24: Delving into digital design—craft, teaching, lessons from architecture, standards and certification (ft. Jorge Arango)

A conversation with Jorge Arango. Jorge Arango is an information… | by  EuroIA #euroia20 | Medium

In which Peter and Jesse chat with Jorge Arango about the state of digital design, his background in architecture, teaching the next generation of designers, the seduction of prototyping, the potential advantages and drawbacks of certification, and more.


Jorge:  If you only think of your work as trying to make whatever you’re working on more engaging, or more usable, or more user friendly first and foremost, you are likely not taking in enough of the picture to do something that is going to be ultimately good for the world.

Peter: I’m Peter Merholz.

Jesse: And I’m Jesse James Garrett,

And we’re Finding Our Way

Peter: navigating the opportunities and challenges of design and design leadership.

Jesse: On today’s show, author of the book Living in Information, host of the podcast The Informed Life, UX consultant, and educator, Jorge Arango joins us for a freewheeling conversation covering topics such as how his work is informed by his background in architecture, balancing craft and intellectual inquiry in design education, professional certification for designers once again, and a whole lot more.

Peter: I’ve been intrigued seeing my children embrace Chromebook because of school, and it’s funny when I sit down to use it, and I have to learn how it works, and they have no trouble with going from keyboard to screen and back and forth and all that. It’s trivial

But also, they have no idea how the computer works. They don’t know where files are stored or anything like that. And it doesn’t matter. It just works. They tap things, things show up, they type things. And that’s what this next generation is growing up within.

So it’ll be interesting to see what carries forward from that context.

Jorge: A lot of it has to do with the mental models that you bring to the technology. And if you don’t have a mental model already established, you are learning these things for the first time. This idea of computing in the cloud, when you say Chromebook, well, you’re doing computing without local file support. Like, everything that you’re doing there is hosted in the cloud, right? Like that’s the whole point of those things.

You’re taking so much for granted as to what user’s mental models are when they’re trying to use the thing, and it’s not until you actually sit down with people and see them interacting with the thing that you’ve designed, that you discover, “No, wait,” you as a designer have a much more elaborate understanding of the underpinnings of this thing. And it’s very hard for you to break free of that understanding and to put yourself in the shoes of whoever’s going to be using this thing.

So I feel fortunate to have had that experience early on, because it taught me to not take for granted the fact that everyone would understand the basic workings of these things. And I think we’ve seen as digital experiences become a bigger part of our lives, more and more people are going to be doing more and more basic things there. And we can’t assume that they are savvy or that they have the entirety of the mental model that we bring to it as designers, or as people who are passionate about technology or what have you.

Jesse: I’ve heard from a number of people, stories of that light-bulb, “aha!” moment of realizing that users have different mental models than those of us who are closer to the work of creating these technology products. And that’s often the moment where people get the user-centered religion, and they start getting really interested in research methods and things like that. Was that your experience?

Jorge: I think it took me longer than others. My background is in architecture…

Peter: So, you know better already. [laughing]

Jorge: Yeah, absolutely. [laughing] I remember seeing, I think it’s the third matrix movie where they have the architect, or is it the second…?

Peter: I didn’t–I’ve only seen the first.

Jorge: It’s been a long time, but I remember the architect dressed in his white three-piece suit, right, and knowing everything, and that type of mindset is one of the risks, I think, of an architectural education, in that you study the history of architecture and a lot of it focuses on the architects and what they’ve done, right? And so much of architecture has been done by people who are setting up these structures.

Obviously, they don’t do it alone. Only the smallest buildings can be done by a single individual or a small group. The bigger ones are large group efforts and much like moviemaking, there has to be someone to bring coherence to the effort, and I think an architectural education emphasizes the role of director of the architect, the person who is there to bring coherence to the effort.

And I think that it can do so at the expense of understanding the contextual conditions, the needs of the users. That was my experience. I went to university and found myself just worshiping the work of folks like Le Corbusier and Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, and these people who I saw as bringing coherence and order. A beautiful order. And in the case of someone like Mies van der Rohe, this very minimalistic and elegant order to environments, free of the intrusions of, you know, human usage. You see photos of some of those works, I’m thinking of, like, Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion, I don’t know if I’ve seen photos with people in that thing. And I don’t think that people in the building would make it better. I think that it’s a… I think it’s a beautiful object, right? It’s like a beautiful artifact. And I have not visited it. But I have had the opportunity to visit a few of Le Corbusier’s buildings. And in some ways those are more beautiful in the abstract than they are in reality.

If you visit some Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, I remember Fallingwater, it’s a very beautiful environment, but it’s one where I felt like the creation process had closed. And, I was not invited, as a user of that place, to, in any way, make it my own or expand it or make it better. It was an expression of an idea taken to its most interesting limits that doesn’t necessarily make it a good place to live in, I don’t think.

Peter: Something like Fallingwater, those are primarily residences. So with Frank Lloyd Wright, he would be commissioned to build something for someone. So it doesn’t matter whether or not we like it as long as the clients liked it. That was the closed loop.

So you have residential architecture where you know who the people are who are using it, but then you go another concentric circle out and you have architecture, maybe public buildings, Barcelona Pavilion that you were explaining, those types of things.

If at all, how are architects taught to distinguish between residential, commercial, industrial? Are there different approaches given these different contexts? Then to bring it closer to what we’re working in, you teach at a design school, and I don’t know if you heard the episode with Erika where she railed against the limitations of design education being around formalist structures, like the grid. All we’re preparing our designers to do is to apply the grid when in fact the real design problems are elsewhere.

And so how well are we teaching, training people to practice in different contexts, different audiences.

Jorge: There are several directions we can take this. One has to do with the function of the building, or the function of whatever you’re designing. And you called out the differences between residential and commercial and other uses, and I don’t want to be unfair to my architectural education.

I was saying that it was my own failing to gravitate towards these photogenic works and this hero worship of the architect. But a lot of the architectural education that I got had to do with process, with the approach to designing. I got exposed to a lot of different approaches to doing that, including things like contextual research and, for example, understanding the environmental conditions surrounding the project, which for a building… Buildings exist in a physical environment and you have to understand how the sun arcs over the sky, for example, and how that changes during different seasons, depending on where on the earth you are building. How you will access the building from the street, what views are accessible.

And there are assembly and manufacturing factors that you have to take into consideration. You have to understand the physical properties of materials. You have to understand the structural needs that will allow the artifact to withstand the forces of gravity, for example, or there are ergonomic factors that have to do with how people use environments. Like you have to make doors a certain width if people are to fit through them. And you get to learn all of those things.

And those things are universal whether you’re doing residential building versus a commercial building or a civic or whatever other thing. The part that is specific to each use is what in architecture is called The Program, which has to do with understanding the functions that the building must serve. There’s also a history to doing that type of building. So, people have been designing structures that will serve as their homes for a long time and whatever you do, whatever intervention you make, has to somehow address that. So there are things that you can generalize and things that are specific, and you do get to learn about those differences in architecture school.

Now there was another question in there, Peter, about whether that translates to what we’re doing in education. And you talked about my teaching. I teach at the interaction design program at California College of the Arts. So, it’s very much focused on interaction design, and CCA also has an architecture school and it has other departments, but I’m in the interaction design department.

And, I would say that we try to give students a holistic understanding of the design process. I have not heard the episode with Erika, but I think I can empathize with what she’s talking about, in that I think that a lot of what passes for design education these days, has to do with the more superficial aspects of design, maybe things like using particular tools or things that have to do with the manifestation of design work, like the craft of design, which is hugely important. I think that you have to develop mastery of craft, but there’s this other aspect to education, which has to do with teaching people to see the world in a particular way and see problems in a particular way. And I don’t see design as a way for us to make things more engaging or more usable or more user friendly.

First and foremost, I see design as a way of knowing the world and knowing the problems that we’re dealing with. And it’s a way of knowing that involves making things, putting them into the world and seeing how they function. So it’s in some ways, very empirical, which is different from other ways of knowing the world. In my own teaching. what I would like my students to get from my classes is an understanding that often in design work, there’s no right way to do things. There’s no right or wrong. There’s no true or false. There are some things that are better than others, and never are the problems you’re dealing with isolated. They’re always part of something bigger. And you are dealing with systems. You are dealing with complex environments. And if you only think of your work as trying to make whatever you’re working on more engaging, or more usable, or more user friendly, first and foremost, you are likely not taking in enough of the picture to do something that is going to be ultimately good for the world. I’ll just say it like that. It’s not going to be good for your company. It’s not going to be good for the world. It’s not going to be good for you. It’s a very narrow vision of what design work is.

Jesse: It sounds like what you’re advocating for is a way of thinking about design that looks beyond design merely as a tool for the realization of an idea, and frames design more as a mode of inquiry, a way of understanding problems, a way of understanding the world.

Peter: I’m wondering though how well that’s received in an academic context where students are paying $80,000, a hundred thousand dollars, and expect to get a job. How do you balance skills-building and learning process, with this more intellectual pursuit of inquiry and framing.

Jorge: The two cannot be separated because, like I said, what makes design unique as a way of knowing is that it is a way of knowing that that makes things and tests them in the world. I always like to say that the purpose of design is to make the possible tangible, and the making-things-tangible part is very important.

So, craft is hugely important. And this semester, I’m co-teaching two classes. And one of the classes has the students making prototypes and these prototypes are meant to be convincing. They’re prototypes of mobile apps. And one of the ways of evaluating whether they’ve done a good job or not, is whether this prototype that they’ve wired up using something like Framer or Sketch or XD convinces someone that they’re looking at an app. And there’s a lot of craft that goes into that. That’s not easy. It’s something that takes practice.

So, the analogy that I use with students is that we are there as something like a strength trainer. You hire a strength trainer to show you good form when doing exercises, and the best trainers are the ones who will know how to do the exercises themselves, who’ve been doing it for a long time, who themselves manifest the practices that they are teaching you. If you work with a strength trainer and you’re doing, for example, something like a bench press or a squat, they will come to you and they will say, “Look, you don’t have your back right, right? Like when you’re doing squats, you’re going to hurt yourself. So try doing this,” and you emulate, and then you observe them as they do the work and you give them critique.

So, it’s a fine balance between the craft and the more theoretical part of this stuff. A challenge that we face in design work is that the craft part of it is so cool. And it’s so engaging. When you make a prototype with something like Figma and it’s convincing, and it looks like the thing, you feel such a rush of energy. It’s like, “Wow, this thing is amazing. And look at what I can do.” Because we’re spending so much time using these things and now with the pandemic, literally our waking hours are consumed in these things.

And all of a sudden you find that you have this superpower where you can make these things in this world that we’re living in. And it’s not as hard maybe as you thought it was. And. it’s an incredible rush that comes being good at the craft bit of it. And, also, the tools are evolving so fast and giving us so much power.

Something like Figma an amazing design tool that allows you to do the craft bit, but it allows you to do it collaboratively in a way that was not possible before, or was possible, but much more clumsily. And that’s just the latest in a long sequence of tools that make the craft part of this so much more engaging, easier, faster, more compelling, more convincing, and, there’s this allure to the screen-level discussions of this work. It’s like, Oh man, I bet, we can get lost in discussions about accessibility and contrast and things like, Fitts’ Law, or, you know, all these things that go into making a compelling user interface.

And, it’s also a lot of fun, so much fun to do this stuff, to put a button on the screen and then see it work when you click on it. And we are drawn to these things. And the thing is we can get drawn to them at the exclusion of thinking about How, and more importantly, Why are we doing this? And that is where having some theoretical grounding is helpful. And not just theoretical grounding, like, knowledge of history. Like, I think all three of us are more or less contemporaries. And at this point our careers, we’ve seen ideas that were being discussed very fervently a while back kind of resurface with little to no acknowledgement to the previous efforts. And that is something where I also think we could do a better job as designers in just knowing that designing for digital now, well, it doesn’t have the long history that architecture has for sure, but it’s not exactly a spring chicken either, you know? And there is a history there and it’s worth knowing.

Peter: One of my favorite things is when mobile app designers discover navigation. They realize, “Oh wait, hierarchies and clear labeling.” And you see these Medium posts of folks who’ve invented navigation in whatever context they’re in.

Jorge: Funny enough, it’s apropos. Just yesterday, I was having a critique session with students and one of the students showed sketches of a UI that is meant to be organic. And we were having a discussion about what organic means in this context. And one of the silver linings to our current remote way of teaching is that you can instantly bring up your screen and share stuff, right? So, I shared the work of Kai, I think his name is pronounced Kai Krause.

Peter: Yeah, I was wondering if you were going in a Power Tools direction. Yes.

Jorge: Right. And the students hadn’t seen that work because it’s now, what, 25 years old. Maybe more. So, it’s been a couple of cycles, at least, that that work’s been out of the general discussion, but there is some precedent there.

Jesse: I once had the dubious distinction of giving a talk about our field that reviewed some history, but really kind of started in 2000. And Donald Norman was sitting in the front row and he did have some things to say to me after the talk.

Peter: At least he didn’t say them during the talk.

Jesse: So yeah, we all have our indulgences in ahistoricism.

And honestly, at the time we started, there were people who had been doing a lot of work and research and theoretical work around designing for digital, but it had been sort of locked away from practice in the halls of academia and the proceedings of the ACM SIG CHI conference.

Music break 1

Peter: I want to go back to craft. You talked, Jorge, about the importance of craft your reveling in Figma, and as you say those things, I get nervous. Now, I’m not a proper design leader anymore. I’ve become some form of management consultant, but if I were to go back and become a VP of Design, I haven’t opened a design tool in 10 to 15 years, apart from Keynote. Any design that I do, I do in Keynote.

And I’m wondering your thoughts on that relationship to craft as leaders grow, and what’s important to maintain and hang on to, and what maybe they can let go of. Thinking about it also from your vantage point at the other end of the spectrum, where you’re teaching the next generation of practitioners that will be coming into these people’s organizations and these folks are gonna be primarily steeped in craft. And how do you help leaders navigate just enough craft and maintain relevance, recognizing though that they’re not going to be Figma jockeys, likely.

Jorge: Yeah, that’s a good point. I think that the desire to have pride in your craft is something that should not diminish as you grow in your career. Perhaps the manifestations of the craft change. When you were talking about this, I was thinking is like, what is my craft—is the craft aspect of my own work?

I think that these days I devote as much time writing as I do drawing things.

I find that we are communicating so much now asynchronously using text. I wrote this blog post a couple of years ago about way that I see career progressions in design. The analogy I used is that it’s a progression from very thin markers to flat markers, in that when you start your career, you’re expected to be very focused on the details. So, you use like fine liners.

And then as you move on, you’re going to be working at a perhaps lower level of fidelity, but I’d like to think of it as a higher level of abstraction, perhaps. So, you move on through Sharpies and then eventually to whiteboard markers. And you have to have a good mix of folks in the team with different marker widths, because if it’s all theory and all abstraction and all understanding how the big parts fit together, and there’s no execution, then it’s not going to work. You need people who are passionate about the fine lines who are going to be working on that.

And at least for me, the craft that I aspire to at this stage in my career has to do with helping design leaders manifest and make tangible these very vague, hard-to-pin-down complex, abstract ideas that come with dealing with things like strategy, with organizing complex messes, the whole “wicked problem” thing.

I think that that’s where design ultimately really shines, right? Like these ill-formulated situations and no one knows how to tackle the thing and you have to start somewhere. And designers can come in and take a first stab at the thing and we know it’s going to be wrong because it’s ill-informed, but the very act of putting something in the world and testing it is going to produce data that is going to lead down this process to refining it, making it a better fit to the context and the problem at hand, because this, by the way, this is also related to writing.

When you write, I’m, again, I’m going to speak in the first person, when I write something, that helps me understand what I’m thinking, the act of having to put it into words that I expect I will be communicating to someone else, forces me to bring it down from this miasma I have up here in the meat computer and articulate it in a coherent way.

And design does that too, for these complex wicked problems. And I think that as you move up to leadership roles, you’re not going to be drawing UIs, but you’re going to be thinking about what is the problem that we’re trying to solve here. What are the resources we bring to bear on this thing? How do we best deploy those resources? Where are we falling short? What are our competitors doing? Who are our competitors?

There’s all of these questions that come to bear. And there is a craft to making those tangible too. And that’s how we should aspire to think about craft as we grow in our design careers. We shouldn’t think that we’re leaving craft behind; we should think that we’re applying our craft to a higher-level problem.

Jesse: A lot of the design leaders I’ve spoken to are getting kind of squeezed in their ability to bring that kind of abstract craft that you’re describing, because they’re getting squeezed from top and bottom into a production management orientation, because that is the value of design as the people above them in the organization understand it.

And that’s also the craft orientation that the people on their teams have, right? So, they don’t actually have any peers who want to engage with them at the fat marker level.

Jorge: Yep. I have observed that as well. We have to remember that design is still a fairly new function within organizations. I don’t think that the role of design in organizations has settled in the same way that other functions that have been around longer.

Peter: But, but I wrote a book!

Jorge: I know you did. And I think that that book represents tremendous progress towards the professionalization of design in organizations. I don’t think that most organizations are there yet. I think it’s going to take a shift in mindset as to what the role of design is.

Peter: The role of, like, the design team? Design as a practice? “Design” becomes one of those slippery words.

Jorge: Yeah. What design is for…

Jesse:  As a function.

Jorge: That’s right. Design as a function of the organization. And it might be that the function that I’m calling for is not centralized in the design team. Perhaps there’s a strategy team. Perhaps there is an operations team, I don’t know.

But I’m saying it would be helpful for folks in those groups to have access to design resources, because they can help understand situations and respond to situations in a different way. It gives you a different ability as a team. I

If the only tool that you have available to understand a problem is an Excel spreadsheet, you’re going to be gravitating towards solutions that can be answered by an Excel spreadsheet.

Peter: I want to build on this, ‘cause I was thinking about the Excel spreadsheet as this analogy. Like, Excel is everywhere. Literally every function in a business, every department in a business, is using some form of a spreadsheet. And in the same way, could you argue that design as a tool, as a practice, could also be anywhere that Excel is being used, with the possible exception of actual accounting and finance.

Anywhere that Excel is being used, you could probably also use design approaches as a balance to whatever Excel is bringing to it in terms of helping you structure, organize your ideas. That’s more the convergent parts. So, what’s the divergent part? How are we opening up an opportunity space and exploring and thinking, before getting to where Excel would be helpful in terms of organizing our thinking. And to the point you were saying about the immaturity of design, you do see some organizations that have small design thinking teams that end up operating as consultants.

So as orgs grow, the bulk of the team is doing what Jesse’s talking about, which is production and delivery of design material. And then some teams have created a small design thinking, design facilitation, Google sprints, whatever it is, style practice, that works as a consultancy, sprinkling design approaches to different parts of the business that might ask for it.

Now, I think what you’re arguing is that that second function should probably become more standardized and probably bigger as a reflection of what the value is that a design function is bringing the business. It’s not just in the creation of assets for products, but a way of problem solving that could help throughout the business.

And so, it’s starting to happen. There’s these little green shoots. And another green shoot that reflects on what we were mentioning earlier, in terms of Jesse’s being squeezed, but your recognizing the role of the fat marker, is starting to see more, call them principal designers or design architects who are operating in that more abstract, strategic level, usually at the hand of a design executive who just doesn’t have time to think strategically, to think creatively, because they’re running an org, but recognizes there’s a gap.

That is just starting, but it is starting. And so, we’re seeing savvy organizations poking at these new ways or new expressions of design work that isn’t just, how do I make my product development go? Or how do I make my marketing go?

Jorge: it’s incredibly encouraging that there are shoots happening, emerging. I wonder, and this is something that is always in the back of my mind as I think about this stuff, I wonder the degree to which such teams can be effective as organs of the organization, as opposed to consultants, like you were saying.

Just because, once you are a part of the organization, you are suddenly beholden to the same environment and political forces as all the other parts of the organization. And a part of the value that this approach brings is allowing you to make connections that open up different avenues for possibility. And so much becomes closed once you are an organ of the organization. All of a sudden your incentive structures are in alignment with the incentive structures of the other teams that you’re going to be collaborating with. So, I think it’s really encouraging and really fascinating that it’s happening and that it is emerging.

And it is happening at a time when I don’t see the prevalence of external consultancies in the same way that we’ve seen in the past. I often wonder if we are overdue for a return of that kind of model to greater prominence, if in no other regard than this one.

Peter: Yeah. I mean, I think Erika’s point, when she talked about this, that, historically, design consultancies were turning the crank and doing the craft, the detailed-level craft. And now there’s this opportunity for, essentially, design-inflected management consulting to operate at that level.

But we haven’t quite seen it yet. but that seems to be where there’s potential.

Jorge: To talk a little bit about Excel, because this is something that also came to mind when you were talking about that. I use Excel a lot and I like it a lot. It’s a super useful tool. I think that the challenge comes with premature structuring of things. It’s like when you have a grid of cells, an empty grid of cells, the cells are screaming to be filled with things.

Peter: In a very specific, like, two-dimensional matrix. Yeah.

Jorge: Absolutely. Right. Was it McLuhan that talked about the tools, the tools making us, I don’t remember the exact words, but…

Jesse: “We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.” Yes.

Jorge: Right. Which, to circle back to architecture, Churchill said the same thing about buildings, right?

And these things are true. We live in these things and they inform the way that we think about problems and that we think about the situations that we’re dealing with. If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail, that sort of thing.

And the particular Excel hammer is one that calls for greater precision than what is required at junctures where problems are not well formulated.

Peter: Right. When you’re in that fuzzy front end, you want an environment that enables the exploration of the fuzziness and Excel can’t handle the fuzzy.

Jorge: It can’t, that’s right.

 Music break 2

Peter: You wrote a book called Living In Information. And I’m thinking about architecture, and, as any homeowner knows, the structures that we’re living in have been often quite predetermined by things like codes and standards, and there’s only so much wiggle room that an architect can bring to those codes and standards.

And I’m curious, Jorge, as someone who has thought more about living in information, living in interactivity, living in digitalia, your thoughts on the role of codes, architecture-like codes, building codes, standards within the design of the environments that we are living within.

Jorge: That’s an interesting question, and one that I think has answers in a couple of levels. One level is there are standards, and then there are regulations. And I think that those things are different. And, again, I’m going to call out the fact that the three of us are old, yeah, pointing out that I believe the three of us started in this field very early on in the history of the web specifically.

That has given me a vantage point that has allowed me to see the emergence of structural standards in a medium that was something of a blank slate. I remember making my first webpage. I think I was using Notepad on Windows. And facing this blank screen and then typing in the tags. And you could type anything into that. There was no pre-dictated structure. There was nothing that said, “The corporate logo should be in the upper left corner. And then navigation bar shall span across the top of the screen.”

In fact, there was quite a bit of experimentation there. You might recall that there was a lot of argument about whether the navbar should be on the left or on the right or at the top, or what have you. And, over time, some ways of doing that have worked better than others, and they have become standards in some way.

And, the analogy that I always think of, and I think that I heard this from our friend, Andrea Resmini is, filmmaking. The very first movies were basically, someone set a camera and pointed at a stage and recreated what you would see in a play, because that’s how they understood time-based storytelling like that to happen. And it took a while for things like jump cuts and dissolves and the narrative, the grammar of cinema to emerge.

And I don’t believe that there are regulations around what those things should be. There are standards though. And if you go to see a movie, you expect it to have three acts, and you expect certain ways for the story to unfold in the screen, even if you can’t describe it, you are now a sophisticated reader of that text, if you will. And there’s nothing inherent in the medium that dictates that.

In fact, there’s a lot of interesting movies that may be hard to watch, but they’re very interesting, that don’t follow those conventions.

And when I think about policies and standards and such, I’m much more interested in the structures that have emerged from use, and how they’ve become quantified into a sort of grammar. The logo on the upper left and the navigation bar across the top is a structural construct that we take for granted, but it’s not natural.

Policies, regulations are a completely different domain that I am not as qualified to talk about, but I see a lot of movement happening around things like GDPR, and how we deal with privacy online, which is affecting our online experience. We have all of these popups now asking us to confirm whether we accept cookies in uppercase,

and that’s the nature of responding to legal constructs.

Jesse: Building codes and regulations and so forth, exist to constrain the choices of designers and builders to keep those choices within what is perceived to be a safe context, so that people aren’t making reckless choices that hurt the users of their buildings or their websites or digital products and so forth.

And in our area, the conversation around creating that kind of safety has revolved more around professional certification for designers. That designers should have to meet some sort of standard of not just expertise, but also behavior on an ongoing basis, in order to keep doing what they’re doing.

And I wonder how you both as a practitioner and as an educator, feel about this prospect of professional certification as a way of creating more of those standards to create more of that safety for users.

Peter: And I want to add, Were you ever licensed as an architect? Fid you go through that process in architecture, or did you not get that far?

Jorge: I practiced as an architect for a very short time. I practiced for about a year and a half. And then the web happened.

Peter: But you would have needed to be licensed, then…

Jorge: Yeah, I was, I graduated… but the reason why I hesitate to answer definitively is that I was practicing in Panama, in my home country. And there is a licensing board there, which I passed, but I think it’s different from licensing.

And even in the United States, it varies from state to state,  

Peter: I just, I wanted to make sure, like Jesse and I, have never been licensed.

Jesse: To do anything, ever.

Peter: You’ve had that experience of being essentially, I guess, tested to make sure that you know what you’re doing well enough, that things that you build, aren’t gonna

collapse in on the people who use them.

Jorge: It was early on in my career. But I could call myself an architect, which actually, is a thing, because in some countries you cannot call yourself an architect if you have not gone through that process. That’s the whole certification thing. And I’m of two minds about it.

