Does writing count as design? For the purposes of this post and this blog, I’ll say yes—although I adamantly maintain that writing is writing and design is design, plus you have to qualify “design” and say that graphic design is graphic design, since graphic design surely isn’t furniture design.
But is a piece of writing designed? Well, yeah. That’s what narrative is, after all.
The design of Paul Ford’s talk, delivered as the closing keynote at the School of Visual Arts M.F.A. program’s Interaction Design Festival in 2012, hangs on a meta-chronology (forgive me) in which Ford segments the talk itself into various timeframes. Each is relative to units of marking time: the century, the year, the age of the universe and so on:
I've been talking for around a minute now. If this speech was a century long we’d be ending the first decade. If it were the 20th century we’d be thinking about getting a telephone installed and wondering if we should trade in our horse for a car. Depending on where we lived, of course. (1)
If this speech was 20 years long then, right now, AltaVista would be the dominant search engine, and AOL and Yahoo! would be the most important sites on the web. (3)
As a piece of design, the essay holds your attention with this framework of time slicing. It’s just complicated enough that you have to think a little about structure, but it’s not so technical or obtuse that you get disoriented. You feel the structure as you would a well-worked grid on the page.
There are some terrific little throwaway bits like:
I can never remember if we are supposed to live each day as it were our last, or if it’s the first day of the rest of our lives. It’s hard to tell sometimes.
And later, this:
The sensible thing for a keynote speech like this is for me to get up and talk about your time, about how to value it. And you might think that’s what I’ve been doing. But it’s not. I don't worry much about your personal particular time. You’re free; go forth and do what you want.
And then, late in the game, this lovely passage:
The only unit of time that matters is heartbeats. Even if the world were totally silent, even in a dark room covered in five layers of foam, you’d be able to count your own heartbeats.
When you get on a plane and travel you go 15 heartbeats per mile. That is, in the time it takes to travel a mile in flight your heart beats 15 times. On a train your heart might beat 250 times per mile.
And we count this up and we make sense of it. We’re constantly switching accelerations; we’re jumping between time frames. (8)
Since the piece was originally delivered as a keynote, it has to have some kind of point, some wisdom. The point that Ford is working to, ostensibly about time, really turns out to be about consideration. He says:
And that’s my point, and it’s a simple point. The time you spend is not your own. You are, as a class of human beings, responsible for more pure raw time, broken into more units, than almost anyone else. You spent two years learning, focusing, exploring, but that was your time; now you are about to spend whole decades, whole centuries, of cumulative moments, of other people’s time. People using your systems, playing with your toys, fiddling with your abstractions. And I want you to ask yourself when you make things, when you prototype interactions, am I thinking about my own clock, or the user’s? (10)
All this time, you have been thinking about time and that wasn’t the point at all. You’ve been using your mind through the whole thing to keep track of something you thought was important, but then what is asked of you? Be empathetic. be considerate. Be, as a designer, a responsible citizen of the economy of attention that revolves around the only truly priceless currency we have: time.