July 16th, 2008

Chances are, you didn’t understand.

People are fairly terrible at explaining themselves, and even worse at understanding. Language, context, tone. Things get in our way. It’s not our fault. It’s something inherently broken in the way the human mind works. We’re nothing more than pattern machines, but the patterns are personal. Non-absolute.

If you ever meet two folks who collaborate well, who can finish each other’s thoughts, chances are they share a pattern language. When one says “lightbox it”, the other knows exactly what he means. At some point, the two agreed on what a “lightbox” was and what applying that to something meant. It might have been a project in their past, or a conversation they had over drinks. Either way, some bit of history created a shared pattern between those individuals. An inside joke you’re not privy to.

Matching pattern sounds more complicated that it is. Hell, the phrase “matching pattern systems” is a bit fucking Gladwell-esque, and I’d rather not be using it. But it’s important to remember that it’s the key to figuring out what someone means or wants. Recognizing that our language is not absolute, that labels are open to personal interpretation; Slap whatever label you’d like on it, I’ve found no better way to think of it than in the term of patterns.

Internally, we all have these bits of short-hand. Mental labels for actions, ideas and approaches. Culturally, there are thousands of them. Think of the phrase kafkaesque. If you know the author, if you’ve read his work, you immediately understand that when something is called kafkaesque it means that the thing has a senseless, disorienting, menacing complexity to it. Hearing the phrase kafkaesque immediately conjures in your mind a series of images, events or words. A list of other things that you found Kafka-like. A pattern of Kafka, all stored inside your head and triggered by a single word.

If there is a trick to understanding a new idea, or a new expression, it’s in matching its external pattern system to your own. My idea of “lightbox” might match your idea of “fancyzoom”. They both represent the same basic pattern, but they do not share a label. Even the common vernacular can be vague.

The best way for me has always been to repeat back whatever idea I hear in my own words and try hard only to use terms I know I share with the person. If someone says they want a “patriotic” logo, I immediately say, “So something with red, white, and blue, maybe stars or stripes in it?” Maybe that’s what the person was thinking. Maybe not. He might have been thinking of something airy and old, with black-letter type and dark brown hues. That could be patriotic to someone who thinks of the Constitution, and not the flag, as patriotism itself. He’s no more wrong or right than I am in my definition.

But oh, what a dick I’ll look like when I turn in that blue logo with the star. The client will think he’s chosen the wrong designer, that I didn’t understand his business at all; Worse, that I didn’t listen to him. That’s the first thing everyone thinks when there’s a mismatch. They blame you and think you didn’t listen. Even if you listened perfectly. Even if you took detailed notes. Everyone always thinks it was a lack of effort on your part. That you’re somehow dense, or dumb.

It’s frustrating, embarrassing. You walk in confident you’ve done exactly what was asked for, only to have your legs pulled from under you when told it isn’t even close. A sourness pervades the rest of the task.

It’s important to remember that it is, at least to some extent, your fault. Few people know what patterns you understand and what patterns you don’t. You don’t walk around with a Rosetta stone dangling around your neck that folks can use to figure out your internal language. They’ll learn from trial and error, but that may take months, even years.

I try not to leave any direction or idea left untranslated. I might be fantastically annoying about it. It might make me appear stupid, or hard of hearing, or dense. That’s just dandy. I’d rather get it right than nod my head and smile.

It’s a mental exercise I do as often as possible. When reading a new idea, I immediately start trying to explain it in my own words. I borrow from my own collection of patterns to construct a suitable definition. I reduce it, configure it, parse and re-parse until its patterns match my own; The idea becomes, to some extent, mine.

Often, the only time I really gain interest in a thing is after I’ve described it to someone else. Rambling over the idea in my head, as it reaches my lips I’ll light up with more enthusiasm on the topic than I ever felt privately. The act of translation provides ownership and with ownership comes enthusiasm.

Try it for yourself.

And if I’m wrong, let me know. Chances are, I just didn’t say it well.