Philosophy & Digital Design

September 6, 2017 | Joan Jasak

 philosopher statue with thought bubble featuring design-related icons

Gesticulating ponderously at a mobile site on his iPhone 7, Shakespeare’s Hamlet famously said, “To redesign or not to redesign, that is the question.”

Hmm... I don’t think that’s right.

Well, Hamlet certainly might have if he was alive and well in 2017—and given the monumental (but exciting!) task of redesigning a large website. There’s no denying that website redesign projects are intensive undertakings. We thoughtfully labor over creating a new sitemap, shepherding it through various levels of approvals. With the final stamp of approval, gained at long last, a creeping sense of disillusionment sets in: the deliverable’s finality is merely a chimera! The hard-won approval signals not completion, but rather, the start of the (dare I speak their names?) content development and content migration plans (cue horror music).

Wireframe and prototype reviews, user experience research, content strategy, load testing, technical requirements, search engine optimization and marketing, search strategy, personalization, personas, quality assurance, taxonomies, stakeholder interviews, timelines, roadmaps and business requirements—the avalanche of tasks can make a digital marketing team feel like the lead in the story of Sisyphus, that great Greek metaphor depicting the absurdity of life. Burdened with the painstaking task of rolling a boulder up a hill, Sisyphus, inches away from cresting the hilltop, loses his grip on the rock, only to watch it tumble back down the path from which he came. This, ad infinitum, is Sisyphus’s fate, and no doubt, the redesign of a large website sometimes feels similarly.

Luckily, we love the work we do, and can appeal to ancient wisdoms—philosophical in nature—as a guide to the laborious, often challenging (though equally satisfying) task of the major website redesign project. For even Socrates, the spiritual godfather of Western Philosophy, said, “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.” And gosh darn if we don’t all feel that way at some point in the inevitable, Sisyphean journey towards launch.

Accept the Gadfly (Socrates)

Sweet Socrates (pictured above) was famously unsightly: he was stub-nosed, epically short, hump-backed and walked with a waddle. Athenians called him a gadfly, for he was also extremely well-suited to incessant interlocution. In other words, he loved to ask questions; a lot of them. He famously wrote that he was wise because he knew that he knew nothing. And he certainly conducted the empirical research—he was known for asking anyone and everyone the basis of their opinions—until they were exhausted, rattled and angry.

A website redesign project is not unlike a gadfly. At every turn, we are implicitly asked why we presume X, why we assume Y and how we can be so sure that Z decision is the right one. Gadflies, though unsettling, help us to question our assumptions. We are required to think through decisions that we may have taken for granted historically, to provide evidence qua data to substantiate our claims and to reconsider our rationale. Though uncomfortable, this orientational shift is crucial in helping us to evolve a site redesign strategy that (though ever evolving) is based in reality, and not merely precedence.

Take a Leap of Faith (Soren Kierkegaard)

Few words strike greater fear into the heart of a digital marketer than these two: “content migration.” This is because content migrations represent a trek through the Amazonian wilderness of one’s content that begins at content inventory and analysis, snakes through to content development planning, and languishes in the humid, fetid expanse of content migration.

A good content strategist is, indeed, a rare (and brave) genius. Luckily, at TBG, we have that expertise at hand. One recently said to me, as I sat in cognitive dissonance, staring at a several thousand page-long content migration document: “you’ve got to have faith in the document.” In other words, it was crucial that, though I doubted the template assignments, which looked to be redundant, were in fact accurate. Specifically, multiple pieces of content were getting combined into a single template; it was in-the-process-of-becoming, which is invariably constituted by paradoxes and, though it looked wrong, it was, in fact, right.

The acceptance of paradoxes is the core premise of Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard’s Christian existentialism: though what one perceives is paradoxical, if one believes in the authenticity of a system’s author (for Kierkegaard this was God), then a leap of faith is required.

What Do They Know of Cricket Who Only Cricket Know? (C.L.R. James)

A Caribbean polymath, C.L.R. James wrote about—among many other things—the revolutionary role of cricket in the West Indies. Cricket was brought to the West Indies along with British colonialism, and quickly gained popularity in Trinidad, James’s home. James famously (and poetically) wrote “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” It’s a cutting and brilliant slight at British colonial rule, for James is ultimately identifying the limitations of maintaining a monolithic and hegemonic worldview. But the point is well taken: intellectual diversity is an asset. To best understand personalization, UX strategy, information architecture, technical specifications, etc… one is better prepared if one can bring a diverse knowledge base to the metaphorical table—like philosophy!

Conclusion: No Man Ever Steps Into the Same River Twice (Heraclitus)

Despite Sisyphus’ infinite journey pushing a boulder up a hill, we must not forget Heraclitus’ claim that “no man ever steps into the same river twice.” He means, of course, that the water flowing through the river is ever changing, and this is true of the digital world: the Web is constantly changing. Each deliverable—take a strategy brief, for example—is therefore necessarily unique: the strategy brief that TBG crafts for your redesign project must take into account current Web governance standards, design best practices, your specific business requirements, and user research findings (just to name a few). Here at TBG, we do our best to support your site redesign using the wisdom that we’ve gained from having completed hundreds of successful projects—knowing all the while that your path to launch is unique, exciting and extraordinary!

About the Author

Joan J.
Joan Jasak

I’m a Senior Digital Strategist & UX Architect at TBG. On my bucket list is to see a soccer game in each big European league.

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