I am Ariel Cotton. I'm an artist, UI/UX designer, & maker of interactive things.



The World Is Your Interface

5 October 2019 Categories: Design, Travel

This is a collection of ideas on design, navigating the world around us, how the two are frequently interchangeable, and how design inspiration lies everywhere we look. I gave this as a talk three years ago at Beyond Tellerrand Berlin. I’ve decided to turn it into a blog post, and updated a few things to make it current.

What is design?

According to Wikipedia’s definition of design: “Design is the creation of a plan or convention for the construction of an object, system, or measurable human interaction.”

Well then, when you think about it, isn’t there an infinite amount of things in this world that can be classified as design? What if on some level, anything in the universe can be categorized as design?

Is this design?

Is THIS design?

IS THIS DESIGN?

I’ll leave it up to you to decide. In the meantime, here are examples of ideas, disciplines and objects that I believe can be classified as design, despite the fact that they may not be conventionally considered as such, or the fact that the connection between them and web or graphic design might not be immediately apparent:

Music is design. I am unabashedly obsessed with Led Zeppelin, to the point where I spend my spare time listening to the isolated tracks from their songs. Led Zeppelin’s recordings are the orchestrations of those tracks, layered together, engineered and mixed, mastered, and turned into a product.

Recently, I read an article in the BBC elaborating that the reason why music makes us feel good is because it activates the limbic and paralimbic areas in the brain, which are connected to the brain’s reward centers, just like food or sex. There is a theory that this is a relic left over from the days when our survival depended on our ability to interpret the sounds around us and predict what would occur next—useful for being in a field surrounded by wild animals, for instance. You could say that music is a product designed to fire off these neurons in the brain.

Cooking is design. At times, I think of cooking and design as closer to engineering than art. Like music, cooking is also orchestration; you synthesize combinations of raw ingredients through chemical processes to design products that satisfy the stomach and delight the taste buds. It is a sum that is greater than its parts.

City planning is design. It is a layout you navigate with your entire body as opposed to just your eyes, your hand, and a computer mouse. Ever stop to wonder why streets are laid out differently in every city? Why Manhattan is a perfect grid, whereas Paris is confusing and chaotic? Different cities were designed during different eras, to fulfill different needs, and express different cultural ideals.

The Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 was the defining document for all of Manhattan’s streets north of Houston Street. The grid was planned only a few decades after the American Revolution, and it was designed to reflect the young country’s political values and sense of egalitarianism. Historian Hendrick Hartog says the grid was “the antithesis of a utopian or futuristic plan.” It celebrated everyday life through equality and uniformity, and conveyed the message that the “government ought not to act in such a way as to create inequality of special privilege.”

Can’t the human body also be design then? Every body part and organ has a function. We are glorified meat devices with input and output functions. In fact, we even design devices based on ourselves, which can output the same functions, but more rigorously. Those devices are known as computers.

All of these are in line with Wikipedia’s definition. The human body wasn’t designed by people, but Wikipedia’s definition stipulates nothing about who or what creates the object. You could argue that in a sense we play a role in its design anyway, when we choose a partner with whom to procreate…

Design is all around us (and NOTHING IS ORIGINAL)

What you can infer from the fact that so many things around us are inherently design products is that many guidelines to navigating one’s way through life may also be applied to producing a successful design, and that design and life share a profound influence on each other.

As such, I don’t think designers should be afraid to borrow from the world around them. No ideas are truly original, and nobody can ever completely claim ownership for any thought. Whatever thoughts you have, I guarantee you someone else in the world has thought them before.

Originality is a feat many designers and entrepreneurs strive to achieve all their lives. “Innovative” and “disruptive” are seemingly every startup’s favorite words. I see people left and right dreaming up outrageous ideas and experimental designs that “stand out.” Unfortunately, the majority of the time, most ideas are not that useful, nor do they fulfill any significant needs, and many of these designs are a mess to navigate.

