Tag: design

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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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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.

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What Does Design Want to Be?

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About four years ago, I railed against the state of design at the time. As a practicing designer, it deeply troubled me that the design world had become so self-absorbed that it lost touch with reality. News articles and blogs were celebrating design for the beautiful, delightful products that it brought into the world, and praising the rockstar designers whose sheer creativity produced such marvelous creations. We didn’t need more voices singing the praises of “good” design, only to fuel consumer appetites for Apple, IKEA, and Target merchandise. We needed more designers to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty with problems people face every day, like getting access to quality health care, affordable housing, clean water, and secure food supply. Sure, there were designers doing noble, respectable work then, as there always are, but how could anyone cut through the noise to see the good among the not-so-good? How could anyone understand the value of design in responding to real needs, not simply commercial interests?

Today, little has changed. Awareness of design is growing rapidly, thanks to the glut of marketing hype about design still clogging up magazines, news sites, and blogs, but it remains as daunting as ever to separate the wheat from the chaff or know which is which. Designers still design artifacts and experiences and apps (so many apps!), but more are aspiring to change the world, albeit with an incomplete skill set (on a related note, see Don Norman’s series of essays, starting with “Why Design Education Must Change”). Design process is being further decoupled from design craft and design expertise by way of design thinking, which has now falsely turned into an open-source cure-all for all of business’ and society’s woes — designers not required. Designers aren’t so much fighting for a seat at the strategy table any more as they are scrambling to keep up with a continuously changing market environment that’s wresting control of design from their very hands and putting the integrity of design into question. Either everyone at the strategy table has done some form of design thinking training by now and is plastering their boardroom with sticky notes, or they’re making designers an offer they can’t refuse: join us or be assimilated.

Let’s not forget the growing number of business, engineering, and other university programs that are tacking on design and/or design thinking to their curricula in order to better equip students to solve “wicked problems” (This is a grossly misused term, by the way; Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, who introduced the term “wicked problems” in 1973, outlined ten criteria, some of which state that wicked problems are not truly solvable like “tame” problems due to their constantly changing and deeply complex nature.).

So yes, I’m still complaining. What continues to trouble me are the persistent disconnects between what we say about design, what design actually is, and what design and designers can realistically accomplish in the world. There’s a sizable gap between where the focus of attention currently is — the selling (and selling out) of design — and where, in my opinion, it needs to be – clarifying design’s role and aligning design activities and services to where they’re most needed (or at least, where they’re best suited).

To me, this is part of a larger problem that has only lately attracted attention: design has swelled over time to become too many different things for many different people. In the process of scaling up beyond “posters and toasters” and adopting methods from the social sciences, business, and creative problem solving along the way to tackle bigger challenges, design’s boundaries have started to lose definition. And without recognition of the growing body of knowledge at its core, design has no center of gravity to anchor it against misappropriation.

Design has long been evolving in tandem with social, cultural, technological, political, environmental, and economic changes across the world. Now it’s getting tangled up in all of them. For design to move forward (not backwards) through this current cycle of change, as its reach extends further into more dimensions of life and more participants enter the design space, it needs a system or framework for understanding it and engaging in it productively. Especially at this moment in time, design needs to be reframed, not as any one person or group wishes it to be, but as an inclusive synthesis-in-progress of diverse perspectives that are part of the new reality of design.

From this angle, more questions than answers emerge in the attempt to chart design’s new direction:

  • How do we communicate and demonstrate the value of design expertise in the emerging context of DIY design?
  • How do we encourage a dialogue that helps clarify the role of designers alongside all other participants in the full spectrum of design interventions?
  • How can designers stand up for design and lead the conversation about design while displaying some humility?

The assortment of perspectives below serves as more of a snapshot of thinking than a rigorous examination of the questions I pose. It’s a reflection of my current headspace as I sort through these issues in my own practice.


A 2013 New York Times article by Alice Rawsthorn briefly discusses the idea of “expanded” design, or design that “can be usefully applied outside its conventional context,” and acknowledges the risk of design becoming meaningless as it departs from the conventional notion of artifact creation to confront social and global challenges. She states:

The problem, or so the critics of expanded design claim, is that the proliferation of new approaches has made design seem even fuzzier and less coherent. They have a point. If the concept of expanded design is taken to its natural conclusion, just about any form of planned change can be described as having been designed, and design will not only become fuzzier still, but indistinguishable from common sense.

Does this matter? I’d argue not, at least not if identifying something as a design project will improve the outcome.

