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Digging Wholes

Reflecting on the relevance of systems thinking. Plus Cheryl Platz on multimodality and other things worth your attention.
Jorge ArangoJorge Arango
December 27, 2020

Welcome to INFORMA(C)TION, a biweekly newsletter about systems thinking, responsible design, information architecture, and other topics relevant to humans who create digital things.

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Still Life with Glass and Newspaper, by Georges Braque (1913)
Photo by Richard Mortel, CC BY 2.0

I hope you’re having a restful holiday! I've taken a couple of days off in the last week, but I'm about to get very busy.

In little less than a month, I start teaching my graduate systems studio course at CCA. This semester will be the fourth time I teach this course, and I’m confident about the material. However, the current context (i.e., 100% remote) changes the experience: among other things, we must eschew in-person exercises. As a result, I’m revising the syllabus. It’s an excellent opportunity to review the basics and think anew about how to introduce the subject.

Thinking in terms of systems is fundamental to good design. The thing you’re designing is never an end in itself; it’s always part of something bigger. Conversely, the work’s subject isn’t monolithic but composed of elements smaller than itself. At all levels, components interact with each other to accomplish particular purposes. Whole > sum of the parts.

It sounds basic, but students (and professional designers) are more drawn to the parts than the relationships between them — or, more importantly, to the whole. The more tangible the element, the easier it is to grok. Wholes are much harder to grasp. We fawn over elegant screen layouts and lose sight of the fact they’re hurting the bottom line, contributing to unhealthy user behaviors, or worse.

My job in this course is to help students understand their work in terms of wholes; to see and articulate the distinctions between system components and the (dynamic) relationships between them. The subject can be very abstract, and many people have a hard time with abstraction. The classroom (whether physical or virtual) provides a safe environment to practice mapping and modeling systems, skills that are increasingly (and I’d argue, urgently) relevant.

As I prepare for the course, I would love to hear from you on this subject. Are systems thinking/mapping/modeling part of your work? Are they valued in your organization? Is your work environment conducive to designing at these higher levels of abstraction? How do you discuss these things with your colleagues, managers, and stakeholders? Please let me know by replying to this email.

Also worth your attention:

The Informed Life Episode 51: Cheryl Platz

Episode 51 of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with Cheryl Platz. Cheryl is an accomplished interaction designer who has worked on multimodal systems like Alexa and Cortana. Our conversation focused on multimodality, which is the subject her new book, Designing Beyond Devices.

By the way, there are two other The Informed Life updates this week: the show is now available on Spotify and features an all-new website.

The Informed Life Episode 51: Cheryl Platz on Multimodality

Parting thought:

I do not believe in things. I believe only in their relationships.

— Georges Braque

(I found this quote in Rosalind Armson's book Growing Wings on the Way, which is a good introduction to practical systems thinking.)

I wish you and yours a healthy and generative 2021.

Thanks for reading!

-- Jorge

P.S.: If you like this newsletter, please forward it to a friend. (If you're not subscribed yet, you can sign up here.)

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Copyright © 2020 Boot Studio LLC, All rights reserved.

Jorge Arango
Boot Studio LLC
P.O. Box 29002
Oakland, CA 94604

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