Seeing and Speaking

Published: 2 Aug 2016

I was reading this wonderful article from ia and it occurred to me that jargon and seeing are related to each other.

We know from research that Blue, my favorite color, is also one of the youngest colors. We as humans could not really see it until fairly recently when our language evolved to the point where a name for it existed. This points to a powerful link between the things we say, see, hear, and know.

The oft perplexing use of design jargon in pop culture, I am looking at you HG TV, is a symptom of something similar.

I am in the last breaths of a massive kitchen remodel, that has involved rebuilding cabinets, floor, counters and importantly the removal of the upper cabinets and their replacement with shelves.

When we started talking about where to put them and how many shelves to make we just talked about storage and keeping the top of the kitchen feeling "light". We didn’t really have a precise word for what we were trying to accomplish.

Over time as my wife and I were talking about it I remembered the term "sight line" from architecture school and that became my go to explanation for why a shelf should be in a certain place and not another.

We understood what I meant, the line of sight at shoulder height would be interrupted if a shelf was to left of our stove where they would have terminated next to a doorway. But not on the other side where they would have been bordered by a chimney and the vent hood. On that side the line of sight was already broken so the shelf wouldn’t make the space feel more compact then it already was.

But as we explained what we were doing to others we would just casually mention sight lines and people would without further explanation of discussion accept that word and move on.

And thus jargon is born.

We knew exactly what we meant. The definition was very precise and descriptive for us. For our guests it is likely that the words hinted at the real meaning. This is the important part.

They could sense the additional meaning behind the word, but did not actually understand it. For us it was technical speech conveying an important concept clearly and simply. For them it was jargon.

Which brings us back to the article and this phenomenal quote:

Learning to design is, first of all, learning to see. Designers see more, and more precisely. This is a blessing and a curse—once we have learned to see design, both good and bad, we cannot un-see. The downside is that the more you learn to see, the more you lose your “common” eye, the eye you design for. This can be frustrating for us designers when we work for a customer with a bad eye and strong opinions. But this is no justification for designer arrogance or eye-rolling. Part of our job is to make the invisible visible, to clearly express what we see, feel and do. You can’t expect to sell what you can’t explain.

This is why excellent designers do not just develop a sharper eye. They try to keep their ability to see things as a customer would. You need a design eye to design, and a non-designer eye to feel what you designed.

They way we speak, the words we use and the experiences that we have color our experiences. This is at least in part because as we identify better words for describing things we see those things more clearly. Think about blue.

As humans it is important that we remember that we didn’t always have the words that we have today, and because of that we saw the world as literally different then we see it now. We cannot "unsee" but we also cannot "un-word" our experiences.

As I have worked in the industry longer and come into contact with more and more engineers with deep computer science experience I have found that there are specific terms and words for concepts that I roughed out on my own over time.

A linked list for instance. I can tell you exactly when I discovered the first linked list I ran into. I can also tell you that it was years, yes years, before I knew that was the term for what I had seen. Now I have a better word for it and a better understanding of what exactly it was and why to use it.

This is a powerful idea, and one that I don’t think I have fully digested yet. But the idea that the words, the vocabulary that we use, changes our world view is fascinating. In a way it makes the religious importance of words make more sense ("In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." - John 1:1 for instance). Words are powerful it turns out. More powerful then we could have ever imagined, because they change how we imagine in a fundamental way.