There are a handful of moments that punctuate time and experience into before and after. For me, learning to program a computer was one of those. Tedious commands punched out line by line; careful punctuation and tight structure. The cursor hovers over “run” — you click and there’s a tingly feeling as the computer becomes, briefly, something else. It's still a grey box but now it has become powerful and I am powerful along with it.
I am part of that generation of people for whom childhood straddled the online and offline worlds. We grew up offline — you could dial in to the internet but if someone picked up the home phone you’d get abruptly yanked back into the real world. It was tedious enough to dial back in that you generally just ran outside to throw rocks at something until it got dark. But we entered adulthood with a remarkable understanding of technology, fluency with the internet, and awareness of how our world was changing along with it. I think it’s partly for this reason that when I look around I don’t see any of our circumstances as inevitable, or hopeless — our world has been remade once, and surely we can do it again.
Anyway — back to the story — all of this computer stuff was very cerebral, very left-brain and geekish. Computer as a cold but potent tool. And then another one of those moments showed up, unexpectedly. I saved up and bought my first Mac. Brought it home, opened the lid, hit the power. I was fumbling with a hard drive getting ready to transfer all my stuff over, but then something happened. Woah. What on earth was that. I’d never seen anything like that before — didn’t know that was something a computer could be made to do. Drama, thrill, emotion. I didn’t know what to make of this at the time, but I knew I had just seen something important.
I have come to believe that all great design grows from an understanding of the human experience, and is fundamentally emotional at its core. It begins with sensitivity, instinct, curiosity, mystery, imagination. It does not begin in Figma or even on the computer at all. If you can't imagine your technology in a children’s story, then you're probably not building technology for humans. This knowledge is heartening to me, and gives me hope.
I’ll share one more before-and-after moment with you. This one is the most important. In college I was working on a startup company, doing computer-ish things for them. This was in the ancient times, so long ago that we were using the word “cameraphone” a lot. Anyway, I had created a detailed specification for a new feature — exactly how it should behave, complete with architecture diagrams, pseudocode — the whole thing. One of the people over there kept asking me if I could just do a quick “mockup” — this really started to annoy me as I had been very precise with my spec, and I had no earthly idea what this guy was after.
Finally: “we need a mockup of the UI — what it will look like from the user’s point of view.” I squinted my eyes and processed this and then it hit me — first slowly and then all at once. He wanted a picture — a drawing — not from the perspective of the computer, but from the point of view of the human on the other end. I didn’t know that was a thing, let alone a job. Time cleaved in two again and I saw the image in my mind: the computer on one end, the human on the other, and I was in-between. I had no idea how to actually do what he was asking for but I figured…a little picture of the UI? How hard could it be…
That moment was nearly twenty years ago, and I never looked back. Working with design to shape new technologies and human experiences is a dream job, and I think it's why I am here. I try my best to not be ironic and self-deprecating about this—I take my job seriously and I work very hard at it. I still can’t believe I get paid to do it. Sure beats working for a living.
Of course now the grey box is gone. The computer, what we’ve made of it, is bigger than us all and we live inside it, moving through it each day. There isn’t an offline. The job of the designer is to wade through all this – to find the human out there on the other end — and look after them. The future of technology and the future of humans can no longer be considered separately — for better and worse we are in it together now, so it’s time to get serious. You’re all serious people out there, aren’t you?
A future is pulling into view: what I see is one fueled by creativity, power, and the fullest possibility of human connection. I believe in this future because we have nowhere else to go — and I invite you to join me in it.