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The Redeeming Value of Modern Communication

Oh great, another thinkpiece about how social media isn’t actually all that bad.

super close-up water bubbles

Here’s the thing: I’m not here to stick up for the Twitters and Instagrams. Depending on my daily tolerance for impending doom, I’ll gladly listen to your arguments against such platforms.

It would be shortsighted, however, for me to not attribute my “professional development” to our beloved modern methods of communication. And it’s not for the reasons you’d think.

Just beneath the surface of this content-saturated period of time are design patterns (of course the design guy would make this about patterns). Here are a few that have helped me be more intentional in my day-to-day:

Brevity & Wit

I like thinking out loud. Waxing poetic. I hate how I sound, but more times than not, I can ramble my way to a better point than the one I started with.

This flies in the face of 140 characters and photo captions that only show the first 75. And whether it’s explicitly stated or not, the charge to all who type anything into a social media post is “do more with less”. So we write for scan-ability, both in length and tone.

Brevity, charm, and a dash of wit aren’t beholden to written language — we visual linguists would do well to impose upon ourselves similar constraints (“standards” might be more appropriate). A decade ago, my tendency was to create layered and visually complex layouts, whereas now I find unimpeachable value in restraint. Consider my increased Twitter and Instagram use over that time equal parts causation and correlation.

Let Them Cook

I recently made an Instagram Reel. It was like, my fifth ever. The UI has changed a bit since my last, but each and every time I’m blown away by how powerful this feature is. In case this is news to you, we’ve enabled our youth with the ability to stitch clips, mix audio, and add layers of elements as a side quest of an iPhone app, and not, I dunno… After Effects.

We’re either grooming droves of would-be video editors, photographers, and designers or a swath of some-day clients with a desire to contribute creatively.

Most web practitioners are intimately familiar with the phrase “just because they can doesn’t mean they should”, usually in the context of creating flexibility within a CMS. At Adjacent, we provide mind-numbing access to content editing within WordPress, largely in service of removing ourselves as the bottleneck to someone updating footer text. We typically don’t “lock down” much of anything on the websites we build. We like to pass along the teachings of Uncle Ben (and Marissa Tomei that one time).

The takeaway? I’m increasingly interested in (and in some cases, inviting) creative input from our clients, whereas I used to be fearful of it. Quality of input aside, the overarching benefit is creating a sense of ownership and advocacy for the project (recapturing that warm fuzzy feeling when you publish a Reel, basically). My job as a designer isn’t to stop creative contributions, but to guide them.

Have a Plan (& a Story)

Hey, it’s a miracle we’ve convinced ourselves that podcasts are a good way to spend our time at all. I don’t think we would’ve arrived at this conclusion decades ago. But here I am, a fan.

You ever start listening to a new podcast and, despite the topic, the first episode doesn’t really go anywhere? Somewhere at the 14-minute mark, you think to yourself “I’m going to spend how many hours listening to this person?”. If the problem isn’t someone’s actual voice, it’s usually their lack of direction.

Good podcasts have a plan. Each episode is a narrative arc that keeps you hooked from minute one (unless minute one is an ad — those are the worst). What seems like 90 minutes of organic conversation is likely following a script with notes and ideas. You can usually tell who has their stuff together by the time you get to “a little housekeeping” or “programming reminders”.

If nothing else, this has reinforced what it might feel like to be on the other end of a Zoom when I’m leading a meeting. It feels good to know the facilitator has a plan. While it may not always be easy to tell if someone has prepared, it’s certainly easy to tell when they haven’t.

Modern communication might be convincing us all of something we inherently value as designers: cutting through the noise.

Sure, that’s no big secret. But the way we do it seems to be in the unspoken aspects of digital media these days.

Except for TikTok. I still have no idea what the redeeming value of that is.

More Thoughts on Communication