Clarity about what it is you do and Facebook’s memento mori

The second of 52 meditations on stoicism, design, and development.

Michael Schofield
Jan 11 · 7 min read

Each day, Monday — Friday, I write brief morning emails about applying the practice of stoicism to your design work as a means to benchmark the day, get your head right, and craft virtuously.

  • Do design newsletters, meetups, and tutorials make you a better designer or developer? in which we set a metric for determining how to spend our time.
  • Ask yourself, seriously: what is it that you do? makes us think about clarity of craft.
  • Discover Your Axioms is an exercise to begin any design project with that establishes inviolate principles.
  • Remember Sun Microsystems is what Facebook compels its employees to do when they walk off campus.

Refer virtuously

I need your help growing stoicism.design. If you can forward this to a friend or share this on social media to other designers and developers, that would help so much ❤.

Are you better for consuming a lot of design or development content?

Humor my assumption of you: you know information overload — intimately. Information overload is your jam. It’s the back of your hand. You — like me, literally as I write this — likely have more than one tab open. News consistently sucks, but whether it’s by feed, timeline, subreddit, newsletter, podcast, radio, or television — you’re motivated to stay informed, to stay current.

To what end, though?

No doubt 2018 was tumultuous and no doubt you’ve heard recommendations to drop social media if happiness is important to you. Maybe you’re even on the slow-news bandwagon and you’ve resubscribed to a weekly in favor of daily news consumption to improve signal to noise ratio. No one would blame you. I don’t. Hell, I’m so damn comfortable on this slow-news bandwagon I’m sitting first class.

The problem we assume is the signal to noise ratio.

This morning I am trying and failing to answer: why do I aspire to improve these signals? The thinking for instance behind slow news is that with time to let the strongest signals emerge, you have higher quality news. For many, better quality news is an end unto itself.

This is on my mind because a recent issue of DailyStoic reminds me that

“Because to the Stoic, anything done to excess is a vice, and that includes the consuming of books. Seneca and Marcus didn’t have newspapers and blogs, but they would have put them under the same category. Reading wasn’t something to be done for its own sake — or to appear informed or wise — but to actually create real wisdom. It was designed to make us better. Practically. Immediately.”

which refines my question to: to what end am I receiving the signal at all?

I think about the number of web design and development newsletters to which I subscribe, the designers I follow on and reasons for opening twitter, and for years now my morning practice of Inbox Zero has been largely oriented to leveling up: I skim newsletters of curated best-of links and open a bunch of links I’m told matter. I consume this content to know more.

Does this hold up, though? Does my consumption of Weekly React contribute anything when I don’t actually work with React — or have I deluded myself? Am I really better because I know React? Am I really more valuable right now because I know React?

Me? I’m not so sure. You? Maybe.

Whether a post, tweet, newsletter, podcast, or program makes you better should be your metric for giving it your attention. If you can’t convincingly answer why such information makes you better, then chances are it won’t.

Ask yourself, seriously: what is it that you do?

January 08, 2019

I often get caught-up in definitional drama. Sarah Gibbons summarized a few definitions of “design thinking” in “What is Design Thinking, Really? (What Practitioners Say)” which irritated my internal old man only because it highlighted the problem that “design thinking” kind of means nothing.

In one case, I responded to such a miscommunication that I wrote an entire vocabulary lesson about how to just talk about user experience — let alone how to talk about user experience and service design in the same sentence.

People have legitimate triggers but this is the kind of shit that gets my goat. But concerning myself with definitions is in part how I orient myself in the world.

Stoicism is a tool for creating clarity of choice. Not that you’ll ever settle on one answer, but practicing self-definition helps reduce the number of variables that make up a decision.

“A person who doesn’t know what the universe is, doesn’t know where they are. A person who doesn’t know their purpose in life doesn’t know who they are or what the universe is. A person who doesn’t know any one of these things doesn’t know why they are here.” — Marcus Aurelius

Ask your self, seriously: what is it that you do? What is your craft? What values do you stand for, and how do you exercise those in your craft?

Okay, this is a tad existential. We can tone this down by, instead, taking a moment to consider: by what singular metric does your organization or company judge your work?

This is easy if your company uses a North Star metric around which everything is aligned.

To what end do I work? To make it more likely that someone opens newsletters we make.

If you are able to narrow this down, you can use it as a gauge by which you make choices about your work: for instance, “does _______ make it more likely that someone will open this email?”

There is a clarifying power to this exercise that make it more obvious which design choices are better than others.

Discover Your Axioms

January 9, 2019

In my experience the most bang-for-your-buck exercise at the beginning of a design project — big or small; long-term or short — is to discover your axioms.

Regardless of what you call it, I know enough from others that this isn’t an obvious starting point, so let me explain. An axiom is an accepted truth, that with some picking might reveal itself to be a truth agreed to by convention or for the purpose of having some starting point.

It’s not that axioms aren’t arguable, but we agree not to pry so we can get other shit done: we’re satisfied that 2 + 2 = 4.

When I begin a design project at some early point we set aside time to “discover our axioms:” this is our time to set parameters that once agreed on cannot be violated:

  • user interfaces must meet WCAG 2.1 AA accessibility standards
  • work can’t begin on the widescreen version of an interface before the small screens are designed
  • design decisions must be backed up by — if not our own research — best practices from reputable sources

— and so on.

Axioms set the stage for all subsequent work. You’ll find that they’re not only useful for rooting a project in sound design principles but for making decision making easier, especially about process.

Consider the ripple-effect for axioms set on projects used by others, for instance those baked into a design system widely impact apps that draw from that design system.

The closer to the root that you can establish these principles, the greater the benefits of that clarity.

Remember Sun Microsystems

January 11, 2019

First, sorry for missing yesterday’s daily. I was traveling back from San Francisco and — jet-lagged and motion sick on the plane — I just decided, nah.

Cam Hanes is a super athlete bow hunting distance runner who the great algorithm gods was keeping at the top of all my feeds while on the plane wifi, so I was karmically staring at #nobodycareskeephammering and this tee shirt:

This message is — “feel lazy? It’s all mental, keep hammering” — is stoic in ethic, but it just goes to show that, look, we all have moments of weakness. Taking the day off as I did and capitulating to procrastination isn’t great, but neither did it kill either of us.

If “memento mori” is a future-thinking decision making tool, then “oh well” is the tool we use to resist dwelling on the past.

That’s not what I want to leave you with this week, though.

I spent the last few days on campus at Menlo Park and at the intersection of 1 Hacker Way is the large Facebook sign with its iconic thumb. A bunch of folks were gathered around taking its picture (because photography isn’t allowed almost anywhere else). I noticed in my own photo this person on the left of the picture taking a photo of the back of the sign.

Huh.

On the back of the freshly-painted Facebook sign is the dilapidated logo for Sun Microsystems, on the old grounds of which Facebook’s classic campus is built.

This isn’t an oversight: it’s a reminder.

Craft virtuously.


Clapping (👏) is a super way to brighten my day. Check out my podcast Metric: The User Experience Design Podcast (right here on Medium), and consider subscribing to my newsletter Doing User Experience Work. ❤ It goes a long way if you’re able to support this kind of thinking on Patreon.

Metric

High-level practical design thinking by Michael Schofield

Michael Schofield

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User Experience Development Lead @WhereByUs. 🎙 Metric: the User Experience Design Podcast (metricpodcast.com).

Metric

Metric

High-level practical design thinking by Michael Schofield