Liz Danzico is part designer, part educator, and part editor. In her practice, she cultivates design and user-centered programs through collaborative methods in education, in digital design, and in technology to foster positive change. She is co-founder and chair of the MFA in Interaction Design Program at the School of Visual Arts. She is an independent consultant, working with businesses on design, planning, and execution of short- and long-term digital programs for global companies and nonprofit organizations. She is advisor to startups, nonprofits, and global companies alike and frequent lecturer. She has written for design-minded publications, including Eye Magazine, Fortune Magazine, Interactions Magazine, and writes part of her time at bobulate.com.
You can follow her @bobulate.
The perfect year
In 1979, I sucked up a crucifix. Schlawapffk is the sound it makes, FYI, when the special gift of a First Communion necklace disappears into the head of a 1970 Electrolux Deluxe Automatic 1205 vacuum.
It was an unassuming piece of jewelry, the kind that decorates not dictates Catholicism. Its delicate 14-karat gold choker nearly invisible, letting the cross pendant do its thing.
But then it happened. In a moment of what I would like to remember as devout responsibility, but was in fact a young me rocking out to a boombox while vacuuming my pink shag bedroom carpet, I knocked it off the dresser. And in one fell swish of wand and nozzle, all was lost.
It took me years to get up the courage to tell my parents about that necklace. What would they think of me if they knew? Just like it took me years to tell them that our hamster didn’t just die a natural death, but fell to her death one morning when I was trying to give her a hug before school. Et cetera.
What if they found out I wasn’t perfect? What if they knew I’d lost myself in music so deeply that I got carried away? If they knew I’d loved an animal so immensely that I wanted to be close to her. What then?
And henceforth imperfect aversion began. Better if I kept these things, and all to myself.
Imperfection protection is a training regimen that requires constant attention. Let your guard down (fall in love, get lost, be in awe, get distracted) and your guard is down, susceptible to attack. Even after years of practice, pruning, trimming, training, the armor is vulnerable. The typos slip through. The hem shows. The human is.
More years and many regimens later, I can confidently say I’ve lived the most imperfect year on record. 2013 was a year of loss and tragedy. But it was also a year of honesty. Of saying what is. And of owning up to not being perfect.
Of course, much sooner than 2013, my family learned of the necklace, the hamster. What came of it wasn’t nearly what I had expected, but instead support and a profound connection.
Like the things we intend to be, but never are quite that, the things we do, but never fall quite right, these systems are ever in motion. And the key is not to focus on what is, but to be a participant in the exploration of change. The what is in motion. To be present through transformation. Imperfection is a constant. Look and listen for it, as it usually means you’re getting close.
On dogs, or 25,000 conversations with strangers
Nearly 14 years ago—not long after I settled in New York City—I got my first dog and have had one ever since. And even though there are many ways to give advice, all the best advice I’ve gained, I’ve gained by observing my dogs. So, from my dogs to you, a list of five pieces of advice:
- Everyone has a story, and everyone is a potential playmate.
I walk my dog at least five times/day. And not a walk goes by that I don’t have a conversation with a stranger. About something, anything. I figure that in the last 14 years, if I’ve had at least five walks + conversations/day—that’s over 25,000 with strangers. Wow. (And New Yorkers turn out to be some intriguing people.) So embrace everyone. Know that everyone has something interesting to share.
- Some animals are mean. Avoid them.
As much as it’s useful to embrace everyone, some animals are just plain mean. Avoid them. Follow your (animal) instincts and surround yourself with humans and animals who make you feel positive and loved and inspired.
- Size up an idea, then throw yourself into it.
For her first four months, my current dog and I would visit the lake in our local park, Prospect Park. Carefully, she would study it—what was this magical smooth surface? How were other dogs using it? What was this wet thing that happened to them after they emerged from the lake? She was sizing up the situation. One day without warning, she threw herself into the deep part and did the most earnest doggie paddle she could. Try it: do the right amount of research, just enough, then just throw your weight behind an idea. If you have to do the doggie paddle at first, so be it.
- Roll in the grass whenever possible.
Work hard. But embrace pleasure. Roll around in the pleasure.
- When you love something, share it. Show it. Bring it everywhere. Put a leash on it. Hold its hand in public.
These animals, in big and small ways, have changed my life. Animals of all kinds will come and go in your life. Love them fiercely and madly—and when you see a good field, get down in the grass and roll.
Lastly, the unintended lesson of these lessons is always be prepared to be surprised. I had the pleasure of giving this advice as part of Creative Mornings fifth birthday celebration, a tremendous event to celebrate a half decade of tremendous events, alongside some inspiring people. The smooth partnership I’d imagined on stage didn’t unfold exactly as I had planned. But that’s about right, isn’t it? Always be prepared to be surprised. You may just surprise yourself.