A few years ago, when I was redesigning my website, I perused one of those “Best Portfolio Websites of the Year” lists. What met my eyes was a hodgepodge of parallax scrolling, video backgrounds, elements that would arbitrarily appear and disappear, and flashing typefaces. It was as though all these designers had gotten together for a hackathon to determine who could create the most fancy novelty interface. These effects should only be there if they enhance the functionality of the product—or at the very least, if they don’t detract from it.

In design, wisdom is knowing when to innovate and when to abide by preexisting paradigms. You don’t always need to reinvent the wheel. Oftentimes, the answers to our design problems already exist around us, in various forms.

Examples of borrowed design

Biomimicry is the practice of looking to nature for design and engineering solutions. Designers frequently borrow elements from mother nature in the process of designing products. This could include the mechanisms of how an animal moves, how an insect colony is structured, or the consistency of a plant. The possibilities are endless.

ariel cotton design the world is your interface
Big Dog is an example of robotic biomimicry. Credit: Gizmodo

A friend of mine who builds walking robots for competitions watches videos of animals walking to study how their legs move, then utilizes this knowledge while designing the robots. Referencing how animals move is a common tactic among engineers who are developing transport vehicles, such as Big Dog, the name for the robotic pack mules in the photo above. Researchers also observe how birds fly when designing jet planes.

Biomimicry is utilized to develop a diverse group of products, from fashion garments to paintbrushes to office buildings. One of the most famous instances of this is the invention of Velcro. Velcro was developed by Swiss engineer George de Mestral in 1941. One day he was removing burdock burrs from his dog, decided to examine the burrs more closely, and found tiny hooks at the edges. This inspired him to form a product that functions using the same mechanism.

ariel cotton design the world is your interface
The idea for Velcro was inspired by the way burrs stick together. Credit: Mother Nature Network

Borrowing motifs from real life is also a useful strategy to solve the problem of how to make devices intuitive when the users have never even used a device like that before. When companies such as Xerox PARC and Apple developed some of the world’s first graphical user interfaces for their computers, they named all the basic functions after real-life actions and objects: a File is a resource for storing computer data, a Document is a type of File specifically meant for text, Trash is where files are deleted, a Desktop is the main place where you view your files. They also used iconic representations to make these more identifiable, which set a precedent for all the software and web design we have now. Fontawesome is a popular icon library for the web, which contains many examples of real-life objects used to represent intangible or abstract concepts.

ariel cotton design the world is your interface
The icons designed at Xerox PARC. Credit: Priceonomics

Sometimes the solution to a problem hits you in a more unexpected way, but still comes from life observations and experiences. I was putting together an interactive art exhibit of ordinary household objects enhanced by microprocessors and sensors to react to user interactions in unexpected ways. One of those projects was orgasming chocolates shaped like female nudes. When they’re bitten into, a recording of an orgasmic moan plays.

Because I was bringing together an unusual combination of fields—cooking, sculpture, electronics, and programming—many issues came up which required creative problem solving. One of them was getting the wires to stay put in the chocolate. I would make each mold in two parts and try to sandwich the wires between the two chocolate halves while they were still melted, but the wires kept slipping out.

Later I had a friend over helping me make the chocolates, and he was telling me a funny story. At one point he used the word “inside.” The word echoed in my mind, as though in a cartoon, and at that moment I was struck with the idea to bend the stripped ends of the wires into little hooks and dig them inside the chocolate once it had already hardened. It was the casual mention of a single word that gave me the solution to a design problem.

Good design isn’t always inspired by the world around us in a straightforward way. The references are often subtle, nuanced, and cerebral. The rest of this post will explore the psychology of design, real life psychology, and how the two parallel and inform each other.

Forget your personal dream

One of the most important design lessons I have learned is from my design mentor, Pete Dutro: “Disregard your personal dream.” What this means is, when you design, your own preferences must come secondary to your users’ needs. For those of you who have been wondering if design counts as art, one differentiator between the two is that artists create their work for themselves and designers make their products for other people.

