Our Earth is complex, our galaxy vast, and our universe an infinite mystery. Coexisting alongside cycles of mystery are laws of nature powering life on our planet. A natural order exists all around us in the created world.
Our diverse ecosystem catalyzes the design process as humanity yearns to make sense of all the processes at play around us. In design, we seek to add clarity to our daily lives and our shared human experience. And the best design embraces the beauty of this communal, human identity rather than detracting from it. It reminds us that we are a part of a natural order. I remember marveling the first time I used an astronomy app on my smartphone. Being able to point my device to the sky and interact with the stars was incredible. It didn’t just make me feel more connected to nature; it reminded me of the reality that I already am connected to the world around me.
When design becomes untethered from humanity, things begin to fall apart. The same sense of natural connection I mentioned above can be commandeered by a synthesized illusion of connection. Take social media for example. We aren’t actually interacting with one other. We’re really interacting with an intelligent, algorithmic platform that transmits our messages. We can abstract these interactions behind words such as “like.” But that double-tap on a screen is an entirely different action compared to sharing the same physical space as someone or being able to receive a nonverbal cue from a friend. A digital thumbs-up does not equate to the warm smile of a neighbor. These digital interactions can foster real, genuine connection between humans, but only if they catalyze interactions that happen outside of digital walls. Bad design can degrade culture, create chaos in communities, and infuse noise into nature’s harmony.
With our work set against this societal backdrop, a bigger question echoes: How do we honor the humans impacted by the decisions we make in our design process?
Humanity over efficiency
We can probably all agree that humans are magnificent beasts. We’ve spent millennia trying to understand ourselves. Though progress speaks for itself, colossal questions remain unanswered. It’s humbling to realize how little we know about planet Earth, much less our own bodies. I once attended a panel of the world’s leading gastrointestinal scientists and writers. Even they admitted to how little they understood about the human gut. It doesn’t just stop with our stomachs. Mystery shrouds our neural paths making even the brain itself an enigmatic code to crack for both psychologists and neuroscientists alike.
Humans are also incredibly inefficient creatures. We’re high-functioning mammals with a lot of emotions. And so while our animalistic brains can get the better of us, we’re still pretty complicated organisms.
Design quickly becomes messy work because of the humanity powering it. Modernity places a high value on efficiency. We simply don’t have time for mistakes. It can seem like the goal of progress is to eliminate the need for humans. They’re just too imperfect. In this idealized world, there’s no friction. Everything runs smoothly, and humans would only screw things up.
With this mindset, we treat each other as hurdles. Design can quickly devolve into loathsome cat-herding when we think people are getting in the way of our perfect intentions. “They’re not using it correctly!” is a common refrain from disgruntled designers. Almost always, it’s a designer problem, not a user problem, when things don’t go the way we want them to. For this reason, in a designer’s arsenal, a mirror is an invaluable tool.
It can be hard to separate ourselves enough from the design process to inhabit the minds of our users. We can glorify our methods so much that our audiences become second to the way we think design should be done. Yet good design creates space to embrace all the hands that will interact with it. Any platform that doesn’t have the ability to communicate back to its audience with human communication may be too abstracted from reality. Whether it’s a problem of scale or a byproduct of technology, there must be faces behind the interactions we have for them to be truly meaningful. I think of the ubiquitous digital interaction of liking or favoriting something. Though there are circumstances where anonymity is important, and even responsible, that gesture means nothing to the end user if it can’t be attributed to a real person. Design is personal. We have to remember the simple reality that it’s humans creating things for other humans.
Design as ecology
Design is ecological work. It is only as important as the space in which it lives and breathes. While some of the best design transcends time and place, its genesis existed within an organic system. Its recipients had beating hearts and thinking minds. I immediately think of one of the most famous maps of all time, Maximo Vignelli’s New York City subway map. He knew in embracing that design challenge that there would be real humans clutching that map in their hands. For some it would provide simple, practical navigation, but for others, it would be the only way to journey through an overwhelming metropolis of complexity.
Design impacts humans. And through individuals, design impacts the ecosystems, environments, and cultures that humans inhabit. Design molds and shapes our perception of our lives. And so design’s value completely rests upon its usefulness to living things.
It’s also incredibly personal work. Our design solutions follow people into their daily, intimate lives. Think of the sheer amount of heartfelt communication that telephones, pens, and envelopes have facilitated. Those objects became more than simple tools; they became touchstones of our existence. This empathic shift can become overwhelming. I can often obsess over arriving at the right answers because I want to do right by the users that I’m serving directly and, more importantly, indirectly.
There can also be fear in releasing work into the wild. It’s a daunting task to see if things go according to plan. While plenty of anxiety has been generated around this reality in my career, I’ve come to find it one of the most freeing aspects of my work. What I’m designing already belongs to them not me. Creative ownership fosters amazing ideas. And yet, it is only in realizing that our work doesn’t belong to us that we can confidently watch it flourish in its natural habitat.
Good design honors life by fostering this co-ownership. When our shared solutions point to what it means to be human, the final product reflects a communal sense of accomplishment.
Numbers with names
There’s tremendous power in the act of naming. The word “design” derives from designation. Marking or designating something gives it context, meaning, and purpose. So much of what we do as designers is establish vocabularies as a foundation for collaboration. However complex the process, it has to start with a name.
Often it’s only when we can name something ourselves that we draw closer to it. There’s a reason we introduce ourselves by our names to one another. As humans, we greatly value this differentiation from the rest of the animal kingdom. There’s value in being able to connect a face with a name.
When names are taken from us, it feels dehumanizing. I recall John Proctor’s famous line from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible: “Leave me my name!” His name becomes his only tie to a semblance of humanity in the tragic drama of his life. All else has been taken from him. Regulators in the penal systems also know this tactic, as inmates are stripped of their named identities and assigned cold numbers in their place. Their freedom and their sense of identity are stripped away.
Though we as designers may not employ anything remotely close to these harsh psychological tactics, we can abstract users’ identities so much that they get lost in the blurry masses of personas. Metrics in the form of bar charts and line-graphs have a way of distancing us from the beating hearts that we manipulate to prove our successes. We’ve also watched this play out among the design ethics conversations of our time. We know that we can use data to make better decisions, catalyze innovation, and refine our work. We also know that we can use data to remove the actual faces from the raw numbers we collect. This information can also be used to manipulate those we are seeking to serve.
Humans not hurdles
I’ve come to discover that the further a designer is from the real people that are interacting with his or her work, the blurrier these faces get. Technology has allowed us to connect with people all over the globe, yet we still create great distances between ourselves and our users.
The ugly truth is that sometimes we’re just lazy. While natural, thoughts like, “Getting to know the users is someone else’s job,” or “I just don’t have the time or budget to talk to that many people,” can be dividing forces that dehumanize the design process.
One of the most deeply satisfying aspects of design is its inherent humanity. Everyone is allowed to have an opinion on what good design looks, feels, and sounds like. Though many final products have deep complexities beneath their polish, the experience of them is still something anyone can sense.
Rather than viewing humans as hurdles, what if we saw them as invaluable guides in our design process?
Observing the fingerprints
Empathy will always be relevant. Its use in our pop-culture lexicon may fall in and out of fashion, but its transcendent power will remain. Understanding the lives of others is an invaluable skill that is built slowly over thousands of interactions and deciding to listen rather than speak. I believe that a keen sense of empathy is what differentiates average designers from excellent practitioners.