A philosophy for work, life, and beyond.
“I need a website.” It’s something designers will hear often, and it can be a difficult statement to respond to. It’s not unlike an architect hearing, “I need a house.” Or, a chef hearing, “I need food.” There’s clearly quite a bit of context missing.
Exploring and defining this context is part of the work we do as designers, developers, and marketers. We’re problem solvers for problems that typically don’t have a prescribed solution. So, while we’re delighted to hear that there’s a need for a website, there’s a lot that happens before we start building. It begins with context.
To zoom out is to look at the big(gest) picture, grasp the full context, and think diversely. It can be a powerful exercise. Consider the profound experience astronauts have when they view Earth from outer space: the overview effect.
“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it.” (Astronaut Edgar Mitchell). “Here we came all this way to the Moon, and yet the most significant thing we’re seeing is our own home planet, the Earth.” (Astronaut Bill Anders).
The effect can work for the terrestrial-bound among us, too. Consider the architect whose client requested a pleasant natural retreat. After long hours spent exploring the plot of land, what could have been a fairly traditional house became an architectural icon for its unexpected and effective design: Fallingwater. The chef who is tasked with providing food will be inspired by the number of people to be fed, details about the occasion, and seasonal ingredients.
The same is true for building websites.
Maslow famously said, “It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” A good designer approaches projects not in terms of the tools that will be used, but in terms of the intended outcome.
One of the first things I’ll ask clients is “how will you know that we’ve done has been successful?” A client looking for a redesigned website to sell a product may be better served by a series of personalized landing pages paired with a social media campaign. A client looking to earn passive income through writing may have greater success publishing a series of essays in a book than maintaining a blog.
Zooming out means having a deeper understanding of the bounds in which a solution exists. Big challenges can quickly feel manageable. Small challenges can lead to something that has a bigger impact. This isn’t just about finding unintended or clever outcomes. (No disrespect to the inventors of Post-It Notes, Velcro or penicillin.)
Sometimes the need is as straightforward as building a simple house, or making a sandwich, or building a website. But through the exercise of zooming out, we gain a framework for creating opportunities for empathy, awe, clarity, and discovery.