Ideas, life, and design

The toughest part for me growing as a designer was learning to let ideas go. I now appreciate that ideas are unstable, sometimes they need to change and grow, move on to other people, or simply fade away again. It is a realisation that has made me comfortable with not being right, but confident to stick with ideas that I believe in – my own or those of others – when they start changing.

Cennydd Bowles hits a similar vein in Letter to a Junior Designer where he writes:

In time, the distinction between idea and iteration will blur.

Now I see ideas as starting points for design journeys to be shared with others.

And I realised that becoming a better designer means thinking less about design, and honouring my life experiences as central to what I have to offer as a designer. Doing other things allows my design intuition to breathe again. Cennydd hits the nail on the head once again:

Finally, there may come a point when you realize you’re better served by thinking less about design. Work and life should always be partially separate, but there’s no doubt that the experiences you have in your life shape your work too. So please remember to be a broad, wise human being. Travel (thoughtfully) as much as you can. Read literature: a good novel will sometimes teach you more than another design book can. Remind yourself the sea exists. You’ll notice the empathy, sensitivity, cunning, and understanding you develop make your working life better too.

I reminded myself recently that the sea (still) exists – and it looks wilder, and more inspiring than ever.

What do we do when we do what we do?

I’m quarter of the way into, what I hope will become, a Masters in Systems Thinking in Practice. Overall the course content has challenged my thinking on many fronts – but the concept that I think about most is: What do we do when we do what we do? Ray Ison attributes it to Humberto Maturana, the Chilean biologist and philosopher.

Ison writes:

Too often we inhabit a taken-for-granted world where our ways of doing things are not questioned. Questions like this that invite critical reflection on our circumstances are not common. 1

To understand what this means, it helped me to revisit practice.

What is practice?

Ison describes practice as a practitioner P, with a framework of ideas F, a method or methodology M, engaged in a situation of interest S. Let’s call it the PFMS practice system.

Why is this relevant?

When appreciating practice in the context of digital design, I’ve noticed that design decisions are often method M driven. Designers starting out – and a few seasoned veterans – focus on method, which is understandable as new methods for doing the same things tend to recur in cycles (for example, HTML5 attempting to recreate the world of Flash). Clients like to be shown new stuff, and business analysts often ask, ‘where is the wow factor? – which is often something visually tangible.

But focusing on method obscures the frameworks F underpinning, and influencing, our work. Frameworks are an equally important dynamic in our practice system, and it needs visibility in language.

All four elements in the PFMS practice system exist in a dynamic relationship. Change in one, causes change in the other, and the changes can have unintended, and surprising, consequences. This is why it is important to hold a conceptual model of what practice is in mind when engaged in projects. And based on feedback from a project, it may be necessary to modify the dynamics between PFMS in a way that is context sensitive.

This opens up a new awareness where we appreciate our own performance in the PFMS system, acknowledging that who we are has a direct bearing on situations we are in. Based on this feedback we can adapt our approach. Ison describes this shift as a move to reflexive practice – where we shift from simply being in, to becoming critically aware of our being in situations.

When looking at practice in this way it becomes clear that over-focusing on methods – at the expense of frameworks – may mean that areas of potential remain hidden, and lost to projects, our clients, and ourselves.

On running, fonts, and meditation

With the emergence of web fonts, and grid systems for responsive design, UIs are beginning to look like well designed print designs. I have a copy of Designing Books: Practice and Theory – an out of print hard to read European style book of design theory – flipping its pages inspires me to re-think designing for screen. 1

I’ve been wondering if web designers were making the print design connection, then I came across Mike Kruzeniski – How Print Design is the Future of Interaction. The article is recommended reading if you’re unfamiliar with print design, or its history.

All of this has been rekindling my love of fonts untill I discovered Simon Garfield’s Just My Type: a book about fonts, which has caused my type-love to burst into flame again.

But besides design work, I also use fonts as meditation objects when I run by playing a kind of type trumps game. Let me explain.

I’ll visualise a counter in a particular font, say Akzidenz Grotesk, and have it repeat in cycles of 10 or 20, usually driving the counter with my footsteps, and focusing on the detailed anatomy of the characters.

When my mind wanders I’ll switch fonts to regain focus. This helps me to forget about time and distance.

After a run I usually write down a few notes, which is surprising, because when I run I try to meditate on letters and not thoughts, but somehow meaning persists.

