Random finds (2017, week 45) — On the need for humanity-centered design, a philosophy of digital minimalism, and the silence in between

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Tianjin Binhai Library, by MVRDV + Tianjin Urban Planning and Design Institute.

“I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.” — Michel de Montaigne

Random finds is a weekly curation of my tweets and, as such, a reflection of my curiosity.

The need for humanity-centered designers

The design industry’s reigning paradigm is in crisis. It’s time to evolve from human-centered design to humanity-centered design, write Artefact’s Rob Girling and Emilia Palaveeva in Beyond The Cult Of Human-Centered Design.

In the last 60 years, design has done an outstanding job evolving to address the problems of the day, while extracting and incorporating insights from other disciplines. In fact, it is this endless curiosity and openness to ideas from other fields that has made design key to some of the biggest innovations of recent history — from the iPhone to the Tesla. More importantly, it is this focus on empathy and understanding users, their values and experiences that has made designers stand out as modern-day humanists casting a renaissance light in a world transformed by technology. As a result, human-centered design and design thinking become part of the college curriculum, even outside of design programs; yesterday’s mothball behemoths are building design-led innovation teams; and demand (and compensation) for designers is through the roof.”

“To embrace design is to spark novelty, improve livability, expand opportunity, streamline productivity, leverage capability, and massage readability — but perhaps most importantly it is to engage humanity. And we do this best by being human, ourselves.” — Jessica Helfand in Design: The Invention of Desire

“But with recognition comes responsibility,” Girling and Palaveeva write. “If followed blindly and left unchecked, this cult of designing for the individual can have disastrous long-term consequences.” Facebook, Airbnb and even the plane autopilot are recognized as a real product or service design feat. But if we only focus on the individual user alone, we often fail to take into account broader cognitive and social biases.

“By zeroing in on the short-term impact and benefits of our designs, we spare ourselves asking the really hard question: Are we designing a world we all want to live in today and tomorrow?”

If designers want to be “agents of positive change,” they need to think more broadly about the consequences of their work. By integrating their discipline with systems thinking — the understanding of how systems work and evolve over time — designers can anticipate and mitigate the negative longer-term consequences of their solutions, Girling and Palaveeva argue. Doing so, they “will be poised to design systems that have minimum negative impact, create and sustain equity, and build on technological advances without disrupting the foundations of society. We have the responsibility to evolve from human-centered design thinkers to humanity-centered designers.”

“We live in a massively complex, intricately interconnected global system. And it’s increasingly impossible to be designers (or human beings) without taking into account how we affect and are, in turn, affected by all the moving pieces of this organic machine. […] The challenge for designers is learning how to balance the production of evermore complex capability against the threat of a resultant breakdown. That’s why I think design thinking, which emphasizes solving problems holistically, needs to look at a bigger whole by incorporating another body of thought: systems thinking.” Steve Vassallo in Design Thinking Needs To Think Bigger

One of the things that needs to change is our tendency to prefer immediate gratification to future payoffs. “It is perhaps one of the reasons why the cult of agile development and Silicon Valley’s ‘run fast and break things’ ethos have become the prevailing way of thinking.” Girling and Palaveeva believe that design thinking, as a process with its emphasis on rapid prototyping, testing, iterating, is at least partially to blame. “While it was never created to replace strategic planning in organizations, it struck a chord with organizations under pressure to transform as quickly as possible,” they write.

Also designer and Pentagram partner Natasha Jen is critical of what design thinking has become. If Google Image search is your sole barometer, “design thinking uses just one tool: 3M Post-Its,” she says during her provocative 99U talk, Design Thinking Is Bullshit. “Why did we end up with a single medium? Charles and Ray Eames worked in a complete lack of Post-It stickies. They learned by doing.” When it comes to moving design forward, Jen lobbies for ‘Crit’ or criticism, something that is completely missing from today’s design thinking methodology, over ‘Post-It,’ and is surprised by the lack of criticism on design thinking within the design community.

Design thinking has become a way of “packaging a designer’s way of working for a non-designer audience by codifying their processes into a prescriptive, step-by-step approach to creative problem solving — claiming that it can be applied by anyone to any problem.” Nowadays, design seems nothing more than a box people want to check off, Jen says.

Instead of Post-Its, “real designers surround themselves with messy evidence. Not this five-step linear hexagon-based process.” Jen’s “challenge for design thinking practicioners is to share the outcome they have produced and allow us to ‘crit’ it and comment on it,” and to see how we can move design thinking forward.

“Design thinking is a separation of thinking and design, taking thinking first and design second. I’m going to be honest with you. I hate this. It basically insults me when a bunch of people strategize, have these concepts, have a bunch of Post-its and bring these notes to a designer. [Designers] are then just the ones coloring in what your idea is going to look like. I don’t think that’s how it is. That is not design to me.” — Ray Sison, a design director at Work & Co in Want To Be A Great Designer? Ban Post-It Notes

A philosophy of digital minimalism

If clicking and swiping have got even the Amish addicted, as the New York Times reported, what hope for the rest of us?, Oliver Burkeman wonders.

