" It occurs to me that the peculiarity of most things we think of as fragile is how tough they truly are. There were tricks we did with eggs, as children, to show how they were, in reality, tiny load-bearing marble halls; while the beat of the wings of a butterfly in the right place, we are told, can create a hurricane across an ocean. Hearts may break, but hearts are the toughest of muscles, able to pump for a lifetime, seventy times a minute, and scarcely falter along the way. Even dreams, the most delicate and intangible of things, can prove remarkable difficult to kill." #fragile #heart #sculpture #art #lasercutting

" It occurs to me that the peculiarity of most things we think of as fragile is how tough they truly are. There were tricks we did with eggs, as children, to show how they were, in reality, tiny load-bearing marble halls; while the beat of the wings of a butterfly in the right place, we are told, can create a hurricane across an ocean. Hearts may break, but hearts are the toughest of muscles, able to pump for a lifetime, seventy times a minute, and scarcely falter along the way. Even dreams, the most delicate and intangible of things, can prove remarkable difficult to kill." #fragile #heart #sculpture #art #lasercutting

heart art fragile sculpture lasercutting

A Society Obsessed with Numbers

Guy Debord in his Society of the Spectacle argued that we as a society no longer ‘live’ anymore but simply ‘appear’ due to our extensive reliance on images to facilitate social interactions. His assertion is certainly relevant today as demonstrated through the growing influx of Instagram photos and facebook albums. However, I came across an article by David Sedaris published in the New Yorker on the topic of obsession with the quantitative self that inspired me to re-evaluate the truth of Debord’s assertion on today’s society.

In his article, Sedaris documents his obsessive tendencies to walk for hours on end, not in a bid to become more fit, but to rack up more steps on his fitbit, a techy pedometer. The most striking thought from his article was when he realizes that:

"Walking twenty-five miles, or even running up the stairs and back, suddenly seemed pointless, since, without the steps being counted and registered, what use were they?" -David Sedaris

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This quote to me encapsulates the shift that our society has undergone from being a qualitative image focused society to a quantitative numbers obsessed society. Images are no longer the focus, but rather a pathway to the real goal, social validation through numbers. The number of likes, retweets, and other forms of social acknowledgement now drive our social interactions. It’s no longer enough to live our lives through images and appearances as Debord theorized, instead we demand a higher level of engagement from our social networks. The spectacle now has a tangible and measurable end goal.

This obsession goes so far as to drive particular behaviours. I’ve noticed this phenomenon in my friends as well as myself in that we will perform actions for Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. For example, if I see something funny, or beautiful, or delicious, I’ll snap a photo of it with the intention of posting it to Instagram. Similarly, if I have a clever thought or observation at a time when it’s improper to tweet, I’ll write it down so I can tweet it later. I do this in anticipation for the likes and retweets that I’ll receive upon posting my content. I believe we are becoming reliant on our networks to validate the greatness of our experiences. The greater the number of likes and retweets, the greater the feeling of social validation and the more you become sucked into this vicious cycle of behaviour.

This new layer of the spectacle puts the focus on the numbers instead of image. As a result, we become even more of a slave to the spectacle by taking on the role of performer and curator. We seek to construct and edit our lives down into bite-sized experiences that can be validated by our social networks in our bid for social validation.

debord guy debord society spectacle quantified self design

Embracing Undesign

 Most times we see design as an additive process towards a problem as we attempt to create a new plan, or system, or product to address the problem. However, thinking about design in a purely positive manner limits the reach of designers in truly making a positive difference. Instead, designers need to spend an equal amount of time thinking about the negative aspects of design known as undesign as discussed by James Pierce in his article titled Undesigning Interaction.

