Artists don’t distinguish between the act of making something and the act of thinking about it — thinking and making evolve together in an emergent, concurrent fashion. As a result, when approaching a project, an artist often doesn’t seem to plan it out. She just goes ahead and begins, all the while collecting data that inform how she will continue. A large part of what drives her confidence to move forward is her faith in her ability to course correct and improvise as she goes.
— John Maeda, “Redesigning Leadership”
This quote from John Maeda’s book, Redesigning Leadership really resonated with me. It captures my approach to problems and new challenges perfectly. I don’t stress too much about having every step planned out — I’ve learned to trust my intuition and follow new paths as they appear, having faith that they will lead me to a successful outcome.
“Improvise as she goes.” I never would have thought of it like that, but “improvising” is a great way to describe my approach.
Over the past few months I’ve shifted from a product-centric mindset to a service-centric mindset. My focus used to be on building products that help people accomplish a task or goal. That meant I would try to understand the problem to solve, who it’s being solved for, and then design digital products to solve that problem.
But as I’ve grown as a designer, become a manager, and seen Optimizely move into the enterprise market, I’ve realized that a lot more goes into making a product successful than the product itself. Companies often offer additional services to make customers successful.
A service is a touchpoint or system provided by a company to fulfill a need. A touchpoint is how someone uses a service — a website, phone line, ticket kiosk, and so on.
Most digital products, for example, have additional online properties to help customer be successful, like a knowledge base. Companies can also provide non-digital services, such as a support line customers can call or email.
Even though a service may not have a visual interface, they can still be thoughtfully designed. To make good decisions about how these services work, you still need a solid understanding of your users and their goals. This is what product designers do when designing a product, with the only difference being the final deliverable is not a visual interface.
Shifting to a service mindset makes it obvious that new technologies that have invisible UIs, like Alexa and Operator, can be thought of as services and designed just like any other service. In its simplest form, design is the act of making thoughtful decisions. Having empathy and understanding a user’s goals, motivations, and context help designers make thoughtful decisions. These activities apply to services and invisible UIs just as much as creating visual interfaces.
On top of that, all of the products and services that a company offers its customers need to work in concert with each other. This means that it isn’t enough for each product and service to be well-designed on its own — they also need to be designed to seamlessly work together to make customers successful. Doing this also requires having a broad understanding of your customers.
When I had a product-centric mindset I was aware of the different touchpoints, but I hadn’t put much effort into designing them all as a cohesive, interrelated experience. Customers may use the knowledge base and email support while using the product, but that’s for the support team to manage. “I’m just going to make the product great because that’s all that customers need to be successful,” I used to think. I’ve since learned that isn’t true. It takes more than the product itself to make customers successful.
Learning about the discipline of service design has helped me connect all the different touchpoints customers use into one unified framework. Everything is a service — products included. And they can all be thoughtfully designed by using the core skills designers already have. By doing so, customers will have a better experience with your products and services, which will make them more successful, and that will ultimately make your company more successful.
If you’re interested in learning more about service design, these books and articles have taught me a lot:
I recently saw Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawing #273 at the SF MOMA, which really stayed with me after leaving the museum. In particular, I like that it wasn’t drawn by the artist himself, but rather he wrote instructions for draftspeople to draw this piece directly on the walls of the museum, thus embracing some amount of variability. From the museum’s description:
As his works are executed over and over again in different locations, they expand or contract according to the dimensions of the space in which they are displayed and respond to ambient light and the surfaces on which they are drawn. In some instances, as in this work, those involved in the installation make decisions impacting the final composition.
Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawing #273
This embrace of variability reminds me of the web. People browse the web on different devices that have different sizes and capabilities. We can’t control how people will experience our websites. Since LeWitt left instructions for creating his pieces, I realized I could translate those instructions into code, and embrace the variability of the web in the process. The result is this CodePen.
A six-inch (15 cm) grid covering the walls. Lines from corners, sides, and center of the walls to random points on the grid.
1st wall: Red lines from the midpoints of four sides;
2nd wall: Blue lines from four corners;
3rd wall: Yellow lines from the center;
4th wall: Red lines from the midpoints of four sides, blue lines from four corners;
5th wall: Red lines from the midpoints of four sides, yellow lines from the center;
6th wall: Blue lines from four corners, yellow lines from the center;
7th wall: Red lines from the midpoints of four sides, blue lines from four corners, yellow lines from the center.
Each wall has an equal number of lines. (The number of lines and their length are determined by the draftsman.)
As indicated in the instructions, there are 7 separate walls with an equal number of lines, the number and length of which are determined by the draftsperson. To simulate the decisions the draftspeople make, I included controls to let people set how many lines should be drawn, and toggle which walls to see. I let each color be toggleable, as opposed listing out walls 1-7, since each wall is just different combinations of the red, blue, and yellow lines.
