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Seattleness or What Writing a Book Taught Me About 3D Design

So, I Wrote a Thing....

This month a book I designed and co-wrote was published, a sort of life milestone for which I am both stoked and grateful. Seattleness: A Cultural Atlas, (Penguin | Random House October 2018) is a hardbound full color collection of stories, infographics and data visualizations detailing the mercurial nature of place through the lens of Seattle. It combines my deep interest in the built environment (I trained as an architect), my love of intimate data and design, and is ultimately an exploration of the city that defined the meaning of urban for me as a young upstart growing up in the gloom of northwest Washington.

Detail from Seattleness

Aside from that fact that getting published is a feat (and sending personal work out in the wild is both scary and rad), the process and timing got me thinking just how much creating a book like this has in common with the work I do as design director at Torch and how much we, as designers, are bombarded with messages telling us to specialize if we want to do meaningful work, to define ourselves strictly as one type of designer or another, to stay in our lanes and keep our heads down.

I've always been incredulous of silos and this time I'd like to take the opportunity to call bullshit. I just created a book combining code and design with two of the oldest communications technologies (printed pictures, the written word). I had also done this right as I started at Torch, working with one of the newest technologies (augmented reality) and I experienced the exact opposite. It became apparent to me immediately how much these seemingly disparate technologies drew on the same well of skills I had developed over a career that includes magazine design (hey Elle Girl👋), agency work (long live the pirate ship that is W+K 🤘), architecture (Sasaki, GGN, MTWTF 👊), and writing (Soft Skull Press🖖).

Talking to designers who wanted to get into 3D reinforced this idea. I met architects designing VR retail experiences. I talked to 3D artists building their first web apps. I work with a print designer who fell deeply in love with interactive AR. They all have in common the fact they have nothing in common. The definitions and categories that dominated the design world appear, to me, to be collapsing. With the publication of Seattleness and the one year anniversary of my start at Torch, I decided it was time to put these observations into a short, and perhaps ill advised, manifesto.

The Design World is Collapsing.

Complex problems require multidisciplinary perspectives. And as technology advances exponentially (influencing everything from our culture, institutions, physical infrastructure, and yes, even our biology) the problems that matter are only getting harder, requiring new approaches that exist, as Joi Ito states, “between, or beyond, disciplines.”

Seattle Library detail from Seattleness

This collapse started for me during my architecture graduate studies, leading to my work at Torch as Design Director where I build tools that enable designers of all stripes to tap into the power of 3D and augmented reality.  My graduate studies also led me to write and design.

Both endeavors require(d) thinking beyond the artificial boundaries (and fortifications) set up between disciplines, between screen and space. They also require(d) mixing creative mediums and technical skill sets as well as identifying relationships between disparate information and research.

My work at Torch and my writing are, in a way, an effort to use this mixture of mediums to decode the intersection of digital and physical space, to understand how we as humans experience and interact with place.

One way we do that is through marking our environment with tools and creating maps (be they paper, digital, augmented, or virtual). These tools and maps are constantly changing. It started on the walls of caves washed with firelight when early humans drew scratched figures with calcite and burned bone fragments.

Today we’re still augmenting and annotating our environment, only now we’re using digital tools and drawing with cloud-anchored pixels.

The design world as we know it is collapsing. That isn’t synonymous with the collapsing of approaches, but rather the opposite. Boundaries are collapsing. Constraints are disappearing. Opportunities are expanding.

Now is the time for the broadening of ideas, perspectives and inputs into 3D design. And what that means is that your skills as a designer transcend and translate across mediums. We can all be 3D designers. And if you’re wondering if you’re late to the party, you’re actually right on time. There is plenty of room to experiment and create something completely new… Don't wait for permission.

The design world is collapsing. This isn’t the apocalypse though, it’s the revolution.

- Tera (@that_field)