Designers Need to Change Themselves Before They Can Change the World.
This is adapted from a talk I gave at Phoenix Design Week in October 2015.
Our story begins in Amsterdam in mid-2002. I had just left my home town of Glasgow, Scotland to take a journey into the unknown and pursue an as yet undefined dream. I had packed 2 suitcases and bought a one way ticket. I didn’t really know what might await me there but I was fueled by the bravado of youth and the firm belief that what I wanted in life did not lie within the confines of the leaden grey skies of the west coast of Scotland. The sky always feels very low in Glasgow. Like a basement apartment that doesn’t ever get enough light.
I knew some friends in Amsterdam that had moved out there a few months previously and they let me sleep on their floor for a couple of weeks but my meager savings ran dry pretty quickly and I found myself looking for any kind of work that could pay for the room I shared with a charming Iranian man in the south of the city.
I ended up working at a call center that dealt with subscription queries for National Geographic and Time Magazine. It wasn’t glamorous but the pay was reasonably good and my accent seemed to go over well. I’d get calls from people who were ready for a fight about the fact their magazine hadn’t arrived or that they were moving house and they didn’t want a disruption in service. Standard stuff if you’ve ever worked a job like that.
I won’t bore you with the details here because I’ve written about that period before here. But the short version for the purposes of this story is that I would get a fairly decent amount of calls from people who were simply lonely and were calling just to hear the comforting sound of another human voice. They didn’t have anyone else to talk to and so they were finding the phone number in the back of their magazine and dialing it hoping for some form of human connection.
I want you take a second to imagine how that must feel. Calling a total stranger just to try and confirm that you are not alone in the world.
So after realizing that this is what was happening, I started talking to them when they called. For however long they wanted. I didn’t worry about my call stats or how long the next person had been on hold for. After all I knew this was not going to be a job I did for a prolonged period of time.
I’m not telling you this so that you think better of me. I’m not telling you this to be thanked for it and for you to hopefully think I’m a good person. I’m telling you this by way of illustrating the power of human connection. Of relating to someone else on an emotional and personal level. It’s a basic human need and ultimately it’s that notion of the power of connection that has informed everything I’ve done since and one of the reasons why I’m writing this today.
Fast forward a few years and in 2014 I had the opportunity to become the organizer for the San Francisco chapter of CreativeMornings.
For those of you who don’t know, CreativeMornings is a breakfast lecture series for the Creative Community. It was started in 2008 by Tina Roth Eisenberg aka SwissMiss as a way to bring together like minded people over coffee and breakfast and hopefully a dose of inspiration. In San Francisco we host 250 people every month. And we still have 200 people on the waitlist that can’t get in.
And this is all in the city that long ago disappeared up it’s own arse in a cloud of VC money, catered lunches and app for everything your mom used to do for you before you moved out of the house. There’s an app for everything. But theres an app-e-tite for real life flesh and blood connection. There is no substitute for it. To be able to look someone in the eye and hear their story or their point of view in their own words using their own phases and emotions is powerful.
The fact that we sell out month after month after month is testament to that fact. People meet each other and kickstart projects and collaborations and relationships. But we don’t tell them to do that. We just invent an excuse for them all to be the same place at the same time. All we need to do is bring people together and the natural human tendencies of curiosity do the rest. We get to just sit back and watch the magic happen.
I am generally a shy person. I can hide it pretty well all things considered. But still pretty shy. My grandmother was not. She was one of those people who struck up a conversation in every line she was ever in at the grocery store. By the time she was checking out it seemed to me that she always had a new best friend. I was always in awe of that. In awe of her ability to move beyond the small talk and connect with someone. Even for only a few minutes. We need to do more connecting for the sake of connecting. Not because there might be an angle.
Or because maybe that someone could do something for you one day. I’m not the first person to say “make friends not a network” but it’s a core belief that I hold true. Being your authentic self and interested in people is a beautiful quality. We maybe come from different backgrounds, cultures and points of view, but we all share a burning desire for certain base elements of human existence. Food, warmth, a safe place to lay our head and companionship.
I’m 40 years old and it’s only recently that I have started to become more aware of this thing I’m calling an empathetic network of friends. I worked for Nike for quite a few years. Right up until I was around 32 or 33. It was a great place to be. We created product that literally millions of people around the world saw, bought and were inspired by. We lived in Amsterdam, one of the most beautiful cities in the world. We came from all over the globe to work in a truly design led company and were challenged to bring innovation and inspiration to every athlete in the world. But there was an interesting by-product of such a global community of creative people living in a city that was not their home.
