The Dawn of the Understanding Age

December 20, 2012


Time to shift our priorities from making more information to making sense

I’m officially calling for an end to the Information Age.

For the past 60 years or so, we’ve made outstanding progress with information. Ever since we transformed the nature of information from something fixed and static to something fluid and dynamic, we’ve opened up whole new worlds of opportunity for its creation, transmission, storage and retrieval. We have become highly efficient at producing tools for generating content, establishing platforms for publishing, and designing systems for archiving, searching, and sharing information. The fact that we can now interact with so much information in so many ways using so many different devices (most of them portable) is a staggering achievement. In a sense, this is information’s Golden Age.

But we pay a steep price for all these advancements. We continue to struggle with the growing volume and complexity of what we create. Whole industries have formed for the sole purpose of managing information, from information technology to information science, but these efforts suffer from their own self-perpetuated complexity, like ever-changing standards, elaborate systems design, and cryptic jargon. We now suffer from information overload, information anxiety, infobesity, and other info-ailments. On the flip side, some of us welcome the deluge and become hooked on the steady stream of information available to us, giving rise to the infovore and information addiction. In the case of either too much or not enough information, our attention spans have shrunk, our concentration has become fractured, and our memory has been offloaded to a hard drive somewhere.

Along with these challenges, the quality of information design and delivery has fallen short of people’s real-world needs. We may possess better tools and techniques than ever for presenting data and packaging information, but the results still favor the form of information rather than the function, or as Richard Saul Wurman would put it, the performance of information. We’ve grown too accustomed to the idea of having designed information pieces and online experiences do all the heavy lifting of explaining something, but we overlook the shortcomings of the artifacts we create, placing the burden of figuring it out on an already overloaded audience.

We’ve been too deeply enamored with the technical and technological aspects of information, all the while neglecting to adequately bridge the gaps we’ve created in human understanding.

It’s time to usher in the Understanding Age.

Just like the resurgence of classical learning and ideals in the Renaissance and the triumph of scientific reasoning during the Enlightenment, the Understanding Age will bring about a renewed focus on human needs in communication and a deep appreciation for sensemaking and teaching skills. The key to the Understanding Age will be the adoption of information design thinking skill as an essential universal capability, like math, writing, and logic. Professional information designers won’t be the only ones expected to make sense of data or create organizing structures for content (although their expertise will remain vital to tackling complex problems). We all will need to become better explainers and start taking more responsibility for the way we communicate with each other, regardless of intent, discipline, or medium.

The implications of a widespread consciousness-raising for understanding could be significant. One of the biggest transformations I envision (and hope for) could happen where it’s been long overdue — in those difficult life situations where guidance is hardest to find:

  • Starting and raising a family
  • Dealing with serious illness
  • Coping with loss
  • Surviving and recovering from a natural disaster
  • Launching a new business

(Even without doing an exhaustive analysis, the most understanding-deficient areas of life turn out to be money, health/well-being, and law. Why that is will remain a topic for another post.)

Just imagine: instead of having to plow through scores of books, brochures, websites, and videos or make countless phone calls to family, friends, and “customer service” lines when you need help with, say, a healthcare issue, all the support you need could be available in one place or through one point of contact who would take the time to explain everything to you clearly. The information you’re looking for could be available precisely at the point of need, never too far out of reach. And none of it would seem unusual — it would just be the way things are done. Does this sound like an episode of the Twilight Zone?

I could list many more examples of what an Understanding Age could bring about for education, business, government, and society, and build a better case for such a movement, but the benefits are readily apparent. If information design thinking became widely embraced and practiced, we might solve for many of the social and economic challenges we face today.

The idea of an Understanding Age might be too aspirational, but some of the groundwork for this vision has already been laid. Information design, information architecture, and data visualization have grown in popularity and have slowly evolved into more recognized practices. The infographics wave, for better or worse, has raised awareness of information design by pushing it into the mainstream. Visual thinking as an enabler of understanding continues to gain traction. The continued popularity of design thinking and the growing formalization of user experience as a discipline have both helped to make user-centered design a priority for many businesses and organizations. Gradually, the importance of more mindful communication and the desire for skill-building to practice it effectively will catch on.

