Investigative Design

Investigative Design

I’m sick, it’s 230AM, and I should not have woken up, but I was startled awake by a dreaming insight brought about by the events of this past week. And what a miserable week it’s been: I’ve been fighting off insomnia, my back and shoulder ache for no reason I can pinpoint, and I’ve been feeling very under the weather as I try to maintain momentum on projects. To top it all off, my recent server move has not gone as smoothly as planned; while the moving of the blog itself went smoothly, the addition of server administration has been unexpectedly unpleasant. The magnitude of this unpleasantness, however, is what has given me a tap on the shoulder with regards to my very nature as a designer.

What, Me a Designer?

I’ve never been really comfortable labeling myself as an “artist” or a “designer”. I tend to capitalize the words in my head:

  • An Artist was someone who created freely and expressively with great skill and passion, without doubt.

  • A Designer was someone who had all the abilities of an artist, plus the psychological insights and cultural framework to communicate “big ideas” through all forms of media.

The way I’ve described Artists and Designers, in other words, is as archetypes; these are not jobs, but life roles and heroes. I’d love to be there, but realistically I’d have to say I’m not. Sure, I can create the occasional nifty graphic, and I at times pull the insights together in a way that’s pretty satisfying. But, I am no maestro, and that’s something that has always bugged me.

Art / Design as profession, on the other hand, is more achievable. Focus on the making of images, and the fulfillment of graphics that serve well-understood purposes. You know, a picture of a cat when you need one. Perhaps on the masthead of a newsletter about cats, or even as an element on a web page. From a pragmatic perspective, people always need to have things cleaned up and presented nice, and it’s a good thing to be able to do. That insight allowed me to step back from my first definition, thinking of the work really as “work”. Not everything I did, I realized, had to be a paradigm shift or innovation. Sometimes things just need to line up; this was the thinking behind the design of my current business card. This has allowed me to continue pursing a variety of work, but my gut keeps telling me that this is not what I do as part of that bigger picture. Again, I seem to be looking for my calling as a…something.

Maybe it’s Not Design Exactly

I’ve explored a few different ways of framing my identity crisis, one of which I’ve used in my post blurb: [Dave] likes to make sense of things using Flash, Illustrator, Photoshop, and Word. I chose that wording because it speaks to both making sense and making things, which is a kind of baby step toward consulting and away from “design services for hire”. I’d like to be doing more work that involves thinking about things.

Another avenue of exploration has been my rediscovery of storytelling. Stories are how I understand the world, and it’s how I gauge whether anything I do is really successful. It’s not enough to just make or do for me…I really need to see it put to use in the context of someone’s life. I started to explore this theme in storytelling by design a few months ago, and considered this as a theme for my design practice. Again, though, I think it’s just part of my bigger picture. I like stories and storytelling technology, which is how I look at things like the web, video games, and most communication. But I’m still missing something.

Thematically, it may seem that I consider the pursuit of passion, purpose, and happiness as the driving force behind what I do. To some extent that’s true—these are values that are important to me—but it is also masks uncertainty in my identity. For all the yapping I do, it’s pretty damn important that I know who I am, so I can represent myself with confidence. To date, I’ve been able to express facets of myself, but I’ve never been able to describe it in just a few words in a way that captured the essence of the kind of work I do. That makes it rather difficult to market.

A Detour through Server Hell

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been moving my website from the old host after being told I needed to upgrade to a $200/month plan. So instead, I moved to Media Temple to try their $50/month dedicated virtual hosting. The advantage: much more bandwidth and from an administration perspective, the server is shared with no one. The disadvantage: I’m now responsible for administrating the server myself.

I’ve done some linux system adminstration in the past for personal reasons, and I have a ove-hate relationship with it. I hate having to deal with all the crap that goes into keeping a server secure and running smoothly, especially on today’s spammer and cybercrime-laden Internet. Within hours of getting my server back up and open for business, it immediately got spammed into near shutdown. I got many system warnings about exceeding my allocated memory and CPU time. When I was on shared hosting, I assumed that if my site was working, everything was great. Now that I had the ability to monitor the server myself, I couldn’t help but see all the inefficiencies that were being caused by my particular wordpress installation. A sane person might have just upgraded to the next higher level of dv server (I’m using the cheapest one), but instead something else happened: I started getting into it. Although I was sick, woozy, and loaded with work, I could not help but chase down the problem. I would be working on something creative, and I’d think of some server thing I could try to improve the situation. Before I went to sleep tonight, I was reading up on how to manually trace system calls in running processes so I could debug a recurring problem in certain SMTP connections using 100% CPU—in case you’re wondering what that means, it’s geekspeak for “getting under the hood” in a fairly technical manner.

I finally realized that I was making myself sicker by staying up late and trying to fix these problems, but the result of my labors has been a server that’s no longer exceeding its memory limits and has been relatively stable. Though still dizzy and achey, I’ve learned a whole lot about linux system monitoring and debugging. Not that I’d ever want to offer that as a service, but I feel good. I’m able to put the obsession aside now that I’m in a good place.

