Jonathan Foster | Microsoft Design: John Maeda on Writing in Design

via Microsoft Design


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.

April 2019 #DesignInTech Briefing

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From the April #DesignInTech Briefing

Four Things That I’m Thinking About Design In Tech

* With the 2019 Design in Tech Report now out and available in short-form and long-form on YouTube, I’ve started collecting material for 2020 from all the interesting (and interested) feedback that I’ve received online.

* My biggest “a-ha” has been a strong reminder that creativity is like Gordon MacKenzie would say, something that takes time. Or as Wieden+Kennedy dogma puts it, “It’s the idea buried ten feet under the ground.”

* Tony Ruth’s exquisite four-frame illustrated take on inequality, equality, equity, and justice emerged in the final minutes before the report went live. It literally came from nowhere, and not a moment too late.

* I’m in love with long-form blogging again after remembering how it’s so easy for a 2nd- or 3rd-party’s clickbait-y article title, or even a tweet, to be interpreted just as if it were a complete summary of all your thoughts.

Three Things I’ve Noticed In The Last 30 Days

* Accenture’s acquisition of Droga5 made me look deeper into what pundits say about consultancy versus agency. Conclusion: AI and data science look to be pit against humans and creativity — it doesn’t have to be that way.

* The Google People (HR) team released their new study on “distributed work” acknowledging that a third of their meetings involve folks in more than two time zones. Expect more tools for increasing timezone inclusivity on teams.

* Nieman Lab reported that Facebook’s News Feed algorithm change last year to increase user engagement has succeeded by as much as 50%. Divisive topics are more easily pushed up by peer networks in priority over publishers’ content. Yay?

Two Unsolicited Non-Tech Products That I ❤

* B.LeekS luggage suitcase wheels make my roll-about bag glide better than when I first got it. Pro-tip: The first size spec pertains to the actual diameter of the wheel.

* Twelve South has discontinued their Surfacepad for Macbook leather wristpads, but you can fight with me on eBay for them. Use an X-Acto blade to cut and fit for your laptop.

One Special Link

* I’m a bit behind on this month’s briefing because I needed to re-draft my upcoming book. Pushing out the 2019 Design in Tech Report changed a lot of my thinking, so the book needed some refactoring. https://howtospeakmachine.com

One Final Point

* AI is a topic that is moving from “oh no!” to “what is it?” — which means we have the opportunity to move from crisis to curiosity if the invisible forces of computation are eventually understood instead of summarily feared.

January 2019 #DesignInTech Briefing

If you’d like to get my monthly #DesignInTech Briefing sign up here to get it in your inbox first.


From the January #DesignInTech Briefing

Four Things That I’m Thinking About Design In Tech

* There is a new tool for effortless product x dev x design collaboration born every week that will solve everything. Not.

* Scaling design at the speed of Moore’s Law is not possible. Scaling design IS possible at a slower-than-desirable velocity.

* Inclusive design has achieved broad acceptance among designers as important, but for non-designers it can be a harder sell.

* Although there is palpable fear with respect to AI’s impact, there’s also some creative curiosity out there.

Three Things I’ve Noticed In The Last 30 Days

* Given how an app like TikTok can succeed outside of China, I wonder how many more popular apps will be proudly Designed in China?

* Boomers, Gen X-ers, Gen Y-ers, and Gen Z-ers all question the value of social media platforms while we watch TV (aka YouTube or Netflix).

* Software is reclaiming its “craft” heritage roots in response to our weakening trust of the big cloud services. Organic, locally-sourced apps anyone?

Two Unsolicited Non-Tech Products That I ❤

* Conus textile shells are both beautiful and affordable, and resemble Wolfram’s Rule 30.

* Little Eyes by Katsumi Komagata is a die-cut picture book for children under 3-months.

One Special Link

* https://designintech.typeform.com/to/Qnh5AA is the new 2019 #DesignInTech Contributor Survey

One Final Point

* Getting techies to learn from non-techies is surprisingly difficult because they don’t live in the same places — which is a sign of a deeper problem.

Design Is … -isms

In preparation for the upcoming Design In Tech Report I’ve gone back to look at my Twitter feed over the last ten years to see what I thought design’s meant to me. Some of these “-isms” are more right or more wrong depending upon the era that they came from so it’s a little embarrassing to look back like this. But that’s how we all learn: by trying out all of our ideas in public to see what might stick! —JM

Continue reading “Design Is … -isms”