While Rawsthorn points out the potential pitfalls of making design a catch-all activity for a broad swath of human problem solving, the presumption that a “design” frame or lens can lead to a better end result requires more explanation. Why exactly is this design frame so beneficial? The article doesn’t make it entirely clear what exactly is inside design as opposed to non-design-based problem solving, aside from the “design process of research, analysis, visualization and communication,” that gives it value. Furthermore, what do design and designers bring to bear exactly on non-traditional design problems versus laypeople or “intuitive” designers, who’ve accomplished much on their own for so long? I’m sure many designers could easily answer that question, but the fact is that they haven’t been, or at least they’re not doing enough to communicate it widely enough.

In his 2015 book Design, When Everybody Designs, Ezio Manzini explores in-depth the changing nature of design for social innovation, and especially the relationship between “diffuse” design, performed by non-experts, and “expert” design, performed by trained professional designers. It is the interaction of those two roles together that greater possibilities and potential arises for social change, he claims. Following this logic, Manzini proposes what he calls a new “description,” not definition, of design:

Design is a culture and a practice concerning how things ought to be in order to attain desired functions and meanings. It takes place within open-ended co-design processes in which all the involved actors participate in different ways. It is based on a human capability that everyone can cultivate and which for some — the design experts — becomes a profession. The role of design experts is to trigger and support these open-ended co-design processes, using their design knowledge to conceive and enhance clear-cut, focused design initiatives.

Rather than draw a sharp line between expert and non-expert or judge the value of one over another, Manzini emphasizes the complementary roles of both in the co-creation of solutions. In this paradigm of co-designing, design experts are neither passive facilitators (who do what he calls “post-it design”) nor the sole creative visionaries (who do “big-ego design”), but as active participants in a shared process who “spark off new initiatives, feed social conversations, and help the process of convergence toward commonly recognized visions and outcomes.”

A missing piece today in achieving the vision Manzini sets forth is the development of new skills among designers who pursue this direction (rather than assume all designers should follow this path). He does detail various techniques and activities for supporting the co-design process, such as incorporating visual tools to prompt social conversations and creating physical spaces and infrastructure for collaborative work, but generally speaking, design education is not yet focused on building fundamental capabilities to equip designers with both traditional craft skills and creative collaboration skills together.

In the absence of fully-equipped next-generation designers or even an inkling of something like co-design, many non-designers are taking matters into their own hands and assuming the role of expert designer in an effort to create change in their respective domains, enabled by the plethora of toolkits, books, workshops, and other pre-packaged design knowledge commodities readily available today. It’s easy to criticize the peddlers of DIY design, the consumers of these offerings, and the casual “borrowers” of design practices to enliven their classrooms or workplaces for designers getting left behind. However, the fault lies primarily with the design institution: in the midst of fast-moving market forces and growing appetites for all-things-design, design has remained myopic, passively ceding ownership of itself, and lacking a strong foundation to stand upon. As Anne Burdick describes in her 2009 talk entitled “Design Without Designers”:

In the United States in particular, design’s rhetoric and self-definition has centered around its relevance to commerce. Design students are seldom taught to recognize or articulate their own unique expertise outside of their value to business. Our emphasis on design as a profession rather than as a discipline has left us without the scholarship that validates other fields. Our inability to advocate for design in larger terms excludes us from discipline-defining, knowledge-producing, and policy-generating activities, especially within research, education, and government.

Without acceptance as a bona fide discipline supported by research and literature, without regard for its legacy, without an evolving design education system oriented to human outcomes instead of outputs, and without designers serving as vocal proponents of design’s value across diverse contexts, design may very well lose whatever identity it has and become whatever anyone wants it to be.

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The Future of Design History

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The future is so now. Everywhere you turn, there’s some book, blog post, or conference about “THE FUTURE OF something-or-other” these days. The faster tech progress moves, the more impatient people become for the next new thing. There’s certainly nothing wrong with envisioning the future and imagining possibilities for what could be. Meaningful progress depends on it. But there is something deeply wrong when we forget about everything that got us here or, worse yet, have no clue it ever even existed.

Recognizing the value of design history and truly learning from it is a loaded topic. It would take more than a lowly blog post to address topics such as the gaps in design history, the underuse of primary source material in education, and the false idolization of influential figures in design history. What interests me right now is the perception and role of design history in an internet- and social-media-driven world. Two interlinked forces are at work shaping design history — for better and worse:

  1. The design explosion: As the popularity of design increases (never mind which design we’re talking about) and the demand for designers and design skills grows (never mind specifics, again), what design is has evolved in response to these changes. More diverse voices outside of design are shaping and “curating” conversations about design, new players are redefining the landscapes of design education and practice, and new applications of design are gaining more recognition among the more traditional products and services. However, with so much activity around design, it becomes more challenging to make sense of design and find information about design history that is accurate and useful.
  2. The digital revolution: There’s no denying the speed and scale of change still happening from the analog-to-digital transition. Design continues to explode because more people know about it, interact with it, and practice it thanks to the unprecedented reach of the Web, the ways we can access it, and the number of places we can share and find information. The whole of design may seem no more than a Google search away on whatever device we want, but much design history still hasn’t migrated from boxes and shelves to digital files on servers and in databases. And what has migrated may be unreliable or incomplete.

