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RuNT. Humanizing Technology with Mark Wyner (Recap)

Written By Nick Mendez | Oct 27, 2016

The best tools are often whatever’s right in front of you. When Mark Wyner stared down his first design challenge, a cover for his death metal band Cadaverous Quartet’s debut album The Extinction Agenda, that meant sneaking into his friend’s computer shop during off-hours.

This may well have been the first time Mark considered users, then of the head-banging variety, a learning process that prepared him for his career today: protecting humanity from the proliferation of terrible user interfaces.

“The tool itself was not going to make me a designer,” he said at the top of RuNT. Humanizing Technology with Mark Wyner, hosted on Tuesday October 18th at the Wacom Experience Center in Portland. “For me, it was an opportunity to learn about marketing from a very interesting perspective.”

The pre-internet hustle of promoting a band served as Mark’s design trial by fire. “The internet is an incredibly-valuable tool that we did not have,” he said. So Cadaverous Quartet produced their own show flyers and demos, sending them (by mail, naturally) to every record label, radio station and magazine they could think of. “This is how we survived. And it worked!”

Yes, death metal drove Mark Wyner to design, and frustration with formal education drove him to death metal.

“I had to learn through experience,” he said. As a kid, he found inspiration in the bright colors and distinct characterizations of Hanna-Barbera cartoons. “My parents thought I was a prodigy ’cuz I could draw Odie.”

Mark reflects on his metal days

But there was something about note-and-test-taking that didn’t jive with Mark’s approach, so he dropped out of high school, completing his GED some time later. Instead, he stood with the metalheads and fought the grungy tides of the mid-90s, until…

“Fatherhood definitely changed my life,” Mark recalled, emphasizing that he didn’t want to leave music behind, but saw personal potential, and the ability to support his new family, in design work.

“We need to think about our medium.”

So he leveraged his death metal chops and early connections into a job designing ads for the Tucson Weekly newspaper. Mark’s editors wanted the ads to be loud and flashy, the language of the increasingly-extreme late 90s. Happy for the opportunity, he nonetheless sought out chances to design in a more subtle, understated way.

“Minimalism really simplifies communication,” he said, remembering his early ads for the paper. “We need to think about our medium.”

Hearing about Mark’s career forced me to reflect on just how much mediums have changed. It made me appreciate the rapid pace of technological advancement, daunting as it may be. When it comes to color reproduction and fine lines, printing on newspaper was “like printing on toilet paper” he remembered.

And my oh my, the early web! The first time Mark had the opportunity to design a website, the internet was so new that he was essentially designing blind. When his first mock-ups came back from the development team with “LOL” written at the top, he dove into HTML, to better understand the building blocks of the medium.

“There were three browser resolutions we were designing for,” he recalled. “We all had them tattooed on our thighs.” Now a common refrain, Mark added that learning HTML and CSS made him “an infinitely better designer.”

“Then, there was an EXPLOSION.” Two decades of new devices, new screen sizes, new applications–each with their own unique challenges and ways to apply well-worn design principles.

And the variables involved are increasingly complex. At least with newspaper, you knew exactly how your work would look regardless of the reader, or their environment.

Conversely, with the little computers so many of us carry around in our pockets, designers have to consider: connectivity, varying light levels, battery life, accessibility best practices, different software versions–an endless litany of factors that could foundationally change a user’s experience.

“There’s a lot of collective knowledge that designers have,” Mark said, remarking on how many basic design principles carry over, but… “the thing is, when we move into new spaces, we know NOTHING.”

Mark prepares to blow the audience a kiss

One of the biggest new concerns is privacy. With more and more internet-enabled devices, and the amount of deeply personal data we plug into them, it’s become a paramount design concern.

“We’re completely relinquishing control,” Mark said. He saw this firsthand during a recent design project with Chrysler, for which the stakes were extremely high: “It’s literally life or death.”

Trust is important to any design team, but especially when you’re asking users to get into an autonomous car, and put their lives in the hands of your software. Watching user testing, Mark was struck by how much general distrust for devices affected the desirability of tech-enabled cars.

Haphazard designers run the risk of feeding a culture of distrust.

“It’s because there are a lot of shitty designers designing a lot of shitty things,” he said. “We’re creating a culture of distrust.”

That’s emblematic of a common problem: user research is often a tough sell. Responding to a question from the audience, Mark noted that 20 years of experience is his most powerful tool in making the case to clients that testing is valuable.

“Worst case scenario…dig up a research paper,” he said. “[Show your clients that] I’m not the only one who thinks this. We’ve been in this situation before.”

As any designer is intimately aware, sometimes you’re tasked with polishing a turd.

“At least once in our careers we’re gonna be asked to design something that’s exceptional, for something that’s awful,” Mark admitted.

As interface design becomes more integral to our routine, from monitoring our health to getting to work in the morning, haphazard designers run the risk of feeding a culture of distrust. If we’re going to keep asking users to take leaps–telling us more about themselves, trusting us with their lives and livelihood–we have to treat this work with the seriousness it deserves.

“It’s important to our society, to how we’re building these technologies, to make sure this stuff really works,” Mark said.

You can check out more photos from RuNT. Humanizing Technology with Mark Wyner on Facebook, and keep an eye out for future gatherings on our events page.

About RuNT. never underestimate.

A professional development series from The Creative Party and Mathys+Potestio, RuNT is about positioning creatives for success in their careers by providing tools and knowledge to excel. Often, the only thing holding people back is themselves. From this series, you’ll gain insights to give you the confidence to achieve your professional goals in the creative services world.

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