The Discomfort Zone: From Interfaces to Installations (Notes from CanUX 2018)
On doing what you can’t and the designer as artist.
These are notes from my talk at CanUX 2018 — an incredibly humane, lovely, soul-stirring weekend of a conference. For a quick summary of the event as a whole, check out David Drysdale’s reflections. Slides are available on Notist. I recommend using the (slightly hidden) “view all slides” option to access the accompanying notes.
I have no idea how to write this to be equally useful to people who attended and people who didn’t. Maybe it can’t even be done. For a much quicker and possibly more coherent read, refer to these tweets:
I’ve spent the last decade designing video games, brand identities, apps…your standard designer fare. Last year, my friend Sergio and I had the opportunity to create Shard, a giant winter crystal that uses sensors to create light patterns. Subsequently, installations have become a part of my practice, as has collaboration. I’ve taken many lessons from the experience, some of which I shared with the audience.
Having no formal design education and growing up constantly moving to new countries, I’ve had to learn a bunch of things—software, languages, new ways of doing and thinking and seeing. My first instinct is always fear. Fear of starting, fear of sucking, fear of failure. I’ve quit many things before I even got going. I hate not being good at things. Yet, I want to be good at new things.
Often times we’re told to take advantage of the things we are good at and also interested in. This is solid advice, but I’ve found personally the unchartered territory is both significantly larger and more interesting. Satsuko VanAntwerp phrases this as “exploitation vs. exploration”, which I like a lot.
This is the eternal question for me; how do you do what you can’t do?
My first step is to allow myself to freak out. This stuff can be really scary, and I try to validate the fear I’m feeling so I can work through it.
One way to do what we can’t do is to start with what we can. If you break down any complex task, chances are there’s some foundational piece that looks somewhat familiar. For me, that meant letting go of things like Max/MSP, 3D printing and soldering for a second, and doing things like research, sketching and wireframing (how do you wireframe a crystal?). I headed down to the Royal Ontario Museum to start drawing crystals, a habit which has stuck in the form of idle doodles.
At this stage it’s OK not to have all the information—I’ve found great benefit to starting with what I have and plugging the gaps along the way. For instance, to make sure our giant box of wires and chips could survive a Canadian winter literally feet away from a lake (seriously, why did we do this?), I naively thought we could just “shove all the delicate bits in a box”. To my utter astonishment, this worked.
Burnout & Creative Play
I have a suspicion those of us who hang out on the edges of our abilities are more prone to burning out. Please, do not burn out if you can avoid it. It’s not very nice and takes a surprising amount of recovery time.
As an antidote, I recommend creative play. Hakim El-Hattab calls this Meaningful Pointlessness, an infinitely superior term that I will steal. The basic premise is reminding yourself to have fun, and finding ways to insert play into even the most tedious things, if only to get you through them.
Collaboration, Ego and Insecurity
Complexity demands collaboration—anything with a lot of sophistication and a quick turnaround is going to need more than one person working on it, for logistical reasons alone. Collaboration is a bit of a double-edged sword for me. On one hand, it brings ideas and perspectives far beyond what I could manage alone, and even brings out parts of myself I usually can’t access. On the other hand, watching other people be incredible at what they do triggers deep impostor syndrome and insecurities about my own abilities.
I’ve resolved to continue putting myself in situations where I have to rely on others. That’s the only way I can improve. If you have similar issues, I recommend you do the same.
This has been said many times, and probably deserves a standalone article, but I think it’s really important that designers broaden both their education and reference pools. We say this so much as an industry, but yet I see the same Dribbble shots on all of your “inspo” boards, people. I know y’all read books and watch films and have really rich lives of the mind, I’d like to see those things show up in a crit from time to time.
Also, it’s all so incredibly, abundantly available these days. I recently told someone I look up to in the installation world that I was considering applying to a reputable graduate programme, to which he responded, “You know what’s better? YouTube.”
This section of the talk is basically Karl Fast’s talk on Embodiment, so just watch that instead. If you’re really lazy, here’s the gist: Our bodies “think” through their actions, not just the brains in our heads. This is one of the main reasons I’m so excited to spend the next year in a studio at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Toronto, surrounded by painters and sculptors and filmmakers and all sorts of beautiful creative souls who embody their work.
Designer as Artist
All of which leads to this.
There’s been a real push from designers to distance what we do from art. Being honest, I’m incredibly uncomfortable with the label “artist”. Often, what follows is some discussion of “problem solving” which I find a little reductive. Here’s a legend’s opinion:
“To design is much more than simply to assemble, to order, or even to edit; it is to add value and meaning, to illuminate, to simplify, to clarify, to modify, to dignify, to dramatize, to persuade, and perhaps even to amuse. To design is to transform prose into poetry. Design broadens perception, magnifies experience, and enhances vision.”
— Paul Rand
What then, of this designer who “transforms prose into poetry”? Paula Scher once said a designer’s responsibility was “to elevate the expectation of what something should be”, which fits quite nicely with my understanding of what art gives us.
Maybe we all need to spend a little more time in our collective discomfort zone, where we’re artists, if just briefly?