Designing the Mind

Building on the foundation of craft, individual designers and the broader industry will benefit from a three-stage process for critical thinking: input, synthesis, and output.

Our industry has until very recently been a blue-collar affair: it focused primarily on the mechanics of how things work. As a consequence, function has dominated discussion and writing within our field. The canon of literature we have collectively developed has tended toward the how to, which at its best celebrates a lively, inventive, and sometimes remarkable method and craft. At its worst, it’s represented by didactic step-by-step guides which lead the practitioner down unquestioning pathways resulting in rote learning, an inability to recognize the need for more nuanced choices, and a tendency to accept the status quo and be mere copiers.

As our industry emerges from adolescence, our frame of reference as practitioners is inevitably widening. The question we need to pose is clear: How does the designer who is functionally competent grow professionally?

The answer to this question lies in developing analytical and critical thinking—reflecting on what we do, describing it, questioning it, and moving it forward into new arenas. In short, we need to become masters of criticality.

In the words of the American social theorist Thomas Sowell, intellectuals are “those whose occupations deal primarily with ideas”1 as distinct from those who apply those ideas practically. It’s time for our industry to foreground thinking. Ideally, thinking and doing should work hand in hand.

So, with the foundations—the craft of our industry in place, how do we develop the thinking that is essential to moving our industry forward?

The answer lies in a three-stage process that involves the intertwining of input, synthesis, and output: firstly, widening the field of vision, opening out and looking beyond the obvious; secondly, digesting this newfound knowledge through dialogue and, as a consequence, forming new connections; and finally, outputting thought, resulting in a new canon of knowledge, a canon tailored specifically to our industry’s needs.

Libraries: Widening Our Vision

The first stage in the process is input. For the designer to grow and mature, to move beyond the world of superficiality and style, it’s essential to broaden the scope and widen the frame of reference. Reading acts as a catalyst, broadening a designer’s awareness and understanding; it introduces new inputs and a steady stream of provocations.

We live in an accelerated, connected world at a relentless pace. In that context, the tendency, especially among younger designers, can be to rush headlong into making when some thinking might have been better invested first.

On the Masters course we run, we begin by establishing a rich and varied reading program designed to encourage new thinking. The introduction of this stimuli, this new material, coupled with a period of reflection and discussion, is as much a part of the design process as the moment of picking up a pencil (or manipulating a mouse).

Setting our students a rich and varied reading program, we watch their minds blossom, witness their synapses spark into life while they make new and hitherto unexpected connections. So, what do we, as professionals, draw from this? And how do we map it onto the task at hand? The answer, we believe, lies in adding a new tool to the web designer’s toolbox. It’s a simple tool rich with potential: a library.

As important as the tools we’ve accumulated across the years are the books we’ve bought. They have shaped who we are as designers, and it’s telling that most of these books aren’t about what would traditionally be perceived as design. We need to widen our view, look beyond the immediate resources labeled design inspiration, allow ourselves to draw inspiration from a range of sources, and build our own working library.

On commencing this task, we need a wide frame of reference. We need to build our own system for querying these sources and investigating what we can learn from other fields of study, both neighboring and further afield. In his celebrated thesis “A Theory of Human Motivation,” noted psychologist Abraham Maslow describes this process aptly:

The facts that we acquire, if they are isolated or atomistic, inevitably get theorized about, and either analyzed or organized or both. This process has been phrased by some as the search for meaning. We shall then postulate a desire to understand, to systematize, to organize, to analyze, to look for relations and meanings.2

Our industry—crafting experiences for the web (and elsewhere)—is moving forward at a dizzying rate. We’re often so busy looking ahead that we forget to look back. In the past lies a wealth of knowledge that we can, and should, draw upon. As a profession, we need to look beyond the tried and trusted sources, cast the net wider and dig deeper. We need to widen our frame of philosophical reference to encompass a panoply of thought.

An industry in its adolescence can learn from other industries, considering how they’ve matured and the pathways they’ve taken to professionalism. Close to home, graphic design is an obvious case; a little farther away (and a little older), architecture also offers ample scope for the transference of knowledge. Both of these industries have developed considerable canons of knowledge; both also value the role of the critics—the thinkers around the topic—placing them on an equal footing with makers.

