THE BLOG
10/09/2014 01:27 pm ET Updated Dec 09, 2014

The Designers Who Mediate Our Experience of the World Should Probably Get Out More

Ellen McMahon

What’s the difference between staring up at a sky full of stars as you fall asleep, looking through a telescope with an informative astronomer, pointing your smart phone at the sky, and just glancing up with a wearable digital device?

The only people who can answer this question are those who have had all four experiences. And we are a dwindling population, as ubiquitous little screens and smart glasses and watches are eclipsing the first two kinds of experience.

The science is accumulating to suggest that we are suffering from what David Louv calls “nature deficit disorder,” sacrificing mental and physical health as we replace nature time with screen time. We need to get out more -- outside, that is. And the folks who really need to get more are the “experience designers” who are adding layers of augmentation to our every moment. Like my university design students, mostly 20 to 30-somethings, the people who are designing our smart devices and the ways we interact with them grew up in a digitally saturated but have too little experience with the non-human living world.

Experience design is a multidisciplinary enterprise, which focuses on influencing “personal meaning, and emotional context,” in most cases with the goal of engaging us to make a purchase of some kind. I understand this is the way things are going but as a design educator I feel the need to encourage my students to think critically about their future roles as the shapers of human reality. A key component of this is to have knowledge of the basic ecological principles underlying all life. And the best way I have found to inspire their interest and respect for natural systems is through direct experience with nature’s beauty and complexity -- as well as with biting insects, sharp sticks, sandy sandwiches, and soggy sleeping bags.

So ten years ago I started taking them on field trips. And I’m not referring to the Google app of the same name, with its quaint old-timey grandpa’s-vest-color and retro silhouette of a pair of binoculars. I mean real field trips, like the ones that changed my life when I was their age, to observe the natural world firsthand and learn about the complex webs of connection between plants, animals, and environments that have developed over 3.5 billion years of evolution.

In my early twenties, feeling stifled by my northeastern suburban upbringing, I headed out to the west coast and majored in biology. Before long I found myself in the vast Oregon desert catching lightning fast lizards with a tiny string lasso at the end of a stick and gently clutching live kangaroo rats in my pockets as hand warmers in the cool evenings. This is when I first fell asleep gazing at the starry sky and developed my sense of wonder for the natural world and my place within it. As I transitioned through careers in biology, scientific illustration, and graphic design, this ecological consciousness has stuck with me.

One of my field trips with students is to CEDO, an environmental field station on the Gulf of California in Mexico, a few hours drive from the University of Arizona in Tucson, where I teach. We sleep under the stars, eat in the open courtyard, learn about the ecology and local conservation issues, and help the center with their visual communication needs. In the past students have created design and illustration for murals, websites and printed materials.

One student, particularly anxious about the trip, walked slightly behind me at sunset out on a vast tidal mud flat. The mud was silky and sticky on our bare feet, the air was balmy and salty, small flocks of shore birds flew overhead silhouetted against the bright orange sky. After several minutes of silence she said under her breath, “It’s so quiet.”

It was as if she had never experienced the unadulterated sounds of nature. I recently caught an interview on NPR with the founder of Spotify saying, “I don’t know any moment in life which can’t be improved with music.” Really? Another tech enthusiast writes in Wired magazine, “Wearables will know what users want before they want it” Why do we assume this a good thing?

After our field trip to CEDO, my students were more interested in the repercussions of design on the living world, and they were more receptive to exploring questions about their work like: Where do the raw materials come from and under what conditions? How are the products and services created? How are they utilized? What are the intentional and unintentional consequences? How are the products recycled or disposed of? What kind of change does it create -- in the maker, between people, within the local community and beyond?

When drug cartel violence in Mexico made a trip too risky, I began taking students out to the dry river beds surrounding Tucson to inspire projects about region water. Now I’m working with a group of students on the massive die-off of southwestern forests due to climate change.

Programs such as the National Wildlife Federation’s “Be Out There” campaign, David Suzuki’s 30x30 Nature Challenge, and Cape Farewell, which takes artists and designers out to remote places to encourage them to make work about climate change, are important to push back against the digitization of our worlds. But more design students need exposure.

Where, when, and how we use technology is one of the most important determinants of our future as a species, and designers are the people making those determinations. Our climate crisis didn’t just happen. It is by design that we have separated ourselves from the natural systems that sustain us, in large part by masking the consequences of our consumption. So it is through designers that we need to find our way back.