When we arrive in a place where you do not know anyone, where you do not have any family you inevitably make friends first with the people you work with. Everyone was an expat and that shared experience of coming to strange place with a very strange language bonded people together. And that’s great. But it also means that we had a very insular culture. We didn’t look to the community outside the campus where we worked. It always reminded me of the scene in Goodfellas where Karen Hill was narrating and explaining that the group of Wiseguys and their families were the group that always hung out together. She says:
“We always did everything together and we always were in the same crowd. Anniversaries, christenings. We only went to each other’s houses.
The women played cards, and when the kids were born, Mickey and Jimmy were always the first at the hospital. And when we went to the Islands or Vegas to vacation, we always went together. No outsiders, ever. It got to be normal.”
That’s what Nike was like at that time. We were always together. It was comfortable. We didn’t know that there was a whole creative community right on our doorstep and we never explored it.
I only realized this when I left the company and logged onto Twitter that I found there were vibrant, diverse communities of creative people doing incredible things for themselves and for each other and I had no idea. It was crushing to think about what I had been missing out on that all these years but at the same time incredibly exciting to think of the possibility of contributing to a community like that.
We live in a time where our connections surround us. The don’t just live inside address books or on our streets or in our neighborhoods. They live in the supercomputers in our pockets and our global networks are accessible 24 hours a day. 7 days a week.
There’s an irony in this mobile, information heavy environment that we have designed for ourselves and I know you know where I’m going with this. We are more connected than ever before. We can be “friends” online with literally thousands of people. But we are more alone than ever.
We are shouting into the void. Hoping someone replies back.
That’s what the people on the other end of the phone in that call center in Amsterdam were doing. Shouting into the void. Hoping for someone to shout back. Shouting into the void. Hoping for someone to whisper back.
So it’s all doom and gloom right? As more of our life gets lived out on a screen 8 inches in front of our face we drift further away from one another. We don’t call a cab any more. We take an Uber. We don’t walk to the local pizza place we open up Postmates. I have a shoe box full of the odds and ends that I collected as a kid. Coins, drawings, badges. My 6 year old has a Pinterest board.
But I have more belief in us than that. Science will tell you that at a cosmic level, we are all connected. If matter cannot be created or destroyed then we really are all made of star stuff as Carl Sagan famously said. There is an undeniable bond that exists between us that a few years with an iPhone cannot possibly break. It’s wrapped up somewhere in the overlap of physics, chemistry and biology and probably some other intangible stuff that I’ve gotten more into since I moved to California.
I know you know what I’m talking about. If you’ve ever past a homeless person on the street and felt a stab of guilt or worry or sadness. If you’ve ever been on an airplane and heard a baby cry because their ears hurt and felt a wave of empathy. If you’ve ever listened to a friend’s problems or worries and inwardly hoped that you could physically share their burden. Then you know what I’m talking about.
When I talked to those people on the telephone in Amsterdam there were barriers. I was worried I might get into trouble. Worried that someone would notice that was not being as productive as I could be and that I might lose my job. And I had rent to pay. I wanted to be able to afford to go drink beer with my friends.
So yes there are barriers. Barriers we need to break down and destroy before they destroy us. When we walk past the homeless person avoiding eye contact. When we get annoyed at the crying child. Life gets in the way sometimes. The churn of existence. We get in our own way. The churn of our own ego.
So how do we explode the barriers that exist between us? How do we chip away at the wall of silence. How do we dismantle our own insecurities and open up? How do we learn, or relearn to connect with the things that really matter? We start with ourselves. We spend a lot of time talking to ourselves. Our inner monologue dominates our day. We talk ourselves into things. And out of things all day every day. I spend a lot of time asking myself a question. “what would you do if you removed ego out of the equation”.
Make people feel something. Sure, Make it pretty. Make it useful. But make people feel stuff. Emotional resonance is powerful.
Make friends. Don’t build a network. Networking sucks. Does anyone really enjoy networking? But you like hanging out with your friends right? What’s the difference? A lack of an agenda. You hang out with your friends because you enjoy their company. Not because they might be able to do something for you. It’s better to exchange birthday cards than business cards.