Pierce defines undesign as “negation, destruction, removal, elimination, absence, inaction” and quotes the removal of nuclear plants that weren’t safe enough, or children’s toys made with toxic materials as examples in which undesigning would have a positive impact. However, undesign does not exist in a dichotomy, but rather on a graduated scale from inhibition, to displacement, to erasing. A great example Pierce gives is designing phones with inhibition features built in so that users can unplug and disconnect from the internet. Pierce further argues that designers need to utilize undesign to venture into the realm of critical design: designing futures or products that “embody things we should not value or ideas about how we should not live”. Designers have a responsibility to make “purposeful subtractions from the real world” and design products with the negative side in mind.

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Nate Isberg of the Atlantic (Photograph: Jon Sufrin)

A great example of a man embodying the concept of undesign is Nathan Isberg, owner of the Atlantic restaurant in Toronto. Instead of a fixed menu and price, Isberg simply cooks whatever he happens to have bought that day and invites patrons to pay whatever they feel like, bartering permitted. Despite what seems like a bad business decision, Isberg has had a steady influx of new customers from word of mouth and he says that most people leave a fair payment. He further argues that he’s able to go against the grain because “most restaurants, you’re paying a lot more because of wasted time, energy and food”. Despite being a widely accepted system for restaurants, Isberg effectively increased his efficiency and brought constant novelty to his business by undesigning against the system.

Design is all about planning and organization and in certain cases, it can be more detrimental than helpful. Like ying and yang, undesign should be an important facet of both the design process and considerations in order to achieve a more holistic approach to problem solving. Undesign can also act as a prevention tool by forcing designers to think critically and address potential problems to come. By embracing undesign, designers harness a wider toolset in tackling the problems of excess that we are faced with as a society today. Or perhaps in a more pleasant sense, undesigning or unplanning and leaves more room for spontaneity and opens life up to the surprises that make life more interesting.

undesign minimalism design critical

Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

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What kind of product do you need to pitch to raise a million dollars in funding? Apparently nowadays, an app solely dedicated to sending the message ‘Yo’ is enough. What the fuck? You’re thinking. Yeah. But wait, think about this, are you really in that much shock? I mean, we live in a time where society has embraced platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat. Is it really so shocking that an app that JUST sends the message ‘Yo’ got funded?  Not anymore.

Investors simply can’t rely on their past criterion of practicality and usefulness in predicting the potential success of digital products anymore. Affordances provided by products that seem benign and trivial to the older crowd are embraced by the younger generation; in part due to the mindset of anarchy and a rebellion against traditional values that permeates the attitudes of teenagers and young adults. As a result, we gravitate towards novelty. Which means investors now invest into products based off of its novelty and its potential for going viral.

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This obsession with novelty has both positive and negative implications. On one hand, we are more accepting and open to new ideas than ever before. Take for example the funding of the potato salad party on kickstarter. The guy was merely trying to raise $10.00 on kickstarter to make some potato salad, instead he ended up raising $55,000 in crowd funding…enough to host a potato salad party. The novelty lies in the request of a simple task on a platform known for crowdfunding more serious endeavors such as startups and humanitarian causes. And while the success of this request may seem absurd and outrageous, it goes to demonstrate the significant allure of novelty or ‘hipsterness’ to society currently. And it’s also pretty damn awesome that we live in day and age where people can come together to support quirky causes like the pursuit of potato salad.

However, novelty for the sake of novelty and the pursuit of virality is dangerous. By focusing so heavily on novelty, we blind ourselves to the value and potential within the tried and true. For example, if investors refuse to invest in a product that is a significant improvement over its competitors simply because it’s not innovative enough. Or the fact that yes, $55,000 could probably be put to better use for cancer research or feeding the homeless but we don’t support these causes as heavily because they’re not novel to us anymore. Money talks. Who or what we choose to invest in will determine the types of products and companies that enter the world. These products and corporations will then shape and influence the society we become. Let’s make sure we think about putting our money where our mouth is.

investment tech kickstarter potatosalad crowdfunding design society viral novel novelty yo app

Parrot, a voice controlled text to speech email reader to make your commute to work a little more productive. Try it out at goparrot.me (must be in chrome browser)

Designed and made at Hack the North, a hackathon in Waterloo

voicetospeech wittai app design ux ui commute