Published in Podcast

Loretta Staples' journey through digital and cultural interfaces

Devon Zuegel
Product
54 min read

Loretta Staples is a prolific designer and educator whose work designing graphical user interfaces such as those seen on the Macintosh Classic in the 1980s and 1990s helped shape personal computing as we know it today. Before becoming interested in software design, Loretta was a graphic designer for The Understanding Business, exhibit developer for The Burdick Group, and textile curator for the Yale University Art Gallery. Her essays and lectures on design criticism such as "The New Design Basics," in Steven Heller's book, “The Education of a eDesigner,” have defined the disciplines’ vocabulary and conception of itself. She now works as a therapist at Cityblock in Waterbury, and in private practice in New Haven.

DEVON: Alrighty, here we go. Hello, I'm Devon and you're listening to Tools & Craft. Today I'm talking to Loretta Staples. Loretta is hard to sum up in a short description — she's worked as a textile curator, a software designer, a graphic designer, a professor, a co-founder of Yale's Buddhist chaplaincy, a painter, and now a therapist. And there's probably even more that I missed from that long list. Loretta has also worked in a wide variety of settings, including corporate environments like Apple in the nineties, her own design studio, a self-run therapy practice, academia, and beyond. I'm excited to talk to Loretta because she is someone who doesn't let conventional professional categories constrain her from building and doing the things that she wants to see in the world. So, Loretta, thank you so much for taking the time to chat.

LORETTA: Thank you. Nice to be here. Looking forward to the conversation.

DEVON: Me too. So my first question is, do you remember the first time that you used Photoshop and how did you originally come across the tool?

LORETTA: You know, that's a very curious question because I'll share with you what I remember. I remember becoming familiar with a new piece of software before it became Photoshop and if I'm not mistaken, it was a Barneyscan [XP] and it was shipped with a scanner and it was later acquired and became Photoshop. So that's what I recall. And I recall encountering that when I was doing some work with Clement Mok, I believe in San Francisco. So this is many years ago — I guess we're talking about the late eighties or early nineties — and I actually don't remember all that. Well, I remember Adobe Illustrator much more and I can't remember whether that proceeded Photoshop or not. I think it did. I do remember how conceptually interesting and elegant it was and how it actually worked with control points and those little handles that you would pull out.

This way of constructing geometry was very new in such a curious way. If you came from a world of compasses and circle templates and rulers and T squares, it was a very radically different way of drawing geometry. So I don't remember all that much about Photoshop, quite honestly. I don't think I remember using it all that much except for certain kinds of photo effects. And I wasn't particularly interested personally in effects or effect-driven kinds of aesthetics. I wrote an essay about that in the early nineties on blurring, but I don't remember really being that engaged in Photoshop as a tool, even though I knew it was incredibly important and powerful.

DEVON: How would you compare Photoshop and Illustrator in terms of the types of things that they encourage you to do as an artist or as a designer?

LORETTA: Well, you know, Photoshop was about photography and photographic images. And so I think it was kind-of analogous to photo retouching on a very high end. And Illustrator was really about drawing. So one was about drawing and geometric shapes essentially like contours and fills. Photoshop I remember having an emphasis on photo retouching. So, they referred to two very different technologies in terms of the basis of image forming that led to the creation of those two distinct tools, I think. Yeah, that was my memory of them.

DEVON: Yeah. That matches my experience to this day, actually. I've used more recent versions of Photoshop and Illustrator for sure. But fundamentally, I think they're still pretty similar at their core. And I always liked Illustrator a lot because it was something that felt more, I don't want to say logical, that's not quite the right word, but there's something that felt more like you got a higher level of control because you could get each individual vector just in the right place. Whereas Photoshop felt a little bit more like painting or something where the pixels are there and then you try to move them around a little bit to get the effect that you want. And that's also a really interesting way of working but there's a different level of precision that you get and that results in very different, different results. Does that resonate for you?

LORETTA: Yeah I think it does, but I think it's like apples and oranges in a way and hard compare to compare them because I think they were invented with very different uses in mind. And I think each of them has its own strengths and I haven't used either one literally in decades, so I have no idea what either tool is like anymore. So I feel like I'm drawing from the deep recesses of my memory to recall what these tools were even like.

DEVON: Well that timeframe was incredibly formative because everything that you've said matches my experience using those tools in the last five years. I think there's certainly been big advances, but I think a lot of the foundations were laid during the time period when you were active as a designer.

LORETTA: Yes, yes, yes.