Obsession and Passion

When I woke up about 90 minutes ago, I was dreaming about debugging system processes. It was like I was drawn into it against my will, but it is my nature to do so. When I see that something isn’t working or making sense, I am compelled to do something about it.

When I blinked awake, it was clear to me that this was a missing part of my identity puzzle. If there’s something that I’m passionate about, it’s figuring out what’s going on and why. I’ve always known this, and at the same time I haven’t framed it in terms of things my identity. Let’s list what I have so far:

  • Art & Design in the archetypical sense
  • Making Sense of things visually
  • Storytelling as a way of relating people and experience
  • The Pursuit of Purpose, Passion, and Happiness as qualities that are important to me and the people around me

Add to this:

  • The drive to understand “why” that underpins my very personality at a compulsive level.

This last element is the internal motivating force that I had never identified. In my older post on finding passion, I had come to the conclusion that positive, conscientious people were important for my sense of well-being, and that I was extrinsically motivated. I was bummed that I didn’t have an intrinsic motivation for doing things, and set about establishing a framework to provide the necessary social interaction. The realization that understanding things is the intrinsic motivating force in me balances the equation.

And when i woke up, the phrase on my lips was “Hey, I’m an investigative designer!

Investigative Design

So what is it? I’ll have to write that up later, but the basic gist is this:

  • I have a compulsive need to understand the “why” of things so I can reconstruct what’s really going on. This is a process of investigation; this post on the frustrations of math education is pretty representative on my mentality.
  • Armed with insight from the understanding, I can then prescribe the corrective or creative action.
  • Because the insight and the followup action are so closely tied together, having mastery of the tools is very important to me so I can explain it to people who can do the work in terms they understand. This goes beyond software like Photoshop too; being able to understand the context of business, psychology, and culture is just as important (and fascinating) to me.

As I review this list, I’m also realizing that “investigation” is the part I like the most, with “design” actually being a secondary interest. In other words, I’m driven by the desire to understand and identify the essence of a challenge first, while the actual “act of making” is secondary. It’s when I can make a personal connection through design that I get excited anew, and without that in-person reinforcement I tend to lose interest.

Geting There

It’s been a while since I’ve had a late-night brainfart like this, and I’m going to pay for it tomorrow morning. However, I feel like I’m getting a little closer to establishing what it is that I do, even though I’m not really that much closer to figuring out how to describe it in real world terms.


  1. Peter Flaschner 17 years ago


    Damn you ;) I have far too much on my plate this morning to get into this in the detail you are going to force me to in my response!

    This post though, is the colloquial straw. In crafting a short comment, a vital piece of my own understanding just dropped into place.

    I’m going to write up a post, and will let you know when it’s up. Thanks for this!

  2. bryan 17 years ago

    Keep it up; this is a great post – looks to come from the soul of an [A]rtist.

    Get Well Soon.

  3. Peter Flaschner 17 years ago

    Well, it’s three hours later, and I haven’t done a stitch of work, but my post is up, complete with graphics. Have a look Dave, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  4. Jeff 17 years ago

    I fully switched over to Media Temple on the 9rules recommendation, only to discover the horror stories of mysql connections on the grid server. Now I’m in the process of switching back, including my domain registration. What a mistake I made. I’d go for dv, but server administration is over my head, and the price is almost five times what I’m paying now.

    (I hope I don’t sound like an idiot here, because I have no working experience in the “design industry”)

    It makes perfect sense that one may only be able to describe facets of oneself. There’s something Taoist about it. That the only description is something “undescribable”. The problem, as you say, is that you can’t market undescribable.

    That best term that I’ve been able to come up with is “solutions”, and even that’s limited.

    I don’t know if I can agree with the term “investigative” as the best way to describe yourself. It may be your internal motivating force, but is it really what you do? Would the head of a company think of himself as a “Greedy CEO”, because his greed is what fuels his passion to succeed?

    Maybe you’re right though…it’s not a real world term. I think your definition of a designer, with “the psychological insights and cultural framework to communicate” is dead-on, and a perfect way to describe yourself. It includes the communication that you seek, along with the investigation required to make that connection.

    A little general, perhaps, but when we want to specifically define something, especially when it’s something complicated, we have to be completely thorough. But it’s just as correct to be general.

    If you’re trying to market that, let your work speak for itself.

  5. Erlend 17 years ago

    Hmm…I thought their virtual servers needed no administration. I’m thinking of switching to mediatemple for some projects, but after reading your experiences…it makes me think!

  6. Matthew Cornell 17 years ago

    Teriffic themes, David. I strongly suggest you look at Daniel Pink’s book “A whole new mind.” It’s based on his take of six essential abilities we’ll all need (he says) to survive in the new economy, including: Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play and Meaning.

    I’m being hit on the head by these, esp. Story, so I better get cracking!

    Thanks for the great posts.


  7. Jeremy 17 years ago

    What an epic post.  I think your journey and process rings true for many of us and it’s encouraging to see someone discover and try to really understand their nature and processes. That was one of the best “things” I’ve read in a while.  Feel better and please DO keep up the good work (and by that I mean these types of posts.  Although I do love the productivity tools as well.)