The second episode of our third season of “Wireframe” is out right now. You can listen below or in your favorite podcast player, and you can subscribe at adobe.ly/wireframe.
At some point or other we’ve all been guilty of poking fun at the inability of older loved ones to grasp various technical concepts or navigate various apps or websites. It would be funny if it weren’t so frustrating—and tragic—for everyone involved. This episode digs deep into the generational divide that often determines the usability of tech products and tries to understand the role that design plays a role in perpetuating this difficulty. From the episode notes:
Your dad’s dog is barking in the background, but he doesn’t know how to mute his video chat. Your uncle can’t get Netflix working on his new SmartTV. And grandma still can’t find where her favorite songs are stored on her tablet. Why is your family always depending on you for tech support? Sometimes design, technology, and getting older doesn’t add up. And if design is failing older generations, it will eventually fail us all.
Here’s the first of six episodes in our third season of “Wireframe,” the podcast about the stories behind product and UX design, hosted by yours truly. You can listen below, in your favorite podcast player, or subscribe at adobe.ly/wireframe.
This season also marks the debut of our new collaboration with the amazing team at Pacific Content. They bring the editorial and production firepower that make each episode’s reporting, research, interviews, storytelling and sound production so uniformly excellent. Every episode is a massive undertaking for the producers at Pacific and I’m so lucky to be working with such an amazing group of people.
And as a special bonus, you’ll notice new, bespoke show artwork for each episode, courtesy of the amazing Łódź, Poland-based illustrator Klawe Rzeczy.
Before I run down what I watched, let me talk about what I read. After about two long years of good intentions and sporadic attention, I finally finished Robert Caro’s monumental biography of Robert Moses, “The Power Broker.” I’m embarrassed by how long it took me to do it but that’s only because the book itself is 1,200 pages long and weighs over four pounds and it’s not available on Kindle or iBooks or even in reliably readable pirated e-book form (I tried). When I did pick it up though, every page was fully transporting and engrossing, so vivid and luxurious is Caro’s deeply researched, minutely detailed writing.
Who knows if an ambitious director or an enterprising star will ever make the mistake of trying to adapt “The Power Broker” as a narrative feature, but I would bet money that there will never be a documentary made from it. The sheer richness of detail and expansiveness of the story that Caro tells would break any documentarian. There would just be no hope of capturing in a measly two-hour documentary the scope of Robert Moses’s life and work, especially the way Caro tells it, when even the wide physical expanses of the entire New York region itself could barely contain the breadth of the master builder’s creative and destructive genius.
All of which is just a roundabout way of making the point that, over the years, I’ve lost interest in the documentary as an art form. Like most people, I’ve enjoyed my share of them in the past—“When We Were Kings” and “Gimme Shelter” come to mind as standout film watching experiences for me—but these days more often than not I find documentaries intensely dissatisfying. They’re either too short, in which case they never seem to get to the level of detail in their subjects that I as a viewer want to see, or they’re too long, in which case they’re probably still too superficial for my taste while also managing to be boring.
If I’m going to watch a movie, I’d much rather watch something that’s declaratively fictitious, that has no pretenses to being factual. This isn’t about a bias against non-fiction, either; in fact what I find most frustrating about documentaries is that they’re not as rigorous or detailed as any given feature article in any give issue of say The New Yorker.
What’s worse, there are so many diverse and frankly elastic interpretations of what a documentary is, and so when it comes to journalistic integrity, I rarely know what I’m getting into. It’s obvious to say but worth repeating because so few people seem to acknowledge this, but documentaries are not journalism. They’re not fact checked and multiply sourced and in fact they’re more often than not opaque in their methods and research. And yet because they have the veneer of reality, they’re presented as fact much more often than they should be.
All of this came to mind as I finally finished “The Power Broker” mostly because reading it felt very much like experiencing something truly cinematic, where “cinematic” connotes a level of fulfilled ambition and emotional impact so overwhelming that you have no idea how it was ever done, much less dreamed of. There’s not a single documentary that I can think of that comes close to that, except perhaps for Ric Burns’s eight-part mini series “New York: A Documentary Film.”
