Year: 2011



The breaking point of man vs. machine: a classic moment from the 1999 movie Office Space

Modern life can be really annoying sometimes. Just think of all the little inconveniences, nuisances, and irritants that make your day just a little less enjoyable. I don’t mean the stubbed toe or paper cut or spilled milk variety. I don’t even mean the person who beats you to the last parking spot at the mall (if you happen to drive). Those really can’t be helped. I’m talking about those moments when we poor, wretched humans must deal with technology’s shortcomings.

In a typical work day, who doesn’t smack face-first into some of these gems?

  • The elevator “close door” button that never works.
  • The printer that literally eats paper.
  • The hour of internet down time due to “emergency server maintenance” which was caused by “usage overload.”
  • The smartphone sync that completely and irretrievably wipes your calendar clean.

The list could go on and on. But why do we put up with all of this? With all our advances and highly-evolved intelligence we could eradicate so many pesky little problems. Yet we haven’t. Instead, we apply that power to creating more new technology to further complicate our already messy lives. We’ll come back to that in another post.

Let’s pause for a moment. Despite the countless downsides of technology, we should take the time to consider the ways our lives are different and our capabilities enhanced because of this very same technology. On this Thanksgiving Day, it seems fitting to reflect on not just the many great and wonderful things in life we often take for granted, like fresh air, clean water, and the people around us, but also the artificial things that enable and extend everyday activities. I can think of a few things that I’m pretty grateful for, error messages and all:

  • A global network that allows me to share my thoughts with almost anyone, anywhere and to tap into scores of information resources, wirelessly.
  • A small device in my pocket that I can use to talk to almost anyone anywhere, wirelessly.
  • A flat square device no bigger than a magazine that gives me access to an astounding amount of literature and history that would otherwise be nearly impossible to obtain (wirelessly).
  • An astounding palette of tools by which my design work can be created, communicated, and distributed.
  • The simple fact that if I can think of saying or doing something, a technology exists (or will soon exist) that enhances the way I create and distribute it.

For some, these facts are already old news; “bigger, better, faster, more” seems to be on many people’s minds. But we shouldn’t forget that we got here from a much humbler place and time, when today’s possibilities were largely invisible and the vast technology empires we know so well were once mere seeds of ideas. We should be in awe of what we have accomplished, however great or small, and appreciate the good that can be brought about by the marriage of circuits and code, imagination and human agency.

We’ll probably never fully debug our lives. In fact, it is in those “reboot” moments that we are reminded of our dependency on technology, both in its fragility and its power. We have formed a symbiotic relationship with technology, its bonds growing stronger every day. In days to come, we’ll see fantastic changes at blinding speed, and we will always struggle to adapt to them, make sense of them. We will continue to confront the gap that exists between human and machine — indeed, it will always be there (at least I think it will). Before we resist the urge to hurl our computer out the window or smash our smartphone to smithereens, let’s remember the time we didn’t have such wondrous, mysterious objects in our lives and be thankful for what we have.


Global Change at Human Scale

Solving global challenges is on many people’s minds these days (see my last post). Businesses of all sizes have become much more proactive in rethinking their values, culture, services, products, and operations to serve the greater good while staying profitable. But a select few companies are leading the way with bold ventures in the social and global spheres. IBM is among these titans of corporate social responsibility who are leveraging their powerhouse resources and expertise to improve people’s lives.

Now in its centennial year, the tech giant has commited serious resources to showcase its storied past, its formidable present, and its promising future. Among these efforts, the most intriguing has to be the THINK exhibit, a month-long “unique interactive experience” housed in a newly renovated part of Lincoln Center in New York City. The website’s opening statement succinctly describes IBM’s intent:

Consider the advances of the past century. The way science has improved our daily lives. The possibilities unleashed by technology. The things we can do today that earlier generations could not even imagine.

Yes, this is about better information, tools, algorithms—but that’s not all. It’s about the deeply human quest to make the world more livable, safer, more efficient, more sustainable.

Over the past century, the women and men of IBM have played a part in this unfolding story of progress. Today, we feel more confident than ever in people’s capacity to see the world with greater clarity… to map what we see… to understand its dynamics. All of which builds shared belief… in a better future, and in the way each of us can act to make it so.

On this, our 100th anniversary, we wanted to share some lessons we’ve learned. The THINK exhibit is an exploration into how the world works and how to make it work better.

