My key takeaway from this that Design is about discovering fundamental truth about humanity, then applying those discovered truth to empower people. Any piece of great design/innovation has that property of empowerment and enabling effect. The process of the such great designs/innovations, all of them, involved the discovery of fundamental truth about humanity.
My second takeaway is that constraints make design happen. What limits the design can be (or simply is) the driving force that enables the impetus that drives everything, as shown in the basketball example in the article. Embrace constraints so that freedom comes from within.
My third takeaway is something I already knew, but once again reaffirmed here. “It’s not what it looks or feels like. Design is how it works.” How it works is the product. Essentially design is the creation of the final product that people are not only willing to try, but deliberately seeks for and then chooses to use and incorporate into their life. This is back to the first take away of discovering fundamental truth about humanity and applying them for empowerment.
This is material from a talk I gave at Build on November 14th, 2013. I’ve cleaned it up a bit from the original working script so the video will be slightly different.
Two years ago at this conference, Wilson Miner gave a talk called When We Build. In that talk, he drew a connection that’s stayed with me. He argued that in the same way cars and roads transformed the way we lived our lives 50-60 years ago, screens are transforming our lives right now, and will continue to do so for decades to come.
And that raises a question for designers: What future are we building, given that we play a role in such an important process? I believe our industry as a whole hasn’t given an adequate answer to his question.
Recently I’ve started forming my own answer, and I’ve found it by looking backwards through the history of our field. But, it’s a different history than I’m used to looking at, and a different history than I think our industry is used to looking at. So today I’d like to share where I’ve been looking, and the answers I’ve found there.
I’d like to start by looking at the very history Wilson was describing. This is Thomas MacDonald. MacDonald was a civil engineer from Iowa and he was the Chief of the Bureau of Public Roads in the United States, which is now called the Federal Highway Administration.
MacDonald was the driving force behind the development of the American Interstate Highway System, which was something like the skeleton of the transformation that Wilson was talking about.
In 1924 he outlined his dream:
What I like about this quote is that it’s a vision of the future, a statement of how the world will be different once he’s done. It’s the answer he would have to Wilson’s question, and it’s the type of statement I think we should have readily available whenever asked. He wrote the following:
I’m not sure if he’s right — a stable economy seems pretty important too — but I think it’s important that he felt that way. This vision drove his work, and informed his decisions. For example, toll roads were one of his big enemies, being counter to this populist vision. The Golden Gate Bridge once lost federal funding just on the grounds that it had a toll.
So, many of us as designers don’t have an answer like MacDonald. There might be an answer but it wouldn’t be ouranswer, not in the way that MacDonald’s answer was his answer. The designer’s answer, more often than not, would be an answer given by someone else: a founder, a CEO, a product manager… There’s a kind of distance that exists between the vision and the designer’s work. Between what something is, and how that something gets expressed on a screen.
This distance is not unique to software design. It has been with design and designers for a long time. You can see this when you look at our heritage. When we study the masters, we talk about works like this:
These comparisons make gut-level sense. When you’re sitting back at your desk, reflecting on your work, it doesn’t appear to be very different on the surface:
But these classic works of graphic design have something important in common: the most valuable part of the work was not created by the designer.
Paul Rand did not engineer the first hard drive for IBM. Massimo Vignelli did not construct or conceive of the New York City subway system. Josef Müller-Brockman certainly did not write Beethoven’s symphonies.
Their work was always in service of a client, or a separate creation or event — always something else. Their role was not as creator, but communicator: translator, facilitator, marketer. Design was in the middle, working between the something else and the customer. The something else, however, is where all of the actual value lies. Without a something else, there’s nothing to design for.
And this is still where interactive design was until only recently: the product specs, and the engineering over here, which designers translate into interfaces, for the user over there.
It’s literally what the word “interface” means: the point where two systems interact. It’s in the word! So by definition, if your only responsibility is the interface, you’re just communicating or translating the value, not creating it.
Here’s another lens on this. A classic definition of design that we’ve all seen:
And it’s an idea that has held up over time:
This idea is not specific to the idea of content, here it is with products:
That’s from the famous ten principles. See how design and product are separate notions here? There’s a radio over here, and an expression of the radio over there. In other words, design is a step in a process fueled by someone or something else.
So I think this thing of being in the middle is baked pretty deep into our identity as designers. But what I’m seeing is that for many of us working on the web (or mobile or whatever) this is becoming an incomplete picture of the work that we do. The industry is changing, and what it means to design is changing.
