Design Is Love, Everything Is Technology: A Conversation With S. Surface

Photo by Matt Hilger

Photo by Matt Hilger

Yesterday, this week's Question of the Day host S. Surface asked Siren members, "When you think of the word 'design,' what comes to your mind first?" 

Answers ranged from the pleasing shape of an electric guitar to the "intelligent design" preached by young Earth creationists. This diversity of responses is a testament to both the ubiquity of design and its difficulty to pin down. Design is everywhere we look, providing much of the glue for our everyday experiences, yet is easy to take for granted if you're not actively looking for it.  

As the program director of Design in Public, S. Surface produces the annual Seattle Design Festival—(happening now!)—which brings together designers, community members, experts, and city officials to celebrate and explore how design improves the quality of our lives and our community. We asked Surface some questions about design, technology, and vulnerability, and we absolutely love the conversation that has emerged.


We founded Siren because we were dissatisfied with other dating apps, and wanted to create an alternative. It seems like this feeling that something needs to exist is a motivator that drives a lot of people to create. As an architectural designer and curator, how do you decide where to put your time and attention? 

Who actually benefits from making a thing? Who asked for it to be made? Who needs it? Is it needed? What does this thing contribute? What will be its short and long term effects? Were the right people making these decisions? Is this going to feel worthwhile or will it be a psychological drain? Is the compensation, financial and otherwise, commensurate to my contribution? It's a matter of balancing all those questions. Those considerations come across as far too serious, though. In reality, a friend or colleague simply asks me if I can and will do something, and I'm just like, Yeah, that sounds good, when? Then it gets done.

In a world where many narratives about technology focus on how isolated it's making us, what are some ways you think technology can bring people together?

It seems inherently human to both yearn for companionship and also need to reflect, alone. I don't think technology, in the sense of how we use the word "tech" to describe a particular contemporary economic and cultural sector, changes how people do or don't feel isolated versus held in community. What feels new is the permanence of our records combined with the potential for immediate universal distribution. Oral history and gossip used to just die off, or if it was really juicy, might become abstracted into legend. One's whole community was generally limited to immediate geographical neighbors; now it's potentially billions worldwide. The scale and longevity feel different. 

YES! I think that's a very interesting way to put a tension that a lot of people are feeling, and reminds me of what sociologists have called the "New Visibility." In many ways, this new visibility is wonderful; it's bringing social justice issues to the forefront of national conversations, because what was once hidden has been revealed. But as people learn to navigate the implications of rapidly evolving media, do you think a sense of being intimidated by hypervisibility is warping our ability to achieve social vulnerability?

Maybe, where some humans once spent hours crafting poetry, art and song to express the magnificent and horrifying range of emotions we feel toward each other, we now spend a lot of time agonizing over the nuances of text message? I think a lot about how the things I put out into the world might come back to impact the people in my life. Some people seem to deal with this by constantly putting everything out into the world, perhaps having the effect of generating so much content that it's overwhelming to pay mind to any particular detail. I find myself the opposite. As time goes on, I've become far more restrained with my output, both personally and creatively. 

As designers or social engineers, do you think we can help move toward a culture where vulnerability, or the acceptance of one's own limitations, or overcoming one's own fear of failing is more normative? 

The professional culture of design has tended toward expertise and rareification. Many designers are addicted to leadership, to needing to be thought of as decision-makers, which often comes at the expense of sidling allegiance to those interests that wield the most financial power.  

(This sort of thinking was built into my design education, where we were openly coached to think of ourselves as among the top 1% of the world's intellectual population.)

As our roles and fields grow into themselves, I do hope that we'll earn a collective understanding of our place as shaping things, spaces, and interactions with our communities rather than for them. 

Designers already fail all the time. Much of what we make goes back for revision, is rejected, languishes and dies before it is made, or doesn't work and needs to be revised until it does. We're quite resilient at balancing acceptance of actual, inevitable instances of failure, with the fear of being perceived as failures. So we can probably help. 

I like that! Looking back, I realize that one of the main lessons I took from art school was the ability to fail more productively; to have experience pouring my creative energy into something only to have it rejected. Learning how to gracefully handle failure could save the world!

Speaking of pouring one's heart into something, do you think design can put us in the mood to be more vulnerable, or more receptive to warm, open, romantic feelings?  

Spaces and objects are so charged with intention and meaning, as well as embodied resources. They don't need to be "designer" options, but evidence that a person is designing their environment, using it for a purpose. That evidence could be lighting, paintings, musical instruments, spice jars, a particular choice of stereo, tchotchkes, a record collection, tools, books, or anything a person's done to make their environment feel like it's their own, including spending so much time there that the space smells like the person. I am a complete sucker for art that was obviously donated to a thrift store because it didn't turn out the way the artist intended, fun mugs, and clothing that's had some scissors taken to it. There's the design of the things, and there's the design of putting them all together into a system that coheres into identity. In the digital realm, interfaces like message boards, chat rooms, and diaries have fostered romance and vulnerability for as long as they've been around.

A design process can embody love when it centers the people who are affected by a design and the outcomes they will endure. Or it can provide the feverish sense of creating something together. We trust each other so much. Every day, we implicitly trust that the designers, engineers, builders, and mechanics of every single one of our buildings and freeways and planes and cars have got it right, that all these design-things that encrust our entire designed earth won't collapse or blow up and kill us all. Design is love. 

Yes! Design is love! <3

One of your questions on Siren this week was, "How do you know when to tell someone you love them?" What's your answer to this question, and what's the quickest way to your heart?

There's no fixed answer! There is no particularly quick way to my heart. Those who do engender an immediate, organic affinity are meeting me at a time in our lives when we have done the work in advance to be ready for that sort of "game recognize game" kindred sparkle. I can form loyalty at a reasonable pace, but take time to open up in a meaningful, thorough way.

How has technology impacted your love life?

I don't have a clear way of isolating technology's impact upon my (love) life, because I have never had a (love) life without technology present. Everything is technology. It was technology — design, even — the first time someone picked up a rock to crush open a seed; it's a technology of power to bring the most beautiful flower in the field to your lover. It would be so interesting to hear from someone who believes technology has not impacted their (love) life. Where is that person?

Check out the Seattle Design Festival and don't miss S. Surface's questions this week on Siren!