Escalation

More and more, I find myself less interested in what web designers have to say.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some very clever people out there – hell, I’m lucky enough to work with some of them. However, I’m worried that as a community we are blinded by our self-importance. Proudly we don the mantles of digital pioneers and imperiously believe we’re the first to encounter the problems we face. How do we make things that people enjoy? How can we help people to share and learn from each other? Can new technologies alleviate social ills? The more I learn about other fields, the more I find that bright minds have been tackling identical problems for years, and the less surprised I am by this discovery.

I’ve reached a stage of my career where I learn more about user experience from outside the field than in. My non-fiction reading list, previously full of every reputable web/UX design book I could devour, now bulges with architecture, Tufte, typography and semiotics.

Most of the intelligent, ambitious web people I know seem to be undergoing a similar escalation of interests. Whether I can count myself as one of them is moot, but I do know that I’m increasingly skipping RSS feeds that talk about web methods, techniques and tricks. I spend my conference budget on inspiration, not tuition, and endeavour to aim equally high when I’m fortunate enough to present to others.

The UX mailing lists, a barometric aggregate of the field’s current interests, seem to be moving upmarket too. Discussions about design thinking are in the ascendency; those about the location of confirmation buttons are bottoming out. Despite the occasional futile game of Defining The Damn Thing, the trend is increasingly highbrow and diverse.

Below, an example of some advice I’ve recently found particularly enlightening:

“Engineers tend to be concerned with physical things in and of themselves. Architects are more directly concerned with the human interface with physical things.”
“Being non-specific in an effort to appeal to everyone usually results in reaching no one.”

Crystalline, and applicable to all design fields. These quotes, as of course you guessed, are not from a web design book. Instead, they are two of many useful aphorisms from 101 things I learned in architecture school by Matthew Frederick – and yet are still more a commentary on design process than advice on a specific discipline.

In similar circles, I’ve recently been inspired by Stewart Brand’s marvellous documentaryHow Buildings Learn, the companion to the elusive book of the same name. The first episode alone has so many parallels with web design that we ought to be ashamed at how we’ve not drunk more deeply from a well some thousands of years older than our own.

There is, of course, an exquisite irony in a web designer harping on about the questionable wisdom of web designers (particularly when opening with such a shambolic oxymoron). I do think the industry has a great deal to offer its devotees, and there’s still a place for learning from our experts (and I’m looking forward to UX London hugely for this reason), but I do think our community would benefit from removing the blinkers every now and then. Forming a human pyramid is no match for standing on the shoulders of giants.