@Ruemic's Blog

Adventures in Code and Design

Designing for Humans

One of the best things about being a freelancer is the freedom to pick projects that allow for a flexible work schedule and contributing to a project remotely. It’s allowed me to keep designing and building web sites while I travel the world with my beautiful wife and visit our extended family.

I’ve been in Hong Kong for a good month now, and one thing that stands out is the sheer amount of smart-phone and tablet usage here. Even in mainland China, where incomes are lower than in Hong Kong, about 50% of the people on the riding subway are on a smart-phone or tablet. There are plenty of iPhones, but Android is the most prevalent.

For many in China, this kind of device is their main personal computer. Kind of like what’s happening everywhere else in the world. Hmmm.

I recently finished the Steve jobs biography, and there is a really interesting anecdote from when Steve goes to Turkey, and a tour guide is going on about how special the Turkish coffee is, the ingredients, the roasting process…

While Steve is listening to this he’s also kind of zoning out and realizes that no one in Turkey really cares about their coffee! And he notices that all the young folks have smart phones and are wearing jeans and T-shirts. He comes to the conclusion that for young people everywhere, there is no longer a Turkish culture or Chinese culture or a US culture, there is only one world culture.

In a general sense, I agree with him. Living in China just confirms to me what I’ve felt since I was a very young kid when my family immigrated to the US from Austria. While I was growing up, I’d visit Austria for a month or two during my Summer break, and I had this epiphany that contrary some of the beliefs of my schoolmates in the US, people are quite similar in Europe and the US. Now, at least when it comes to the younger & more tech savvy generation, I’m adding China to the list.

To me, the implication is that there is a universal archetype of what appeals to people. So as designer it’s my job to be attuned to that, and to actively impart it upon my work. There’s no magic to it, like anything else, it’s a discipline.

Half of it is cultivating a “minds eye” which actively observes the design fundamentals like shape, texture, color or proportions of my surroundings. The more I can do this, the more patterns I can log in my “library” of experiences to pull from for my designs.

But that’s the easy, quantitative part.

The other half is trickier, but vital context for making use of the first half. And that is: How does it make me feel? Even more important, how does this affect me at a subconscious level?

It’s tricky for several reasons. At a very basic level simply because being aware of my subconscious requires letting my conscious mind become still and being truly present in the moment, which isn’t easy in our culture of distraction. The other main reason is that language of my subconscious seems to be a superset of my conscious thought, which is a superset of the spoken or written languages I command, which is mainly English and German.

Attempting to observe and articulate my subconscious reaction to something tends to become an distorted expression of it. To manage this distortion, I get to be a poet, using metaphors like personification to evoke the original subconscious reaction.

For example, saying something like “That text is too crowded” takes the quantitative aspects (the spacing between words and letters) and connects it with a universal feeling of being in a crowded environment.

Being a good designer means having a rich collection of life experiences to tap into. So Fully experiencing different cultures and languages is great way to build your sense of which metaphors and design patterns transcend our differences and universally appeal to all people. If you’re a designer, put down your computer and get out into the world and live a full life!