Design is Human

This post is adapted from a UNIGIS u_Lecture webinar I gave earlier this year.

Design is human.

It’s a simple statement, but to me a very useful one. When I set out to assemble the talk upon which this blog post is based, I hadn’t realized how many of my thoughts about doing good design can be boiled down to those three words. I’d picked it as the title for my presentation, well before I had any actual content. But as I began to assemble coherent thoughts to go along with the title, I realized that it’s a pretty good summary of where my thoughts are at right now, as well as a refinement of statements I’ve made in the past (on this blog, in presentations at NACIS in 2013 and 2011, and in the classroom).

Humans are Natural Designers

Let’s start with the big question: what exactly is “design”? I could consult a dictionary or something, but that seems like a lot of work and not as much fun as making up my own definition. So, just like my Introduction to Cartography students, you’re stuck with my personal opinion on this one:

Design is making decisions in order to reach a goal.

It’s simple, and very broad. You have something you want to get done, and then you use your knowledge and experience to figure out how to accomplish it. It’s also an empowering definition, because it means that we are all designers. We design all the time in our daily lives.

Here’s a trivial example: I’m hungry. My goal is to be not-hungry. So, I decide that I will fix some food and eat it. Once I act on that plan, I’ll stop being hungry, by design.

It’s a silly example, but it illustrates just how much design we all do every day. We’re constantly planning and making choices based on the way we want the world to be. Design is natural to humans, and our ability to make these sorts of plans is one of the things that separates us from most of the rest of the animal kingdom.

This is something I try and hammer home in the classroom, and which bears repeating: we are all designers. It’s easy to become discouraged or overwhelmed when we see beautifully-designed maps, furniture, or other objects, and to think that the ability to design is out of reach, reserved for a special group of people with appropriate job titles. So it’s important to me to spread this empowering definition, and to remind everyone, student or otherwise, that design is human — it’s something we do naturally.

Some people design breakfast, and others design maps. It’s the same process, but the difference is simply in the goals, and the knowledge and experience being employed in achieving those goals. Here’s a lovely map by Eduardo Asta (which can be found in the 2nd Atlas of Design!)

Asta Mapa do Trafico

The map is built upon a series of good decisions. He wanted to show the movement of drugs, so he made the decision to use arrows. He wanted to present a serious subject in an appropriate mood, so he chose a dark background. He wanted us to understand what the color meant, so he included a legend. And it goes on and on, with hundreds of decisions going into the map. Many are obvious, and some we might disagree with, but we can still boil much of the map down to choices that were made in service of a final goal. What separates someone who can make a map like this from someone who can’t is the knowledge and experience informing those choices. It’s not some inability to design.

Making a map is just like making breakfast, except with different goals, options, skill sets, and resources. So, completely different. Except for the design part; that’s the same.

A Human Designer

By the description above, design requires intent. We have a goal, and we make decisions which are intended to move toward that goal. Design cannot exist in the absence of thought and planning. A random choice is not a design decision. Imagine if, in the map above, Mr. Asta had chosen colors blindly, or put random words on the map instead of region labels. The map wouldn’t be poorly designed, it would be non-designed. It would be senseless, with no connection between the appearance of the map and its aims. If we rush through our work, making choices with little thought, we run the risk of producing something non-designed. And when we fail to design, we run the risk of producing cold, inhuman results:

Mississippi Tributaries

Ledge Wind

The top map is of the tributaries of the Mississippi River, and the other is of noise predictions for a wind farm (previously seen on Cartastrophe). They’re both a mess, and neither give a feeling like there’s a human behind them. When we fail to design, we produce something that lacks thought, and our readers detect this. If a map is a medium of communication between humans, these ones feel like there’s not a person on the other end. We look at them and think: “What human would make such decisions? There must be no one there.” The result is what I call uncanny cartography.

