Chapter 08.

Building Community


A wise counselor once reminded me that you never really see your own face. Sure, you can see its reflection, but you never really see yourself. The mirror is an approximation. To truly see yourself requires the eyes of another.

We’re a social species. And though we pride ourselves on our superior intelligence amongst the animal kingdom, we can’t escape this truth. We need each other. It sounds cliche, but its implications are life altering.

Humans were created for community.

Today, we feel more connected to one another than ever before in history. But it’s just that: a feeling. Are we truly connected to each other, or are we settling for an abstraction of authentic community? True community is messy. It builds slowly, with great sacrifice, and lacks in selfish ambition.

I often treat my role as designer like that of Atlas, the condemned titan of Greek mythology. Pridefully, I think it’s my responsibility to keep that globe hoisted upon my shoulders. It must be my burden to carry. There’s a problem, and I must solve it. However, what I’ve grown to realize is that there’s no power in this approach to design.

The solution doesn’t rest solely upon your shoulders, or mine, but is shared by the ecosystem you are entering into. A designer’s goal is to build community. Our mission is to serve our neighbors, or even our neighbors’ neighbors, and in doing so, see new relationships form between you and your users.

Many designers shy away from these relationships because they become complicated quickly. However, it’s only through our shared experiences that we can bridge the abyss we’ve made of modern community.

Embracing community

The word community comes from the Latin word communis, which means “common.” This definition points to the foundation of community: our shared humanity, existence, and experience. Astronauts speak about the overview effect, in which seeing the fragile globe from space creates a complete cognitive shift in their awareness. From that altitude, borders disappear, war seems irresponsible, and all of life feels connected. Though seeing the human race through this lens can be passed off as oversimplified globalization, its truth remains. As long as we’re all submitting to Earth’s gravity, we form a community.

Community is risky. It requires vulnerability and allowing others into the places of our psyche that we’d rather keep locked away. The heart of community is no different in design. We were never meant to design as siloed individuals.

We fight against this idea of interdependence in individualistic cultures. We’re often bred to be self-absorbed in how we define “success.” Mirages of success are problematic, but I think our reality involves much deeper work.

The type of community that designers really need is broader than other design practitioners. While living in a design bubble can be comfortable, we need a diversity of feedback to the work we’re creating. That includes feedback from those who may not operate out of the same design principles we do.

Our community extends to both the people we’re serving and to the people they’re serving. It includes all those impacted by our work. And their perspectives matter deeply. They refine our design.

Inches away, miles apart

Technology has promised humans a lot of things over the millennia of our existence. And though most of these claims can be chalked up to futuristic idealism, there’s one modern promise that troubles me. A lot of the products we interact with vow to bring about connection. I think it’s how casually the word “connection” is used that concerns me.

Our wired world has given the word “connection” a new meaning. And not just electronically but also socially. We’ve grown to replace real connection with a simulation.

Authentic compliments and conversation have been replaced with gestures upon a cold sheet of glass. Personalities formed by countless experiences have been reduced to avatars within a steady stream curated content. When did we start to lose the humanity in it all? We often exist just inches from one another yet are mentally miles apart.

It’s precisely when we try to eliminate our need for each other that things begin to unravel. It requires tremendous humility to rely on a community. Shared life troubles the pride we hold in our much coveted self-reliance.

Historical arcs bend in both directions, so I think it’s only a matter of time before we see the foolishness in our individualism. This isn’t just a realization for our users; it must be the calling of the designer as well. We must first admit that we need others so that we can design responsibly.

Creating connection

It would be silly to pretend as if this state of individualism isn’t layered and nuanced. Technology has allowed people to reach each other at all times. Conference calls can connect the entire globe and traditional offices can be replaced by internet connections. What is lost when we begin to create these wide spaces between ourselves and the “other”? When we cannot observe the reactions to our work with our senses, sharing the same space and time, we lose the transcendent experience of being together. There is something chemical and magical that happens when we share the same air.

Proximity isn’t popular within our industry, or even our generation. Thinking well about physical location to one another forces us to face the fact that we need each other to do meaningful work.

This isn’t to say that our digital connections aren’t meaningful. Only when they spark true relationships and shared experiences in our real, tangible world do they truly foster and even create community. I’ve grown to distrust products that keep luring me into their labyrinths, creating addicts in the process. However, my anxiety lessens when I meet a couple that met online, an addict in recovery because of an encouraging message, or a healed relationship because of a post.

Design has a tremendous knack for creating meaningful connections amongst people. The work we create often acts as the catalyst for something much more important than the service our products facilitate. The most powerful by-product we can offer other humans, however, is hope. Our solutions must honor the ecosystems they represent—forged through our time spent getting to know the intricacies of those systems. That’s how we build community—through having a stake in the game. When we share in the responsibilities of our outcomes we see irreplaceable trust form.

A shared life

It’s an undeniable axiom that experiences have more meaning when they are shared. When we take the time to look for the humanity in others, we will seek to create solutions that honor our shared life. We will grow to learn that where our design stops our true, tangible experiences begin. Only there we will find freedom.

• • •

Practice

08. Share responsibility.

Don’t shy away from responsibility. It’s only in this shared experience that meaningful trust will form between you, your clients, and your users. It’s a commitment to refinement rather than arrogance.