UX Week Keynote Speaker Amanda Dameron on Making Design More Human

If you’re a fan of Dwell magazine, you’re familiar with its unique take on modern architecture and design in the home. Dwell editor-in-chief Amanda Dameron is a passionate advocate for the philosophy of design exemplified by the homes, decor, and furnishings showcased in Dwell. In this interview, I talk with Amanda about that philosophy, the changing role of design in our culture, and her keynote at UX Week 2014 in San Francisco this September.

Jesse James Garrett: One thing about Dwell that I think makes it distinctive among media entities that cover architecture and design is your emphasis on the real-world implications of design for people’s lives. Aesthetics are great, and everybody loves beautiful things, but I think that in a lot of design media, the emphasis on aesthetics becomes so overwhelming that it detaches from reality.

Amanda Dameron: I think, especially in this visual culture in which we’re living, that objects and object appreciation verges into fetishism very quickly. Dwell has always thought to tell the story of the materials and the methodology that goes into a design object, going far beyond what it looks like. I think that you can’t assess the design simply by looking at an object. You really must understand the context and the techniques that go into actually creating it in the first place. Then it’s also about the experience with the object, how does it work within a life, how does it work in its relationship to the human being that’s using it. All of those things go into the way that we talk about design.

JJG: Dwell is about 14 years old. This has been a really interesting period to be covering design because of the way that design has been elevated in the culture in that time.

AD: Yes, I would say that’s true. I think that thanks to the avenues the Internet affords us, people have a much more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of design overall.

JJG: What do you think about where that is taking us? What are the implications for the whole culture as design goes from something of a niche interest to being more of a mass force in the culture?

AD: What I hope is that people will have more understanding of how an object is made, and how materials are sourced, and the whole process from the manufacturers to the end buyer. I hope that people understand that quality is worth something, and that understanding how something is made and buying things that are made to last are important. Through the Internet, people have access to so much imagery of design and architecture through which they can dream. We’ve never had so many choices, and we’ve never had so many products available to us. Designers and artisans and craftspeople have never had the ability to market themselves the way that they can today, and those are all good things.

What I hope is that by delving into the makers and the making, people will come to understand that you don’t have to buy the cheapest thing necessarily, and you don’t have to buy a certain kind of furniture to live a certain kind of lifestyle. There’s great choice out there, but I think that people also have more information than ever before to make responsible choices.

JJG: You mentioned the importance of experiential context. I wonder if you’re seeing a heightened awareness of that experiential context among consumers, among the people who are buying these things and bring them into their lives. Are we looking at something that goes beyond just a heightened sensitivity to design, to an actual sensitivity to the experiential consequences of design?

AD: I don’t think that everybody has the opportunity to test out the products they’re buying and I think that’s a bad thing. I think that there is far too much quality being attached to an object without that key piece of feeling and touching and experiencing, and I think that’s a big problem. As a design editor, I’m often asked to say whether or not something is good. I’m asked that question on the basis of a single image, and I respond by saying, “How could I say if I haven’t seen this object or touched this object? I couldn’t possibly give you my opinion without that.” I’m often disheartened that they reply, “Well, you’re the only one who said that.” I think it’s a problem. I don’t want to make a picture book for people. I’m not interested in just static imagery. I want to delve into what you can’t discern with your naked eye.

JJG: It’s interesting, because for some time people have really struggled to do design awards for digital media, like you see in other design disciplines. I think people have mostly been disappointed by the results of these efforts because it feels like it’s difficult to judge. It becomes difficult to separate the novel from the actually good just by virtue of not having sufficient context.

AD: You’re absolutely right. I have been asked to judge gadgets, and most of the time my response is, “Why would someone use this? Does this really serve a purpose?” If you’re judging a design, you can’t just be going along the blurb and the image that’s given to you by the person that submits it, or even the object itself in front of you on the table. You really have to test it yourself and experience it as a user. You want these awards to call people out for great work, but it’s an empty assessment if those who are judging aren’t really doing their due diligence.