At a small scale, some basic principles for everyday communication can help make a difference:

  • Challenging policies and practices that deliberately conceal and confuse (a big one!)
  • Thinking systemically about what you’re communicating and how it fits in an ecosystem of touchpoints
  • Distancing yourself from your content and assuming a beginner’s point of view
  • Weeding out ambiguities in your language, like acronyms and technical expressions
  • Diagnosing barriers to understanding through questions and feedback from your audience
  • Encouraging more direct person-to-person dialogue, instead of device-to-device exchanges over email and text
  • Being patient when someone needs more explanation

and, most important of all

  • Never assuming anything

If we can’t start the next chapter in history right away, we can at least try to make each other’s lives a litte easier.


The World Can Change Design

September 25, 2011

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.

Conceive. Create. Renew.

May 15, 2011

I’m usually not one for clichés but I must admit that spring is definitely in the air; if not evidenced by spastic sneezing fits and confused wardrobe selections (is it a hot day or a cold day?), spring’s arrival is clearly signaled by an abundance of activities and outdoor festivals in NYC. As the city sheds its scarves and wool coats, there is much to look forward to this season.

One event that nearly slipped under my radar was the Festival of Ideas for the New City. Its ambitions were grand, as stated on the festival’s main page:

Festival of Ideas for the New City is a major new collaborative initiative in New York involving scores of Downtown organizations working together to harness the power of the creative community to imagine the future city and explore ideas that will shape it.

Their lineup of talks, workshops, exhibits and booths was staggering, spanning a good part of the Lower East Side. Struck with option overload, I decided to give up on planning specific sites to visit and just wandered around Sarah D. Roosevelt Park, where most of the action was.

My first impression was of a bizarre hybrid street fair, conceptual art exhibit, and urban planning expo — full of surprises at every turn:

There were people making sandals right on the sidewalk!

There was a traveling studio on display, which seemed to have a small gathering inside:

I really liked this tent concept for visitors to NYC. The informational exhibit had a nice graphic feel to it:

The tent also had some charming diorama-like displays to add a little sparkle to the concept:

The show stopper of the day had to be the crocheted people, casually lounging on their crocheted bed:

This is just a small glimpse of what the event had to offer; workshops, talks, and exhibits were also part of the week-long festival program. I was fortunate to hear from others what their experience was of the parts I missed (generally positive, although there was some consensus on poor event navigation and usability of event programs and maps).

Overall, I think this event succeeded in not just redefining notions of what a public event could be, but also in reaffirming the power of creativity to help build community. Nonprofits working to improve life in the city had an excellent platform to gain support for their causes. I spent some time learning about the great work of Transportation Alternatives, New York City’s advocacy organization for bicycling, walking and public transit, and Safari 7, an educational project with the MTA to teach people about the different forms of life at each stop along the 7 line.

In many ways, this festival also represented a renewal of the spirit of New York arts. After what seemed a Dark Age of artistic output brought about by the economic downturn, it was inspiring to see an energy and vitality once known in Greenwich Village during the early to mid-1980’s. Just seeing young families at craft booths and play areas seemed to indicate that the specter of financial doom was lifting and that it was okay to celebrate art and design again. Or at least, that was my impression.

I’m curious to see what’s in store for next year’s festival, if there is one.

Retrospect | Prospect

December 31, 2009


Here we are, at an end and a beginning — as much a time of retrospection as of prospection and prediction. It is also a time to stop and take a look at the present.

I know it’s quite customary at this time of year to do recaps, years in review, forecasts, predictions, etc. Rather than list all the top news headlines of the past decade or make speculations into an uncertain future, I would like to offer some personal observations. It may be rambling and choppy, but I wanted to get these thoughts out in time for New Years.

What has happened in the past 10 years?

