Category: General

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Saving Information Design History, Part 1

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This post arrives coincidentally at the same time as the Information+ conference at Emily Carr University of Art + Design in Vancouver, British Columbia. It is among the few (and most recent) forums where serious information design practitioners and researchers are able explore and discuss key issues in the field. The spectacular lineup of speakers and talks reflects the calibre of discussion. I’m kicking myself for not being there, but I’m optimistic that this is one opportunity in a progression of events and milestones to advance the development of information design as a properly recognized discipline.


Once an obscure phenomenon known only to a small community of academics and professionals from psychology and design, information design has stepped gradually out of the shadows into the spotlight of more mainstream thinking and conversations. There is a strong desire for clarity, focus, sense, and meaning amid all our present social and global complexities, and information design has been evolving to rise to the challenge. However, even in this seeming golden age of information design, there is an inherent irony: the deep intellectual and historical foundations of this multi-disciplinary field of research and practice have been lost or obscured, while surface-level tools, techniques, visual artifacts, and publications have become the central focus of recent attention.

Information design’s identity and integrity have been shaped by several factors over the years, but one of the most significant forces to promote understanding — and misunderstanding — has been the rise of the web and the paper-to-digital transition of information design’s history and literature. The amount of information on the web about information design is growing, but it has become far too easy to mistake Google search results for all available information. Unfortunately, much of what Google serves up suffers from recency bias, inaccuracy, incompleteness, or plain old linkrot. Books and publications that are more than 20 years old (which describes a lot of valuable information design-related writing) either don’t rank high in search results or don’t appear online at all because they never made the leap from atoms to bits — and when they are mentioned or shared on social media, there’s often no accompanying credit to the original source. As paper trails vanish and offline research dwindles, many influential thinkers and important works slip through the cracks.

Losing Our Profession

An immediate consequence of this fading history is that the very term “information design” is losing clout in discussions that are squarely about communication for understanding. I’m seeing more articles talking directly about information design practices and principles with zero use of the term “information design” by name:

UX vs UI vs IA vs IxD : 4 Confusing Digital Design Terms Defined

Learning From Data Viz Pioneer Edward Tufte: 5 Lessons For Interface Designers

Visualizations That Really Work

Design in the Age of the App Icon

I’m not exactly sure why information design is missing from these articles. Maybe some of these authors don’t know about it or don’t fully understand it because of the flawed state of information on the web described earlier. Regardless of the specific reasons, these articles reflect a troubling trend: as newer offspring of design and technology surge in popularity and cobble together their own professional canon of heroes, ideas, and principles, they “borrow” from older sibling fields like information design with little to no acknowledgement — knowingly or not. And many of those who write about making the complex simple and presenting information typically skim the surface of these deep, rich topics, churning out shallow how-to listicles or click-baity showcases of “beautiful information” in order to feed the still growing appetite for all things viz-tech-design-innovation-creativity-etc-etc.

The real harm these phenomena are causing the still-solidifying discipline of information design has gone unaddressed today: by not appropriately identifying information design principles, practices, methods, and approaches by name as “information design,” the legacy and information encapsulated in that term diminishes. In the wilds of today’s fast-changing information ecosystem, information design may well fall prey to “survival of the sensational”: older ideas that lose equity, relevance, and mass appeal disintegrate and die over time, while young ideas that speak to the zeitgeist of current fads, fashions, and media buzz thrive atop the presumed graves of their predecessors. The best chance for anything old to sustain a pulse is to be made new again — to be recontextualized and reinvented, almost beyond recognition — to suit an increasingly fickle audience that has little time, patience, or interest to seek out original sources and learn what the past has to say for itself first-hand — if they even knew there was a past. The infographics and dataviz craze have unfortunately served that end by frequently slicing off the thin veneer of graphic design and visual rhetoric of information design that is most familiar to people, slapping on a fresh coat of paint, and putting it on wide display, while abandoning the “unsexy” theory, scholarship, and pioneering works that comprise the foundation and structure of information design.

Information Design Won’t Save Itself

For too long, the voice of information design has been quiet. There has been a steady murmur amongst isolated pockets of communities, and barely an intelligible whisper in the cacophony of public discourse (the voice of data visualization, however, has become a chorus, only increasing in volume). It’s time for information design to speak a little louder, and from the shoulders of our giants.

Information designers must do a better job of championing their field and their history in the face of ambiguity and confusion. It starts with reinforcing understanding of information design broadly (still an on-going process within the field) and appreciating the lineage of thought and practice that got us here — far beyond Tufte, Wurman, and other usual suspects. We need to be more diligent about doing our homework and reconnect with our roots, no matter how deep we have to dig. Granted, some practitioners may be more concerned with just doing the work or may consider information design just one more skill in their toolkit without any stake in the field, but what, then, becomes of the field? Whose responsibility is it to carry the torch and guide young designers and newcomers to information design, or to educate everyday people, governments, and organizations of the value this work? And who decides what gets carried forward, and what gets left behind?