“Except, as Kevin Kelly points out in his book What Technology Wants, the Amish have never been unequivocal shunners of modernity. ‘Amish lives are anything but anti-technological,’ [Kelly] writes. Visiting Amish communities, he found battery-powered radios, computer-controlled milling machines, solar panels, chemical fertilisers and GM crops. What distinguishes the Amish stance toward any given invention isn’t that they reject it outright; it’s that they start by assuming they don’t want or need it, then adopt it only if they decide it’s in line with their values,” Burkeman writes in Are the Amish right about new technology? “Generally, these days, ‘our default is set to say yes to new things,’ Kelly notes, whereas for the Amish ‘the default is set to no.’ Thus cars don’t make the cut, because they encourage people to wander far away, instead of building community close to home. But laptops and smartphones are fine, for some Amish, in certain workplace contexts — though never at home — because the benefits are deemed to outweigh the downsides.”

Burkeman doesn’t argue that we should adopt Amish values. But he agrees with Cal Newport who feels alarmed by the fact that the basic Amish logic — only adopt a new technology if it helps you do what you deem important — feels so alien to us. “The Amish are clear about what they value,” Newport notes on his Study Hacks Blog, “and new technologies are evaluated by their impact on these values.”

“To implement Newport’s philosophy [of digital minimalism], you might take an inventory of the tech you use and evaluate each item for its real usefulness, working on the assumption that if something can’t justify itself, it’s out. I’ve started that process: I left a bunch of social networks I was barely on, and deleted all but 30 (!) apps from my phone, including email. (I almost never replied via phone anyway.) Yes, it’s only a start. On the other hand, I don’t own a car, so I’m already Amish-ish in that respect. Time to start shopping for a horse and cart,” says Burkeman.

Towards the end of his book The End of Absence, Michael Harris writes about his decision to take a month off from the internet.

“Did he experience an epiphany? Not really,” writes Leo Mirani in What it feels like to be the last generation to remember life before the internet. According to Harris, Mirani writes, “it’s the break itself that’s the thing.” It snaps you out of the spell, that can convince you that it was a spell in the first place.

Although Harris acknowledges taking a full month off is a huge luxury which he could only afford because he was writing a book, an occasional break can still be helpful. “I think what you get is a richer interior light and the ability to see yourself in a critical light, living online. Because if you’re in the middle of something you can never see it properly,” Harris says.

“Harris isn’t railing against these things, though,” Mirani writes. “He doesn’t prescribe fewer internet hours or complain much about ‘kids these days.’ Instead he acknowledges that his worries stem mainly from his anxieties about his own behavior. Like many of us, Harris checks his email on his phone first thing in the morning. ‘When you wake up, you have this gift of a blank brain. You could fill it with anything. But for most of us, we have this kind of panic. Instead of wondering what should I do, we wonder what did I miss. It’s almost like our unconsciousness is a kind of failure and we can’t believe we’ve been offline for eight hours,’ he says. It is habits like this that are insidious, not the internet itself. It is a personal thing.”

Also Newport feels his philosophy of digital minimalism is deeply personal. Its core principles apply almost exclusively to the role of digital technology in ones your personal life, and is largely distinct from Newport’s thinking about how to integrate technologies productively in the professional sphere. ‘Start from first principles,’ like the Amish do, is one of these core principles:

“Digital maximalists tend to accept any online activity that conceivably offers some value. As most such activities can offer you something (few people would write an app or launch a web site with no obvious purpose) this filter is essentially meaningless. A more productive approach is to start by identifying the principles that you as a human find most important — the foundation on which you hope to build a good life. Once identified, you can use these principles as a more effective filter by asking the following question of a given activity: will this add significant value to something I find to be significantly important to my life?” — Call Newport in On Digital Minimalism

The silence in between

In ‘Ma’ the spaces between are everything, Alan Moore refers to Alex Kerr’s book Lost Japan, which offers a fascinating insight into Japan’s landscape, culture, history and future. What captured Moore’s curiosity was the concept of ‘Ma,’ which Kerr explains as the spaces, the delicate variations and delays between notes in Japanese music. It is “the pure, and indeed, essential void between all things. It is the essence of Japanese aesthetic, the DNA of its design principles. Ma is all about space that holds potential,” Moore writes.

“In Kabuki, traditional theatre, it is intuitive as practice. Ma is in the purposeful pauses in speech which make words stand out. It is in the quiet time we all need to make our busy lives meaningful, and in the silence between the notes which make the music. Ma takes its inspiration from nature. A Kabuki actor, talking to Kerr says, ‘Have you ever been in the mountains and listened to the Cuckoo? Its says cuckoo, cuckoo, with the slightest pause between syllables. It doesn’t say kuku kuku like a metronome.’”