The opening chapter of the 21st century has been eventful to say the least: terrorism, global conflict, natural disasters, economic decline, health epidemics, and environmental degradation numbered among our biggest (ongoing) challenges. Among all the bad news items since 2000, there were the inevitable (hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis), the despicable (political and financial scandals galore), the reprehensible (terror attacks, shootings, murders), the lamentable (accidents, deaths of notable figures in history), and the seemingly insurmountable (poverty, inequity, global development issues). Of course, at the individual level there was much to struggle with, from unemployment to the high cost of living to poor quality health care. Thinking back on all of this, I’d say that this was the decade that many people didn’t just see or hear about passively, their lives largely unaffected. This was the decade and specifically the year people actually felt.

But it wasn’t all gloom and doom. Science and technology blossomed: our view of the universe and the natural world expanded (Mars exploration, Large Hadron Collider), our knowledge of ourselves and our origins deepened (Human Genome Project, Ardipithecus discovery) and our capabilities to communicate stretched further (broadband, mobile computing). We grew more comfortable with the quickening pace of innovation around the internet, and in turn have allowed it to shape our lives.

What is the world we live in now?

One approach to understanding the present is to use the same “good/bad” construct, as with the past. Much of what we saw continues to this day. However, we have landed in a unique place as a result of the complexities we’re facing, and our present response as a society is a reflection of our place in history:

Social consciousness, which was largely absent or hidden from sight in the decades preceding, is emerging as a defining characteristic of the times. We are focusing more attention on solving human challenges today, locally and globally. Volunteerism and not-for-profit work are now more appealing than traditional corporate jobs, and traditional corporations are catching up to this phenomenon through corporate citizenship initiatives.

Environmental awareness has remarkably become a mainstream phenomenon, no longer the province of “60’s throwbacks.” Nations are now convening to address climate change issues, major corporations are championing green initiatives, and nearly every consumer product and manufacturing process is scrutinized through the lens of sustainability. Collectively, there is a determination to undo the mistakes of the past and instill environmentally sound practices in all areas of society.

Pro-active government is taking bold steps to work for the people, not against them. The Obama administration, in its first year, is showing tremendous resolve in tackling one of our biggest domestic challenges: health care reform. Transparency in government through open data access is another significant shift.

The personal data and smart device explosion is ever-present. Our lives are migrating to digital platforms, where more of our interactions are taking place. The lives of distant others are becoming more detailed and more colorful, as is our own, by news and social networks. Thanks to the multitude of smart gadgets at our disposal, we are always connected, always walking the fine line between our virtual and real lives (sometimes while driving!).

What visions exist for the years ahead?

In the near term, there is a strong sense of guarded optimism about what 2010 holds, particularly with regard to the economy and government. There is little to indicate when or how economic stability will be restored, as there are multiple variables at play. Obama and his administration still have much work to do; unfortunately, immediate results are difficult to realize with monumental foreign and domestic priorities on the agenda competing for attention. Hopefully the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will end soon, terrorists will be defeated, and America’s image will be restored in the eyes of a global community, but again, a clear and direct roadmap remains elusive. A “wait and see” approach seems to be the best we can afford as the year unfolds and the fog of uncertainty slowly dissolves away.

Looking long term, we are still at the start of a millennium, only 1% of the way through. There is great interest these days in the future, perhaps more noticeably this year than in the past 10 years. I wonder if this is due to a longing for a more exciting life enriched by fantastic technologies and scientific breakthroughs, aligned with the science fiction fantasies so vividly rendered in movies and television. Perhaps this is how the future is created — by envisioning potential realities just on the horizon and charting a slow, steady course in their direction. To that end, several communities, groups and organizations such as The Institute for the Future (IFTF), SpaceCollective, and Humanity+ are stirring imaginations and debate about where we may be headed.

As days blur into months and years to come, I hope that progress will continue towards solving our toughest problems, and that we all keep searching for new opportunities to advance our world and ourselves.

Happy New Year!


