“An individual relates himself in action to his society through the use of tools that he actively masters, or by which he is passively acted upon. To the degree that he masters his tools he can invest the world with his meaning; to the degree that he is mastered by his tools, the shape of the tool determines his own self-image”
—Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality
Illich captured the essence of our relationship to tools! It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about the proverbial hammer – the one that makes us treat everything as a nail – or CAD software. I found this quote featured on The Scythe Connection, dedicated to one of our most primal tools! It also reflects on whether we see ourselves as agents or simply as the tools of others, skipping off to create the most awesome Addictive User Experience! This is the primal question we face as designers. It comes before any other and it infuses all the other decisions we’ll ever make.
Mastery over tools includes both knowing how to use tools, as well as knowing when to abandon a tool that lacks the qualities required to accomplish the task at hand. Tools are our interface with reality. They mediate between us and the world. John Berger writes,
“…reality is not a given: it has to be continually sought, held – I am tempted to say salvaged. One is taught to oppose the real to the imaginary, as though the first were always at hand and the second distant, far away. This opposition is false. Events are always to hand. But the coherence of these events – which is what one means by reality – is an imaginative construction. Reality always lies beyond…. …however one interprets it, (reality) lies beyond a screen of clichés. Every culture produces such a screen, partly to facilitate its own practices – to establish habits – and partly to consolidate its own power. Reality is inimical to those in power.”
Illich shows us what our tools are for, Berger shows us what our tools must do. This is as true of a jack plane as it is of a computer cloud network. If we are to master them, bend them to interact with reality in ways that enhance meaning, then we need to be supremely aware of this. If the tool is leading us, there’s no one else to blame for the results. This needs repeating, elucidation. Reality is hidden behind habit, cocooned inside cliché. Tools are what allow us to gain traction in our engagement with reality so we can hone that interaction and learn from it and learn how to influence results. If we fail to understand what the tool is for – beginning with this overall purpose all tools share – then we have not mastered that tool, and in our flailing we will allow this miss-used tool to shape our own self-image.
Everything else we do as designers depends on our understanding this dynamic. All of the faults, miss-uses and disasters within the “made-world,” that is within the sphere of design’s responsibilities, stem from ignorance of this principle. The answers to all design questions can only be found along a path that begins, and constantly returns, to the demands of this dynamic.
This may sound sweeping! It is, but no less true for that.