Designers, Be Happy You’re Not DolphinsMay 13, 2010 In Design By Nishant Kothary
I recently watched The Cove—the much-heralded documentary about the covert annual slaughter of Dolphins in Japan. Oddly, I walked away feeling sorry for designers
The film follows protagonist Ric O’Barry, a reformed dolphin activist from Flipper fame, who’s joined forces with Louie Psyhoyo, leader of the Ocean Preservation Society, as they lead a team of vigilantes to covertly film the entire massacre in The Cove—the alleged scene of an annual dolphin massacre that’s been deemed off-limits to all but a select group of officials and fisherman by the Japanese authorities.
Despite the one-sidedness, it’s a great piece of filmmaking. The documentary positions the cause masterfully by gripping its audience with one of the seven basic plots.
Having said that, I’m completely astonished (but maybe I shouldn’t be) at how this film has catapulted dolphins to the new status of the sacred cow. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy for Ric and dolphins worldwide.
But, let’s be honest about the double standard here.
I watched the film sitting next to two vegetarians (full disclosure—I like my filet mignon medium-well), one of whom couldn’t see the difference between the dolphin massacre and industrial livestock farming in most developed nations, including the US. In essence, my vegetarian friend noted,both are systems in which humans kill animals for monetization and sustenance.
Ric argues that dolphins have Theory of Mind: They’re self-aware,extremely intelligent and close to humans in the evolutionary chain, if you will. Hence, their captivity and murder are inexcusable.
As Sam Harris argues in his TED talk, Science Can Answer Moral Questions, our tendency to protect certain forms of life such as elephants, primates and now, dolphins, is rooted in our belief that they can experience a broad range of happiness and suffering. Conversely, we don’t show such empathy for rocks, ants or, say, Cattle.
But this reasoning just doesn’t sit well with many smart vegetarians I know. Some are infuriated that we bestow upon ourselves the right to make judgments about what species we may kill or hunt. Or that we presume to know which species are off-limits, since our understanding about their consciousness is incomprehensive.
Make no mistake—this isn’t just an isolated opinion of a few vegetarians. It’s even a core tenet of many religions—Ahimsa (non-violence), a core concept in Jainism, asserts that all living beings have a jiva (a soul) that is equal and thus, must be treated with equal respect. Practicing Jains go to extreme lengths to preserve life of all forms, from ants to root vegetables; many Jains have never tasted a potato because that’s considered a sin!
Beliefs about what level of respect different forms of life deserve traverse a broad range of complex and subjective arguments.
The keyword here is subjective.
The Curse of Subjectivity
The word “subjective” is the arch nemesis of user experience. That’s because “subjective” is usually an illusion when it comes to design.
Everyday, brilliant creations are adulterated with toxic accoutrements borne from the bowels of a belief that design is subjective. This distortion of reality seems to have become a core tenet in our organizational value system; it often leads to metaphorical Cove massacres of our products.
The challenge with design is that it’s not as primitive as logic, but we tend to silently measure it logically. Design is a craft that approaches the complexity of natural language with nuances, contradictions, and emotions. Much like good writing, good design is something that doesn’t just evolve, but is intelligently created by a craftsman. And it always grips us in an unexplainable way.
Because it is, often, unexplainable.
Explaining the Unexplainable
The unexplainable part of the practice design is founded on evolved problem-solving capacities that are often hidden from our consciousness. These are the same evolved capacities that allow ball players to catch seemingly impossible fly balls with awe-inspiring accuracy—a task that when solved mathematically relies on solving differential equations in four dimensions—which even the most sophisticated robots can’t replicate.
The problem is that our reductionist methods always mislead us into mistaking the unexplainable for incorrect or illogical. The fact is that reductionist approaches generally do a piss-poor job of reverse-engineering the unexplainable when it comes to design—because they neglect the unquantifiable pieces of real equation.
We need to wrap our minds around a new definition of design that builds upon better evidence. Taking talent for granted, the definition lies somewhere between three key points: Edwards’ assertion that artists have a trained ability to represent the world as audiences desire to see them, Gigerenzer’s assertion that intuition and gut feelings are better suited for certain types of problem-solving and Gladwell’s assertion that expertise in a trade is achieved at the magical 10,000 hour mark.
In simpler words, the practice of design occurs at the confluence of talent, training, intuition and experience. The rest is just background noise.
Thank God We’re Not Dolphins
My point is that the practice of design isn’t really subjective like the ethics of the dolphin trade or personal musical tastes, and while much of it is unexplainable, it’s hardly illogical or incorrect.
But, I suppose the real moral is that designers should be thankful that they’re not dolphins. I mean, can you imagine being a dolphin swimming up to humans, introducing yourself with a friendly high-pitched language that rivals the sophistication of their own, and impressing them with tasks they can’t achieve, including mastering their own language, only to find yourself being held captive to perform circus tricks or simply being marginalized, massacred and consumed without consequence?
Wait a minute…