No modern designer speaks to the power of language in design with a deeper understanding than John Maeda. And we would be smart to pay attention to his words.
His career pedigree is stunning: tenured research professor at the MIT Media Laboratory, 16th President of the Rhode Island School of Design, former VP of Design at Kleiner Perkins, former Global Head of Computational Design and Inclusion at Automattic, he received the White House’s National Design Award, and his work can be found in the permanent collection of MOMA. Did I mention he’s written four books? And last week, Publicis Sapient brought him on as Chief Experience Officer. And these are merely highlights.
In his annual “Design in Tech” report from 2017, Maeda declared that code is not the only unicorn skill, quoting R/GA Head of Verbal Design Jennifer Vano: “Words can shape reality.” They do, and not just through our designed experiences, but also how we approach our design work.
I had the great opportunity to ask John Maeda a few questions about his perspectives on all this after he recently spoke at Microsoft about design in tech for 2019.
Starting with the basic point, what role do you think writing can play in the product and customer experience?
Writing plays an important role when information is read with the eyes or heard with the ears. It can also be touched to be read, so it is intelligible through three of the five senses. Does it also impact the other two senses — smell and taste? Definitely not in a physical sense but in a metaphorical sense, I would have to say yes. Experiencing bad writing will leave a customer with a bad taste in their mind. And will leave them thinking that a product is bad and doesn’t deserve a second chance. So, in general, I believe that writing impacts all five human senses in a similar multi-sensorial matter that any non-written aspects of a product or experience can succeed or fail at achieving.
Naturally, we’re super fascinated by the integration of writing and design, but also by the working collaboration. What could designers learn from writers and vice versa?
I’m biased in believing that all good designers can write or recognize good writing, which is evidenced by how every iconic moment of design history is only fully experienced with the words of the designer or carefully contextualized with someone else’s words. I’m equally biased in thinking all writers can design or recognize good design. This becomes more obvious when computational experiences are more like partner dancing instead of just pressing a button and leaving. The dancing we do with the cloud requires sense-making that is best delivered as stories that become the movie in which the user lives — and, as every filmmaker knows, every good story requires good writing.
In a similar vein, what qualities do good design and good writing share?
Good design and good writing share qualities of respect for the consumer’s time and money. Also, delivering value is meaningful to designers and writers when they are in service to others. In this way, they are practitioners not artists. They draw upon the more esoteric work of an artist or poet, but carefully draw a line in not pretending to be them.
How do you see the relationship between writing and design evolving over the next years?
I’m hoping we’ll see that our recent attention to design and writing in the technology industry is linked to the fact that prior experiences didn’t need emotional value as much as functional value — because the early users were mainly tech-focused aimed at getting a specific job done. Today, computing is for everyone, and that means the expectations for having a great experience are never going back to the command-line interface. Which, when you think about it, demonstrates how writing has always been at the foundation of our interactions with the computer. Writing is intrinsic to how computing has been designed and programmed. Maybe for that reason I’ve never seen the two as separate.
And I definitely have to thank my “Design in Tech Report” collaborator Fatimah Kabba for pushing hard to highlight the importance of writing in the design of products and experiences — it really struck a chord. Frankly, I’ve been surprised to know that many designers don’t regard writing as highly as I do, but my guess is that will change for the better over the next few years. After all, what is an experience without a logical beginning, middle, end? It’s an unsatisfying one.