A short history of my long workout
Analytics recently captured:
- Miles scrolled on my work mouse: 542
- Miles scrolled on my home mouse: 1,213
- Miles scrolled on the Apple Mighty Mouse: 1,401
- Miles scrolled on the Apple Magic Mouse: 354
- Miles scrolled on the Apple Magic Trackpad: n/a
- Miles scrolled on the iPod Classic: 2,384
- Miles swiped on the iPad: 79
- Miles swiped on iOS 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 combined: .032
- Miles swiped on iOS 7: 463
- Miles scrolled on the iPod Classic: 901
- Miles scrolled on the iPod Shuffle: 2
- Miles scrolled on the iPod Touch: 0
- Miles retraced using the browser back button: 84
- Miles lost to the infinite scroll: ∞
It was a glass box. A house in deep woods. It was remote. It was designerly on the interior, animaled on the exterior. It was mine—for a summer. It was two summers ago, and it was intended for critical project studies. “I’m spending the summer upstate,” I would say, as some New Yorkers do. “To write. To play music.” “Where, again?” they would repeat, not being familiar with this particular breed of remote. They’d tick off train stations as I shook my head. No, this was not those. No, this was a remote summer alone from the city, designed to “Make Projects.” And off I went, trailing instruments and sewing devices and writing material and dog. Yet sixty days later, I was back in the city. And just like that, it was over.
The remote remote
What people who make things know is that ideas fold you in a remote space—inside a cabin, at a writer’s corral, inside your head, at a coffee shop—then ideas press you back out into the world, rubbing your eyes on your behalf. To have an idea is to, at some point, retreat into quietude. With you is the material of the world, the people, their exchanges, the sound of footsteps, the thing people do when they get together, their life sounds. You fold those into your pocket as you fold yourself into your space. And the making begins.
The road leading to the summer house was windy, punctuated with weathered signs. “National Scenic Bypass,” you could make out, barely, on the days it wasn’t raining. The signs, proud proclamations once, were threadbare from weather, as this particular bypass of beautiful that I had chosen to live on was cursed with weather. The deep-mountain woods kind.
Expansive river views, long motorcycle roads, sunsets and rises, farmers’ markets, endless woods—these quickly lose their charm when it rains. Particularly for weeks at a time. Satellite internet, too, loses its certain magical property once rain and storms come. Power too goes down. So many days, I would sit, “making projects,” with neither power nor internet.
Within a week, the project became just surviving. “Light!” That was a project. “Survived my first tornado...” “Rattlesnake!” These “challenges,” though, as challenging as they were, may not have stood between my creative project-making so distinctly if I had been listening.
“To hear is to let the sound wander all the way through the labyrinth of your ear; to listen is to travel the other way to meet it. It’s not passive but active, this listening. It’s as though you retell each story, translate it into the language particular to you, fit it into your cosmology so you can understand and respond, and thereby it becomes part of you. The word empathy originally meant feeling into, and to empathize is to reach out to meet the data that comes through the labyrinths of the senses. To enter into, we say, as though another person’s life was also a place you could travel to.” 1
Rather than listening to the city, I left it. I didn’t meet the urban data halfway, making it part of me, but packed it up and moved its shells upstate. As it turns out, my material is urban. It’s loud, and it’s messy. It has feet and wheels and voices and opinions. It’s anti-pastoral. And without it, I have nothing to create against.
Ideas need material to draw upon first, and a place to draw them out second. And to take hold, ideas, like people, need a home.
What people who do write do understand
Woody Allen recently:
What people who don’t write don’t understand is that they think you make up the line consciously — but you don’t. It proceeds from your unconscious. So it’s the same surprise to you when it emerges as it is to the audience when the comic says it. I don’t think of the joke and then say it. I say it and then realize what I’ve said. And I laugh at it, because I’m hearing it for the first time myself.
Whenever I find myself in a bout of nonwriting (not writer’s block per se, but an extended period of nonwritingness), I know it’s this. Not a lack of ideas, not a lack of the right space to write, the right drink, the right order, the right methods, the proper instrument, not a deficit of time. It’s simply my conscious getting in the way. I would be better off saying things more wildly, then looking at what I’d said. Do first, think later; many things can benefit from this method — falling in love, taking your first job, speaking up for what you believe in. Write first, think later. Repeat.
United States as Platform
We live in a world system increasingly characterized by illicit networks of criminal and political power that foster Crime as a Service or Terror as a Service. As such, what would the United States look like as a provider of Liberty As Service?