Ma is also integral to Arata Isozaki’s architectural legacy. Isozaki, a pioneer of Metabolism, the avant-garde 1960s architectural movement that proposed fantastic urban landscapes synonymous to biological structures, continues to inspire architects to this day. Among his best known works are the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the Oita Prefectural Library and the Qatar National Convention Center.

In a video interview with PLANE — SITE, the first of a series in celebration of a forthcoming exhibition in the context of La Biennale di Venezia Architettura, entitled ‘Time-Space-Existence’ and opening in May 2018, Isozaki explores the concept of ma — the space and time in-between object and object, the pause in-between sound and sound. His work has been profoundly influenced by these intervals. Isozaki furhermore meditates on his practice and Japanese architectural identity as a whole.

And also this …

The documentary, FIVE SEASONS: The Gardens of Piet Oudolf, by filmmaker Thomas Piper, immerses viewers in Piet Oudolf’s work and takes us inside his creative process, from his beautifully abstract sketches, to theories on beauty, to the ecological implications of his ideas. Oudolf has radically redefined what gardens can be. As Rick Darke, the famous botanist, says to Oudolf in the film, “Your work teaches us to see what what we have been unable to see.”

As a narrative thread, the film also follows Oudolf as he designs and installs a major new garden at Hauser & Wirth Somerset, a gallery and arts center in Southwest England, a garden, which includes a large perennial meadow, he considers his best work yet.

“Carefully shaped and planted, the garden echoes the tradition of classical gardens, but the variety of species and combination of plants creates a looseness, softening the formality of its appearance. Wide canopied trees have been planted between the gallery and garden to frame the view of the garden for visitors leaving the buildings. The surrounding hedges provide a sense of enclosure, whilst the views of the hills and fields beyond remain visible. A series of paths cut through the vegetation, inviting visitors to wander through the garden. Oudolf’s landscaping design continues around the buildings including the inner cloister courtyard, where the old buildings meet the new.”

“For me, garden design isn’t just about plants, it is about emotion, atmosphere, a sense of contemplation. You try to move people with what you do. You look at this, and it goes deeper than what you see. It reminds you of something in the genes — nature, or the longing for nature.” — Piet Oudolf

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“Everything in the garden is lovely in autumn. Without the compelling chaos of new growth, the soothing wash of greenery, or the blare of blossom, one has time to examine the life cycle in full: a bunch of grapes offer both tiny, acid babies and impressively home-grown raisins; a wilting plum leaf contains a spectrum of yellows; a chokeberry bush is in Technicolor decline. Autumn is a snappy dresser; those flowers that remain, tangerine-orange calendulas, vein-dark dahlias, the lipstick sting of pineapple sage, pop spectacularly against a bright blue sky. And, at night, the cloudy puffs of breath and the mulchy stink of soggy leaves remind us that the garden is ours again; no obligation to clear the table of potting trays for al-fresco lunches, no visitors tumbling into the tomatoes. Put away that cocktail shaker. After the hell of summer, autumn is the introvert’s revenge.”

From: In Praise of Autumn’s Rotting Beauty, by Charlotte Mendelson in The New Yorker.

“In an individualistic culture powered by self-actualization, the idea that happiness should be engineered from the inside out, rather than the outside in, is slowly taking on the status of a default truism,” writes Ruth Whippman in Happiness Is Other People.

“This is happiness framed as journey of self-discovery, rather than the natural byproduct of engaging with the world; a happiness that stresses emotional independence rather than interdependence; one based on the idea that meaningful contentment can be found only by a full exploration of the self, a deep dive into our innermost souls and the intricacies and tripwires of our own personalities. Step 1: Find Yourself. Step 2: Be Yourself.”

But although self-reflection, introspection and some degree of solitude are all important parts of a psychologically healthy life, somewhere along the line we seem to have gotten the balance wrong. “Because far from confirming our insistence that ‘happiness comes from within,’ a wide body of research tells us almost the exact opposite,” says Whippman. Our happiness depends on other people.

“Study after study shows that good social relationships are the strongest, most consistent predictor there is of a happy life, even going so far as to call them a ‘necessary condition for happiness,’ meaning that humans can’t actually be happy without them. This is a finding that cuts across race, age, gender, income and social class so overwhelmingly that it dwarfs any other factor.

And according to research, if we want to be happy, we should really be aiming to spend less time alone. Despite claiming to crave solitude when asked in the abstract, when sampled in the moment, people across the board consistently report themselves as happier when they are around other people than when they are on their own. Surprisingly this effect is not just true for people who consider themselves extroverts but equally strong for introverts as well.”

“Through the trees comes autumn with her serenade.
Melodies the sweetest music ever played.
Autumn kisses we knew are beautiful souvenirs.
As I pause to recall the leaves seem to fall like tears.
Silver stars were clinging to an autumn sky.
Love was ours until October wandered by.
Let the years come and go,
I’ll still feel the glow that time can not fade
When I hear that lovely autumn serenade.”

Autumn Serenade, composed by Sammy Gallop and Peter DeRose.

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