photo by Alexey Bednij
For the past ~18 months, I’ve been working as a product designer. And I’ve spent that same 18 months trying to understand what that means. This an attempt to articulate, in the broadest sense, what it means to practice product design.
My product design work is the work I am most proud of, but it doesn’t anthologize or summarize well. Most of it goes unnoticed. It’s doesn’t manifest as discrete, blog-able units. It doesn’t Dribbble well. It’s broader than wireframes or UI or screenshots. If a product were a house, it wouldn’t be the interiors, or the frame, or even the foundation. It would be the reason for the house, the motivation for the house, and the idea of what the house could be and the purpose it could serve. Product Design is formless.
I put a lot of time into brand, UI, UX, etc. But those all feel like they are at the periphery of what I do. Those skills exist in the execution layer and support the product, but without solid product thinking, they are baseless.
A year-and-a-half’s worth of thinking (and plenty of stammering through my explanation of why I left behind a more comprehensible design career) has landed me on this working definition of what it means to be a product designer. Here goes…
Product Design is…
A picture means I know where I was every minute. That’s why I take pictures. It’s a visual diary.
—Andy Warhol (via @CollabFund)
First off, GIFSELECTIONS is one of my all time favorite blogs (this was an old GIF of mine that they dug up and reposted, so I’m reposting their repost. I challenge them to repost this repost of their repost!).
It sounds absurd, but micro animation might be an emerging discipline in design. I took a motion design class in school — at the time it was just an additional skill in a designer’s repertoire. Now it’s an entire industry that I hardly have any real grasp of. If that industry can live almost entirely on a few standard formats (10,30,60 second spots, 5-10 second bumpers, etc), why couldn’t a GIF design industry emerge designing for 1,2,5,10 second loops? Probably an absurd notion, but I would have never expected the fragmentation design has already seen (letterers, packaging designers, design-y illustrators).
So go ahead and bet your future on GIFs. Your parents will love you for it.
This little guy is for a special thing we are working on for Days. Not going to reveal the secret yet, but in the meantime you can watch his friendly eyes blink at you and hug your screen.
Culture is a thing of surfaces and secrets. The anthropologist is obliged to record the first and penetrate the second. Once we’ve figured out what people believe to be true about themselves, we can begin to figure out what’s really going on in this culture.
I got Sexpigeon’d!
Sold this inky shadow to Keenan, who’s a swell guy. Miss this bike already, but have too many bikes, am trying to cut down on bikes. This is an easy bike to endo on, and my endo days are certainly over. So goodbye to all that.
PS — I should not that I bought this bike through Bondsy, which is the raddest way to buy/trade/give away/sell stuff.
“OK Glass, get me space ice cream!”
Weird reminder of a past life. About 2 years ago, I was given access to an original IBM office clock and tasked with redrawing the face. It took a lot of work to preserve all the idiosyncrasies as I redrew those wonky numbers, while editing out all the print defects and mistakes from the original to give it a fresh, clean feel (the template used for that original clock must have been old and worn).
A few months later, Schoolhouse Electric and Supply Co. released this “faithful reproduction of the classic IBM indicator clocks found in offices, warehouses and schools during the mid-20th century." A beautiful piece of industrial design and I was strangely and abruptly inserted into its history, and now I don’t even do that kind of work anymore. Weird, wild stuff.
1960s IBM 13.5” Standard Issue Clock
Old school tech.
I see the value of writing clearly and concisely becoming an increasingly important skill for digital workers… an important medium for getting work done and convincing others of our ideas.
I’ve always loved working with with people that write; not necessarily for the content they produce, but for the signal it provides. A person that writes is someone that believes their ideas are worth being heard. In an industry that runs off of vision — vision that is often refuted or even mocked by peers — it takes a bit of audacity and presumption to keep pushing your own ideas, your own vision of the way things are and ought to be.
Writing is a signal that you believe in your own brain, that it produces quality stuff that’s worth other people’s time and attention. There are plenty of great thinkers and builders that don’t write, but I appreciate what writing can say about a person, sometimes even more than the writing itself.
Always nice to be able to put a range of skills to work in service of building something we love. I’d no illustrator, but when occasion calls I can get ths job done and keep Days moving forward.
Every time we push out a new version of Days, we do a little jig. Here’s wishing you a jig-worthy day!
Big news for Tumblr today. I’m a bit of a Tumblr fanboy — a fan of the service, the community, the amazing team, and of David Karp who has been a continually impressive CEO.
I published my first post just over three years ago. Since then, I have created 15+ blogs and this will be my 450th post on this blog alone.
Tumblr has meant a lot to me. But I really want to talk about what I feel it means to the millions of people that have found a home there. And I’ve put a lot of time in to trying to understand why that is.
Tumblr is about a specific type of identity. I’ll come back to that in a bit. First, a little more on what identity can mean to users these days.
For a long time, the internet was a haven for anonymous identity, people who wanted to be someone entirely other than their real-world selves. Anonymous identity is an important part of the internet, but the problem is it is not liquid. You cannot translate that anonymous social capital into real world capital.
On the other side of the spectrum is real identity. When Facebook bucked the MySpace trend and required new users to sign-up with a real name, it set itself apart as a network where the social norm is to represent some version of your real world self. This representation is as liquid as identity gets. This is the social capital you might use to make friends, find a job, and operate in the real world as a credible person.
But Tumblr is something in between. It’s where your aspirational identity lives. Aspirational identity is a projection of where you want your real identity to be in 2, 5, 10 years.
