Look out. I am entering a Jaspers phase. Reading Hannah Arendt’s essay “What is Existential Philosophy?” I’ve drawn a ridiculous number of stars, explanation marks and yeses into the margins of her summary of his thought. My plan is to read him through a material-turn lens and see if I might connect him up with Postphenomenology and ANT as a complementary second-person perspective, and develop it all into the design philosophy I’ve been threatening to write about about for last decade.

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Hineni might be the best one-word Jewish prayer.

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Humility as insight

Objective reality as we all (to some degree) know it is a product of myriad overlapping subjective realities as each of us know it; and each of these subjective realities is in turn a product of metaphysical reality none of us knows in any normal sense of knowledge.

If we are insufficiently alert our objectively-tempered subjective truth seems for all the world to be an imperfectly but adequately known objective reality that faithfully represents metaphysical reality.

The hardest thing for a human is not mistaking oneself for God. Most of us fail at this task and succumb to apotheosis.

Humility is a hard-won insight. Self-humiliation is a grotesque counterfeit.

(I’m pretty sure I’ve written this post before.)

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Far too few folks have given real thought to how they think — only to what they think.

They might think outlandishly different things, but they do not think about those things in different ways. And they think about different things precisely because the things they think about in their conventional way fail to give them satisfying answers, which drives them to go digging for data in new places, or to speculate about things allegedly happening beneath the surface, inaccessibly, but in a manner that soaks up the inexplicable remainder without requiring any change in how one thinks.

My instinct, a pragmatist’s instinct, is, when confronting an intractable conflict of interpretations, to suspect the How of thought first, and only after to question the What, or Why, or (God forbid!) Who.

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Object attachments

Most of the research I’ve done in my career has been focused on removing problems or finding opportunities for increasing usefulness. Much less has been focused on intensifying desirability and long-term attachment, except as a side-effect of function. I’d like to focus more on designing for desirability in the next decade.

I would also like to think more about what desirability is. It is not only visual aesthetics. Nor is it only a matter of personality or identity projection. Since early childhood I have always formed unusually strong attachments to objects, and these attachments are deep, intense and inward. They are never one thing, but a mix of aesthetics, use quality and symbol — and occasionally they are social as well.


I keep returning to my triad of What/How/Why (aka Is/Can/Ought) which started as an obsession with the meaning of the I Ching trigram yaos back in the early 2000s, and which is still a live problem for me and in the form of a venn trefoil is one of my most enduring geometric meditations (along with three other diagrams: wheel, star and spiral).

(For me, these shapes are intuitive springs and no matter how hard I try to finally explicitly nail down what they mean, they are never even close to exhausted. I’ve written about each of them extensively, in prose and verse, but it all seems so pompous that I get embarrassed and I don’t want to expose it. I should probably just get it all out of my head onto ink on paper and into boxes in a storage area and just move on. And if it is not obvious, I have a powerful object-attachment to my unpublished magical pamphlet.)

For the moment, I want to connect this with Liz Sander’s design trinity of Useful/Usable/Desirable.

I am tempted to view Usefulness as the overlap of How/Why; Usability of How/Is; and Desirable as the overlap of Why/Is.


I might need to explore attachment theory.

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Lek and “the social”

Yesterday, talking with a friend about the current generation of youth’s terror of being awkward or inappropriate, I realized I’ve somehow managed to never write about the concept of lek on this blog, much less in connection with Buber’s social versus interhuman/interpersonal distinction. I’d imagined this linkage so vividly I assumed I’d written about it already.

So what is lek? I learned about it from Clifford Geertz: in his paper “Person, Time, and Conduct in Bali: The Social Nature of Thought”:

The concept of “shame,” together with its moral and emotional cousin “guilt,” has been much discussed in the literature, entire cultures sometimes being designated as “shame cultures” because of the presumed prominence in them of an intense concern with “honor,” “reputation,” and the like, at the expense of a concern, conceived to be dominant in “guilt cultures,” with “sin,” “inner worth,” and so forth. The usefulness of such an overall categorization and the complex problems of comparative psychological dynamics involved aside, it has proven difficult in such studies to divest the term “shame” of what is after all its most common meaning in English — “consciousness of guilt” — and so to disconnect it very completely from guilt as such — “the fact or feeling of having done something reprehensible.” Usually, the contrast has been turned upon the fact that “shame” tends to be applied (although, actually, far from exclusively) to situations in which wrongdoing is publicly exposed, and “guilt” (though equally far from exclusively) to situations in which it is not. Shame is the feeling of disgrace and humiliation which follows upon a transgression found out; guilt is the feeling of secret badness attendant upon one not, or not yet, found out. Thus, though shame and guilt are not precisely the same thing in our ethical and psychological vocabulary, they are of the same family; the one is a surfacing of the other, the other a concealment of the one.