In Part 2 of this post, I will explore the history of information design’s formalization by way of a literature review. Building on earlier work, the post will attempt to shed light on some little known influencers and links in the chain of information design’s development over the past 80 years or so. Stay tuned…

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A Life Less Designed

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“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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Conversations, Not Clicks

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For those who’ve been following my blog for a while, you may have noticed the frequent departures from information design and other related topics. Rather than write about what’s popular in conversations of-the-moment and sustain a magazine-like consistency of material I generate, I often follow my curiosity and try to sort through the questions in my mind, wherever they lead. Figuring out what I think and sharing that thinking publicly, however rough or conceptual or unconventional it may be, is something I enjoy, and not for the attention it may attract. In fact, I could count on one hand the few “greatest hits” I’ve had when site traffic has spiked (they’re the Recommended posts listed in the footer). Oh, and there’s also that cancer infographic I did a while back (now removed because of so many reuse requests and misuses). Pretty much everything else falls flat — the introspective pieces, the way off-topic ramblings, the high-level surveys, and the preachy sermons. Very few comments, tweets, or shares.

And that’s okay.

As appealing as it seems to have legions of followers and tons of social media buzz like some folks I follow in my own areas of specialty, those aren’t my measures of success. It’s not even about success. To me, having a blog like this is like participating in a giant conversation where each statement, each thought, has the potential to change another person’s thinking or invite a response that could change mine. In some ways, this is fast becoming outdated, much like throwing a message in a bottle into a vast ocean and waiting for a reply that may never come. Commenting has been on the decline, as social media gestures has taken its place. Conversation is being further squeezed out of the equation with the growing “push” model of publishing via e-mail newsletters. And that’s just it: the notion of putting anything online has radically shifted meaning from when I started my blog about 8 years ago. Online content is a commodity these days, bound up in advertising, marketing, data collection, and analytics. I wonder sometimes if people even read any more when there’s so much available, so little attention, and such an irresistible urge to keep the social sharing engine humming.

Despite the machine-like nature of content creation on the web, it’s fascinating to see how organically it can behave, how the human element never goes away. Interests ebb and flow in cycles: a “big data” peak one moment becomes a trough the next, a wave of pro-brainstorming articles recedes as the counter-argument rises. And the cycle repeats. Still, I keep writing — and scanning the ocean for kindred spirits. Once in a blue moon, I’m surprised by a comment someone posts on my blog or by an exchange that emerges from a comment I post somewhere. On even rarer occasions, those conversations solidify into real connections.

In the end, I’m not too concerned with being liked or earning widespread approval for saying something lots of people agree with or gain value from. I’m happy for the recognition I get, and even happier for the thoughtful, sincere responses I receive from both brand new readers and long-time lurkers. 😉 What matters to me are basic things: learning, finding links between ideas, seeing the world in a different way from someone else’s perspective, and starting a dialogue across all different subjects, not just information design alone. As long as I have thoughts bouncing around my head, and as long as there’s a chance someone out there is listening, I’ll do my best to keep it going.

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Bridging Generations

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As someone who’s slowly inching toward 40, I feel distinctly out of place with the present. It doesn’t feel like my present. The more I age, the greater the sense of anachronism. Three distinct realities are blurring together: the old world wisdom my grandparents conveyed to me during my childhood, the analog-to-digital transition through which I have come of age, and the Web revolution whose rapid escalation has left virtually no part of my present life untouched.

It seems to me that the faster technological “progress” happens — and the more I notice it — the less natural it feels and the more alienating it becomes. Every advance in technology that’s introduced into our lives appears to grant us some new luxury or capability that wasn’t available (or needed?) before, but when those novelties become normalities, what they actually do is erode a bit of the past to make a little more room for the future. Devices, apps, screens, texts, buzzes, beeps, taps, swipes, and every other new feature added to our tech-saturated experience claim to be human-centered in some way or another, and yet we’re forced to let go of what’s comfortable and familiar in order to learn these strange new tech-intermediated ways, adapt to them, and end up having our behavior altered by them. The hyper-computerization and hyper-connectivity that permeates all our waking and sleeping hours takes away more than it gives back, and what it takes are the things I’m not willing to give up — the ethos of simpler times.

