The Optimism of Design

I’ve been accused of being optimistic. I say “accused” because the word is often uttered with disdain. It seems de rigeur for some folks to think of these as the worst of times. The environment is going to hell, political institutions and the rule of law are under attack, injustice and inequality seem to be on the rise, resources are dwindling, etc. How can one be optimistic under such circumstances?

It seems an unpopular and old-fashioned perspective, but I remain steadfast: things can get better — and designers have an important role to play in improving them.

Design is an inherently optimistic practice. It requires an open mind about the possibilities for creating a better future. I’ll say it again: design is about making the possible tangible. “Making the possible tangible” means testing alternate ways of being in the world. The point is making things better. If you don’t believe there’s room for improvement, why design? And if things can be improved, why despair?

This doesn’t mean designers must be naive about the state of the world. To the contrary: we can’t begin to design a better future if we don’t clearly understand the present. At least that’s what we’ve been telling clients; at this point, many have bought into the idea that a solid design process begins with understanding the problem domain through research.

What research informs your worldview? If your understanding comes primarily from sources incentivized to capture your attention (read: advertising-supported media), then be wary. Good news doesn’t sell; rage is an excellent way of keeping you tuned in. Misery loves company, and there are many lonely people out there looking for someone to friend. “A lie travels halfway around the world before truth puts on its boots.” (Churchill) — and with social media, we’ve built a teleporter.

The challenge our forebears faced in understanding the world was a lack of information. That’s not our problem; we have information to spare. Our challenges are deciding what is true and who to believe. We can be more selective today than ever before about the facts that inform our worldview; in seconds I can call up a counter-fact to every fact you can muster. As a result, our attitude towards the possibilities matters more than ever; it’s never been more important to cultivate a beginner’s mind.

Again, this doesn’t imply naiveté. It implies seeing reality for what it is and keeping an open mind towards the possibilities. I’m reminded of this exchange between Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell:

CAMPBELL: There’s a wonderful formula that the Buddhists have for the Boddhisattva. The Bodhisattva, the one whose being — satra — is illumination — bodhi — who realizes his identity with eternity, and at the same time his participation in time. And the attitude is not to withdraw from the world when you realize how horrible it is, but to realize that this horror is simply the foreground of a wonder, and come back and participate in it. “All life is sorrowful,” is the first Buddhist saying, and it is. It wouldn’t be life if there were not temporality involved, which is sorrow, loss, loss, loss.

MOYERS: That’s a pessimistic note.

CAMPBELL: Well, I mean, you got to say, “yes” to it and say, “it’s great this way.” I mean, this is the way God intended it.

MOYERS: You don’t really believe that?

CAMPBELL: Well, this is the way it is, and I don’t believe anybody intended it, but this is the way it is. And Joyce’s wonderful line, you know, “History is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake.” And the way to awake from it is not to be afraid and to recognize, as I did in my conversation with that Hindu guru or teacher that I told you of, that all of this as it is, is as it has to be, and it is a manifestation of the eternal presence in the world. The end of things always is painful; pain is part of there being a world at all.

MOYERS: But if one accepted that, isn’t the ultimate conclusion to say, “well, I won’t try to reform any laws or fight any battles.”

CAMPBELL: I didn’t say that.

MOYERS: Isn’t that the logical conclusion one could draw, though, the philosophy of nihilism?

CAMPBELL: Well, that’s not the necessary thing to draw. You could say, “I will participate in this row, and I will join the army, and I will go to war.”

MOYERS: I’ll do the best I can on earth.

CAMPBELL: I will participate in the game. It’s a wonderful, wonderful opera, except that it hurts. And that wonderful Irish saying, you know, “Is this a private fight, or can anybody get into it?” This is the way life is, and the hero is the one who can participate in it decently, in the way of nature, not in the way of personal rancor, revenge or anything of the kind.

With our practice centered on making things better, designers are heroes in society. We can choose to be. Kvetching is unbecoming.

Brexit Explained

Are you confused by Brexit? I am. This short video from the folks at Information is Beautiful clarified for me the conundrum the UK finds itself in now:

Information is the lifeblood of democracy. People can’t effectively govern the system if they don’t understand the choices before them. I wonder how many people who voted in the Brexit referendum truly understood the implications of their decision.

Brexit Explained