Mantras and Manifestos, oh my

in design

I’ve been thinking about my “design philosophy” ever since I was asked to sum it up in 140 characters or less for that networking event I went to at the beginning of the semester. I’m sort of long-winded, so it was difficult. What I came up with there was “Everything is connected, every detail matters,” which is without question true, but maybe inadequate. It’s also not just my design philosophy, but the way I approach my life.

And I think that is important, really, that I basically approach design the same way I do the rest of my life. It’s all the same principle for me, how to live the best life and do the most good I can.

The other major component of that philosophy, an extension of it that I couldn’t fit into the character limit, was that I think of everything I do as practice for something else I will do later. I think I’ve always had vague feelings in this direction, but it has been strongly compounded by basically everything I ever learned in psychology. Compartmentalization is largely an illusion, the first things we learn are always the hardest to unlearn, everything we think or do has other effects somewhere along the line. Humans are creatures of habit, and I strive to cultivate habits of mind as well of body - they are habits I carry with me everywhere, in the fundamental ways I perceive and react to and act upon the world.

I think this comes through most starkly in my choice of media to consume and my lack of tolerance for situations or people that I believe create toxic environments. A lot of people excuse a lot of things because they’re “just a game” or “just a fantasy/fiction/story/on the internet” or whatever, and therefore “not real,” not important, and without consequences that are worth paying attention to. But I think that’s bullshit. Whether it’s children playing house or kittens wrestling, play isn’t an escape from reality nearly as much as it is practice for reality. Fantasy functions as a safe space for exploring what might become reality, and I like to be careful in my choice of reality, thank you very much.

I could go on a big rant here about anger and violence and the hydraulic theory of emotion and how utterly wrong and counterproductive that view is, but I shouldn’t. It’s just another place to practice anger and I’d rather practice calm thoughtfulness (not that I don’t think there are times when it is extremely important to be angry, but ranting on the internet about stuff nobody asked me my opinion on anyway is not one of them for me).

I try to apply this philosophy to just about all areas of my life, from the little throwaway tasks that I refuse to do badly because why would I want to get in the habit of being sloppy, to scrupulously following traffic safety precautions even when I believe I am safe and there is no one near me - because it’s not when people are aware of danger and on heightened alert that they get into accidents, it’s when they think they’re safe and get careless and are wrong. I want the right thing to be so automatic that I do it even when I’m not thinking, and that means doing it all the time when I am.

I think the applicability to my design work should be obvious. Design is literally a way of practicing for reality, of acting with intentionality so that our actions have the effects we want. It also means that I think all design projects have the potential for a meaningful impact on someone’s life, if they are designed with that potential in mind. And even “small” decisions about “small” matters can hurt people in big ways if they are not undertaken with thoughtfulness and sensitivity, and someone ends up surrounded by “small” thoughtless mistakes. Hoefler and Frere-Jones had a pair of tweets yesterday that I think perfectly sum up that approach, with a quote from Michael Beirut: “don’t people buying dog biscuits also have the right to some beauty and wit in their lives?”

Of course, I’m not going to lie, sometimes this philosophy is a way to enable my obsessive perfectionism at the expense of just getting stuff done, and all that self-awareness and self-monitoring don’t really help me relax. But I’m working on those shades of gray between “not good enough” and “perfect,” getting better at seeing “pretty good anyway.” Deadlines help. Well, they don’t help with the anxiety, but you know, baby steps.