I may sound like a grumpy old man, but no, I am not a Luddite ready to flee to a cabin in the wilderness, nor am I fearful of an impending techno-dystopia. Low and high technology is a good thing; I am just as profoundly amazed by wood screws, indoor plumbing, electricity, and wifi as I am grateful for them. The problem I see is that we are no longer shaping and molding technology to us as we used to — it’s the other way around. We’ve ceded control of how we live our lives — decisions about what fits and what doesn’t, what enriches our lives and what saps it — to the forces of corporate “innovation” and easy availability of tools like e-mail, wireless devices, social networks, and text messaging. Meanwhile, with each passing generation, I see growing indulgence in fleeting pleasures and mindless habits enabled by devices and further disconnection from now bygone values like self-restraint, hand skills and craft, deep concentration, listening skills, and the big one, human-to-human attention. (Far be it from me to level judgement on those poor younger generations wedded to their smartphones: I learned how to curb my device habit back when I had an iPhone 3G.)

There’s no point in reminiscing about the “good old days.” They’re not coming back. Regarding the past with warm nostalgic affection and preserving stories of yesteryear may help keep the memory alive, but it doesn’t do much good for everyone else in the here and now. What matters are the practices and attitudes that helped make those days “good” — the common sense that governed everyday conduct — and how to carry them forward. In my own lifetime, numerous aspects of life have radically transformed for the worse because of the pervasiveness of technology, such as how we work, how we learn, how we interact with each other, and how we spend our free time (of course, the good-vs-bad debate goes both ways). Reconnecting with old world / analog thinking might help restore some of the things we’re losing.

One area in particular troubles me the most today: communication.

Way back when (up until 25 years or so ago), communication was an art form:

  • Letters were lengthy, hand-written with care or typed on special stationery.
  • Conversation was rich with well-told stories, clever turns of phrase, and literary allusions, not to mention back-and-forth dialogue.
  • Phone calls were the lifeline of business, with protocols for answering and concluding.

Today, communication is broken into tiny little fragments:

  • E-mails, the sorry substitute for letters, are piecemeal, poorly written, and replied to at whim days or weeks later — sometimes regardless of the sender’s situation.
  • Conversation is regularly interrupted by the buzz, ring, or glow of a device that’s rarely out of reach, and then the problem is remembering where one left off.
  • Text messaging, chat, and social media updates have all but replaced phone calls, which are now dreaded by younger generations, in personal and work contexts.

How do we fold some of the past back into the present with a sense of balance? For starters, let’s be more considerate and deliberate in how we communicate. Here is some advice I follow from that little voice in the back of my head:

  • Write purposeful e-mails with complete thoughts and clear points, and keep the recipient in mind. If there’s a question or unresolved issue in a message you receive, address it in a timely way — the other person will almost always interpret a delayed reply negatively. On the other hand, if you really care and the message is personal, write out your thoughts and hand-deliver or mail them. The gesture alone matters a lot, and not just for thank-you’s, birthdays, and holiday cards.
  • Turn your phone off and put it away when you’re having a conversation. Take interest in the person you’re talking to face-to-face. He or she is a human being right in front of you, so respect their time and attention by giving them yours. Conversation should be interesting and dynamic — like “intellectual jazz,” as Richard Saul Wurman put it. Probe shared interests like travel, aspirations, art exhibits, books, nature, etc, before delving into talk of the latest Netflix show.
  • If you get an urge to text (or any sort of social media update), think twice. Does this thought require a text? Is it urgent or can it wait? Also, consider stopping off to the side of traffic (foot and vehicular) if you absolutely must read or write a text and avoid accidents. When you do choose to write a text, again consider who you’re writing to. It’s still writing and doesn’t excuse you from putting coherent thoughts together.

I know this sounds like a lot of tired old finger-wagging, but it needs to be said, generation after generation, from one context to the next. So we don’t forget. For those whose experience of life has been defined early on by the omnipresence of technology in their daily activities and interactions, it may be a fool’s errand to sell them on a philosophy of “slower, less, and more thoughtful” technology use, or heaven forbid, “as little as possible.” Someday, when they’re older, when the pace of change rattles their own sense of comfort, they might see things differently and long for their own good old days.

I am thankful for having known the past far enough back before technological progress started getting out of hand. I am glad to have developed a callus on my right middle finger from years of writing and drawing, not typing or tapping (although I’m kind of proud to have learned how to type on an IBM Selectric). I treasure the time of not having information at my fingertips, not always knowing what my friends or complete strangers are thinking or doing, not having an immediate solution to boredom in my pocket, and especially, not always being available to everyone. I enjoy talking to people twenty, thirty, even forty years older than me with whom I share the same tech-free experiences and delights, and I marvel at their stories of tougher times, when wars, economic depressions, political upheavals, and emigrations were the major forces of change in their lives. Above all, and despite my uneasiness about what’s happening today, I feel lucky to have experienced so much change in my still short life so far, to have learned the lessons of others, and to be able to translate some of the “wisdom of the ages” into what I do now. Maybe some of it will rub off on these young whippersnappers.

