All products are outcomes of design intention, whether explicit and well-considered or implicit and careless.
For example, social media companies consider their software to be successful when users are addicted (an explicit intention, as measured by time spent and number of views), yet at the expense of users’ attention, compassion and civility towards others (an outcome that has ensued because there was no explicit intention to preserve any of these things for users).
Do the designers of social media platforms embody attitudes you’d like to enact in your own life?
Poorly designed things slow us down and may even be infuriating; they are outcomes of mis-communication, greed, lack of empathy, lack of focus.
Any creative endeavour is an expression of the human spirit. When we create something, we create an outward expression of who we are and the values and virtues that we have internalised. What we make becomes a tangible expression of our Self.
For example, Coco Chanel’s clothes embodied virtues that she valued in herself and reflect a woman who was energetic, competent and engaged with the world, just like herself. With a focus on quality, Chanel’s designs were not about following the latest trends and are still relevant now.
Dieter Rams was Chief Design Officer for Braun for 34 years during the middle of the last century. Braun’s products, like Rams himself, are humble, modest and hard-working. These products have inspired the design many of our beloved technology gadgets today, a testament to the endurance and purity of Rams’s vision.
Being simple may make us feel vulnerable, but simplicity is really an achievement; it follows from deep introspection about what really matters, a result of hard-won clarity and focus. These acts reflect virtues such as non-striving, non-attachment and overcoming fear.
We have seen what the opposite of this looks like. A company that reaches for easy revenue opportunities that are not aligned with company strategy or are at the expense of the well-being of its customers is motivated by greed. A development team that keeps adding features just because they can manifest attachment, or striving. A company that won’t kill a middling product because they don’t want to make current users angry is ruled by fear.
When we are fearful, greedy, or attached, our actions get manifested in the design as complexity and clutter. They dilute the purity of the intention behind what is being made. The more able we are to transcend our ego, the better we can create a great design that clearly expresses our intention. Our creations reflect our inner state.
When others consume what we create, we pass on our attributes, vision and intent to others. Design is the culmination of intention, values and principles manifested in tangible form and passed on to another. Design shapes how we think and feel.
In Chanel’s little black dress, women can be efficient, organised, serious and in control, yet while still being graceful and hip. When a woman wears a Chanel dress, she embodies the virtues Chanel imbued in her designs.
The Slow Watch has a 24-hour face, as opposed to 12 hours. The density of the numbers on the watch means that it’s impossible to distinguish between 3:41 pm vs. 3:42 pm. The wearer of this watch does not intend to have his day scheduled down to the minute, but rather to live in larger increments of time, like 15 minutes. Like the founders of Slow who value the slow life, the wearer is able to live the slow life too.
With Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin aimed to build powerful technology that helps people find information efficiently. They also did this by bringing to life a set of values around efficiency and scale through the streamlined interface. By using Google to search the web, or manage our email, documents and photos, we in turn feel powerful, efficient and capable.
When positive ideals are manifested in objects and products we use, these products play a positive psychological or spiritual role in our lives. Well designed products are manifestations of mindfulness, virtues like patience, resilience, iteration, focus, empathy, non-attachment, all at play. When we use these products regularly, they give us a chance to get closer to our better selves. We form an emotional connection to well designed things because they help us grow into our better selves and remind us of what we could be.
What we make and consume is what we become. What we become, so we make. We need good design in the world, not because we want to be extravagant or to get people to buy more stuff, but because good design helps us to be the best version of ourselves.
To make well designed products is to be willing to look at ourselves, our own patterns and habits. When we do so, we better understand and embody the virtues we want to express through what we make. We become oriented towards wholesome action, which gets expressed in what we create. Our creations, in turn, affect how others think and feel. Good design is the greatest gift we can possibly share.
Irene Au is a design partner at Khosla Ventures, who previously built and led the UX and Design teams at Google, Yahoo! and Udacity. She will be presenting at the Above All Human conference on August 29.