Both forces combined have certainly elevated, broadened, and enriched design over the past twenty years or so, but they have also given rise to a growing trend toward “new” and “now.” In the Internet Age, design history is neither of those things. Instead, it is associated with words like “old,” “outdated,” “archaic,” among other unfavorable descriptors. It’s about people from, like, a hundred years ago doing lots of long, hard manual work without computers. And let’s not forget the stuffy old instructors who deliver bone-dry design history lectures and assign dreadfully long readings from super-heavy textbooks. For these reasons, it must be repackaged in the context of quick-fix social media and grabby blog posts and linkbait to become “new” and “now.”

One of the biggest problems hurting design history today is the use of historical design imagery, particularly visual displays of information commonly labelled “infographics” culled from online library, museum, and archive collections, without the correct citation: it’s either missing, incomplete, or the source cited lacks the actual reference. Countless Tumblrs, Pinterest boards, Facebook pages, tweets, and other forms of social sharing feature these images with little more than a trite “cool historic infoviz” or “[INFOGRAPHIC] Awesome Victorian data display” to accompany the posts. It may seem harmless, but the compounded reposting creates more distance between the original source and the place it was found (reverse image search is occasionally helpful, but no substitute for correct citation).

The widespread use of historical design imagery as visual fodder for personal mood boards and attention-seeking reduces the value of design history to clip art that can be freely redistributed across the web without regard for provenance or historical context. Works that are out of copyright or in the public domain aren’t necessarily fair game because there are no legal repercussions (as with music videos on YouTube). They are still someone’s creation and it’s worth stating who made them, when, where, and why, not just in the interest of good scholarship but in the interest of helping others learn more about that “cool” discovery.

An event I attended recently at the New York Public Library, Peripheral Landscapes: The Art of Maps, perfectly encapsulated the problem of design history stripped of meaning. The event featured three digital collages constructed entirely from cut-outs of “decorative and non-informational elements that reside along the edges of maps” that are part of the library’s Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division. The project was part of the library’s Net Artist in Residence program intended to make the most of their digitized historical collections and infuse them with a little more “new” and “now.” For most of the talk, the artist, Jenny Odell, spoke about her interests in online imagery and particularly Google Maps and Google Street View, and to be fair, most of the work she showed was conceptually interesting. When asked during Q&A if she documented the image sources she used, her response was a plain and simple “no.” Granted, much art contains allusions to its influences but doesn’t often state them directly. In this case, a library-sponsored art project using its own historical map collection to boost public awareness and use, attribution was surprisingly not a requirement — nor an obligation on the artist’s part — if only for the sake of helping viewers identify where the “non-informational element” came from and encouraging them to dig deeper into the map collection.

Making the effort to preserve links to the past across the analog-digital divide is critical to design history’s survival. In the absence of web citation police or a definitive, comprehensive online source of design history across all design fields, the responsibility belongs to everyone to correctly cite historical design imagery they post with the original source and not some derivative source or a linkrot-vulnerable URL. Even if it means doing a bit more homework beyond a Google search.

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Living for the (Future) City

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New York is a constantly changing, evolving city. Shops come and go, buildings rise and fall, fashion trends run their course. For years, the city has celebrated its own ability to reinvent itself and yet stay true to its core, the “real” New York — the Frank Sinatra New York and the Jay-Z and Alicia Keys New York. The city is a place of desire and drive, no better captured than in the towering ad-screens and street-level spectacles of Times Square. The same appetites have always come to be fed in NYC — status, beauty, power, importance. It’s just the packaging that has kept changing to suit the tastes of newer generations.

But as years have passed, the values of the city have gradually shifted. There’s more to New York now than just sustaining the wealth that put it on the map in the first place or claiming one’s own piece of the pie. There’s an awareness of something bigger than individual pursuits, deeper than the instant gratifications that city conveniences afford, and longer term than one’s apartment lease. The future of the city is on people’s minds — a cleaner, safer, more efficient, and more inclusive city. A city where people can actually thrive and build communities while preserving their environment and strengthening infrastructure.

