The Passionate Thoughts of Jessica Helfand

jessica-helfandBy Ken Gordon 

The things Jessica Helfand says! “Subscribing to design as an endorsement for good limits our ability to truly affect change, because it’s a fundamentally hollow take on what’s real,” she might announce. Or: “I confess I always cringe at buzzwords, and “human-centric” probably tops the list. (As opposed to what, one wonders: ‘appliance-centric’? ‘pet-centric’?)”

Helfand, the co-founder of the venerable Design Observer, a professor at Yale, and the author of the superlative new book Design: The Invention of Desire, has an enviable supply of smart, provocative thoughts on design.

She’s unafraid to question design dogma, pick apart jargon, investigate the motives and pretentions and good humanistic impulses of the field. I was lucky enough to bump into her online, and when I started peppering her with questions on Twitter, as I read her latest volume, Helfand was mighty generous in responding. So when we finally got to meet offline, in mid-November, we already had much to talk about. Afterwards, we engaged in some Google Doc-based Q&A and she responded to my questions with an undeniable wit and an unflagging passion. Scroll down, and you’ll see exactly what I mean….

Ken Gordon: “Trained designers, concentrating rigorously on the eloquence of form, bring their talents to a broad spectrum of goods and services that both serve and delight us, but it is hard to imagine such contributions counting on a global scale until we require design students to study a second language, or read books outside the design canon, or understand the rudiments of genetics,” you write. How far away is design education from the humanities? How well would the paragraph above play in design schools? My sense is that both faculty and students would be at least somewhat resistant to it, but frankly I’m just guessing here.

Jessica Helfand: Let me say that while I personally benefitted, many years back, from a robust and disciplined design education, I question some of it in light of the kinds of challenges we’re all facing (and future generations—ergo, my students—will face even more). Discipline aside, there’s more to consider, and a great deal more to learn about and understand than what the studio can teach us. If design has any hope of becoming absorbed—indeed, elevated—as a humanist discipline, it has to embrace more than studio practice, more than the “maker” skillsets we (and I include myself here) love and cling to. One of the things I am learning by teaching in a business school (and in particular, from the organizational behavior faculty, many if not all of whom trained in psychology) is the importance of listening, the critical value of patience—the time it takes to hear, digest, discern, and respond. Designers have long prided themselves on their role(s) as communicators, but the kind of real, two-way reciprocity that characterizes interpersonal exchange suggests we know a bit more about the world beyond our own little piece of it.

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Pages from Helfand’s The Invention of Desire

KG: This sentence kind of blew me away: “Design matters because people matter, and the purpose of this book is to examine precisely this proposition: to consider the conscience-driven rules of human engagement within which design must operate.” When it comes to the most popular compound adjectives in the innovation business, one often hears “human-centric” and sometimes “data-driven”—but never (ever, ever) “conscience-driven.” It’s a great jolt, a tonic for someone who lives in the world of HCD—but I want to know how we get it to makes its way off the page into the wider world. Suggestions?

JH: I confess I always cringe at buzzwords, and “human-centric” probably tops the list. (As opposed to what, one wonders: “appliance-centric”? “pet-centric?”) I think it helps to use normal language to express what it is we hope to achieve. The word of statistics and metrics and demographics leads to this kind of spreadsheet approach to normal activities like talking and listening, perceiving and acknowledging—and acting. (Perhaps in the wake of this year’s US Presidential election—given the degree to which so many people felt misled by what turned out to be woefully inaccurate data prognostications—we’ll move away from this position!) Alternatively, maybe power in the twenty-first century will become reframed around a different set of hierarchies. (People first, politics second?) An oversimplification, perhaps—hard to imagine gun lobbyists listening openly to their opponents with any degree of understanding (or, for that matter, the other way round) but when you peel away the layers of partisanship and positioning, you find that the single aspect that unites all of us is, in fact, our humanity. So why not start there and see where it takes us—all of us?

KG: In your book you say that because of metrics “…the average person is swiftly reduced to a digital kit of parts, an involuntary puppet awaiting sentient reconstruction.” How do you get your students to not do this? How do you ensure that they keep themselves whole? Can you help them avoid that kind of atomization?

JH: The purpose of a well-rounded education is to do precisely this—to let the scope of opportunity unmoor you from your expectations, your assumptions, your involuntary biases. I worry when I see young people enthused by the superficial promises of technology—the wealth and success, the celebrity, the power. A wise friend recently pointed out that the world’s most successful businesses do not, in principle, define themselves around a single, unique product, but instead, cast a wider net, seeking a more circumspect definition of culture, values, mission, and more. That kind of discernment is, to me, precisely what education represents. At the undergraduate level, education should not, in principle, be defined as single-minded, or discipline-specific, or restricted to a particular person or process or capacity. Education is about learning to learn—and students should celebrate that. This is the flip side of the kit of parts: it’s the human side, the necessary side: it’s what makes us question ourselves and each other, the bedrock of civilization, of human inquiry. That kind of emotional and intellectual scrutiny is somewhat imperiled in technology-driven culture—where we privilege automation and acceleration, speed and a kind of proxy-driven performance—while arguably, it’s the opposite quality we should nourish and cultivate. And protect.