But Balinese “shame,” or what has been translated as such (lek), has nothing to do with transgressions, exposed or unexposed, acknowledged or hidden, merely imagined or actually performed. This is not to say that Balinese feel neither guilt nor shame, are without either conscience or pride, anymore than they are unaware that time passes or that men are unique individuals. It is to say that neither guilt nor shame is of cardinal importance as affective regulators of their interpersonal conduct, and that lek, which is far and away the most important of such regulators, culturally the most intensely emphasized, ought therefore not to be translated as “shame,” but rather, to follow out our theatrical image, as “stage fright.” It is neither the sense that one has transgressed nor the sense of humiliation that follows upon some uncovered transgression, both rather lightly felt and quickly effaced in Bali, that is the controlling emotion in Balinese face-to-face encounters. It is, on the contrary, a diffuse, usually mild, though in certain situations virtually paralyzing, nervousness before the prospect (and the fact) of social interaction, a chronic, mostly low-grade worry that one will not be able to bring it off with the required finesse.

Whatever its deeper causes, stage fright consists in a fear that, for want of skill or self-control, or perhaps by mere accident, an aesthetic illusion will not be maintained, that the actor will show through his part and the part thus dissolve into the actor. Aesthetic distance collapses, the audience (and the actor) loses sight of Hamlet and gains it, uncomfortably for all concerned, of bumbling John Smith painfully miscast as the Prince of Denmark. In Bali, the case is the same, if the drama more humble. What is feared — mildly in most cases, intensely in a few — is that the public performance that is etiquette will be botched, that the social distance etiquette maintains will consequently collapse, and that the personality of the individual will then break through to dissolve his standardized public identity. When this occurs, as it sometimes does, our triangle falls apart: ceremony evaporates, the immediacy of the moment is felt with an excruciating intensity, and men become unwilling consociates locked in mutual embarrassment, as though they had inadvertently intruded upon one another’s privacy. Lek is at once the awareness of the ever-present possibility of such an interpersonal disaster and, like stage fright, a motivating force toward avoiding it. It is the fear of faux pas — rendered only that much more probable by an elaborated politesse — that keeps social intercourse on its deliberately narrowed rails. It is lek, more than anything else, that protects Balinese concepts of personhood from the individualizing force of face-to-face encounters.

Lek is clearly an artifact of what Buber calls “the social”, where “each individual existence is enclosed and contained in a group existence.” The role one performs (and in lek, fears performing poorly) is a role assigned by a culture for the purpose of smooth social functioning.

My suspicion is that the combo of social media and inadequate liberal indoctrination has brought lek to dominance in today’s youth culture, in the form of anxiety about awkwardness and inappropriateness, endangering intimacy and solidarity among individuals.

Lek combined with the devastating consequences of digitally amplified public shaming the stakes of performing one’s own individuality, which is individual to the degree that it deviates from the norm, are simply too high to risk. People play out their individual deviance in isolation, without company, language or light. We have taken more and more of our singing birds back into the cellar and locked them up with the wild dogs, transmuting gold to lead, virtues into vice. Shame is back, with a vengeance.

Love is profoundly individual. Only an individual loves. An individual loves only an individual.

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Perspectives on hybrid systems

Approaches to the composition of hybrid systems (systems made up of both objective and subjective elements) can be classified according to perspective.

Actor-Network Theory views hybrid systems from a 3rd-person perspective, in objective terms, without emphasis on either the human or the nonhuman components that make up the system.

Postphenomenology views hybrid systems from a 1st-person perspective, in subjective terms, emphasizing how a human experiences, interacts with — or, better, participates in — the hybrid system.

