Why Does a Door Need Instructions? Seriously!

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If you’re willing, the next time you get to a door, stop.  What’s your initial reaction? Push it? Pull it?  Doors are one of my favorite examples of lousy design.  Shouldn’t opening a door be intuitive? We really need instructions to go through a door? Really?? 

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Our world is filled with poorly designed products we use every day without thinking twice.  We’ve come to accept that this is the way it is.  We learn how to work around the non-intuitive design and just use the easy-to-figure-out features.   Take the USB Pointer for presentations! My natural instinct is to use the up arrow, the one on top, to move the slide ahead, but no! Even though I’m pointing at the screen, I don’t use the up arrow (pointing at the screen), I use the down arrow pointing at me!

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Some of the best designed products are simple and long-lasting – like the paper clip!  And there are products that just entice us with their elegant, beautiful and comfortable design – like the Vespa, globally recognized as an icon of design.

As you approach work this week, be it leading people, designing products, services or systems, creating marketing material, building circuit boards, writing essays in college, giving presentations, etc., take a few minutes to think who will be using, hearing, reading, sharing your “stuff” and how you can make it easy for them.  Just as I asked you to stop the next time you got to a door, stop the next time you’re ‘designing’ and think - how can you make it intuitive, easy, enjoyable and amazingly useful?

p.s. A great read on design for everyday life is The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman!

Are Our Souls on Treadmills??

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This academic year the cost of putting kids on treadmills from Pre-K onward is slapping me in the face through the students I mentor.  I’ve seen students’ stress, anxiety and depression increasing over the past few years but not with the exponential leap I’ve seen this year.  The current revelation of college admissions scandals and the plethora of recent articles on student’s anxiety and pressure over academic & social success reinforce what so many of us know and see every day.

You can and should hold me personally accountable. I was raised with earlier incarnations of this pressure and despite deliberately trying not to inflict this on my own children, I know I have and whatever I tried not to do or to reverse, the world, schooling and society all around them has reinforced par excellence!

The few minutes students will relax and chill are few - they are viewed as ‘unproductive’.

The few minutes students will relax and chill are few - they are viewed as ‘unproductive’.

The toll on our next generation is horrific.  I spend most of my mentoring helping students figure out how to at least slow down the treadmill.  Since they have no idea of life without being on it, they don’t know how to slow it down, reduce the incline or even dare ponder getting off. 

For many of my students, it’s not chasing the prestigious, expected Investment Banking, Consulting or Entrepreneurial grail to make your first millions before you’re 30, it’s about making the maximum possible positive impact on the world by the age of 25!  They’ve been taught to define success and worth by performance, by WHAT they do instead of WHO they are, because that’s all they’ve known. We know that extrinsic rewards are never fulfilling – there’s always someone else doing more/better, there’s always more to get, attain, have … there is never ‘enough.’  We’re telling them a lie.

Relaxing dinners do happen…

Relaxing dinners do happen…

So, what can we do? Especially if our kids are at the later end of the academic treadmill heading into or already in the real-world treadmill? We can talk to them – be honest about our own treadmills, the why & how we got on them, stayed on them and the struggles we’ve had (trying to) get off (if we have).  We can be honest about the anxiety and struggles we’ve worked so hard to hide over the years and we can try to change our own lives, slow down our own treadmills, reduce the incline, find our own balance and share how we’re finding our have found our own meaning and purpose.  Are you willing to try this with your own kids? With other people’s kids? Would you be willing to try this with and for yourself?

Atoms vs. Bits - Making Matters

Students working on projects in the  Brown Design Workshop

Students working on projects in the Brown Design Workshop

We live in a world infatuated with bits (tech).  We value, encourage, praise bit-making over atom-making.  Creating with atoms doesn’t have the cache or import it once did, and we’ve lost something precious by doing so.  Our hands* were not made (just) for typing, they were made to be sources of input to our brains to learn about our world – and learn by creating.

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Making, physically making, with atoms, not bits (or at least not just bits), is powerful!  Numerous studies have shown the power of physically making for muscle memory, learning new cognitive skills, and much more.  Making helps us develop empathy, helps us learn to iterate and prototype, to try stuff

Making with atoms usually involves almost all, if not all of our 5 senses – we use sight, touch/texture, hearing, smell and even taste, think cooking!  If you ever created with wood, do you remember the constant touch & texture of sanding an edge? Eyeing a joint? The amazing smell of cut wood (ahhh!)**? the sound of a planer or saw so you knew it was working perfectly? Making builds a sense of self-confidence and self-sufficiency, of knowing you can be ok, you can rely on yourself if need be.  And, making is a source of peace, calmness, harmony in our very hectic anxious lives.

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Making is how we learn about our world, both in reality and as a metaphor.  For instance, if you build a drawer by just nailing the sides together, does it have the same stability, endurance and resilience as a dovetailed drawer? By building both types of drawers, what could we learn, extrapolate about systems-level thinking vs. discrete parts? Doesn’t this resemble our healthcare, education and other failing systems - as a bunch of parts nailed together instead of dovetailed? By making, we can see why systems matter and how to design them.

As you go through the rest of this month, what can you make – out of Legos, Play-Doh (yes, it’s for adults too), food, wood, glass, paper and pen? It doesn’t have to be big, it doesn’t have to be profound, it doesn’t need to be auctioned off by Sotheby’s.  Just make something – for yourself or with someone.  With someone is even better.  Because, remember – we’re made of atoms, not bits.

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*The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture

**If anyone ever wonders why I love doing my office hours in the Brown Design Workshop, just come in and smell the wood!