#30 Thinking and Making

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Paul McAleer: Hi. You’re listening to Designing Yourself. My name is Paul McAleer.

Whitney Hess: And this is Whitney Hess.

Paul: So, one thing that Whitney and I were talking about before the show was this notion of making things and how I’ve been feeling the pinch on that lately. So, as probably, I would imagine, eight to ten of you know, I do UX design, right? And Whitney, you do this work, too. And UX, putting aside all the semantic arguments and the definitions, it essentially means that I make digital stuff. I make websites. I make apps. I write. I do stuff that is not arguably out in the world.

And the thing that I have been really feeling and struggling with lately is this notion of not having stuff out in the world. That is art or music or paintings or physical photographs or anything like that. I’ve been feeling that my stuff, my writing primarily, and also my work on all these products and things that I build, I’ve been feeling it’s less valuable for some reason.

And thus, I’ve also been feeling a little less valuable in a sense in that I’ve been questioning what kinds of impacts the stuff that I do actually have, you know? And I just wonder about that. And I’m not sure exactly where it came from just yet. It’s something that I haven’t spent a lot of time really investigating. But I’ve definitely been feeling it. I’ve been kind of exposing myself to more art and really consciously enjoying music more, sometimes just listening to music like not as background music but just listening to music, which is something I hadn’t done in ages.

And I’ve become such a fan and appreciate all that work so much that I start to think, wow, what am I doing? Why am I not doing something like that, you know? Because it’s having an impact on me.

Whitney: So, what do you think is the culprit for all this then? Because, without a doubt, you work a lot. You are very passionate about the work that you do professionally. You have a full-time job. You do a lot of stuff on the side. You have side projects. You have speaking. You have writing. You are working for, I would venture to guess, the vast majority of your time. And yet it sounds like you’re still, or at this moment you’re feeling as if there is no external representation of that - no thing, no tangible object, that other people can possess that’s a representation of that work.

And therefore the work has less value, which I think we both know intellectually is not true. But I can totally identify with why you feel that way or that you feel that way because I go through that all the time, too. I don’t have an app like everyone else seems to have. I don’t have a book like everybody else seems to have. I don’t have a thing that people can hold in their hands or load up on their phone or hang on their wall that is a product that I’ve produced.

And so, I too feel sometimes like, well, I don’t have anything to show for my work. What do you think has happened lately that’s made you question the value of what you do if it doesn’t have some kind of external representation?

Paul: That’s a good question. So, my gut instinct is that I don’t quite know. So, I want to kind of talk through it. The things that I’m certain about are that over the past couple of weeks one of the things I’ve been doing is getting some of my old photos and videos and stuff of that matter, moving it from an external hard drive up to the cloud, and having another place of backup.

And this has set me occasionally down kind of a nostalgia trip. I look at these old things that I made, either art photography or just photos of my kid. And I’m kind of amazed that the stuff is still there. For me, I’m remembering that I have a connection to that stuff. And it reminds me of when I took the photo or how my son was at the age of six months, things of that nature. And that’s - it’s a pleasing place for me to visit, right?

Now, I mention this because this is all digital stuff. And I think the other thing that was a part of this was how fragile it is. Now, I studied photography in college and a little bit in high school. And I understand that paper burns. You can print out photos all you want. And they can be destroyed like that, right? Or you can tear them up or anything like that. It is a physical object that can go away super-easy.

But when it comes to digital stuff, I sense the impermanence of it a little more. And that gives me a little bit of anxiety. That makes me feel like, well, wow. How is this going to last? I want it to last because for me that’s something that I see as kind of a mark of my presence, like I was here. I did something. I put something out in the world. Here it is. And here it is. And you can read it. You can touch it. You can hold it. You can do something with it. You can manipulate it like an actual thing.

And I think having that kind of connection between something that I’ve created and a potential audience or people in the future who I do not know, that’s the thing that I’m feeling the pressure on the digital side in that, yeah, there’s no - I mean, it can go away in an instant, right? It feels like it’s just more temporary to me.

Whitney: Yeah. I don’t know. I mean, I’m hearing that you're saying there’s like an impermanence in the digital space. But at the same time you’re acknowledging there’s an impermanence in the physical space as well that the artwork, paintings, photography, sculpture, you know, all those things could go up in flames or can get thrown out in the garbage.

And so, there’s an impermanence to that as well. But what I think I’m hearing is that you are missing having artifacts of your work. The painting is only a representation of the work. It’s a representation of the hours spent working. It’s a representation of the materials that were used to produce the artifact. It’s a representation of you having to walk to the store to buy the paint and the paintbrush. That’s not explicit in the piece itself.

