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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?