One of the most striking examples I’ve witnessed of a designer who had his head way up his…personal dream occurred several years ago. I was working for a design company that wanted their website to serve the dual function of: brochure website that told the world what they were and showed case studies, and social media platform for their employees and contractors to use internally. I was taking over the project from another designer, and when they gave me his mockups, I was stunned.

He was envisioning a one page website. A case study section, a mission statement, an infinite scrolling Instagram/Twitter feed, and an entire social media platform (with login, comment posting, thread functions, etc.) all—on—one—page.

Now I’m sure this is possible to implement—even if it is a tremendous, roundabout pain in the ass—but more importantly, it is a tremendous pain in the ass for users to use. I asked the creative director about this, and she said he wanted to be experimental and try new things. Experimentation has its place, but not at the expense of creating a functional, intuitive product.

“Don’t get too caught up in your personal dream” also has its applications in interpersonal interactions. It took me a while to figure this out. In 2013 I had just graduated from art school, the land of masturbation and personal dreams. I ran into a bunch of issues at my first few design jobs, ranging from careless mishaps to full-fledged disasters.

I was even let go from one startup after only two months of working there, because they could not handle my demeanor. Since I was the only designer at this tiny startup, I was the de facto creative director. My head swelled up, and when my ideas clashed with those of the COO’s, I was not afraid to let her know what I thought, in an rather blundering, indelicate way. The CTO was appalled by my audacity and let me go within that same week, with no warning.

I was humbled by their dismissal of me, and the hardships that consequently resulted, but even once I found a better job and began gaining freelance clients, I still had a lot to learn. It was at this job that Pete took me under his wing and taught me about personal dreams.

Being wrapped up in my personal dream was exacerbated by the fact that I had lived in the same city my entire life and mostly only spent time around other people my age, who had also grown up in that city, from my socioeconomic demographic. I hardly ever read books, nor did I follow the news that well. There were many things outside of the constraints of my life that I was largely unaware of. “Navel-gazing” was a criticism I frequently heard attributed to my manner.

The next half-decade—my mid- to late 20s—I lived through many events that changed me as a person and designer. I’d like to hope that I’ve grown as both, but I know I still have a lot to learn.

Pain + discomfort –> empathy + understanding

Four years ago, my life changed forever when two things happened: my first boyfriend and I broke up, after half a decade together; and I left my family, friends, and everything I had ever known behind and moved to Berlin, Germany.

During the breakup, I noticed that songs, literature, films, and art about heartbreak all suddenly made a lot more sense to me. I found myself falling in love with entire albums that I had known about for years but hadn’t resonated with me until that point, such as Radiohead’s Kid A. When my friends came to me in need of an ear to spill out their stories of heartbreak to, or to complain about the indignities of being single, I was able to listen with more empathy than ever before.

I felt as though the wool was being pulled from over my eyes, as though I had spent five years protected by the iron dome of a happy relationship. The world opened up to me and I understood it in a way that I hadn’t before. It was like thinking you knew all 100 colors in the world and suddenly learning there were 200.

ariel cotton design the world is your interface
How can you ever truly know how many colors the world has?

Traveling and meeting people from nearly every continent of the globe also opened up the world for me. There were many things that I took for granted, that I assumed everyone experienced, or things I just never thought about at all, that I realized are not necessarily a part of life outside of New York City. Even things as small as having stores open on Sundays, or saying you’re waiting “on line” instead of “in the line.” Things that were second-nature to me back home would drive people in Germany mad, like jaywalking.

Then there are the people. There’s the man who came from Sierra Leone who practiced Animism growing up. There was the elderly Jewish woman whose family moved to the GDR shortly after World War II because they were communists. The East German who told me about a collective they used to be a part of that would meet illegally to discuss ways they could travel outside the Eastern Bloc. The woman from Hong Kong whose mother used to get her teeth checked by unlicensed dentists in the walled city of Kowloon, because it was cheaper than going to one in the city’s mainland. The gentleman who was traumatized by how the Stasi tormented his family when he was a child, and how they used schoolchildren to spy on his family by coming up to him in the schoolyard and asking seemingly innocuous questions. The lady who recounted her experiences growing up in Poland before the Berlin wall fell, how there were no advertisements or fast food restaurants, and what it was like for her to try McDonald’s for the first time as an adult.