DEVON: When you picked up Illustrator, how did the work that you did change from when you were using a compass and other tools like that to using these digital tools? Did it push you in different creative directions? Or did you find you are more efficient doing the same kinds of things you were doing before or something else entirely?

LORETTA: I was editing pixels more than anything because I was doing interface design a lot. And so I was using Studio 8 and was using bit editors to actually do screen work. So I actually did not do that much in Illustrator. What I remember about Illustrator at that time is that people were using it to draw things that were then output through some printing device. And so people were doing elaborate illustrations with Illustrator. I was not an illustrator. And so I don't remember it being a central tool in the work that I was doing. I was really using pixel editors and bit editors much more than Illustrator.

DEVON: So what were the tools that you used most commonly in your work and what was the process that you would put a particular type of project through?

LORETTA: I definitely was handcrafting a lot of things at that time, but things changed quickly at the very beginning when I became interested in becoming an interface designer and it was called GUI graphical user interface design at that time and interaction design and experience design came a few years later. I remember when the term experience design emerged, I actually wrote an essay that I never published called "are you experienced after Jimi Hendrix?" This was about the emergence of that term but in the late eighties there were some people — mostly in computer science and technical fields — who were pursuing interface design or GUI again (graphical user interface design).

So they were from a different world. I had a background in art history and graphic design. And even though there were some people with graphic design backgrounds who were starting to enter the field, I think we were still very much in the minority. And the piece of software that came out that really gave me a point of entry into the field was actually Apple's HyperCard because it was a prototyping tool. I mean, you could use it to prototype our interactions. And so I do remember HyperCard had a scripting language, what was it called... hyper? Hypertext or Hyperscript, I don't remember, but it had a scripting language built into it. And so that was a tool that I remember a lot of people using early on to start prototyping stuff and scripting interaction.

And it had very crude drawing tools. It was black and white when I started and then it became a 16 color world at some point, but you had a limited number of colors to work with. But HyperCard was really a seminal tool. I remember editing icons with a developer tool from Apple. None of these tools have existed in quite a long while. And I think Studio 32 at some point also had some scripting built into it. So you could prototype interaction. But again, these were tools to prototype interaction. And that's why earlier I mentioned that Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator aren't that prominent in my experience because they really were not used for interaction.

So you could certainly screen capture in Illustrator or Photoshop. I think the other thing I need to add is that everything I'm describing was pre-web. I actually left the field when the internet happened. I'm sort of known for saying, for me, that was the beginning of the end. That's when I began to lose interest in the field, even though that's when a lot of people entered the field but in the early days, it was much clunkier. You did what you could with the tools that were available. And a lot of it was very inventive on the fly — trying solutions and adapting things to do what you needed them to do. But the world I'm talking about is basically the LaserDisc world that eventually the CD-ROM world and then the web, in the mid-nineties. And for me that's when I exited the field for the most part, even though I entered and participated a little bit later in different capacities. But so I'm talking about very early on.

DEVON: Yeah it's so interesting to hear about all the different tools. And it's interesting also how there's been pretty high turnover in the tools that people use day to day, even though a lot of the foundational concepts are similar. Today people tend to use Figma or Sketch, or something like that. There's still quite a bit of Photoshop and Illustrator for imagery, but the sets of tools do end up evolving and changing by a lot. So you've worked in a lot of different places. I hesitate to list them all because you've had such an interesting wide-ranging career, but what are some of the specific products that you were involved in designing?

LORETTA: You know, again, I don't remember that much. I have a list of things on that archived website of mine. My design studio was called U dot I and there's a list of clients there and some projects. Some of the ones that are most memorable were working on an interactive TV prototype. This was pre-web and it was for Paramount and Viacom. I think the branding was associated with the entertainment tonight TV show at that time. And there was a proprietary set-top box that was being developed. I suspect they shopped around among the major executives to decide whether they wanted to promote this infrastructure because it required a lot of infrastructure to get it off the ground. But, for that reason a lot of very fascinating issues had to do with technology and design and audience.

LORETTA: And one of the things that I recall about that project was thinking of it as the battle of the boxes and in my mind there was a smart box and there was a dumb box, and there were both coming together in this product. And the smart box was the computer and the dumb box with the TV. And somehow we had to sort of bring that all together to try to bring an interactive on-demand interface into the cable world. There were two different kinds of corporate cultures working on this endeavor — the TV executive culture and infrastructure for cable, and then the computer people and the aesthetics to convince people of the graphical conventions. The visual conventions were very different for both of those worlds.