If you enjoy documentaries, then more power to you. I acknowledge that there are things that the documentary form can do that the narrative form can’t, and I know that my aversion to them means I’ve missed out on some truly good ones every year. But for me watching documentaries just doesn’t seem like the best return on my time investments. I’d seriously rather be watching some silly popcorn fare or reading a real piece of journalism.
Okay, now on to what I watched in June which, ironically, included a documentary! That was “Kedi,” which tells the “stories” of several street cats in Instanbul. Intellectually I justified the time by reminding myself that “Kedi” makes no pretenses to being factual and also it’s freaking adorable, people.
The rest of what I watched, frankly, wasn’t all that impressive. In total I managed to see only thirteen films, only one of which was a new release. That was Cory Finley’s “Bad Education,” a black comedy about a Long Island superintendent of schools who meets with scandal. It was a fun ride that didn’t quite stick the landing, and also a bit of a letdown after Finley’s very impressive 2017 debut “Thoroughbreds,” which everyone should seek out.
The real standout for my June was probably the little-noticed but crackerjack 2018 thriller “Arctic,” which follows in the man-versus-nature tradition of “All Is Lost.” (At the risk of belaboring my point from above, I’d much rather rewatch these two fiction films than have to revisit a totally bogus man versus nature documentary like say “Free Solo”.)
Halfway through the month I discovered that my AT&T cellular plan entitles me to a free subscription to HBO MAX, so that’s my excuse for rewatching three of the horribly misconceived Batman movies from Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher. It’s a kindness to say that they haven’t stood the test of time; even Burton’s “Batman Returns” is awful. I thought I was going to work my way from the worst of the series to its “best,” Burton’s 1989 “Batman,” but after the first three, I couldn’t bear to do it.
After many, many hours spent recording in my basement, we are just about ready with a new, third season of “Wireframe,” the podcast I host about how design shapes technology to fit into our lives. The first episode launches next Monday, 13 July. Until then, you can listen to the trailer below and you can subscribe at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, PocketCasts, Castro or anywhere you get your favorite podcasts.
This season we’re looking at how design is changing in a world that is itself undergoing massive change. We have episodes about designers coping with the pandemic and social unrest; about the UX decisions that make it hard for families to connect in a world of social distancing; about the design of crowdfunding and charity platforms in a time when giving is more vital than ever; about whether user experience makes a difference in the streaming platforms that we’re all glued to; about how design might—or might not—help increase mindfulness; and about the design of elections, which is probably another fun surprise that 2020 has in store for us.
It’s a lot of really terrific stuff. As usual, we’ve got great guests, it’s all deeply researched and thoughtfully reported, and it makes for fascinating listening for anyone who practices, consumes and/or thinks about design. I’m incredibly proud of this new batch of utterly unique design stories and I think you’ll enjoy them too. Subscribe today, and if you haven’t listened before, you can catch up on the previous two seasons at adobe.ly/wireframe.
During much of the five years or so I’ve worked at Adobe, alongside my “day job” leading the design team behind Adobe XD, I’ve also been pursuing an unusual “side hustle.” It was a bit of a far-fetched idea that was almost completely outside of my expertise, and one that very likely would not have been possible at any other company except Adobe: the creation of a scholarship fund specifically to help aspiring designers from diverse and underrepresented groups pursue design educations.
After several years of planning, persuasion and paperwork, a few of us dedicated to this idea managed to put together the Design Circle Scholarship, announced late last year in this blog post by my colleague and collaborator Kari Norder. We were incredibly moved to receive over a thousand applications from new, vibrant talent all over the world. We were also lucky enough to get a generous contribution of time from the members of our Design Circle forum of industry leaders to carefully and thoughtfully review each application and portfolio. Today, Adobe announced the ten lucky, deserving, promising, amazing winners. You can see their pictures above and read more about them in this blog post at XD Ideas.
Of course, a cohort of ten scholarship winners is a modest start and it’s not going to change the industry overnight. But it’s a meaningful one for these students: they’ll each receive up to US$25,000 for four years of undergraduate study in design. The fund is intended to allow young designers to access the education they deserve, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, age, economic or cultural background.
