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Creativity, Ethics, and Optimism with Manuel Lima
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Creativity, Ethics, and Optimism with Manuel Lima

Creativity, Ethics, and Optimism with Manuel Lima

Satvik Soni
February 16, 2023

Manuel Lima has managed to work with giants like Google and Microsoft while writing his deep dives on the history of design. Ten years ago, Forbes claimed that Manuel had elevated information visualization into an artform. He is the author of four books, a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, and was called one of the 50 most creative people on the planet.

To put it simply — he is a very interesting person to talk to.

We had the opportunity to pick his brain recently!
This article captures what we learned from him on:

  1. Becoming and staying creative
  2. The ethics of our work in the tech industry
  3. The impact of technology on our world

Becoming and Staying Creative

Over his career, Manuel has written books on topics as diverse as circles, trees, and information patterns. As we mentioned, he was also among the 50 most creative people on the planet — that’s a lot of people he competed against!

It was a no-brainer, then, to ask for his thoughts on being more creative and sustaining our creativity.

There seem to be two basic principles.
The first principle is to stay curious about the world.
The second principle is to stay away from echo chambers.

The two principles of creativity:

Stay Curious About The World!

A curious brain offers the best place for creativity to flourish.

“If you are a curious person, you always go much further in terms of asking questions, in terms of understanding a topic and in terms of discovering what you want”, says Manuel.

Of course, some people are just naturally more curious than others.
It’s useful, however, to look at curiosity as a muscle you can train. A skill you can foster.

Leonardo DaVinci makes an appearance in Manuel’s Book of Trees.
DaVinci has been dubbed the most curious man in history. We can all also agree that he was kind of creative. DaVinci’s diaries had notes on topics as varied as woodpeckers and fluid flow patterns (really).

You can probably do without knowing how woodpeckers function, but keep your inquisitiveness alive regardless!
Stay curious and creativity will come.

🎧 Listen to this podcast on curiosity with Walter Isaacson - the biographer of DaVinci, Steve Jobs, and Ben Franklin.

Avoid Echo Chambers

Staying around people with the same ideas and opinions as us is comfortable.

But it can be equally harmful to our creativity. As we grow in our careers, we are likely to be surrounded by very similar people, forming an Echo Chamber.

Echo chambers are easy to fall into at our job or university, since everyone around us is studying / working on the same things. If everyone you talk to is a design student at the same university, you aren’t likely to face a variety of ideas. This leads to a monoculture that kills creativity.

Manuel encourages everyone to step out of these chambers and have our ideas challenged.

“Every time you see yourself stuck in an echo chamber on purpose, leave that echo chamber. Try to have more diversity. Try to look for other topics that can be immensely more powerful and immensely more inspiring for you.
I like to say that I'm a designer who does not like design books because I learned so much more from other books on history and evolution.”
📄 Read this essay on the grim consequences of getting stuck inside echo chambers.

Steer clear of these threats to your creativity and you’ll be on your way to great creative power!
Great creative power that will bring with it, in Uncle Ben’s wise words, great responsibility.

It only makes sense to discuss the ethics of design next.

The Ethics of Tech Workers

Instagram started as a cute mobile app.
We could catch up on our friend’s photographs and maybe upload some of our own.

Thirteen years down the road, it has injured body images, harmed the mental health of many, and bumped our screen times up to embarrassing numbers.

UX choices always depend on business goals.
In the case of social media applications, UX choices will be driven by the business’s goal of improving audience engagement and retention.
Trying to get people hooked on your app might not be the most ethical choice, however.

This is where our problems stem from.
How can we incorporate ethics into our work?

Some barriers to ethical UX

According to Manuel, these are some of the reasons preventing UXers from making ethical decisions.

Ethical Fading

Ethical fading is when the ethics of a task disappear from our view (source).

Focusing too heavily on deadlines, profits, competitors etc. can keep UXers from pausing for a second and figuring out the ethics of the work they have been assigned. The question of ethics fades into the background and can almost be brushed away.

Ethical fading is not always the UXers’ fault.
They have bills to pay, deadlines to meet, promotions to chase.
That rush doesn’t always afford them the time to think of ethics.

Manuel sympathizes with the fact that this isn’t always the UXers’ fault.

He does, however, warn us of the dangers of letting our ethical fading grow. With apps as powerful as the Tiktoks and Youtubes of the world, product people are directly impacting the human mind in ways that have not been seen before.

When we wield such an influence, we must take extra precautions to stay in touch with an ethical compass.

Business Models

The elephant in the room - how can UXers make any ethical impact when decisions are driven by the profit incentive? Manuel, just as all our guests lately, brings up Erika Hall here.

Erika Hall's post

As Erika tells us, UX decisions are now constrained by the business model.

We can wait for some future in which this isn’t the case, but Manuel believes that this is a pretty defeatist point of view.

This problem of business models dictating design should not pose as big of a threat as it does.
UXers are present at the highest of decision making levels now. They are founders, VPs, and in the c-suite. Blaming the business model, therefore, is no longer a valid way to sidestep the issue.

Since UXers are at important positions, the onus falls on them to mold business models in a more ethical direction. This is not just important morally, it is also a sound business decision.

“If we continue investing in a business model that is unethical, it's just a matter of time before customers will shut the door and go somewhere else. It's in our own best interest if we do the right thing, if we don't fall into that trap.”

The small picture

As our tech companies have evolved and expanded, so have their team structures.

Far too often, employees at major companies find themselves working on miniscule projects. These projects might contribute to a larger product which they’ll have little idea about.

For an extreme example of this, Manuel reminds us how several of the 130,000 people working on the Manhattan project had no idea they were building a bomb (source).

While a backend dev at Facebook is likely not building a bomb, she can’t ask any questions on ethics because she has no idea of the bigger picture.

Staying informed about the big picture impacts of all our work will help us remain ethical.
A good lesson, since technology isn’t good by default.

Technology isn’t good by default

While we are on the topic of ethics of our work, it would be good to think of “technology” as a concept.

“Some of us, more than others, share this disease of techno optimism. We just rely too much on technology and we have a sense that technology will actually save us. I take that with a huge grain of salt.”

Our conversation with Manuel led to one clear conclusion: Technology isn’t good by default.
It can be good, but only if handled ethically.

The third diamond

Product people and UXers are then responsible for ensuring our tech is put to good use.
Far too often, we are not taught to consider the consequences of our output. Manuel isn’t too fond of this attitude.

To illustrate what we learned from Manuel, let us look at the Double Diamond.

The Double Diamond diagram is a popular tool used in design thinking.

The first diamond drives strategy and involves research.
The second diamond drives execution and involves design and development.

Once the team has traversed both diamonds, they can count another project as complete.
The project is off their hands and no longer their concern.

This might be efficient, but it misses out on a crucial third diamond that should appear after we have shipped the product. 

“I think when a diagram like that is so widespread, it's really dangerous. I think the third diamond is the one that really is important — what was the impact of what you actually put out? Evaluating that impact.
How did it touch the people in the environment? In what way? Was it negative? Was it positive?”

Our responsibilities extend beyond shipping products into the third diamond of consequences.
We can not continue to throw things out of the metaphorical window without looking where they land. It is too irresponsible.

We’d like to thank Manuel for his time! To read more from him, check out his books.

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