On Design in the Twenty-first Century
Like most owners of a new restaurant, I buy glasses by the dozen, the cheaper the better. I do not own a restaurant but I live with a girlfriend who accidentally shatters one or two every week. “I’m just clumsy,” she explains. She graduated from the Joffrey School of Ballet and has since studied anatomy extensively. She provides a form of physical therapy, a kinestetic rehabilitation of sorts. “Clumsyness is a lie perpetuated by people who are not clumsy to make the rest of you feel bad,” I reply. It is not a matter of dexterity or coordination. Accidents happen when we are not paying attention, when we fail to be aware.
Like most interesting periods throughout history, we face a series of paradoxes today as we tumble into the second decade of the twenty-first century. Our sincere and sophisticated efforts to design and build a higher quality of life have led to profound advances in medicine, food, and shelter, as well as transformations in the way we work, play, educate, and relate. We have discovered, however, that these very same successes undermine our comfort and security. We have designed and built a world teetering on the brink of self-destruction, whether sudden from nuclear calamity, or slowly from cancer and the grinding change of a dying planet. Like many people living during interesting periods throughout history, we believe this might truly be the end. We tried to make things better. But as it turns out, the things we made might be a big command-z undo.
We face a second paradox that also lies in the realm of design and making. As a result of the Internet and related technology and culture, the cost of creating and producing has dropped to nearly zero. Making a movie or a news outlet has become something most anyone can do in the US and other countries with the luxury of surplus. DIY culture has flourished, and with it comes millions of people who have published and produced. Mere decades ago, that was simply impossible. Despite this growing population of makers, we have less knowledge of the things that we make. Complexity is one reason. A bookmaker a century or so ago would know all the tools required for their trade, and any they couldn’t repair themselves could be remade by a neighbor. Most bloggers today know almost nothing about the hardware beneath their fingertips. They would have no capacity to remake the software and network that connects them to their audience if it all broke. But complexity is not the only reason more and more makers know less and less about the things we make. Examining the roots of this second paradox will reveal another reason. It can also give us insight as to how we might resolve the more dire paradox above.
How did we get here? In a nutshell, we have designed and engineered for our ease and comfort. We have created substitutes for our burdens and masked unsightly things. We tried to alleviate our pains. These interventions became more ubiquitous as we addressed and improved our homes, offices, and everything in between. Our success yielded tools that enabled ever more people to be involved in improving our world. More making from more makers. We created a fine layer between us and our surroundings to manage our experience. As these designs become part of our bodies, like embedded pace-makers or mood altering drugs, this layer of design transcends further, and has passed beneath the realm of our awareness. It is a blanket of intervention that has settled between our sense of self and everything else. I think therefore I am. Whatever remains is an optional feature.
Good Design Disappears
We have long operator under the assumption that design succeeds when we are no longer aware of it. My ID card gets me through the door quickly, while bad people are kept at bay. I don’t think about it, but if I do, it is because something has gone wrong. From interfaces to highway networks, designers strive to vanish their mark. I think we need to question this approach.
For a century or more, we have deliberately and scientifically aimed to design nice, neat, and final solutions to problems that we know are far more complex than we could ever understand. Coal, nuclear power, natural gas, and bio fuel all came with good goals and a promise. That each iteration fails is not surprising when you consider their original assumptions. The true mistake lies not in the design but the design approach. In another realm we make a similar mistake. To preserve our health and well being, we design, manufacture, purchase and consume prescription drugs for one problem knowing fully that they create many more problems often as severe as the original. Addiction, heart failure, and suicide are not the side effects of poor engineering, they are the result of a mistaken approach.
As I type these words I look at the glass of water next to my laptop. Is it half full or half empty? Is it already cracked and ready to spill and short-circuit the conclusion of this essay? I like that it is clear. It lets me see that my water is limited. It shows the wear and tear from yesterday’s use. I like it better than what I may use in the future, an implant under my left shoulder blade that collects moisture from the air with nano-capillaries, feeding fluid silently to the blood in my veins in route back to my heart. Despite our best intentions, accidents happen when we let go of our awareness.
My designs made us clumsy. I too have believed that I had a solution to a problem, a problem I believed other people might not want to know about or bother to solve. I tried to make my solutions elegant and seamless and almost invisible. I have encouraged people to be more focused on the results and what comes next than aware of the task at hand. But no more. From this day forth you will see my mark. You will hear my intention. You will find an invitation to adjust, refine, and remake my designs as you see fit.
I hope that you will also design for awareness, creating things that make people more familiar with your material decisions and interface choice. Go further — let them change the interface or require them to build it. Design things that make people question whether they really want it. Succeed with this and you can then shift from selling products with planned obsolescence to providing services to customers who will be more loyal than you could imagine. Engineer messy responses to global problems that assume we don’t have the answer, built for input by currently unknown experts, designed to evolve with the wisdom of our community.