For me, the animating idea is that if we can open the doors wider to those seeking to enter the design field, if we can make design education more affordable and accessible to more and different kinds of people, then we can make a material impact on who ultimately gets to practice design. That is the difference between a design industry that wants to be more diverse and inclusive and a design industry that is more diverse and inclusive. We have a lot of work to do still, but these ten burgeoning talents are proof that we can change this industry if we match actions to our intentions.
Sometimes when I watch a movie I feel the urge to write about it immediately, but events rarely allow me to act on that. In the case of director Kitty Green’s “The Assistant,” which I watched early last month, that time gap is a particular shame. It’s a very good movie, a superb one, even. And yet, writing about it now, in late June, feels like a real disservice to a film that might already have missed its moment in time.
“The Assistant” is a fictional take on life in the orbit of a Harvey Weinstein-like character, seen through the eyes of his executive assistant, played by Julia Garner. It follows a very long, ostensibly routine and casually horrific day in the life of Garner’s character, allowing us to experience the myriad indignities, humiliations and crushing disappointments of life in the employ of a powerful psychopath.
This is likely the very best narrative film to come out of the #MeToo era, but its release in the spring of 2020 feels unfortunate. Even if it had been released just half a year earlier, say at about the same time that Ronan Farrow’s book “Catch and Kill” came out, it might have really found an audience. But when I watched it in early May, still in the midst of quarantine living, when it had gone straight to video-on-demand and without a theatrical release, it felt like few others were talking about it, much less watching it. And now, with the civil unrest over the killing of George Floyd, time really seems to have gotten away from the filmmakers.
Which is a tremendous shame. Not only does “The Assistant” offer an incisive commentary on the power structures that enable abusive men, but it does so with an extremely deft level of artfulness. There’s a unique quality to the whole film that’s weirdly vague and almost blurry. Characters don’t get names—Garner’s character is only named in the credits, and her employer is only ever referred to by his pronouns—and actions aren’t explicit. At a pivotal moment in the film, the protagonist can’t even describe the principal conflict she’s experiencing in any material detail.
At the same time everything in this movie still somehow manages to be incredibly specific and even unambiguous in its emotional power. The film is never less than direct in its commentary, and is even unflinching in addressing the complexities of the abuse. Nothing is named, but no one in the film—or the audience—is under any misapprehensions about what’s happening and who’s involved. Superficially, it bears the hallmarks of a small, independent feature film—it was filmed in just a few, modest locations, without any major set pieces. But it’s constrained and succinct not necessarily because that’s all that its budget allowed, but rather because that narrow focus allows the story to be told with exactly the incisiveness and searing accuracy that the filmmakers intended.
As for the rest of what I watched in May: I managed a bit of a comeback, fitting in twenty-two movies watched, up significantly from April’s total. Here is the full list:
What we choose to watch in film and on television says so much about us because these stories offer up, in plain sight, an encoding of our values in narrative form. If you want to understand the hopes, dreams, anxieties and fears of a people, just look to their entertainment.
The past several weeks since the killing of George Floyd have coincided with a cultural realization—a frustratingly belated one, for many—that the stories we watch about police and the criminal justice system are crucial and even overt pillars in our society’s structural racism. And we’ve all been okay with it, even enthusiastic about it, for as long as these stories have been told. Two recent examinations of police portrayals on television bear this out.
Fiction vs. Fact
The first is a report released in January by the non-profit research group Color of Change and The USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center, which offers fascinating and unprecedented insight into the way scripted television shows manipulate our perceptions of policing and crime. Titled “Normalizing Injustice: The Dangerous Misrepresentations That Define Television’s Scripted Crime Genre,” the report bills itself as “A comprehensive study of how television’s most popular genre excludes writers of color, miseducates people about the criminal justice system and makes racial injustice acceptable.” Researchers watched hundreds of episodes from twenty-six different scripted crime shows from the 2017-2018 television series, while also collecting demographic data for the shows’ creators, show runners and writers, as well as data on the shooting locations and police and military consultants used by the producers.
Normalizing Injustice found that the crime TV genre—the main way that tens of millions of people learn to think about the criminal justice system—advanced debunked ideas about crime, a false hero narrative about law enforcement, and distorted representations about Black people, other people of color and women. These shows rendered racism invisible and dismissed any need for police accountability. They made illegal, destructive and racist practices within the criminal justice system seem acceptable, justifiable and necessary—even heroic. The study found that the genre is also incredibly un-diverse in terms of creators, writers and showrunners: nearly all white.
