A Life Less Designed


“What the hell am I doing?” I ask myself on a Sunday morning, half-covered in grass clippings. The weather is warm and immaculate, ideal for a hike or picnic or lazy stroll through town. Instead, here I am clutching my Sears Craftsman line trimmer, dutifully mowing my overgrown lawn. There are blisters forming on my rawhide-gloved hands. I’m sneezing uncontrollably from all the pollen in the air. My legs are sore from the frog-like hopping about to tear weeds out of cracks in the sidewalk. I see my neighbors on their way to brunch (their landscaping is all concrete, no grass) and wave my most neighborly wave. Behind my smile, I’m seething with envy.

My ego tells me I’m beyond this grunt work. I’m a designer, for heaven’s sake! Why spend my free time on mundane chores when I should be free to pursue the finer things, as any cultured, creative person should in this day and age? Would I prefer to scroll through those saved-for-later long articles? Or would I rather enrich my mind with literature, art-making, or a bit of writing? Maybe all I want is to not think at all and enjoy a documentary or TV series, guilt-free? Am I not entitled to these and more choices in the year 2016, rather than feel burdened by antiquated chores?

Despite my ego’s bourgeois indignance, I can’t deny that this yard work is maybe kind of fun. I’m outside, physically active, using muscles I didn’t know I had. I’m taking pride in my handiwork as a home owner: the clean edges where green meets grey, the uniformly level height of grass, and the sense of order restored. I’m in awe of the smallness of insects marching on the ground below and the vastness of the cerulean blue sky above. It’s just me and my natural environment — at least, whatever a semi-suburban residential neighborhood can afford — with little else in between.

The fact that something like yard work can be both annoying and fulfilling is a reflection of the larger issue we face with the nature and quality of progress today. On one hand, many think a better life is one of minimal inconvenience and maximum enjoyment: frictionless experiences, pre-anticipated needs, and adaptive systems that respond to our every desire. Plenty of work has gone into building that idea of “better” through research and investments in everything from motion-sensing bathroom fixtures to voice-activated devices and self-driving cars. If I fully subscribed to that vision, I’d happily welcome any sort of liberation from horticultural busywork. Some clever tech startup could easily capitalize on that “unmet need” by building an outdoor Roomba — an app-controlled grass-trimming drone that could trim and sweep my grass every few weeks. Lost time reclaimed!

But on the other hand, maybe that wasn’t lost time at all. Maybe in eliminating that task I’m actually paying a bigger price: I’m losing a part of my life in which I feel more connected with myself and what’s around me.

As I wrote in an earlier post, the solutionist thinking that pervades discussions of design, technology, and progress overlooks the value of common problems humans might actually need to have in order to retain our human-ness. Cameron Tonkinwise, the Director of Design Studies at the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University, discusses this topic in his Medium piece, Contempt by Design: When Empathy turns into Hatred of Everyday Life. Design empathy can be a means of understanding people in order to design for them and with them, but it can also lead to design decisions that work against them. For instance, he describes the typical habit designers have historically fallen into and the consequences of solutionism:

Every time designers notice pain points, obstacles, or even just opportunities for things to happen a little more productively or pleasantly, the outcome is another thing…. Our societies are unsustainable because mass production has allowed designer empathy to go unchecked.

Design, in this sense, is a tool of commercialism: it fuels consumption (and waste) under the guise of making life better. Rather than seek to enrich life by first understanding what a better life really means and how people define it for themselves — before any type of intervention is considered — design, and the players driving it, tend to take any chance to insert themselves into the everyday human narrative. A highly cynical distillation of the current formula in play might look like this:

  1. Crank up the “creative” to spark desire and keep people buying stuff they never thought they needed.
  2. “Innovate” when you hit a sales slump to jolt the market with something new.
  3. Repeat as needed.

More problems arise on another level, when design presumes to know what’s best for all of us and cushions our lives in pseudo-utopian bliss. Tonkinwise counters rampant design solutionism with a call to action for design to seek a deeper understanding of its role in everyday life and even question where it does and doesn’t belong:

This is the greatest danger of design empathy; that its concern for humans and its insight into materiality end up being contempt for all the friction and finitude of everyday life. To counter this we all, but especially designers, must learn to empathize with the activities of everyday life. We must use design thinking not to eradicate all the hardships of everyday life, but rather to find existing everyday pleasures in material practices. We must be prepared to listen to people when they say that they do enjoy doing some mundane tasks. We must accept that not everything needs to be disrupted, that some things need not be changed.

Maintenance activities like doing laundry, washing dishes, and sweeping a floor have a dignity to them, a timelessness, and even philosophical meaning. Accepting them as an essential part of life, just like other human-scale manual activities that have been around for generations, is becoming harder and harder because the apparent benefit of not having to do them (and ease of access to “solutions”) outweighs the deeply-ingrained sense of displeasure attached to them. Especially for those with the means (even more modest means), it is almost unthinkable to do some of these things by one’s own hand any more when it costs relatively little to minimize the problem.

On a personal level, I honestly don’t look forward to every chore, but once I’m engaged in the flow of an activity, the feeling is practically zen-like. Instead of contemplating some other fun thing I could be doing and getting annoyed that I’m not doing it, I try to stay in the present and focus on the task — on how I can perfect the movements and what small hidden lessons I can extract from just becoming absorbed in the moment. My mind sifts through fragments of thoughts generated throughout the day, makes connections, recalls loose threads, and basically catches up with itself. No matter what the task is, there’s a minimum of stuff necessary; save for the grass trimmer and my washer and dryer, it’s usually low-tech, low-end design: a broom, a sponge, a trowel, a dust pan and brush. What’s great about those things is that they are designed to help me do something — they don’t remove me from the equation altogether. And using them is, in a way, part of the fun.

We need to celebrate the joys of a life less designed and protect the necessary boundaries between the collective entity of design-business-technology and human experience. If we continue riding the runaway train of “progress,” if we tacitly agree to the intermediation of every effort, every gesture, every thought with a design “solution” — without making better design decisions for ourselves — what then will be left for us to do? What will be left of us?


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