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Design In-Between

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As tax season feverishly comes to a close, it seems a fitting moment to consider a realm of design work that hardly gets any attention. Not the dull gray administrative documents like tax forms and instructions. Not websites like IRS.gov. Not tax preparation software like TurboTax.

I’m talking about receipts. More generally, I mean all those little in-between design artifacts like tickets, stubs, and claim checks that serve boring but necessary functions of everyday life — counting, recording, verifying, identifying, authorizing — but sit squarely in design’s blind spot.

I do an awful lot of squirrel-like receipt stashing, but it’s not until tax time, when I have to sort through each one forensically to account for every little expense, that I start to realize how little design actually goes into these small, flimsy but widely diverse paper squares. Ages ago, bills of sale and other transactional documents were handwritten, or preprinted with lines and recurring information so that only new data need be entered. There was a charm to them, the human touch of penmanship framed within a mechanical imprint. These days, most receipts are entirely machine printed in blocky low-res fonts on wispy thermal paper. Can’t forget the legal fine print or sincerely heartfelt “HAVE A NICE DAY” or “THANK YOU FOR YOUR BUSINESS.” And, opportunistically, some supermarkets take advantage of the empty real estate on the back of a receipt and slap on some ads and coupons.

How could designers let this anti-design go on for so long?

Aside from expense accounting, receipts allow for returns, exchanges, and refunds, but have afforded little else (notably, Pret A Manger prints the wifi password and bathroom keycode on their receipts to “reward” patrons). The same goes for used transit tickets, museum admission stubs, parking tickets, boarding passes, and all the other commercial ephemera we accumulate almost every time we spend money. There’s a chance they might get used as bookmarks or impromptu note paper, maybe even serve as a souvenir of a special event, but most of the time, they get absent-mindedly stuffed into pockets or crumpled and tossed away. Soon enough, though, with the rise of e-mail receipts and device-based transactions, all those scraps of paper will be no more.

So should we just wait for this annoying single-use detritus to get phased out and happily welcome our paperless future? Or is there an opportunity to reconsider the role of this clerical confetti?

One way to think about this particular design challenge is to situate these artifacts in a broader context of use and to revise the notion of design work as primarily conventional grand gestures. For instance, if a transit system takes such great care to design their identity, wayfinding and signage, online information systems, advertising, marketing, all the way to their employees’ uniforms, why do they cut corners or care less about other, more mundane but ubiquitous touchpoints like their ticketing systems and the design of tickets and receipts? Is it assumed that the investment won’t pay off because tickets are low cost and disposable (because that’s what other similar companies are doing)? Or has it never occurred to them that they could completely reimagine tickets and receipts to enhance or extend their usefulness and value, not to mention minimize waste? What do customers think?

It doesn’t take much “out of the box” thinking to open doors of design exploration:

  • AMUSEMENT: What if there was a random fortune printed on the bottom, like you’d find in a fortune cookie?
  • ART: What if you could collect different receipts with art printed on the back, then assemble them to make interesting collages?
  • RECREATION: What if the receipt contained a game like sudoku or a picture to be colored in?
  • INFORMATION: What if you could see a personal dashboard of your spending habits or purchases or recommendations drawn from your past transactions? Or what if your local coffee shop printed out headline news and weather on your morning coffee receipt?
  • ENVIRONMENT: What if the paper had seeds in it, so you could plant it and grow a garden?
  • GAMING/CONTESTS: What if there was a puzzle or series of clues over time that customers would have to piece together and solve in order to win something?

The list could go on (some of it is borrowed from Berg’s Little Printer). The point is that there’s a world of possibility right now to do more with these little pieces of paper — to actually reinforce and improve the experience a customer, passenger, or citizen has with a company or organization.

Designers shouldn’t limit their capabilities to the standard-issue items they’re hired to design for, like the physical environment, the look and feel of a product or service, the face-to-face staff encounters, the online/mobile interactions, and the marketing, advertising, and information design artifacts. Nor should they limit their thinking to familiar patterns and cling to assumptions about what can and can’t be done — and especially what is and isn’t worth their attention. Outside of the spotlight of typical design moments is a lot of overlooked but necessary “in-between” design: forms, instructions, and documents that serve as connective tissue linking touch points; tickets, stubs, and receipts that punctuate the start and end of key activities; labels, stickers, and tags that make systems visible.

Good design is about the big things, the little things, and even the seemingly insignificant things that end up in our coat pockets. All of those things form a complete picture of our designed lives.