The report is available to download in full but there’s an abridged version too, which makes for a brisk overview of many troubling trends. These include the finding that a majority of the studied series depicted ostensibly virtuous police performing wrongful or unlawful acts, thereby framing extrajudicial actions as “relatable, forgivable, acceptable and ultimately good.” This behavior goes largely unchallenged in the shows’ scripts, but on the occasions when it is called into question, show writers rely predominantly on characters of color or women to voice the objections, thereby fueling the idea that it’s not up to white males to abide by the letter of the law.
More egregious is the finding that, across virtually all of the shows, these wrongful actions take place entirely outside of the context of racial bias. They seem to posit a world without racial profiling, excessive use of force, prosecutorial overzealousness or other common abuses of the law. Meanwhile, the depiction of who is victimized by crime is largely skewed towards white men and women, with show plots least likely to focus on black women as victims. It’s as if the shows go so far out of their way to present an ideal of race-blind law enforcement that they’re oblivious to the unmistakably racist signals that they’re sending about who should be policed and who should be protected.
There is a lot of data in this “Normalizing Injustice” report and if you watch any of these shows, it’s illuminating to pore over the statistics of which series do better or worse in various measures. It’s a reminder of how powerful fiction can be to our understanding of who we are and the world around us.
Fact-ish vs. Fiction
Perhaps even more powerful than pure fiction though is fiction dressed up as documentary content. If you’ve ever watched “Cops,” or the even more bread-and-circuses-style “Live PD” you’ll be familiar with the voyeuristic thrill of “riding along” with real police officers from the comfort of your living room. These shows are the best and worst of television in that they expertly and brazenly exploit the unique advantages of the medium: the ability to reflect back to us a heavily distorted, deeply transfixing vision of our own anxieties and make it available for continuous, passive consumption, all without meaningful consideration of morality or consequences. They’re horrific trash but it takes real fortitude to look away.
Before we pat ourselves on the back too much though, it’s worth looking back on these broadcasting travesties to understand just how they worked and what damage they’ve done to our society and our understanding of what policing should be. As it happens, a truly superb podcast that launched and wrapped earlier this spring called “Running from Cops” does just that.
There are six or eight episodes, depending on whether you count the bonus shows, and they’re all wildly revealing about the frankly immoral methods that these reality shows’ producers used in order to win good ratings. Host Dan Taberski and his team watched almost eight-hundred and fifty episodes of the show (spanning three decades, amazingly) and quantified a host of patterns including the kinds of crimes captured in each episode, the demographics of the police officers and the alleged perpetrators, the extent to which the process of each crime is documented and much more. The team also did a deep dive into “Live PD” and tracked the efforts of one municipality to ban that show from filming its police force—and the blowback that city leaders received. It’s an impressive piece of investigative journalism, and every episode of the podcast is fully absorbing to listen to.
Still, if you’re just going to listen to one them, the episode that packs the most wallop, that will open your eyes the widest and incite the most indignant outrage is episode six, embedded below. In it, the producers somehow get their hands on the raw footage of one episode of “Cops,” something which is shockingly difficult to do. As they share it with the listener, they cast in stark terms the gap between what the show’s cameras actually captured in “documentary” mode and what was edited, finessed, manipulated and ultimately aired as one of the hundreds of episodes of “Cops” that have run on TV for the past three decades. In short, what made it to air was thoroughly dishonest. I always thought “Cops” was crappy but now it seems truly revolting, just like many of the stories we’ve been telling about policing for far too long.
“Unarmed” is an art project in the form of a series of sports jersey designs honoring victims of police killings. It was created by my friend Raafi Rivero, a filmmaker and photographer based in Brooklyn, New York.
Each jersey is designed in the colors of a victim’s local sports team. The jersey number represents the victim’s age. Stars, if present, represent how many times the victim was shot. I designed the first ‘Unarmed’ jersey in 2013, not long after the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer, and first started posting designs to this website in 2014.
