I have failed. I set out to write one essay per month and I missed one for November. I actually had it in the works, but I got wrapped up in a consecutive string of long work days and I just couldn’t get myself to sit in front of a computer at home after sitting in front of a computer all day long. I know… Weird, right? So here I am, at the end of 2017, in the midst of our annual company holiday shutdown, still trying to finish the year strong.
I first read this passage from the Tao teh Ching when I was still in high school. I will admit that back then I didn’t quite understand the depth of meaning behind the whole tome, but as I continued to read and re-read it over the years, I feel I have developed a better understanding of it (as much as one could from the inadequate English translation). The passage seen above in particular has always stood out to me and for obvious and non-obvious reasons, it relates very much to what we do as designers.
According to Wikipedia, Lao Tzu is assumed to have lived some time in the 4th or 5th century BCE. Daoist philosophy, while perhaps not explicitly followed today, is still part of Chinese culture and tradition. It’s fascinating to me that we can still learn from these kinds of texts, from a much earlier epoch in human civilization.
But more specifically, as it relates to design, in this one passage he describes the important interplay between the tangible and intangible — that both of these are necessary in life.
The Tangible Defines
We make a vessel from a lump of clay;
it is the empty space within the vessel that makes it useful.
I love this observation.
We make an object out of clay to contain things. We can spend time making a beautiful form and study glazing techniques to make the perfect outer coating. Naturally, those tangible aspects of the clay vessel will be what you immediately respond to, the look ‘n feel. But he writes further that it’s not the tangible parts of it that are valuable. No. Rather, it’s the intangible space in the middle that makes it useful.
We encounter this phenomenon in modern society. For example, why do people choose iPhones over Android phones? Surely these devices have mostly the same features and functions (although people have argued that Android has had most of the new features long in advance 😉), yet people do prefer one over the other. These preferences sometimes come down to certain tangible aspects of the device, but I would assert that it’s often the intangible qualities that really drive people’s preferences.
The important thing to remember here is that we need these tangible aspects of a product (or interface) to help define the parts that are intangible. A clay vessel that is comprised of only the useful parts is just empty air, which obviously cannot be used on its own. Therefore, we need the tangible to define what’s intangible.
What does this mean for us today?
It’s all fine and good to ponder these kinds of meta issues, but what does Daoist philosophy have to do with what we do today as digital designers?
For starters, there’s Golden Krishna’s book, The Best Interface is No Interface. In general it’s a bit more like a contemporary Zen koan for design, but in order to get people to stop thinking about tangible outcomes like interfaces, he tries to get people to think about the intangible ideas of “no UI”.
In Western art and design, a lot of emphasis is placed on literal, linear thinking. There are good reasons for this. In general, we respond to our sensory input, what we see, feel, hear, taste, etc. Understanding the way people respond to our designs helps us improve our work — a valuable aspect of our growth.
But what I hoped to have brought out with my writing this year is the idea that there are different ways of thinking about design — intangible, nonlinear approaches that are just as valid and perhaps produce a more compelling result.
So let’s take a look back over the essays I wrote for this year.
The Design of Perception
I started by writing about perception, that the most valuable thing is to manage people’s perception of our work. After all, what people perceive, whether it’s truthful or not, is most important.
In March, I wrote about simplicity. The idea that designs must be simple is very pervasive. It stems from Mid-Century Modernist ideals. Especially in today’s world of software interface designs, simplicity in design is a highly desirable thing.
Designer as outsider
An odd topic to write about, no doubt. For this essay, I wrote about how designers can be considered as outsiders, people that exist more on the fringes than those integrated into ‘mainstream’ society. More specifically though is that in today’s tech/startup culture is the idea that we need “culture fit” when perhaps it’s better if we find smart, creative thinking instead…
Experiences are not products
What is the true nature of an experience? We often talk about product design as synonymous with an experience, but realistically, people’s experiences start before they use a product, and end some time after they stop using a product. So, it’s important to understand the whole context if we hope to succeed as designers.
About Car UX
As someone who works in the automotive industry, it was time to record some of my thoughts about what I do. Keep in mind, there’s a lot more that I *could* say, but in all honesty, I really can’t!
You won’t win every battle…
It’s important to stay grounded. I mean, we all like to think that we’ll one day change the world, and we may yet do that, but until that day comes, it’s important to not get too far ahead of ourselves. In design, people will definitely challenge you on the ideas and work you’re producing, and it is unrealistic to think that you will never need to compromise.
The Dreaded P Word!
I wrote about Process. Ugh… Not that I dislike what I wrote. I’m just not very comfortable discussing design processes…
Intentionally Unpleasant Design
A friend of mine sent me a link to an article about “unpleasant design”. I thought it was interesting, and it provoked a somewhat strong reaction from me.
ambiguity & innovation
Lastly, I wrote about innovation. The Silicon Valley has long been a hub of innovation, but I am concerned that a culture shift is taking place, a shift away from innovation. In this essay, I wrote about how innovation and ambiguity go hand-in-hand, which is a bit different kind of attitude from the current trend of hyper-optimized products.
Well, this is it for 2017. I don’t imagine I will have the time to write anything else for the rest of the year, what little there is left of it. In total, including this one (there’s a bit at the beginning 😀), there’s 10 essays here. Not too bad. I hope they were as interesting for you to read as they were for me to write.
Where do I go from here? Two things come to mind. First, I’ll probably keep doing this in 2018. I mean, I sort of feel like I didn’t hit my goal, so I would like to give it another shot next year. Hopefully next year I can actually complete my goal… Second, with regards to these 9 essays, I thought it would be cool to collect them into an anthology and publish/sell them or something. I mean, assuming there’s an audience for this kind of thing, I could easily see myself putting in some time to make layouts and stuff for this. So let me know if you’d be interested in supporting this endeavor!
We recently discussed the importance of writing on the podcast and I’m glad I got the chance to do this, this year. As I mentioned on the show, writing helps me crystalize my thinking and it’s also a bit cathartic for me. We all have our own unique perspectives and my hope is that by sharing mine, maybe more people will do the same. If you stuck with me throughout the year and read all of my essays, I definitely want to thank you for doing so (please let me know what you think). If you are just now happening on my blog, I invite you to read through all that I wrote this year and let me know what you think!
2017 was a weird year. Lots of negative stuff happened this year (in general), which I don’t think needs to be recounted here. But aside from all that, I’m glad I got to share these essays and ideas with you all and grateful for the feedback that I got on those topics. As I mentioned, I plan to continue this in 2018 and hopefully will hit my goal of 12 essays in a year. So for now, let’s reflect on the past 12 months, and look forward to the next 12. I hope you’ll continue reading!