The Designer’s Complacent Agreement

There are just two ways to interact with a prepared piano: on purpose, or the other way. John Cage — the artist typically credited with inventing the instrument — was adventurous and controversially playful when it came to the presentation of any art. For him, the intentional construction of the instrument and its influence on the player’s interactions was analogous to living. As a player, one must willingly enter into the agreement made long before between the composer and the instrument, and agree: something is wrong here, but it’s going to be ok.

This agreement is the sun around which the rest of the experience orbits. In this space, the thing that’s happening is not just the player, the composer, or the instrument — it’s quite clearly some other thing, truly an otherness. In many ways, the audience is as important as any other element, for they too have agreed. They’re aware.

We might liken this space and its agreement to much of our digital lives. People create things that exist in an orbit around each other on the web and many times, we accept an apparent wrongness that appears so commonly, it begins to become reality. Like the Cage audience, we enter, and accept or ignore many wrongs that pervade what we typically consider “our” experiences. It’s practical, and generally, it doesn’t dampen our view of the tools and platforms we’re interacting with.

Composing for the prepared piano is not a criticism of the instrument. I’m only being practical. — John Cage

Cage preparing a piano, in 1947. Photograph by Irving Penn / © 1947 (Renewed 1975)

For instance, we talk a lot about dark patterns and frightful retargeted advertising that follows us from place to place. Experiences like this are part of the online experience, and those of us in the know discuss the matters with a haughty, insider privilege that belies our genuine interest in doing no harm as designers. In our work, we understand there are unintended consequences.

Propaganda, sometimes referred to as ‘fake news’, is a popular topic, but is nothing new to many web users (or anyone else). It’s infuriating now that its potential has been validated, but it’s been a nuisance for quite some time. It’s not nearly the same (and perhaps those other things aren’t, either) as the earlier, romanticized agreement made by parties aware of the experience they were going to enter.

So, we’re actually approaching the prepared piano the other way. Unintentionally. Like it or not, even the most sophisticated user or designer is interacting with digital experiences on a daily basis in a zone with plenty of wrong, plenty of otherness, but not that magical kind that has risen from masses of individuals entering into an agreement together for an experience. It’s the bad kind, the kind that sneaks up on you and destroys composers, players, and audiences alike.

Consider Keith Jarrett’s famous Köln Concert in 1975. Upon arriving at the Opera House in Cologne, Jarrett met with the 17-year-old promoter to discover that the piano he’d requested wasn’t there, and the one that had arrived in its place was mostly unplayable. The instrument was prepared in another way: it was broken. Jarrett refused to play, but was eventually convinced after the young promoter appealed to him based on the 1,400 audience members who had arrived for a jazz concert at the late hour of 11:30 p.m.

This now famous performance is more like our digital experiences, or at the very least, more like the digital experiences of most regular users who are not happily resting atop a privileged view. It’s frustrated, angry, unreliable, and unfair. It’s a miracle the results are applauded, and these players deserve far more credit for persisting in a digital universe that actively profits from trickery, bad faith, and the monetization of an illusion that waves individualism on its flag while banking on click bait.

you’re not an activist designer, you’re also “prepared,” designing for a world of users that must attend an instrument that’s been modified irrationally.

Our ability to function amidst this sort of hyper-normalization has a long and complicated history, but within our digital experiences, it can be primarily attributed to two major contributing factors: faith in the illusion that our digital experiences are personal and curated by us, and this perceived individualism that renders us both radical and impotent.

Even worse, we consider ourselves immune to the darkness, the otherness, and believe that we’re outside of the experience in which users are misled. At its most devastating, this passive approach to our collective digital experience culminates with our belief that somehow our president-elect would not be where he is if only other people were as individual, as wise, as experienced as us. And if we haven’t realized that this stunted world view influences our politics, we must surely realize it influences our work as responsible designers.

There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it — that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all! — Mario Savio, 1964

We’re faced with a challenge that requires us to acknowledge and overcome more than our user preferences and our own unique solutions to common challenges for our clients and users. We must consider the term “human-centered design” to be a political mantra, a value. Our responsibility now, in 2017, reaches far beyond an idyllic work session in which talented designers discuss the experiences of users they only imagine. We must uninstall our ad blockers, shake our teams awake, and begin to talk about all experiences, not just our own, not just those we wish to see. We must not only discuss the vision, but actualize it, and reject the other.

If we’re Keith Jarrett — and we should want to be, if we’re designing for humans — we are moving forward with the tools we’re given and creating the thing we want to see. We’re partly to blame for the instrument we’re addressing, but our goal is in sight.

Designers, lay your bodies on the gears.

I use design to help brands deliver great customer experiences and measurable business results. A lightning bolt at the intersection of curiosity and creation.