“The story of a successful piece of design begins with the movement of its maker while it is being made, and amplifies by its publishing, moving the work out and around.”— Frank Chimero, The Shape of Design
“Things that are easy to use survive, regardless of what is fashionable, and people want to use them forever. But if things are created merely for a passing vogue and not for a purpose, people soon get bored with them and throw them away. The fundamental problem is that many products are created to be sold, not used.”— Sori Yanagi
“I think there is a profound and enduring beauty in simplicity, in clarity, in efficiency. True simplicity is derived from so much more than just the absence of clutter and ornamentation. It’s about bringing order to complexity.”— Jony Ive
Until recently, I felt that I had gotten a little too comfortable. I had grown a little too accustomed to assuming I’ll always be able to dictate the current situation. I had grown intolerant to anything that forced me to change my routine — my tightly held habits. I feared uncertainty.
One of the biggest realizations I’ve made is the need to be uncomfortable. I need to deliberately push myself into uncomfortable territory, unshackling myself from the arbitrary bounds that I have imposed on my life. These bounds hold me back from really experiencing what’s around me, all in the name of being comfortable.
Sustained comfort leads to stasis, which is crippling. When the work I do and the life I live is static, I don’t explore new things. I don’t take chances. I don’t venture from what I already know.
But often, what is known isn’t the best for the task at hand. To truly find the best, I need to explore the unfamiliar. I need to enter regions and thoughts that I haven’t dared venture in before. I need to have a willingness to put myself in uncomfortable positions. I need to let myself be in situations where I don’t know what’s going to happen.
This can be scary. It can be scary both in my personal life and my work. After all, it’s natural to want to live comfortably. And in my work, it’s easy to feel that I need to stay in my comfort zone or else I’ll never finish.
But what happens when I do this is an incomplete and less desirable outcome. I’m recreating what’s already been done, gaining no new ground. Instead, I must venture into the unknown. And what gets me through isn’t the knowledge that the solution I’m pursuing has already been done, but the confidence in my ability and skills to think of a better solution. What gets me through is the knowledge that I can take what I’m given and make something great. I may pull my hair out along the way, but that’s the point; I need to be pushed into an uncomfortable state to push me back out.
That’s what makes a great design. That’s what makes a great idea come to fruition. And most importantly, that’s what makes a fulfilling life. When I can accept the fact that I need to be uncomfortable, great things can blossom.
I need to continue putting myself in increasingly uncomfortable situations. But I also need to have an ever growing comfort in my abilities to find my way out.
Schools have a parlance for teaching students by the book. They adhere to textbooks like religion, and follow the “rules” as if they are specified by some higher power. There is so much structure and focus that students aren’t even encouraged, or possibly even allowed, to really think outside the box. The standardized tests and other needless assessments are blinders and inhibitors of actual learning and creativity. Bounds are set up around different subjects, and the important ones – namely math and science – are set up on a pedestal while others are left to whither.
I’ve always been “good at school”. I say it that way rather than saying I’ve done well because the act of school for me has always been just following along and playing by the book. For the most part, you have very little to no opportunity to explore your own thoughts and ideas. School is not about challenging the notions that are being taught, but to flat out accept them as fact. It breeds the idea that the universe is rigid; what’s here is here, and it can’t be shaped to our liking.
School supposedly teaches one what they’re good at and what they’re not. Since I was good at school, the areas such as math and science were naturally the fields I gravitated toward in terms of my education. And really, those are the only ones that schools (at least mine) deemed important, mostly because those were the standardized test scores that needed the most improvement overall.
I chose a direction focusing on math and science because that’s what school told me I should do: “You’re good at math, and that’s a ‘hard’ subject, so you should pursue that further”. It would be the wrong decision to choose anything else.
The thing is, I don’t really enjoy any of that stuff. I definitely find it interesting, but I love learning about anything. Just like every nerd out there. But when it came down to the nitty gritty of really dedicating myself to the topics, which has been increasingly required as I’ve gone on in my education, it’s become evidently clear that these raw technical fields are not truly what pique my interest. And I’ve definitely had a lot of time to think about it; I focused heavily in math and science classes in high school, and am now majoring in mechanical engineering in college (can’t get more technical than that).