The project made its IRL debut a week ago on Flatbush Avenue where Rivero and his collaborators pasted up large-scale prints on store fronts boarded up during the pandemic. You can see local news coverage of the project at abc7ny.com.
I went to see them for myself earlier today. They had attracted some random graffiti already, but the jerseys are still very moving in person. Even viewed as graphics in a web browser though the they’re terribly effective at communicating the overwhelming sadness of their stories. Their bright, playful colors evoke the vibrancy of pro sports, as intended, but when you focus in on the numbers and stars, they evoke with great power the deep, harrowing loss that each victim’s families, friends and community experienced.
Rivero is clear that he has no interest in profiting from these designs or these senseless deaths. Still, I asked him if he planned to fabricate and sell real jerseys for charity. He said he had no firm plans to do so, but he did have one made in honor of Eric Garner as wardrobe in his independently produced film “72 Hours: A Brooklyn Love Story.” (That film is excellent, by the way.)
Here is a closer look at two of the designs: one for George Floyd and one for Breonna Taylor.
This tee-shirt, which nods to the tech, design and art communities, was designed by James T. Green, a friend and producer on our last season of “Wireframe.” When you buy it, all proceeds go to organizations working to fight structural racism. Get it at jamestgreen.com.
I have only this tiny corner of the Internet that I can call my own, and generally no one expects me to weigh in on the issues of the day beyond the narrow scope of design, tech and movies. But for the past few weeks I’ve felt a need and a responsibility to write something about the horrific murder of George Floyd and the outpouring of protest that’s followed.
Watching video of Derek Chauvin with his knee on George Floyd’s neck in Minneapolis sickened me to my core. But it didn’t really surprise me. And neither did the many, many other similar videos of police brutality that preceded it, going all the way back to the beating of Rodney King in 1991, which happened to take place while I was going to school in Los Angeles. Nor was I really surprised by the many, many videos of police officers brazenly using excessive force on protesters in the wake of Floyd’s death.
America is deeply racist. I’ve known this since I was a kid. We all know this, every one of us, even if we don’t all admit it.
And even if we do believe this, the trick of it all is that we’re not always aware of or willing to acknowledge the depths of this racism, even when we’re looking right at it. There is an indistinct but unmistakably expansive gray area in which even those of us who feel that we are deeply supportive of anti-racist policies, laws and individual conduct can still reside, buffered from the injustice that others cannot avoid. This nether zone not only shields us from perceiving the full extent of racism but it also dampens any urgency we may feel to do anything substantive about it.
The fact of the matter is that for many of us, it’s convenient to ignore the racist aspects of our society. It’s imperative, even. Because unless we ignore it we’ll have to do something about it. We’d need to either accept it, which means accepting our own hypocrisy. Or we’d need to actually take action, which means we’d have to challenge or even relinquish many of the privileges that are granted to us by virtue of the color of our skin or our willingness to look the other way.
It’s a deeply wicked bargain, one way or the other. And I’ve made this bargain myself, if I’m honest. As an Asian-American, I’ve been a victim of racism, but to nowhere near the extent that African Americans are routinely victimized. And I’ve also been complicit in racism’s perpetuation by dint of the fact that I’ve done virtually nothing about it. I’ve been complicit in racism in that I’ve done very little to effect change in a system that benefits me but disadvantages and brutalizes others.
One thing I’ve come to accept since 2016 is that fear, hatred and racism are among the most powerful forces on earth. This has really always been true throughout human history, but in American society we tend to focus only on a handful of their most strident expressions. And even then, we really only consider with any depth our finest moments, those historical events when we’ve been able to marshal truly potent responses: the Civil War, the Second World War, the Civil Rights Movement.
But I’ve also come to understand that the real menace of fear, hatred and racism lies not just in these flash points of history, when the contrast between freedom and tyranny are most stark. The real menace is in how infinitely adaptable and resilient these forces are.
Even after they’ve been put down, disbanded or made to heel, they find a way. They discard their censured hallmarks, whether it’s chains, swastikas or segregation laws. And then they change—evolve—into new, more subtle ways of exerting their influence: mass incarceration, “broken windows” and “stop and frisk” policing, methodical dismantling of social and economic safety nets. These methods come into focus slowly, sporadically, in fits and starts from disparate corners, and with little notice or scant examination. They co-opt progressive ideals and insert themselves into virtuous agendas, and they assert themselves in popular culture and common language. Their inflection point, the moment when they’ve succeeded, is the moment when society at large accepts them as policies, as laws, as common sense, as pragmatism—while assuming that these methods apply to “other people.”
