Story-Based Design III: The Shakers and Objects as Objects

Story-Based Design III: The Shakers and Objects as Objects

What makes Shaker Design so compelling? I found this insight from New Yorker magazine particularly fascinating:

When we make objects that look like us, we unconsciously are flattering ourselves. The Shakers made objects that look like objects, and that follow a non-human law of design.

I like to think of my design as being “true” to the nature of the work being performed; I find it very difficult to come up with visual style in a vacuum. I will ask a million questions and try to “walk the space” where the design will actually be used. I’ll want to know how the client thinks how people will be using the object, and most important what they think they’ll be thinking or feeling. Once I have that, I can design: I borrow stylistic elements when a strong visual association must be made, or I’ll make something that really tries to fly the nape of the workflow. The design flows, once the essential questions are answered. It can take a while to get to that point, since oftentimes the questions themselves have yet to be transmuted into essential form. Typically, the conversation goes like this:

Client: “We are selling widgets, and we want users to buy them.” Me: “Why would users want to buy your widgets?” Client: “Because we’re selling them. And they’re, uh, good.” Me: “Right. But why would users want to buy your widgets? Specifically yours, and not someone elses?” Client: “Um.”

At that point, the conversation goes one of three ways:

  1. The client says, “um…look, the website just needs to be pretty.” And I think, “The client doesn’t understand his/her own product, and isn’t interested in figuring it out. This is not a good project for me.”

  2. The client pauses and says, “I’ll tell you exactly why!” and rattles off a dozen things. And I think, “Cool! These guys are on the ball, and maybe we can have a real design dialogue.”

  3. The client pauses, and asks “Good question. What do you think?” and then I rattle off a dozen things that come to mind as how something might be compelling to a particular user, and why. Then we are having a real design dialogue, and that’s awesome too. Now we’re getting to the essence of things.


p>For me, design is about dialogue, because without dialogue I can’t get to the essence of the object, service, or thing that I am supposed to be designing. Design is a dialogue between multiple parties: the client and myself, and dialogue by proxy with the intended audience. By the latter, I mean that the object that I’m making needs to be able to communicate. The object has to be clear in its purpose on first view, expressively and eloquently so. It will whisper in the user’s ear, “I am the very spirit of what you have been seeking, standing here before you. You have been looking for me all your life. Or at least, since Lunch. Let’s get something done, and have a good time doing it! “

Although I am anthropomorphizing objects in this imaginary dialoge, there is a clear line between “human talk” and “object talk”. Objects have their own vocabulary: a good user interface is designed expressly to convey what that vocabulary is and how it is used. That’s not the same as writing a lot of fake human chatter to give the UI some “personality”…at best, that manages to simulate a helpful but ultimately clueless sales droid at a big box retailer. Who wants that?

More in this series:


  1. Rory 18 years ago

    Dave –

    This series of posts has been great.  I went through a very similar experience last year with a client.  I learned a lot from the simple experience of having to draw out of the client what they were looking to have their site communicate.

    Because the client was having trouble communicating what she was looking for and how she wanted her business to be communicated, we sat down and just went through a random sampling of sites and she gave a thumbs up or down to each.  This really helped me get a grasp for what she was seeing in her head, but wasn’t able to communicate to me.

    Keep up the great posts!


  2. Dave Seah 18 years ago

    Thanks Rory! I have a checklist of things that I run by people who might not be as familiar with website… for example, I’ll ask about movies, books, and music in the following context:

    “If your website was a movie, who would you want to direct it?”

    “If your website had a soundtrack, what would it be like?”

    Also, there are the psychological questions:

    “What are you most proud of in your company?”

    followed by

    “What are your customers most likely to tell their colleagues about your company?”

    The shocking disparity in those last two questions are usually enough to get people thinking :-)

  3. Bo 18 years ago

    “Design is about dialogue.”

    Excellent.  Nice.  Concise.  Taken together with your previous posts, this idea is very you.

  4. Rory Francis 18 years ago

    David –

    Those are some very good questions.  With the particular client I have in mind, she knew what she was proud of and what her customers have to say (she has been regularly collecting feedback from customers for a while).  The biggest problem for her was figuring out how to communicate her business professionally without having her own taste wrapped up in it.

    For her, separating her own taste from what presented her business professionally was difficult, until she saw examples of what she was communicating to me next to some other sites.

    That bit of dialogue was key for the eventual success of the project.