It’s really taken me up until this point to not only discover, but also come to terms with, the fact that the fields of math, science, or engineering weren’t the direction my future would follow. But why was it so unclear to me, and why was I almost self conscious about it? Why was it so difficult for me to accept the fact that a career in math / science wasn’t my path, even though it was evidently clear to me that I didn’t enjoy it?
I’ve been straddling these two worlds: one of the engineer / scientist and the other of a creative / designer, the latter of which is what I truly enjoy doing. During my time in school I’ve been the engineer, while as soon as I’ve left I’ve become the designer. And as such, I’ve been exposed to this really large and uncomfortable rift and separation between these two different fields.
I recognized this divide even before I realized that my true passion was design. But as it’s become more clear to me what I ultimately love doing, it’s been extremely difficult being immersed in the starkly opposing, technically minded community. I’m consistently exposed to the notion that “design” doesn’t matter; making something look nice, or making it easy to use, are “soft” subjects and far inferior to the hard problems that true scientists and engineers face. The notion of what design is, I feel, is completely misunderstood, misrepresented, and utterly lost in translation. There is a belief that design is an optional, and possibly inconsequential, add on. And because of this, I’ve always felt like following my true passion to go into the design field would be going along a much less important, less impactful path than the one I was on because I was told good design just didn’t matter. A designer doesn’t change the world — scientists and thousands of hours of research do. Engineering is hard, sweating, hair-pulling work. Design is thrown away as frivolous.
I’ve now been able to come to the appreciation, though, that this representation is completely and utterly wrong. Good design is important. It’s extremely impactful, and it touches everyone’s life each day in both noticeable and invisible ways. The design of an object is the way we interface it. And ultimately, our interface with the things we use in our daily lives is one of the largest problems we need to be working on in order to be a successful and productive group of people; there’s too much friction in our everyday interactions. And you know what? Designing good things is damn hard.
But while I’ve at last been able to come to this realization, the rift between the two worlds still exists. Design, or the arts in general, and engineering are viewed as incompatible. They’re viewed as entirely separate entities that don’t mix. They’re vinegar and water when viewed with the definitions that traditional schools impart on them.
Coming from an education in the engineering field, I’ve often been told that beautiful design doesn’t matter. That the way something looks can merely detract from the finished product. That making something beautiful just wastes material or money. This line has been repeated over and over again in the classes I’ve taken. There’s just a total disregard for the human aspect of our environment. which is why I’ve been, in a sense, self-conscious of the fact that these are the things I care about.
How do we interact with the products we use? How do they influence our lives? How do they fit into the way we live? That stuff is entirely disregarded and ignored. Facts. Data. The scientific and engineering mindset I’ve been exposed to is very negative toward those who “think different”, or dare to go against the notions of the past.
The engineer wants to make something more robust, more economical, or easier to fabricate. A designer wants to make something more intuitive, more effortless, more beautiful, and overall more delightful. And when looked at in isolation, it’s easy to see how they can be incompatible. How can you make something cheap but also really great to use? How can you make something feel high quality, but mass produce them on the scale of millions of units?
I really think the larger issue here is just a misunderstanding and our focus on the differences between science and design. Yes, each field focuses on different aspects of an object, but both are practices in compromises. In order to engineer or design something great, you truly need to understand everything about what you’re working on. From the raw materials all the way up to how it will be used.
Now that technology is basically taking over our lives, the engineering aspect of it is often times played up. We’re still talking about “feeds and speeds” – the raw specs of a product. In all honesty, I don’t care what processor my phone has, I just care that it feels fluid to use. Throwing raw technology, or nonintuitive devices and experiences, at the public isn’t going to change the world regardless of their processor speed. New technology needs to be designed in order to truly change the universe.
