Flannery O'Connor's Writing Advice: Good for Designers Too

This summer, I have focused on writing fiction, and have taken a small break from design. Of course, I have found this almost impossible to do. It has turned out to be surprisingly difficult to turn off my design-brain. Once a designer, always a designer, I suppose. That said, I recently read an essay about writing by Flannery O'Connor called "Writing Short Stories," and I couldn't help but notice that much of the advice she offers to writers is also useful for designers. 

Consider, for example, this passage:  "Fiction operates through the senses, and I think one reason that people find it so difficult to write stories is that they forget how much time and patience is required to convince through the senses. No reader who doesn’t actually experience, who isn’t made to feel, the story is going to believe anything the fiction writer merely tells him. The first and most obvious characteristic of fiction is that it deals with reality through what can be seen, heard, smelt, tasted, and touched. Now this is something that can’t be learned only in the head, it has to be learned in the habits. It has to become a way that you habitually look at things. The fiction writer has to realize that he can`t create compassion with compassion, or emotion with emotion, or thought with thought. He has to provide all these things with a body, he has to create a world with weight and extension."

Design, too, operates through the senses and any good UX designer knows that in order for someone to have a unique and memorable interaction experience, the senses must be evoked. Things such as smell and taste are much more difficult in the digital realm, though not impossible, and as interaction design becomes increasingly embodied and embedded into the world around us, the senses become an ever more important touchpoint for designers.

Here's another passage from the essay: "When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you to experience that meaning more fully."

We rarely talk about "themes" in design (and I don't mean browser skins here :)) at least not in the sense that there are human tropes built into design. But, there are! Of course, designs, like stories, have various narrative notions built into them. People have to interpret designs. They are actively involved in the creation of meaning when they are interacting with any digital device. This is what makes "talking" about design somewhat difficult. If you have ever found yourself in a design meeting trying to explain how a design works--what it looks like, how it moves, how it sounds, how it flows--you know it can be very difficult to translate these things into language. This is why we draw and prototype and build stuff. Even a quick sketch can get across an idea more accurately than a twenty minute speech. How would you describe the color light blue, or the sound of a text message, or the movement of "swiping left"? Simply presenting a swatch of color or a sound sample is a much easier way to get this information across, and as mentioned above, these things evoke emotion much more readily than a description.  

Lastly, O'Connor writers: "I have a friend who is taking acting classes in New York from a Russian lady who is supposed to be very good at teaching actors. My friend wrote me that the first month they didn’t speak a line, they only learned to see. Now learning to see is the basis for learning all the arts except music. I know a good many fiction writers who paint, not because they're any good at painting, but because it helps their writing. It forces them to look at things. Fiction writing is very seldom a matter of saying things, it is a matter of showing things."

"Learning to see" is a wonderful way to describe the process of learning to design. If we want to express anything, we must first be able to see the world around us. As a researcher, this is how I look at not only users, but also at all of the people who are around me all the time. Like I said at the beginning of this post, I have a hard time turning my design-brain off. Once you learn to "see" you cannot unlearn it; it always shapes the way you move through the world, and this is a critical skill for designers because it helps us to move beyond initial ideas into more complex design experiences that capture a full set of senses.  

One commonality that I have noticed between writers and designers is that neither party seems to be particularly interested in talking about process. Strangely, there are hundreds of "how-to" books out there--for both writers and designers--but I have noticed that during actual conversations with other writers and designers, when it comes to "how" we are supposed to do all of these things, there is no one way. There is no manual for how to evoke the senses. There is no manual for learning "how to see." To me, these are things that are simply learned over time and through practice and failure. There are certainly a few guidelines that can be helpful when thinking about how to appraoch a project--What kind of research would be helpful? What kind of functionality does the device need? And so forth. But there is a certain bit of mystery to the process, which may be what makes creative work so fulfilling--figuring out that magic is part of the challenge and part of the process. But one thing I would say for certain is that creative practices--across fields--can certainly inform one another. If a designer is stuck, I would recommend reading a novel. If a novelist is stuck, I would suggest going to a museum. Getting out of your usual headspace is a start, and all the time I've spent reading and writing this summer has certainly shaped my design perspective in ways that I never imagined.