And there were some very real technical limitations that didn't really want to be admitted to. And it was a real struggle to try to design something that would be, would be viable. Um, but you know, then there's a lot of internal selling, right, when you're trying to promote these kinds of projects. So a lot, a lot of political complexity and creative complexity and technical complexity. So sometimes the project that most comes to mind for me and another, you know, there are a lot of kinds of vertical market software things. I remember doing some flight booking software for Sony where they had their big database of flight tracking information. I think it was going to be real-time access to flight information and booking information. And that was actually prototyped in HyperCard a long time ago. There's some other things but I don't have my website up unfortunately. But those are just two of them.

DEVON: Yeah. I can't even remember what I had for breakfast this morning. So remembering two examples from decades ago, is already great. For the television interactive projects that you worked on, how did users interact with it? Was it something that was on their television and they used a remote interact? Was it something where they had to have a computer?

LORETTA: That was the intended interface. It would be similar to streaming television. Now in many ways it was a precursor to streaming television where there was a remote control and a screen that consisted of a menu and tiers of menus to select things. I think one of the innovations that we came up with that I was very proud of even though it didn't come to pass was that we had this idea that there would be a video layer on top of a menu. And the video layer would be hosts — Entertainment Tonight was the brand at that time. And the idea was that there would be a host. It could be a movie star, or some other public figure like Robert de Niro.

I think that's a person who came to mind at the time who might actually be your companion who would appear to talk to you, invite you to browse a menu that was behind him of movies that were available through the service. The idea of hosted menus was something that we thought was a novel idea for that time. And again, it was a long time ago and even now I feel like that was a really good idea. I don't know if such things exist now. I don't watch all that much TV or do that much streaming right now, but I thought that was an interesting idea. And the idea did have its time. I remember having lots of conversations about remotes and what keys we're going to use for what, and the idea of a universal remote and what was going to be a universal in terms of how we navigated this particular system with this set top box. So a lot of technical issues and a lot of "this hasn't been done before questions."

DEVON: That sounds exciting and also very challenging. I think that sounds like a very crisp description of where streaming has ended up today. It didn't end up being used with a remote, maybe that's true. I don't watch much TV streaming, but certainly on Netflix, which you might watch on your computer. You have a menu and a lot of options to choose from. So it sounds like a huge improvement from what was the norm at the time?

LORETTA: You're jogging my memory as we're talking — I remember having a conversation with some senior VP. I think it is paramount to use menu organization, because the idea was that things that were top most on the menu would cost more to be placed as prominently at the top of the hierarchy of a menu structure. But at that time, nobody understood what menus were and what hierarchical menus were. And I remember trying to describe this and the implications for pricing different offerings at different levels. And I just remember how curious it was to have that conversation and to try to describe something that seemed so strange and foreign to the two key decision makers. So that was very challenging.

DEVON: Yeah. I suppose they're probably used to working in a world where there's such a thing as physical shelf space but not digital shelf space. And so to be able to extend that metaphor is challenging. And then of course, there's also very important differences where a shelf is finite, but a digital shelf does not have to be finite so that can change the interactions quite a bit as well — all while remaining a very similar basic concept

LORETTA: And if at the same time screen real estate is finite. So that was definitely one of the parameters that we had to work with in terms of how things would be organized and presented and any financial opportunities afforded by those structures.

DEVON: It sounds like you were playing a bit of an Oracle from the future to tell people who are working in a different paradigm. Like, "hey, there's this new way of doing things." Here's some of the opportunities that you can take advantage of. How did those conversations go? How did you frame those conversations with those people?

LORETTA: You know, I spoke about it as I'm talking with you about it now and again, because I was only participating in some conversations at that level, I have no idea really how they impacted decision-making or had any influence at all. I really don't know about that. I just remember that it was interesting to be able to recognize and surface design considerations that had not existed before and were pretty difficult to recognize in the first place. So, it was, uh, so I appreciated having the opportunity to just speak, to speak to some of those convergences or those intersections between design business and, you know, technology. Yeah.

It was interesting to be able to recognize and surface design considerations that had not existed before and were pretty difficult to recognize in the first place.

LORETTA: I think what I appreciated was just having the opportunity to surface certain design challenges that had not existed before, or been recognized as issues. And so to be in the middle of that Venn diagram between design, technology, and business — that was wonderful to be in that sweet spot of invention where I could speak to a problem that quite honestly, I don't think anybody else was seeing, you know? The problems were fascinating.

DEVON: Yeah. That sounds like such an interesting time to be working with, with such rapid chang, both at the technological level and also business model level. How did you originally get into design? What was your path and what about design drew you there in the first place?