That’s only the beginning. I feel that I have gained a new library of perspectives, from places and eras that I had only ever read about, which always felt hazy and distant to me, as though they weren’t real.

ariel cotton design the world is your interface
An infinite amount of perspectives in the world. Credit: @KCCAUG

Broadening your worldview and understanding is essential to becoming a good designer. Empathy is crucial for UX design, and how are you going to have empathy if you don’t understand the various emotions, types of pain, cultures, perspectives and experiences that life has to offer?

If design is about problem solving then you need to become intimately acquainted with the types of problems people have. How can you solve other people’s problems if you don’t understand them? How can you help ease other people’s pain if you don’t understand their pain? How are you going to understand all the different ways people live if you’ve only ever lived one way, in one part of the world? If you want to be a designer, reach out to people, ask questions, listen to them talk about their pain and their lives, try not to be presumptuous, and understand as much as possible.

Knowing multiple languages is also a boon in this regard. Before I spoke much German, I had a conversation with a German typographer who explained to me that he prefers designing for interfaces where the language is English, because the words tend to be shorter. Prior to that conversation, I had never considered that switching the language of the content could have a palpable effect on a design.

A couple of years later, when I worked on the UI/UX for a language-learning app for refugees, being able to communicate in German and Hebrew helped me conceptualize the requirements a multi-lingual application must fulfill. The more you understand how different people in the world communicate, the better you can anticipate their needs. Language is the key to understanding a culture, and as such, if you are designing for a demographic in that culture, knowing their language helps.

If you are experiencing hardship right now, realize that it is an opportunity to grow into a better designer. Take what you learn from your experiences, and use it in your design work.

Life is a study in UX

I view my entire life as user research. When I talk to people—whether it’s family, friends, my partner, a colleague, a cashier at the supermarket—I make a point to gather data and show empathy at the same time. I ask questions, shut up, and listen as intently as possible. I remind myself to pay attention to my surroundings. I watch how people move, I take note of their gestures, body language, facial expressions, and the tone of their voices, as well as how they interact with their physical surroundings. As a person who is naturally spaced out, I have to work vigorously at this and maintain constant vigilance.

ariel cotton design the world is your interface
CONSTANT VIGILANCE. Credit: Wizards And What Not

When I took an industrial design course in university, our instructor had us practice this for a project. Our assignment was to choose a person, interview them about their daily routines, take notes on the problems they would run into, and then design an object that solved one of those problems. I ended up prototyping a foldable bass amp for my ex-boyfriend, who said that getting to band practice on the subway was problematic due to how bulky his bass amp was.

Observing human behavior makes good practice for implementing human-centered design. Human-centered design is the approach that the human perspective should be involved in all steps of the design problem-solving process. This is the cornerstone of cognitive scientist and usability designer Don Norman’s teachings. He wrote Design of Everyday Things after observing how people interact with the objects around them. Design of Everyday Things is about design psychology, how design serves as the communication medium between object and user, and how to optimize that communication to make the experience of using an object more productive and fulfilling. Throughout the book, he gives examples of devices that are problematic to users, analyzes what’s wrong with them, and how they could be made better.

For example, he relates the story of a colleague who got confused trying to use an exit door. In order to leave the building, people had to exit through two rows of six glass swinging doors. The doors were beautiful, elegant, and modern-looking; smooth glass panels with nothing else on them, not even handles. His colleague pushed through the first door effortlessly, but when he tried to push the second door, it wouldn’t budge. He stood there for a minute or so, repeatedly trying to push, and growing worried when his efforts failed.