The way that I’ve been able to reconcile going full force toward design in my career is the understanding that an object that isn’t designed, but merely engineered, turns out horrible. The future is in combining the engineering prowess that we now have with beautiful design. We need to create functional, intuitive, and delightful experiences with our new skills. Both designers and engineers have critical skills that we need. And because of this, there can’t be two worlds with engineers on one side and designers on the other. What this leads to is crap. And the reality is, most of the stuff around us is crap for that exact reason.
We need to change the way these subjects are viewed and taught. I’m a firm believer that in order to do good design, one must know the capability of the medium they’re designing. A sculptor intricately knows how the clay they shape will react to their hands; they know the limitations of what they can do, and work around those to present something beautiful. I also think an engineer must have a perception of how their technology is used, how it’s perceived, and the way that it makes sense to fit into our lives. Design, engineering, and technology are intricately interwoven, and when they are allowed to be linked together is when something new arrives that truly makes a dent in the universe.
Your life is defined by the work you do, and I believe that was more true for Steve than any other person. The work he did — the work he sweated over and strived to perfect — has materially changed my life. It has allowed me to pursue what I love doing and has enabled me in the work I do and will keep doing every day. But most importantly, his work has taught me that the things I create need not be any less magical if I set my mind to it.
So I guess all I really have to say is: thank you Steve. Thank you for what you accomplished and for the enabling power your work has had. Your presence in my life continues to be a guiding force. Just like you, I wake up everyday to go make something insanely great.
Made with love, a phrase often used to describe things made by a master in their respective craft. Maybe it’s an apple pie by your grandmom, or maybe it’s a wood chest made by a skilled carpenter. Whatever the object is, and whoever made it, it’s clear that it was made with something special. It seems unique in a way that is just beyond describable. It seems just a little different, in the absolute best way.
I’m in a couple of design classes right now. And naturally, being in an engineering program, they’re taught from an engineering point of view. Design, and making things, is broken down into a process. A detailed, ensured way to get a product that is functional, reliable, and possible to manufacture. All those are important things, and every product made needs to abide by those rules. But, I so strongly believe that there’s something missing about the process.
Design is absolutely a process. No doubt about it. When I’m designing and making something, I definitely have my own process I go through. It makes sure I cover all the grounds necessary and head toward the final goal. But sticking steadfast to the process, not wandering off the path at all, is bound to get you something that works, but has that missing component that you just can’t place your finger on. On paper it seems like everything should be perfect. The process was followed religiously. But something went wrong.
The missing component in something crafted purely by process, I believe, is authenticity. By following the process religiously, you’re separating yourself from what you’re making. And by removing yourself from the process, you in turn remove the authenticity. It makes things just seem slightly off.
What makes a good designer, a good crafter of things, is someone who can stray from that path while still keeping it in their periphery. They still get from the same A to B that the path would have taken them, but they allowed themselves to explore. Great ideas, and new innovations, are never on the path; The path will lead you to what has been proven to work, but also to what has already been done.
As technology becomes ever more pervasive, the companies behind the innovation gain more and more control over the way we live our lives. The way we work, how we go throughout our day, and most importantly how we communicate are now largely influenced by a select few companies.
An area that I think is extremely interesting and which we should all be more aware of is the control of these companies over the flow of information, or the way we communicate. Net neutrality is a big issue here — something which I really want to
rant write about soon — but another issue I think is important is the emergence of platforms in which information now travels.
Email was truly the king of online communication, and while it still is to some extent, it’s definitely being displaced by newer, smarter, more efficient technologies: Facebook, Twitter, chat, etc. But while everyone, including myself, likes to bemoan email and say how horrible it is, the beauty behind it is that it is all based on standards. Anyone can set up an email server that can be used by anyone on any device. There’s a definition of how email must work, not just how it should.
But of course while standards come with bonuses such as interoperability, one thing it discourages is any innovation as any change to the standard is so laborious. This is why Twitter or Facebook seem so much better — they aren’t held back by legacy cruft and are allowed to innovate and think of new things.
That’s really the story of disruption: a new, young company that isn’t held back by existing technologies is able to change the market. And we’re definitely seeing this in terms of communication.
