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 does it make you feel?
The designer’s perspective is directly reflected in everything you see around you. This is why the focus on perspective is so important. 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—and these perspectives on design—that interest me the most. It’s the deep and perpetual work that excites me about design—no matter what it is that’s being designed.
And so it’s these perspectives that inspire me to further examine what drives design decisions, their place in the greater ecosystem, and the designer’s ability to go beyond simply what’s asked and to do what is needed.
John O’Donohue, quoting the thirteenth-century mystic Meister Eckhart says: “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 more of their chips on short-term design processes: think in general terms, build quickly, test, learn, and iterate. It’s a practice that I use all of the time too, but not without having one eye always on the long-term and its impact on the wider system. Design processes that prioritize short-term thinking prevent designers from anticipating the larger impacts of their work. They produce work. They’re kept on the surface.
But design excellence is only partially a product of talent and training. Today, it’s much more of an exercise in thinking, listening, confronting biases, exploring perspectives, and nurturing a growth mindset. This is especially important in the democratization of the technology used to produce the designed artifacts.
The real magic truly happens when we go deeper as designers. A passionate designer will be able to split their thinking into the short- and long-term in order to design better products, better brands, and better experiences. They are able to pull in perspectives from all over. They are able to see the whole and the parts.
Every designer of every kind needs their own methods and perspectives if they intend to make a greater impact on the world through their work. They need to study those things that captivate them—whether it’s art, baking, architecture, music, history, philosophy, and so forth. This kind of study allows us to open our lenses through which we can experience, interpret, and create the world around us. When we choose competing perspectives, we challenge ourselves to question what we think we know. Michel de Montaigne’s motto: “What do I know?”
For example, the Bhagavad-Gita has been an unlikely source of inspiration for me. Arjuna is told that it is his duty to go to war. He can’t refuse to fight simply because he has a moral objection. It’s not just his duty within his role in society, it’s also his dharma. He agrees to rely on what Lord Krishna says: Do what you do, but keep this greater purpose in mind. As designers, we’re asked to show up and create things that might be uninteresting to us, or conflict with our values. How do we balance that work? What can it teach us on a deeper level?
Another perspective I’ve found wonderfully inspiring is that of Sōetsu 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. The irony is incredible.
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, and their needs go frequently unmet. These situations require new perspectives.
“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 for perspective building: 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. They should question their intent, and ultimately their own design work. They should explore their craft in greater detail, their processes, and the mindsets that move them as creators and makers of wonder.
A Differentiating Quality
It’s no surprise that 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. This will separate the designer from the producer.
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 a new set of headphones could reproduce sounds above 20kHz or below 20Hz, we’d never be able to tell the difference. 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. Design in this space is limited.
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. Now that everyone can produce music, it’s vastly more difficult to become noticed. And that presents yet another space for innovation.
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 impacts rather than simply create. 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.
New Perspectives, New Stories
Marketing’s emphasis on storytelling gets consumers to the point of trust or purchase, but does nothing to remind them of the bigger picture. And that’s where the designer’s perspective comes into the picture. 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 life’s trauma and suffering. These stories sustained cultures for hundreds of years. Today’s stories, however, have a much shorter shelf life, and our design methods may be contributing to this phenomena.
For example, digital projects may never be complete. We don’t design in the same ways we did in the past. We don’t product deliverables anymore. We produce progress. This is a message that has not penetrated the surface because of the extreme skepticism and lack of trust between advertisers and consumers. How could this be different?
Joseph Campell argued that the moon landing was the last great mythological event in modern history. It gave us a glimpse of our world from above. All of a sudden we had a new perspective that we could have never imagined. 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 fifty years from now through our designs? What about in five-hundred years? Or half a million years?
We seem to be repeating only the good parts of other people’s stories, believing that they could (or should) be ours. We imitate processes only to be given different outcomes. We are experiencing systems of desire and fear and successfulness rolled up into one complicated emotion. And it makes for a complex design culture. This is why I love the meme: they can uniquely express feelings for which we do not have words. They embody a very real perspective of life today. They are a storytelling tool that has emerged on its own with some very real messages.
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, and I both embrace it and am a victim of it as well. It is a by-product of laissez-faire design economics. It’s the opposite of Mingei. Again, it’s a perspective worth exploring as are most mental models.
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 perspectives drive me to think about design in vastly new ways. They’re important viewpoints in the new story of design that’s being written as we speak. I hope that it’s a perspective that I can discuss through my work.
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.
My grandfather had peripheral vision loss with advanced glaucoma. He described what he could see as if he were always looking through a straw. If we can only see, experience, and interpret the world through a narrow opening, then our work will be limited to that as well. As designers, we have a duty to open these lenses as well as peer through those of others.