Such was the spirit of the inaugural IDEAS CITY festival in 2011 (which then went by the much longer name “Festival of Ideas for the New City”). Back then, optimism was low as many were still struggling through the economic recession. The event provided a much-needed boost of positivity and hope, if only as a show of stubborn resilience against a bleak future, a proud reassertion that NYC arts and culture were here to stay. It certainly got me excited, so much that I wrote about my experience.

Fast forward to 2015, just four years into the future. I’m back at the same event with a shorter name, ready for more good stuff. This time was different though. The bright picture of the future was still there, but what was brought into sharper focus was the stark reality of the present (for more than just NYC dwellers). As stated on the event homepage:

The theme of this year’s IDEAS CITY Festival is The Invisible City, an homage to Italo Calvino’s literary masterpiece of 1972. This theme is rooted in civic action, with each of the Festival’s platforms serving as an invitation to explore questions of transparency and surveillance, citizenship and representation, expression and suppression, participation and dissent, and the enduring quest for visibility in the city.

The full-day conference on Thursday, May 28, zeroed in on each of these topics, as speakers shared their perspective on how they tackled problems within each or proposed solutions. By far, the most galvanizing speaker was Lawrence Lessig, whose dynamic opening keynote on inequality, networks, and democracy shone a spotlight on the broken-ness of American democracy and Internet regulation (find a way to watch it here).

Also eye-opening was the panel discussion Full Disclosure and the Morality of Information. As the panelists openly pointed out, government surveillance of American citizens and personal data collection through various social networks happen every day and have serious consequences, but little is being done, or can be done, to put a complete stop to them. Such unseen activities can be made visible through art projects and awareness campaigns, as the panelists explained, but the real change that is needed must come from individuals taking action to protect themselves.

The Saturday street fair seemed a bit more chaotic / haphazard than the 2o11 version, and maybe a bit emptier than I recall, but that didn’t take much away from the enjoyment. In one booth, a pianist performed his musical interpretation of whatever someone drew or wrote on a piece of paper, no matter how abstract it was. In another booth, the NYC Department of Design and Construction presented the city’s plans for inclusive design for the visually impaired, which included a prototype for a special concrete ramp with raised bumps and ridges plus braille on the railing to indicate a construction site.

What struck me most about the event was the actual absence of the “invisible” people of the city who were mentioned by some of the Thursday panelists: new immigrants, disabled individuals, and others who tend to go unnoticed or flat out ignored by everyday people and public services alike. I think it would have been fitting (necessary!) to not just talk about certain hidden populations receiving help from some group’s efforts but to invite them to participate in the conversation about what their present is like and what they want their future to look like.

As a series, IDEAS CITY has come a long way and is helping to redefine what cities can do to improve the well being of their citizens in the present and in the years to come. Rather than just showcase inspiring and imaginative art, architecture, and technology concepts aimed at a privileged few, IDEAS CITY 2015 dug into real issues that need much more than stylistic innovation to solve.

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Change the Conversation

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I’ve never been much of a talker. As much as I enjoy rich, far-ranging conversations, at heart I’m a quiet recluse who prefers silence to chit-chat. Dialogue is great and necessary, but there is a point where talk must translate into action.

Looking back on the content I’ve read over the past year, a good portion of it is commentary about some problem or situation that needs to change, but there’s little indication that any action will follow to bring about change. Twitter often feels like writing on the water — as soon as ideas are broadcast (critiques, praise, and everything in between), they either ripple outward or vanish downstream. Blog posts have a sedimentary quality, as new or recycled material settles on top of old, day after day. And while books and journal articles are great, at the end of the day they’re just static knowledge containers. These days, it feels like the only call to action is to consume more content or struggle to keep up with it. What is all of that content for?

As I suggested in my last post, information design is drowning in chatter. There is so much discussion about infographics, data displays, and dazzling visualizations that the hard work of defining and giving more structure to information design as a formal discipline is being neglected. In my own blog, I acknowledge that there’s a considerable gap between what I say and what I actually do. I complain about the state of information design and visualization repeatedly — where there’s confusion, what challenges exist, what could be done better — but I recognize I’ve done little to change the situation beyond helping clients understand the full value of information design. Some soon-to-be-launched ventures will help me practice what I preach and catapult some words and ideas into reality.

The Web is an amazing platform for self-expression, idea exchange, and knowledge sharing, but it’s up to us to step away from our computers, put down our devices, and engage in the world. We need to get better at applying all the knowledge we absorb and all tools at our disposal towards finding and creating solutions to the problems that sorely need attention.

I want 2014 to be the year where we spend a little less time “curating conversations” from the comfort of our computer screens and more time getting our hands dirty in the messy, unglamorous work of sensemaking. Not all of that work will be tweet-able, “like”-able, or Instagram-able, but it will matter, however big or small the effort is.