This moment in time, George Floyd’s moment, Breonna Taylor’s moment, Ahmaud Arbery’s moment, is ripe with potential, and we must act on it, must transform it from mass protests to structural change. But our challenge is also that we must also renew our vigilance and our ability to understand how fear, hatred and racism will adapt and change yet again. Because they will.
It feels distasteful to me to salvage any kind of a silver lining from the horror of George Floyd’s death, but I am grateful for the way that public support for Black Lives Matter and for systemic change in policing has surged over just a handful of weeks. That’s reason for hope.
I’m also grateful for the clarifying light that these events have thrown on own my understanding, and humbled by the realization of how much I need to do to live up to the principles that I endeavor to pass along to my children. Particularly the idea that we cannot right the world simply by not doing wrong—we must do right, too, and particularly we must do right by those who have been perpetually wronged. Especially when their lives are being unjustly and viciously sacrificed by a brutal system.
I’m grateful for the understanding of how much work I really need to do. How much I need to learn, how much I need to ask, how much I need to listen, how much I need to speak up, how much I need to read, how much I need to expect of myself and of my family and my friends, how much I need to give, how much I need to change anything I can possibly change.
But it really shouldn’t have taken the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many more for all of us, for me, to get this clarity. I’ve been looking away for far too long, and now that it finally has my attention, I can never look away again.
If you care about design, I would posit that the most pressing evolutionary challenge it faces is not design systems or design-to-code or even accessible design, as worthwhile as perfecting those pursuits might be. Rather, the single most consequential barrier to design’s next level of success is simply explaining itself to society at large.
What is design? And how does it work? Answer those questions in clear, relatable language and the world suddenly becomes a very different place in which to practice our craft.
Writer and design thinker Scott Berkun’s new book “How Design Makes the World” does a shockingly good job of doing just that. In twenty crisply written chapters across just over two-hundred pages, Berkun breaks down the mechanics of design and demonstrates its ubiquity and importance to nearly every aspect of life. It’s a cogent, incredibly illuminating antidote to the fog and mystery that has shrouded the practice of design for practically its entire history.
When I was lucky enough to read it in galleys prior to its publication, I felt a curious mixture of joy and professional jealousy. On the one hand, “How Design Makes the World” is an instant classic that every designer will want to read and own for themselves —as well as, probably, to gift copies to the clients and stakeholders they work with. And on the other hand, having been intensely interested myself for a long time in this idea of making design more understandable, I couldn’t help but think, “I wish I’d written this book.” Berkun has done a wonderful service in writing this, not just to the world of design, but to the world at large. He was kind enough to agree to discuss the book with me in an interview that we conducted over email.
Khoi Vinh: First, tell me about this title. It doesn’t lack for ambition. What is the message you’re trying to send, and how did you settle on it?
Scott Berkun: To the depression of many designers, the good work we do goes largely unnoticed. This should change! The world has so many problems today that would be easier to solve if people benefited from the knowledge designers have. But designers aren’t great at inviting people in and warmly teaching them to see. The title was the clearest way to establish the stakes—design affects everything—but make it inviting and welcoming.
So is the title—and the book—intended more for an audience of designers? Or others?
It’s intended for both in a clever way. It’s designed around powerful stories, so no jargon or background is needed. Executives, programmers and just about anyone is welcomed in to learn. For designers it gives a fresh set of stories to share and better tactics for teaching others, while giving them new hope and inspiration about why what they do is so important.
What made you realize that you needed to write this book?
I studied design in college but my career was mostly as a general project leader, a decision maker who had to bring everyone together. I’ve spent most of my life in the middle, translating between executives, engineers, marketers and designers, and designers usually have the low ground in organizations. Every designer has to teach their coworkers themselves, and start over with new teams and projects. It’s tiring. We have good books on our shelves, but they weren’t designed to solve this. I was well suited for this task and no one else had done it.