When we put our thought into our maps, our intelligence shows through in the final product, and it allows an empathy to travel through the map. Look again at Eduardo Asta’s map:

Asta Mapa do Trafico

There’s no doubting that a lot of thought went into it. I can immediately perceive that an intelligent being created it, in a way that’s not so apparent with the uncanny maps above. I get a sense of another person (or persons) with an aesthetic taste and preferred style. It feels more comfortable to interact with, because I’m in dialogue with another human, not a mysterious map-producing algorithm that I can’t empathize with or understand.

We also fail to think, and therefore design, when we rely upon defaults. Software defaults are the antithesis of design. Our word processors start with a default typeface and font size. When we open a GIS program and load in a shapefile, our polygons get styled in a pre-set semi-random color. This is, by and large, a useful thing — it would be an annoying chore if we had to set our display parameters before we were allowed to see the data we’re loading in. But these defaults are not design.

I made a map!
I made a map!

Defaults are not choices. I didn’t choose the pink color for the land above, nor the purple rivers. The software made the choice, and the software doesn’t have my specific goals in mind when it picks colors or line weights or whatever. Therefore, by our simple definition, defaults are not design. Some software engineer years ago and thousands of miles away made a guess as to what your goals might be, but they’re pretty likely to miss. To accept a default, without thinking, is to abdicate our responsibility to design.

Again, defaults are not evil. They are useful, but we fail to design when we don’t think about them. Smarter defaults are great; it would be wonderful if I had software that always made good guesses about what I wanted to do, and put together a great-looking map without much input. But I would still need to look over what it’s done, think about if those choices align with my goals, and then accept them. Default becomes design only once you’ve given that human nod of approval. Remember that the software is a tool. It should ease our labor, not our creativity.

To rely on a default, or otherwise not think about our work, is to fail to design, and to create a product which lacks humanity. This is the second way in which design is human: it requires a human on the generating end, because design expresses humanity. When there is no design, there is no humanity. And that produces alienating works that no one wants to engage with (and if you want to communicate with a map, you’ve wasted your time if no one wants to look at it long enough to learn your message).

Design For Humans

Here’s another map that has a lot of humanity. It’s by Owen Gatley, for the website Rad Pad, showing rental costs in Los Angeles:

Gatley Rad Pad

There’s a strong sense of a person on the other end, not a set of automated defaults. But what’s also interesting to me are the non-informational parts of the map. The surfer, the palm trees, the brush strokes, etc. The parts of the map that don’t really tell you any geographic information. What’s the point of including them? They appeal to the senses, and they entertain. Doing good design requires paying attention not only to what is necessary, but also what is unnecessary-yet-pleasing. This is something Don Norman talks about in his book Emotional Design.

Humans love unnecessary things, and this is what makes us fairly unique and awesome. My favorite example is how, in the 1960s, the US government spent an insane amount of money to send people to the moon. There were political goals, and scientific ones, but ultimately, we did it in order to take pictures like this:

Another day at the office for Dave Scott.

Project Apollo is arguably the most amazing thing people have ever done, and it was quite unnecessary. It didn’t reduce poverty or violence or deal with any other crisis. It was about taking awesome pictures (to grossly oversimplify it). And it cannot be explained without understanding what is beautiful about humanity: that we are not driven solely by instinctual necessities of food, shelter, and reproduction. We find the purely functional to be unsatisfying.

Here are two maps of protected areas in the United States:

14 - Kenai Fjords
Kenai Fjords National Park
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument

Both maps have the necessary information — trails, campsites, amenities, terrain, etc. But one of them stops after telling you what you need to know, while the other one goes well beyond that to paint a beautiful, satisfying picture of the landscape.

Which place do you want visit? Remember these are representations; neither landscape really looks like that. But aesthetics matter, and they influence our perceptions of these places we’ve never been. Design without appeal to human aesthetic and emotional senses is frequently empty.

To design maps for a human audience, therefore, means not simply encoding data. It means paying attention to the palm trees. This is the third way in which design is human: design requires understanding humans, and their taste for unnecessary, but satisfying, extras.

