Category: philosophy

Civility

About 20 years ago, I was at the bookstore and stumbled upon The Ice Palace That Melted Away: Restoring Civility and Other Lost Virtues to Everyday Life by Bill Stumpf, the designer of Herman Miller’s Aeron chair. I quickly snatched up the book and could not wait to dig into it. Oh, the things I’d learn, peering into the mind of one of the world’s foremost designers.

Wait a minute.

This isn’t a book about design. All he talks about is civility, being nice to people and how the modern world is crashing down all around us because we’re so rude to each other.

What a load of malarky. Or is it?

Admittedly, I did not finish the book. (Truth be told, there are more books than I care to count that I have not finished, but they sure look good up on my shelf.) I did not learn a darn thing from this book. I didn’t get into the head of a genius, rather I spent my time on this crazy rant about manners. Phooey.

20 years later, and the lessons from the book resonate with me as much or more than just about any book I have read on design. Much in the same way Victor Papanek’s Design for the Real World should be require reading for all design students, Mr Stumpf’s short treatise should be as well.

I wrote a short piece dealing with a lack of civility a few weeks ago and this is a follow up. Actually, that piece was more about courage than anything else, but a lack of understanding, manners, respect, courtesy and decency was the impetus for the story.

Today, being kind, thoughtful and polite is more important than ever. Especially in our modern civilization where those qualities are quickly falling by the wayside.

Any form of design — whether it be a product, a site, a piece of communication or whatever — basic manners should always be a top consideration. At all costs, make sure you are reaching the right people and treat them with the utmost respect. Always.

Charles Eames once quipped that the role of the designer was similar to that of the host of a dinner party (I paraphrase). Not only do you want your guests to have a wonderful meal, but you want them to feel comfortable and completely at ease, ready to soak up a good conversation and wonderful evening.

This should always be the same objective of every design brief.

UX, more than any other design discipline, should hold this rule as paramount. There is no faster way to disengage with a user than to irritate them, annoy them, talk down to them, make assumptions about them or make them feel anything less than important. The outcome of good UX should be totally engaging, or in a more civil world, welcoming.

The Pink Pussy movement last year was hailed as a triumph of branding because it rallied a huge women’s movement. Everyone has the right to voice their opinions and they should. But the branding and messaging they choose for the movement is not only offensive, it is just plain wrong. For anyone who disagrees with me, please explain the symbolism and point of the messaging to my 12 year old son. What they were projecting was not inclusiveness, it was for shock value and it was divisive. I also did not like seeing the way it made my two daughters feel. That, IMO, was counter to everything they stood for.

Stumpf’s book is more relevant than ever.

I do not think we are as polite as we once were. Maybe we never were all that polite. I’ve always contended that drivers in my part of town are rude, although over the past few years they do seem to have gotten much worse.

How can we change this?

It goes much more beyond a simple act of kindness to a stranger. We need civility on a much larger scale more than ever. As designers and professional communicators, it is our greatest responsibility to promote understanding, offer a friendly hand and speak in a kind voice.

What are steps we can take to help create a more civil world?

A long story about brothers & the choices we make

Judd Apatow made a beautiful documentary that aired on HBO recently called May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers. I am a fan of both Apatow and the Avett’s. 

Seeing the brothers away from their music, leading their lives in North Carolina roused some distant memories.

I am a brother of Pi Kappa Phi, and in the fall of 1988, I moved into the fraternity’s house on 19th Street, across from the Texas Tech campus. This was my senior year in college. 

Pi Kappa Phi’s Founding fathers from the College of Charleston. I am a founder of the chapter at Tech, initiate #13.

I lived on the second floor of the house with seven other brothers. Being an upper class man, I was given a small room in the corner at the top of the stairs, all to myself. No roommate. Two of the four walls in my room were windows. The southern windows opened unto the roof, which I could climb out the window and sit out there under the stars on pleasant west Texas evenings. For all the noise and chaos of living in a frat house, I look back on that time fondly. 

My room was packed tightly with my bed, a bookcase and my drawing table. I also had a portable drawing board leaning against a wall that I had bought from the architecture department a couple of years earlier. This is back in the days when we hand-painted out comps. While one was drying you could be working on another – you needed two boards. 

