Discourse, Duane King

22 Aug 2020


Duane is a Consultant and Creative Director based in Portland, Oregon who champions the aesthetics of ideas. Driven by curiosity, he explores and creates what is possible with imagination, wit, and clarity.

In volume one of Bracket, you discuss the concept of craft — as both a noun and verb — in our profession. The concept of craft has seemingly become an integral part of the ethos of your work. How do you approach craft when designing digital products?

Craft, for me, is about lovingly applying your skills to a particular problem. Craft in digital product involves the careful consideration of function to ensure that affordances support needs as well as possibilities — and that they are beautiful as well as useful.

Don’t make something unless it is both necessary and useful; but if it is both necessary and useful, don’t hesitate to make it beautiful.

Shaker Proverb

You also refer to soul as being this missing ingredient of craft: imagination plus blood, sweat, and tears. What does it mean for a digital product/experience to have soul? What does that look and feel like in both the process of making and the act of experiencing?

Soul fills the spaces in-between strategy, design, and technology. It’s the mortar to the bricks of corporate goals, creative execution, and consumers. It’s the art of weaving all of these things into patterns that machines can understand and humans can feel. Without it, a product can still function, but it lacks stickiness. It’s easy to forget or dismiss.

I often feel that being an artist first, driven by empathy and with a heightened sensitivity to the human condition and our need for tactile connection, informs much of my approach to design and technology. Formulaic approaches result in formulaic solutions. Let technology be your paint and design be your brush. Get messy. Make lots of marks (one of them is bound to be correct). Then edit like mad.

I’m curious about your path to design. What lead you here and why did you stay? Have you ever considered leaving it all behind; switching careers or trajectories?

I ended up a designer through a combination of personality traits and twists of fate. My father was an engineer so I was introduced to drawing and drafting early. The technical nature of drafting informed a certain precision aesthetic that, together with television and advertising exposure, led to a fascination with consumerism. Once I matured beyond drawing dinosaurs or spacecraft or planes from my How and Why Wonder books, I moved on to drawing logos and collecting Nike ads and posters—long before I knew there was a career called advertising or design. But my aesthetic curiosity and analytical tendencies led me bit-by-bit to this industry.

Right out of high school, I worked at a silkscreen shop. Long before the computer, it was my job as artist to recreate logos for clients through a combination of pen-and-ink, Rubylith, Amberlith, and a photo-lettering system. It was there that I realized that an O wasn’t just a circle—each typeface had subtle variation and finesse. It was then that graphic design moved from ‘a picture’ to a symphony of visual elements that had depth, meaning, and history.

Throughout college, I dabbled in fine art as well as graphic design. I’ve always been obsessed with process and making things with my hands. Of course, at my first design studio job, my employer soon asked, “What do you know about the computer?” Little did I know the entire industry was about to be overturned by technology. And little did I know that this cycle would repeat itself throughout my career.

Lately I have been on sabbatical and thinking about what’s next—what’s beyond aesthetics. This simple question, was brilliantly answered in a conversation with a dear friend, Ayse Birsel, who stated, “That’s simple, my dear. It’s the aesthetics of ideas.”

So this approach informs my current obsessions. I want to work on what is hard. I seek to break the modern leanings of design as high-end production and the plaything of the elite. I seek purpose-driven work or work that can shape culture. Without those elements, the puzzles simply aren’t worth solving (for me).

Regarding your statement above about the human condition. I believe wholeheartedly that design has the power to affect positive change in this world; to improve humanity one small step at a time. Do you see evidence of this happening at the hands of design now?

Unfortunately, not as much as I’d like. Far too often the novelty of an interaction or visual design overrides human needs and amplifies negatives in our behavior. And I don’t think we adequately consider these ramifications at scale either. What are the opportunity costs of interaction design decision that affect millions or even billions of users? In the case of Facebook, one millisecond wasted multiplied by the user base of 1.57 billion equals 18.1712963 days wasted.

Design used to be more of a passion-based career that was filled with artists with anal-retentive leanings towards clarity and order. You didn’t get into design to be rich. You got into it to make a difference. But more and more careers in the industry seems to be financially instead of culturally-motivated. I think it’s changing the culture of studios and agencies and creating factories of production instead of thought.

You mentioned the aesthetics of an idea earlier. This is a powerful concept, and I wonder if you could break that down a bit more. What does this concept mean for you and how would you even start to shape its praxis?

Perhaps a purely personal perspective, but I sense a shift in focus in what design means—a de-objectification of sorts. Design isn’t just the way things look or work. It’s how they make you feel. It’s not about the rock. It’s the ripples the rock leaves. The space between the things we create and the audience who uses them is what we design.

Regarding the human condition, what does the intersection of our current tech-centric design practice and designing for the common good look like? How can we leverage our current codependency on tools, process, startup culture, etc. to begin creating work of merit again?