So, where might we look in our quest for inspiration?

One avenue we should certainly consider is psychology; understanding how the mind works is critical if we are to communicate effectively as designers. Abraham Maslow’s 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation”, mentioned earlier, is required reading, his Hierarchy of Needs—which forms the text’s core focus—is already falling under the spotlight of a number of well-respected web designers. Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things3 is also essential to an understanding of why some designs delight while others only frustrate.

Semiotics—the science of signs and how language works—also lies at the heart of communication. David Crow’s Visible Signs4 is an excellent primer, mapping the often obscure science of signs onto the practice of visual communication in a clear and concise manner. The discerning reader will doubtless also enjoy French philosopher Roland Barthes’s excellent Mythologies.5 Long a core text on fine art courses the world over, the mirror it held up to society in 1957 remains every bit as relevant today.

The disciplines of ethnology and anthropology are also rich sources for understanding how groups of people function. Our target personae represent more than individuals. Rarely found in isolation, they’re usually representative of one or many on- and offline communities and subcultures. Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody6 is a perfect primer for understanding the changes occurring in our connected culture and, when that has whet your appetite, Claude Levi-Strauss’s classic Structural Anthropology7 is an essential foundation to gain an understanding of man and society in terms of individuals, kinship, and social organization.

We could go on—subject areas near and far can, and will, offer considerable potential to the inquiring designer. The important point to note is that the list pushes the boundaries of what might be defined as design.

When entering a new subject area, becoming familiar with the established texts provides a great beginning for contextualizing subsequent material. What we’ve given you here is just a starting point; a bounty of other material has been published across history. Most reading you do will make for an even richer experience if you have studied the classics first.

Even when the theories aren’t directly transferable to our discipline, this reading equips us with new vantage points, ideas, ways of describing and interpreting the world around us.

Armed with this newfound knowledge, what next?

Conversation: Converging Socratically

The second stage in the process of developing critical thinking is synthesis. Though acquiring new knowledge is a critical phase in the process of evolving as a practitioner, we also must digest this knowledge, synthesize it, and articulate meaning. Drawing out the connections and mapping the terrain, and applying it to our field can be done in a number of ways, not least through dialogue and the written word.

Synthesis, the activity through which we digest the various inputs and locate, create, and fuse new unions is at the heart of the creative process. The art of discussion remains a superior method, allowing two or more minds to multiply the number of possible connections, leading to new ideas and conclusions thus far unconsidered.

We need to find forums in which we can delve deeper than the often facile exchanges over Twitter, or the sprawling comment threads on a blog, which rarely reach the levels of criticality one can quite easily achieve in something as simple as an everyday conversation. Although possible through means of electronic communication including blogs, articles, and even personal journals, let’s not neglect the opportunity for the rediscovery of the lost art of letter writing, used to great effect in centuries past to work through ideas and shape thought.

There is also a place for face-to-face discussion. The old-fashioned debate, where logical fallacies are exposed, meaning is articulated, and ideas are reconsidered should be brought back into fashion.

Systematic inquiry, the persevering endeavor in exploring an argument and its outcomes and offering alternative interpretations, is at the heart of a methodology practiced for thousands of years. Known as the Socratic method, this philosophical pursuit of knowledge and understanding is close in nature to scientific inquiry but also allows the investigation of unmeasurable, subjective quantities, making it eminently suitable for the subject of design, which almost always overflows into a territory where prescribed rules alone cannot provide a satisfactory interpretation.

A tried and trusted technique, it begins by simply asking a question that is then followed by a series of carefully considered challenges aimed at a deepening understanding of both the original question and its many possible answers. On reaching a conclusion, the initial question is asked again, and the process is repeated. By removing certainties and questioning preconceived notions, we can reach a deeper understanding of the subject. We’ve achieved this using nothing more than a spirited, polite debate.