I’ve felt that exhaustion of having to explain the fundamentals of design, over and over, myself. Why do you think that even with design’s profile being higher than ever, we still struggle to define exactly what it is to the uninitiated?
One part is the high profile of design isn’t uniform. A few companies are clearly design-driven, and they get talked about often at design conferences, but most teams at most companies are not led with design as a strategy. It’s a tougher landscape. A second part is many designers don’t like or don’t want to be ambassadors. They just want to “design” and see pioneering as an unrewarding chore, which is okay—but then who is going to make it better now and for the next generation? Third, there aren’t many tools that help. Most design books, courses and movies are made for designers, not for everyone else. Fourth, there’s a lot of fear among some designers that if they teach too much, they’ll be out of a job. Many designers want to be better respected and understood but feel it’s beneath them or dangerous to make design less mysterious and invest in changing things.
That last part especially resonates with me. I’ve come to believe that, consciously or subconsciously, many designers are actually invested in people not understanding the craft. How deep do you think this runs?
It’s as deep as it can get. Many designers have been picked on and disrespected, sometimes even in design school! Some were art kids who didn’t fit in. They know that creativity is personally important, but they also know that most people, including possibly their parents, do not understand it or respect it. They’ve seen design trivialized generally by culture. Psychologically that weighs on how any person sees their profession. The fear is that if their boss or coworker learns a tiny bit, they’ll think “I’m a designer now” and they’ll get fired. There’s safety in quietly doing a job and not revealing too much, so “the secret magic” remains theirs. Of course it’s usually the opposite: teach someone the first taste of a skill and they get new eyes—suddenly they see how much they don’t know. But that requires confidence in how your profession is perceived. That’s definitely a common thread in design culture: a conflict between ambition and fear. They want good design to be popular and respected, including their own work, but fear doing the things required to make that happen.
I wonder if you think stakeholders or clients, especially, are also complicit in this? I’ve always had the impression that a certain class of client—often very high in the pecking order—want to hire designers who can dazzle them, or their board of directors, with design mystery or theatrics.
I’m fascinated by how most people think of creative work as high excitement, as their experience with it is mostly from TV and movies. Every pitch meeting on shows like “Mad Men” is just three minutes long, with an orchestrated soundtrack and Emmy-worthy dialogue performed by actors with off the charts charisma. It’s no wonder stakeholders and clients tend to want magic. They have no other conception of what it’s supposed to feel like to have discussions about ideas. So I agree they are complicit, but often from ignorance.
On one side, getting clients is sales work and dazzling people can help sell. And early in a project an inspiring (but unrealistic) prototype can get a team excited. Hard to argue against that. But when it’s deceptive or defeats the clients own goals, it breaks the golden rule. It’s up to the professional, the designer in our case, to show there’s a better way to think about what good is. This is similar perhaps to how a doctor would advise a patient that they don’t need an MRI for a paper cut. Since design will never be at the center of culture (but we can get much closer!), how good we are at explaining it and being ambassadors is critical. But it takes skill to do this without adding friction and if you’re struggling to pay bills and your clients demand magic shows, it’s hard to resist for long. Yet if we all do this, the status quo remains.
Okay so it sounds like it’s safe to say that there are some serious myths or misconceptions that you’re out to dismantle. Can you describe how your book tries to do that?
There are two big ones I take on directly in the book. One: that design is hard to explain. It’s not! The trap is trying to teach it with theory and posturing (“I want you to learn… to be impressed by what I know!”), a trap many experts fall into. But we know people’s brains learn best from stories. How did UI design make the Notre Dame Cathedral fire worse? That’s a story. Why did a city rotate half of its streets forty-five degrees so driving is confusing and dangerous? That’s a story too. The book is a series of well-crafted stories, each unpacked in entertaining ways using concepts from design to explain why these good or bad things have happened to all of us. It does the heavy lifting designers need to do with their co-workers and communities (and often for the designers themselves, who can use a refreshed view on what they do and why).