JJG: I think another challenge in judging experience design is that we’re really working with how someone’s engagement with a product or service unfolds over time. The value that somebody gets out of that experience may not be apparent in the window of time that you might have access to the product in the course of being on an award jury.

AD: Absolutely right. So when I’m asked to be a judge, I’m honored, but I also cringe a little bit, because I don’t ever know what the parameters are going to be. I don’t know if I’m going to show up and just have two hours to assess a bunch of products. With Dwell, I create a product, and only through the feedback that I get from our audience am I able to refine the product to make it more relevant. If I were not relying on that feedback, then what I would be making would be useless.

JJG: Do you feel like that is something that is understood by the people who do the kind of design work that you cover? To what extent is that kind of feedback part of their process?

AD: I think the designers and architects that we feature know that Dwell has an engaged audience of people that ask smart questions and they’re proud of this work and so they want to talk about it. They want to be asked questions. It’s not just about some pictorial victory lap necessarily. It really is about getting that feedback from the audience. People that read Dwell are the people that actually might build something themselves. It’s not just a passive audience and that’s the really important part.

With our conference Dwell on Design, we are bringing those people on stage to delve further into a story from the magazine and to open it up to the audience to participate in the conversation. And these people on stage are thrilled to be there because that feedback is essential to them. It helps them expand how they approach their work. I think that’s a great environment to be in for a person that produces something.

JJG: So tell me a little bit about your talk and the themes that you are hoping to bring to our audience.

AD: I think that universal design, accessible design is an incredibly important topic because as human beings, there aren’t a lot of things that will happen to all of us, but at some point all of our bodies won’t be able to perform for us the way that they once did.

And so I’m always looking for design and architecture that really addresses that very real, very human need. Good design should allow us to live better lives. Many of us are very, very lucky in that we don’t have to think about the way that a city is laid out and how we would traverse it if we were not able to use our legs. A lot of us don’t have to think about how we’re going to enter a building if we didn’t have use of our arms. We’re not even aware of how design eases the simplest of tasks for us, because design is working so much in the background. But when you are challenged in a myriad of different ways, these little tasks, they become glaring.

I’m really interested in exploring practitioners who do important work for people out there who are challenged, because I do believe that these issues touch us all eventually. It’s really important to discuss them and to discuss them realistically and remind the people at large that these are important topics to explore.

JJG: What are some areas of design where you think that these ideas are particularly under-represented? Who needs to hear this message the most?

AD: That’s a big question. I think that people who are working on products and services on a large scale for a lot of different people to use are the most important audience to be thinking about these things. People who can think about architecture and design and information design and city layout for people that are using a wheelchair, for example. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg; I think that designing for dementia is another really under-represented area.

Anything that relates to aging in place is so important and we really don’t hear about it very much. I think it goes so far beyond how we use a building or how we live in a home. I think that it extends into the information design that we are interacting with on our telephones and our televisions and the post office. It touches us in all of these different ways on a human level. That’s why I’m so pleased to bring this subject to this audience.

JJG: I think that one area where this really comes to the surface is in the places where products and services intersect one another. It’s not necessarily a problem of the design of one thing, but it’s the design of a couple of things and how those designs come together. Is that pattern what you are seeing?

AD: Yes, absolutely it’s that. It’s the system that doesn’t support the problem. It’s not just about a product; it’s not about a doorknob. It’s not about a doorway width. It’s everything that goes into making a city livable, and so it’s a much, much bigger infrastructure conversation.

JJG: What do you think needs to change or evolve about the way that designers do their work to make room for these considerations?

AD: I think that if we are forced to confront the limitations that a badly designed product or service eliminates, that’s when real change can happen. Michael Graves, who is in a wheelchair but has not been in a wheelchair for most his life, told me that his physical challenges have changed his architectural practice. He believes that every architect should have to experience his or her own building from the vantage point of a wheelchair, and not just for five minutes, but for a week, using the building. I think that what’s missing is empathy and first-hand experience. I think it’s up to everybody to find that human part of themselves to help them explore how they can make their design better for more people.

JJG: Thanks Amanda, and we look forward to your keynote at UX Week!