LORETTA: You know, I think I was always interested in design. I sort of grew up first-generation middle-class half African-American, half Japanese. And I certainly saw from the things that my mother brought from Japan the aesthetic and sensibility that was very different from what my Mattel toys looked like. And my father came from a very poor, large family. We were newly middle-class, very acquisitive because of his financial security. We're a military family. And so I grew up in this perfusion of new abilities to consume. And so I think in the marketplace, I saw many kinds of things that we were able to acquire and afford. I saw that different things were different. We were stationed in Germany also when I was a child. And I noticed that German toys were different from the Mattel toys that I had that were different from the things my mother brought from Japan.

I grew up in this perfusion of new abilities to consume. And I noticed that German toys were different from the Mattel toys that I had, and those were different from the things my mother brought from Japan.

And so I think I recognized early on, even though I didn't have a word for it, that the design had happened to make those things different. And so I think I always had a design awareness and also, I loved fashion growing up. I made my own clothes. I made clothes for my mom. I made clothes that I sold to a consignment shop in Louisville, Kentucky. I made macrame handbags. So I was a designer in that sense. I always loved crafting things and designing things. And then when I got older I did study fashion design for a little while. I went to night school in Boston while I was typing insurance policies. Cause that's what I originally was — I was not going to go to college. I think that graphic design was just another field that I noticed and had access to studying with them.

And so I think I was drawn to graphic design as a communication design. And I think I just always had a design awareness and I wanted to be part of that — whatever that was — that world of making. And and I think over the years, I came to appreciate the way that design-embodied culture expresses culture. I appreciated that the design was an expression of cultural literacy as well as technical literacy. And that convergence I thought was very powerful. I also felt it was a form of literacy that was empowering for people who chose to enter that world of design. And then later on I was a cultural critic essentially during those early digital years and in many ways for me design was a vehicle through which I could critique culture and cultural values. So design sort of encompassed so many different facets of value-making. And I think that's ultimately what value-making and value expressing is. I think that's what drew me to it actually.

Over the years, I came to appreciate the way that design embodied culture. Design is an expression of cultural literacy as well as technical literacy. And that convergence is very powerful. It's a form of literacy that is empowering for people who choose to enter that world of design.

DEVON: This idea of cultural literacy and then also cultural critique is really interesting. Can you say a little bit more about what that means and how that manifested for you?

LORETTA: Well, you know, when we give form to something we are inscribing cultural values. That is what forming is. And so, gosh, it's hard for me to give you like a really simple example... I'll just give you an example of when I taught for a while in the design and management department at Parsons. I taught an introductory summer course in design and management. And one of the things we looked at for instance on the first day of the class was this idea of luxury. So we would look at some overarching concepts, like luxury or nature. And then we would explore the city looking for examples of the expression of that notion.

So when we look at luxury it's like we went to the product store — there was a store in which I don't think exists anymore that sold only rice pudding. It was in Manhattan. I mean talk about, I mean, I won't say anything, but I think a store that only sells rice pudding, that's a little bit over the top anyway. And then we looked at another store that sold very beautiful clothing made of Indian textiles that had been woven specifically for this particular shop. So we looked at different ways that the idea of luxury was crafted into objects and retail environments and how that value was expressed. When we looked at nature, we went to Central Park and we looked at this fact. I am actually a close friend of someone who did a lot of educational programming for the Central Park Conservancy. He gave us a tour of the park from the standpoint of how it was designed very specifically.

My students didn't really think of a park as a particularly designed natural environment, which it really is. It's all artificial. So that's another example. As a designer you're responsible for forming how things are gonna be, how the built environment will indeed express itself. So I'm not sure if I'm answering your question, but I can go into it in more detail, but I think it gets at many important questions about how our built world comes to be as it is. I'm talking in terms of the material culture of our world as in things, but we build institutions too, right?

So for example, how does racism get inscribed into our built environment in our institutions? It actually runs pretty deep if you really want to delve into the social and material processes of forming. So I think those were the kinds of questions that interested me or became increasingly of greater interest to me as I pursued design. I think it's why I eventually left design. The nutshell answer that I often give people is that design is often described as creative problem solving. So it's very cognitive — very prefrontal cortex. And I would tell people I left design because I was tired of solving problems. I wanted to make problems. And that's what I did. I'd painted for three years. And I did not engage that problem-solving mind at all. I'm not saying the problem-solving mind isn't valuable. It is. Obviously and of course — but I think for me as just a person, I had reached the limit of my own ability to engage certain mental processes that I felt were limiting. Still very valuable pursuits, but not for me as a particular person.