For me, this highlights the importance of fonts as containers of thinking – we should not underestimate the role of fonts in mediating our cognitive processes. And with the arrival of web fonts, typography on the web can finally come of age, allowing the creation of experiences with wider, more subtle, meanings.

  1. As is the work of Jan Tschibold

Reading vs. Streaming

I’ve always viewed speed reading with suspicion. Then I discovered Spritz – a text streaming app – and for an avid reader, with a preference for books, it takes some getting used to.


The premise seems to be; with so much to read – read faster.

To me it’s a simplistic response to distraction and information overload.

From the Spritz website:

When reading, only around 20% of your time is spent processing content. The remaining 80% is spent physically moving your eyes from word to word and scanning for the next ORP1. With Spritz we help you get all that time back.

Being human does involve a lot of repetitive physical positionings before we can start doing something: chewing, for example, before we swallow food – activities that can be framed as time lost. I guess we are going to have to live with it. 2

And even if I could, I don’t think I’d want to read Catcher in the Rye in three hours – I’d feel physically sick – and I’d miss the point of reading fiction, which to my mind means finding emotions on the page, and allowing it to reshape our internal emotional landscapes.

But hang on, I hear you say: text streaming is not for reading fiction, what about business reading? Surely this is an area where reading faster will help, just think of all the emails we need to get through…

Considering the scale of the challenges before us, I’d counter that business, or professional reading, requires the greatest care. Reading faster is not the answer. A different kind of reading is required, and it starts by deciding what to read, how to interpret, and how to respond.

We are not mechanical machines; we are emotional machines. To be different to what we are we need a different biology. 3

I’m not arguing against being productive, but as a species, if there is anything we need to do more – it is doing less of wanting to do more. 4

The productivity-movement is selling their ideas on the premise that by doing things more ‘efficiently’, ‘time’ will open up for ‘other’ things.

But for me, traditional reading is one of those ‘other’ things, and no better way to invest ‘time’. Even if, in a mechanical context, I’m wasting 80% while doing it.

  1. ORP: Optimal Recognition Position 

  2. Enter the rise of mindfulness

  3. Behaviour has an impact on biology – but how committed are we to adopt new behaviours that we know we should? 

  4. In a climate change world this can be interpreted as a type of ‘productivity’. 

The problem with big organisations and innovation

At Company X 1 every second Friday of the month used to be Digital Friday – a day set aside for peer-to-peer learning and ‘innovation’. My guess is that the originators had it in mind to create an environment where a learning culture would take hold, ultimately leading to the creation of a learning organisation. 2

There is a name for this phenomenon, and it is called a community of practice (CoP), a concept originally coined by the educational theorist Etienne Wenger. Company X is not unique in doing this, other companies are doing it too, and on the Web networked CoPs thrive. Wenger lists a number of concepts that characterise a CoP:

self-governance, voluntary participation, personal meaning, identity, boundary crossing, peer-to-peer connections, 3

but Digital Friday was in trouble – a new manager stepped in and Digital Friday was the first thing to go. This is not a disaster – community making continues online. But what is regrettable is the loss of sponsorship for a ‘designed’ learning community from a senior manager.

Wenger writes that CoPs don’t fit easily into hierarchical organisations and that many ‘designed’ CoP fail or die early:

The concern is that their informality and the difficulty to measure their value lets them fall through the cracks and lose priority. The word ‘community’ itself sometimes arouses suspicion of clubs or unfocused groups. A manager declared that a series of self-organised groups sounded too much like chaos.

But out of chaos comes order – probably nowhere more so than in digital culture 4 – and fronting up to this takes vision and courage.

Initiatives like Digital Friday are important. Peter Senge writes why:

As the world becomes more interconnected and business becomes more complex, work must become more ‘learningful’. 5

At Company X, attempts to nurture the emergence of a digital community – as a learning culture – are now superseded by self-styled ‘digital experts’.

  1. Company X is not a fictional company – but it could be. 

  2. These are my words, but I’d posit that the original idea was to create a ‘start-up’ culture. 

  3. Etienne Wenger (2009): Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems: the Career of a Concept, published in Social Learning Systems and Communities of Practice

  4. I am not suggesting that ‘designing’ a CoP will automatically be successful. Wenger cautions: Perhaps uninformed applications will generate too many failures, causing disappointment with the whole idea in practical settings. 

  5. Peter M. Senge. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation