For years, thought and expression had been democratized. Ultimately, the rod of creation had been surrendered to the people, and we watched chaos ensue (among other good things).
A liberated media is an invaluable commodity, don’t get me wrong. In fact, that type of unorganized drive gave momentum to otherwise underprivileged causes and previously silenced personalities, effectively leading traditional media and 20th century propaganda machines to a state of near demise.
But that is not the problem. If we pause a little bit and take a look at our online presence, we see an exhausted body depleted by a thirsty pursuit of self-promotion, consumed by ill productivity that leaves behind filler content to hold an ad or two. An empty shell dedicated to gorging itself on plain regularities, too busy to notice that it became the merchandise.
When that little kid sought refuge from the harsh social climate of her community, she was bombarded with judgmental and commercial metrics that placed a price over her innocent blogs.
“You’re pretty much talking to yourself if you don’t sponsor your thoughts with us or let us overcrowd your page with (at best) distracting ads.”
Art became a means to no end, and content monetization was crowned a new king. In that world, it usually takes “Jane” one or two online searches for a specific topic to have her feed channels filled with ads commercializing every last bit of authenticity left for us to weep over.
“Hey! It’s Mother’s Day!” the ad cries out. Why don’t you celebrate your mum by buying yourself that thing you’ve been looking for at a discount?!” Spoiler alert, it’s not about celebrating mum.
In turn, such practices push our consumer hysteria and influencer obsession over the fence, enough so that hoarding likes and a high followers count became the sad motive.
“Nice work (at which I didn’t really bother looking)! Please check my latest post, like, and follow!”
Consequences of Our Shallow Grasp of Design
Then it became okay to sell out, to ignore the people behind the views and numbers, to turn a blind eye to cyber bullying and gadget abuse as long as the inventory sells out. (no pun intended)
We exist today as online profiles and IRL (In Real Life); regardless of how connected or consistent, or even how truthfully our existence mirrors itself, there’s still an experience to be had, and it was our misunderstanding of online society and our shallow grasp of what design really is, that led us to a dysfunctional product culture.
The Art of Boundless Creation
I learned a valuable lesson on my first day in the school of architecture: design extends well beyond a clever arrangement of walls and efficient utilization of space. It’s empathy and chemistry. It’s understanding that having a working lamp on the ceiling needs to create a vibe before it shines a light.
Design, the science and art of boundless creation. The good old design that didn’t discriminate between business and user, visual and functional. The profession as practiced by the likes of Walter Gropius, Ray Loewy, and Frank Wright. That design became our absent champion.
Virtual dignity was lost on our online universe when experience was confused for an interface that went out of style within a few months of its release and when the purpose of connecting people and turning our planet into a small village where everyone is accepted, slipped into turning our world into a little mall where they can sell you anything.
And the big one? When design was reserved to how it looks and, at best, how it works, while it should have always been why it’s here and why it works. Don’t get me started.
Delivering Purpose Through a Product
Such a shift in culture involves realizing the true meaning of design to uplift the underlying mechanisms of a product from merely sorting instructions or spinning gears with a high percentage of “availability and reliability” to tools of true personalization, enabling the delivery of purpose through a product, rather than a product as another material object with an expiry date. True design gets the point that a social platform, as an example, must shield its users from hate speech as well as if not better than it recommends posts or connections, that it should be grounds for free expression first and a marketplace on the distant second.
People’s tendency to anthropomorphize their cats or dogs carried over to gadgets in a way that seemed impossible, had been overlooked. I witnessed the mesmerizing moment when a friend’s daughter said, “I love you, Google” after the smart speaker narrated her a short bedtime story in a relaxed voice. That was a product that understood availability and reliability needed to be designed to be closer as much as it needed to be present and operational.
(Don’t ask why Daddy isn’t narrating the story, I could rant on that for pages!)
Our Collective Duty
We operate on our most primal behavior. We seek, select, and choose. We browse for food, style, relevant information, and that perfect show to have dinner to. And such shall be the embodiment of design thinking, to put people first and thrive to be more of who we are, what matters to us, what sparks our joy.
So our collective duty is to work smarter, to balance out values and profits, distinguish and adapt the practical needs of the market with the ideals of a perfect society. But that’s a significant feat.
In the meantime, do justice to your audience and to your work: break free from the constraints of traditional materialism. Seek the means for an evergreen creation, invincible to datedness and adaptive to change.
Concentrate on the message, and then let the product sit in the background as one pillar of a larger structure, a lifestyle prop. The thrill is in the pursuit, and the value is in the life and idea behind an object.
Do not deliver the product, deliver through the product.