It makes a lot of sense in some regards, the argument put forth by Mike Monteiro in his book, Ruined by Design. We have tremendous power in these roles, especially when so many people are using things like Facebook and Google and Twitter, the people designing those experiences are perhaps the design professionals that have the most leverage of any design professionals in human history, just because of the scale of those things, there’s so many people using them.

And, how I see the argument for certification is that certification would enforce a set of standards that would aim to keep the people who use the systems designed by certified people safer than people who are using things designed by people who are just coming at it without any kind of grounding. And I think that that works for architecture, in part, because the profession has been around for so long, and we know so much about the properties of what makes a building safe, versus what makes a building unsafe.

In designing for digital environments, even though I’ve said that there’s a couple of decades now of history, or more than that, but it’s not hundreds of years, like what we have in architecture. There’s still so much that is emergent, and I would worry about, yeah, certification is in tension to our ability to push boundaries in some way. In fact, I think that you want to certify things to keep people within boundaries so that you…

Peter: stop the boundary pushing, limit the boundary pushing?

Jorge: Right. And it feels like this field still has so much boundary pushing to do.

Jesse: I don’t know. You know, GDPR exists because there was a little bit too much boundary pushing going on.

Jorge: Yeah, for sure.

Jesse: The argument that certification is a bad thing because it may potentially constrain creative exploration, sounds like a very close cousin to a “move fast and break things” kind of mentality, which, we can see how many things that mentality has already broken. And so, at some point, you have to weigh what is the tradeoff here. Pushing the boundaries of design, exploring new possibilities, bringing new things to the table creatively, really being able to discover the potentials and the limits of the medium.

You have to weigh that against, how many people are getting trampled in the process of your creative explorations, and how many bad actors, not necessarily designers, but bad actors on the business side, bad actors all around us, can leverage our willingness to go explore and push boundaries with them toward ends that don’t serve the larger good.

Jorge: You’re absolutely right. And is what is so challenging about this that I can totally see the argument for certification. My point, though, is that we are in an industry that is moving so fast, that you may end up establishing policies that are over-determined for a particular medium or a particular implementation.

That happened within the professional experience of many folks listening to the show. They remember the world before the iPhone and then the world after the iPhone. And if you had overly specified the policies for the world before the iPhone, all of a sudden, the iPhone made at least some of them less relevant, and maybe you would end up with a situation where you would be nudged into the direction of making a mobile interface more similar to the desktop interface, you know?

I think that the things that we want to have guard rails around are things like data protection and making sure that the systems we use do not discriminate unfairly against people.

And we’ve had things like the laws that protect folks with disabilities, for example, which have been successful in encouraging companies, designers, et cetera, to create things that are more universally accessible. And I would expect that when we talk about policies and certification, we are talking about that level. And not the things like the UI level. We’re not going to demand that designers do this on the screen. We are going to demand that they take care of people’s data, for example. That would make sense.

Did you all see the demo of this Elon Musk company that is doing the brain link thing? I forget what it’s called. The essence of it is that it is a device that you implant in your skull. And it’s actually an interesting service design thing, because part of the, quote-unquote product, includes the robot that drills into your skull. So, you sit under this machine that drills a hole in your skull and places a coin sized sensor. It attaches some ways to your nervous system from which then you can connect to your phone or to another digital device and do things.

I don’t know how feasible that is, but you can imagine something like that being feasible, and they demonstrated it with pigs. And I would expect that if that is a thing in the world, the design challenges around that, and the ethical challenges around that are many ways thornier than the design challenges that we’re dealing with when we’re dealing with screen-based systems. I wonder if policies and certifications that are created in a world where the dominant means for interacting with information are screen-based, are going to serve us well in a world where we have direct connections to our nervous systems.

So this is not an easy thing to contemplate because it is a very fast moving field.

It’s awesome talking with you all.

Jesse: Jorge, this has been great. Thank you.

You can find Jorge Arango and links to all of his work on the internet, on his website at http://jarango.com. That’s J A R A N G O.com. He’s also @jarango on Twitter. You can find Peter Merholz and myself on Twitter as well. He’s @peterme, I’m @jjg. This podcast is not on Twitter yet, but it does have a website.

That’s http://findingourway.design, where you’ll find audio and transcripts of every episode. You’ll also find a contact form where you can share your feedback with us. We love to hear your thoughts. We’ll see you next time.

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