Offline Thinking for Screen Workers

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We are what we know.

Science historian James Burke created a ten-part mini series for the BBC, called “The Day the Universe Changed,” around this idea—that our experience of the world is shaped by the things we discover and create. Typical of the kind of profound and pithy statements for which he is well known, it burned itself into my memory the moment I heard him say it, and has become somewhat of a working slogan for me since.

Think about it: Your identity as a designer—your ideas, skills, habits and proclivities—doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it is the organic aggregate of your experiences. Who you are professionally includes, perhaps, a bit of your college professor, your first boss, the art director of your favorite magazine, the trend strategist who began a process culminated in your most stylish shoes—whom you don’t know and will probably never meet—and countless other influences that you may not even recognize. When you create something, you can quickly identify it as yours, yet also perceive the mark of that vast assembly within it if you look long—and honestly—enough.

So what does this have to do with web design? Nothing in particular. Or everything, depending upon your perspective. For my purposes, and for the time being, I’d like to stick with everything. Design is broader than craft; it is another way (among many) of making sense of the world. That’s why a designer can be capable of doing great work in a variety of contexts, or of sustaining a rich career within a very narrow positioning. But in either extreme, a designer’s influences must be diverse. When I was a student in art school, I had a professor who once said that in order to make a great drawing, one also had to make paintings, sculpture, photography, film, textiles, architecture, jewelry, poetry, music, food, and anything else that could broaden the palette of the mind. I never got the chance to ask him if he was a James Burke fan, but regardless, he was more than on to something. His prescription was certainly ambitious; it almost mocked the all-too-real limits in ability and stamina we all face. But, we can start small.

Though I’m a screen worker, I’m dedicated to keeping my notebook a place for regular offline thinking. You can see more of it here.

If you spend the majority of your professional day in front of a screen—if you are a “screen worker”—I challenge you to find ways to spend more time working offline. I’m confident that every designer, no matter how dedicated to the screen one may be, can reap benefits from making things by hand: the immediate sensory feedback of analog processes, the risks and commitment in the absence of an “undo” command, the freedom from requiring a final gloss of professionalism, the slower pace our hands demand and mind thanks us for later, or even simply the relief of looking at things illuminated by a lamp rather than a lamp itself.

Put simply, this kind of work could be the base of your professional iceberg. You only get to sell the tip.