books, design, experience

Beginning: Finding Beauty in Interactive Design and Life Thanks to Jenifer Tidwell’s Latest Book, Designing Interfaces

“Looking closer can make something beautiful.” ~ Cynthia Lord

As a customer experience designer I spend a lot of time thinking about aesthetics. I recently finished up an excellent book by O’Reilly Media on the topic – Designing Interfaces by Jenifer Tidwell. Yes, the book focuses on the design of interactive experiences – online and for mobile. Tidwell has used the idea of pattern finding as a basis for exploring interactive design. Patterns, a way to recognize the structure of past experiences and relate to new one, make us feel comfortable and secure. So it’s not surprising that we find beauty in them.

What Tidwell highlights so well in the book is the idea that patterns don’t just show up by accident, and they aren’t recognized accidentally either. Patterns need to be sought out, pursued, and practiced. Of course you can and should vary a pattern based upon the audience you’re targeting and the medium you’re using. However, a pattern, even if rough form, gives us a place to begin, a root to branch from, and eases the anxiety we feel at the start of a new project on a very blank canvas. Just beginning can be the very highest hurdle. Patterns give you a way over that hurdle so you can get to the fun stuff.

And this true whether you’re working on interactive design, painting a mural, or designing your life. While Tidwell wrote the book for software developers, web / mobile designers, and usability experts, the truth is that the interactive space highlighted in the book can be a metaphor for anything that can be designed, which is to say that it’s for everyone living, breathing, and creating. Patterns are where we start. According to Tidwell they have a 5-fold purpose:
1.) We learn from them.
2.) Teaching us what has worked and what has not worked, and why.
3.) They give us a design vocabulary that allows us to exchange thoughts and ideas with other folks like
4.) Patterns serve as comps for projects we are currently engaged with.
5.) Patterns inspire us – and that’s true whether we’re trying to copy them or break them.

Interested to start seeing patterns in your own life? Here’s a fun exercise I like to do whenever the way forward on one of projects seem murky and I can’t find the beauty in what I’m currently doing. Hint: take Cynthia Lord’s advice and look closer:

1.) Think about a time when you felt blissful, when everything, literally everything, in your world fit perfectly in its place. Where were you, who were you with, and what were you doing?

2.) Think about a time when you felt totally disillusioned, disappointed, and frustrated. What are the events that lead up to that circumstance? How did you remedy the situation? How did it resolve?

Through the careful and honest assessment of these two exercises, you will see some patterns in your life that lead you in two polar opposite directions. And this little trip down memory lane can be scary for some people. Looking at our successes and failures and seeing how they came to be forces us to see how we play a hand in shaping our own life. Life doesn’t happen to us; we build it. That responsibility can feel empowering to some, and downright terrifying for others. If you’re in that latter group, take comfort that the patterns that emerge will provide you with a great understanding of how your life has come to be where it is now, at this very moment. And knowledge is power.

Still nervous? Here’s an example for each of the exercises from my own life to get you going:

1.) Last Fall, I was walking through Central Park by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was a warm, sunny Fall day, and Phineas and I were enjoying one of our marathon morning walks. (How I miss those days as the frigid winter wind now howls outside my window at this very moment.) There was nothing extraordinary about that moment, but just as the Met came into view, I felt this surge of joy rush through me and overflow.

Patterns: Walking my dog (and exercise in general) is very therapeutic for me. Our desire for happiness can be fulfilled in every moment, even when doing the simplest things. Happiness is always accessible to us as long as we remain aware.

2.) When I first started at my current company two and a half years ago, I was in a miserable work situation. I had the worst boss of my career, and faced some of the toughest projects I’ve ever done with very little support from her. Oh, and the economy was falling apart and there was a very real possibility that I would be laid off at the height of the recession. Those were scary, sad, anxiety-filled days.

Patterns: I rushed into taking that job, even though my gut told me this boss was not the right one for me. I didn’t ask much of my boss, even though I was frustrated with her lack of support and lack of engagement. Though outwardly confident, I was a nervous wreck inside, which caused my health to be compromised for far too long.

Just writing that out now did me a world of good. I’ve moved my life much more in the direction of my joyful experience and further away from circumstance that disappointed me. And this exercise spurred me to look for even more patterns from other experiences.

I think Jenifer Tidwell would be proud, and she should be honored that her book about interactive design can really serve an even higher benefit – it can help someone build a satisfying, fulfilling life.

This blog is part of the 2011 WordPress Post Every Day Challenge.

This blog is also available as a podcast on Cinch and iTunes.

I'd love to know what you think of this post! Please leave a reply and I'll get back to you in a jiffy! ~ CRA

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