Poetry In Data Driven TimesMaking Room For The Human In Technology

By Heba Malaeb and Afshin Mehin

Illustrations Jordin Kelsey

In our design process at WOKE, and especially when designing technology products, we apply many different lenses to a product in order to create something that aligns with our values. Often, we design products where the emphasis is on usability, innovation, and seamless experience. But in data-driven times, where almost everything is believed to be quantifiable, is there room for something less measurable, like poetry? These days we are thinking about the potential of poetry to introduce a more human dimension to design in general, and technology products specifically. We started wondering: where can we find, or make room for, poetic elements in tech? 

Poetry in design

To nail down what poetry is into a single definition is a losing game; because of its abstract nature, poetry is elusive to define. For our purposes, we’re thinking of poetry as a form of creative expression that has to do with emotion, and intention. When speaking about objects or architecture, “poetry” is generally used to denote mood or emotion, or evocative forms and materials. Something described as “pure poetry” could mean that it’s difficult to put into words, that it stirs emotion, or touches something in us in an impactful way. We’ve all come across that one designed thing that speaks to us in ways we didn’t expect — that goes beyond function to evoke emotion, or offers an interaction that transcends mere use. 

Poetic predecessors

Before the digital revolution, design heroes like Ettore Sottsass were able to introduce poetry seemingly effortlessly into designed products. Poetry is the oldest literary mode of expression known to humanity; and yet poets continue to find new ways to use language and existing forms of expression to describe the human condition. From his Olivetti typewriter to helping found the Memphis Group, Sottsass invented forms and values that continue to shape design today; even in his electronics, he managed to incorporate into everyday objects a level of play and innovation that we deeply admire. 

Designer as author

Poetry in design can also refer to a certain carefulness and intentionality on the part of the designer, almost turning the design process into an act of authorship. (And some have even compared writing poetry to an act of design!) Just like writing a good poem requires expertise, discernment, and artfulness, design that is well-considered and thoughtful offers a rewarding emotional experience to its users. 

Authenticity: a brand value

The idea of the designer as author also comes up when thinking about human-centered design, a design approach based in empathy. Similar to how reading a poem is an act of attentive imagination and emotional investment, researching a brief to provide our clients with the best product for their needs always involves putting a little of ourselves in the work. More and more, the modern brand is striving for authenticity, as consumers seek out brands that reflect a connection with real values, that come from real people. For designers to forge authentic connections with users on behalf of a brand, the brand’s values must first line up with those of the designer in order to create an avenue for honest creative expression, whose honesty translates to the user.

Muji’s poetic emptiness

Muji is one brand that has long employed the principle of honesty, subtlety, and poetry as a value. Embodying the philosophy, “Muji is satisfying enough”, and then going the extra mile to include what they term “micro consideration”, Muji creates consumer products that exhibit simplicity of form, material, and manufacturing, while still offering experiences that are pleasurable in an unexpected and yet everyday way. This depth of consideration results in products that are as self-evident as a well-resolved poem. While Muji products are designed  to recede into the background of one’s life, they do so based on the concept of “emptiness” — acting as vessels for users’ specific needs and experiences. In addition to their own products, the brand’s concept of “found Muji” captures the ethos of the brand by collecting products from all around the world that fit within their philosophy and “feel like” Muji.

Poetic interactions

Tech has room for these subtle touches, too. The original Apple Macintosh had the signatures of its creators molded into the inside of the computer’s case — creating a direct link between designers and users, and adding a level of humanity to the product. With the introduction of software experiences, the poetry in tech slowly migrated away from hardware and towards software, turning hardware into merely a vessel for digital experience.

But even in interaction design, brands are gravitating towards creating experiences that offer emotional payoff. Think of Spotify’s “Wrapped” playlists that take users’ listening data and digest it into a personalized, friendly, and shareable format at the end of the year. Just like poetry only “works” when you interact with it, design only becomes meaningful when it is engaged with. These days we see more and more examples of technology’s potential to create objects and experiences that touch something human in us, like love in the case of the interactive game Florence and humor in the physically interactive works of Aparna Rao.

Alexa, read me a poem

And increasingly, it seems, tech is looking to the humanities to remain, well, human. Poets and other kinds of writers have had a significant role in writing for AI virtual assistants, to provide users with as close to a human interaction as possible, especially in use-cases that require sensitivity to nuance, like in healthcare. 

Emotional payoff

In a world largely ruled by numbers, intangible, un-commodifiable things have become particularly valuable. Alongside machine learning algorithms, holding onto the human in ourselves helps us design products that are in touch with our emotional and social needs. One thing we learned in the digital age is how deeply tech can affect our behavior — and so as designers, we can choose to create experiences that make user-product interactions feel not transactional or passive, but intentional and meaningful. As we build better and more powerful tools for living, let’s also provide an opportunity for those same tools to allow for moments of pause, connection, and magic. 

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