A story about patio lights that explains why design is so important…and so hard.

A few summers ago, my girlfriend and I received a visit from her family. They’d traveled across the country from Pennsylvania to Oregon, and we all stayed together at her place in Portland, a lovely mid-century ranch house with a small yard and patio out back.

She and I had gotten in the habit of eating dinner out on that patio several times a week, sitting at a long table I’d built from some pieces of scrap lumber, mounted on restaurant supply store legs. Not the most elegant piece of furniture, but on a warm summer evening it was hard…

IxDA Berlin—with the help of five experts and 500+ designers—hosts an event to tackle remote design’s “tough nuts”

Is this what remote collaboration looks like in the future? A screenshot from Jim Kalbach’s session on the subject, from IxDA Berlin’s “Tough Nuts in Remote Design” event in April of 2020.

Nearly all of our collaboration has moved online at this point, and so far most of it — whether we’re talking about meetings, workshops, lessons, or conferences — is failing.

It’s an uncomfortable truth, but shouldn’t be surprising. These are still early days for digital collaboration after all, and even in person it’s hard to get right. For many of us, the quarantine has been a masterclass in all the ways a digital gathering can go wrong: sessions that spend 80% of their time on technical issues; awkward videochat grids where nobody wants to speak; the lack of visual cues…

It’s here to stay. But its future doesn’t look like WeWork.

A Spaces co-working location in Amsterdam.

We Work is imploding, and that’s a pity. WeWork cofounder Adam Neumann has become the year’s leading avatar of techbro entitlement, so there’s plenty of schadenfreude to be had watching him get the boot as the company scraps its IPO. But for a lot of us, it’s tinged with a sense of loss.

A large fraction of the Group of Humans has worked at one (or more) of WeWork’s hundreds of co-working locations around the world. We’ve sipped their free lattes and beer, lounged in their artfully designed spaces, and tried to get some work done. It was a deeply…

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Photo by Bram. on Unsplash

Remember authentic?

There was a time, a decade or so back, when you couldn’t go two hours without hearing something described as authentic, or reading about the importance of authenticity. Cafes had bare brick walls and served water in Mason jars because it gave customers the authenticity they craved. We had copies of “Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want” in the studio library. At one point, I overheard a creative director suggest that another designer lead a particular client call because she was best able to “speak authentically about the project.”

And now? I can’t remember the last time I heard…

Creating a brand tone that’s conversational, not exhausting.

Photo by Elena de Soto on Unsplash

The notification on my smartphone says:

You’ve earned a trophy!

I should be pleased, I guess — who doesn’t like trophies? — but instead I’m irritated. It’s not that I hate this sort of chatty, excited tone; it’s that this chatty, excited tone is coming from my bank. Or more precisely, from my bank’s app, which is the only way I seem to be able to interact with the money I’ve deposited there.

This is what it looks like:

Remember how much gasoline we used to waste because it was practically free? That was a bad idea.

Photo credit: Gary Chan

What’s your most valuable commodity?

Compared to most of human history, these are abundant times, and once you exclude personal, emotional things like relationships and values, there isn’t much in life that’s scarce enough to be hoarded. You no longer have to stockpile food, or fuel for warmth like your ancestors did.

Time and money are obvious candidates for Most Valuable, and a decade ago I’d have picked one of those. But in the modern world, one commodity has suddenly become more precious than either: your attention.

There would be no Google, Facebook, or traditional media were your attention not…

When the facts don’t fit our narrative, we often change the facts. Sometimes that’s a good thing.

I was thrilled today to read a short article in MIT Technology review, about a team of researchers who’ve successfully made an airplane that flies without the use of moving parts. The technology that makes it possible — the same “ionic wind” phenomenon that powers Dyson’s bladeless fans — holds huge promise for safer, more efficient air travel some day, but still faces a lot of obstacles.

In fact, it’s faced a lot of obstacles already: the 60m flight was the culmination of nine years of focused effort.

The question this raises for me, more than anything else, is…

Our brains are hardwired for narrative. Now we’re starting to understand why.

Sheherizade und Sultan Schariar (1880) — Ferdinand Keller

Human beings have been telling stories as long as there’s been a language to tell them in. We think in stories, remember in stories, and turn just about everything we experience into a story, sometimes adjusting or omitting facts to make it fit. In a business context, the degree to which a product or communications strategy fits a strong narrative is often the differentiator between success and failure; between “Just Do It” and the also-ran campaign for a forgotten shoe brand (Fila, anyone?).

But it’s only recently that we’ve stopped to ask why we think in stories, from an objective…

A healthy relationship with AI begins with respecting its otherness.

Image: Abbey St. John

How do you teach an AI to walk?

Generally speaking, you don’t. Artificial Intelligence, as we typically use the term right now, means a computational system that learns through pattern-spotting and self-correction, so you don’t so much teach it as create a setting in which it can teach itself. If you want an AI to walk, you provide a set of constraints — gravity exists, bodies are made of connected parts, the ground pushes back when you push on it — and give it a challenge, like moving a certain distance. …

An experiment in design storytelling.

Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

When a designer says “narrative” or “story,” what do you think of?

1 For a lot of creative types, a story is something that comes at the end of the project, to summarize a solution in an interesting way in order to explain it to the world. “Share the Story” is the fourth step in IDEO’s widely respected Design Thinking process, which argues that storytelling is crucial to getting buy-in from clients and users alike.

Carl Alviani

Writer and UX strategist. Co-founder of Protagonist Studio. Obsessed with design’s hidden consequences. Living in Amsterdam, with my heart in the PacNW.

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