But all of the efforts, all of the time, all of the money, all of the expertise, all of the talent, all of the creativity, all of the insight that needed to actually take place in order to produce the thing is inherent and contained within the artifact itself. And seeing the artifact can conjure up memories and a sort of reliving of all of those experiences that transpired. And that’s what I’m hearing you say about seeing an old photograph or an old drawing, that it puts you back in that place of everything that it took to bring that into the world.

And maybe the kind of work that we do, you and I, or maybe the work that we do as designers or working in technology in general, maybe it doesn’t have the same kind of artifacts. Or it doesn’t offer us the opportunity to produce as many artifacts that are tangible and visible and physical in the way that you’re describing of your art. Do you think that there’s something about how the work that we do is very internal and doesn’t have as much of an external face that is part of what’s making you feel this kind of lack and a yearning for times past when you really had an external representation of everything you’ve invested?

Paul: I think you’re onto something here. When I think about the work that we do, it’s as you say, and you said in such an articulate and beautiful way, about how everything that goes into the painting is there but not truly. That’s also true of our work. When we make this stuff, digital or not - let’s focus on digital for a second. When we make this stuff, it is being judged by whatever is there, right? And nobody knows if we talked with 200 users to get to this point or we did eight bazillion wireframes or did IA on the back of a napkin or what have you. That’s not part of it for somebody who’s using it.

And, I think part of it for me is this understanding and appreciation of the work that goes into it. And lately I’ve been simply more interested in the physical processes that go into making physical things. And as you point out, though, as you said earlier, too, part of it is about this whole sense of internal work, right, and internal stuff, because if I think back to another thing that’s been rolling around in my head, rewriting my “About” page, which is something we talked about before we started, too, there are some things that I’ve written I truly believe.

Like, I know and I know that some of the things I’ve done have had an impact on people. And that is great. And it makes me very happy that I’ve been able to help people out. So, why is it then that I also am interested in having some sort of physical component of it? Is it just an attachment? Is it wanting to see something out in the world that I created or helped create, something a little more tangible?

I think it may simply be that. Now, that doesn’t mean I’m going to start making, you know, cereal boxes or anything like that, although that would be kind of - that could be kind of interesting. Maybe I will. Who knows? I shouldn’t really discount myself like that.

But what I’m seeing is I’ve always been interested in making stuff physically ever since I took 2D and 3D design classes in college. That really - I kind of geeked out about that stuff and making something out of nothing. It’s the same thing I do digitally.

But, maybe there’s a way that I can cross the two. I’m not sure. I’m simply not sure. And I think part of it may be just yearning for additional artistic outlets. But in any case what I’m seeing here with the questions that you’re asking, kind of where we’re at, is this idea that if I’m not putting something out there physically, then the stuff that I’m doing digitally is worth less. Now, again, intellectually, I don’t believe that. I know that’s not true. But I still feel that way, for sure.

Whitney: I’m seeing this relationship between the internal and the external. And the majority of the work that we do, the majority of how we spend our time, is in our heads. As designers, as practitioners, as makers of technology, as strategists, as people in business, we spend a lot of time in our heads. And we might feel it, so there might be a lot of intrinsic benefit, a lot of intrinsic motivation to do it, a lot of intrinsic value that we get out of it.

But we don’t have a lot to show for it unless we are producing artifacts out in the world. And the nature of our work has us producing, by and large, digital artifacts. Now, there are some of us who work on kiosk interfaces, for instance. So you can go to an airport, and you can see the e-ticket check-in machine that you have helped to design the interface for. And you’ve worked on the flow, and you’ve worked on the overall experience of checking into the flight.

And there might be a tremendous amount of satisfaction of seeing that in the physical space. But your work was still something digital that was expressed within this box. And more often than not, I would say 99.99999% of the time, we the designers, user experience or otherwise, have not also designed the physical machine that our interface sits in.

So, if we were to bring a friend along and say, hey, look what I did, we would still have to explain I didn’t make this form factor, like how tall it is and what angle it’s at. That was probably an industrial designer. Or maybe it was totally off the shelf because that’s what they could get that was already pre-built. I made the thing inside the thing.