This suggests a question: what would a 2nd-person perspective on hybrid systems look like? I would assume a radical Buberian I-Thou conception of 2nd-person, that would concern itself with accurately empathizing with and understanding others, appealing to and persuading others and motivating participation in order to influence the formation, development and or stabilization of hybrid systems. I am tempted to answer: Design. And by design, I always mean Human-Centered Design.

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One way to see design

Design is materialized philosophy.

When designing something — which always and necessarily means designing something for someone — the central question is always: what is the right philosophy for this context?

The purpose of design research is to get to the heart of this central question out, and then to pose the design problem in such a way that designers think about the design problem in the right way, from the philosophical perspective suited to the problem.

Design briefs are tiny philosophical primers.

A good design brief will effect a perspectival shift in the reader (the designer) that brings new possibilities into view, possibilities that were entirely inconceivable prior to the shift. This phenomenon is what is commonly called inspiration.

Design researchers are in the precision inspiration business.

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Popper: “We all have our philosophies…”

“We all have our philosophies, whether or not we are aware of this fact, and our philosophies are not worth very much. But the impact of our philosophies upon our actions and our lives is often devastating. This makes it necessary to try to improve our philosophies by criticism. This is the only apology for the continued existence of philosophy which I am able to offer” — Karl Popper, Objective Knowledge. An Evolutionary Approach.

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Reject the conflict

This passage from Bruno Latour expresses a humility that I feel is disappearing from the world: “It is us, the social scientists, who lack knowledge of what they do, and not they who are missing the explanation of why they are unwittingly manipulated by forces exterior to themselves and known to the social scientist’s powerful gaze and methods.”

Today, the further you are to the left or to the right the cockier you are about already knowing what is controlling the behavior of the world.

If you think in far-right terms, you know that people are manipulated by occult forces. Nefarious conspirators, supernatural entities and mysterious forces (essences, destinies, cosmic plans) all control the unfolding of history. Where effects take place, that action must have been intentionally planned by someone, Someone, or someforce. To counter these plans, one be on 24-hour red-alert — watching and prepping to defend oneself violently if necessary against the schemes of a concealed, intelligent and organized enemy whose actions have been prophesied in the Bible or by other sketchy divinations.

If you think in far-left terms, you know that people are controlled by unconscious psychological forces, mostly biases for and against categories of others. Leftists also believe in conspiracies, but these conspiracies happen through unconscious or lazy complicity: openly prejudiced people enlist the private, complacently habitual or unconscious prejudices of people of their own identity category to do what is in their collective best interest against the interests of other categories. To counter this semi-conscious institutionalized prejudice, it is necessary to intentionally institutionalize counter-prejudice (which isn’t actually prejudice because prejudice is only prejudice if it is held by the stronger groups against weaker groups, according to the prejudices of this theory).

These two extremes cannot imagine anything more opposite to themselves than their opposite. “The opposite of Good is Evil. We on the Right are the Good.” Or: “The opposite of Hatred is Love. We on the Left are on the side of Love (which is why we hate the haters, especially the invulnerable majority who hates complacently without even noticing it.)”

Each extreme justifies and feeds the other. And each extreme views moderates as unwoke dupes or cucks who brainlessly do the bidding of the other side.

But actually it is the moderates who are the true opposite of the two extremes, which can be seen as one thing that mistakes itself for two. The fringe-left and fringe-right should be seen as two pistons in the same apocalyptic engine, reciprocally feeding on one another’s force and fire.

This is why I refuse to engage extremists on their terms. I always present the conflict as one of moderation against extremisms. I align myself with normal moderate Americans who want to preserve what is best about America (individual autonomy for those who want it enough to work hard for it) against the hysterical hubristic know-it-alls and the apocalyptic engine they’re constantly revving up as loudly as possible over this or that emergency or outrage.

Philosophers have learned, when faced with either-or choices that the most philosophical thing to do is to “reject the question” and to look for a better one. Similarly, patriotic American will need to learn to “reject the conflict” and to redraw better battle-lines. I am an agonist, which means I believe conflict between mutually respectful adversaries is necessary and good. The battle-lines the extremists draw can create nothing but enemies.

