The best presents I received growing up came from my uncle who lived in Japan.
Once every year or two, he’d appear in his tweed suit and thick glasses for a brief visit with our family. He didn’t have kids and he didn’t seem to know much about them, so his interactions with me were limited to pats on the head or a firm handshake. But he was well-to-do at a time when our family was still clawing through student loans, and he always came bearing gifts from the magical land of super-skyscrapers, shimmery-eyed cartoon characters, and my favorite food group: ramen.
Our family’s first digital camera was gifted by him. So was this smooth, brick-sized pastel yellow box containing the most exquisite collection of tiny office supplies you’ve ever seen — a stapler the size of my thumb, a small vial of clear glue, an eraser-sized tape measure, and an elegant pair of scissors — each sitting within its own felt-lined nook and displayed as immaculately as jewels. I have never loved office supplies so deeply, and I likely never will again.
But no gift compares to the one I received when I was eleven or twelve. I was sitting in the living room reading, minding my own business when my uncle came in and wordlessly handed me a package that changed my life.
It was a Sony walkman.
Hold up, you say. What’s the big deal? Everyone had a Sony Walkman growing up.
Ah, but not this Sony Walkman. Not one from the Motherland itself, a model I’ve never seen in the U.S., all sleek curves and cool metal. Not in this shade, which I called yellow at the time, but which was brighter and grassier than any yellow I’d ever seen. I didn’t have the vocabulary for it then, but I do now. The damn thing was chartreuse.
It was the most magnificent thing I’ve ever owned, and not just because it played my recorded-from-the-radio mix tapes. Its every detail was, in my mind, flawless.
I’d thumb over its cool, metallic surface every night as I fell asleep listening to my favorite Jocelyn Enriquez song. I’d marvel at its beautiful metal hinges, as intricate as the inner workings of a clock, every time I popped it open to switch tapes. Its size was smaller than all the other Walkmans (Walkmen?) I’d seen, barely larger than the cassette tape itself and perfect for a jacket pocket. The shiny chrome buttons along the top were a pleasure to press. The headphones came with their own volume controls, which I thought was the coolest thing ever. And in a stroke of sheer genius, the Walkman came with a twistable add-on that could hold a single AA battery to extend play life.
There have been many, many objects in my life that I have appreciated. That have done what I’ve hoped they would do, that have saved me time and made me pause in admiration for their beauty.
There are few that have completely blown me away because they were so far and away better than anything I could have imagined.
This was my experience with my Walkman. Music was incredibly important to me at that time in my life, and I could imagine no better conduit to connect me with my life’s soundtrack. Plus, it was so far and away better than anything my friends had that I felt like the coolest kid in school.
Even back then, I’d sometimes stare up from my bed, earphones plugged in, wondering about the people who built it. Who were they, and what kind of magic did they possess to create a thing that mattered so much to me?
One of the side effects of being a teenager obsessed with computers is that you become saddled with all the technical chores in the house. This is despite my mom being a computer programmer by profession.
“Julie!” she’d call the morning after Daylight Savings. “Don’t forget to reset all the clocks in our house! Including the one on the VCR!”
“Julie! Can you help me erase this tape and record a new show over it?”
“Julie! I need to make some copies of these photos. Can you put them on a CD-ROM?”
I’d retort that my mom was perfectly capable of doing it herself, but she’d always offer excuses. One, that she was afraid of messing it up. Two, that it would take her forever because she wasn’t as tech-savvy as me. Three, couldn’t I do a thing or two that was helpful without grumbling about it?
I’d set the clocks, program the VCRs, burn the CDs. I’d roll my eyes and complain, but to be honest, doing these things made me feel special. They were complicated tasks, and yet I mastered them with ease.
I wore my badge with pride. I was one of the tech-savvy ones.
What does the word designer connote?
A certain focus on visual beauty, on the way the space flows between two descenders, on the tucked-in lines of a handsome armchair, on the precise curves of that metallic casing?
A certain steadfast knowing in the gut, of what is simple and lovely?
A certain intuition for how others might feel as they approach this object or dwelling or experience, borne through years and years of sensing and seeing?
A certain effortlessness of dress — stark neutrals and thick rims on a sophisticated silhouette?
What kind of identity have we wrapped into such a word?
In my senior year of college, I was assigned to read The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman. There is a famous passage where he talks about the design of doors. Imagine that a door has a u-shaped handle but is labelled with the word PUSH. What would you do?
Well, half the people would try pulling, because that’s what the handle seems to beckon. Pull me! I am a u-shaped handle! And when the door doesn’t budge, they may feel a flicker of irritation. Is this thing broken? What’s going on? Then, when they see the sign, it might dawn on them that they’re doing it all wrong. Oh, they think with a mild sense of foolishness.
We’ve all encountered these kinds of Norman doors. Most of the time, we internalize the tension. I should have read the sign. I’m not using this right. I’m not tech-savvy enough. I might mess it up. It’s too hard to learn. It will take me forever.
The Design of Everyday Things made me see a different perspective.
It’s not my fault.
Why should anyone be made to feel like an idiot when the design of the thing is what’s broken?
When you find a solution, what do you think of? Peering through a magnifying glass or emerging from a maze? The notion of meandering around lost until — lo and behold! A shimmer on the ground! Could it be the missing piece we were looking for?
When you engineer a solution, what comes to mind? Gadgets and gears? A stroke of cleverness late one night as the rest of the world sleeps, a flurry of hours spent rigging up a precise contraption until it does something we’ve never seen before?
When you design a solution, what pops into your head?
Here is my answer: that we considered and explored. That we peered ahead into the stress test of the real world, when some harried young woman minding her own business encounters our work. She’s not thinking of us, she’s thinking of what she has to do that night — an e-mail to write to her professor, a midterm to cram for, laundry to do in preparation for that party on Saturday. And we were prepared for her. We left no detail unexamined.
At a minimum, we meet her expectations. There are no frowns, no flickers of irritation. She sails through those doors and continues with her life.
At best, we catch her attention. She pauses and allows herself a moment of wonder for our work. It’s more than she expects, and so she will remember it with fondness.
To design is to be intentional about the outcome we want.
We who plan and construct and build, we are all designers.
I don’t have my chartreuse Walkman anymore.
If I were the sentimental kind, I would have kept it for the nostalgia, like some people do with old record players or rotary telephones.
The truth is, we humans are always craving the next big thing. Nothing blows our minds forever. We marvel at it, and then it’s our new normal. It becomes what we expect.
I gave up my beloved Walkman for an ugly plastic Discman. It wasn’t a hard decision. Comparing the very best cassette player in the world with a CD player is like putting the best foot soldiers in an arena with armored calvary. There is no competition. Having to spend many seconds rewinding or fast-forwarding to get to a particular song doesn’t stand a chance against one-press access.
In some ways, this knowledge is bittersweet. Nothing gold can stay. You make a thing that changes the world, and before long the world has changed to the thing. It no longer inspires the same kind of wonder. Given time, we will always demand more.
And yet, I remain an optimist.
I think all designers must be.
If you believe it’s not your fault that you’re confused, if you feel “the tech-savvy one” is a shitty concept, if you think anyone in the world should be empowered to do anything, then you believe we can design it better.
Somewhere out there is a young girl who is staring up at her ceiling, her mind ready to be blown.
We can design it better. And so we will.
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