A Solution that Doesn’t Exist

Current status: It’s early on Saturday in the very hot and humid city of Durham, North Carolina, and I am sitting in the dim morning light of our living room. I can hear the hum of insects outside, singing their praise to our climate-change rainforest. From here in the cool, dry interior of our little yellow house in the city, I thought I’d quickly share a few things I’ve been up to.

First, after many months of practice, I’d say my old-fashioned pen-and-paper notebook habit is firmly established now. I take it everywhere with me, and prefer it in meetings over my laptop. And I’d recommend that to anyone. It’s a focus tool. On my laptop, everyone else’s information makes a claim to my attention; the book contains only what I put there. You will find that makes for an enormous difference in how you spend your time. But I’ve also been drawing in it, and that has been fun. I’ve been posting some page spreads on Instagram, so follow me there if that sounds interesting to you. Second, I’ve been working on a podcast with some colleagues at Newfangled, and we just started releasing episodes. Our setup is pretty minimal for now, which you’ll probably hear in the audio quality. But our emphasis right now is on capturing real conversations about the things that matter to our clients (hence the name Agency Marketing Matters), and I hope that comes through loud and clear. I also hope you’ll subscribe to it on iTunes, Google Play, or PocketCasts (just search for “Agency Marketing Matters”). If you do listen to it, drop me a line and let me know what you think. Third, and last, I started a book club with a bunch of friends — most of whom didn’t know one another nearly as well as I know them — and we had our first monthly meeting a couple of weeks ago. Our first book was The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, by Alain de Botton. It’s a book I really enjoyed, though the majority of my fellow book-clubbers did not. There were disagreements over his writing style and his tone, but we all agreed that the book succeeded in provoking a wonderful conversation among us about finding meaning in our work. I was amazed by how quickly a room of eight newly-acquainted thirty-somethings went from shyly critiquing the book to sharing hopes, dreams, fears, and failures. It was a beautiful thing. We may not have all left de Botton fans, but we can thank him for helping us create a very unexpected intimacy. Our next book is something entirely different: Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch. I’ll let you know about that one in a few weeks.

CB, August 13, 2016

Designers are some of the most discontent people I know. This can be a good thing and a bad thing.

Designers are problem solvers. We see flaws quickly. We see opportunities for improvement in everything we experience. We want to fix everything that is broken. We want to bring order to the world. So, naturally, we are restless. We are not easily satisfied. It is good that we are this way, because it makes us good at what we do.

But, we are also overly sensitive, resistant to criticism, and stubbornly inflexible. We are too easily frustrated when reality resists our first solution. We push processes forward even when they do not make sense. We prioritize control over care. It is not good that we are this way, because it keeps us from being good at what we do.

For some designers, the problem begins even before the work. The mere existence of the Clients from Hell trope speaks to the deeply ironic fact that many of us begin with an a priori resentment toward the very people who give us something to do. We must resist this with the same energy with which we seek to shape the world around us. There are bad clients out there, but they are very few. Most are good people who need more from a designer than a designer is willing to give. “Bad” clients are more often the work product of bad designers than the adversaries of good designers. Thankfully, bad-client-making designers are also rare. Most of us begin with empathy for our clients and optimism for their future.

Then, the discontent kicks in. But not the good kind.

Among the designers I know, most call themselves “Problem Solvers,” with an almost holy reverence for the term. Yet, so many become reactively dissatisfied the moment there is resistance to their solution, when that is the very thing they should expect, if not hope for. First solutions are far better at exposing more of the problem than solving it. This should not be a surprise. If the problems we are paid to solve were so easily dismissed, then there would be far less need for our services than there is. If we value the idea of problem solving as much as we say we do, then we should want the problems to be hard. The alternative would be like an Olympic skier preferring the bunny hill. Or, for people like us, the very rote, factory assembly-line system that we hope, in our work, to avoid.

We say we believe that design is giving form to intent. But that means that when the input is the same, and the process is the same, and the output is the same, the word design no longer applies. “Factory” would be more appropriate. A factory is a post-design mechanism. It produces copies of a solution; its process is not about problem solving, but of duplication. Yet, so often, I see designers force the problems they encounter into their own little factories. There’s no challenge in that. Nor any risk, which is, of course, the thing we fear. We fear the hard problems because we fear failing to solve them.

This doesn’t mean there is no consistency in design. We may have a way of discovering and exposing the true nature of a problem, or a way of translating our intent to others — we may have our “proprietary” processes — but the intent and the form will be different every time. When we feel resistance, that is reality reminding us what design is. It is when we are getting closer to the truth. We should expect that moment. We should covet it!

“I am trying to be unfamiliar with what I am doing” is a quote attributed to John Cage, a composer known for a such an ardent commitment to questioning the nature of music that his most famous work, 4’33, is one that is entirely silent. Plenty of people rejected Cage’s work. How can it be music, they argued, if it lacks the very thing of which music is made — sound? Yet, in questioning the nature of music, 4’33 also questions the nature of silence. Is there really such a thing? In pursuing this question, Cage discovered that the best answer was one in which he had no part. Imagine that: such a radical commitment to the process that he was even willing to exclude himself from it. And a solution that is such because it doesn’t exist. What designer could even approach that level of humility?

For us, rare will be the case that doing nothing would be better than doing something. But to accept the possibility of that will draw us closer to the truth of every circumstance, and to a contentment with the constant change of the world that invites our intent as quickly as it invalidates it.

Heavy Rotation: Right now, I’m re-digging Finally We Are No One by Múm, and remembering the time I saw them play in the garden at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts sometime shortly after they released this album. I’ve also been indulging in even deeper nostalgia, playing three nineties mixes in the kitchen this week while cooking (1, 2, 3). There’s good stuff in there!

Recent Tabs: Oops. I’ve been talking about farming a lot lately, I’m not sure why. But here’s an interesting start up that uses machine learning and satellite imagery to predict crop yields. A few facts and figures about The Washington Post’s digital transition under Jeff Bezos. Why you should stop taking pictures of your food and just eat it. Wherein any nonsense is surely more respectable than the notion of the mind as separate from the body. If I ever got a tattoo, I would prefer it done by a robot. A blind man’s audio diary, plus VR. A better mousetrap. The Bengali click farmer. Now this is a cool music video. We’re all like.

Written by Christopher Butler on August 13, 2016,   In Essays

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We don't fear the future… I must admit to having been nervous to publish this. I’ve never been afraid to expose private things in my writing; if you’ve read my blog for long

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