Design’s Affective Lens

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[Editor’s note: from time to time we’ll be setting posts in some new web-safe typefaces that we’re test driving for Monotype. The body copy of Kelly’s post is set in Memphis Medium and her byline is in Trade Gothic. To read more about about that arrangement go here].

By Kelly Nash

During the academic year, I often lament the lack of time available to reflect on all the new material I learn and how this shapes what I do and who I am as a designer. My peers previously addressed the difficulty of articulating what we do. I also find myself repeatedly stumbling over this question. We make thoughts and processes visible and/or tangible. We utilize methods. We follow a process. We create change. I am amazed that, although we may start with the same information or the same question, use the same methods, “trust the process,” that we all design and execute different solutions. This leads me to the conclusion that design is based significantly on the individual designer. But what does this mean?

There are two points in the design process where an individual designer uniquely colors his/her process: the time information comes to us, which I will call empathizing, and the time information leaves us, which I will refer to as meaning-making.

Empathizing. I spent the bulk of my time working in a long-term shelter for women experiencing homelessness this semester. The research process made increasingly apparent that no amount of empathy would allow me to understand the complexity of the clients’ lives. I appreciated Jon Kolko’s recent statement at a CMU presentation: as designers we may not fully understand our users but empathizing allows us to come closer to what their experience may be like. I base our ability to empathize on two things: how well we learn to exercise this skill through practice, as students or professionally; and how well we demonstrate our innate abilities developed through life experiences. While I may try to objectively gather information, even this process is subjective, and then I additionally place subjective value on the information, producing my own unique set of findings.

Meaning-making. The point of transition from analysis to synthesis is another place our paths diverge. Some things are lost, or found, in translation, from the findings to the meaning-making. These interpretations are all filtered through our own affective lenses. A beloved instructor said earlier this year, “What is important is to keep this multiplicity in our hearts;” to this I will add, “so that we are open to the ideas and interpretations of others throughout our process.” This multiplicity allows us to level our findings and conclusions without diluting the opportunities.

Because design outcomes rely significantly on the individual, I find this a critical time to reflect, to think about my own values. What kind of designer do I want to be when I enter the workforce? As 2010 comes to a close, I ask you to think about what shapes you as a designer. Take this time to reconsider, revise, reinvent, reinforce. Many designers strive to act as change agents. We want to “make a difference.” With some consideration and reflection, I believe we can. Happy new year.