And it’s just so much harder to articulate how much internal process went into creating that, how much self-inquiry, how much research of other people’s needs, how much dialog between us and our stakeholders and our partners in the business is involved in producing that thing, whereas a physical, tangible artifact, something you can hold and that shares a space with you in some way that isn’t powered by electricity, has more staying power and oftentimes more impact because it’s not from bits that it came into being. It’s from hard materials.

And it demonstrates some kind of mastery of nature. And quite frankly technology is as well. We are harnessing energy to produce electricity that creates all of our electronic machinery that’s then able to display pixels and move them in the directions that we demand they go. I mean, that’s all nature, too.

But in so many contexts it feels separate from nature. And when you see a painting or a photograph or a sculpture or jewelry or something that’s handmade, it feels of nature, of the natural world, whereas our work in the digital space often feels like the unnatural world. And so, I’m wondering if this lack you’re feeling or this pull you’re feeling is that so much of our work is about inquiry. It’s a very internal process.

And you’re craving something external which is more about behavior. Like, I do my job every day without moving. I move my mouth a lot. I move my mouth. I’m sure that inside my ears they’re moving because the way the ear canal works and vibrations and everything. On some microscopic level my ears are moving. But my outer ears aren’t that much except for when I move my jaw.

I move my jaw all day long, and I move my tongue. And maybe I blink a lot. But for the most part I do my work sitting on my ass without moving whatsoever. And the more I move, the actual less conducive it is to me doing my work because I’m on the phone most of the time. And as much as I love a walking meeting, it can be very distracting for me and for my clients.

So, I’m not - I don’t have a lot of physical behaviors that are involved in my work. It’s a lot of inquiry and it’s a lot of intellectualism. I’m wondering if you’re craving some physical behaviors because the photograph comes into being with your hands wrapped around a camera. Point at a subject. You then take the film if it’s physical film, or you take the digital file. And you then produce something with it. And then you print it. Or you develop it if it’s physical film. You’re in a dark room. You’re moving that paper from one solution to the next. You’re hanging it to dry. You’re watching it transform. And then you have this thing in your hands.

Or you’re throwing paint on a canvas, and it’s your hands moving. It’s your body moving. It’s all very kinesthetic. And I’m wondering if you're missing some kind of kinesthetic behavior in your work that inquiry and research and strategy and design, the kind of design we do, does not itself allow. Am I on the right track?

Paul: I think you may be onto something there. Another thing that is top of mind for me with this is when we are making interfaces, when we’re making stuff that is digital, there is a layer of abstraction there. Like, I am able to draw up a wireframe, and we’ve gotten really close with styluses and touchscreens and stuff like that to mimicking paper and pen.

But it’s not quite the same. Or when I write something, obviously there’s a keyboard in between, etc. There’s always some sort of technology in between the person making the thing and the person receiving the thing or hearing the thing or viewing it or what have you.

And, you know, I think that the doing it on a computer and doing it digitally makes it a little more intellectual, kind of by default, because there’s - as you say there’s less physical movement involved, right? Sure, there are gestures and things like that. But it’s not like we’re out there necessarily in the world running and viewing a Web page at the same time or using an intranet at the same time.

That doesn’t really happen too much right now, and I suppose that’s probably a good thing, right? That would be a little weird right now. So, it is in fact so much around inquiry and questions and asking why and just kind of getting to the root of what we see as the problem that I’m looking to carve out additional space somewhere that asks fewer questions and just simply acts a little more impulsively and is a little more behaviorally driven.

Now, I’m not exactly - well, I say this. I’m going to say I’m not exactly sure where that’s coming from. But I think part of it for me is, again, that nature of personal expression and artistic expression as well. And I think for me it’s also at times hard for me to fold in the idea of art and craft and things like that into the work we do.

I respect it, and I see it, and I know there’s things like attention to detail. But it’s weird because I classify it a little differently just because it’s digital. And maybe this is - ultimately, maybe this whole thing is simply my hangup. But I find it was really interesting that it started with a simple question, I feel, in this whole notion of, you know, why am I not making more stuff, and migrated a lot deeper into, well, what’s the nature of my work? And am I going to do anything that is “out in the world”? And why do I need to do that as well? I mean, it really, for better or for worse, and I think it’s better in this case, it did send me down a path of questioning why.

First of all, it’s noticing this feeling and kind of sitting with it and then exploring it a little more. And I wonder what it would be like if there was - you know, for this case, for me, with this, I was a little more impulsive and a little less, you know, not inquisitive but wanting to act a little more on it. Would that be a shift for me as well given the nature of where this all is coming from?

