Why Good Parents Are The Ultimate Designers

Baratunde Thurston reflects on the most influential designer in his life—his mom.

Design isn't just the interface of a mobile app or the user experience of an urban block. What are parents but a design team charged with raising their children to be productive, interesting contributors to society? As more of my friends clone themselves through (hopefully not too rapid) prototyping, I am becoming Unofficial Uncle to several impressionable life forms, and I can't help but think about my late mother's own design principles at work in my life. My mother wasn't a designer, but in hindsight, there's no doubt that I am the product of her design. Her principles:

Respect: With a capital R. My mother insisted my older sister and I respect ourselves and respect others only to the extent that they have earned it. Authority, whether backed by the power of the church or state, did not automatically confer respect.

She showed us respect, too, eschewing baby talk and speaking honestly with us about our family's financial challenges. As with many designers, though, my mother could go too far. I will never forget when she interrupted a soccer game with a friend because I picked up the ball with my hands. "It's soccer!" she said, emphatically explaining the rules. "You have to respect the game." I thought she was kidding. I was wrong.

Exploration: Like most designers, my mother had to operate within certain constraints. In our case, let's call them "resource limitations." But she refused to let them hem in her strong sense of adventure. She manufactured ways to get my sister and me out of our native Washington, D.C., urban environment. I spent countless hours in my early childhood learning to appreciate and play classical music in a youth-orchestra program. We did a lot of camping. My mother even once made her own tofu. (That was a disgusting adventure, but still.) When physical exploration wasn't possible, she encouraged us to expand our minds through reading—everything from political manifestos to comics to epic science-fiction trilogies. By pushing my sister and me to go beyond what was expected or readily available to us, my mother enhanced our sustainability in the world. Or at least made two weird and interesting people to talk to.

Community: When I was in college, I was close to failing a computer-science hardware-design course. I called my mother to solicit sympathy for the great challenge I faced: I needed to build a computer from scratch, but I hadn't really mastered the skills to do so. I was completely lost and scared.

Rather than feel sorry for me, she insisted that I remember that I had survived much worse . . . because she had survived much worse . . . because our ancestors had survived much worse. She put my passing this class in the context of the millions of Africans in America who endured slavery! Were she alive today, she could have glibly responded, "First-world problems." But then I wouldn't have had the benefit of her larger point: I was not alone in any of my struggles. In fact, I was part of a community that extended beyond even the living. And I could draw on that strength to help me through a tough time. And I did.

Designers would do well to embrace this parent-as-designer comparison. There are limits to how much you can control the life of something you've created. What matters is being clear about your principles. Then you can have faith that the final product will turn out fine. Just skip the homemade tofu.

[Illustration by Alvaro Dominguez]

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4 Comments

  • fastco

    Respect only those who earn it? How would that apply to respecting a stranger you know nothing about? Someone you randomly met on the street or someone you sat next to on an airplane. Can you help better understand the nuance and subtleties of what you mean by "respect others only to the extent that they have earned it." ?