I will conclude this rant with an inspirational passage from Eric Voegelin who lived in Germany in its worst moments, and knew a thing or two about ideologues:

“…I have been called every conceivable name by partisans of this or that ideology. I have in my files documents labeling me a Communist, a Fascist, a National Socialist, an old liberal, a new liberal, a Jew, a Catholic, a Protestant, a Platonist, a neo-Augustinian, a Thomist, and of course a Hegelian—not to forget that I was supposedly strongly influenced by Huey Long. This list I consider of some importance, because the various characterizations of course always name the pet bête noire of the respective critic and give, therefore, a very good picture of the intellectual destruction and corruption that characterize the contemporary academic world. Understandably, I have never answered such criticisms; critics of this type can become objects of inquiry, but they cannot be partners in a discussion.”

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You didn’t have to convert to do that!

I interviewed an Israeli woman earlier this week as part of the work I’m doing. Of course I had to tell her I’m a recent convert. She immediately brightened up and demanded to know why I did it. I tried to answer her, but everything I said she shot down with “you didn’t have to convert to do that.”

“You could observe Shabbat without converting.” “You could have your Jewish friends…” You could read Jewish thinkers…” “You could celebrate the holidays…”

Somehow I didn’t feel like she was doubting my decision. It seemed like maybe she was honoring it. Because things were immediately different between us when I told her. Kicking my ass with such familiarity, cheer and warmth, she was showing me my best answer.

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I had insomnia again last night and put on the audiobook of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. The best history is always disorienting, and this is premium disorientation, on the order of Inventing the Individual.

According to Anderson, nations and nationalism are a modern phenomenon which uses the past to construct an imaginary present outfitted with an equally imaginary history that provides it a sense of continuity.

Continuity, coherence, clarity are basic human needs, it seems. What varies is how we get these basic needs met — but the way we get them met can erase the variations in how we have gotten them. The continuity, coherence and clarity we have now consist in our sharing that coninuity, coherence and clarity with our ancestors. Human nature seems invariable precisely where it is most variable, but for the sake of what actually is invariable.


These periodic historical disorientations, along with my regular philosophical disorientations have given me a quite different sense of continuity — one of human beings looking for continuity and building it out of whatever materials are closest at hand.


How many “red pill” folks remember that the reality to which Neo awoke was just another dream within nested dreams?

In an epiphany, we experience clarity, renewed purpose and resolve, and we conclude: “this is truth.” But this could not be further from the truth. It isn’t that the epiphany lacks truth, it is that it the clarifying, galvanizing effect happens despite truth — at least “truth” as those who seek it understand it

To refuse to know this truth about truth gives a knowing person even more clarity and resolve — even greatness.

To exalt these epiphany-effects is to exalt the power of delusion.

We dream red pills, we dream waking up, we dream enlightenment, we dream reality and call it truth.

We dream wokeness or awakenedness to amass power over those who dream weaker, wider, more liberal dreams.


Our epistemic misnorms are our deepest misnorms.


Even generations get lonely in their time.

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Latour’s vocabulary

Bruno Latour changes his vocabulary and framework in every book. This is both irritating and valuable. It is irritating because there is too little continuity and much conceptual sprawl. Each book feels slightly out of control, and his corpus feels like a series of accelerations without momentum. But it is valuable because behind his attempts to capture his insights in words is a tacit metaphysic, from which his theories proceed. The theories must not be confused with the metaphysic, and his failures to truly nail it make the impossibility of nailing such truths evident. In this Latour is like Nietzsche. Both thinkers are mercurial in the most literal way imaginable.

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Designers develop hybrid systems

Reading Verbeek’s What Things Do, I’m reminded of Latour’s handy term “hybrid”, an entity that is neither purely subjective nor purely objective, but a fusion of both.

In Latour’s eye, the distinction between nature and society, or subject and object, which has seemed so self-evident since the Enlightenment, needs to be seen as a product of modernity that has far exceeded its expiration date. No other society makes this distinction in such a radical manner, and in ours it is more and more painfully obvious how poorly it allows us to comprehend what is happening in the world. The project of modernity, according to La tour, consists of the attempt to purify objects and subjects — we set objects on one side, subjects on the other, and draw a line between them. What is on the one side of the line is then material for scientists to investigate, with what is on the other side for the social scientists. … This purification and separation of subjects and objects, according to Latour, is coming to be less and less believable. Ever more entities arise that cannot be comfortably placed in this dichotomy. Latour calls these entities “hybrids.” The irony is that these hybrids thrive thanks to the modem purification: precisely because they don’t fit within the subject-object schema, we cannot recognize them and therefore they can proliferate at an astounding rate without anyone trying to stop or change them. But now, as their numbers become ever greater, it becomes more and more difficult to deny their existence. We are flooded with entities that straddle the boundary between humans and nonhumans…