So there you go. Design is natural to humans, requires a human at the originating end, and works best when we remember there’s also an irrational human at the receiving end. Three thoughts about design, which I happened to be able to conveniently wedge under the title of “Design is Human.” I do not argue it’s the ideal structure to place them in (the third one doesn’t cleanly tie into the definition I gave), but it works well enough for now. Please feel free to take these thoughts and refine/remix them into a coherent view that satisfies you.

11 thoughts on “Design is Human

  1. Excellent post. These thoughts intersect well with my current graduate research and and my own thoughts on map-making versus map-designing (or cartography) and the definition of “art” in the “art & science” of cartography. I’ve decided that I define art in that context as the design process and this helps back that feeling up for me. This will be a new “reading” link on my cart resources site!

    1. I’m glad that it resonates with you, and thanks for the kind words and the link! I think we often talk in cartography about terms that are broad enough to mean a little something different to each person (such as “art” and “design”). Pinning down an actual definition, if only for myself, helped me a lot in getting a clearer picture of what I was doing and what I wanted to do.

  2. I really like this column. It mirrors my own thinking and several messages I’m constantly repeating to my students. One is that they want to be “making maps on purpose”, as I try to get them to think about everything they put on and everything they leave off of a map. Another is that maps are made by humans for humans, they are forms of human communication and cannot be well-designed or well-understood without keeping the humans in mind at all times. And a third is that every map needs to have some kind of purpose and/or message that, as you say, provide us with the intent to reach the goal in that purpose.

    You very elegantly reinforce and expand on these ideas, so I look forward to sharing this column with my students. Besides, they will surely appreciate your eloquence in comparison to the usual delivery they see. ;-)

    Great post.

    1. Thanks so much! It’s good to know other people are having similar thoughts, since I’m just sort of making this up as I go.

  3. I found your column through CityLab’s link to you in a post of theirs from last year. I’m not a cartographer, but I am fascinated by maps; and I’ve recently done some reading about how some early maps of New Spain (early decades of the 1500s) jointly made by indigenous people and European seems to have influenced subsequent map-making by Europeans. Thus, your comments about how good map-making design is a reflection of someone’s making choices really resonates within that early-modern context–indeed, it really complicates the usual ways of talking about these maps as projections of European power. They are that, no question, but in at least some of them there’s a dialogic quality going on at the visual/informational level between/among their European and indigenous co-creators.

    In my day job, though, I teach English at a community college, so it was within that context that this statement resonated with me: “Default becomes design only once you’ve given that human nod of approval. Remember that the software is a tool. It should ease our labor, not our creativity.” The moment I read this, I thought, “This is what’s happening with my students’ complacency regarding SpellCheck.”

    All of which is to say, Thank you for making and maintaining this stimulating place.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it. I didn’t know that indigenous people had much of a hand in the way their lands were mapped during that period. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Hi Daniel. I just read your post, and what a great read! With the emergence of AI in more and more places (software, design, etc.) we probably can’t avoid, that ‘intelligent’ machines to some extent will affect the human design process (including the graphical and visual processes) ie: how things look, the aesthetic and emotional qualities. Do you see a possible collaboration between people and machines going forward? And if so – how? All the best, Magnus.

    1. Thanks! It’s a good, and important question, but it’s one that I don’t have a clear answer to. I feel like so much of the future is unclear as far as how humans will relate to machines across most disciplines. The idea that comes to mind right now, though, is a parallel between human-to-human relations. I can, for example, serve as a supervisor or consultant for other humans who do the cartography work and make adjustments according to my requests and suggestions. I could see a similar relationship eventually taking place at some stage of human-machine interaction, where the machine is doing most of the heavy lifting, but you make high-level directions for how you want it to look. One key component will be the development of machines that can be creative and different from each other. Even if we make machines that can make great maps, if they all run on the same code and make similar-looking products, eventually people will want something that looks *different* as certain styles get overused. So we’ll also want machines that can respond to changes in taste.

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