13 June 2018

“Woe to the thinker who is not the gardener but only the soil of the plants that grow in him.1

The first half of grad school was spent adjusting to the rigors of a demanding program (stress dandruff), learning a new city (finding the cheapest beer, RIP King of Thai), and oscillating between denying that I ever had to choose a thesis topic and staring at a wall wishing an idea for one into being. As the time to announce and present a topic crept closer, Phil Hamlett, our program director, introduced a framework that I still think about a lot:

If I don’t _________, then the people of _________ will never be able to _________.

It’s a great place to start because it requires answers to important questions: Who is this for? What are they trying to accomplish? How can I help them accomplish it? I use it at the beginning of projects or when I’m feeling stuck, and it helps me remember that sometimes it doesn’t matter where you start, only that you start. Answer those questions, see if the answers fit together, refine, ask better questions.

Which is great, and that’s how I use it now, but. BUT. When this was introduced to me, the goal was to help my figure out a MFA thesis topic in an academic setting where my success was the focus, and the big neon arrow of my ego was always pointing at me me me me me.

From that perspective, the world started to look like one big problem that only I was equipped to solve: How will I The Designer, who calls worlds into being and solves the woes of the universe with a flick of the pen tool and a wink, save the teeming masses? Who is worthy to receive my genius and highly-curated GIF collection? <cackles, taps fingertips together lightly, sits at head of an idiotically long conference table>

But here’s the thing, and it took me a long time to learn this (and sometimes I still forget), the most important part isn’t “If I don’t” but rather “the people of.” It’s not about you, guy. That top-down design dogma is pretty common and it orbits Kristy Tillman’s idea of “design imperialism,2” a phrase I like a lot.

Making the design process less accessible to the people that will use the thing you’re making is a great way to fail before you start. Relationship-building and listening are required for a meaningful engagement.

Yes, I have skills and can bring value to lots of different types of projects, but seeing myself as separate from the people that are trying to use something or accomplish a task (users, students, readers, veterans, differently-abled people) only takes everyone involved further away from a helpful, useful solution.

Phil knew all of this, but he also knew that you can’t weed someone’s mental garden for them. You can just show them how to sharpen pruning shears. 

1 Sorry to add to the ranks of bearded-bespeckled-cis-hetero-white guys starting their blog with a Nietzsche quote, but it feels relevant. And as big of a creep as he was, it’s a good quote.

2 From her interview on Jeff Veen’s podcast Presentable.

Helpful reminder from Radical Co-op.