The ephemeral approach of doing

A different way of thinking about the world from home environments, bank transactions and food shopping to learning environments characterizes current societies. IKEA, the Internet and technological devices have contributed to this phenomenon in different areas. Since 1943, IKEA (founded by Ingvar Kamprad) has been an innovative business which introduced the idea of ‘good design at low prices’, changing the way we see furniture: from once considered a family relic ‘handed down from generation to generation’ to something ‘fashionable, cheap and disposable’. New technologies have had strong implications in education for the ‘current notion of knowledge, as well as for the relationships and roles of teachers and learners’ (Noss and Pachler, 1999). Internet has transformed the way we interact and communicate with other people.

I refer to this way of thinking or view as the ephemeral approach of doing. Like Martin Heidegger expressed back in 1993, this post unpacks a concern ‘not towards any particular technology, or towards technology in general’, but ‘to the particular view of the world’ originated by technology (McLaughlin, 2009). Even though its effects unfold in many areas of life, this post discusses the current state of: writing about design (books, articles), creating design solutions (designers, clients, audience), and design education (learning, studying).

Indicators of quality


Lenses of analysis that can be used to dissect work and assess quality. The first two lenses are explored in the Blue Pencil.

Recently I came across Blue Pencil, written by Paul Shaw. Shaw dissects published books on graphic design and typography to point out editors and proofreaders’ lack of attention when doing their job. His analysis focuses on grammar, orthographic and factual mistakes, but his dissections also indicate other types of problems beyond editorial work. Finding typos here and there in a published book does indicate lack of attention during the proofreading process, but missing key content or discussing poorly or wrongly supported claims are, to me, indicators of a more deeper lack of attention. This could also be seen as an ephemeral approach of doing. To some extent, this approach involves a lack of care for what we do and an easy acceptance on what we demand (as students, as practitioners, as clients, as users…).

The fact that everyone with the right tools and the right contacts, but lacking the skills or expertise, is increasingly doing the job: write a book, design, teach, etc., is weaken the quality of what is being asked for, produced and delivered. This phenomenon becomes clearer if we take a more mindful look to the stuff we produce and consume. We could, for example, use the lenses or variables introduced by Blue Pencil as a checklist to ‘dissect’ and assess the quality of any type of work or activity.

Short, Fast, Cool Standards


This table presents a high level comparison between the characteristics of older and newer content. This is not to say that all content being published in the Internet has poor quality, but to indicate a decrease in quality. Internet content should be created following older quality standards.

The Internet culture contributes to this approach by celebrating fast and short, and condemning slow and long. People have become reluctant to read long pieces of information and the writers’ backgrounds aren’t a determinant factor which provides credibility. Short blog posts are often chosen over more longer, serious or academic posts or articles. The role of sources has significantly changed too, to the extent that some textbooks don’t even include references, and theses heavily cite online articles with not robust credibility. This reflects a lack or change of agreed or official standards for what is considered good quality work.

Publishers, designers, clients, and universities are responsible for controlling the quality of what is being published, what is being designed and requested, and what is being taught. They should filter good from poor content, create the most effective possible outcome and demand meaningful solutions, and establish criteria to determine high-quality teaching. But in many cases this does not happen: designers, users, and clients seem to be more interested in getting the job done, rather than in getting the job properly done (even if getting it properly done the first time would save money later). Each time we encounter or experience a situation like this, we should ask ourselves: Why as designers, consumers, clients, readers, students don’t we demand the quality we deserve or we are paying for?

What are our quality standards?

The focus of attention seems to have shifted from caring about the information itself (e.g. producing meaningful content, learning the foundations of a discipline) to how information looks like (e.g. just producing something trendy, using latest tools). Somehow adding lines to the CV has become more important than actually learning something new for the sake of becoming more knowledgeable. Job recruiters contribute to perpetuating this approach too by continuously be looking for professionals with the widest possible spectrum of skills, rather than deep specialisation in one or two relevant skills.

The ephemeral approach is creating gaps in knowledge, shallow solutions, poor understanding, and development of ill-equipped tools and skills to pursue and demand higher quality results. For current generations this approach may be seen as natural and the way to go, because they have not been exposed to old excellence or way of doing. Bringing back older examples of good practice, good education and good thinking is one step towards becoming more aware of the difference between doing something in a proper way and just doing something, start developing higher quality standards, and demanding better quality in everything we do and ask for.

As information designers and enablers of understanding we have a key role in reverting this situation: follow a conscientious approach, seek credibility at each step of the process, and ensure that content is trustworthy and that the message we are communicating is accurate and relevant. These actions will contribute to develop good quality standards.

– McLaughlin, S. (2009) Information design and the world that comes before us. Visual Communication, 8(3):303-316.
– Noss, R., & Pachler, N. (1999). The challenge of new technologies: doing old things in a new way, or doing new things. Understanding Pedagogy and its impact on learning, 195-211.

One comment

  1. Pingback: Enter the Void - Christopher Butler

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