Over the course of my career, I’ve observed a progression:
My earliest interface projects began with wireframes that were given to me by a client or a founder or whatever. I would take the wireframes and kinda color them in, doing my best to spread usability into the nooks and crannies of the design. It was very structured and pre-defined.
After doing that for long enough, it became more typical to do the wireframing myself. Instead of starting with the wireframes, I started with a set of product requirements, and I defined the layouts and flows and interactions. This model worked well, and I think this is the model most of the industry still thinks of as the role of the designer. But that too began to change.
I started becoming more involved with that developing those product requirements, helping teams to develop whole products from scratch. Eventually my work started not with any specific assumptions of a product or a feature, but an abstract goal: a description of how things could be different, or should be different. Nothing there but aspiration.
Even that, too, is beginning to shift, but that’s another topic for another talk.
This is a description of my personal career path, but I don’t think it’s unique. This is a trend I’ve observed happening across our whole industry: design creeping into the tops of organizations, into the beginnings of processes. We’re almost to the point, or maybe we’re already there, that these are boring, obvious observations to be making. Designers, at last, have their seat at the table.
I think this is the defining quality of interaction design today and into the future. We’re not in the middle anymore. The something else isn’t a something else anymore. It can be ours to define. Ours to create from little more than a loose idea, a goal. Something from nothing.
There’s a Steve Jobs quote that gets thrown around a lot these days: design is how “it” works, not how “it” looks. But I think it’s gotten bigger than that: design is what “it” actually is.
So when we look back at a field like graphic design, we’re looking at a very different process. One of communication, not creation. In the past, when people created something new — that process of making something from nothing — in the past, we called that process not design, but invention.
And that’s what I’d like to propose today:
Designers are now in the business of invention.
I admit, there’s some part of me that chokes on that word a little, because I think it sounds a little silly. It makes me picture like a sepia-toned dude in a lab, working with beakers and microscopes. Our world feels very distant from that image.
But I don’t actually think they are too different, design and invention. At their root, both processes hinge on creating something new that’s based on an insight that nobody has had before. We discovered how vacuums are created, and so we were able to create the light bulb. Capacitive touch displays made it possible to build the iPhone. Those are clear insights, based on a technical discovery.
But in many cases, the key insights of the products we work on haven’t been technical. Twitter, for example, was technically possible for a long time before it was created. But the insight — that the character limitations would enable a fundamentally different and important kind of social behavior — wasn’t really known.
Now I’m not saying the creators of Twitter were consciously tapping into that discovery. Maybe they were, but it doesn’t matter. It’s not necessary that the insight comes ahead of the invention, as it’s often the pursuit of an impossible vision that returns the insight. But the dependency is still there, that the design depended on discovering something new about the world. The understanding of social behavior that Twitter taps into wasn’t obvious to most of us, otherwise I think we would’ve had Twitter as soon as it became technically feasible.
So taken in this sense, design and invention can be collapsed into a kind of shared definition. They are both, simply:
There are, of course, many products that do require a technical innovation in order to be successful, so this isn’t a point about design being more important than engineering or something. My point is just that a single non-technical insight can be the central driver of value and meaning in a creation. My point is that there’s an equivalency between the magnitude of a technical discovery and a behavioral or social discovery. We use different terms, but it’s in our interest to study them together, to treat them as a unified process, because there’s a lot we can learn.
And this is not a new phenomenon unique to software: history is filled with non-technical progress: schools, political systems, economic systems — all non-technical in nature. And these systems are actually very similar to the social software we create today. The way information is accessed on Facebook, that only your friends see your updates, is not a technical restriction. It’s an artificial structure created to guide human interaction towards a desired end. These other systems are the same way, and their insights come from understanding the optimal relationships between people and between groups. It’s not technology holding them together.
Basketball is actually one of my favorite examples of this phenomenon of non-technical insight, because it’s so recent that we can study it. A lot of these things emerge from over millennia of tradition. But basketball was created by a single guy: a gym teacher, James Naismith. So his school was in New England, and it was too cold during winter to play outdoor sports, and the students were getting rowdy. So he got this set of “product requirements” from his boss:
Keep the kids in shape; make it fair for everyone; not too rough. He had no budget, and a two-week turnaround time. Sounds like a really great client, right?
But he did it. He drafted up a simple set of rules. And it was fun. And basketball is now the most played sport by American teenagers, and there are professional leagues in almost every country in the world. It’s an incredible achievement, and there was no technical discovery required. Just a re-purposed soccer ball and a couple of trash baskets.