Two: that design is just the trivial surface of things. Most people think of design as a layer on top, the final paint color or style (which is often harder and more powerful than people think). But design goes all the way down. Why is the border between India and Pakistan where it is, and often in conflict? Someone designed it. Why is the nearest bus stop one block or fifty blocks from where you live? Someone designed that too. Why does a McDonald’s cheeseburger have three buns? And where’d that “special sauce” come from? Again, it was designed! The book’s stories come from a wide variety of places (by design!) to connects how the challenges of say mobile app design shares a lineage with hundreds of other kinds of design work, and seeing it that way changes how you we the world and what we can do in it.
The breadth of the stories in the book is impressive, both in variety and also in demonstrating how design is really just everywhere.
Glad you feel that way!
Are these stories that you’ve collected over the years, or did you start with specific principles you wanted to examine and then came to find the stories through research?
I’m obsessed with these kinds of stories and have been studying them since college. I’m just fascinated by how everything works (or doesn’t!). But once I have a rough outline of what a book is supposed to do for the reader, I start looking at the news and anything I read more carefully. I become a design investigator. I’ll dig up obscure books that often have fresh takes and examples (popular books often sing the same notes). I don’t respect category boundaries: many great design stories come from engineering or business or history writing. I do lots of research and then in early drafts the game is figuring out which stories can fit where, if it all. And then in later drafts it’s how it all fits together. It’s a design process, really. And some great stories I hoped to use just don’t fit, much like a designer discovers some of their best ideas need to get cut to make space for the other ideas to shine.
Which of the stories that did make it into the book do you think are the most surprising or most instructive?
It’s staggering to think that much of the Notre Dame Cathedral burned to the ground because of a basic usability problem any junior design student could have solved. That shock wakes readers up, which is why it’s early in the book. And the irony that something built well enough more than six hundred years ago to still be here was decimated by a design flaw created here and now in our proud era of high technology. That contrast makes clear design is indeed everywhere, both the good and the bad. Had a couple of more people known design basics so many terrible things that happened would have been wonderful things instead. I’d really like to help change that.
That one is a real eye opener, for sure, and so heartbreaking. What strikes me about that story is that as it was reported, and it was reported extensively, design barely got a mention. In fact, for most of these stories, design is really a secondary narrative, hidden in the background. It’s almost as if as a culture, or maybe as a species, humans can’t see design, even when it’s hiding in plain sight—or even when it produces tragic outcomes like the fire at Notre Dame. Would you agree?
I feel that way but I’m not sure of the cause. Some of the challenge is that news itself is designed! And as an industry they’ve been so decimated for the last 20 years it’s hard to even calculate how their reduced ability to investigate and explain things has impacted us. They do involve design experts when it’s something like the butterfly ballot, or the Boeing 737 MAX, but that’s only if the journalist thinks to ask one and has a basic notion of how design isn’t only aesthetics or interior design but is integral to everything. There’s just not enough design literacy yet in the people who write the news.
One self-inflicted trap is that good designers strive for their work to become invisible. Even now I’m not thinking about the design of the keyboard I’m typing on, the screen I’m looking at or the email software I’m using (okay, well now I am, but you get my point) and I wrote a book on why we should notice everything!
I wonder if when we shifted into consumer culture, where fewer people make things, it’s easier to imagine that phones and cars just fall from the sky in finished form. We’re exposed to far less of the process of how everything, from food, to technology, to laws, are made. I’m hopeful though: we are naturally curious creatures. All it takes is the right spark, or story or question and people’s sense of wonder rises.
How much are you actually trying to stoke that sense of wonder, to get more people interested in design, with this book?
As much as possible! But I wrote the book with professional designers in mind too—many of us have become jaded, tired of trying to explain it with the same old stories. I wanted to give us a fresh way to think about what we do and the profound possibilities of a society that was more design literate.
So can you imagine a future where design is much better understood, much more present in our everyday thinking as a society? And, aside from the key role that this book might play, what is necessary for us to get there?
I can! In a way I’ve seen it. In 1994 I couldn’t get a job doing interaction design (what we now call UX design). A career doing it didn’t exist. I’d never have imagined then how well accepted and understood the role of design would become in the tech world. Not even close. But we know there’s a long way to go. We just need to make it an inspiring mission and give more designers the skills and tools to show the way and celebrate the people who’ve done it and are doing it now. And for that reason and more thanks for what you do and for taking the time to interview me here.