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Imagine Others (and Design) Complexly

This story was originally published in Turn The Page issue #62, November 2017

Simplicity is overrated. Seeing both people and the world complexly empowers designers to devise beautiful solutions that work not just for the average Joe — but for large, complicated systems of peoples and needs.

What is imagining others complexly?

Although the idea of ‘imagining others complexly’ has probably existed in some shape or form for centuries, the literal phrase was conceived by John and Hank Green, otherwise known on YouTube as the Vlogbrothers. Imagining others complexly, according to them, is imagining others in terms of how you might imagine yourself. We see ourselves as complex, multi-faceted individuals. That is, sometimes we are kind to others, sometimes easily irritated; sometimes we act silly, other times professionally. In contrast, we see other people as single-faceted. That lady on the bus that made a rude comment about your hair? Definitely a cold, bitter woman — always. Imagining others complexly means trying to see that lady beyond your single encounter with her. Maybe she is having a particularly bad day; maybe she is also a great mom. Conversely, it also means we should not put others on a pedestal. Your well-accomplished, childhood friend that has the perfect job and posts lots of enviable photos of tropical vacations on Instagram? Try not to see her as an ideal you should aspire to. It is easy to imagine why John and Hank Green’s philosophy is useful (it helps us understand others), but it is harder to practice. Try it out next time you find yourself in an argument. Instead of acting defensively (a feeling that comes naturally), try imagining what the other person is feeling. A general tip for thinking complexly: listen more than you talk.

Hank (Left) and John (Right) Green

Complexly — a video production company

If you do not know them, John and Hank Green are two American, widely successful entrepreneurs, social activists and YouTube vloggers. John Green is also well known for his teenage fiction novels, such as The Fault in our Stars and Looking for Alaska. The brothers have been making all kinds of videos on the internet for years, from the popular Crash Course of World History (which made world history interesting to even the least impressible student) to Sexplanations, a show about “the complicated, fascinating, natural world of sexuality.” In 2016, the Green brothers figured out what connected all of their efforts — thinking complexly — and formed a video production company of the same name. Complexly now owns all kinds of online shows. What makes them so special? Their videos apply their “imagine others complexly” mantra in a couple of ways. Firstly, their videos stimulate watchers to explore the complexities of themselves and of the world. The earlier mentioned show Sexplanations, for example, normalises talking about sex and thus shows young (or old) people that there is nothing strange about them, their peers, or sex itself. Secondly, their shows try to make education accessible to a wide and varied audience. Their show How to Vote in Every State aims to encourage every kind of American to get involved in public service. To me, Complexly’s company vision and how they apply it is quite inspiring. So inspiring in fact that I wondered: should designers not apply thinking complexly in their approach as well?

Thinking complexly = empathy in design

During a Crash Course video in 2014, John Green said,

“the biggest problem with being alive is that you can only see the world out of your eyes. You can only live inside of your skin, your consciousness. You can’t effectively imagine what it’s like to be someone else. But the study of history allows you to empathise better, it allows you to think more complexly about others.”

Although he was talking about history, he was also unknowingly spot on about the problems we face as designers. Designers are flawed because we often end op designing something for ourselves (or other twenty-somethings with an eye for aesthetics). Thinking complexly is actually the same thing as empathy — one of the most important skills to have when designing. Although we often deny it, when designing for others, we are quick with generalisations: old people are lonely; thirty-somethings have trouble balancing work- and home-life; millennials are hipsters that spend too much money on avocados. Although some of us are (or will be) taught about empathy in design, let thinking complexly be your first lesson! Next time you are designing for a target group, instead of making a hasty generalisation talk to a few of them first. You will find out that their needs are a lot more complex than you thought.

Designers as masters of complexity

Much of this Turn The Page showcases beautiful products that radiate an air of simplicity. However, much of these products only appear to be simple solutions. Steve Jobs, the legendary icon behind computers and smartphones with deceivingly simple designs, argues why there are no simple solutions:

“When you start to look at a problem and it seems really simple, you don’t really understand the complexity of the problem. Then you get into the problem, and you see that it’s really complicated, and you come up with all these convoluted solutions. That’s sort of the middle, and that’s where most people stop… But the really great person will keep on going and find the key, the underlying principle of the problem — and come up with an elegant, really beautiful solution that works.”

That ‘really great person’ that Jobs describes? That is exactly what a designer should be: a master of complexity. Our role as designers is to be able to come up with a hundred silly ideas and converge them into a brilliant one. Our role is to take a thousand Post-its and find patterns. Our role is to understand an incredibly complicated organisation — and explain in ten powerpoint slides to upper management why their current corporate strategy is not working. One tool that we can use to derive simplicity from complexity is Information Design. When visualising solutions, we not only make it easier for audiences to understand, we also verify the strategy. “If graphic objects don’t fit well with each other, it’s probably that the framework logic has a flaw. On the opposite, when the thinking has been pushed enough, the visual representation speaks for itself,” explains Matthieu Mingasson, a user experience designer. Being able to deal with complexity, both human and other, is our biggest virtue as designers and the reason why we are irreplaceable in companies and organisations.

Beware of simplicity

A final message: beware of simplicity. As I pointed out, simplicity in products is often an illusion. Even if the end result is beautifully simple, the process to get there probably was not. According to Matthieu Mingasson, “as designers and engineers, we don’t deal enough with the natural complexity of a subject. We avoid it, we don’t dig deep enough into complexity before we start simplify. We’re afraid of complexity.” Do not be afraid but embrace it! We, as designers, should celebrate human differences and the rich, diverse, complex cultures evolving in this world. Let us not oversimplify the problems around us by drawing on generalisations. Let us listen first. Like Hank Green said,

“we have to imagine the world in its complexity as well and not just its people, and not see that as a burden but as an opportunity.”



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