The downside of these incredible changes, however, is the extremely closed nature this fosters when one company must provide answers to every problem. While vertically integrating I believe is crucially important in many cases (i.e. hardware / software), communication platforms and information transport isn’t one. A photo shared on Facebook can only be accessed on Facebook, and the company can decide however it pleases where and how that photo should be displayed. But more importantly, the flow of news, and other really important content, is now happening within these walled-off islands on the web.
To many people, I imagine, Facebook is the internet. It’s not viewed as a website, it’s viewed as the only place where they get their information. Forget about what the information is, but the fact that so much is happening behind essentially a wall is something I find extremely unhealthy for the web in general. Yet, Facebook has provided an answer to a really large problem we face. The internet is now viewed as a social platform, and they have fostered a platform for people to have an online identity.
The closed nature we’re seeing now isn’t unprecedented, though. The monopoly of AOL in the 90s / 00s, was largely the same. AOL was so popular that in 1998 with the launch of AOL 4.0, every single CD produced in the world was used for the cause. The thing that drastically changed in regard to AOL’s dominance was the open-nature of the web. Web browsers became more of a consumer thing along with DSL / cable internet, and people saw they could do so much more.
I’m hopeful that history will repeat itself here, at least in some sense. I’m not wishing at all for the demise of companies like Facebook, Twitter, or Google (I think each will be around for a long while and serve a really important role), but I think we’d all benefit from a much more open means of communication and identity on the web. A means that is much more flexible and powerful than what is currently happening.
Communication on the web — which is now nearly all communication — is one of the most interesting, exciting, and at the same time maddening, problems that we need to tackle. The current islands that exist aren’t the way forward. While private networks are definitely needed — not every thing should be public — the fact that the user has to essentially give up so much control over their voice and identity doesn’t seem right. We need a much more extensible system than what we currently have, and one that isn’t dictated by a few companies.
I thought I’d try something I’ve never done before: a do one thing a day project in order to teach myself something.
I’ve always been interested in graphic design and art, but I’ve never really partaken in any myself. Recently, I’ve been inspired by a couple of thing a day projects, and this was enough of a nudge to get me started. Every day (for who knows how long), I’m going to be making a 2000x2000px piece of minimal vector art. In order to guide myself, I imposed some constraints (we all love constraints when we’re making things): no shadows, gradients, bezels, or extra junk – just flat, plain colors. I wanted this to be solely an exploration on shape and color.
I have no idea how this will go. I’m definitely not an artist, but I’ve already been doing it for a week and have really been enjoying it thus far. Some designs I definitely like more than others, but that’s the point. This is something that I enjoy doing and, at the same time, get to teach myself along the way.
Check it out. There may be some initial bugs when viewing the site (particularly in IE) while I work things out with the code, but I wanted to get it posted.
With technology so accessible, often times we’re seeing life through a technological filter, blurring the lines between what stands right in front of us and things that are across the globe. Our phones, and other devices, have become part of who we are and are now ingrained in common social interactions.
The reason that cellphones and tablets have become such an insanely popular and fast growing phenomenon is that they are insanely personal devices. There’s something so intimate about using one, that the first time you slide your finger across the screen, you feel an instant connection with the device that isn’t a reaction that has been elicited by any technology before. The objects on the screen track your finger as it slides around. You’re directly manipulating the content. Much of the abstraction between the device and the user has been removed.
It may sound cliché to say, but my first time using an iPod touch (my fist true touch screen device) was a magical experience. There was no friction to using the device. I no longer felt like I was telling the device to perform an action, I was actually controlling the device myself in real time. It’s this loss of abstraction that makes these devices so great.
This is what I think is so special about really good technology: it is additive to our lives in very natural, organic, and invisible ways. Technology should seem effortless to use. But I have one pretty large complaint with these devices at the same time: although the personal interactions with the devices are very effortless and organic, the context in where and how the devices are often used isn’t. It often times seems to me that these devices are creating an invisible wall around the one using them, seemingly separating them from the immediate world around them.