Games are actually some of my favorite examples in general because their history goes back so far. There’s evidence of people playing the board game Senet in ancient Egypt in 3000 BC. The game is over five thousand years old and it’s still fun today. So whatever universal aspects of the human experience the game taps into to make it fun have held true across an incredible timescale.
There’s this trope in web design that, because our work isn’t physical, it doesn’t last. When you understand that our work depends on the discovery of these deep truths about humanity, you realize that our work is both the discovery and the creation. And new knowledge and understanding will live much longer than anything you can manufacture. We don’t need the original Senet game board to experience it.
Even technical inventions are defined, in many ways, by their non-technical impact on the world, by what they enable for people in their lives. Let’s talk about the telegraph and its inventor — or one of the inventors — Samuel Morse.
Samuel Morse was actually an artist for the first half of his life, and he painted portraits professionally. He landed this sweet gig in New York painting the famous Revolutionary general Lafayette. Morse was a huge fan, so he got pretty stoked about this, and he wrote letters to his wife back home in Connecticut just beaming with excitement and pride. But she would never read those letters, because back home she had fallen ill, and then later died. The letters from his family explaining the situation hadn’t shown up yet because they had to be delivered on horse, which took like a week to do. So then the dude invents instantaneous cross-country communication.
It’s a great framing of the story — albeit simplistic — because it contextualizes his work against the reason it matters to the world. It enabled connections between people that weren’t possible before. These days we like to complain about how over-connected we are, how that actually makes us lonely. I think Morse was lonelier.
But, it’s interesting that Morse is our primary association with the invention of the telegraph. Remember that he was a painter for most of his life, not a scientist. His invention depended heavily on the work of the people who came before him and worked with him. Much of the pioneering thinking behind electromagnetism was already discovered by a slew of other scientists, and even the first telegraph was, in fact, created by someone else — a pair of scientists named Weber and Gauss —not Morse.
One of the reasons Morse’s technology took off where others hadn’t is the insight of morse code. 1774 George-Louis le Sage invented a telegraph that could send complete, written messages. 1774! Samuel Morse wasn’t even alive back then. But this system required dozens of cables, you can see it here, one for every letter in the alphabet, because that’s what he figured was necessary to encode language into an electrical signal.
Morse code, a non-technical discovery I’ll note, meant that communication could be handled exclusively by a single cable. This made the invention significantly simpler and cheaper to implement.
But even though the technology was sound, Morse had a pretty bad “market fit” problem in front of him. Why would anyone use a telegraph where there were no cables… anywhere.
So Morse ends up spending the next years of his life pushing for adoption of his technology. In the process, he ends up burning through all of his money. He goes totally broke trying to petition Congress to install a kind of test cable, a line between Baltimore and Washington D.C. to communicate important political updates. He writes these depressing letters about how his hair is turning gray, and his vision is failing. Death was the only thing he saw in this future at that point.
This was all taking place during the Panic of 1837, the worst recession in the country’s history so far. There wasn’t a lot of optimism around federal funding for a theoretical technology without any proven benefit. Another dream client, right? The bankrupt United States government?
Eventually Morse slowly convinces one congressman at a time, and there’s this critical vote that barely passes, at like 89-82. But it works, and this cable gets constructed. It carries 30 letters per minute — about 14,000 times slower than a 56k modem, but pretty sweet nonetheless. And his standard becomes adopted by all of Europe and eventually he sees it spread into South and Central America. And of course, this technology is the foundation for modern communication, leading to the phone and the television and the internet, and so on.
This second half to Morse’s story is, to me, just as important as the initial invention. We often remember the people who successfully popularized or commercialized an invention more than the person who made the initial breakthrough. You know, we associate Edison with the light bulb, not Joseph Swan. Bell with the telephone, not Elisha Gray.
There are bad reasons for this, like privilege and power. These guys could do some pretty nasty things to take control of these creations. But the ability to take something from the lab and spread it out into the world is important, because that’s when the widespread human impact is actually felt. The human impact, not the technical.
So, after reading story after story like this, I’ve started to identify some patterns. Themes in their work that help me think about my own work. I’m starting to form answers to that question: what future should I be building?
When I look at the history of the greatest inventions, I find two important themes: they empowered people, and they empowered a lot of ‘em. Taken together, you get this kind of rudimentary formula of empowerment multiplied by scale.
