Interfaces

SUMMARY: An essay on “Interfaces” and what they mean to me. Spoiler: they mean everything to me.

If you were to look at a map of my technology interests from 50,000 feet in the air, you’d see two countries abutting each other. Near the sea would be the trading country of Interfaceland where people and ideas of all kinds mingle together and try to make things happen. Further inland behind a ridge of mountains is the industrialized country of Systemsland, which produces infrastructural ideas, processes, and methodologies. Interfaceland is all about making useful connections between different realms of thinking, whereas Systemsland is a place where specific ways of thinking are refined and packaged.

Interfaceland is where I personally have made my home, because I love seeing what happens when two different ideas collide. It is a romantic and inspiring place to live; this is where Peanut Butter and Chocolate first met each other and fell in love. Practically all of the Internet can trace back through their family trees to some crazy idea that was conceived here. What if we could send “mail” through “electronic networks” instead of using paper and stamp? Interfacing is not quite the same as inventing something new, though the experience and the usage may be new to our experience. It’s more about getting seemingly-disparate ideas to agree upon some common language, and then work together to make something previously difficult or unimaginable to happen. At least, that’s how I see it.

Interfaces is my business, and this focus goes beyond “user interface design” or “graphic design”, though these are part of what I do. User interface design requires an understanding of people—the users—think and desire. User Interface Design also requires a working understanding of the empowering technologies that can meet those needs. Building the bridge between those two concepts—the psychology of people and how the capabilities of a given technology platform can be molded to fit their cognitive processes—is essentially what a good User Interface Designer does.

But that’s not quite what I mean when I say “Interfaces”. It also includes the work of being a Communication Designer. A communication designer specializes in conveying a particular message. Graphic Design, copywriting, digital and interactive media design are not the job title; they are the tools of a communication designer. It’s the job of a communication designer to use whatever tools and media will help convey the message with high fidelity from one person to another. On a basic level, it’s stuff like, “should this be text, image, or video to be most effective? What do we need to do to produce this?” On a more demanding level, it’s understanding how the nuances of presentation lend credibility to the message, or providing the right creative direction to convey the right emotional tone to create conditions of receptivity in the target audience. It’s fascinating stuff, encompassing a lot of my interests in design, storytelling, cinema, music composition, animation…it covers just about every creative art I have dabbled in professionally over the years.

Again, though, it’s important for me to restate that it’s not the complexity itself that draws me in. It really is my desire to see what happens when different ideas meet for the first time. Will they find hidden compatibilities? Will they fall in love with each other and be fruitful? I can’t explain why I love this so—perhaps it’s the romantic in me—but I realized today that this is indeed at the heart of all my technical interests. There is also the challenge I find interesting; the difficult part of Interfacing is inventing methods that allow two different ideas to work together harmoniously in their own way. How do you harness the computational power of a computer (which speaks pure numbers) with a fruit orchard (which speaks, uh, biology). How do you connect a music synthesizer with a written musical score? These are hard problems. When software is involved, it’s the design of the software’s algorithmic guts and the user interface that exposes the controlling parameters that comprises the work of making an Interface. On a more human level, how does an artist join forces with a businessman to create a business? How does a mathematician introduce a student to calculus? How do you build a vibrant community of positive-minded creative people? These are all, as I see it, Interfacing problems. An Interface is the place where ideas and desires with different contexts and conventions meet. The work of getting everyone and everything to talk to each other, express their needs and desires, and have everything eventually work together is where I like to be.