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Doing less: a personal essay
In 2023 I want to experiment with some new varieties of Design Lobster. Alongside the regular bi-weekly posts I have a few longer essays in the works and hope to incorporate intermittent guest posts from other designers too.
I also want to create space for a more personal kind of essay like the one that follows. I hope you like it.
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About ten years ago, back when I was still training to be an architect, I wrote a short essay that was commended in a competition run by the Architect’s Journal here in London. It was called To do less and it was about the power of buildings to achieve sometimes devastating emotional impact with limited means. As I wrote then:
Architecture takes very little. For Mies it was just two bricks. In Yazd, at the Towers of Silence, where the Zoroastrian families came to take their dead to be picked clean by the birds, the architecture consists of a low wall with a hole. It did not take any time nor much skill to build. But when matched with that mountain and that heat, and the journey one must take in the presence of both, the architecture takes on spiritual power. Under the white sky, you come face to face with your own existence, and all it took was some carefully arranged stones.
Ten years later and I still haven’t completed my architectural training, though I am still a designer and have perhaps found a medium even more physically constrained than bricks and mortar. As a digital product designer it is only a little exaggerated to say that my job is arranging (mostly rectangular) patterns of light on screens. In that sense, I certainly have succeeded in doing less.
My 2013 essay though, of course, is making a different kind of point. About the tendency for design (and designers) to get over-excited and try to do to much. To somehow get in the way of the real work we need to do.
Back then, I attributed this tendency in architects to an over-preoccupation with form and image over experience. Or a dizzy obsession with technical possibility. To some extent these tendencies curse digital product design too, though the culture of speaking regularly with users can help us mitigate them a bit.
Instead, in this younger field of design I think the temptation to do too much comes from the sheer plasticity of screens. A quality designer Frank Chimero calls Flux. Though we digital designers do love to joke about drawing rectangles, the trouble is you can conjure basically anything on a digital surface. At least in architecture you must contend with the laws of physics and the concomitant challenges of moving atoms around. But with those constraints removed and your inflamed imagination the only brake, the temptation to do a bit more than you need to is ever present.
Just as woodgrain whispers to a carpenter, a screen – I have sometimes found – practically urges the designer to add something more, to try something new or different. Good product design requires the courage to frequently say no to these voices.
But behind all of this, why should we care about doing less? Why strive for this kind of economy at all in design? Here’s what I wrote in 2013 about architecture:
I think that buildings draw things out of us in this way even if we are not geishas. We lean on them. They form a part of us. Doing less is a way of being careful about what they draw out.
Doing less is a way of being careful about what they draw out. I think this might ultimately be what all design comes down to. Whatever we believe ourselves to be doing – helping someone to understand some information perhaps or complete a task – in some deeper sense our work is always on who our users might be. That in a real sense, our designs form a part of people and change how they feel and who they will become.
And yet, even as we try to have this impact, we find that our medium for doing so is so constrained. As a language without words, when we want to express something as designers we must rely chiefly on people’s memory of designs they have seen before, or use design cues that hint at meaning through their relationship to our bodies or the ways our brains process information.
One way or another we cobble a design together in this way, but even then we discover more difficulties in transmission. The people we are trying to reach are busy or in a hurry, and cannot devote as much attention to our creation as we had hoped. Our intentions do not get noticed. No wonder so many designers are tempted to hypnotise people with beauty or with strangeness to capture just a few more seconds of somebody’s undivided attention.
Thus the importance of doing less. Design is, and will always be, a low-bandwidth medium and that makes it crucial to be highly selective about what we try to get across. Try to do too much and your many good intentions will simply drown each other out.
You could say a bad designer is someone who – wanting to say so much and finding they possess only a limited vocabulary – is tempted to speak every word they know. The good designer knows to speak just one or two, so that they might truly be understood in the silence that follows.
Designers talk a lot about the importance of constraints and to me this points to something fundamental about design as a medium. Restraint is, perhaps, design’s true essence.
Sometimes, as many of those reading this might have found, you have to do too much to get to the right amount, to get to “less”. You have to map the territory before you can feel confident you’ve hit on the right place to start building. And even once you've started building somewhere, it might take you many goes to build the thing right.
All of this design activity – which I always picture in my mind as the looping scribbles of Daniel Newman’s Design Squiggle – should be in the service of an end-state that is “less”. Simplicity, as it were, on the far side of complexity – or to deliberately misquote Richard Buckminster-Fuller; “…if when I have finished, if the solution is not restrained, I know it is wrong.”
No matter how cool your interface is, it would be better if there were less of it.
— Alan Cooper
A couple of weeks ago I watched a video where an artificially intelligent bot received a written instruction to search for a specific kind of property. It then proceeded to navigate to a website, using the search bar and filtering controls there to find and present what had been requested. It was remarkable but simultaneously rather chilling. In that hacky demo I saw a future in which humans are no longer interacting with our lovingly crafted interfaces at all. The surfaces of our digital creations traversed only by brilliant but unfeeling robots as they do errands on our behalf.
Perhaps in the next year, AI will bring this whole new wave of “less” to the interfaces we have lavished care on. Things we had thought we had already made very simple, abstracted to even less – a search bar or a voice command.
Whatever happens though, I hope these developments incite us to keep questioning how much ‘less’ our designs can be. To challenge ourselves to deliver more, and more emotion especially, with ever more limited means. There’s so much less we can do.
Hope you can do a little less this week 😉
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