Much has already been written about the experience itself, ranging from praise to skepticism. Nearly a week after its closing and after having seen it twice, I thought I’d share my impressions of THINK.

What impressed me most:

This exhibit engaged a broad audience at many different levels, and communicated at different depths. For the young at heart, the entryway data wall was a giant mesmerizing toy that invites you to chase after the fluttering LED data points drawn from sensors around the city. The opening movie flowed briskly but steadily, sustaining the most fleeting of attention spans across multiple screens. In a blink, those same movie screens transformed into touchscreen information displays about different areas of IBM research and innovation around global issues, such as data mapping and technological discovery. Play became the immediate impulse rather than investigation. With each touch of these colossal iPhones, one could control how close or far images appeared and set the pace of reading captions. If boredom set in, there were still four other panels to explore in the 25-minute time window.

What I thought of the design:

Honestly, it’s hard for me to fault the design of the whole experience. It’s not so surprising, considering the design firepower that was brought to bear: the strategic design consultancy SYPartners, the renowned exhibition design firm Ralph Appelbaum Associates, and the relatively new digital storytelling company Mirada. Since data are central to IBM’s story, their visualization required great thoughtfulness and restraint. With the involvement of Casey Reas, the resulting data wall succeeded in conveying information in a fluid, textural way without feeling too scientific or too vernacular. The opening movie deftly interwove graphic boldness with artistic nuance in the choice of imagery, juxtapositions, and narrative devices, all within the space of about 12 minutes. I particularly liked the use of six simultaneous video displays in a circle to play with the sense of space and location; when the movie shifted to deeper content, just three displays became the focus to prevent viewers from developing whiplash.

What could have been improved:

A few minor tweaks would have satisfied my fussy designer side. For instance, I liked that image credits were included and easily accessible by touching a button on the bottom right corner of every display, but I would have preferred to save my limited time with the displays and get the information online afterwards. I also felt like there was a missed opportunity at the end of the exhibit to engage visitors to participate in IBM’s grand vision for a better future, either by participating in further research or just building community around the key issues at hand (I should add that there was a general visitor feedback station at the end of the exhibit, which I did not take part in). The most direct way to participate I could find was the invitation on the exhibit website to tweet with the hashtags #IBM100 and #THINK. Finally, I wasn’t sure what the future of the exhibit itself was, or how I could revisit some of the research in the information displays. One volunteer I spoke with was unsure of this herself. I wonder if IBM considered developing something like an iPad app to extend and enhance the shelf-life of this great content.

My Top 5 Takeaways:

  1. Great solutions reflect great thinking. This exhibit revolves around strong thematic concepts that mesh well to IBM’s brand, philosophy, legacy, and core DNA. In execution, the core themes really shine: the experience informs, delights, amazes, and inspires with a remarkable economy of means.
  2. Sometimes storytelling is more important than information design. Any number of possible outcomes could have materialized, but the one that made it was presumably the most effective because it tells a human story in human terms. Even the data displays were humanized and kept very minimal to avoid taking attention away from the story.
  3. People should always be at the center of experience design. Almost from the moment you entered the exhibit space, you were immediately within reach of a volunteer who could help with any question. The area was fully ADA accessible, and I think an app was available at the exhibit to provide subtitles for the movie in different languages.
  4. Great design never draws attention to itself. There was nothing about the exhibit that seemed excessive or self-referential of the design. Every word, every object, every moment was deliberately assembled to amplify content, which carried through from beginning to end.
  5. Technology, used wisely, allows design to have tremendous impact. The use of touchscreen panels could have been pretty hokey and pseudo-futuristic, but here they were used in a rather elegant way. Perhaps IBM learned a few lessons from their earlier foray into interactive displays at the 1964 World’s Fair

I will definitely be paying more attention to IBM now, but not so much their stock price as their ability to preserve the sense of wonder and curiosity that fueled the many innovations on which their success is built. How will IBM realize their vision to “build a smarter planet”?

The World Can Change Design

Finally, here’s the conclusion to my four-part rant, picking up from The Boundaries of Design

Products are passé. Brands are boring. Websites are wearisome. Many designers are trying to break out of the mold of conventional design and tackle bigger challenges. Corporate clients don’t cut it any more. They want their work to have meaning and impact in the world. They want to make a difference. But how? What kind of impact can design really have in the world? Should we even think of design in that way?