The end result fits right in with how human draftspeople have turned these instructions into art. The most notable difference I see between a human and a program is the degree of randomness in the final drawing. From comparing the output of the program to versions done by people, the ones drawn by people seem less “random.” I get the sense that people have a tendency to more evenly distribute the lines to points throughout the grid, whereas the program can create clusters and lines that are really close to each other which a person would consider unappealing and not draw.
It makes me wonder how LeWitt would respond to programmatic versions of his art. Is he okay with computers making art? Were his instructions specifically for people, or would he have embraced using machines to generate his work had the technology existed in his time? How “random” did he want people make these drawings? Does he like that a program is more “random,” or did he expect and want people to make his wall drawings in a way that they would find visually pleasing? We’ll never know, but it was fun to interpret his work through the lens of today’s technology.
In 2016, I read 22 books. Only 3 of those 22 were fiction. I had a consistent clip of 1-3 per month, and managed to finish at least one book each month.
The Laws of Simplicity by John Maeda: the first book I read this year was super interesting. In it, Maeda offers 10 laws for for balancing simplicity and complexity in business, technology, and design. By the end, he simplifies the book down to one law: “Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful.”
David Whitaker Painting by Matthew Sturgis: I had never heard of the artist David Whitaker until I stumbled on this book at Half Price Books in Berkeley. He makes abstract paintings that combine lines and colors and gradients in fantastic ways. The cover sucked me in, and after flipping through a few pages I fell in love with his work and immediately bought the book. Check out his work on his portfolio.
Libra by Don DeLillo: a fascinating account of all the forces (including internal ones) that pushed Lee Harvey Oswald into assassinating JFK. The book is fiction and includes plenty of embellishments from the author (especially internal dialog), but is based on real facts from Oswald’s life and the assassination.
NOFX: The Hepatitis Bathtub and Other Stories by NOFX: a thoroughly entertaining history of the SoCal pop-punk band NOFX as told through various ridiculous stories from the members of the band themselves. It was perfect poolside reading in Cabo.
Org Design for Design Orgs by Peter Merholz & Kristin Skinner: This is basically a handbook for what I should be doing as the Head of Design at Optimizely. I can’t overstate how useful this has been to me in my job. If you’re doing any type of design leadership, I highly recommend it.
The Gift, by Lewis Hyde: a very thought-provoking read about creativity and the tension between art and commerce. So thought-provoking that it provoked me into writing down my thoughts in my last blog post.
Full List of Books Read
The Laws of Simplicity by John Maeda (1/3/16)
Although of Course You End up Becoming Yourself by David Lipsky (1/24/16)
Practical Empathy by Indi Young (2/1/16)
Time Out of Joint by Philip K. Dick (2/8/16)
A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami (3/5/16)
Radical Focus: Achieving Your Most Important Goals with Objectives and Key Results by Christina Wodtke (3/21/16)
The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White (3/23/16)
Sprint: How to solve big problems and test new ideas in just 5 days by Jake Knapp, with John Zeratsky & Braden Kowitz (4/8/16)
David Whitaker Painting by Matthew Sturgis (4/18/16)
Show Your Work by Austin Kleon (5/8/16)
Nicely Said by Kate Kiefer Lee and Nicole Fenton (6/5/16)
The Unsplash Book by Jory MacKay (6/27/16)
Words Without Music: A Memoir by Philip Glass (July)
Libra by Don DeLillo (8/21/16)
How To Visit an Art Museum by Johan Idema (8/23/16)
101 Things I Learned in Architecture School by Matthew Frederick (9/5/16)
Intercom on Jobs-to-be-Done by Intercom (9/17/16)
Org Design for Design Orgs by Peter Merholz & Kristin Skinner (9/26/16)
NOFX: The Hepatitis Bathtub and Other Stories by NOFX with Jeff Alulis (10/23/16)
The User’s Journey: Storymapping Products That People Love by Donna Lichaw (11/10/16)
Sharpie Art Workshop Book by Timothy Goodman (11/13/16)
I finally finished “The Gift,” by Lewis Hyde, after reading it on and off for at least the last 4 months (probably more). Overall I really enjoyed it and found it very thought-provoking. At its core it’s about creativity, the arts, and the tension between art and commerce — topics which are fascinating to me. It explores the question, how do artists make a living in a market-based economy? (I say “explores the question” instead of “answers” because it doesn’t try to definitively answer the question, although some solutions are provided).
It took me awhile to finish, though, because the book skews academic at times, which made some sections a slog to get through. The first half goes pretty deep into topics including the theory of gifts, history of gift-giving, folklores about gifts, and how gift-based economies function; the latter half uses Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound as real-life examples of the theory-based first half. Both of these sections felt like they could have been edited down to be much more succinct, while still preserving the main points being made. This would have made the book easier to get through, and the book’s main points easier to parse and more impactful.
There’s a sweet spot in the middle, however, which is a thought-provoking account of the creative process and how artists describe their work. If I were to re-read the book I’d probably just read Chapter 8, “The Commerce of the Creative Spirit.”
