Writing | Quality as a Function of Utility

Everybody writes. Emails, blogs, papers, journal articles, book chapters, theses, dissertations, books… So at the draft stage of writing, how do you know enough is enough? This question popped into my head today as I was sending a draft of a section of a paper to my co-author. I wrote to him via email something along the lines of, “… I’m glad that I wrote something; that I gave us material to work with. but i also don’t know if what i wrote gives us enough.”

I regret having wrote that because all I was doing was qualifying the quality of the writing. In other words, “This draft sucks, so prepare thyself for a slog…” This is a crumby way to frame any writing.

Stuff just “is” for better or worse no matter how you choose to measure it. Would it be better if I got closer to “final draft” quality the first time around? Maybe. But, among other things, that assumes the goodness of badness of writing is a function of quality and speed.

See any standardized test for examples of how this assumption surfaces in reality. “Write 500-700 words in 25 minutes… etc.” Don’t mistake this as a criticism of touting speed as a key factor in the quality of writing. It may very well be important.

I want to put forth a different assumption about writing, which, in and of itself, is not incommensurable with speed as a component of quality, but which emphasizes another aspect of writing. The goodness or badness of writing is a function of its utility and its utility is inextricably linked with its context. 

I’ll try and explain with a design analogy.

We talk about iteration a lot in design. Sketch quickly. Sketch often. And always be in dialogue with and about your sketches. The same principle can be applied to writing. Write quickly. Write often. And always be in dialogue with your writing. A designer doesn’t have to be great at sketching. They don’t even need to be good at it, whatever “good” might mean to you. They need to be an adequate sketch artist, meaning that when someone else looks at their sketch they need to be able to be able to converse with it (even if the designer-creator of the sketch isn’t there). In other words, their sketches need to be useful given their spatio-temporally constrained role. Sketches need to be different things at different times in the design process. And maybe the same is true with writing.

I’ve read some pretty bad writing and been able to converse with it, and at the early stages of writing perhaps we all need to relax the “selection criteria” for what gets out of the brain and onto the page. You’ll write something useful. Guaranteed.

If you sketch a lot, you’re going to get better because you’ll (hopefully) come to understand at a deeper level (1) what it means for a sketch to be good and (2) how you can improve as a sketch artist. I think the same is probably true of writing.

If you write a lot, you’re going to get better because, through your own dialogue with your writing and through your dialogue with others about your writing, you’ll (hopefully) come to understand at a deeper level what it means, to you and to others, (1) for writing to be good, and (2) how to get from where you are to where you want to be (as a writer).

Understanding Designing

How can we achieve a deeper understanding of designing

There are many ways to answer that question. We can achieve a deeper understanding by engaging in a design process, by reading about design, by critiquing designs (or designing)… all roads of inquiry lead hopefully to one thing: deeper understanding. Achieving one step closer to a thing about which we’re curious. [I like the “step” metaphor, which is not mine, by the way. I once asked a friend why he’d been listening to Mozart for the last thirty years. He said, “Because each time I do I get closer to him.” Achieving a deeper understanding of anything puts us one (perhaps many) step(s) closer to it. But there are many ways to take the steps. So, how do you decide?]

How do you determine whether to design, read about design, critique designs, or scrutinize design theories? How do you decide whether to take a philosophical approach, a scientific approach, or a designerly approach? None of these are really easy questions, so don’t expect any easy (or for that matter well-formulated) answers.

I met Karl Popper for the first time last year. I know. 30 years old and I’d never read Popper before. Or Thomas Kuhn for that matter. Boy did I miss out. But no longer! Anyway, I’m still getting to know Popper but he and I have something in common. We’re both curious about what it means to “be” something. Popper was curious about what it meant for a theory to be scientific as opposed to something else. I was curious about what it means for a theory to be designerly as opposed to something else.

Our overlapping interests fit together quite nicely in a (thankfully still current) discourse within the design community about the relationship between design and science. You see, since design is a relatively new “discipline,” it is helpful to compare and contrast it with more mature disciplines like science in order to establish its “own” identity. Among others, I know at least the philosopher Martin Buber wrote about distancing and relating as methods for ascertaining identity. In what ways is design different from science (distancing) and in what ways is it similar (relating). If I had to speculate, I’d say that the pendulum is swinging towards relating at this moment.

But the relating questions asked, right now, maybe have less to do with what design and science have in common and more to do with how to negotiate the relationship between them. What can science do for design? What can design do for science? Maybe negotiate is the wrong word. Maybe optimize is better. Regardless, both are valuable questions. Both equally meritorious of answers. Both signify a shift in thinking about design and science not as competitors but as teammates.

It’s possible to use scientific and philosophical-scientific approaches to study design in ways that help the design research community attain a deeper understanding of the object of its inquiry. And this is how Erik Stolterman and I are going about it at the moment. In our work, we don’t suggest that what science has trumps what design has. But we are saying that science offers design something worthwhile and interesting.