KG: Totally democratized design, you say, is a problem. “If design now belongs to everyone, can there still be rules—for conduct, for ethics, for those humans around whom we’re supposedly centering things?” The recent election tells us, in letters 10,000 feet tall, that the old rules are over. How does this rejigger what you write in your book?

JH: With regard to the election, I may have pointed toward one solution in your earlier question: our overwhelming (and as it turned out, misguided) reliance on all that predictive data should tell us something. But I worry, too, about the politically correct notion that all ideas are good: much as I support inclusive practices (as a woman and a Jew, how can I not?) what’s getting lost for me is the value of criticism. (Refer to “discernment,” above.) While it levels the playing field (a good thing) it risks minimizing a great idea if it comes out of left field, or from the wrong place or person (not such a good thing). The old rules may be over, but some kind of infrastructure will soon emerge: my concern is not so much with the playbooks (design thinking, which always strikes me as a kind of cooler version of Six Sigma) as with the principles upon which those playbooks are inevitably based. There was a great article by Cliff Kuang in Fast Company recently in which he warned against design’s over-simplification as a badly missed opportunity (and I couldn’t agree more). But simplification is safe, and designers often see themselves as the peacekeepers, the ambassadors of smoothing things over. It’s not clear that this is the best path forward.

Paintings by Helfand, from The Invention of Desire

KG: “Nobody says ‘I don’t know’ anymore, because Google has all the answers,” you say. In some ways, your book feels like an elegy for the idea of humility. Seems to me that your want and/or hope designers to be more humble than ordinary folks… and that you are remarkably sad that this is not the case. Do you feel elegiac?

JH: My cultural shorthand for this book is pretty much exactly that: a plea to trade hubris for humility. And much as I use it as much as anyone, I suspect that social media is a big culprit, here. It’s hugely powerful as a media engine, but the barrier to entry is non-existent, making it possibly the lowest hanging fruit there is. As long as we see the people who are in our corners as our “followers,” we’re doomed, are we not?  It’s tautological and temporary, artificial (and of course, highly addictive). That’s not amity: it’s absurdity.

KG: You write: “All too soon the facility with which visual legitimacy is so swiftly accessible makes it seem as easy to produce an elegant teacup as a convincing terrorist video.” How in the world are we to combat the tyranny of visual legitimacy? (Besides utterly avoiding SnapChat, I mean.) Early social media did much to encourage literacy… and that’s all about to be washed away in a flood of livestreaming and photo filtering. Or is it? Please tell me I’m wrong here…

JH:  The danger, for me, is that most of us are a great deal more likely to act reflexively rather than reflectively. If you add to that the degree to which design so easily confers a kind of false authority, and the fact that young people eagerly deploy their work out into the world without considering the response or consequences of their often complex actions (students of design are at the epicenter of this, in my estimation), then we cede a kind of moral responsibility. This gets back to the ways we are educating our students, which you asked earlier…

KG: “In this humility-poor environment, the idea of disruption appels as a kind of subversive provocation. Much like the denizens of Silicon Valley have been said to favor the expression ‘let’s break shit,’ as shorthand for their own disruptive practices, too many designers think they are innovating when they are merely breaking and entering.” There should be a stitched sampler of this above every designer’s desk.

JH:  Agreed!

KG: I read this and thought instantly of Leon Wieseltier hearing the young new owner of The New Republic using the phrase “let’s break shit.” There’s so much here. A generalized egotism. An anarchic willingness to bust things up. Casual profanity. A mindless disrespect for continuity in general. Have you read Mediated by Tom de Zengotita? He talks about how our culture is now one of the “infinitely flattered self.” That’s the “humility-poor environment” for ya! I know that you’re an educator, so that many of the things you talk about in your book are really about life on campus, and life in the classroom. But I wonder: Is it possible for your words to reach designers working in business right now, and to counteract some of this awful stuff?

JH:  I would like to think that these are questions for all of us. I’m working right now with a brilliant young professor here at Yale who studies corporate identity—not logos or wordmarks, but the values-driven cultures in business that leaders must understand and protect. How, for example, to orchestrate (and honor) individuals within a team, interpersonal specifics against the gestalt of the larger entity? We’re talking about how to work together on this, as I’ve become very interested in what individual identity looks like. (Very much an extension of this: what is visual identity beyond passports and ID cards, rubbed stamped proxies and diplomas?) The flattened-out landscape of social media in general (and selfie culture in particular—I’ve been a pretty vocal critic of that) makes this a fascinating question for us all. (And designers should be thinking about it more.) Add to that the geo-political question of citizenship, issues surrounding immigration, of isolating DNA or identifying one’s parentage, of thorny topics like gender fluidity—and then consider the complex orchestration required of any leader to manage that morass of complexity within an organization, and you realize that identity is less a function of stability than an expression of shifting layers of personal meaning.

