Designers Talking About Design

in Design

From Matthew Butterick's talk at TYPO Berlin in 2012:

All right, let me ask you something. Has anyone ever told you that design is about solving problems? I’ve heard that. But I don’t like it. I find it inadequate, because to me, solving problems is the smallest part of what a designer does. That’s why I really think that solving problems is the lowest form of design.

Because what does design want from us, as designers? Does it only want a solved problem? I think it wants more. I think it wants us to take these items that are sort of mundane or boring on their own—like an annual report, or a website shopping cart, or a business card—and it wants us to fill them up. Fill them with ideas, and emotions, and humor, and warmth. Really everything that’s in our hearts and minds. Design wants us to invest these items with our humanity. And the problem that we’re solving—that’s really just the context where that happens.

How do I know? Well, when we do it right, design makes people feel enriched and uplifted, instead of depleted. Think about the words we use for the best-designed objects out there: oh, this thing is thoughtful. It’s attractive. It’s intuitive. It’s friendly. We always use words that describe human characteristics. But how do those characteristics get into these boring objects? Well, that’s what the designer does. The designer puts those there. So I really think that investing our humanity is the highest form of design. And that’s part of what makes design hard.

From an interview with Kelli Anderson in The Great Discontent in 2014:

If I was pressed, the advice I would give is that people should try to understand the context and importance of their work. What does it all really mean? What is this about? If you don’t sit down and write it out or understand what it is that you’re doing on your own terms, you’ll be misrepresented at best and ignored at worst. Even if you’re working on a project and don’t know what it means while you’re in the throes of doing it, set aside a chunk of time afterward to digest it and figure out what you learned and what ideas were at play. That packages the project into a format that others can consume. Writing about my work has brought others to my projects and made them more accessible.

From an interview with Jonathan Harris in The Great Discontent in 2014:

Then I had a mentor in Italy when I was working at Fabrica. Sadly, he died a couple of years ago. He was a tall British man with very big ears and very big feet, and his name was Andy Cameron. He taught me a number of things, but there’s one lesson in particular that really stuck with me. When I’d been at Fabrica for about three weeks, I’d been compiling numerous ideas for projects in my notebooks. I was excited to meet with Andy, to tell him about all of these ideas, and to get his feedback. I told him my ideas for about 15 minutes, but he didn’t say much. When I asked him what he thought, he replied: “Jonathan, when you’re thinking of a new idea, ask yourself if it’s something the Italian everyman could understand.” I asked him what he meant. He said, “You know those old Italian men who gather on Sundays in Piazza Signori in Treviso, wearing their top hats and suits? If you can go up to one of those men and, in your bad Italian, communicate your idea—and if he can understand your idea, respond to it, and think it’s interesting—then you’ve almost certainly hit on something strong and universal. If you can’t do that, then you may have hit on something strong and universal, but your chances are a little bit lower.”

That simple insight from Andy caused me to rethink how I was approaching everything. From that point on, I tried to reframe what I wanted to do in less complicated ways. A lot of the ideas I had been proposing to him had been too clever for their own good: they were “inside baseball” ideas. Since then, every project I’ve worked on has been expressible in a single sentence. The sentence is typically something that emerges early in the process. For instance, with We Feel Fine, the sentence was: “A search engine for human emotions.” With10 x 10, it was: “Hourly snapshots of life on earth.” With Cowbird: “A public library of human experience.”

Even though the design process can take months or years and lead me down many different pathways, once that sentence is found, it is sacred and shouldn’t be changed. Every design solution I come up with has to be checked against that sentence to see if it’s consistent: if it isn’t, I should throw it away. Those sentences are like the soul of each project. That way, when one of those Italian guys walks up and asks, (in an Italian accent)“What are you working on?” I can say, “I’m building a public library of human experience!” (laughing) Hopefully he would reply, “Ah! It’s beautiful! It’s lovely!” I think it’s a helpful rule, especially for young designers just starting out.

By Jason Li

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