Humans and nonhumans are just as bound up together in our culture as they are in others; therefore, Latour concludes, we need to study our technological culture similarly to the ways that anthropologists study other cultures. This means studying how the networks of relations between humans and nonhumans develop and unravel. In order to understand our culture, we must trace out both the process of purification and that of hybridization; we must understand how hybrids arise and why they are not seen as hybrids. In order to understand phenomena, they should be approached as black boxes that, when opened, will appear to contain myriad relations and activity.

If we grasp and internalize this understanding of hybrids, it becomes possible to compactly differentiate how designers approach their problems versus how engineers approach theirs — and why they so often marginalize designers and accidentally prevent designers from working in the way designers believe is best. Here it goes:

Designers develop hybrid systems. Engineers develop objective systems.


I’ve written two elaborations of this idea, material to supply the understanding that makes grokking the compact definition above possible. I’ll post both, because there’s no time this morning to combine them.

Version 1

An engineering perspective treats design as a sub-discipline of engineering. Design adds an aesthetic (and among more enlightened engineers) and usable “presentation layer” to a functional objective system.

A design perspective ought to treat engineering as a sub-discipline of design. Once a hybrid subjective-objective system is developed through a design approach, objective sub-systems can be defined within the larger context of the hybrid system and built according to engineering methods. According to a design mindset, an engineered system is always and necessarily a subsystem belonging to a larger hybrid system that gives it its purpose and value.

The reason so few people see the obvious truth of the latter design perspective is that their vision is obstructed by a philosophical blockage. The hybrid system concept does not play nice with the modern subject-object schema. Designers learn, through the practical activity of design, to view problems in a new way that is incommensurable with modernity’s default philosophy (as described by Latour).

But designers are rarely philosophical, so the methods rarely progress to the point of praxis. Design language is all bound up with humans and the trappings of subjectivity (emotions, opinions, habits, etc.) on the side of who the design is for and the trappings of romanticism on the side of who does the designing (insight, inspiration, creativity, passion, etc.) Design practice is a jumble of “recipes” — procedures, jargon, styles and theater — a subterfuge to make design fit the preconceptions of folks who don’t quite get what designers are really up to. So design submits to modernist schema and goes to modernism’s special territory for people people, romanticism.

Version 2

Designers consciously work on developing hybrid systems where subjective and objective elements relate and interact. In design, people and things are thought of together as a single system. And things are not only material objects; they can be ideas, habits, vocabularies, etc. Whatever makes a design work or not work, including the engineered elements, as well as all business, cultural, environmental considerations are part of a design problem. When a designer opens a black box of their own making, they will see subjects interacting with objects and subjects, and objects interacting with other objects and subjects.

Engineering, on the other hand, works inside the subject-object dichotomy, and works on problems of objective systems. As a matter of method, engineering purifies objects and arranges them in systems. When an engineer opens a black box of their own making they see objective components interacting and working as a system.

From the view of engineers, the interior of the black boxes they make are their concern, and the surface layer of the box — the point where subjectivity encounters engineering, is the concern of designers. Engineers build the black box; designers paint and sculpt it to make it appealing to people.

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Philosophy fails

This morning I was forced to use the redesigned Freshbooks. They’d totally revamped the user interface. It was very slick and visual. And it was six times harder to use.

This is a depressingly typical experience in these times. I’m constantly suffering the consequences of wrongheaded, well-meaning changes made to things I rely on to not change.

I was lamenting to a friend how much work, time and money Freshbooks (and companies like them) sink into solving the wrong problem and making new problem.

I complained: “Not only did they thought about it wrong — they didn’t even think about how they were thinking. This was a philosophy fail.”

And these are the mistakes that offend me: philosophy fails. People failing to reflect when reflection is most needed. They need to think about how they are thinking about what they are doing… and they instead choose to be all startuppity, and just do. Just doing is valorized, and it shouldn’t be, any more than just thinking. We need thoughtful practice matched with practical thinking: praxis.