The connected, fragmented, evermore complex world makes efforts to “control” outcomes through predictive policy controls—in a centralized way—extraordinarily difficult. It seems policy could take on a more modern approach through design principles and global platform access.
How might the international policy of the United States change if we conceived of the United States not so much as a nation, but as a global platform for services to an international community of countries, people, and institutions? What does it mean to be a platform for liberty in the 21st Century?
While the United States is not a platform in the software sense, it does have powerful platform capacities—from its global military and humanitarian reach to its global institutions of finance and learning, to its relationships to global communities throughout the world. Could we secure benefit by framing these capacities in broader platform terms?
If we imagined the global platform more expressly through liberal platform concepts like freedom of religion, freedom of choice, freedom of expression, freedom of commerce; or more generally openness, interoperability, fairness, self-determination, and economic opportunity, we could secure and evolve sustainable benefits to ourselves and our nation. One would have to believe that by securing these benefits to a global participating system of people, institutions, and governments, there would be a net benefit to what we currently think of as the nation.
To guide our security and prosperity, we need to identify design principles that improve the reach and usefulness of the United States as Platform measured as user benefits: openness, interoperability, self-determination, and economic opportunity for global participants with the United States.
It seems worthwhile to imagine our policy system in this way given the likely shape of the networked future of the world: The United States as Platform.
Written in collaboration with Richard Tyson
Empty. Finished. I drag the pen point over the paper, and it tugs the surface with it. The pen, formerly of no particular importance or consequence, is out of ink. Spent, it no longer translates gesture to paper.
This, an ordinary event, doesn’t ordinarily turn heads. Yet this everyday ballpoint and I have made it, together, for months. Through airport security and droning meetings, through bags and pockets. It’s persisted. And, ultimately, triumphed as it has shown up here today, doing the last bit of what it was intended to do. What it intended to do.
How often do we see empty? Threadbare? Erosion? Patina? We subvert it — when we’re not intentionally designing it — aiming to finish our products’ sentences and anticipate objects’ needs, replacing them before they’re obsolete or worn.
There’s something to be said for showing up to finish what you started. Perhaps it’s a communication of commitment, of consistency, of gratitude. But when two parties show up to start a job and finish, still together, it’s rare. And beautiful. A perfectly dotted i.
Full of empty.
On design writing
Guidance about design is often situated in other disciplines. In texts about writing, for instance, are wise words about design. By way of example, some of my favorites follow (I’ve replaced “writing” and its forms with “[designing]”):
[Designers] get so fixated on the mechanics of [design] that they forget how much they can learn from the other arts about line and the uses of space. Good [design], like a good watch, should have no unnecessary parts, and that’s what great art shouts at us: Tell the story with no unnecessary parts.
I’d like to [design] something that comes from things the way wine comes from grapes.
[Designing]—I can really only speak to [designing] here—always, always only starts out as shit: an infant of monstrous aspect; bawling, ugly, terrible, and it stays terrible for a long, long time (sometimes forever). Unlike cooking, for example, where largely edible, if raw, ingredients are assembled, cut, heated, and otherwise manipulated into something both digestible and palatable, [designing] is closer to having to reverse-engineer a meal out of rotten food.
[Design] to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your [design] will get pneumonia.
My ignorance is essential. I do not [design] what I know but what I need to know.
You’re a [designer] — or an artist — or you’re not. It sounds harsh, but, seriously, not everyone’s wired for this stupid life. If you think you are, then you have to [design] around the block. Anything that takes your fancy. Just get words happening. The rest will follow. Best of luck.
I’m not asking you to come reverently or unquestioningly; I’m not asking you to be politically correct or case aside your sense of humor (please God you have one). This isn’t a popularity context, it’s not the moral Olympics, and it’s not church. But it’s [designing], damn it, not washing the car or putting on eyeliner. If you can take it seriously, we can do business. If you can’t or won’t, it’s time for you to close the book and do something else.
Wash the car, maybe.
Try substituting the word “design” for “writing” in any passage, and you may instantly have new words of wisdom.
Inexactitude: the dead spot is the new hotspot.
The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite. Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians. It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is; its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden; its wildness lies in wait. —Gilbert Keith Chesterton
They were right. As they’d predicted two decades ago in 2013, half of humanity now lives in cities with nearly 60 percent of our world’s population as urban dwellers. Cities have not only grown in size and population, their very interface has changed.
Back then, citizens were enthusiastic about the layered effect of our data so we could search, sort, friend, follow, retrieve, and archive it in the interest of exactitude. Google, Twitter, Foursquare were changing technology—which is to say, culture. These, and more, increased the opportunity for specificity as they decreased the chance for serendipity.