The systematic process of narrowing in on an issue naturally leads to thoughts and ideas converging. The philosophical pursuit of knowledge and understanding does not, however, require long flowing beards or a Greek agora. In fact, converging Socratically can amount to something as simple and pleasurable as enjoying a fine discussion over a hearty ale. As Sherlock Holmes’s reasoning was stimulated and expanded by intoxicating substances, liquor, in moderate doses, can assist us in our pursuit of the truth. By sharing our knowledge, bringing new insights to the table, dissecting and interrogating each others’ ideas, we can bring forth unexpected, brilliant results.

With the connections teased out, with newfound knowledge digested, there remains just one phase in the process, that of writing it down.

Writing: Building a Canon of Knowledge

The final stage in the process is output, moving beyond the art of conversation and the fleeting nature of the spoken word towards the creation of a canon of knowledge, articulate and critical. We’ve considered the pursuit of meaning through dialogue; let’s examine the third, closely intertwined, phase: the articulation and manifestation of that meaning through the written word.

Developing the craft of the written word, being able to articulate why what you are doing works, is pivotal to growing as a designer. Analyzing and describing your craft through the medium of the written word enables you to gain another vantage point and another perspective. Through the process of analysis, you acquire awareness, gain new insights, and sharpen your perception. Being able to explain, convince, and inspire are essential characteristics of a distinguished designer, and design—after all—is in its essence, communication.

Throughout the design process, writing helps clarify, systematize, and structure your work. It sheds light on flaws of logic and exposes brittle foundations. By making a habit of writing, clarifying your thinking, and exposing your ideas to the light, you will grow as a designer.

Although there are great designers who can’t, don’t, or won’t write, there are also great designers who are able to articulate themselves through the medium of the written word. In their hands, we inherit a canon of knowledge, a canon that lives on, in some cases, long after the works themselves have passed on.

When we think of designers like Jan Tschichold, Josef Müller-Brockman, and Wolfgang Wiengart, or closer to home, Khoi Vinh, Tim Brown, and Craig Mod, we see designers who aren’t just leaving behind designed artifacts but who are also leaving behind a wealth of knowledge. By articulating their ideas, by working through their thinking, they leave a map that others can follow.

In every case, these designers push at the boundaries of accepted norms, pressing outward, establishing new possibilities. Often working at the frontiers, they not only establish new approaches and pathways but clearly articulate why what they are doing works and is important. From their hands, we inherit a canon of knowledge that shapes our understanding and, in many cases, influences the directions our industry takes. In short, they shape thinking.

Developing a Critical and Analytical Mind

Noted cultural theorist John Berger said, “Today the discredit of words is very great.” In this short statement, truth reverberates. We use words, yes, but en masse we appear to have abandoned them in favor of the glancing blow and the superficial cascade of thoughts. In a world of 140-character missives and ill-considered blog comments, words rarely seem to be used to dig deep anymore or applied to the search for profound truths. Everything is surface, sometimes depressingly so. If we are to grow, our vision must be wider and more educated, our thoughts voiced more carefully and on point, and our thinking and writing process repeatedly put to the test, gaining depth as we practice.

As an industry matures, reflection and introspection emerge as natural and essential prerequisites. We must embrace not only the doing and describing but also the analyzing and questioning of what we do. The development of a more critical, analytical relation to our subject is both inevitable and necessary. To grow as a discipline and as individual designers, we need to devote ourselves not just to the art of making, but also to the art of thinking.

  1. Thomas Sowell, Intellectuals and Society, (Basic Books, 2010).

  2. Abraham H. Maslow, A Theory of Human Motivation, (Classics in the History of Psychology, 1943).

  3. Don Norman, The Design of Everyday Things, (Basic Books, 2002).

  4. David Crow, Visible Signs, (AVA, 2003).

  5. Roland Barthes, Mythologies, (Paladin, 1973).

  6. Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody, (Allen Lane, 2008).

  7. Claude Levi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, (Basic Books, 1974).

The standardistas

Christopher Murphy and Nicklas Persson teach interactive design at the University of Ulster at Belfast, where they have been active in promoting a web standards-based curriculum. They’ve written for 24 Ways, New Adventures, and .net magazine, and have published a book, HTML and CSS Web Standards Solutions: A Web Standardistas’ Approach.

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Illustration by Superbrothers · Portrait by Ping Zhu