KG: “Who are we, any of us, to design the end-of-life experience for ourselves, let alone for someone else?” Part of the power of this book, I think, is the way in which your husband William’s death is embedded it in. It’s a volume empowered, in a way, by grief. I think. Did it feel that way writing it? You seem so concerned with understanding the limits of existence (biological chronological), and of creating an educational context for designers around those limits. At many moments, it felt like his death had kind of emboldened you to say: enough with the nonsense—let’s say it true. In the spirit of confession, this is the first book of yours that I’ve read–they may all be like this—but that’s the sentiment I walked away with when I put it down.

JH:  It is a humbling experience to watch another person’s life wind down—and when that happens at a relatively young age, it is brutal beyond words. That this experience would change me was, perhaps, inevitable: who imagines that they will be widowed, left with children to continue raising, a business to run, a life to reinvent? Navigating a terminal illness alone is unspeakably hard: and I had to navigate it not only for our family but for countless people who saw Bill as a leader—their leader. I went to Paris following his death, and wrote a good portion of the book there—in self-imposed exile—and I suppose it provided me with a period of time to consider some very difficult truths. Design is so often defined as a tool for betterment, which confers a kind of false power, which is ultimately more self-serving than transformative. Subscribing to design as an endorsement for good limits our ability to truly affect change, because it’s a fundamentally hollow take on what’s real. This explains why my book looks through a different kind of lens at qualities like melancholy and patience and solitude. If there’s one lesson this entire experience taught me it’s that there is indeed no light without shadow. Corny, but true.

KG: You write: “Designers often think of themselves as problem solvers: so let’s start solving some problems. The voting may be over, but the work is just beginning.” One of the great glories of The Observatory, your podcast, is that it gives us a wonderful illustration of your friendship with Michael Bierut. The conversation about the election, the story about the texts the day after the election, the stories about your kids… it’s really quite remarkable.  Can you say more about your partnership and how you two plan on getting to work?

JH: My friends at Pentagram—Michael Bierut and Paula Scher, notably—have been a kind of second family for me over the past decade or so. Michael was a founding partner of Design Observer (with me and Bill and the British design critic, Rick Poynor). After Bill died I sold our house and shut down our studio and set out to try and guide DO to the next level: one of the things I did was to suggest we start a podcast, an informal discussion about design and the world (which is what we always tried to do on Design Observer—to cast a wider net on design and a world beyond design). And here we are, 46 episodes later: we have a fantastic producer—Blake Eskin, who among other things, produced the New Yorker Out Loud podcast—and we tape on weekends over Skype and in Garageband, at our respective homes or studios. We’ve been blessed with support from a number of places—MailChimp funded us the entire first year, and we’ve had sponsors ranging from Mohawk to Autodesk to IBM.

And then, about a year ago, I was approached by the Yale School of Management, where they were hoping to bring in someone to teach design thinking. I was flattered to be asked, but I made it very clear that this would be a hugely missed opportunity: why wouldn’t they want to build a design program connected to the school’s mission, to Yale’s resources, to the global world these students will soon inherit? And then I called Michael, because I realized that if they were willing to go down this path, I couldn’t do it alone.

And so, here we are: we’ve both been given three-year appointments, and we’re teaching one class together that has resulted in our second podcast—The Design of Business | The Business of Design — where we bring in a client or a designer (or a client AND a designer) every week for 12 weeks to talk about the transformative role design plays in their lives and in their work. With support from IBM (season one) and MasterCard (season two) we’ve invited physicians and producers, artists, engineers, mavericks and authors and filmmakers and more—it’s really getting exciting, and the people at the School of Management have been enormously positive and supportive.

The short answer is: Michael’s got amazing corporate experience and I have very little. But I bring to this partnership a deeper understanding of teaching and of students, a willingness to promote intellectual inquiry and marry it to visual exploration, and a commitment to building something bigger than me—simply put, I needed a partner in this endeavor and Michael was, is, the perfect one. (Michael likes to say he has no hobbies, but he has Jessica. And I like to say, I have no big brothers, but I have Michael.)

That Design Observer will become, I suppose inevitably, a part of this legacy is gratifying, too: together, our next step is to consider what happens at the intersection of design and business that can provide a valuable pedagogical platform for the students, and by conjecture, for the world they’ll soon inherit. That seems like a good use of the next three years.

Ken Gordon is the Content, Conversation, Community Strategist at Continuum.


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