Good Design is Environmentally Friendly

I recently gave a talk at WordCamp Maine about good design. In this presentation, I had a section on Dieter Rams’ principles of good design. When I was writing the presentation, I thought about how I could apply one of Rams’ principles, “good design is environmentally friendly,” to the web. This principle states:

Design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment. It conserves resources and minimizes physical and visual pollution throughout the lifecycle of the product.

“Environmentally friendly” is easy to understand when we’re thinking about industrial design and the production of physical goods. Eco-friendly design is sustainable; the creation, production, and eventual disposal of that product does not harm the environment. Like a good girl scout, our well-designed products might even leave the environment better than we found it.

This concept is a little bit trickier when you think about the web. As designers and developers, the products we build don’t often impact the environment at all. (The exception is perhaps our physical tools themselves: computers, tablets, and phones.)

Instead of the physical environment, we can apply Rams’ principle to the digital environment. Eco-friendly design does not harm an online community or its denizens. This means protecting our users’ information and privacy, and shielding them from abuse and harassment. If our designs don’t protect our most vulnerable users, then they are not eco-friendly.

We need to design to reduce anxiety, and design for people in crisis situations. Above all else, we should design so we don’t need to build sites like this.

Eco-friendly design becomes even more important as our world becomes more connected. More than three billion people now use the internet. That’s a lot of people whose lives we can fuck up through laziness, neglect, or malicious intent.

Mike Monteiro has given a great talk on this topic, entitled How Designers Destroyed the World:

I had the privilege of seeing Monteiro present in person. His talk has made a lasting difference on how I think about our roles as architects of the web. The decisions we make can, and often do, have a huge impact on the lives of our users. It’s our responsibility to see that our impact is positive.

Let’s leave the web a better place than when we found it.

Design Thinking at Smith College

Unleashing Creativity: An Interterm Introduction to Design Thinking

The establishment of a “Design Thinking” initiative at Smith College is one of the most exciting pieces of news I’ve heard since graduating in 2010.

While I was at Smith, there weren’t a lot of opportunities to get into design as I know it outside of connecting with particular staff and faculty members. I ended up forging my own path into design.

By my junior year at Smith, I knew that I wanted to go into design. I got into web design as a kid, making HTML sites from scratch on Angelfire and Tripod. My first year at Smith, I worked as an assistant for a professor, and one of my tasks was designing and building her website. That led me to working with Aisha Gabriel in the Educational Technology Services department, who at the time was the “web” expert. She helped me surpass my rudimentary knowledge of web design by introducing me to writing my own CSS (versus using something like Dreamweaver and tweaking).

I also was lucky enough to work closely with John Slepian, a digital design professor in the Art Department for both Smith and Hampshire. I took all of his digital media classes, and when I finished those, I worked with him to create a special studies focused around digital design with the goal of developing my design skills. It was a blast, and introduced me to new techniques and design methods that helped as stepping stones into my career.

Before my senior year, I did a web design internship with a local agency which turned into a job, which turned into another job, which turned into my career after graduating. During my senior year, Smith created an Arts and Technology minor. The work I’d been doing with John, and the classes I’d been taking on web design, development, and digital art fit snuggly into it. I swapped over my art minor for arts & technology without reservations.

I think the creation of an Arts & Technology minor was finally Smith conceding that the two departments, Art and Computer Science, can fit together wonderfully. The introduction of a Design Thinking J-Term workshop, and a subsequent semester course, is a bold step towards creating a future where design thinking is embraced by all fields. By creating the initiative, Smith College is making a strong statement about its commitment to creating strong women leaders who have the tools to not only pursue their dreams, but also improve the world through empathy and human-first design.

I wish Design Thinking had been offered while I was at Smith, because it would have helped my professional development tremendously. Learning about user research, prototyping, and creative problem solving is an asset to any field. I would encourage any Smith student interested in building solutions that improve the lives of other people to check out the class, and all future Design Thinking initiatives.

Grief in the Age of Social Media

Last week I lost my nineteen year old cousin, Casey.

I — thankfully — found out when I received a call from my mother, early Thursday morning. She left me a shaky voicemail, the kind of horrifying, short, “call me back” messages that just tells you something is awful something is wrong. I called her back as soon as I checked it, fearing the worst. We had a tearful, awful conversation as she broke the news. At first I didn’t really get what she was saying. “Casey? Like Rob and Irene’s Casey?” My mom tearfully recounted what happened — black ice, trucks, the highway. A terrible accident, senseless, the wrong place at the wrong time. A fucking tragedy. Before she hung up, she gave me a sad, scared, “I love you, Mel.” 

A couple hours later, another cousin, Casey’s older sister, made the announcement on Facebook. She set up a crowdsharing campaign to help cover the funeral costs, which I shared. Another cousin saw my share.

Oh my god this is terrible

She hadn’t heard the news until seeing my Facebook share. What a terrible fucking way to find out. She was probably just scanning her Facebook feed, early for her on the West Coast, when she stumbled on my post. No warning, no phone call, just a shitty Facebook post.