Whitney: I share a lot of the same feelings, I think. I have a lot of the same questions that I ask myself. What am I leaving behind? What do I have to show for my work? When I ask myself what is my legacy going to be, I often think that my greatest value occurs in these moments, the moments that you and I have, where it’s just a conversation between two people. And I don’t mean to say “just” as if it’s less than, because I don’t feel that way. I feel like it’s everything.

But it does not have a physical artifact. Now, we have a digital artifact of our recordings, and we post them on the internet. But eventually if we were to stop paying to host that page, the page will be gone. And maybe there will be someone one day who finds something of mine that they enjoy and then excavates from the digital archives these podcasts and puts them into some format that is consumable at that period of time, which would be awesome. So, hi to future person in 100 years who may have the persistence to care enough to try to save this stuff.

But I too know that a lot of what I do that I believe has the greatest value is very ephemeral. And I’ve struggled with this with my business because I want to capture it. And I want to display it. And I want to hang it up for people to see, one, to attract more business because they kind of need to know what you’ve done in order to know what you can do with them - that’s how it works - and, two, because it matters to me that I leave something behind.

And so, I do have kinds of, you know, other pursuits where I feel like I produce things in my life. It could be with photography. It could be with drawing. It could be with cooking, which is - what’s more ephemeral than cooking? You eat your product at the end of it.

But there is definitely - I feel that I exercise myself as much as I can in those ways because I do want to leave something physical. But when it comes to my professional life, I struggle with this a lot. And yet in many ways running my business is my art because I am always trying to find new ways of expressing myself. I’m always trying to find new ways to reach my audience. I’m always trying to find new projects to take on, new artifacts to produce.

And I have been in the pursuit of products for my business for the last couple of years. And I still haven’t really figured it out. But I’m in that pursuit. I want to have standalone products that people can purchase that do not involve my investment in real time, meaning it’s not a service that I’m providing. It’s not coaching calls. It’s not a group coaching program. It’s not a workshop. It’s not a lecture or a presentation that I am physically present for as they are experiencing it, but that it’s something that I create once and then make available and many other people can experience it later and get utility out of it.

And it would be a wonderful form of passive income, and it would be a wonderful leave-behind, and it would be a wonderful way of extending my reach. And it would be a wonderful expression of what I do in some bite-sized form that may not be physically tangible because it is digital, but maybe it is physically tangible. I’ve thought about creating postcards. I’ve thought about creating calendars. I’ve thought about creating wall hangings or posters or pamphlets or things that would actually sit on someone’s desk.

And I’ve struggled with making that a reality for many years because it’s not my area of expertise. I have a hard time even believing that it would be worthwhile, that people would see value in it, and so I don’t invest the time in creating it. But I have that same yearning, and I want it to come to fruition so badly. But I get stuck in the self-inquiry piece on what should it be, what’s its value, who’s my target audience, what am I trying to get out of it, how much time do I want to invest in this, who should I hire to help me, how should this be designed.

I’m so stuck in the questions and the internal inner dialog that I don’t end up producing anything externally. And yet, having said all of that, I think I’m differing from you, at least at this very moment in time, because I am really appreciating about myself and about the process at this very moment, end of summer, beginning of a new season, how much work that still is. It’s still real work. It’s still valuable work. It’s impacting me. It’s impacting others. It’s probably being expressed through all the other things that I do, that time that I’ve taken to think about and analyze and dig into how I really feel and what I really need and what my strategies are for meeting those needs.

And I’m grateful for the time that I’ve given myself to just inquire, to research myself, to research what my possibilities are. But, like you, I’m starting to really yearn for something else, an external expression of that, something kinesthetic, something physical and something that other people can have in their space and they can hold in their hands.

And so I’m starting to try to figure out, all right, I want to dedicate myself to this. What’s it going to be? And I don’t have the answers yet. But I’m at that tipping point that I think you are as well. But I’m experiencing it through my business. It sounds to me like you’re experiencing it in non-professional work-related ways. You’re wanting to express yourself creatively through other outlets as an artist. And it doesn’t have to be about making money. And it doesn’t have to be about how this relates to user experience or anything else.

I don’t think I give myself enough of that. And so I’m grateful for you sharing this because it makes me realize I can do things that have nothing to do with my business, and that can be an expression of myself as well. And that can be some external leave-behind of my work, like when I was doing Zentangle, I was doing one drawing a day. And I was Instagramming them. But I still have all the physical drawings. I still - that’s something I actually produced and is in my space.

