A Word Holds a World – Pitfalls in Design Thinking

To design something is not a random process. The creative act has its characteristic associative leaps within and between concepts. Pinning words to these concepts can limit design thinking. A few thoughts on this topic.

If we’re thinking of a lunchbox, we’ll be really careful not to have the word ‘box’ already give you a bunch of ideas which are … quite narrow.– Jonathan Ive

David McGillivray has written a beautiful post on how labels are saddled with assumptions and how it narrows design thinking. The context is a design competition to build a lunchbox that is also a bag and a pencil box. Some fantastic quotes from David’s post. 

Labels have to exist because we have to talk about projects with people when we’re working on them, and if an element doesn’t have a name, we need to give it one so people know what the hell we’re talking about.

..right, next is the “Profile Page.” Just this generic label alone starts the design process in my head. Immediately, my subconscious cross-references all the profile pages I’ve seen and compiles a generic layout for me. 

it’s not our fault, it’s (hopefully) not because we’re bad designers, but because ofhow our brains are wired to work. The association that occurs is an unconscious process that plots its commute along well-worn neural pathways that are formed and reinforced everyday as we work, and discuss design.

The entire post is a fantastic deconstruction of how designers approach designing. Make sure you read it. 

Its fascinating how a mind cognizes the world. Every sensory input is labelled, classified, stored and processed away. Being aware of this cognitive process invariably makes you a better thinker. It does not matter if you are not a designer, even as programmers or product managers, one invariably has to name a class or a feature or an entire product. Awareness of how an idea will be perceived makes you able to choose an appropriate name.

And I also find the idea of conjuring a whole world of visuals, feelings, ideas, words and preferences from merely uttering a word as akin to magic. Assume I said, “Game of Thrones” or “Mahabharatha” or “Illiad” or “Scala”. Based on your exposure to these works, a whole set of impressions would have been brought in front of your mind’s eye. It is miraculous how the mind has an entire set of impressions stored and indexed and is able to retrieve it in real-time. And this is not just lexical matches, even semantically associated/related terms are brought out.

A mythologically inclined mind would treat us as magicians, by our ability to bring up worlds of experience with a mere word! Perhaps there is something to it when Vyaasa said, 

The world is like an impression left by the telling of a story. – Rishi Vyaasa

And watch the video of Jony Ive reviewing lunchbox designs. Such humility in his stance. And the Apple lab is not shabby either! 

How do you think about thinking and design? What is occurring in your head just now?

Analogy as the Core of Cognition

Since writing the post on creativity I have been trying to make some connections of my own. Something that would explain the mechanics behind creativity and perhaps the nature of the thinker too. And then it struck me, the connections that Steve Jobs was referring to as the origin of creativity is very similar to the processes that Douglas Hofstadter talks about in a lecture called Analogy as the Core of Cognition.

Douglas takes an even more hardcore stand. He considers this ability to see patterns, this analogical mode of perception, as the very basis of cognition. That is to say the foundation of thinking.

If you are sort of missing the point here, let me illustrate.

Ability to see connections –> Creativity

Ability to see analogies –> Cognition

Do you see the parallels now? Good..So seen from that perspective, one could say that the very act of thinking, or just cognizing, is a creative act. And perhaps creativity is just an exalted mode of thinking, something that extends it in ways we are unable to nail properly but still built on the same foundation of thinking. Which is not bad at all and very egalitarian too.

I think, therefore I am, could very well have a corollary(or should I say analogy? Eeks this is getting recursive!) saying I analogize, therefore I think.

Damn, as I wrote the above lines I see possibilities that my feeble mind cannot comprehend fully. Am entering philosophical territory here. I shall come back to this another day!

Optimized for Scarcity

Two quotes that I had come across recently dealt with our human ability to deal, or not deal, with the excess of anything. Do read through.

First is from Bruce Chatwin, On the origins of human restlessness:

What I learned there—together with what I now knew about the Songlines—seemed to confirm the conjecture I had toyed with for so long: that Natural Selection has designed us—from the structure of our brain-cells to the structure of our big toe—for a career of seasonal journeys on foot through a blistering land of thorn-scrub or desert.

If this were so; if the desert were "home"; if our instincts were forged in the desert; to survive the rigors of the desert—then it is easier to understand why greener pastures pall on us; why possessions exhaust us, and why Pascal’s imaginary man found his comfortable lodgings a prison.

The key points that resonated with me in the above quote are that “greener pastures pall on us” and “possessions exhaust us”.

Second quote is by Clay Shirky as quoted and discussed in Megan Garber’s post on Nieman Journalism Labs:

“Scarcity is easier to deal with than abundance, because when something becomes rare, we simply think it more valuable than it was before, a conceptually easy change…abundance is different: its advent means we can start treating previously valuable things as if they were cheap enough to waste, which is to say cheap enough to experiment with.”

The key points in this quote should be obvious in the very first sentence. The idea is that abundance leads us to devalue something, perhaps to experiment with it as best case, or just to waste in the worst case.

The bottom line for both quotes seems to be that we humans are optimized by design for scarcity. The abundance of anything makes us swim upstream against the natural tendency of our nature. Or perhaps it is a evolutionary vestige that we are yet to outgrow.

The idea that humans are optimized for scarcity appeals to some deep part of me, can’t completely articulate why but I shall let this simmer within for some more time. What do you think?

Origin of Religious Species

The churn of a storm, the lightning that tears open the skies, the wasted colors to beautify a moment’s horizon. Each, in the mind and heart of perceiving man, gives birth to awe. That unique state where, bereft of understanding, there stands a heightened state mingled with fear. And some might argue a state of perception beyond mind. Religion, poetry, piety and more might have their birth here.