That’s the reality of being a digital native today. News breaks fast. There are no secrets on social media. Facebook’s algorithms are designed to show you what they think you want to see. If a friend of yours keeps being tagged in posts, if you visit their Facebook wall, if you engage with those posts, clearly something important is up — so clearly you should see it.

For a week, my Facebook became a shrine to the collective grief of Casey’s friends, schoolmates, our family, and our family friends. Every time I looked at it, another post tagging Casey showed in my feed. Every time I would maybe start to think about something other than her death, I’d end up back on my Facebook tab or I’d be browsing on my phone and suddenly, there would be another gut-wrenching post about how much Casey meant to someone. I’m still seeing straggling posts.

What does it mean to grieve in an era of social media? Is it a burden, a constant reminder of pain, or a blessing to get to see just how loved she was? Does collective grieving make it any easier? Was it right that I was sitting there, absorbing someone else’s grief to help sooth my own? Was it an invasion of privacy? Should we just assume all digital spaces are public? I battled with all of these feelings and all of these thoughts but I just couldn’t look away, and I couldn’t avoid it without avoiding Facebook entirely.

After a solid week of social barrage, I’m still not sure what to think.

Casey was a really fucking cool kid. She’d been accepted into the Disney College Program, and was going to study animation. Out of my huge extended family, she was the only cousin I had who was like me. She was really into anime and cosplaying and conventions. We shared a mutual love of Steven Universe. If we’d been closer in age, I think we would have been great friends. She was fun, and vibrant, and so fucking young. It’s not fair that she’s gone and I am so, so angry. She was so loved. At the end of her wake, I heard one of the folks from the funeral home estimate that some 700 people had attended, waiting for hours in the freezing cold weather to cram themselves into the packed building so they could say goodbye and pay their respects. At her funeral the next day, the procession was so long we completely stopped traffic in two separate towns. It required a police escort. For someone so young, she’d touched so many people’s lives.

RIP Casey. You will be sorely missed.

Don’t try to be clever

Don’t design to prove you’re clever. Design to make the user think she is.

— Jeffrey Zeldman, The Year in Design

You should read the whole article, but this last point really stuck because I often see people frustrated with themselves when something goes wrong on a site or app they’re using, as if the error was somehow their fault or caused by some personal shortcoming. Nope — it’s our fault! Sometimes it’s specifically my fault.

The clever solution isn’t always the best.

Sketching with Sharpies

I love sketching, but I always find sketching with pencils a little daunting; there’s this constant desire to go higher fidelity than I should when I’m starting a project. Maybe it’s because of art — I associate pencils and sketching with drawing, which I always approached as something polished. If I wanted to set myself free and do something gestural or sketchy, I always found conté or charcoal easier to let loose with. Pencils were a tool to create something I would eventually show off. (The fact that you can erase pencil probably plays a huge role reinforcing that belief.)

Lately I’ve been trying something different. Instead of sketching with pencils, I’ve been using sharpies. (For a while I was carrying around a miniature whiteboard and markers, but that started feeling a little ridiculous.)

Sharpies are great — they come in a variety of weights, they never look polished, and they are completely un-erasable. You can’t casually make sharpies look like anything other than sharpies. They are inelegant, imprecise, and easy to draw with. As long as you have a thick enough paper to draw on, sharpies are a great way to get ideas down without having to commit to anything. They eliminate that desire I have produce something polished. Sketching with sharpies has improved my design process.

Getting Commit

I received commit to WordPress this past week.

The past couple days have been a bit of a haze — Community Summit on Wednesday and Thursday, WordCamp US Friday and Saturday (where I presented with the wonderful Courtney O’Callaghan), and then yesterday’s Contributor Day. I found out on late Saturday night, at a bar, completely by accident, that I was receiving commit. The new batch of committers were formally announced the next day during Matt’s State of the Word. I join a short list of designers with commit access. I am one of now five women who can commit.

Screen Shot 2015-12-07 at 1.18.31 PM

I was given commit with the reassurance that I would not be expected to do a lot of committing (I think this was told to console me when I started looking a bit green). Committing, I was told, was a sign of trust. It was a sign that the lead developers team trust me enough to help guide the future of WordPress that they have granted me the access to change it. I am honored to receive that trust, especially as a designer. I’ve come along way since my first patch was committed by Andrew Nacin, just over three years ago.

I was instructed to commit something by the end of yesterday’s Contributor Day. Gary found me an easy fix to commit (removing an extra word from documentation in Twenty Eleven, of all things) and walked me through the commit process. Then, I committed my first change to WordPress. It was familiar to how I’m used to committing code for work, but infinitely more terrifying. Afterwards, I felt a little nauseous.

I’m joined in this new privilege along by a great set of folks. Congratulations to the other six people who received commit this week: fellow designer and Automattician Michael Arestad, Rachel Baker, Joe Hoyle, Eric Lewis, Mike Schroder, and Pascal Birchler.

Sound fun? You too can get involved with WordPress at https://make.wordpress.org/.

What I’m Reading This Week

This week’s reading includes:

Still to read this week: