The Discomfort
of The Designer

this post was written with Zachary Kaiser

Hugh Dubberly — interaction designer, writer, and lecturer extraordinaire — called our work ineffective and self-indulgent.

And we’re actually quite grateful.

We like praise. Who doesn’t? Some are less comfortable with it than others, but we all like it deep down. Really, what hearing Dubberly’s feedback meant to us was that he was paying attention. And if our audience is paying attention, it means we’ve succeeded — at least at the first step.

Step Two? Well that’s up for grabs. We can tell you about Step Three, though.

In 1998, a South Park episode aired in which the town’s children were being victimized by underpants stealing gnomes. As the show’s protagonists sought to understand the gnomes’ motives, they discovered the heart of the thieves’ business plan:

From South Park season 2, episode 17

The work which Dubberly was discussing with us — including Whisper, a device that asks you to tell it how you feel, scrambles the words you use, and uses this scrambled interpretation of your feelings to order you something seemingly random from Amazon — is meant as a provocation. We made it to elucidate and question the power which systems of algorithmic inference and recommendation hold over us in today’s digitally-mediated culture. Our Step Three is not “profit”, necessarily. But as a designed object, Whisper has an implied eco-system behind it: one wonders how it would look on a shelf, how much it would cost, how it would actually work as a mass-produced object. And so our Step Three is to make sure our user/viewer asks those questions and more. What we were avoiding, however, was an interrogation of our own designing-selves.

Collectively, as designers, our Step One is always the same: grab someone’s attention. We make work that is to be seen and understood. Lately, there have been many calls to consider that this work exists in a greater context — that is, you cannot remove a designed object from the way it was made, distributed, sold, priced, and so on. These are important considerations, but ones we want to move past here (we’ll get to that in a second). Step Three is always an action. We know what we want our user/viewer to do once she sees what we’ve shown her: read, buy, attend, click, open, close, enter, exit, donate, etc.

Step Two is fuzzy. It’s where something happens between what our subject has seen and what our subject will do. This is where understanding semiotics or psychology is important. Some of this is being taught in design programs — those who guided us through graduate school are masters in one or the other (or both, in some cases) — but the kind of courses focused on these topics are increasingly being pushed out from curricula in favor of competency-based options: exercises such as how to use software which will, inevitably, be out of date after the next Adobe update cycle or could easily be picked up via a few hours on the Lynda or General Assembly websites.

When Dubberly was reacting to Whisper, he was saying that it was too charming, too joke-ish. People were engaging with it, yes. But were they asking the right questions? It’s up to us to ask ourselves that: what about the seductive form made people want to touch it, to engage with it? In that questioning we find an opportunity for the recursive process of reflective making.

It seems that we avoid staying too long in Step Two. We’re afraid to consider that we are, in essence, controlling someone — manipulating their perception (for better or worse) in order to get them into Step Three. Power is an uncomfortable position in which to be, but we must admit to ourselves that it exists in this process. The two of us were originally quite proud of ourselves for garnering so much attention with Whisper — hurrah for Step One. We assumed Step Three was next. We didn’t stop and wonder if what bridged the two was the right idea: were our users actually questioning an algorithmic hegemony? Or did we just engage them through the seductive nature of modern industrial design paired with a bit of humor? It’s both of our hope that in our next iteration of Whisper, we’ll put more thought to this question and produce a better product — however we decide that might be measured.

As designers, how do we engage in a more reflective practice? We suggest two paths: reading and listening. You are a skilled craftsperson, you can take a short break from the tutorials and workshops. Instead, you may want to try reading something by Bruno Latour or Charles Sanders Pierce. Or perhaps you skip the CSS tips+tricks panel at the next AIGA or HOW Design Live conference and, instead, seek out a panel that asks more questions than it answers — questions about motives, about downstream and upstream effects of your work. Don’t see that kind of panel on your favorite conference line-up? Email the organizers and ask for it. Better yet, round up a few colleagues and propose one. Finally, do what Hugh Dubberly did: approach those individuals with whom you disagree. The conversation we had with him was one of the most valuable we had all year and he inspired more than just this blog post with his willingness to pull us aside after our talk and engage in true discourse.

As you probably know already, that underwear theft scheme from South Park has become the “???? PROFIT!!!!” meme: start with an action or two, throw in a few question marks, end with “profit.” According to Know Your Meme, “the meme is typically used in forums or comments sections as a response that implies sarcastic disregard for the utility or purpose of a post.” We’d like to encourage you, as a designer, as an educator, as a human, to work harder at eliminating those question marks, replacing them with something more reflective. It might make you uncomfortable with your position of power, but in that discomfort comes an important awareness — one that will, hopefully, lead to more thoughtful, well-considered work.