Attachment to Things | A Eulogy

Anyone who thinks people don’t form emotional bonds with things should reconsider that position. I’ve been a staunch believer in the emptiness that accompanies attachments to things. A person can’t love a smartphone or a car. At least, not in the same way they love a person or an animal. Surely I don’t have relationships with things in the same way I do with people. But maybe I do.

I just said goodbye to my first car, Betty. Betty transported me through almost fifteen years of life. I was seventeen when we met, and I’ll turn thirty at the end of this month. Betty has been (and will remain) an important part of my life story.

We finished high school and spent all of college together. We chauffeured friends to the movies, to downtown Chicago, to parties. We drove from the depths of southern Indiana home to Chicago on many a late Friday night–belting out songs at the top of our lungs. I cultivated a relationship with my wife due in no small part to the fact that I had Betty to take me from Chicago’s Northwest Suburbs to Hyde Park–a not-so-easy trip to make without a reliable car.

Yesterday, I spent part of the day emptying her of all of her accoutrements. Old receipts, aluminum foil balls, operator’s manual(s), clothes, road maps, a defunct iPass… pocket change, sketches, articles, comic books, more receipts, tools, dog leashes, stickers. I left only the things that I couldn’t take.

I wasn’t removing her organs, even though it felt just as vile. I was removing her personality. Her quirks. The ones we developed together. I was prepping her for the next life by taking from her almost all the things that came to define her in this one.

I stripped bumper stickers from the bumper, and state park and village stickers from the windows. I left an “I Voted Today” sticker on the steering wheel because it just wouldn’t peel off.

Today, I watched through the window as the tow truck drove her away, and I felt as though I was watching an innocent, benevolent someone or something being taken by force to prison, an asylum, or a “home.” Chains fettered her to the truck bed. She shook as the truck revved up as though trying to break free and return to the safety of the driveway to live out her days peacefully. But she couldn’t. She went unwillingly.

As the truck disappeared around the corner at the end of the block, I thought about how I had come to define myself in part through her. Betty was (and remains) part of my identity. And now she’s gone. It was truly a wonderful ride, and this (unexpected) eulogy was the only way I could think to cope with its denouement.

In the spirit of connecting this back to my primary object of inquiry, design, I would like to ask a rhetorical questions: what, if anything, my car’s “status” as a designed object contributes to this sort of attachment forming? are these types of attachments unique to designed objects among other kinds of inanimate objects? is time the most significant determining factor in my having developed such a strong emotional attachment to the car? 

Normativity and Design

Story: During a debate about the future importance of design–but not Designers–an audience member raised her hand. She was a designer from Peru. “I have to interrupt,” she said, “because I sense that you’re ignoring the degree to which design is already happening in a substantive, vibrant way in, for example, Peru. Peru doesn’t need the West to come in and ‘save it,’ because its capable of saving itself.” The audience broke out in applause.

There’s something unappealing about the perspective that the developed world has the means to enter a problematic situation in the undeveloped world and generate otherwise unattainable solutions. The Way of the Developed World (hereafter WdW) is thought by many to be a kind of magic bullet. It has the brains, money, time, power, etc. at its disposal which the rest of the world lacks. How could rural villagers in Turkmenistan possibly come up with a solution for showering without indoor plumbing to rival that from a team of thinkers from IDEO or Frog Design? They’re outmatched.

It’s not atypical to hear this sort of thinking challenged. Things that resemble imperialistic thinking tend to invite dissent, which is a good thing. Much less often, one might hear that it would do those Turkmenistani villagers well to consider the WdW rather than write it off in an attempt to maintain the integrity of their ways of thinking and doing. This perspective accuses those who would challenge the WdW of the very thing that it has become so well known for: remaining closed off to other ways of thinking/doing and idolizing its own.

Recall the Peruvian dissenter. She presses on the suitedness of the WdW to “save Peruvian design from itself.” The perspective described in the previous paragraph frames her dissent as (1) unwilling to acknowledge the potential value of the WdW and (2) stubborn in its adherence to local ways of thinking and doing. Why shouldn’t she at least consider that the developed world has something to offer? This is a rhetorical question. I’m not seriously asking it because I see in it some fundamental flaws.

  1. It implies social and/or economic equality which is, in reality, nonexistent, and
  2. It implies that the developed world is willing to hear dissent/challenges and, in the unlikely event that valid opposition manifests, it is willing to recognize superiority from an(other).

Multiplicity of perspectives matters, but cultural hegemony should give us pause. Science is dependent on the scientist. Philosophy on the philosopher. Logic on the logician. And interpretation on the interpreter. Objectivity is chimerical…

[Work in progress. To be continued…]