Most design schools teach skills and tools to fulfill market demand for “traditional” designers around whom an economy is already built — architects, product designers, web designers, et cetera. The reigning model is to create more goods and services and stuff to support a standard of living that developed countries such as the U.S. have fought to establish and preserve.* Everybody from the unseen overseas manufacturers to the retail superstores to the ad-laden consumer magazines knows we need newer, better, nicer stuff in our homes, on our bodies, and in our culture. Design exists to address these human needs and to drive commerce through a continuous cycle of fueling and satisfying desire.**

Incrementally, design schools and the design industry are broadening the scope of design’s capacity for doing good, though well within the purview of traditional design. Many are rethinking unsustainable practices as they relate to the production, commercialization, consumption, and disposal of physical design artifacts. But addressing environmental concerns only makes for more green design, not “world-changing” design. While that may ease the guilt of buying more stuff that may harm the world and reduce the waste we generate, the consumerist status quo will likely remain unchanged.

Design has increasingly been moving into the social space, further nudging the boundaries of traditional design’s reach. Some designers are directing their efforts toward supporting non-profit ventures by doing design work for existing charities and organizations, as has been the case for many years. Others are launching initiatives themselves to tackle very specific areas of interest (Architecture for Humanity is a great, highly-visible example of this). Again, while tremendous good is being done, design’s impact is still limited to what it can directly affect, whether it’s increasing the public’s awareness or understanding of social issues or helping to provide communities with basic necessities for survival.

Meanwhile at the macro-level of world problems, massive change is sweeping across the world. Regimes are falling, economies are crumbling, jobs are vanishing, and insecurity still prevails. The cost of living and staying alive continues to skyrocket, while quality of life is declining. Cities are aging, infrustructures deteriorating, capacities stretched to the max. Even natural events have become more unpredictable and more destructive, as we saw with the Japan tsunami and more recently with Hurricane Irene. What we’re experiencing now goes beyond independent, isolated events. It’s a network of revolutions — a wholesale paradigm shift in how the world fundamentally works.

Can design solve problems of this magnitude? I don’t think so. Design was never designed to handle large-scale complexity, and for all their best intentions, many designers are incapable of bridging the gap between the work they do and the systemic change that needs to happen in the world. Even the falsely-named “design thinking” as an approach for understanding and solving systemic problems falls short in the face of global turmoil. However, at a strategic level, designers can help map complex situations and draw meaning from data to enable different stakeholders to make sense of a problem (more on this in a future post).

Design alone can’t and won’t change the world, and if you read my last post, I think design actually needs to get over itself and make sense of its own mess first. Contrary to what some in the design cheerleader press like Co.Design think, design isn’t living up to the hype of being “such an important discipline in today’s world.” And I’m sorry to say that “integration, rather than raw technology” has not become “the pressing problem of our world” — complex problems tangled inside other complex problems have become the pressing problem of our world. It takes a lot of different people pooling serious brainpower and resources to even make a dent in that.

I think we should stop celebrating design as the hero and bring our notions of design’s role in the world back down to earth. I know that might not sit well with many designers, but considering the ego trip of the past 10 years or so, it’s about time design was reacquainted with reality and what kind of difference design can actually make.

To close out my rant, I’ve taken a stab at drafting a pseudo design manifesto to sum up my own principles for design in, for, and with the real world:

  1. Design is an enabler of change in the world, not the cause or source.
  2. Designers should be facilitators of dialogue, collaboration, and understanding, not simply creators or producers of design artifacts.
  3. Designers are problem solvers by nature and should be skillful as such, but they should not presume to be able to solve every problem.
  4. Designers should provide greater clarity and honesty in services they are qualified to offer.
  5. Designers should connect closely and directly with those they serve.
  6. Design’s impact should be genuine impact, regardless of whether it’s hard or soft.
  7. Design journalism of all types should be practiced responsibly when covering design and “change-making.”
  8. Design schools and programs should be proactive in orienting newer generations of designers to be service-minded (not to be confused with “service design”).
  9. Design should be an inclusive process that involves more than just designers.
  10. Designers should receive recognition not for the aesthetic appeal of their solutions but for effectiveness and impact. Isn’t that the point?