And I have a couple of friends who were like, hey, can you send me that one? I really want to hang that up. And I kind of brushed them off thinking these are so bad, I’m a horrible drawer, I’m so rudimentary at this, they were just being nice. But maybe there is something to it. Maybe there is something to finally offering something to the world of myself that’s physical and tangible and can be sent away to someone else without me physically having to be present in order for it to be alive and be happening.

And I’m rambling now, but I feel like I’m connecting with you in the desire. And at the same time I’m also really appreciating not having to produce and the time that is spent in the inquiry and in the consideration, the reflection, because it propels us to that point of wanting to create. What do you think?

Paul: I agree. So, while you were mentioning this idea of the Zentangles and sending those out and how you weren’t comfortable with that, a couple of things came to mind. One is that whenever we make something we know - you know, tying back to earlier, we know what went into it. We know the work or lack thereof that went into it, the amount of effort and how much time and everything that went into it.

And there’s a great analogy there with ourselves in that when we encounter people for the first time or the nth time, we have no idea where they’re at, no clue. And whatever they are bringing in that moment is what we can interact with and work with and be with and simply be with.

I can’t interact with a pen from 100 years ago. But I can maybe read what they wrote. That might be available to me. So there might be some sort of way to bridge a connection there. But when it comes to people who are here with us now, we simply have whatever they bring, however present they choose to be or not be in that moment. And to me that’s - I’m not going to pull off the “oh, our life is art” thing because it’s life and it’s frickin’ messy.

But that goes into it, too. It’s this whole notion of whatever and whoever we are in the moment is. And, you know, there’s not necessarily a matter of more inquiries needed or we need to make more stuff or we need to make this type of stuff and not that type of stuff. But it’s acknowledging that, you know, maybe for me in this moment I simply need to make more art.

Maybe you don’t need to make anything physical. Maybe you don’t need to make a product right now. Maybe that’s all that’s necessary right now. And that could change in two minutes or that could change in a year or what have you because of course we’re constantly changing.

So, I’m still torn with the whole torn with the whole artifact versus not thing, and I think part of it is this sense of attachment and maybe just getting overly attached to physical stuff. But, you know, one thing I’ve kept in mind throughout all of this is actually, of all things, a Twitter bio. Are you familiar with Neko Case?

Whitney: Of course.

Paul: Good. OK. For those who are not, fantastic singer, just amazingly great singer/songwriter/guitar player. She’s great. I’m a big fan of her work and have been for a long time. And her Twitter bio includes this sentence, which I think is great. “I try to make things that make people feel good.” That’s it.

And I admire that. She hasn’t pigeonholed herself in any one area. She’s just making things, and she wants people to feel good. And I feel that’s an excellent goal. It is so simple. And I have idea - much like we were just talking about, I have no idea if she pored over this statement or not or if it’s just something she wrote off the cuff one day. Who knows?

But it resonates with me. And I feel like that in and of itself is a pretty solid goal to go for. And how we do that and how we articulate this stuff, both internally when we’re questioning what we’re doing or trying to figure it out or what we produce, the quality of our work, the impact of our work, really making people feel good seems like a pretty good goal.

Whitney: I couldn’t agree more. I love that Twitter bio, and I love the sentiment behind it. And I think that it’s extremely central to the work that we do as UX practitioners, as designers, as human beings, with this podcast, as friends. I think that it’s very central to the way that you and I like to operate in the world. And there’s that quote, the Maya Angelou quote, “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But they’ll never forget how you made them feel.”

Paul: Yes.

Whitney: And maybe so long as we know that we’re changing how people feel and we’re making them feel good, feel good about themselves, feel good about the connection, feel good about their communities, maybe that’s enough. And maybe that comes in some kind of physical form, whether it’s through producing music or fine art or dance or sculpture or an app. Maybe it’s through just conversation.

I don’t know that it’s up to us to judge the best form for making people feel good and making ourselves feel good. But I do know that we should trust ourselves. And if you’re feeling the magnetic pull towards making, then you should make. And I cannot wait to see what you produce.

Paul: Whitney, this was a great conversation. Thank you so much.

Whitney: Thank you so much. Our tenth and final episode of season 3 of Designing Yourself, it has been such a pleasure.

Paul: Yeah, same here. And, you know, I also want to say thank you to everyone who listens. It means a lot. And we’re happy to be sharing these conversations with you. So, thank you so much.

Whitney: We wouldn’t be here without you.

Paul: All right. You take care.

Whitney: I’ll talk to you soon, Paul.

Paul: All right. Talk to you soon.