BONUS: My website: one year later

It has also been a year since I launched this incarnation of my personal website, and it’s been quite a learning experience in itself:

I found myself writing only a fraction as much as I thought I would. While I lean toward creating long-form original content versus repackaging or republishing existing short-form content with commentary, I think there’s room for a mixture of both, if only for the sake of variety and personal interest.

I spent more time crafting and revising my posts than I expected. Cranking out mini journal-type entries online seemed a simple concept at first, but really putting thought and effort into developing posts proved to be an exercise. Then again, I tend to be a bit fussy with language, so perhaps a punchier journalistic style would suit this medium better.

I finally “got” Twitter. It took a long time for me to even consider getting a Twitter account, and almost as long to start tweeting. Much like this site, I saw it as another experiment in online communication, but with more of a novelty appeal. I didn’t realize it’s potential until I saw it in action: it allows ideas to be spread lightning fast and to be buoyed up and amplified by a multitude of networks.

My intent with this site has always been to share a bit about myself personally and professionally, and to write about what I find interesting, peculiar, or relevant to others. I haven’t gotten much input or feedback on this site this year, and I’m sure there are many people out there like myself who don’t see the need to comment on everything they like or dislike online. Nevertheless, I would like to provide more opportunities for conversation, especially when a healthy debate or discussion might be in order.

Believing in Change + Making Change Happen

January 25, 2009


Almost through the first month of 2009, and I still can’t believe we’re in 2009. What’s even harder to believe is the great number and sheer scale of problems we’re facing in 2009:

  • the global economic downturn
  • the ongoing wars and conflicts around the world
  • the persistent threat of terrorism
  • the rapid degradation of the environment
  • the energy crisis
  • the dwindling supply of food in the world
  • the population explosion
  • the global health epidemics
  • and many, many others…

These are days of high anxiety, for sure. From the consistently jarring news headlines (just search Google News for “worst year ever” 2008-2009) to the unsettling stories of hardship and misfortune that we hear from co-workers, friends and family, or live through ourselves, we may very well be in the midst of one of the most challenging periods in human history.

Yet what I find most fascinating about this rather bleak moment in time is the radical shift in attitude that is taking place in America. The last eight years under the Bush administration were marked with anger and frustration, as the nation’s problems swelled with each passing year (here’s a list of 99 problems), with no real signs of improvement. There wasn’t much reason to be optimistic when faced with a regular barrage of bad news, topped off with the arrogant proclamations of a leader wielding unprecedented power. Of course, not all of the nation’s problems can be attributed to an 8-year presidential term, but there’s no doubt many problems were newly created or woefully exacerbated.

Now, thanks in large part to President Obama’s uplifting campaign, euphoric victory, and moving inauguration (all of which demonstrated huge changes in themselves), a wave of fierce optimism and, yes, hope has swept the nation. Obama has re-instilled confidence in the potential of America — its government and its citizens — to bring positive change, in spite of the enormity and difficulty of problems it faces. The role of every citizen in helping to make an impact figures strongly in Obama’s plan for the nation. This approach signals a distinct shift from the traditional attitude of government towards “the people:” Americans are not merely tax-paying machines that toil endlessly to keep the country fat with prosperity, with little reward save “freedom.” Rather, they are agents of real change and active participants in the success of the nation, supported by a government that has pledged to be more attuned to their needs and more protective of their values. While America is not a democracy in the literal sense (we are a constitutional republic), this administration is restoring the spirit of democracy and faith in its ideals.

The skeptic in me finds this all too good to be true, waiting for those lofty promises to fizzle out or for a gradual regression to business-as-usual in Washington, D.C., but the momentum generated behind Obama seems far greater the man himself. Obama has re-energized the nation, reminding many of their innate capacity to do something important, especially by volunteering locally. Many problems lie too far out of our reach, yet many opportunities exist to better our immediate community or to offer help where it is most welcome.

I will look forward to the changes ahead. They may be slow to arrive, but I’ll remain optimistic while doing what I can to contribute.

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