“The thinking and technology of our time is for me an ever-present challenge. I want always to search out the possibilities of new materials and to give them their proper place...” - Eero Saarinen
I started this blog post pre-COVID-19, focusing on how to stay true to the tangible aspects of humanity when so much of our lives is consumed by the digital experience - as if the digital realm can replace 3D living. I call this 3D living “living in person.” When I was an impressionable design student, one of my professors shared her impassioned wisdom: “You can’t design in a program on the computer! Sketch it first and then model and draft it.” Professionally, when time is of the essence and you need to make a deadline, it is easy to jump straight to the software and start laying out what is in your head. However, stumbling through the design process without an understanding of what you’re making is often a waste of time, not because it is not well developed, but because this understanding tells you what tool is best for the job.
I read an article recently that identified my generation as the only one to have lived both with and without technology. I am a proud “on-the-cusp” Gen Xer and like to consider myself hip enough to hang with the Millennials and mature enough to have deep conversations with the Baby Boomers and the Greatest and Silent Generations. We “straddle the fence,” with a foot in very green grass on both sides. We actually remember the days without hand-held computers, when these resources that are now available on one device was its own individual entity. The multi-line house phones with crazy-long coil cords, newspapers stacked on the coffee table, and a big box TV for watching MTV music videos and the original TGIF. (Remember the Gateway that came in the cow print box?) We fondly recall memories, such as getting a cordless phone in your house for the first time (telescoping antenna and all). Or pre-Google Maps: reading an actual map to determine how to get places, then writing down the directions and hoping you don’t miss your turn. While the nostalgia is fun, it is refreshing to appreciate how much easier our lives have become because of technology. The “how” and “why” of it, from typewriters to word processors to computers, and car phones to flip phones to smart phones, makes sense. But rather than drawing a line between then and now, let us understand the doing. As much as we may still overload ourselves with multitasking and the mindless distraction of the internet – let us also understand the craft, and the struggle, and the focus – the 3D-ness of it.
Thanks to my professional mentors and design school professors, I fully understand the importance of designing by hand before drafting in the computer. As part of the last generation of the pre-digital age, we ride a fine line of maintaining this balance, and helping the generations behind mine to understand it. With their lives fully integrated in the digital world, it poses an interesting question about what is important in life - I surmise the answer is a balance. Similarly, as a parent of an elementary school-aged child, I face the pressure of forcing the technology black hole of cell phones and video games upon her. The pressure to have what her peers have, to “keep up,” is often overwhelming. In striving to form her into a strong, independent-minded person,confident in her abilities, I struggle with giving in to these social pressures. I struggle with her gaining digital skills – the 2D world – with access to a plethora of resources before having done any of it in a physical, 3D-way first. To know what it means to read a book as a form of entertainment and mental break – to touch its pages, smell its scent and create fond memories through a tactile relationship – versus read on a tablet; to create art versus using a coloring app; to learn proper handwriting before learning to type; to demonstrate responsible time management before playing a game that could last hours; to being bored and coming up with something to do before I offer up ideas, and so on. Let alone the abyss of the internet (eek!). Essentially, learning to use technology as a tool – not the substitute for tangible reality, but a way to render it differently.
And then suddenly, Coronavirus exploded our lives. It forced us indoors and on computers, all the time. And, oh, how we have breathed a sigh of relief that we can work on them, connect with one another on them, and purchase critical needs on them. We are thanking our lucky stars for this technology, which will, like past epidemics and times of crises, carry us into the future, shaping the where and way people live and work. Cities will change; offices will change; technology will continue its rapid growth and have an equally profound impact alongside the health implications. Families are home, together, for the first time in a long time, with life “cancelled.” People are gardening and digging out those home-cooked recipes. Tragic for what was a robust economy, but what a chance to celebrate being free from all those previous obligations on your time, and can evaluate what you actually want to engage in life. And that is just it: Choice. Although work was remote-capable before, now it is an integrated angle of businesses to provide people with options. When the routine we signed ourselves up for was ripped away, we then gained freedom in captivity to evaluate and focus on developing our lives more meaningfully once we’re “free” to live again.
Will we return to our previous jam-packed schedules we once kept, adding activities back one by one, giving away our time? Or will we intentionally choose balance and meaning more actively? Our appreciation for human engagement, togetherness, and goodness has been brought to the forefront as we work together to overcome this pandemic, from helping the sick and the self-sacrifice for the greater good required of us; to the immediate and creative responses businesses are developing to sustain themselves; to the ways individuals and families, who once lived so much outside of the house, are redefining their time together.
So, to that end, my initial blog post remains relevant: We must continue to live in both the 3D and the 2D world.
As a designer and a die hard believer of everything having a purpose and not accepting anything “just because,” I circle back to asking the question "why," and to technology. Can we help our kids, before using a tool, to understand why one uses it? And without boring those who do not face this dilemma with children, I challenge us all with the question of intent as we face a barrage of options to choose from. Whether it is design, child rearing, self-care, or business model restructuring, are we displaying our best work, using the best most appropriate tool, and demonstrating our best representations of ourselves? Why do we have to accept what is put before us because someone else thought it a grand idea? Instead, break down why it's grand, and see if it is the best option for our office, our children or ourselves, and living our best, in-person lives.
As we navigate the uncertain future and a "return to normal" that COVID-19 has challenged us with, we face the same decisions, but backwards: how to be active and get outside, safely engage with people, and possibly go to work – and put the 2D to the side for the moment. The health risk at the forefront of these decisions is also shining a new light on what is good for our families, society, our companies, and demonstrating our abilities more dynamically. Did you start a weekly game night? Did you dedicate a day each week to a project you never had the time for before? Is your work-life “balance” more manageable being home? What have you done with your regained commute time? How is your company celebrating its culture remotely? Indeed, using a critical eye to balance the 2D enhancements to our 3D life is paramount now, and moving forward. Certainly, the transition has provided challenges that have given way to new opportunities. The results can be glorious – the using best of the 2D to live a better 3D life – and it’s what I’m counting on from us all.