In the spring of 1989, I was heading towards my final portfolio review. The big one before graduation. My room was covered with boards, drawings, pieces being cleaned up, 4×5’s that still needed to be mounted. A beautiful mess. 

The Pi Kapp chapter had worked hard to raise funds and awareness for the Lubbock State School and our efforts had paid off. Our national board had granted the School a PUSH unit. PUSH stands for “Play Units for the Severely Handicapped”. These units are installed in schools to give handicapped children sensual stimulations that engage them in ways that help lead to better lives. It’s a great cause and I am proud of our efforts. 

The Pi Kapp National Board and Executive Director flew to Lubbock to meet with the State School, and of course, meet the chapter that had led the charge to get the installation. We had scrubbed the house to make it more presentable to our guests, but as mentioned, my room was a disaster. 

I was upstairs at my drawing table plugging away when these gentlemen popped their heads in. I got up, introduced myself and seeing the disarray, they all asked what I was doing. I told them I was a Design Comm major and I was getting ready for my senior review.

Most of the board members raised an eyebrow, scratched their heads and moved along. Generally speaking, Pi Kapps study business or engineering, rarely are they art majors. 

One board member stayed behind. He came into my room and started looking at the posters, books, spreads and other bits covering on my bed. He introduced himself as Jim and asked me a few questions. I was distracted and barely listening to him, doing  just enough to to be polite so that I could quickly get back to work. 

He said he’d never seen a book like mine. He also said he ran an ad agency back in Charlotte, and that if I’m ever out that way to look him up. I don’t recall what I said, but he left to continue the tour of the house and I got back to work.

A few weeks later, the brothers got together for our weekly chapter meeting. Our chapter advisor happened to be attending. As the meeting was winding down, Bob, our advisor, had a quick announcement. 

Bob stood up and said that he had a round-trip ticket to Charlotte, where the national office is, that he could not use. He was supposed to fly over to meet with the council, but had some local business to attend to so he could not go. The tickets were paid for, all you had to do is go.

Suddenly, Jim’s words from a couple weeks earlier came to mind. “If you’re ever in Charlotte, look me up…”. I thought about it for a bit, but didn’t say anything and to this day I have never been to Charlotte. 

A couple of years go by. I’ve graduated and am living in Houston, working at a small design studio. Like all good young designers, I spend my spare time studying graphic design. The latest issue of Communication Arts had come in mail and I get busy devouring it. Turning the pages, I come to the feature on an ad agency and who do I see? 

LKM did these beautiful, clever series of tourism ads for North Carolina back in the 80’s and 90’s.

Jim Mountjoy, Creative Director of Loeffler Ketchum Mountjoy. A fraternity brother. This guy who is being featured in CA had been standing in my room, looking at my book and had told me to come see him. My head exploded.

This is a long story about choices. And paying attention. And taking action. Watching the documentary the other day and seeing the beautiful North Carolina countryside made me think about what my life would have been like had I taken those plane tickets, or had the wherewithal to ask for a business card from Mr Mountjoy. 

Where would I be? I’m pretty certain I would not be married to the woman who is my wife nor would I have my three children or sitting in my living room thinking about a day from almost 30 years ago. Life would have been very different. Not better or worse, just different.

We all make choices and do lots of things, but how often are we aware of things that go on in our lives. 

I’ve gotten to the point where I get so annoyed with interviews of designers, entrepreneurs and the like. I’ve read and listened to them for years, but cannot stand them anymore because more often than not, everyone credits luck to getting the big break that made their career. Mountjoy might have been a lucky break for me but I did not realize it at the time. 

How much of success is luck and how much of it is paying attention to the world around you?

Trott & Fletcher

As previously discussed, Alan Fletcher’s The Art of Looking Sideways is one of the books I derive immense inspiration from whenever the well runs dry. Also as previously mentioned, I discovered Dave Trott this year and have found enormous pleasure in reading his posts all over the web and his books.

In grokking about these books, I landed on an interesting correlation about both these gentleman: They’re really kind of the same.

Both Fletcher and Trott write in  short, lively, easy to digest bursts of goodness. Both tackle a wide range of subject matter but always bring it back home to make a point about their field, either design or advertising.

The difference is that Trott deals in words and Fletcher handles the visuals. Both are all about ideas and connecting them to other seemingly unrelated ideas. Both explore the boundaries of creativity.

Both Trott and Fletcher should be essential part of any creative person’s library.