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Designing for Crisis, Design for Real Life

Back in October of 2014, at An Event Apart Orlando, I returned to public speaking with “Designing for Crisis”, my first steps toward illuminating how and why design needs to consider more than just the usual use cases.  I continued refining and delivering that talk throughout 2015, and it was recorded in October 2015 at An Event Apart Austin.  As of late last week, you can see the entire talk for free.

Vimeo: Designing for Crisis by Eric Meyer

There were a lot of strange confluences that went into that talk, some of them horrific, others just remarkable.  One that stands out for me, as I look at that screenshot, is how a few years ago, Jared Spool gave a talk at AEA where he discussed the GE Adventure Series, in a segment that never failed to choke me up (and often choked up Jared).  I remember being completely floored by that example, and at one point, based solely on what he’d said about the GE Adventure Series, I remarked to Jared that I occasionally thought about switching career tracks to become an experience designer.

Less than two years later, I stood in one of the first Adventure Series rooms at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, standing in the middle of a design I’d only ever seen on a projector screen, the same room you can see in the screenshot above, as my daughter’s head was scanned to see if the experimental medicine we’d been giving her had slowed her tumors.

Six months after that, I was talking about it on stage in Orlando, as an example of how designing for crisis can have spectacularly positive results.  The video we released last week came a year later, and is a much better version of that first talk.  I’m very happy that we can now share it with the world.

As I’ve said before, I came to realize that “Designing for Crisis” was just one piece of a larger puzzle.  To start exploring and understanding the whole puzzle, I recently finished co-authoring Design for Real Life with Sara Wachter-Boettcher, to be published by A Book Apart, possibly as soon as March (but there’s not an official date yet, so that could change).  In it, Sara and I explore a small set of principles to use in approaching design work, and talk about how to incorporate those principles into your existing design practice.  The book is the foundation for a new talk I’ll be presenting at every An Event Apart in 2016—including this year’s Special Edition show in Orlando.

As soon as the book is available for order, we’ll let everyone know—but for now, I hope you’ll find last year’s talk useful and enlightening.  Several people have told me it changed the way they approach their work, and it serves as a pretty good introduction to the ideas and themes I’ve built on it for the book and this year’s talk, so I hope it will be an hour well spent.

A “Year in Review” Review

A year ago today, I went onto Facebook and was shocked by what I saw.  After a few moments, I started thinking through what had happened, and why, and decided to quickly blog about it.  Before a week had gone by, that post had become a news story covered around the world, showing up in newsprint and on web sites, leading to interviews and more.  There was a moment where I was sitting in my office with my daughter when she looked over, took in my expression, and asked me if I was okay.  I couldn’t speak for a minute.  The story had just hit TIME Magazine and the New York Times.  It was a truly surreal experience.

From out of that experience, a lot of things grew.  I realized that “Designing for Crisis” was one piece of a larger topic, started to get a handle on that topic, and teamed up with Sara Wachter-Boettcher to create a book which we just finished writing, title to be announced shortly, and expect to be on shelves within a few months.

In parallel to that, I was asked to talk with the design and content teams at Facebook, which I did in the spring of 2015.  It was an incredibly productive and honest discussion, entirely because the team at Facebook was truly concerned and open to change.  You can see how this has evolved over time in On This Day, whose messaging has become more human and sensitive to the possibility of harm.  And you can especially see it in the 2015 edition of Year in Review.

Year in Review’s timeline ad for 2015.

Whereas last year, the YiR feature was clearly designed around awesome years and happy people, this year’s is a lot more respectful and careful.  It isn’t as dynamic, but when it comes to memories, this seems entirely appropriate.  As Sara and I say in our book, this is “what it looks like when an organization embeds caring into its product, and is willing to own up to mistakes”.

I know the Facebook copy “we care about you and the memories you share” has been derided in some quarters, because people reflexively assume that no company (least of all Facebook) actually cares about you as anything more than a sales unit.  Maybe that’s true of some parts of Facebook—it’s a very large company, after all, with a lot of competing fiefdoms—but the design and content teams were writing from the heart.  They honestly do care about the people who use their products, and they care very much about how their work affects people.  They know they’ll stumble sometimes, but they’re committed to trying anyway and learning from their stumbles.  For that alone, they have my deepest respect.  To forge ahead in front of an audience of well over a billion people takes an incredible amount of courage.

Year in Review will be a part of the talk I’ll be giving in 2016 at An Event Apart, just as it was of Sara’s and my forthcoming book.  In brief, the assessment that you’ll find in both places: Year in Review 2015 is a significant step forward, a great example of compassionate design at scale.  I applaud Facebook for forging a path forward.

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If you do something you love for long enough, it gets into your bones.  But more than that, the things adjacent to it do as well.