So what do you think? If you’re a designer reading this, what’s your take on the whole “design saving the world” phenomenon? If you’re not a designer, do you think design can tackle big, world-sized challenges?



* I realize that’s a problematic statement. Is it better to say that design is an enabler of the “American,” “Western” or “northern” way of life? Am I digging a deeper hole for myself?

** Another problematic statement, which is directed toward design for advertising and marketing specifically. Design is a big, diverse field, but the most visible and influential aspects of design are manifest in selling stuff.

The Boundaries of Design

This is the third part in an extended rant. Before you start a rant in response, check out Part I, Over Design, and Part II, In Praise of the Design Underdog.

Part of what makes it so hard — and so frustrating — to advance dialogue about the design profession in any constructive way is that it’s getting harder to set boundaries around what design actually is. Defining it by its deliverables, like identities and websites, is too narrow. Positioning it purely as problem solving is too broad. One could attempt to bridge the two and say that design is a problem solving process that may result in an identity or a website, but that still doesn’t do it justice. Intangibles such as services and processes can be designed conceptually, and their basic function modeled visually, but the end result lives in the experience of it and the outcome — like, say, an optimized document management workflow that improves findability or a streamlined hospital admissions process that reduces wait times.

As design’s application extends and its impact increases, its inner complexity grows. New subsets of design practice emerge to satisfy new needs. New methods and tools start to complement the traditional design arsenal. And, inevitably, new players enter the marketplace wielding new expertise. Consider the many flavors of design that exist, and how many new words have been added to the design lexicon just in the past 5-10 years (not exhaustive and in no particular order):

  • Strategic design
  • Transformation design
  • Service design
  • Social business design
  • Experience design
  • Interaction design
  • Design thinking
  • Sustainable design
  • Infographic design
  • Information design
  • Graphic design
  • Communications design
  • Publication design
  • Web design
  • Environmental design
  • Product design
  • Industrial design
  • Motion graphics design
  • Architecture
  • Information architecture
  • Game design
  • Fashion design
  • Et cetera

To me, the primary challenge becomes making sense of all these “designs” for the benefit of the profession at large. Some design disciplines are better defined than others, but is there a hierarchy or unifying structure here? Are we just tossing words around, or are there genuine differences among the newer design phenomena? Can we create some governing logic about design? Has anything come close?

If we can succeed in mapping the landscape of design in any meaningful way, perhaps we can start to tackle the second challenge: understanding and aligning needs to the right services and ultimately, to the right service providers. This is an immensely difficult task given the nature of our free market economy and the multitude of players in the market, not to mention defining what needs design can really address (all of them?). Professional organizations like AIGA have worked to define what design business should look like (running a business, conducting business, etc.), but what about the initial contact between designer and client? How would a client know if they’re engaging the right designer or agency to help them? The converse — a designer or agency knowing if they’re the right ones to take on the work — is a trickier subject, since a common approach is to secure the work first, then scramble to figure out how to do it afterwards, regardless of capability. So how do we set professional boundaries around design practices? Can we certify designers and agencies to practice certain types of design and not others? And how do we protect people from design fraud? Is any of this possible?

It would be great if there was some governing body to make all these distinctions and set standards of practice, like a Better Business Bureau for design. Something like an AIGA on steroids and with the authority to enforce standards. How much power would such an organization wield? How many designers would be receptive to this idea?

Are we just accumulating more unanswerable questions than answers?

Next and final installment (coming soon): The World Can Change Design

In Praise of the Design Underdog

The rant continues from Over Design, in all its crudeness…

At one time, graphic design was about as sexy as chimney sweeping. It was messy, unglamorous, and quite labor intensive, even as technology afforded the profession new tools and enhanced methods of production over time. It was truly an art, a craft, and a science all in one. Those who chose the path of the designer likely did so out of sheer necessity and market demand, as graphic arts and printing services went hand-in-hand, although there were probably those innately drawn to graphic design work as well. There was no fame or fortune in it — just a job, really — and if one got to flex their artistic and creative skills while doing it, all the better.

More recently, the designer’s skillset and toolset have been radically simplified and consolidated thanks to the computer, so there’s less craft involved. Without the burden of rubber cement and proportion wheels, designers could produce more work faster and were thus freed up to explore the more self-expressive side of graphic design work. So began the rise of design culture — design by and for designers — and the emergence of design as a lifestyle.