The book makes a lot of interesting points about gifts and gift-giving, market economies, artists and the creative process, how artists can survive in a market economy, and the Cold War’s affect on art in America, which I summarize below.
On Gifts and Gift-Giving
Gifts need to be used or given away to have any value. Value comes from the gift’s use. They can’t be sold or stay with an individual. If they do, they’re wasted. This is true of both actual objects and talent.
Gift giving is a river that needs to stay in motion, whereas markets are an equilibrium that seeks balance.
Giving a gift creates a bond between the giver and recipient. Commerce leaves no connection between people. Gifts foster community, whereas commerce fosters freedom and individuals. Gifts are agents of social cohesion.
Gifts are given with no expectation of a return gift. By giving something to a member of the community, or the community itself, you trust that the gift will eventually return to you in some other form by the community.
Converting a gift to money, e.g. by selling it on the open market, undermines the group’s cohesion, fragments the group, and could destroy it if it becomes the norm.
Gift economies don’t scale, though. Once it grows beyond the point that each member knows each other to some degree it will collapse.
On Market Economies
Market economies are good for dealing with strangers, i.e. people who aren’t part of a group, people who you won’t see again. There’s a fair value to exchange goods and services with people outside the group, and no bond is created between people.
Markets serve to divide, classify, quantify. Gifts and art are a way of unifying people.
On Artists and the Creative Process
Artists typically don’t know where their work comes from. They produce something, then evaluate it and think, “Did I do that?”
To produce art, you have to turn off the part of your brain that quantifies, edits, judges. Some artists step away from their work, go on retreats, travel, see new things, have new experiences, take drugs, isolate themselves, and so on. The act of judging and evaluating kills the creative process. Only after a work of art is created can an artist quantify it and judge it and (maybe) sell it.
Art is a gift that is given to the world, and that gift has the power to awaken new artists (see above, gifts must keep moving). That is, an artist is initially inspired by a master’s work of art to produce their own. In this way, art is further given back to the world, and the cycle of gift-giving continues.
Each piece of work an artist produces is a gift given to them by an unknown external agent, and in turn a gift they pass on to the world.
Artists “receive” their work – it’s an invocation of something (e.g. “muse”, “genius”, etc.). The initial spark comes to them from a source they do not control. Only after this initial raw “materia” appears does the work of evaluation, clarification, revision begin. Refining an idea, and bringing it into the world, comes after that initial spark is provided to them by an external source.
Artists can’t control the initial spark, or will it to appear. The artist is the servant of the initial spark.
Evaluation kills creativity – it must be laid aside until after raw material is created.
The act of creation does not empty the wellspring that provided that initial spark; rather, the act of creation assures the flow continues and that the wellspring will never empty. Only if it’s not used does it go dry.
Imagination can assemble our fragmented experiences into a coherent whole. An artist’s work, once produced, can then reproduce the same spirit or gift initially given to them in the audience.
This binds people by being a shared “gift” for all who are able to receive it. This widens one’s sense of self.
The spirit of a people can be given form in art. This is how art comes to represent groups.
The primary commerce of art is gift exchange, not market exchange.
How Artists Can Survive in a Market Economy
The pattern for artists to survive is that they need to be able to create their work in a protected gift sphere, free of evaluation and judgment and quantification. Only then, after the work has been made real, can they evaluate it and bring it to market. By bringing it to the market they can convert their gift into traditional forms of wealth, which they can re-invest back in their gift. But artists can’t start in the market economy, because that isn’t art. It’s “commercial art,” i.e. creating work to satisfy an external market demand, rather than giving an internal gift to the world.
There are 3 ways of doing this:
Sell the work itself on the market — but only after it’s been created. Artists need to be careful to keep the two separate.
Patronage model. A king, or grants, or other body pays for the artist to create work.
Work a job to pay the bills, and create your work outside of that. This frees artists from having to subsist on their work alone, and frees them to say what they want to say. This is, in a sense, self-patronage.
Bonus way: arts support the arts. This means the community of artists creates a fund, or trust, that is invested in new artists. The fund’s money comes by taking a percentage of the profits from established artists. This is another form of patronage.
But even using these models, Hyde is careful to point out that this isn’t a way to become rich – it’s a way to “survive.” And even within these models there are still pitfalls.
Soviet Union’s affect on art in America
In the 25th Anniversary edition afterword, Hyde makes the connection that the Cold War spurred America to increase funding to the arts and sciences to demonstrate the culture and freedom of expression that a free market supports. A communist society, on the other hand, doesn’t value art and science since they don’t typically have direct economic benefit, and thus doesn’t have the same level of expression as a free market. The end of the Cold War, unfortunately, saw a decrease in funding since the external threat was removed. This was an interesting connection that I hadn’t thought about before.
All in all, a very thought-provoking book that I’m glad I read.