Two friends corresponding about design, part 2bDecember 20, 2009
[This is a public reply to Jon Bell’s post, which is in turn a continuation of our recent email and iChat conversations.]
Your advice is invaluable. Thank you.
The Design of Everyday Things is one of the first books I picked up when I got serious about making things for a living. The bit of that book that still haunts me is how humans continue to make things that are demonstrable failures of design, when there are known working solutions out there. How many seconds of billions of people’s time need to be wasted by Norman Doors before it stops being okay to design such nonsense?
But that’s not what I sat down to write about. This conversation has made me think about a pattern in the pursuits of my life. I tend to muddle through fields, learning here and there, for years. It feels like just entertaining a hobby, not like studying at all. Then I come across a piercingly brilliant resource on the topic. Almost at once, the raw materials I’ve built up from experimentation and dabbling are arranged into a semblance of skill.
I’m not under the illusion that I’m adept at any of these things (yet?). But I’m undeniably on some sort of higher, more stable level after having found these resources. Of course, it’s not a surprise that studying makes you better at things. What’s interesting is how long-term tinkering for fun, followed by a quick, well-aimed shot of education, is more satisfying than an ordinary drawn-out curriculum.
Here’s where this pattern has manifested for me.
Music: I started playing bass at age thirteen because I wanted to be Geddy Lee. I took lessons weekly, learned a bunch of Rush songs, and was convinced to join a punk band. I enjoyed it, but I was never really any good. Years later, when I decided to refamiliarize myself with guitar and bass, I bought Fretboard Roadmaps. It didn’t contain any surprises; it was all the same stuff I’d learned in my lessons. But somehow I became able to play along with any song that came up on iTunes. I started being able to play creatively. I started figuring songs out and taking notes, instead of just looking up tablature. I have no idea quite how this happened; it is still kind of a mystical thing to me.
Writing: I’ve spent a lifetime considering myself a writer of some sort; indeed, even before I knew how to form letters, I was stapling together stacks of paper and drawing stories in them. A good amount of that time I spent as an exasperated prescriptivist who didn’t know anything about how language worked or how to use it constructively. But I started writing software documentation. A rapidly-delivered cocktail of resources introduced me to the organic, evolving nature of language and the value of consciously consistent style over bogus notions of universal correctness. Roughly in this order, they were The Elephants of Style; The Chicago Manual of Style; The Language Instinct; Language Log; and Writing With Power.
Typography: There was a time when I didn’t grasp why typography deserved to be considered a whole field. You just pick a font and go, right? Sure, and in carpentry you just grab some wood and slap it together. After being involved in UX design for a while, though, I came to undertand that I understood very little, and I approached John Gruber at C4 to ask about resources for learning. He pointed me at The Elements of Typographic Style, which I’d been avoiding because of its title. But in no time, I was craving layout and typesetting tasks to test out my new appreciation. Now I’m crushing on a font family, dreaming of having one cohesive, graceful suite of faces and to get intimately familiar with.
Visual Design: Working with Cian Walsh, and pestering him for advice, somehow finally made me able to create graphics that I am not ashamed to include in software that is sold to tens of thousands of people around the world.
Information Design: One Edward Tufte talk will set you straight when it comes to proper visualization, especially if they give you a bag fulla his books.
Programming: I’d been coding haphazardly since age 8, but there are a few moments from college CS classes that I can still clearly recall as when I started understanding, for instance, what object-oriented programming is for, and what it means for code to be beautiful.
Japanese language: Put me in a room with all four Sakura Taisen games and my bilingual buddy Andy, and a month later I’ll come out with more confidence in the language than several years of study could instill.
Productivity: The Getting Things Done system turned a person who’d been utterly useless for decades into a person who can sometimes do things.
Science: I always thought I liked science. But Richard Dawkins showed me that science isn’t about being interested in hearing about dinosaurs and planets and curious factoids. Science is a way of thinking, and the only reliable way for conscious beings to understand the world.
Our topic has wandered wide. It is curious to look back on all of the most strikingly memorable learning experiences of my life, and to find that just one of them took place inside a school. They say that you go to school to learn how to learn, so of course I don’t regret it. But it seems you need to seek much farther to do the learning.