I left design because I was tired of solving problems. I wanted to make problems. And that's what I did. I painted for three years. And I did not engage that problem-solving mind at all. I'm not saying the problem-solving mind isn't valuable. It is.

DEVON: I know what you mean. Somewhat analogous change that I've made in the last year since I grew up in California in the Bay Area and I've been there my whole life. And about eight months ago, I moved to Miami, which really couldn't be any more different as a city in terms of its values. And I wouldn't say that I necessarily prefer Miami's values. In fact, I think I am much more of a San Francisco type of person, whatever that means, but there's something about having a difference in your life where it's just about making a change and living in different kinds of lifestyles — which can happen when you change careers. It can also happen when you change places, the people you spend time with, and it doesn't listen to the value of the other career or the other place, but it's not what you're looking for at that moment in time.

LORETTA: Yeah, exactly. And it's interesting that you mentioned relocating, cause it's almost like I often feel like a seed that's ended up replanting itself or being replanted here, there, and elsewhere. And when you plant yourself in a different world, there is a different becoming that's afforded by that — I've experienced that many times. I think it's very valuable — the kind of transformation that can happen in doing that. Not everybody has the opportunity to do that. I'm blessed in that. I have been able to do that many times, but at the same time I've also made certain sacrifices in order to be able to do that. So life is bittersweet that way. It's always a matter of trade-offs — that's another design concept that I found very helpful. I often describe designing as negotiating trade-offs: you got this, you give up that and you're sort of doing that every step of the way. I think that's essentially what designing is in many ways.

DEVON: I like the metaphor of the seed. It reminds me of something a friend recently told me. She said that just like a plant, a person needs to be repotted every once in a while, you know?

LORETTA: I agree.

DEVON: Yeah. No, that couldn't have resonated more strongly with me in that particular moment.

LORETTA: Yeah. I think that's very true. That's definitely been my experience.

DEVON: Yeah. So you were talking about how the toys that you were playing with from Mattel were different from the things that you saw in Germany and the things that your mother brought from Japan. If you can try to put into words, what were the differences? Of course there's no big generalizations, but how are they different?

LORETTA: Well, you know, I can speak to some of the major things that I recognized even as a child and some of them are very simple. They were material things. I remember my mother's things and the things in Germany. I remember wooden things, things that were made of wood. I remember seeing wooden joinery, like on a wooden box my mom had brought from Japan. I remember seeing Bauhaus and blocks and primary colors and German toys, stores, shops. I remember seeing clear geometry. The Bauhaus things seem very simply made — very simple, basic forms. There seemed to be an idea in Germany that out of simple forms and colors and shapes, you could make anything. So the essential vocabulary seemed very simple out of which many different kinds of things could be created, like blocks, simple blocks in colors and stuff.

But mostly I remember the wood being present. And I remember my Mattel — my North American United States — Egan toys. I remember they were mostly graft metal, like printed metal. Sometimes they had little mechanisms built into them — little cranks like a music box thing. I remember I had a farmer toy. I almost bought a replica of one recently, I found they had several of them on eBay. I wanted one just to remind myself. I also remember things being made of plastic a lot. This is a funny thing to say and I feel a little hesitant to say it because it's so value-laden, but I remember even as a child, something in me felt like the German toys were better than the American toys.

I didn't even know what better meant. I didn't even know what I meant, but I think I was getting at something that had to do with materiality and consumption and scales of production. I think I could feel that difference in these toys. I don't think that's just me trying to romanticize that time. I think each object does embody a dozen values that are genuine and felt. And I think I felt that when I was a kid. I felt that something different was going on in this toy's story versus that toy. And even though of course, I didn't have the vocabulary or the good creative, critical analysis skills to be able to speak to that. I think I deeply, deeply felt it. I felt the difference. And yeah, we can call that culture. You can call it a lot of different things, but I do think it has to do with the way values are inscribed in objects and propagated through techniques of distribution, you know? It was profound for me. It really was.

I didn't even know what better meant. I was getting at something that had to do with materiality and consumption and scales of production. I could feel that difference in these toys.

DEVON: I had a somewhat similar moment a few years ago. My boyfriend is from Argentina, so I spend a lot of time there now. And in Argentina, the houses have a different feeling to them than most houses in the United States. They have this solidity to them. And so I asked his mom, who's an architect, and his dad, who was a contractor, why the houses feel so different here? And the answer was actually very straightforward. They said, oh, here we build with masonry. So all of the walls are actually solid. In the United States, you tend to use sheetrock that are more mass produced. So that's why they feel better — they have a solidity to them. And then I asked, well then why is there this difference? And they said masonry only works when you have relatively low-cost labor because putting bricks together is very labor-intensive.