Approach new people with no agenda. Ask more questions than you answer and listen more than you talk. We spend a lot of time talking to people in our demographic. People who look like us, think like us, talk like us. It’s too easy. Reach out. Don’t just talk to designers. Talk to social workers. I guarantee you’ll learn something. Talk to children. If you have any of your own you’ll know why. Talk to children. I guarantee you’ll learn something.
So what’s the central point? What’s all this about. Ultimately it’s empathy. The ability to understand and share the feelings of others. And designing with empathy. Designing our networks and our projects with empathy.
If we approach our relationships and projects from a place of empathy we can stop thinking about the prospect of changing the world with another app to deliver us dinner.
If our political system had been designed with empathy we wouldn’t be arguing about whether a woman has the right to decide what goes on in her own body. We wouldn’t be having a so-called discussion that certain people have more right to be married than others. If our social systems had been designed with empathy I wouldn’t be dropping $4 on a piece of artisanal toast on the way to my nap pod in San Francisco while stepping over the homeless people in the methadone lines.
If our democracy had gone through half the number of iterations as the average social media app I wouldn’t be dropping my 6 year old off at school and wondering what would happen if someone decided to walk into her classroom with an AR-15 assault rife.
There’s an inherent selfishness to these things we call human beings. We have a great ability to say that we care about something yet at the same time turn our backs and I call upon every single one of you to do something about it.
I call on you to take our combined knowledge and creativity and ingenuity and innovation and use it to help people. Properly help people. Let’s not turn our backs on the things that are hard to fix.
We don’t need another app to drive us somewhere. We need big solutions to big problems and if we approach these problems from a perspective of empathy we can find solutions. The purpose is not to beat up on every tech company out there. They make our lives easier after all. Some of them. Probably a lot of them and I use these services and products as much as anyone else. Probably more due to me living in the Bay Area. But nothing comes without cost. How much are we willing to give up? And how much does that loss factor into the decisions that designers make when they are working on a new product. It might be attractive to work on a new app that does your laundry for you without you leaving your house. “Disrupting an industry” is another way of saying “I’m important and you should listen and appreciate me for I am creating a new world order and your life will be better for it.”
But that new world order doesn’t work for the family owned launderette that has been on the same street corner for 30 years. Who know their customers by name and know their requirements and their schedules and their preferences.
Tech is full of straight, white dudes. That’s a problem we can do something about.
The US still doesn’t have paid maternity leave. That’s a problem we can do something about.
Women still earn less money that men. That’s a problem we can do something about.
California is in a severe drought. That’s a problem we can do something about.
52,000 gun deaths a year. That’s a problem we can do something about.
I know I’m getting political. Frankly I don’t care because this is the shit that needs fixed and there’s the talent and the creativity within what we call the “design community” to do something about it.
But we can’t do it on our own. We can’t do it sitting in our kitchens, drinking coffee and scrolling through Twitter. There is power in our combined voice. Our ideas get amplified when we share them. When we talk about them and we riff on them. When we connect our ideas we can build the systems that can make a difference.
We can only do that when we talk to each other.
Let’s all raise our voices as one and get after the things that we can change when we work together and amplify those voices. Like telling the NRA to go fuck themselves. Like figuring out a solution that allows the teachers from the San Francisco public schools system to actually be able to afford an apartment in the city. Like solving the homelessness crisis or actually paying women the same as men.
The power of human connection and designing with empathy can save us from oblivion.
I was talking with Skyler my daughter the other say and she said “Dad what are you doing when you’re on your phone?”
And I said “well I’m talking to my friends” and she replied “why would you talk to your friends on facebook when you could go on a playdate with them. It’s true.
And the end of the story it’s all we have left. No one wants to die alone. When I go I want to be surrounded by those who love me and who I love in return. I don’t want my last words to be a Facebook update.
But do two things for me if you can:
- When you talk to people. Talk openly and honestly and leave your ego at the door. When you listen to someone, really listen. Even if you don’t agree with them really listen and try and ‘feel’ what they are saying. Be kind to each other. When you’re standing in the line for lunch, talk to the person beside you. Find out their story and tell them yours.
- When we are choosing the projects and products you work on and the companies that you are going to go work for, choose them through a filter of empathy. Is that company or project really going to allow you to leave some small part of the world better than you found it?
It’s over to you now.
Published in #SWLH (Startups, Wanderlust, and Life Hacking)