design lessons with Daft Punk

23 May 2013, 22:51

I am sure you have noticed the Daft Punk marketing master plan that is taking over all media channels at the moment. And I admit that I am happy to consume—and inhale—anything (semi‐)intelligent that is being written about them.

Yesterday I read this Observer interview with the ‘notoriously shy French duo.’ Afterwards, intuition told me there was something vaguely familiar about what they had said. I checked again and sure enough, plenty of it applies to (interaction) design.

punk rules, OK?

Below are Daft Punk quotes I lifted from the article, followed by what I associate with each. There are also a couple of cameo appearances by hit‑production legend Nile Rodgers.

‘The music that’s being done today has lost its magic and its poetry because it’s rooted in everyday life and is highly technological.’

Wow, not the most hands‑on quote to start with. But I swore that I’d present them in the order they appear in the article. With the mentioned ‘magic and poetry’, I associate fantastic design work. This means sweeping solutions, for which there needs to be at least one designer on the project with a big‐picture view.

Being constantly ‘rooted in everyday life’—e.g. relying on testing (A/B or usability); or working piecemeal, or driven by user requests, or in firefighter mode—shortens the horizons and shrinks the goals. It surely programs the project for mediocrity, i.e. humdrum, incremental solutions.

Every user has to deal every day with software that ‘is highly technological.’ Everybody thinks this sucks. Making software is highly technological when one is staring at code; when thinking about code; when taking prototyping capabilities into account; when technology informs the interaction, verbatim. Designing great interaction means not making any of these mistakes.

‘In early interviews they came across as suspicious and aloof. “It’s because you’re 18 and you feel maybe guilty: why are we chosen to do these things?” says Thomas. “There’s definitely reasons to feel less uncomfortable now. It’s one thing to say you’re going to do it and another to have done it for 20 years.”’

Now that is the voice of experience talking. The first part of it is this early phase; fresh out of school and real (work) life is starting. This suspicion of one’s own talents, entering a company, scene or industry and expecting the folks around you to be like you, see things like you. And then they don’t. Very confusing, who is wrong here?

The second part is having ‘done it for 20 years.’ If that involved a portfolio of successful work; continuous self‐development; the discovery of what a difference ‘being experienced’ makes and getting to know a few peers, then it has become more comfortable to be a designer. Just don’t get too comfortable; make sure every new project you take on challenges and develops you.

‘The only secret to being in control is to have it in the beginning. Retaining control is still hard, but obtaining control is virtually impossible.’

The first level where this holds is getting a design implemented. Quite often developers like to first put some temporary—and highly technological—interaction while they sort out the non‑UI code. The real design will be implemented later. Then time ticks away, the design lands in a drawer and the ‘temporary’ UI gets shipped.

I do not think this is a malicious trick, but it happens so often that I do not buy it anymore. The only secret to getting interaction design implemented is to do it in the beginning.

The second level is that of the overall collaboration; ‘obtaining control is virtually impossible,’ no matter how big a boost a designer has given the project. So one has to start out with control from the beginning, it has to be endowed by the project leadership. And then one has to work hard to retain it.

‘Guy‑Man, who designed the artwork, says that Thomas is the “hands‑on technician” while he is the “filter”: the man who stands back and says oui or non.’

Filter is the stuff designers are made of. In the case of interaction designers it means filtering out of all the things users say, the things they actually need. It means saying non to many things that are simply technologically possible, but useless, and oui to exactly that what realises the product, addresses users needs and is, yes, technologically possible.

Being the filter does not always make you friends, having to say non to cool‐sounding initiatives that in the bigger scheme of things are incredibly unhelpful. But being a yes‑man makes an ineffective designer, with non‑designed results.

Making software is not a game with unlimited time and resources; user interaction is not one with unlimited screen space and communication bandwidth. A filter is crucial.

‘“The genius is never in the writing, it’s in the rewriting,” says Rodgers. “Whenever they put out records I can hear the amount of work that’s gone into them—those microscopically small decisions that other people won’t even think about. It’s cool, but they massage it so it’s not just cool—it’s amazing.”’

I learned some years ago that it is not only the BIG plans and sweeping solutions that make a master designer. It is also in the details. All the tiny details.

All these ‘microscopically small decisions’ have to be taken in the way that strengthen the overall design, or else it will crumble to dust. This creates tension with all the collaborators, who ‘won’t even think about’ these details. They cannot see the point, the crumbling. Masters do.

‘We wish people could be influenced by our approach as much as our output. It’s about breaking the rules and doing something different rather than taking some arrangements we did 10 years ago that have now become a formula.’

Design is not a formula, not a sauce you pour over software. Design is a process, performed by those who can. A designer cannot tell upfront what the design will be like, but knows where to start, what to tackle and when it is done. That sounds trivial, but for non‑designers these four points work exactly opposite.

Apply the design process to a unique (i.e. non‑copycat) project and you will get an appropriate and unique design. Blindly applying this design to another project is by definition inappropriate.

‘“Computers aren’t really music instruments,” he sniffs. “And the only way to listen to it is on a computer as well. Human creativity is the ultimate interface. It’s much more powerful than the mouse or the touch screen.”’

This quote hits the nail on the head by setting the flow of creativity between humans as the baseline and then noting how computer interfaces are completely humbled by it. It is too easy to forget about this when your everyday world is making software.

The truth about software for designers (of music, graphics and other media) is that not much of it is designed—the interaction I mean, although it may look cool. Being software for a niche market makes it armpit of usability material: developers talking directly to users, implementing their feature request in a highly technological way.

To make an end to this sad state of affairs, a design process needs to be introduced that is rooted in a complete—but filtered—understanding of the activity called human creativity.

‘Enjoying the Hollywood analogy, Thomas says Daft Punk were the album’s screenwriters and directors while the guest performers were the actors, but actors who were given licence to write their own lines.’

I am also enjoying that analogy, and the delicate balance that is implied. On the one hand, interaction designers get to create the embodiment of the software ‘out of thin air’ and write it down in some form of specification, the screenplay. Being in the position of seeing how everything is connected, it also falls naturally to them to direct the further realisation, by developers and media designers.

If that sounds very bossy to you, it is balanced by the fact that these developers and media designers already have complete ‘licence to write their own lines.’ For developers every line of code they write is literary theirs.

The delicate balance depends on developers and media designers being able to contribute to the interaction design process—in both meanings of that phrase. And it depends on all written lines fitting the screenplay.

‘“What I worked on was quite bare bones and everything else grew up around me,” says Nile Rodgers. “They just wanted me to be free to play. That’s the way we used to make records back in the day. It almost felt like we’d moved back in time.”’

This is what design processes are about; to create a space where one is free to play. This in the dead‐serious context of solving the problem. Play is used to get around a wall or two that stand between the designer and the solution for making it work.

It takes a ‘quite bare‐bones’ environment to be free: pencil and paper in the case of interaction design. That may ‘feel like moving back in time’ but it is actually really liberating; it offers a great interface for human creativity. Once you got around those walls and hit upon the solution, every part of the design can grow up around what you played.

And on that note, I’ll finish today’s blog post.

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