Becoming a designer these days is essentially a socialization process. To really make it in design, you need to start by going to the right school, following a legacy system of design education (that is, become a student of so-and-so who studied under so-and-so, ad nauseum), and really designing yourself from head to toe with the right specs, the right wardrobe, the right gadgets, and the right social life. Once you graduate, you can plug right into the professional network that your design school affords you. From there you ply your trade among the top shops, producing killer, award-winning “creative” for deep-pocketed clients. You gradually ascend the ranks, annual after annual, conference after conference, until you find yourself feeding into the very system that made you, spawning the next generation of aspiring designers.

Of course, it’s unfair to make such sweeping generalizations about designers according to some chic urban design stereotype popularized by the design press. The spectrum of designers is far more diverse than that. I want to shift the focus away from the spotlight of design culture and specifically focus on the unsung designer who carries on the tradition and the spirit of the early designers, quietly toiling away in the shadows: the design underdog.

Here is a short profile of the design underdog:

  • Went to a non-design school to study design and gain exposure to a broad range of disciplines and intellectual pursuits
  • Learns the tools and techniques of design inside and out, often spending long hours at the computer mastering key commands and shortcuts
  • Loves typography, but disinterested in fonts (there is a difference)
  • Loves design history, but bored by design celebrity (also a difference there)
  • Irritated by “show and tell” design lectures and the schmoozing that goes with them
  • Tends to work in lesser-known agencies, in-house design departments, and print shops
  • Delights in challenging work that has impact and practical value, even if it might never grace the pages of a design annual
  • Works long hours to get the client presentation done right while others just get the job done and go home
  • More interested in client recognition than peer recognition through design competitions
  • Often spends more time trying to understand a problem and what the client needs than on the graphic design of the solution and whether it will look cool
  • Makes little to no effort to assume the designer look (often can’t afford it or the workplace doesn’t call for it)

Design underdogs do the dirty work of figuring stuff out, making things work. They see the job through from start to finish. They put the client first, and reflect that commitment in every aspect of their work. They keep trying until they nail it — even if it means occasional late nights or skipping some social event. They care above all about doing the work right.

The point here isn’t to just shift the spotlight to the underdogs and place them on a pedestal for all their hard work and dedication while spiting everyone else. Not at all. It’s that, on some level, all designers should aspire to be the underdogs. If design is now a navel-gazing profession that sees the world through itself, then it’s time we invert that model and see ourselves as the world sees us and use that perspective to frame our work and our role in the world. The public perception of design should be less glossy and superficial, more textured and deep. The value of design should be that it doesn’t just make you look better — it helps you live better and do better as a human being, organization, or society. Designers’ priority should be to deliver on that promise.

More to come in the next post: The Boundaries of Design

Over Design

This is going to be messy and abrupt, but let me get one thing out in the open: design makes me sick. But to be more precise, what design and designers have become is what makes me sick — a self-sustaining microcosm that hopelessly struggles with its own identity and relevance in a warp-speed world of change and complexity. It lives in an endless cycle of reinvention and differentiation, year after year. Just look at any design blog and you’ll see an overabundance of design stuff, from typefaces to stock photo collections to paper varieties to software to agencies to new specializations. Design thinking, design research, transformation design, sustainable design, are all fighting for attention on magazine covers and in the marketplace, where consumers of design service are left scratching their heads. It’s a dizzying mess.

As a designer who cares about his work and the future of his profession, I feel that the integrity of design as a profession today has been compromised to a degree that it may never snap back to true (if ever it was true). I worry that designers have created a culture for themselves that is too self congratulating and not service- or people-oriented enough. Perhaps my notion of design fundamentally as a service to others, whether they’re individuals, corporations, or societies, is getting outdated. Some would argue that designers must inherently serve themselves and gain as much gratification as possible from their efforts, as if praise and self-satisfaction were far greater payment for “services” rendered than customer satisfaction and financial compensation.

I think framing this problem of what design and designers should and shouldn’t be is just as hard as addressing it in any meaningful way. I acknowledge that the argument is far too subjective and prone to a number of biases. Nevertheless, in coming posts I’ll do my best to present my thinking and probably step on a few toes in the process.

Stay tuned for the next installment: In Praise of the Design Underdog