Snowflakes + Avalanches

· June 3rd

Design, by virtue of its definition, epitomizes determination and that precise control that is treasured in communication. It’s the opposite of any happy accident because it’s through a mixture of talent and work we’ve arrived. We vary greatly as designers in how important this command is, what its contribution is to the world, and even what constitutes success—our definitions live far and away from universal agreement. Through this variety we create a lot of white noise. It all starts to sound the same.

I think about this problem a lot. Is it part of getting old? Is it part of climbing up a career? Is it just meeting other designers?

This is a quote I picked up back in high school, when philosophical bravado was some definition of identity you could carry that built who you were through the clumsy fumbles of adolescence. Admittedly, for years, I thought it was a quote by Voltaire because like most teens, my concern was in how I sounded and not what I actually knew. It’s almost accidental how it would carry me ahead. Keep it in mind while you read through this.

So much of who we are and we believe or know is simply an interpretation of the world around us whether it’s a body of scientific observations or a vast and continually growing array of religions from a single piece of text. Those interpretations are strings of logic we’ve connected. It’s difficult to discern logic from coincidence, truth from imagination, and to orient ourselves in how to process all of it—we’re emotional, we’re flawed.

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Here’s a quick example: “If some men play basketball, and some basketball players are tall, then some men are tall.”

In other words: “If some ink is black, and some black things are cars, then some cars are ink.”

What is just a logical fallacy might seem like some trivial bit from the GRE or some other standardized test, but it manifests in all sorts of ways. Some of it is malicious like when fear mongers prey on our vulnerabilities. Most of it is actually accidental.

The truth is, we’re not very conscious of what it is we want. When you buy a 1/4″ drill bit, what you want is a 1/4″ hole. We might buy a 1/2″ drill bit and blame the manufacturer when the hole is too big. We might have needed a nail and not a hole.

If we let product managers dictate it, a 1/4″ drill bit would come with a Facebook like button. If we let Dribbble dictate it, it probably wouldn’t work, but would look great in someone’s wedding photos.

We go down this rabbit hole with our own beliefs and preconceptions confidently producing a mass of messy culture. Feature shitshows we call good design because someone else “liked” it. Featureless works of boredom because, through the compulsion of our peers, we’ve mistaken minimalism as interchangeable with penultimate success. We hold ourselves up as if somehow we’re really above this very human flaw that actually unites all of us in spite of our endless differences.

Edgar Allen Poe once said that, “The enormous multiplication of books in every branch of knowledge is one of the greatest evils of this age; since it presents one of the most serious obstacles to the acquisition of correct information by throwing in the reader’s way piles of lumber in which he must painfully grope for the scraps of useful lumber.”

Poe was of the opinion that printing books was evil because it allowed books, good or bad, to exist. It’s an exclusionary attempt to control and contain culture says more about our insecurities and less about what’s good for the world. The truth is, we need that diversity of information, good or bad, to foster something worthwhile.

In architecture, there is a guiding principle to design for permanence—monuments and legacy. Adaptation occurs, however poorly, because people and usage around any architectural design will change constantly. The urban landscape’s change in spite of any architect’s wishes is a violent and unforgiving one if permanence was expected. CBGB’s, famed for its line-up of cultural upstarts, is now a John Varvatos store, famed for $200 black v-neck tees among other clothes.

In architecture, this idea is known as shearing layers. It’s this concept that different parts will grow and decay at different rates.

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As technology advances, as culture changes more rapidly, and we find ourselves converging, this is something we have to design and pace ourselves with, too. Our designs will outlive the technology they rely on like some ghostly website that only works in Internet Explorer.

Our designs will be outlived by our goals, like embarrassing memories that won’t go away as our behaviors change. Can you hear the disdain from those who favor flat designs over “skeumorphic” as if they even understand what that really means? Flat or textured, we still like calculator apps to look like calculators, mostly.

I know it’s tough to apply such broad and general ideas to everyday practice. As designers we want to execute something; it’s a habit of completing a checklist. Conference after conference, it’s someone’s portfolio and advice that’s some variation of “be passionate”, “make things”, or “do what you love”, and it’s frustrating. That checklist doesn’t guarantee anything. But if there’s anything to understand it’s remain flexible. Find the relativism in things. Think of what you do as always uncertain and incomplete.

Let’s come back to that quote: “No snowflake ever feels responsible for an avalanche.”

I think about getting old a lot because I’ve come to realize how I think it’s bullshit. We can’t excuse the idle among us who simply want to envision the world through assumptions, and through negligence allow it to fall apart. We let ourselves fear that what we do will be inconsequential because we allow ourselves to believe that our success is a mere shadow of those came before us.

A lot of us choke under that fear and keep running in circles hopelessly trying to leave some mark on the world. We can’t handle jobs where we feel like we aren’t making a difference, when the reality is the more inconsequential we feel, the more we need to pour into our efforts. Where we feel that problem is most insurmountable, is often where we’re needed most. That’s our challenge.

Be a snowflake that takes responsibility for an avalanche.