5 Information Design & Visualization Action Areas for 2014

  1. Mapping Context: The understanding domain, which encompasses the language, people, practices, scholarship, literature, and other components of information design and visualization, is constantly evolving, but it’s still very difficult to see the map of this territory. Some may think that it’s futile to define boundaries and set definitions because of that perpetual flux, but without even a conceptual representation of a space that is occupied and shaped by so many different fields and perspectives, there can be no understanding among the people and groups that call that place home, nor can newcomers and “outsiders” get their bearings. Maybe once we have a sense of what we all mean by information design and visualization and start to mean the same fundamental thing, we can better contextualize what we do for others in their terms and collectively help make sense of the world.
  2. Making Connections: Richard Saul Wurman says that you only learn something in relation to what you already know (in a talk he gave many years ago in NYC, he described his personal frustration with the unfamiliar: “How can I put some velcro on this shit?”). I think we all could do a better job of forging connections between the familiar and the unfamiliar, instead of constantly pursuing the “new” and “different” under the guise of trendiness or “innovation.” That means doing more to help people understand what we all do, whether we’re data visualization people, news infographics people, wayfinding people, information architects, etc. How many of us have a crisp, clear, one-sentence description of our work that many people can understand and relate to?  In our daily work, that means reducing the scale and apparent complexity of the unfamiliar into human terms. One great example of this I found recently is the Dictionary of Numbers, which makes obscure numbers more concrete and tangible. The potential for this type of tool is immense.
  3. Expanding Community: There are many different, highly specialized communities within information design and visualization, but they don’t seem to talk much to one another. Maybe it’s me and my lack of history or possibly limited view of things, but I still don’t understand the divisions between, say, information design and information architecture communities, or information design and data visualization communities. When I peer into each little “world” encapsulated in their respective community organization sites and Twitter conversations, I see vibrant discussion and the occasional mention of a neighboring field or overlapping community, but I don’t often see deliberate efforts to bridge across to those neighbors and expand communities (unless you consider open calls to participate in conferences with broad categories or comment fields on blog posts active invitations). We all can be territorial for a variety of reasons, and the thought of extending a hand of fellowship towards foreign “tribes” may seem uncomfortable to some, but related to the first two points above, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. HelpMeViz is among the most promising communities I’ve seen recently that doesn’t simply celebrate shared interest in data visualization — it welcomes productive discussion around data visualization projects needing input. More physical and online platforms for teaching and guidance in this still fuzzy domain are sorely needed.
  4. Considering Consequences: One of the biggest ongoing problems affecting the perception and understanding of information design and visualization is the glut of (mostly bad) “infographics” and their sensationalistic promotion. It’s old news that marketing and graphic design have misappropriated the form and function of visual information displays to suit aesthetic and commercial interests, but the consequence is that information design and visualization are becoming too closely and too narrowly associated with empty, unintelligible, and irrelevant illustrations of facts and figures and artistic or technical experiments that serve only their creators. The reality is that those more expressive outputs won’t go away. Some argue that they are necessary elements or “disruptors” of the larger visualization ecosystem. Still, there still needs to be a clearer delineation between what is playful and what is serious. I would go so far as to distinguish what is fake from what is real. Information design and visualization, at their core, deal with enabling understanding and informing action, and we need to recognize work that serves that purpose — in both practical and meaningful ways. And we need to emphasize that information design and visualization span far more challenges than just making pictures of data and far more outputs and outcomes than infographics and data visualization alone, contrary to what blogs and magazine sites may say. We have more than enough “infographics” that leave us thinking “so what?” or “huh?”. It’s time to show that information design and visualization can — and do — make a real difference in the world.
  5. Championing Clarity: It’s a simple point, but one that is easily forgotten: we all can and should do more to make life easier for ourselves and others in the ways we interact and communicate with each other. Being a practitioner of any sort in information design and visualization should mean that an understanding sensibility is “always on” and a part of everyday life — not just when a project or client demands it. Let’s speak in a way that everyone can understand, and not assume others share our same lexicon. Let’s listen and take time to truly understand what others say and express, so we can respond in meaningful ways. Let’s slow down and cross one understanding challenge at a time, instead of jumping to conclusions about what a solution or answer should be. Let’s start simple when we’re explaining something, visually, verbally or both, so we don’t leave anyone behind. And let’s share our skill and expertise to help others, even in small ways, make clarity a habit.

It’s already the end of January, and there’s lots of work to be done. I hope to see more positive, constructive effort in 2014, as well as some fresh ideas and approaches to the areas I’ve listed. In the meantime, stay tuned for updates…