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Let’s stop engineering philosophies

My pet theory is that philosophies have been developed in an engineerly mode of making, with emphasis on the thought system, and to be evaluated primarily epistemically: “is it true?” The Pragmatists improved on this by asking, “does it work”?

But I believe the pluralistic insight requires us to take a designerly approach to philosophy by expanding the questions we ask of philosophies to those of design (as originally posed by Liz Sanders): “is it useful; is it usable; is it desirable?” And human-centered design has taught us always to dimensionalize this triad with “…for whom, in what contexts?”


Very few people grasp what philosophies are, and how and why they are so important. They use philosophies that lead them to believe their philosophy is their belief system — the things they believe to be true true and the means by which they evaluate these truths. They think they know what their philosophy is, because their philosophy points them only to their explicit assertions and arguments, and this sets sharp limits to what they can think and what they can do with their thoughts.

Philosophies are the tacit thinking that give us our explicit truths and our sense of reality. We had better design them well! But we keep engineering them… for other engineers.

Maybe philosophy is waiting for its own Steve Jobs.

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Design brief

A design brief is a compact design problem definition, carefully designed to inspire designers to produce effective solutions to a real-world problem.

I’ve been thinking about and collecting briefs for years, and I have noticed that the very best briefs do three things well: define the problem, inspire solutions and provide guidance for evaluating solutions.

1) An ideal brief should be informed by an understanding of a real-world problem.

…which means the brief focuses on the right problem, addresses the full problem, and gets the details of the problem right. This way a design team will work on solving the right problem, will consider the most important factors, will incorporate the most important elements and will strike the smartest balances and tradeoffs when designing a solution, and the team’s efforts won’t be won’t be guided by assumptions or errors. The elements of a design problem definition will always include who the design is for, why the design will be useful and desirable for them, and all factors from the use context that might affect the solution. It will also include all requirements and constraints from the client organization.

2) An ideal brief should convey the problem powerfully.

…which means the brief communicates its problem clearly, memorably and inspiringly. Clear communication means the problem is crisply and unambiguously defined for the design team. Memorable means each designer can hold the whole problem in their minds, so that the parts of the problem all hang together as a whole, while remaining distinct. Inspiring is the most difficult part: this means that the brief can help produce surprising ideas not specified or implied by the brief, but which still satisfy it. The brief stimulates ingenuity that surpasses anything the brief anticipates. (* Note: A tight, effective brief is likely to require supplemental materials to educate the team and get them aligned with the people and contexts of the design problem. Ideally, the designers will participate in the research and gain a tacit feel for the situation they are designing into. The brief does not have to carry the entire team educational load, only the interpretation of the situation into a design problem.)

3) An ideal brief should provide an explicit evaluative standard.

…which means the brief outlines criteria by which a member of the design team can assess the quality of the solution, and determine where it is and is not successful. This removes arbitrariness from the process and fully empowers designers to try bold, radically novel approaches to solve the problem.


I have never created nor have I seen a design brief that fully lives up to the ideal sketched above. I believe what I’ve written may be a design brief for a designing a design brief.

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10,000 foot view

The spew below might be a plan for a talk.

Lately I’ve been reflecting on what strikes me as the most difficult and interesting challenge I’ve faced adjusting to service design after decades of practicing other flavors of human-centered design — namely the problem of altitude and granularity appropriate to solving service design problems.

If strategy flies at 30,000 feet (where the ground is so distant it looks like a map) and we agree most design flies at 3 feet (where the ground is so close and so chaotic it is hard to survey), service design flies at 10,000 feet, approximately the height a single-engine prop plane flies.

10,000 feet is a very useful altitude that bridges 30,000 foot and ground, but it does introduce some difficulties.

First, there is the issue of clouds. At 30,000 feet, the clouds are below you. Standing on the ground, the clouds are above you. But at 10,000 feet you are flying in and out of clouds, which can become very disorienting, in the most literal sense. It can be a challenge to know which way is up. And the view is neither clear nor continuous.  One moment you can see a bit of ground, the next you see nothing but your instruments, and you have to use your memory, imagination and your recording and data-gathering tools to form a sense of the whole. But that whole you finally grok has far more structural clarity than you can get from the ground, and more human richness than you can pick up from up in the cold, thin air of the stratosphere.