Whereas sheet rock is cheaper when labor is very expensive. And so it was interesting to see how I think about it. It's not to say that one is better than the other. I do like the feeling of the masonry better but I also don't love that labor is very cheap in Argentina. That's also not wonderful. And so there's this inherent set of trade-offs where in the US housing is much more democratized. And in Argentina, most people don't live in very nice houses at all. And then a few very wealthy people will live in a solid masonry house. So it's choosing to prefer a somewhat flimsy or appealing house, but everyone can have one or a much nicer feeling house and not everybody gets one right now.

LORETTA: Yeah. What a great example, thank you for sharing that with me, because I feel like that's how profound it gets. Right. And if you're a designer and you are a seat designer and a seed, and you're going to plant yourself somewhere to practice design, right. Where do you go and what world do you want to realize through what you're thinking? That's such a great example of the tension of that choice... what world do we want? So much of our consumption now has so much obsolescence built into it in particular, you know, with our technologies and foams that are made to be disposable, they're supposed to be disposable after a few months. It's gotten so outrageous. It's creating huge problems in terms of trash recycling, garbage — those are very real consequences of design decisions and consumer choices, among other things.

You've mentioned that you've described the tension of labor and who pays for what, and how much people are making for their labors. I think all those questions are so important. Back to our topic of design, I think I recognized that design was a vehicle or cultural practice. I'll call it a cultural practice within which so many interesting questions and answers could converge. And I just found that so compelling and such an interesting way to study and try to contribute to the world in my own clunky way.

DEVON: Yeah. And it comes back to what you were saying about trade-offs as well, where, if I had to decide if I wanted to be an architect in the United States or in Argentina, the trade-offs I'd be considering would be like, well, do I want to work in a system where I'll be able to make really exquisite homes that are beautiful and very sturdy, but in a context where people aren't getting paid very much, or do I want to make it in a place where I can build homes for a mass-market? A lot of people can benefit from my designs but maybe they're not quite so exquisite and they feel a little bit less personalized to the particular family that's going to live there. And I don't think there's a clear right answer there.

Some people might disagree one way or the other. It's sort of about which values do you want to be pushing in the world. Also on the margins, is there any way that you can nudge it in a particular direction that you want? Is there some way you could make it so that you pay your laborers a little bit more than the average wage and it gets reflected in your prices or something like that, or maybe in the United States I am going to build an artisanal house, where a lot of craft workers are gonna work on this. And those are decisions you can make too, as long as people are willing to pay for it.

LORETTA: Right. And I think you're also speaking to another dimension of design that I felt uncomfortable with, and that is the role and identity of the designer. There's a sort of cult of the superstar designer thing — and the superstar architect. And I found all of that very cringy and self-serving in so many ways. I remember a friend of mine who was a design historian. We were talking about design and architecture and somehow the topic of how famous architects often designed furniture or chairs came up. He just scoffed and said, "architects do not design chairs. They design small buildings that they expect people to sit on." I thought that was very funny and very treatable.

We were talking about design and architecture and somehow the topic of how famous architects often designed furniture or chairs came up. He just scoffed and said, "architects do not design chairs. They design small buildings that they expect people to sit on." I thought that was very funny and very treatable.

DEVON: That's great. He's pointing to a lack of appreciation for what the people actually want. And it's more of "this is what I want to see in the world and you're going to have to deal with it."

LORETTA: I think that is what he was speaking to in this conversation. Yeah. But I think that people don't like to admit their own ambitions. I think that that often fuels the choices that people make. I think design and designers have often struggled with those issues of visibility and fame. People have often asked me "what did you design that I would know of?" And I would say, well, nothing I can think of, quite honestly. I'm a pixel pusher. I edited pixels and did obscure prototypes for things that never saw the light of day. It wasn't like becoming a star — I was just a digital worker and I was a digital cross person. And I enjoyed it. I enjoyed making digital things.

DEVON: Yeah. I see this as a challenge that a lot of different industries face. We were just talking about architecture. There's a term I really like that describes this phenomenon called "starchitect" where it's referring to architects who want to be stars.

LORETTA: Oh, wow.

DEVON: If you look at the kinds of buildings that these people make — the types of things that are the front page of the magazine and get covered by international press like most of the buildings in Dubai — if you really look at them, you think "do I want to live in that?" Maybe the answer for some people is yes. But the answer for me is no, I don't. I don't want to — it doesn't look like it's made for a person. It looks like it's made to be photographed for a magazine. It's not really solving human problems. It's solving their own problem of "I want to be flashy and get famous."