An invisible wall
These devices are capable of bridging the physical and digital world in an amazing fashion. Yet at the same time, they’re leading to, what I think at least, are some really damaging personal and social patterns that are becoming ever more prevalent. The cellphone is nearly always a companion in any conversation now. Forget about eye contact with whoever you’re conversing with if their cellphone is within a 5 meter radius. The instant connectivity has lead to the desire for ever more instant gratification. People need to check Facebook or their email at every available chance. Nobody seems to care if they’re in the middle of a conversation or if they’re sitting down with a group of people having a meal. The combination of ease and delight of use and access to infinite information has made it
difficult nearly impossible to remain undistracted.
But mixing these devices into our social interactions need not be purely negative. These devices can be used in social settings, and should be, because they have the ability to enhance the current context we happen to be in, not just for ourselves, but also for the others around us; They can enhance the conversation, providing information. But often times, that’s not how they’re being used. They’re not being used in connection with the conversation, they’re being used along with the conversation. It bothers me immensely when I’m trying to talk with someone, and their eyes are focused on some screen. But don’t worry, they’re “listening”… This defies what I previously said made great technology: something that is additive to our lives in very natural, organic, and invisible ways.
Again, I love these devices and think they’re incredible, but I think many of the social habits around them are damaging. But possibly that’s just how it’s going to be with the current iterations of these technologies, and is actually how most things are. There are very few things that are truly bad if used / consumed appropriately or in moderation. Fast food is one. While eating it every day is incredibly bad for you, millions of people do just that. The “addiction” to technology, these devices, and instant access to information is the exact same. It’s human nature to become addicted to something. It’s our evolutionary instincts to consume as much of something we enjoy consuming because everything used to be scarce. These devices provide us with limitless amounts of information. People literally feed off of it — craving more and more. They yearn for their phone to pop up a notification saying they have a new text or Twitter message. They want to know what the latest celebrity gossip is as soon as it’s unearthed, regardless of their current situation or frame of mind. These devices have the power to pull us out of whatever state where’re currently in, not only distracting us, but I believe actually negatively impacting whatever task we may be doing at the time.
We evolved as humans around the notion of scarcity. Everything had to be acquired through hard work, and thus one only sought out what they needed to survive because there really weren’t any options. That isn’t the case anymore. We’ve eliminated scarcity and now these devices have removed the friction, yet the need we all have for overconsumption still rages in our brains.
While I am a heavy user of technology, and strong believer in incorporating technology further into our lives, I really try and stay in control of the technology I use rather than letting it control me. My phone stays in my pocket, always on silent (not even vibrate). All notifications turned off. When I take my phone out, it’s to do something, never just to flick the screen. I try to watch out for what information I consume and the way I interact with these device in the same way that I’m conscious about what I eat or when I work out.
Learning to Adapt
New technologies always lead to periods of social adaption, and the common theme among nearly all technology since we’ve industrialized is a loss of scarcity and friction of doing XXX, and with these new devices, XXX = accessing information. The notion that things aren’t scare is a monumental change in the way humans live, and I believe this needs to be deeply considered in the design of the technology we use.
The way we currently interact with these devices is not the end of the line. I firmly believe that as we grow more comfortable with the instant access we have, we’ll develop a better understanding of how to control and filter it in a way that allows it to be purely additive to our lives, not subtracting from it. I definitely view the adaptation to the loss of scarcity as one of the greatest design problems we face. Yet the common goal among many is not to tackle the problem, but actually feed it. Food corporations make ever addiction (and bad for you) food to get you to eat more just the same as news organizations sculpt their news coverage the play off the human desires for constant information. A fantastic article on overconsumption by Dmitry Fadeyev summed up the issue:
Junk food, whether for body or for mind, is not made for the rich, it’s made for the masses (e.g. fast food chains, addictive snacks, yellow press, social media).
How we tackle this problem, I don’t know. But what I do know is that I find it an incredibly intriguing problem to ponder: how can we create technology that removes the negative impact of scarcity from our lives while still maintaining a healthy balance?