Thanos: Super-Villain and Terrible Designer

Thanos from “Avengers: Endgame”

Here is a presentation that I made last week about how to understand the design process, explained through the lens of Thanos, that lovable scamp from “Avengers: Endgame.” (Mild spoilers included.)

If we want more awareness of and appreciation for our work, explaining design to people who aren’t already well-versed in the field is one of the most worthwhile things that we can do as professionals. It’s also one of the hardest. Which is probably why I procrastinated so much in preparing for this talk last week, when Gimlet Creative invited me to come and help them “get a little smarter about design.” Gimlet is of course the production house behind “Wireframe,” the podcast about design that I host, but the invitation was to address the entire team of audio producers working on many different shows on many different topics.

I lecture fairly frequently and so have a good number of talks in hand but I didn’t have one that lays out the basics of the design process for an uninitiated audience. Some people can just extemporize grandly on anything even vaguely relevant to their areas of expertise, but I always need to have plenty of time to write and rehearse. In my head, I had expected to be able to devote one day early last week to writing it from scratch and another to rehearsing, but that didn’t quite work out, suffice it to say. I ended up cramming it all into Wednesday night, the day before my appearance at Gimlet.

Actually, to be totally frank, what happened was that I came by two tickets for “Avengers: Endgame” on Tuesday, and so of course, nothing got done. By the time I sat down to start writing on Wednesday, I had that feeling of being in a real jam, as I was due to give my schpiel on Thursday at 10:30a. Not only was I running out of time, but I was completely stumped as to how to tell a story that would resonate. How does one explain a subject that’s as expansive and nuanced as design, without boring the heck out of an audience as smart and discerning as this? And how to figure that out the night before?

After an hour or so of panic, I had a realization that there was an “in” here that would, at the very least, make the topic more accessible for me: I could explain design through the lens of “Avengers: Endgame.” This would require accepting a pretty silly conceit: the idea that the master plan that Thanos, the central villain, enacts in “Endgame” and its predecessor, “Infinity War,” was in fact a kind of design. Or, at the very least, it’s an example of design gone wrong, and that in itself could be a useful way of explaining how design works.

Settling on that concept allowed me to power through the rest quickly—I just used the notion of Thanos being a fairly incompetent designer as a framework on top of which I could hang a bunch of stuff about design that I already knew. The whole talk is hardly genius, but I would contend that it’s mildly fun, at least, which is a useful step towards making design a little bit more relatable. And based on the massive box office receipts for “Endgame,” even if this makes design more relatable for a tiny fraction of moviegoers, that would be a victory.

The full presentation is embedded above. Of course, unaccompanied by my talk track, my intention isn’t always apparent so I’ve added excerpts from my talk track to selected slides. For maximum legibility though, the deck is available over at Enjoy.