LORETTA: Yeah, I agree. I think you're also speaking to our current visual culture where images are everything. And I think you're right. A lot of people contrive images in the form of how people look individually, how people dress, the places people live in, where people go, so that they're Instagram-worthy. We do live in such an image-oriented world where people want to present themselves in very designed ways. I think it's all very unhealthy quite honestly, but I think images are everything in our modern world and that's very unfortunate, but that's what we have.

DEVON: What sorts of decisions do you see designers making in the things that you hold and touch and see in your life that you think are pushing us in that direction? What would you do differently to try to nudge us in a different direction?

LORETTA: You know, quite honestly, I do not pay attention to the design world anymore. It really used to be something that I had antennae for and noticed stuff. I don't have that anymore. My senses are not attuned to that quite honestly. So I don't really know what people are doing. The only thing I do know is how social media has sort of propagated a lot of narcissism and self-centered self-representation and presentation. That's about the only thing I really noticed that seems like a real predominant trait in our contemporary life. I actually mentioned this in that article on blurring that you referenced. I mentioned that at the end of that article that I wrote in 1993, but I think I wrote it a little earlier than that. I talked about the rise of terrorism and plastic surgery at the end of that article.

I was surprised by how prescient that article was. I think what I appreciated in what I was able to see and witness at that time was I saw how the visual culture could be very prescient. I saw that the look and feel of modern life could indeed be quite an accurate predictor of what was to come. I'm not sure if I still feel that way. I mean, again, I don't pay attention to things in the way that I did.

DEVON: So what you were saying about the increasing importance of imagery in our role. We use more screens and more of our time is spent looking at screens. Certainly mine is. It feels like it really elevates sight over other senses. Maybe sound as well, because we're listening to each other, but certainly not touch or taste. I don't know of anyone here who tastes their screens.

LORETTA: I think it's very strange. And actually, I don't know that people are really looking so much at screens. I think people are looking at themselves a lot — too much. And I think that has certain results and creates certain reasons. And I don't think it's a good thing.

I think it's very strange. And actually, I don't know that people are really looking so much at screens. I think people are looking at themselves a lot — too much. And I think that has certain results and creates certain reasons. And I don't think it's a good thing.

DEVON: Yeah. Why do you think that has increased since when you were younger? Like in the last year.

LORETTA: Social media. Yeah. They really function well. I wish it was self-reflection and more reflective selves, I guess.

DEVON: Yeah. That's a better way to put it — more in the sense of a mirror than in the sense of deep thoughts.

LORETTA: Yeah. It's such a different world now. I feel very grateful. I'm as old as I am and can reflect back on how things have changed a lot in terms of the day-to-day and it's a different world. I'm not quite sure what to make of it honestly. I'm just ready to pass the Baton. I mean that in a good way, I don't mean to sound morbid about it. I do mean it in a positive way.

DEVON: What are some of the things that you've seen change for the better — more self-reflection?

LORETTA: I'll just speak directly to the last two years with the pandemic. The pandemic and George Floyd's death. I'll say the United States, maybe the world. I think there has been a crisis happening — a crisis of values at a global scale, certainly at a national level. And I think certain issues are surfacing and being recognized and talked about. I think in new ways, I'll mention racism in particular. I think difficult conversations are happening that had not been able to happen before. And I think that's important. I think the pandemic has just raised all kinds of issues around human vulnerability, frailty, and issues of control. I think given our technological prowess and emphasis — I mean the United States I'll speak about — I think tend to cling to an ideal of being in control and I think that the pandemic has really changed everything. It's turned that on its head.

I know a lot of people are in crisis. I know a lot of people have suffered terrible losses. I think crises have a way of mobilizing attention, values, reflection. Communality in ways that are really important. And I don't think that attention can be rallied otherwise. So I actually feel quite heartened by these last two years. So I'm not sure how I feel about where things are headed. I can't say I feel particularly optimistic, but optimism is sort of the wrong word. I feel like that's a thin word. I do feel a lot of fear over Facebook. I don't think I could be a therapist for instance, if I didn't have that. If I bring anything to my work as a therapist, it's that: I hold that value in space with the other person. That's really the gist of what I do as a therapist. I'm certainly not particularly cognitively inclined, although I can enter into that through the work. But yeah, so that was kind of a ramble. You can probably tell I'm a rambling speaker.

DEVON: No, not at all. I know what you mean. It's definitely been a difficult two years. Before that as well, but the last two years have been especially surprising for most people and I think it's caused people to rethink a lot of underlying assumptions about how the world is structured, where power lies, where capabilities lie — both for the better and for the worse. What we've discovered is that a lot of emperors have no clothes. But we also uncovered problems that we can actually talk about. So it's hopefully the sort of thing where it gets worse before it gets better.