And when I say “empowerment” I mean it in a very broad sense.
Whether that’s instantaneous communication with loved ones.
Or a new way to stay healthy.
Or the ability to travel across the country with unprecedented access.
Or really any way to help people be happy and long-lived, closer to the ones they love, with the tools and knowledge they need to be the person they want to be.
On the other end of the equation, we have scale. How many people are being empowered in this way? How can you lower costs and eliminate barriers?
Like Morse pushing through infrastructure investment, or using one cable instead of twenty-four.
Or Naismith using cheap, existing materials making the game accessible to everyone.
Or MacDonald eliminating toll roads, ensuring everyone with a car could take advantage of the freeways.
Costs for us as designers take many forms, some less obvious. Bandwidth is a cost, slow speeds are a cost, poor accessibility is a cost, confusing interfaces are a cost, complexity is a cost. Scale also suggests solving universal problems: problems like health, education, and financial stability.
So, I came to these conclusions, these answers, not by studying graphic design, but by taking a broader view of our work. I actually don’t think that these are properties you can meaningfully imbue into graphic design, or even interaction design, if you wanted to try. These are properties that come from the deeper layers of decision-making:
I’m talking about:
Product design. This is my definition, at least. The term is being used to describe any interface designer who happens to work on a product, which is unfortunate, but I’ll keep using this one.
But why us? Why should designers be in these roles? Well, one immediate answer is simply that I would like to be in control over the future I’m building. Right now, many of us can only change our answer to Wilson’s questions by just quitting and finding a new job where we’re bought into the vision.
But deeper, I think this is something designers can be really great at. We already understand how to induce utility, delight, motivation at the level of the interface. Expanding that toolset to apply to the bigger picture is not a huge leap.
This is a way of thinking about design that’s growing in popularity, but I recognize that it’s still a minority, maybe even an extreme minority. Nonetheless, I remain optimistic. When I look at the major shifts in our field over the past years — user-centered design, standards-based design, responsive design — years of advocacy have led to genuine, sustained progress. I’m confident we’ll get there.
I’ll point something else out, which is that we’re actually living in a perfect time for change. Apple, famously design-led, is the most valuable company in the world. Taking a design-centric approach to product development is becoming the default, I’m sure it will be taught in business schools soon enough. At the same time, thanks to frameworks and tools like Ruby on Rails, AWS, etc. engineering costs have sunk, creating a larger number of smaller engineering teams creating new products.
So: both a greater demand for design per team, and a greater number of teams in total. This has created an environment where we, as designers, are currently an extremely valuable resource. The hiring market is tilted hugely in our favor. This puts us in a position of power. Power to work on our terms, to craft our roles with as much thought as we craft our work. Our peers are looking to us to lead them, and we should feel good about that.
I’ve tried to articulate why reframing our work is a good thing, but I’d also like to talk about some of the problems that arise if we don’t.
There’s a temptation, when your only domain is the interface, to look there to innovate. When your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail, right? Most people don’t want novel interaction patterns. They want obvious interaction patterns, time-tested standards that don’t need to be re-learned every time they switch the app on their phone. Can you imagine if every car had a different approach to steering? One car would have a wheel, another would have tank controls, another with a video game controller… That’s what we’re doing to many of our users. Roll your eyes at a hyper-real page curl animation, but I bet that convinced a lot of people that the iPad would make sense to them.
This narrow view also threatens the ability to do our best work. Far too often, a designer is charged with designing a product that will never make sense when expressed in UI, and the feedback loops rarely move backwards to force the product to change in response to the interface. By owning both halves, each process can move in appropriate response to the other, ensuring harmony. This is also why I believe designers should code, but again, that’s another subject for another talk.
Here’s a question to ask yourself: if the project you were working on failed — it hit the market and nobody wanted it, nobody used it — would you blame yourself? If the answer is no, then I think you don’t have enough authority. If you’re blaming others for the outcomes in your work, it’s time to demand more.
So, invention, empowerment, scale… I’ve given you my answers, but they’re only my answers. I’m not trying to say they should be yours.
What I do want you to do is this: realize that now is a very special time, a time where we can pursue or create roles with unprecedented authority, roles that give you the ability to create from scratch, to define a vision that changes the world. So: don’t limit yourself, think as big as you can, and go invent something.
As usual, I am deeply indebted to Mills Baker for his help honing these ideas and editing this talk. I’d also like to thank Andy McMillan for creating the opportunity for me to give this talk.