Second, you are dealing with some odd scales of meaning. Looking down at a town, everything looks miniaturized but still human, maybe even exaggeratedly human because the tedium of life is abstracted away and we relate to it like kids playing with toys. Some homes are big, some are small, some are complexes or towers. Some are arranged in grids, some along windy branches of street bulbing in cul-de-sacs, and some cluster along the edges of lakesides or hills. Some homes have trees or yards, pools, trampolines or gardens, driveways or parking lots. You can imagine what life in the neighborhood might be like. But you can also see the layout of the city, and get a sense of how parts of the town connect up. You can see where the schools, the stores, the churches and the sports fields are. You can see where things have been built up, what has been left in a wild state, and where development is happening.

Now imagine trying to tell a story about the life you see below, doing justice both to the individual lives taking place in the tiny buildings below but showing how it all connects in a living system… this is not the usual storytelling scale. It is neither intimate nor epic. It must generalize, but without blurring key particularities or averaging individuality into bland average anonymity. But if you wish to tell the story of how a town works, or if you want to propose significant structural modifications to the town, this is the narrative scale required. Telling such a story requires judicious zooming in and zooming out to show connections between whole and part, connecting fine grain details of breakfasts, meetings and bills with broad generalities like demographic trends, commerce and traffic patterns.

Finally, intervening at this height is strange. The proposals for changes are unnervingly between strategic and tactical. They anticipate details of implementation, but without overspecifying them. Specifications are suggestive and provisional and intended more to clarify a problem than provide a solution. Many people find the interpretive latitude confusing: what in the recommendation is fixed and what is variable? If everything is open-ended what use is the recommendation at all? It can all seem vague and insubstantial, yet there is a thrust and lasting momentum in the work that carries initiatives forward and in a direction that benefits both the organization as a whole, its employees and the people it serves. Somehow the recommendations made from this altitude are capable of creating continuity between the grand plans of strategists and the intricacies of implementers on the ground.

The 10,000 view manages to refract the grand plans and sweeping aspirations of the 30,000 foot view into actions on the ground that actualize it and prevent it from remaining mere aspiration and plan. And the 10,000 foot view provides individual actors on the ground a way to relate and connect their efforts to tangible, relatable and realistic goals that connect up with the purpose of the organization.


Recently it occurred to me that this 10,000 foot theme is closely related to an idea I hatched years ago, which I called bullshit-chickenshit.

Bullshit – Meaningful, inspiring ideas that that seem to promise practical action but never fulfill that promise and never find application.

Chickenshit – Practical actions that seem like they ought to serve some meaningful purpose, but in fact is meaningless and done for no reason.

Bullshit is meaning without application. Chickenshit is application without meaning.

The 10,000 foot view prevents strategy from dissociating from everyday application and devolving into bullshit. And the 10,000 foot view provides some meaningful, relatable context for people working on or near the front lines to help them to remember how what they do connects up with organizational goals so the operational minutia supports the organizational goals and prevents it from devolving into bureaucratic chickenshit.

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Design vs marketing mindset

What is it about the marketing mindset that makes it feel so familiar and so unfamiliar at the same time to my designer’s view of the world? Why do designers and marketers talk past one another if they aren’t very careful?

This is an important question. Marketing is close to design, and addresses many of the same problems. Along with engineering, marketing is design’s closest neighbor, with the large stretches of contested boundary lands, including the choicest turf, coveted by many disciplines, product management.

I think it comes down to the fact that ultimately design is about individuals and marketing is about aggregates. Design thinks in terms of each; marketing thinks in terms of all.

When design thinks about groups, it still thinks of these groups as constituted of individuals experiencing and responding to designed artifacts. The aggregates are just collections of many individuals with certain similarities that allow the designer to design something for them that each might potentially choose and use. The data a designer needs to work effectively is everything that affects how an individual (or constellation of individuals) encounters a thing (or system of things).

When marketing thinks about aggregates it is in its true element. Its basic unit is a segment that hopefully will produce some aggregate outcome. When it thinks about individuals, those individuals are samples from a mass that might give indications of mass perceptions and behaviors — what percentage of a cohort of what size can be expected to perform some desired behavior?

This, like so many things, recalls Buber’s distinction between the social and the interpersonal.

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