Designing: An Embodiment of Values

“Issue”: 043

Later this week I’m speaking at an event about product, so I’m using this as a way to organize some thoughts I’ve been structuring about design and values.

Everything must come from one piece. The object has been waiting there the whole time for this moment.

— paraphrase in my notebook from Embodiment by Naoto Fukasawa

I believe that when we design, we are giving shape to a wider set of ideas. These ideas, both subtle and incredibly forward, are how we interact with the constructed world. From something as seemingly simple — like a bar stool with no back, to the interaction between governments and their people…

These all, in one way or another, began as design questions.

This shouldn’t be misconstrued into thot boi shit like: we can design ourselves out of racism — and then make a font. However, each part of the prison system, the allowance of private prisons, the nature of filling such institutions, their relationship to police unions… this is a complex web of design and reinforcing loops.

We need to recognize the level of importance design has in every part of our life, and what design is birthed out of: values of those driving the creation of a new artifact.

I want to keep each of these chunks on the “lite” side, so hopefully you can blast through them and use them as you will. These parts are not necessarily linear in how I think through any new piece of design I undertake. But they do represent a view I’m trying to refine from previous principles.

Reverberating Scale

What happens if Apple doesn’t take “point & click” from Xerox Parc and integrate it into the Lisa? This was the first commercial personal computer with a graphical user interface.

This is a direct translation of Apple values. A bicycle for the mind. Not just minds that can work through fat handbooks of coded controls and language — once they were able to purchase these pricey machines.

But every mind, and every hand & eye.

This stands in direct opposition to the values going into personal computing at the time. My mother told me a story this weekend about using her first computer at school, being frustrated with the interactions, and not touching one again for some time.

What did this do to her ability to extract information? How much time was wasted? Did her studies struggle for avoidable reasons? The questions go on.

What this did bring about, was the first computer I remember touching as a young boy. A beautiful Macintosh with a translucent blue shell. Dragging the mouse playing math games with incredible ease. Embodied through a simple user interface that a young boy, four years old, could navigate independently.

A bicycle for the mind.

Embodiment & Starts

What are we really trying to do?

Despite falling backwards into success, through hail-mary efforts of flailing companies. I don’t believe this is an excuse for lack of intention.

So I always attempt to direct my energy to core questions through first order principles. Eternal, for example, started quite simply as — “how should identity render online?” We didn’t take this as a given.

We mapped from anonymous forums —> 1:1 online/offline identity of Facebook —> performative influencer culture —> ephemeral self of Snapchat.

What was next? Why? Was it happening somewhere else already? What does it unlock for the individual? What fundamental truth is it rooted in, that others were ignoring?

We arrived at the surreal non-photorealistic characters you see today.

I always begin these quests through reading and writing. Before I know what the interaction is, before any of these classic things we think of as “design”. I need to shape my thoughts, beliefs, convictions… and lay them bare.

This is the unbreakable relationship I build between design & strategy. They are each other. Which is also why I’m so defensive of strategy as a practice… probably because the practice has been greatly cheapened throughout the years.

An example I have come back to in strategy wedded to design is Bird. Despite the incredible amount of both hype and flack new mobility received two years ago, what we can come to understand is the strategic wedge they understood that many did not. Scooters sit in a quadrant of enjoyment, accessibility, and function that rivaled bikes. And we witnessed an explosion.

When public amenities are cleaned up, people feel enriched.

— Naoto Fukasawa

When you look at the Bird scooter above. A desire is stirred, in wishing the rest of our public transportation carried the same respect for the individual using it.

I cannot speak for the team there, but my interaction with the object speaks for them. What I feel is a new belief of what a daily utility could feel like. Perhaps this is the thought they started with.

“Can we make a daily necessity, transportation, receive the same elegance as a Porsche and the accessibility of a subway? What might that look like…”

Elevation

Something we discuss at Eternal a lot is how values translate to elevation. When we create, we are designing for two computers. The hand held one we love with all of our being and the end user’s mind. This individual is creating a mental model of the system they are interacting with — and their individual perception/experience starts to take over…

“By adding this feature, what are we expressing as important… what will this stir in someone’s understanding of what is important while interacting with it…”

There are thousands upon thousands of decisions that go into crafting a product. But let’s just look at something as simple as — “what does the app open up to”

What does it say about Snapchat’s values opening up to the camera, vs every other social app opening up to a feed.

It reinforces the narrative that Snap is a camera company. That visual creation and seeing the world in front of you, is at the pinnacle of their values. This is a good transition to our final section.

Aesthetics & Form Factor

This is something close to my heart.

I think it’s incredibly easy when we talk about aesthetics, for people to jump into a pretty array of colors and shapes. And although that isn’t 100% — or 2 Virgils, if you’re on the Virgil system — wrong. I think we can expand our understanding of aesthetics, particularly in technology, towards overarching function.

In my previous post about Spectacles, I mention that Silicon Valley has been stuck within a primary aesthetic of knowing. And that Snap breaks this aesthetic and pushes towards an overarching aesthetic of seeing.

Digital technologies, like wood or concrete, are simply another design material we seek to bend to our will. To manifest and hold these ideas and functions and interaction sets. What’s exciting the malleability of this design material — how it might embody similar values through aesthetic & form as our favorite satin pillowcase.

Aesthetic & form become the interaction point of our values and what we choose to design. Mark talks about Facebook — “Using Facebook needs to feel like you’re using a futuristic government-style interface to access a database full of information linked to every person.”

Looking at the current Facebook home page, we see this value brought to life in frightening dazzling clarity. There isn’t a place not to click on. There isn’t a single button that is not surfacing new information, linked to more information, linked, interlinked… a system of cells interlinked…

Facebook and Google are probably the pinnacle of “knowing” as aesthetic principle. It’s not surprising this has permeated the Valley’s primary direction of thinking. From marketplace aggregation to AI.

There are plenty of rabbit holes across this piece we could dive into, but I think this is a good stopping point.

The primary take away, if not obvious should be:

Like the technium itself — our values are continually going through an evolution. This is why when viral tweets about the founding father’s misdeeds circle about, it doesn’t change my opinion about the Constitution. If their acted values were the exact same as ours, it would for me to question us, not them!

So as we think about what we manifest into the world, for those wider than ourselves to interact with daily, we must ask what values are being embodied in this object. How will this transfer to the individual? How will the hierarchy of these values shape their psychology?

This is our responsibility as we design.. ideally… not another slot machine app. But something with progressive values, birthed out of respect and improving the capacity of our end user.


I don’t do edits really, so excuse typos and things that don’t make sense.

Thanks so much for giving me your attention. I hope it was worth it, if not… unsubscribing will not hurt my feelings, and will give you back time you literally cannot have back.

Much love.