Eventually a group of people came through and pushed the door open, so he was able to exit with them. Then he realized what he had done wrong. The door was a plain, smooth panel of glass. Not only did it not have any handles, or any indication of where to push, but it did not even show the hinges. As a result, the man was pushing on the hinged side by accident, when he should have been pushing on the opposite side. As Norman comments with underlying snark, “No wonder nothing happened. Pretty doors. Elegant. Probably won a design prize.”

You can see Don Norman discussing door design for yourself here in this five-minute interview:

It’s miraculous to observe what effect just adding—or removing—one or two design cues to an object will have on the mood of the person using it. After all, in the words of my friend Joe Januszkiewicz, “Design is just psychological engineering.”

Designing interpersonal interactions

If you can design psychological experiences, who says it has to be limited just to apps and devices? Why can’t you extend that philosophy into the rest of your life, and design your own experience as well as the experiences of others who interact with you?

I have a friend who was having a difficult time with her roommate. One night he woke up my friend with loud sex. My friend tried to confront him about it, was hurt by his nonchalant reaction, and had no idea how to handle the situation. I likened him to a computer illiterate user. “Try and put yourself in his shoes, present it in a way that you think he’ll react best to it. Know your audience. Design your argument. Pretend that you’re designing a piece of software and your roommate is computer illiterate. If you were designing a product for a computer illiterate user, would you sit around complaining about how your user doesn’t understand how your interface works? Sure, maybe you would, but eventually you’d find a way to solve the problem.”

Another friend of mine is one of the most brilliant people I know, and he is constantly opening my mind up to new insights, which I love. However, people who don’t know Jack well are often put off by his bluntness and disregard for tact. He loves to argue, and prioritizes being correct over everything—to a fault. He then complains to me about how people respond to him with hostility. “I don’t understand why, I’m not saying anything insulting, I’m just stating my argument, which is correct.” My response is always the same. “It’s not just the content of what you say, but also how you present it, that matters. Otherwise why would we bother designing interfaces for the products that people use?”

Mindfulness

Tuning in, listening to people, observing human behaviors, and paying attention to details are all exercises in mindfulness. Mindfulness is the state of being deeply aware and observant of one’s surroundings, in a way that’s almost meditative. Mindfulness could have saved me from many of the design and work-related mishaps I ran into over the years. Mindfulness entails responding as opposed to reacting.

Mindfulness in the context of design—or any work for that matter—also entails organization and maintenance. A good example of this is knolling. Knolling is the process of organizing and aligning the objects around you at 45 or 90 degree angles. Neither organization nor maintenance have historically come to me naturally. Although I have been making a more concerted effort to implement them in recent years, I still fail constantly.

ariel cotton design the world is your interface
Knolling at its finest. Credit: Vector Vice

Historically, maintenance is a skill that has also eluded me. I often fall into patterns where I try to pack so much work into my schedule that I deliver sub-par results. I would bang out interactive projects with electronics and Arduinos for art shows and care so much about getting the final piece out on time that I neglected to be careful with critical components, and thus, they would often fall apart or malfunction pretty quickly.

In recent years I have been putting in effort to remedy my tendencies towards disorganization and sloppiness. I have several Trello boards, one for art, one for design, and one for general to-dos, where I keep lists of everything I want or need to accomplish. I even began knolling in my notebook, with a color-coding system for my writing: journal entries are black, comics-related writing or storyboards are blue, design-related notes and sketches are red, and miscellaneous notes are green.

Dieter Rams, one of Braun’s most prominent industrial designers, exercised great mindfulness in taking his surroundings into account when he designed. He had initially studied to be an architect, and came from the school of Functionalism, which espouses the principle of designing exclusively to fit the function of said edifice or object, with no unnecessary flairs or flourishes. He also heavily emphasized sustainability, particularly with regard to the environment.

