Effective Design Has A Soul

Character sketch by Eddie Peña. Drawn at age 14 (left), drawn at age 17 (center), drawn at age 35 (right).

Character sketch by Eddie Peña. Drawn at age 14 (left), drawn at age 17 (center), drawn at age 35 (right).

Eddie Peña on Why Experience Pushes Us Further

Did you know that Sesame Street characters have birthdays? To Jim Henson artists, the astrological signs of fictional characters are crucial pieces of information. When they set out to design a new character, they begin with data: non-visual bits and pieces of story and background that will inspire the artists who are building the puppet.

At this point, it’s almost a cliche to say that good design is created from large bodies of research. But I think it’s worth exploring exactly what that means, and why discovery is so vital to what we do.

For some artists, it isn’t. Some artists think of an entire visual product all at once. They envision a complete image and then transfer it, unblemished and undistorted, directly to a piece of paper. When I was younger, I thought this was the ideal: that an artist should be like a sorcerer conjuring up a perfect object from thin air.

The word inspiration comes from a latin word meaning “to breathe life into”, and that’s what good research allows designers to do.

But for most designers, the process is almost the opposite. A piece of work, whether it’s an illustration for a children’s book or a minimalist user interface, is made up of hundreds of individual strokes, curves, angles and proportions. Each of those things is created one-by-one, piece-by-piece, as thousands of tiny decisions are made, unmade, and revised.

With experience, it gets easy for a designer to make all those choices automatically. It doesn’t take a lot of effort for a veteran to make something beautiful and serviceable. But when something is designed unconsciously, however beautiful it might be, it feels dead. Things made this way usually fail to make a connection with an audience. Anything well-designed should be empathetic: it should care about the needs of a real living person who’s going to interact with it. Effective design has a soul.

And that’s what Jim Henson puppeteers are up to when they create little biographies for their puppets: they are reminding themselves that these characters are alive, and that they are being made for a living audience. The word inspiration comes from a latin word meaning “to breathe life into”, and that’s what good research allows designers to do. When each of those strokes and curves and angles is drawn mindfully, with inspiration, it creates something that feels alive, and something that resonates with the living, breathing users who interact with it.

For us at ProjectEd, that inspiration comes from the living, breathing educators we work for. The tenets of Human-Centered Design drive us to do the disciplined work required to constantly remind ourselves that our users are human beings. It drives us to talk to teachers, administrators and students, to conduct surveys, to read studies, and to fill our heads with the human wants and dreams that our work is trying to fulfil.

The artists of ProjectEd are always trying to go a little deeper. To learn a little more. Together, we have over 150 years of education experience. We know what teachers are used to. We know what parents expect. We know the difference between what a 4th grader wants and what a 6th grader wants. But instead of using that as an excuse to stop learning, we use it as an opportunity to go deeper. Our experience allows us to move beyond the simple questions and basic observations we made about teachers and students early in our careers. Because experience alone is never enough. It’s discovery, that jarring feeling of incorporating new information into our worldview, that breathes life into our work and prevents automation.

We have to notice the nuances of what our users ask for. We need to reach out to new sorts of users. We have to ask surprising questions. So far we haven’t felt compelled to ask anybody whether they’re a Pisces or an Aquarius, but if it worked for Jim Henson, we won’t rule it out just yet.