Since I got started on the web, very nearly 22 years ago now, I’ve never really seen myself as a designer.  Granted, I did some visual design in the early days, because anyone who set up a web site back then had to be the designer: there was nobody else.  No graphic designers would deign to look at the web, and no “web designers” yet existed.  We were Web Masters because we had to be, drawing buttons and laying out content along with writing code and doing UX and UI and IA and everything else.

So I did design when I had to, but I always knew I wasn’t a capital-D Designer.  I knew this in the same way I knew I was not a boulder nor an odor: it wasn’t a failing or even a lack, but just what was true and even unremarkable.  I was a code monkey who knew his way around Photoshop and could mimic what he saw around him decently enough, but I didn’t have the creative vision or training or, really, inclination to generate my own, unique work.

As we passed out of that epoch of the web, I was more than content to stop trying to design and instead be an enabler of design.  My efforts to teach HTML and CSS had twinned, helical aims: to help anyone who wanted to create a web site share their thoughts, and to help any designer who wanted to create a visual effect share their vision.  I was a technical author, a developer, a sometime observer of design, but never a Designer.  I knew Designers by then, and I knew they possessed a skill and focus I did not.

Which was okay.  After all, I possessed a skill and focus they did not.  Our work was complementary.

What I didn’t realize was that, over all those years, as the knowledge I shared seeped into their bones and became second nature, the same thing was happening in reverse.

For the past few months, I’ve been managing a design project, getting a ton of help from Jason Santa Maria; but I’ve also been the annoying client, making unreasonable demands of everyone involved.  I insisted on changes of direction partway through, and coped with changes of understanding at other points in the process.  I refused to listen to reason at one point, and yielded to reality at another.  For most of it, I compared font faces and sizing, trying to decide which I liked best, telling Jason I wished I could have a little of option A, a little of option B, a dash of option C, struggling to put into words what I could almost see.

Among my friends, I’m vaguely infamous for not being able to tell, at a glance, the difference between Helvetica and Arial.  I’ve seen the detailed analyses of the two, and if I had the exact same run of text in each face, sitting side by side, I could probably do a credible job of figuring out which was which, but give me a standalone block of sans-serif text in Ariatica or Helvetial and my odds of knowing which it is are literally no better than a coin flip.

And yet, there I was, staring at the same layout set in various font faces, feeling the sense of each, obsessed with spacing and intervals and kerning, examining which had the best italics while trying to decide if italics should even be used, if their use conveyed the right message.  I scrutinized the spacing between blocks of text, the alignment of fragments of information, the rhythm of the entire piece, every bit of content.  It wasn’t enough that it be passable, or decent, or even good; it had to be right.  I focused on all the details as well as the overall picture with a will and intensity I had never felt before.

It wasn’t easy.  I massaged my temples as the stress of needing to make exactly the right choice overwhelmed me; I paced around my office, glaring at the alternatives on the monitor every time I passed by; I felt tears of frustration rise as I ran into yet another setback and knew that the final result would not be everything I had originally wanted it to be.  I stood in someone else’s office and rode herd on their archaic software setup, literally telling them where and how many times to click, because that’s what was necessary to get the job done properly.  I wrote and rewrote emails to the various parties in the project, masking my battered spirit as best I could while still being clear about where things stood and where I wanted them to go.

Not, as I say, by myself: Jason was invaluable to getting me off to the right start, keeping me on the right track, and helping me through the setbacks.  I doubt I could have done a tenth as well without him.  But as we progressed, I increasingly felt like I knew what his answers to my questions would be.  My inexperience and fear of error and just plain fear meant I kept checking in with him, but with every iteration, I felt more confident that I already knew the right answers.  In a lot of cases, I made the changes I was already sure he would make, and Jason’s feedback confirmed that I had done right.

Over two decades, I had slowly, unwittingly absorbed everything I needed for this project.  It had seeped into me, creeping out of a thousand Keynote slides and a million words, written and spoken, from my friends and their friends and all the people they looked up to and quoted.

Gradually, I had become a capital-D Designer.  I had a very specific intent to render, and with help and focus, I made the end product as reflective of my intent as possible.  I knew when the design felt wrong, but more importantly, I knew when the design felt right.  And I could see, at first with Jason’s help but increasingly on my own, how to get from one to the other.

This morning, the result was unveiled—literally unveiled, ritually, at the direction of our congregation’s rabbi.  A block of sparkling silver-blue granite carved with a few words of English and Hebrew.  A compact arrangement of text bearing more emotion and meaning than anything I have ever done, horrifying and beautiful, set flush into the earth of Cleveland Heights, where similar markers will one day be set for me and for my wife.

Everything I absorbed over all those years, everything I learned by choice or by chance, and most of all the help I received from everyone who’d ever shared their knowledge and insights with me, all made that possible.  Made me a Designer.

Thank you all.

This article was originally published at The Pastry Box Project on 7 June 2015.

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