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Jan 29, 2008 7:10am

what vs. how

An AIGA post from last summer (The Amazing Visual Language of Processing) has got me thinking about the tension in the relationship between design and technology, especially in a firm like Stamen.

One of the ways in which we describe our work to ourselves is a balance between Divergence and Convergence, words that my dad explained to me a while back in a design context. Divergence means sketching, exploring, playing, choosing the right metaphors to use. Convergence means you have a goal in sight, and you're problem-solving to attain it within known constraints. We shift from one mode to another over the course of a client engagement, and we're starting to get better at self-awareness in this process. There's a perpendicular division/dialogue as well, between what and how, and I think it operates above the project level, maybe even above the company and industry level in some cases.

Our What is the content you see in a Hindsight or Swarm, the visual presentation of an information source like home construction or popular news stories. This is the obvious bread and butter of what we do, and generates a lot of phone calls, e.g: "we saw Digg Labs, and we have this new website idea that we can't talk about, but we'd like a Labs of our own, please, for when we launch." I think a lot of traditional design (for an ever-changing definition of "traditional") happens here: if you already know how to do CMYK or HTML, you can focus on the communication, the content, and finally the finesse.

Our How is the way we get things done, and is the sum total of all the data, web, presentation, shaping, protocol, publishing, processing, algorithmic, and other domain knowledge we've built up over the years. I think about this a lot. In addition to being a partner/owner, my official role is Director of Technology. This means that much of my time is spent with a machete in the jungle of new stuff that might be interesting to us at some point in the future: new technology, new sources of interesting data, and new ways of cramming it all through the thin straw of the web for viewing in a browser.

The thing that keeps me going is that all this How work is really fascinating. A lot of it happens in the early phases of a project, and not all of it sees the light of day, but I like to think that one of our competitive advantages as a company is having a deep well of technique to draw from, and the ability to keep a dialogue going between the two poles. The reason I say above that this dialogue frequently seems to span companies is because in many cases, it is obstructed by force of habit. If you already know how to do something, there's no need to learn to do it another way. Dialogue keeps novelty flowing up and back to the visible work, and inspiration and movement down and towards the coalface where all the dicking around happens. Groups that lack this line of communication seem to either get stuck in techno-noodling/experimentation on one hand or cul-de-sacs of process fervor on the other.

Some of the most interesting people I know are adept at shuttling back and forth along the line between the two poles. Matt Biddulph seems to spend 75% of his time running Dopplr, and the other 75% of his time exploring hardware, Erlang, Second Life, and Jabber. My friend Bryan is a builder and carpenter, and talking to him about his new house show a similarly expansive scope: I'm fascinated by the idea of pointing to doors and windows and being able to assert that they should be moved this way or that, holes for new doors punched in existing walls, and entire new spaces carved out of basements and foundations. Eric Sink had a great way of explaining this constant peering-into-things in a 2003 blog post where he talks about constant learning ("Don't work for a manager who is actively hindering your practice of constant learning. Just don't do it."). I also enjoyed Clayton Christensen's Innovator's Dilemma and its examples drawn from the disk drive industry (the mayflies of computing) for an extended explanation of the ways in which an existing What can block the view to a new How, to the point that entire companies and even industries are plowed under. For whatever reason, technology (as much a moving target as "traditional") freaks people out, e.g. Miko's extensive comments on the GiveWell fiasco from last month: "Though the 'elders' were universally extremely bright and accomplished people, I was struck by what I can only call a sort of fundamental insecurity.... As soon as technology is mentioned, many of them seem to forget what they already know, and fail to ask the basic questions they have been asking all their lives."

Back to the convergence/divergence thing, I think the what/how conversation spins on a different axis, more slowly than individual projects. Just as an example, the granularity of Stamen's mapping work exploded this past year when we started the Modest Maps project and introduced a city-scale level of detail to our work and served as the backdrop to a series of efforts at representing time. The previous year, our work with Digg (designing their API, the Labs work) led to a multi-client exploration of liveness. This year, we've identified responsiveness as a seam to mine, looking at ways in which new and old projects might incorporate user feedback to change the underlying systems.


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