Presenting three great people

February 23, 2009


I’ve been spending a lot of time this week at London’ largest literary festival,  Jewish Book Week, and I’ve heard some great speakers. I wanted to share three which struck me for different reasons, and I urge you to listen to the podcasts. 

Each of these people were very interesting and a privilege to listen to, but there was a particular takeaway in each talk that has been an inspiration to me in life and design.

Amos Oz (podcast): powerful focus and brevity

Amos Oz is both one of the world’s most respected fiction authors and one of the most incisive writers about the arab-israeli conflict.

His drive is neither pro-Israeli nor pro-Palestinian – it is pro-peace, and peace now (see Peace Now for more). This is admirable in itself, but what got me was the way he expressed his thoughts.

It isn’t uncommon for a preternaturally smart person to speak at length about their subject. It is less usual to have someone respond directly to the question they are asked, and so concisely, expressively and powerfully that the answer is like a strike to the solar plexus. 

Any person should aspire to this level of precision, and any design that can capture this spirit in answering the user’s needs will stand above the rest.  

Jonathan Miller (podcast):  “making the negligible considerable”

Jonathan Miller started as a doctor and training in neuroscience but then went on to do great things, I kid you not, as an actor, satirist, broadcaster, writer, theatre and opera director and recently sculptor and metal welder. Describing him as multidisciplinary is an understatment.

The common thread in all his work is this beautiful idea that art is “making the negligible considerable”. He credits his medical training with giving him the ability to spot the small details and behaviours that make his acting and directing believable. In his talk, he explained why he thought his version of Hamlet had worked so well (it received rave reviews). He put it down to one thing – making his characters believable by not shying away from the way real people act.

For example, when Hamlet holds up the skull of his dear Yorick, he doesn’t solemnly chant his famous speech. No one would – skulls and dead people are smelly, grotty and deeply unpleasant, and to get a performance which really connects you have to show a realistic reaction. More importantly, it’s in these details that you communicate something fundamental about people. It’s in these details – the negligible – that you get art.

The exact same thing is true of design. A good design feeds off the most negligible details of our behaviours to create a considerable experience – though if done right we hardly realise how seamlessly the design fits the task we need it for. The designer’s job is to spot and take care of the little details before the user even becomes aware that they are in the way. 

Susan Greenfield (podcast) : choosing betwen living in context or living in the present 

Susan Greenfield is a neuroscientist by trade and generally a phenomenally busy person (she is the Director of the Royal Institution in London and has managed to receive 24 honorary degress from around the world). Interestingly, she was originally trained in the liberal arts. She is one of those rare scientists to be both extremely insightful and able to express those ideas in popular writing and broadcasting (as an aside, it’s a pity that the scientific community looks down on popular science writing, which is why it was so good that Paul Krugman won his Nobel prize).

On Tuesday she spoke about her new book, which lays out her view on the consequences on society and the brain of growing up surrounded by screens and “literal” experiences rather than books and imagination. Here’s the big idea:

  1. The brain makes sense of the world by making connections between neurons, which link up concepts. Everything we perceive can only make sense in terms of everything else. Meaning comes from being able to relate our experiences to each other and to abstract concepts.
  2. The more connections you make the more sense you can make of the world. Books are great for this – you have to somehow conjure up an entire world based on glyphs on a page. Complex bodies of knowledge and environments where the way things work is not immediately obvious force us to work out those connections, which then allow us to see where these experiences fit into the bigger picture. 
  3. The problem comes when you are surrounded by screen based experiences. Technology makes it easier to create experience which are too literal and easy to consume (such as simple computer games and movies or oversimplified educational software). In these kinds of cases, you spent far too long immersed in a narrow environment where your mind doesn’t have enough material to make wide ranging connections. In these cases you move away from constructing a web of meaning and more towards living in the moment.

Disturbingly, living in the moment is something that compulsive gamblers, obese people and Phineas Gage (another good link here) know all about; Susan Greenfield’s theory is that there is a danger that the wrong kind of stimulation might lead to the same kind of impaired frontal lobe behaviour in large chunks of a generation raised on overly literal experiences.

The fascinating thing about the talk, however, is that rather than bashing these new technologies, she focuses on how to make the most of them. There is no reason why it shouldn’t be possible to design rich, meaningful software and games which stimulate and educate. This is a call to action for designers, and an area I hope to study in the future.

The book festival runs until the end of the week and there’s some great stuff coming up – i’ll be checking out Jon Ronson and Alain de Botton, both on Sunday.


2 Responses to “Presenting three great people”

  1. Ben Says:

    I’m not sure Ben Goldacre would agree with your 3rd choice: – great Newsnight clip worth watching.

    Fantastic facial expressions by Goldacre after Sigman ‘quotes’ Greenfield by saying “…brains change, the shape and the function, according to what young children experience….” 🙂

  2. […] As Jonathan Miller says, art is about “making the negligible considerable”, which this goes some way to doing. A great set of designs and particularly appropriate for a gallery of modern art, although it would be wonderful if utilitarian details were always this stimulating. […]

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