But humans grew uncomfortable. Things got smarter. Time sped up and time compressed as people became more informed, more efficient, more connected, faster. While the rise of the slow (at first, slow food, then slow web, slow cities) began as rhetoric, it took as a movement.
With more inhabitants than ever before, cities had become not a place for human interaction, but for precise location and retrieval. Entering addresses and finding exact points on the map (with recommended walk/drive/transit directions!) left little up to chance. As humans found more, they had less. Media inventors of any notoriety launched apps and services that provided shortcuts: shortcuts to getting lost, shorthand for privacy, short forms of disconnecting.
Meantime, undigital became luxury. Spas, once islands of tranquility and beauty, became islands of undigital luxury goods. Free “off the grid service” services sold out. This pastoral new concord has had an effect. Humans choose longer lines, the slow lane, practice inexact query formation. Because without the slow, the good was not recognizable.
The divide between the connected and unconnected continues to demonstrate an economic discord: those living comfortably are also living un-connectedly. Unubiquitious computing demands have inspired developers to rush to build unconnected communities. The new connected is to be disconnected. Deadspots are the new hotspots.
Moving toward is moving away, and hence, the notion of density and progress has changed. It’s our job to pause, coordinate, and design opportunities for chance.
In the future, you have access to all your data. Memory, or the lack thereof, is no longer discussed. It is only assumed, a feature of modern life, since you can now relive all your past data as experiences. But because of “technical constraints,” all of your experiences are taxonomized and merged for ease of efficiency/retrieval. To access your past, then, is to relive each experience—in real time, all at once. You begin:
You spend seven weeks holding your iPhone to your ear on hold.
You pull and pull to refresh for seven months, click to refresh for nine.
You miss 30 Thanksgiving dinners restarting your laptop.
12 Valentine’s Days restarting your iPhone.
You swipe past iPad ads for 48 hours before ever seeing content.
You deliberate for two hours clicking the back button.
You waste four hours feeling guilty about not accepting invitations.
You go nine whole months accepting LinkedIn recommendations.
Six months seeing who’s followed you on Twitter.
One hour clicking away from ads you clicked accidentally.
For two months you stare at your browser default page.
You power through eight years of anxiety trying to unfriend people on Facebook.
You hunch over your desk for seven months downloading unregistered software.
Three straight weeks stealing someone else’s WiFi.
You tell friends you’re “off the grid” for 48 hours.
You scroll through Twitter for one year without clicking a single link.
There are 16 days you missed the point when your calls are dropped through AT&T.
And 14 hours of confusion as you try to work Skype video.
Three years of watching YouTube videos.
Sixty-five minutes liking.
Forty hours tapping.
Ninety-seven whole days right clicking.
You spend fourteen whole days without contact as you stare at the fail whale.
Three days confused as you update your WordPress install.
Two years behind updating your iPhone apps.
Seventeen months with strained eyes while you debug code.
Two years cursing Adobe Creative Suite.
You spend six months with slumped shoulders as you click “forgot password?”.
You reflect on older times. Passwords were forgotten once, and forgotten again—the next day, the next week, the next month. The thought seems idyllic. A life where small errors are experienced in lovely, small scales—one at a time.
This essay and its form taken from and inspired by David Eagleman’s Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives
ON DOG HAIR
There it was as persistent as it had always been. A stubborn, short, quiet hair on the arm of my jacket this afternoon. My hand went up to brush it away, and then it stopped. Routine interrupted.
There it was, although several weeks before, my beloved red dog had peacefully passed away. My closest companion of 12 years had once shed — generously and unadulteratedly — across the things of my life. And while she was gone, here: her trademark hair still stood.
How lucky I had been for the red hair. How lucky I had been for the loyalty two companion animals provide: commingled, intertwined, co-habitated. Shedding upon one another our lives such that when we went back into the world, we had these small red badges of courage.
In our dozen years together, this animal taught me more about being a person than any person I’ve known. Importantly:
- Learn at least one impressive trick.
- Shake when wet.
- When off the leash, it is best to run to a loved one.
- Accept treats from strangers energetically yet cautiously.
- Roll in grass whenever possible.
- Wonderful things can sometimes be found in the trash.
- Barking is a last resort.
- Know when the right time is to let go of what you love.
- True life partners do exist.
Lucy passed away November 15, 2012. The loss devastated me so deeply and personally that I couldn’t speak of it at all. Now, I think back on what I have been known to say, “When in doubt, trust the one covered in dog hair.” Trust them, and know they’re carrying badges of much more.
How lucky we are if we have known dog hair.