LORETTA: We'll see... I think it's been very humbling and I do appreciate that dimension of it. I mean, I'm just speaking personally: I sometimes refer to the cosmic smack down and I feel like sometimes that's what it needs to come to. And I'm feeling some of that in this time.

DEVON: Yeah. I like that phrase. I'm going to steal that. So one last question before I let you get back to the rest of your life. You mentioned that you left design right before the internet really took off and you said the internet was the beginning of the end. Was that a coincidence or was that cause part of the rise of the internet?

LORETTA: Why I chose to leave? Yes, it was probably stupid of me, but you're talking to someone who did hypertext interfaces with HyperCard, you know? And so when the World Wide Web came and people were like, "oh, you can click on things and they connect to other things." I'm like, "I'm over it. I am so over it." But for people for whom it was new, it was so great. I had been working with proprietary interfaces — Hewlett Packard, Sun, Apple — they all had the proprietary offering tools and you had to do these things together. Weirdly the actual making of things just seemed so much more interesting than actual hypertextual interfaces. It was like, oh my goodness. So, that was part of it. The design challenges just didn't seem that great to me in terms of linked pages.

So that was one thing but also the field of practice was changing. I entered the field when it was very obscure. Very few people wanted to go into that space. As I said, very few people with a background like mine and history in graphic design were choosing to go into that space. When the worldwide web happened, it all became sexy. It all became glamorous. It all became the next big thing. And now everybody wants to be part of that. And I was like, oh goodness. Oh, now we gotta be sexy. Oh, please no. And so there was that too. I felt a chip on my shoulder about it like "oh, I was there first." I had that grudging resentment, you know?

So it was a combination of things and the design problems were different. The field of practice was different. I liked being in this obscure little nook and cranny... and it was becoming something very different. And so I stepped away and taught at that time. And then I did reenter in terms of e-business strategy consulting work. I did that. That was more when we went from B2C to B2B. That's how I entered the B2B world and that was interesting to me. I saw how stupid my shortsighted dismissal of the internet had been because a couple of years had passed and I saw how incredibly powerful the web had become and how robust the range of tools that were delivered through the internet were. It was becoming a different world. We talked about that seed analogy earlier... this seedling needed to plant itself elsewhere and I felt that very strongly. It was very clear. It wasn't like I had to think about it for a long time. It was very sharp.

DEVON: Did that feeling arise very suddenly as well? Or was it more the knowledge of it arising very suddenly? I can rephrase the question if that doesn't make sense...

LORETTA: I think both. I just knew I didn't want to do this and I felt like the fact that it was becoming the next big thing was what put me off in a major way. I'm not a trendy person. Like really... I mean, I get trends. I pay enough attention to be able to recognize when various things are trending. I notice that stuff, but I'm not enticed by that kind of thing, particularly at a personal level. It doesn't draw me in at all. I think it's repulsive in general and so I just wasn't into it for that reason.

DEVON: Yeah. I think also from a more global level, when something is very trendy like that, that means there's plenty of other people who can solve those problems. They'll come do it.

LORETTA: Yes. In the span of just a couple of years, I remember I used to tell people that asked me what you do, "graphical user interfaces." They would look so bewildered. What does that mean? And then a year later it's like, I designed a user interface. Oh yeah. "I think I've heard about that then." And then one year later I say I design interfaces or some people call it experience design. They go, oh yeah, "my kid does that." You know what I mean? That's how fast it all changed. And I was like, oh my goodness. Now it's everybody's thing, you know? And I felt like maybe that's just the way it goes. Right. So I can look back on it all now and laugh... that's how things go. It makes sense that things become popular and democratized and lots of people get interested and new things emerge. So be it.

DEVON: It sounds like you like to be the person hacking through the jungle with a machete, as opposed to going on road one after it's already been paved and a nice.

LORETTA: That is so true. I like to set sail in choppy waters. Maybe my little boat is going to be blown back to the shore or maybe I'll end up drifting in the ocean, who knows? But, I think that's my kind of journey.

DEVON: Well, I think that's a perfect note to end on Loretta. Thank you so much for this conversation. I had a really good time. I hope we stay in touch.

LORETTA: Yeah. Thank you so much. It was fun to talk to you.

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Brought to you by Devon Zuegel

Devon is a software engineer and writer based out of San Francisco.

Edited by Molly Mielke

Audio by The Land Films

Illustrations by Roman Muradov


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