Posts in Principles
Care > Power
Kurt Vonnegut, 1979 in New York City

Kurt Vonnegut, 1979 in New York City


Kurt Vonnegut wrote in the introduction to "Mother Night":

"We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."

This is similar to what it means to get better at something.  We're all students in our fields in some capacity, which recognizes we'll get better over time.  If being an artist or designer provides a power of sorts, we've made a degree of commitment to the desire of that power to some end.  As students first, we owe it to ourselves to understand the importance of our context in history, as we relate to other fields and the audience we serve.  Our understanding of our audience can influence the work we do more than anything else.

The part I enjoy most about Vonnegut's quote is the word careful; there are two meanings:

  1. making sure of avoiding potential danger, mishap, or harm; cautious.

  2. done with or showing thought and attention.

The first is the most associated meaning, one avoiding risk.  The second expresses thought and attention.

If we are to be artists and designers, we should be those who are not afraid of taking risks; who understand the context of our work, especially as it relates to our bias and audience.  If we are to create at such a capacity and shape the future of the field, the responsibility is not just a power, but a gift and a weight that should humble us.  Anyone who abuses power can easily be recognized as arrogant.  Our duty is to serve our audience and our field at our greatest capacity, just as we believe people in their respective fields do the same. 

If we care not only for how our work addresses our audience, the form of our lens must comprehend history, be capable of being reformed through self-reflection, understand the present clearly, and be capable of projecting a contribution for the future.

If we care, that care will make us better at what we do over time.  If anything, caring is more important than power because it shows respect for others, ourselves, and our field.  The potential for doing our best work is still ahead of us.  If we are to contribute, our thought and attention should be aimed toward the responsibility of becoming the best we can be; not the power that comes from getting there.

Purity of work
N82.png

"When I first started working, I had this kind of vision that around the world there was this kind of thin filament and around that world, there were particles in that filament, very widely dispersed... and those particles were people who were looking for me.  You know, they didn't realize it, but they needed me and I was certainly looking for them.  And, I realized there were people out there who saw the world the way that I did and I had to somehow get in touch with them — to find them.  In order to do that, I had to work that was very pure so that I could put out a pure signal so that eventually that signal would pass through that thin filament and that one person in Rotterdam would see it, hear it, and find me.  And, in order to do that you have to live very modestly.  If you want to do the work that is really your work so that you have the freedom to do the right thing."

Bruce Mau said this in an interview with Michael Renaud for a talk I attended in 2014 during the 25th anniversary of the Chicago Humanities Festival.  At the time, I wasn't consciously engaged with the field of design like Mau, but I experienced his Massive Change exhibit in 2006 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, so I was thrilled to be in the audience.

Mau's way of working purely connected with the ethos I've had throughout my career.  When we work, having a client, user, viewer, or audience provides empathy throughout the creative process.  Beyond and more broadly, the way we work is an infinite game, one where ethics and purpose drive us to do work that matters; work that helps us contribute to making our world a better place.

How do we keep this infinite game in perspective on a daily basis? 

Stay modest, seek high-quality learning experiences, don't chase short and fast rewards, and according to Bruce Mau, stay pure to maintain your freedom.

Simplicity = Reliability

Humans are endlessly complicated, as studied through psychology, sociology, anthropology, and medicine.  Within and around such complexity, we design systems and products to manage and serve our needs.

Raymond Loewy, who helped establish industrial design as a profession made the drawings below in 1933, which communicate how simplification happens over time:

With such radical complexity in our lives, a simple design that addresses direct needs is better than a complex design that tries to do too much.  When something is reliable, it appears elegant and unstoppable.  So, when a design is complex, refine towards simplicity to test reliability.