This piece is part of a Collaborative Fund-curated series on creativity and values written by thought leaders in the for-profit, for-good business space.
Creative thinkers and doers, particularly those in the field of design are gaining increasing attention in part because the mainstream is becoming more aware of their ability to solve real problems beyond aesthetics. By connecting the dots in unique ways, they can find answers to difficult questions and challenges. But finding answers to questions isn’t where the role of design should stop. We must examine the questions themselves and consider how the principles that guide our decisions end up shaping the world.
Just the fact that we are living, breathing human beings interacting with other people and our environment changes the world bit by bit every day. And the things we make have an even larger impact on the world. They have the potential to continue to exist beyond our lifetimes, to be reused and built upon. If we make things on the web, they can have massive ripple effects, literally touching millions, if not billions, of lives. The digital world’s impact on the physical world grows stronger every day--both on the human emotional level and on the global economic scale. As makers, we have a responsibility to question and consider how the things we make affect individual people’s lives and society as a whole.
At Everest, where we’re building an iPhone app for people to live their dreams and achieve personal goals, we believe there’s no separation between creating a better self and a better world. This belief informs everything we do--and it’s the reason why we are creating Everest in the first place. We’ve formed a vision of the world as it could be and made our decisions based on that vision. Let’s take one simple question to serve as an example: Do we really want to push the world into a direction where most of our time is spent sitting in one place staring at a glowing rectangle?
For reasons that can be rationalized, many products on the web have been trying to devise ways to drive further engagement and increase the amount of time people spend using their product. Designers are often responsible for finding solutions to this challenge, and they’re frequently successful, but the problem is that many of these solutions are not aligned with some kind of bigger vision. I’ll avoid pointing the finger, but considering that many of these web services drive engagement in a way that doesn’t create any real satisfaction for the person using the service or any apparent value for society, I think it’s safe to say that these engagement methods are time vacuums.
Given how much time we spend in our inbox and on various social platforms, it seems as though these services are quickly becoming locations where we spend our time rather than tools we use to perform specific actions.
If we’re going to encourage people to inhabit the environments we create, then we have to acknowledge that in the same way that real-estate developers, architects, and interior designers hold a responsibility for making spaces that are safe for our physical bodies, the makers of the web hold a responsibility for making online spaces that nurture our mind and spirit. As Jonathan Harris once said: "We cherish our capitals, cathedrals, museums, monuments, and parks, but who will build structures of this stature in the digital world?"
Going back to our original question, I personally feel as though consumer digital technology is not yet at a point where it provides experiences that are as rich and deep as the physical world. I’m also convinced that humans can’t possibly do their best work while sitting almost perfectly still, especially since many of us are kinesthetic thinkers. What if designing on computers felt more like carving a piece of wood with a knife? This is probably a topic for another day, but devices like the Kinect keep me optimistic. All these observations about digital technology contribute to a belief that technology should be used in a way that supplements and leverages our human behavior instead of trying to replace it.
This principle has informed a lot of the decisions we’ve made with Everest, a simple example being that we’re choosing to launch on mobile over web because we want people to use the product while they get out into the world and actually do things. Would we ever create a web or analog experience? Possibly. If a medium allows us to create something that fulfills our purpose, then it’s in the cards but right now mobile suits our vision best.
Let’s take a look at a couple other examples of how purpose can guide decisions around what people decide to make:
Scott Belsky, CEO of Behance, has vision that has transcended boundaries between mediums. Everything he has worked on professionally, whether it be analog tools, a conference, a book, and or at least three different successful web products and platforms, are all self-evidently aligned with his vision of organizing the creative world.
Kickstarter is another great example of alignment between purpose and implementation. It’s developed a business model that fits perfectly with their mission of funding creativity. Kickstarter’s profitability is directly correlated to how many projects get funded through its platform. Since its vision is ultimately about getting people to do things in the real world, they’ve also so far avoided designing engagement methods that are addictive time sucks.
Before Jonathan Harris set out to create Cowbird, a storytelling platform with the long-term vision of being a public library for human experience, it seemed as though he passionately felt that much of the web lacked focus and depth. When you visit Cowbird today, you’re presented with a user interface where single images take up your entire screen, encouraging you to focus on contributors’ deeply personal stories. The focused layout was directly influenced by his belief that the web needs deeper experiences.
Keenan Cummings, the creative director and co-founder of Wander, believes that, if given the right tools, people are capable of remarkable self-expression. Keenan sees Wander as a way for people to express themselves through the places they’ve been and the places they dream of. As a result, he’s placed extra effort toward enabling users to do this in a beautiful way, which can be shared across their own network.
In a casual conversation with me, Fitocracy’s CEO, Brian Wang, told me that a central part of the mission at Fitocracy is to empower people, which involves growing people’s confidence. Decidedly, users not only receive badges to celebrate their achievements and give each other "props," but the copywriting across the product is clearly intended to build self-esteem. For example, the site greeting reads, "Looking good today, tiger," while the button you have to press in order to submit a completed workout is labeled "I’m awesome."
Lastly, Rachel Nash, the design lead at Timehop, which gives people daily email recapping what their life was like one year ago, says her design decisions are driven by a principle she calls "joy in familiarity." She wants to create a product that feels like an old friend. As a result, the colors she uses are bright, warm, and faded like a well-worn book. Timehop is also known for its peppy one-liners, which appear consistently and serve no "functional" purpose other than adding a layer of personality. As Rachel explains, they take great care to try to preserve the humanity in social media.
As creators of websites that aim to empower others, our guiding principles inform all of our decisions, from the colors and typefaces we communicate with to the business models and engagement methods we develop. Our choices should simply be based on what’s most effective at pushing our vision forward.
Knowing how to solve problems is important, but it isn’t enough. We’re capable of something greater than that, and for that reason alone, we owe it to ourselves and the world to strive for more. As ex-Apple designer Bret Victor once wrote, "The True Way transcends the minutiae of Skill. There is no ‘Technology.’ There is no ‘Design.’ There is only a vision of how mankind should be, and the relentless resolve to make it so. The rest is details."