I have always been fascinated by the religious instinct in man. Especially the origins of it. What impelled earliest man to conceive a God? Whence the origins of his impulse to obey and surrender?

I believe I have come across a plausible answer on what could have given birth to the religious instinct. And the clue arrived while watching this movie called the Quest for Fire.

The sequence occurs when Naoh, of the Ulam tribe, is being chased by the Kzamm tribe. While fleeing Naoh comes across a herd of Mammoths, more menacing and imposing than any creature he has ever come across.

Keeping in mind the evolutionary stage of this tribe the typical response would be to flee or fight. Neither of which are relevant or feasible in this scenario. Kzamm tribe outnumbers the paltry four from the Ulam tribe, including Naoh. The Mammoths are in a herd, with the testy bull male right upfront. Again, to emphasize the obvious, neither flight nor fight is feasible.

That is when Naoh does the unexpected. With eyes reflecting a mixture of suppressed fear, or is it surprise?, he does the unthinkable. He moves towards the bull male, slowly inching his way forward, contradicting every instinct he has grown to trust. When close to the animal he bows; head down, arms raised with palms facing forward and bows, kneeling and head touching ground. The near-human animal offers its surrender to the Mammoth, acknowledging its superiority.

And the Mammoth acknowledges that surrender. It protects the near-human creature by chasing away the Kzamm tribe when they try to get close. Naoh and his tribe mates don’t fail to observe this response by the Mammoth.

This  amalgam of emotions – shock, fear and being in the presence of something big and unexplainable is how I perceive awe. Awe becomes the origin of our first religious instinct, inspiring our surrender and the giving of ourselves entirely.

In response, the one who surrenders sometimes perceives the answering grace. And in that specific stimuli-response is the origin of all preoccupations that exceed our sense-filled rationality.

An Idea is a Stumbling Block

the road more travelled

Creative Commons License photo credit: simonsterg

Ideas are dime a dozen. Anyone with imagination, and an ounce of logic, can spin a ton of them. Turning these ideas into reality is always a challenge.

I came across this neat article on MSDN magazine on pushing your ideas to reality. The quote that struck a distinct chord in me was –

It is not the idea that gets people’s attention; it’s your credentials. So if you don’t already have an established track record as an innovator, you will have a harder time getting people to listen to you.

That is exactly what stops many of us from revealing our ideas. Perhaps we were ignored earlier or shot down with disdain or even received a response as to how ridiculous the proposition was.

An Idea is a Fork in the Road

Let us get this straight. Every new idea is a stumbling block. It is like a fork in the road where we expected a straight line. Every fork demands new decisions. New decisions carry a cognitive cost and cause disruption to original cherished goals.

No wonder people do not take ideas seriously. Because it takes effort to recognize the worth of an idea and stand behind it. Note that it is not just a question of what it would cost in resources, namely time and money, but the cognitive cost of evaluating the new possibility and correcting the course that was set much earlier.

Old Goals and Familiar Friends

People grow fond of their goals. Anything that has aged with them tends to have familiarity and they understand it in a lot of detail. Ask anyone who has spent time programming in a particular language for 10years to change their primary language for another. You will find them fighting tooth and nail against that possibility, their mind goes blank. The fluid expertise and productivity will be replaced by an erring and unsure hand.

Structuring, Positioning and Presentation

This is worth bearing in mind the next time you wish to communicate your new idea. Consciously seek to structure your idea, the positioning of it and the presentation of it to reduce the threshold for acceptance as much as possible.

Think like the listener..

..of the idea. Understand their priorities and adapt your message. If you are speaking to senior management you could emphasize how your idea reduces cost, or increases profit margins, or positions a product for market leadership. When speaking to an architect you could emphasize the standard APIs, clean extensibility, open data formats and so on. The MSDN article speaks about this aspect much better than here. Go ahead and read it.

I have merely highlighted the aspect of selling the idea out here. The problem of building enough credibility to get an initial hearing still remains. And that would be the topic of another post!

What do you think? What other impediments exist for idea acceptance?

To Name an Idea

to name an idea, essence, cognition, word, bartimaeus
Creative Commons License photo credit: broxtronix

A quote from Thomas L Friedman about naming an idea.

In the world of ideas, to name something is to own it. If you can name an issue, you can own the issue.

In the Bartimaeus Trilogy, the Djinn called Bartimaeus gains power over a magician, and his master, called Nathaniel when he learns of his true name. The true name had enough power that it could control the owner of the name! The novel itself is brilliant, the sarcastic wit of Bartimaeus has to be savoured. I shall write a detailed review later but suffice to say more than handful of wonderful possibilities occur in the novel. 

On another note, forget what it means to an idea, with that we come very very close to the mystic sense of what a name aught to be!

A name is said to stand in for the actual thing it represents in the world of thought.

To understand what I mean by that, let us do a simple exercise. i)Think of nothing, imagine a white sheet, blank space whatever..but nothing and next ii) Think of a white elephant.

Now if you had played along with me, from nothing we could concoct a picture of a elephant in your mind, with just the suggestion of a word.

If we were to talk this up, we could say a word could create stuff in your mind, or the word could materialize things. Perhaps not in the tangible world of flesh and form, but still could create in the mind.

Perhaps this process we followed in my little game applied with some alchemy, could lead to the actual creation of things? Say you utter a word and the thing manifests in flesh and form! I shall pursue this line of thought in another post 🙂

Names were originally the phonetic equivalents of the essence of thing or action or idea.

Follow for instance the evolution of early Sanskrit in an essay by Sri Aurobindo, called Origins of Aryan Speech. In it you would see that root words were inextricably woven close to the actual sense of the act, not the act itself or the thing itself but some untraceable essence of the thought or thing.

Guess that is enough rambling for now! What do you think? What connections could you make?

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