute to the meaningfulness of a designer’s work. Designers can learn to practice silence and deep listening. They should spend time reflecting. They should debate the role of the rational mind being the only source of their observation of the world, their intent, and ultimately their design work. They should explore their craft in greater detail, their processes, and the mindsets that move them as creators and makers of wonder.
The tools we use to produce design and creative work have become far more accessible to large audiences. And so the emphasis on mindsets—how we determine what to put into our work—will drive the future of design.
Think about the music industry. There’s the subject (the sound, the song, or what you’re listening to) and the object (what you’re listening on). Companies can’t improve the quality of audio delivery in a noticeable way for most people because we’re limited by the frequency ranges we’re able to hear. Even if the object could reproduce sounds above 20kHz or below 20Hz, we’d never notice. Of course, headphones are getting smaller in size, but even they have limitations: At some point they will be too small and become dangerous to our ears.
Music production software—like design software—is available to anyone at a reasonable cost. Focusing on sound quality (the object) has more limitations than the artist’s ability to write music (the subject). And so the industry has grown around helping the artist produce music.
“Each of us sees only what he knows.”
The Internet made publishing available to anyone, leaving journalism to seek out its essence again as keepers of truth. Following that, design software has compelled the dedicated designer to seek out their own essence as they set are charged with creating joyful experiences for others. They are compelled to design their own productive thought processes. They are compelled to explore impact, rather than the act of creation. They are compelled to confront their own shortcomings, biases, and sticking points. And this is a good thing: They are compelled to think in ways in which design software will never be able to—no matter how sophisticated the code.
In Censorship Now!, Ian Sevonius argues that we are being shamed into having fewer possessions (Hoarders on A&E), ridding ourselves of our stuff (Marie Kondo), and trading it all in for smaller, more expensive, and instantly obsolete devices we can not properly dispose of. And everything we believe we need lives in the cloud. This is a very current mental model of how things work. It is a by-product of laissez-faire design economics. It’s the opposite of Mingei.
And I am absolutely guilty of it. Mental models are a playground for designers. I personally like the contemplative mental models: Religion, mythology, contemplative practices, mysticism, art movements, cults, and so forth. These are all important viewpoints in the new story of design that’s being written as we speak.
I’ve learned to embrace Dogen’s position: There is no path to enlightenment outside of everyday actions. And so the path to creating better “things” makes its way through our everyday lives, the projects we’re working on, the materials and software we use, the way we conduct research, how we see different people, the standards we hold ourselves to, the stories we’ve told ourselves. In the end, all design hinges on what we put into it.
1. The Inner Landscape of Beauty, On Being
2. The Unknown Craftsman
3. Censorship Now!
4. “Those who see worldly life as an obstacle to Dharma see no Dharma in everyday actions; they have not yet discovered that there are no everyday actions outside of Dharma.”
5. Creating Breakout Innovation
6. Design as Art