“We need to deal with our resources differently, in terms of how we waste things,” he said in a 2015 interview with Fast Company. “We have to move away from the throwaway habit. Things can, and must, last longer. They must be designed so that they can be reused. We need to take more care of our environment. That means not only our personal environment but also our cities and our resources. That is the future of design, to take more care of these basic elements. Otherwise I’m not sure what the future of our planet will be. So designers have to take on that responsibility.”

ariel cotton design the world is your interface
Functionalist architecture in Prague. Credit: The Fostinum

Part of mindfulness in design is also knowing your objectives, and having a thorough understanding of how to achieve them. For instance, not confusing simplicity with intuitiveness. An alarmingly high amount of designers fail at this, which is why we have threads like “Why I love ugly, messy interfaces” on Hacker News, where many users chime in that they prefer a busy-looking interface where all the various functions are straightforwardly laid out, rather than a tidy one where important functionality is obscured.

Apple is a particularly horrid offender here, particularly in terms of iOS. Apple is notorious for its obsession with minimalist interfaces, and unfortunately, in iOS it comes at the expense of navigability. A lot of the navigation is based on swiping gestures, which are completely arbitrary, there is no back button, and since they have so few controls, they are often forced to resort of modes. Modes is when a singular control serves multiple functions depending on the context in which it’s used. Modes are confusing, and Apple used to have a strict anti-modes policy in the 80s.

Visual design and aesthetics are important, but in interactive design, functionality should always be paramount. Dieter Rams famously said that the design of an object can only be aesthetically beautiful if it also works well. After all, suppose you had the most beautiful toilet in your home, made of gold, with a diamond bowl and a pearl-encrusted seat. None of that would matter to you if you couldn’t take a shit in it, right?

ariel cotton design the world is your interface
Good design is as little design as possible: the design philosophy of Dieter Rams. Credit: liGo

What made me more aware of the concept of mindfulness was a combination of realizing how haphazardly I went about my design work and how little attention I paid to important details, and learning how to cope with some of the painful circumstances of the last few years. The combination of relationship losses, being far away from home and loved ones, being confused about where I belong in the world, and having a difficult time establishing a stable social circle in a new city have taken a toll on my mental health. I have had periods where I could barely leave my bed or move. At times it feels as though I am hermetically sealed in a glass jar forever, peering out at the world through a distorted blue film, and nothing will ever be enjoyable again.

At some point, the realization set in that sometimes, you can’t make pain go away, and you have to sit and wait for it to leave on its own. Eventually I thought to myself, “Well, this pain has been here for a while, and crying and thrashing around and screaming hasn’t been making it go away. Just accept the fact that it is here, investigate it, get close to it, get to know it. Stop trying to run away and hide from it.” Trying to force the pain away sometimes makes it harder to leave. Nowadays, if I’m experiencing an anxiety attack, one coping mechanism of mine is to simply acknowledge that everything at that moment sucks, let it continue to be terrible, and be aware of it.

There were multiple things that led to this epiphany. Several years ago, I was crying and talking with a friend of mine about my love life, how there were many questions and uncertainties I still had about why my five-year relationship failed to begin with, how I was tortured by the unknown, and how I had no closure. He took my hands and said, “Then stop trying to figure it out. Accept that it’s there. Hold it closely to you. Just let it be and hold it.”

The other thing that helped was making artwork about it. There is nothing like spending endless hours drawing detailed accounts of your pain to make you meditate on it. I’m realizing that my art can only be truly authentic and touch people’s lives if I get as intimately acquainted with my pain as possible. I’m holding it, I’m examining it, I’m investigating and getting to know it. I began tacking up massive sheets of paper and writing out a “journal” on them in the form of a thought web, with arrows leading from one thought to the next.

These past few years I was forced to start learning how to step outside my mind, for the sake of emotional survival. I don’t always succeed, but I make an effort to watch my worries, get acquainted with them, and simply be aware of them. The meditation app Headspace describes it with a poetic traffic analogy: imagine that instead of observing thoughts moving through your mind, you are observing traffic, watching the cars slowly roll by. Don’t yell at the cars to stop, but don’t take a ride with each and every one of them either.

ariel cotton design the world is your interface
while(highways == neural_pathways) { watch(thoughts); }

*names have been changed


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