We can begin by thinking about how we can use design and technology to make us feel more human, rather than less so. For example, what if the tools we made helped us to be better listeners instead of broadcasters? What if app interactions supported depth rather than shallowness? What if an input field encouraged sensitivity of response? These are all things that might encourage betterment in everyday experiences. Start small. Start with where we are. Think about where we could be.

With our tools more democratized than ever, there exists the possibility to unlock new directions in which to focus our time. Process is important but tread carefully as it can also limit potential. Too often, process is a function of accountability as it gives order to chaos, promotes efficiency, and affords measurability of progress and billing. But knowing how isn’t as important as knowing why. It’s the search for motivation that grants the most opportunity for invention and discovery.

How can we leverage our current codependency on tools, process, and startup culture to begin creating work of merit? With sacrifice. We should stop thinking about what benefits us the most—and instead think about what’s best for all of us. That doesn’t mean you have to give up what’s good for you. But it does mean you should think twice about the value the work you introduce into the world creates (and no, it doesn’t have to be epic value either—a smile counts).

With that in mind, what’s next for you? Where do you see, and perhaps hope, this journey is taking you?

This last segment of my career has been particularly interesting in that it’s a culmination of years of acquired skills—professional and personal alike. I now see the potential of my ability in business development and sales—skills I long thought were out of character for me. As it turns out, the world loves an honest, passionate person. Love what you make, mean what you say, and the rest happens naturally.

Anymore, I feel the agency or studio model is a struggle. Rather than the dying agency or studio model which has unquestionably large billables but questionable return on investment, I believe in the power of tailored teams. An actionable strategy built on vision and relationships. These days, when clients come to me, I customize the team to suit their needs. They get only what they need—and the team I assemble knows exactly what they are signing up for. When the team wants to work together—everyone wins. And the client gets much more for much less. Agencies use shotguns. We are sharpshooters.

I believe it’s referred to as the “hollywood model” and it’s a model that’s definitely being utilized more and more -- and for good reason, as you highlight above. Regarding your newfound embrace for the softer skills of business development and sales, how important have those been for getting projects and gaining visibility?

Good point. True, the Hollywood model is apt, but it hints at excess which is antithetical to the core of my interests regarding studio models. For me, it’s also about sustainability. Metaphorically, if ideas are eggs, then I need to treat my chickens as best as possible so that their eggs are healthy so that my farm and my customers are too. It’s about appropriateness of scale. Agencies run mass-production chicken farms. The eggs are runny because the chickens are unhealthy—and therefore clients are unhealthy too. The ecosystem is toxic. I believe there should be the design agency equivalent of an organic or sustainable farm.

Business development and sales experience have proven extremely useful. With years of experience comes an understanding of the ebb and flow of the work and a surprisingly instinctual directional compass. Maturation has gifted me the confidence to lean into simply being myself, combining passions, skills, and opportunity. It feels like a new era of possibility.

Do you attribute some of the success of Pioneer Plaque to those skills? What was the biggest challenge you encountered on that journey?

Most certainly. And in fact, the Pioneer project is largely informing the current trajectory of my career. The dovetail fit of what I am good at, what I can charge for, and what I love, has nurtured an unexpectedly fruitful environment for new collaborations—and more importantly, new experiences. What began as an idea was vetted and reinforced through careful business planning and nuanced threading of relationships, both old and new. From design to finance to communications to production, it felt like a full activation of all the things that make me who I am. Mistakes and all.

Perhaps the biggest overall challenge of the project was related to the niche that Kickstarter projects occupy between mass-market and handmade goods. The platform has incredible reach and an audience that is a firehose of attention. An awe-inspiring dynamic that, depending on the project specifics, creates a special tension between reach and scalability. Despite careful planning to avoid such circumstances, as with many Kickstarter campaigns, success put pressure on production delaying delivery.

All that said, my commitment to quality was worth it. Pioneer—Message from Earth is a case study in how childhood passion shapes your adulthood. From visits to NASA JPL, Ames Research, SETI, and SpaceX to friendships with the Sagan family, astronauts, and scientists, every moment of difficulty has been been countered with unimaginable rewards. I am now a card-carrying space geek. My universe is expanding.

Speaking of principles, what drives your practice?

Designers were once akin to musicians or artists. Often, we suffered financially for our passionate dedication to the craft of design. It never was about money—it was about love. But over time, the startup and tech worlds created new opportunities, including the ability to earn salaries commensurate with other professions. Honestly, we needed it. Perhaps even deserved it. But sadly it seems to have shifted the motivations of those who gravitate towards our industry. Alpha personalities prevail.

I have been studying the Japanese concept of Ikigai, or “reason for being.” The concept is all about the intersection of your passion and talent with what the world is willing to pay for and needs. The approach has been transformative and has brought joy back into the process of design. I believe in plenty, but I also believe in enough. With needs met, I feel an obligation to share my gifts, work on what is hard, and enjoy myself while doing so. It’s my way of making my career in design sustainable.