These are not new ideas — aspirational identity has been around since kids have been lining their bedroom walls with posters of sports cars and rock stars. What makes Tumblr an incredible home for aspirational identity is that it allows users to escape the confines of their real identity and have this future view of themselves validated. You could be a high school-aged boy growing up in the rural midwest who is obsessed with dance, or a teen girl from a struggling family that dreams of traveling the world. Your circumstances might destroy your confidence, limit your opportunities, and strangle your aspirations. But on Tumblr, on a simple platform for self-expression, you have an audience ready and willing to validate not just who you are, but who you see yourself becoming. We are all, in some way, bound by circumstance. Aspiration is how we move beyond those bounds.
What I love about the internet and Tumblr specifically is this: it has given form to what people want to become. It has made aspirations real, tangible, living, and changing.
Think about aspirational identity and real identity on opposite ends of a weighted scale. When we are young, who we are might be less important to us than who we want to become. (Think about young children playing house or pretending to be an astronaut.) College might be where aspiration and reality reach equilibrium. We are shaping who we really are, driven by who we want to become. Then later in our adult life, we suppress aspiration and focus on our “real” selves.
This might spell doom for Tumblr. Is it a home that people just eventually grow out of and move on from? I don’t believe so. I think this Tumblr-using generation has somehow figured out what we would all do well to learn. Aspiration is important to all of us and, we start to lose something of ourselves when we settle into our real identity and stick there. It is the interplay of aspiration and reality that make us dynamic, always-moving entities that are interesting precisely because we can’t be pinned down. These are the people that are inventing and re-inventing themselves all the time and that ghost of an identity that lived only as dreams and whispers before now has a form for full expression.
Anyway, this is a long-winded love letter to Tumblr. I have high hopes for their future. I’ll be sticking with them for a long long time.
First, about Jay. He is an enigmatic mix of specialties and personality. Aside from just being a genuinely kind and caring individual (why I love having a good conversation with him), he is a talented physician, has a masters in public health, is a successful entrepreneur, and is also obsessed with and well versed in design oriented problem solving (even teaching a course as part of SVA’s Product Design MFA Program). A lot of what he shares on his blog falls in this really sweet spot between human health, culture, and design.
I have had the fortune of having decent physical health in my early life. But I have always been interested in the effect my design work could have on mental/emotional health. Partly because if there is any supposed pathology I can empathize with, it’s ADD.
Jay introduces a quote on the Social Construct Theory of ADHD with a seemingly inconsequential little sentence:
"Too many people tell me that they suffer from ADHD when, to me, they suffer from the consequence of bad design."
Take that in again. People suffering, feeling incapable in and incapacitated by a system that hasn’t been designed to work well for them.
After reading Jay’s post, I needed to write down some of my thought’s, so I sent him a quick email:
I just received this in my inbox from a friend:
“My oldest brother was diagnosed with severe ADD in his early teens. He took Ritalin, Adderal, and a few other drugs through high school. He struggled through much of it. I have two other brothers, and both of them, myself, and my Dad all exhibit behaviors that resemble what doctors would consider symptoms of a disorder. We think we’re all a bit ADD.
That oldest brother eventually found art school, went off medication, and has had an amazing life as an artist and educator. Another brother and myself ended up in design school. My dad is a voice actor. My youngest brother is still figuring it out (but is interested in film and move makeup).
ADD is shorthand for a lot of different things to a lot of different people. For us, we associate it with a different learning/cognitive style. I like calling it a “style”. We do things a little bit differently, process a little bit differently. And sometimes that can cause some difficulty in a rigid system that is optimized for the majority learning style (that’s why I did pretty terribly in High School but killed it in college).
I think my youngest brother has been told over and over about his limitations and he can’t help but believe some of it. It pains me. He’s a guy with a different learning style bumping up against a rigid system.
We are a family of creative people. We may not be the best at remembering that the gas stove is still on, but we all create things that we are proud of. I’d much rather be that than the guy who can keep everything safe and in order.
Anyways, thanks for sharing. It’s something that I’ve thought about through my adult life and wish I could shake some of these kids into realizing that there are opportunities built for them, for their style.”
If there is a significant number of people that our systems don’t serve well, there is opportunity to provide something better. Something that works for them specifically, or, even better, a more flexible system that can work a little better for everyone.
At Thursday night’s Designer as Entrepreneur panel, an audience member asked whether we believe entrepreneurship is an innate capacity or whether it could be learned.
After some thought I was able to articulate an idea that has had me excited for the future of what I do but I had previously not been able to formalize what that notion was. Here it is:
Our economy is built on a set of systems that function most efficiently and are most compatible with a specific personality type. This has been the hard truth of the failed creative genius that has watched as the uninspired business man of yesteryear flourish. Most of us get a taste of this early in life. We watch fellow student that are really good at mastering the system rake in the praise and honors, while the rest idly doodle in the margins of their text books. Maybe at some point, we begin to feel broken.
That is changing. Resources and systems are developing that allow a range of personality types to function in their optimal state (I recently saw Tim Schafer speak and that guy is a personality that has little patience for the traditional AAA game publishers but has found in Kickstarter a path that fits the way he wants to build his company.) . And if you follow the thinking of folks like Ken Robinson, you’d agree that the most efficient system helps the people providing the inputs discover their passions and talents, and express them in the most productive, natural way possible.
Yesterday’s chump is today’s hero. We’ve seen the rise of geeks, introverts, artists, and weirdoes. It’s not a matter of one valuable personality type displacing another. It’s about building flexible systems that can work best for all personalities and styles.
I serendipitously came across a Wired article on Judy Singer’s work on de-stigmatizing these various cognitive styles: ”In the late 1990s, a sociologist named Judy Singer—who is on the autism spectrum herself—invented a new word to describe conditions like autism, dyslexia, and ADHD: neurodiversity.”