SignPost: Acknowledgements

“Collectively, all these people lend proof to my conjecture that we are far less smart individually than we are collectively. This sharing of knowledge and insight is fundamental to intellectual and cultural growth.” —Bill Buxton, from the acknowledgements in Sketching User Experiences.
It is a familiar practice for writers to recognize the contributions that helped them get their books onto the shelf and into your hands. If you are the type who appreciates knowing a little bit about the person behind the pen, the acknowledgements page gives you a peek into the personality of the author, how they perceive themselves, how they value the world and people around them, and even how they work. It can reveal fascinating details of the creative process, the development process and the roles within the publishing industry.

It is fun to imagine how that editor feels when the author—whose name is in lights—publicly claims that the book would not have been possible without the editor’s help, or that their writing is actually garbage without the editor’s input. Does that old friend, family member or random encounter glow upon hearing that they may have provided a key insight that made something magnificent happen?

I have always remembered David Bodanis’ acknowledgments in his book E=mc2. I love how he describes the constraints of having to center his life around the quirky interruptions of raising two kids and how that gave him an unexpected advantage. He described writing with his notes spread out on the floor of their room after they were asleep in their bunks: “A few times—the writing racing along; my coffee long since cold—I realized I’d gone the whole night through.” I remember the work a lot more knowing a bit about his personality and his method. I also admire him for being able to look at interruptions as creative opportunities and how he turned  a massive task into a warm memory.

I have read of pets and parents and of places from diners to natural escapes. Each little thank you fills out the picture of how the creation was built and who played a part. Knowing these details can change the experience of consuming the end product. Feeling like you know the back story or the people brings you in closer.

Movies and films do a great job of calling out the intricate roles and contributions in the credits, even if they don’t get into the personal details and inspirations that we see in books.

We don’t do this in product design. Products usually don’t bear any trace of authorship, or acknowledgments. It’s impractical on most products, but we still don’t provide any other surface where the people and stories are shared. This comes to mind at a time when design awards are documented and celebrated and, even if brief, the people behind the products have a chance to be known. We take it pretty seriously, though, and default to telling the biography and birth story of the products—but not so much the tributes to the teams behind these achievements, let alone the unexpected inspirations or personal stories that fueled these creations.

It would be a great tradition to start. Imagine if all these great products in our lives came with easy access to this kind background. A sticker on the back, an insert in the box, a page on the website or a story on the blog. Maybe the experiences that are being created would be richer for it. Maybe students would gain hidden insights and inspiration into the designer’s alchemy of creating design that can change the world. To Bill Buxton’s point: It is certain that the more wisdom we share, the smarter we all will be.

Published in IDSA's quarterly journal INNOVATION Fall 2012 - Yearbook of Design Excellence

Subscribe at www.idsa.org/innovation

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