Get Marcos Weskamp, the head of design at Flipboard, talking for a while, and the conversation soon comes around to monks. It might seem a stretch—what does an entrepreneur in high-tech Silicon Valley have to do with robe-clad ascetics nestled away in the Himalayas? But a touch of Eastern philosophy has found its way into Weskamp’s thought, perhaps due to years spent studying design in Japan.
The thing about a designer—and this is especially true of a designer of digital products like Weskamp’s—is that you work on things that become obsolete relatively soon after you launch them. "I know at the moment we ship, we’re going to want to improve on it," Weskamp, one of Fast Company's Most Creative People, says of his team’s designs. "In principle, anything can be improved. Anything we design today will be obsolete by next year, or five years from now, for sure. The product improves, the needs of users change. I’ve never found myself coming up with a solution that I know is going to last forever." And it’s true not just of graphic design: it’s true for anyone who makes things.
And here’s where the monks come in. Graphic design today, says Weskamp, is something like making mandalas, the ritual symbols sometimes designed by monks. Mandalas are occasionally made of soaps, sands, or powders, rendering them inherently ephemeral. Many artists do their work in the hopes of creating something lasting. The makers of mandalas, by contrast, devote hours to meticulous works of artistry that might easily be dispensed with by a gust of wind.
And so it is with web design, where the gusts of ever-changing user demand blow especially fiercely. "I don’t think it’s tragic," says Weskamp. "It’s something you learn over the years. It’s more a way of being."
Design is inherently about erasing the work you’ve done, suggests Weskamp—not just from iteration to iteration, but even within a single iteration. He recalls some of the design work that went into Flipboard’s latest major release—a feature in March that allows users to curate thematic magazines of their own. Launching that design took a lot more eraser than lead. "We literally did thousands of sketches, and a few dozen prototypes," Weskamp recalls.
Weskamp gives a specific example: a simple piece of UI that crops up when you click on a plus sign to add an article. If you were presented with the initial idea behind the UI and the version that launched, you might be struck by their relative similarity. But in between the initial conception and the launch process was a dizzying sequence of variations and experiments. The team began with what seemed natural, then tried just about everything else, only to return to the initial idea.
That’s not to say the journey was wasted; the team had to embark upon it to produce the minor but significant refinements between the first and final design. Weskamp puts it this way: "The design process is actually a big spiral you go through. You start exploring ideas only to come back to explore the original idea. To outsiders, it might seem like you’re going through circles, chasing your tail. But each time you go through these circles you get closer and closer to where all these things align. It’s a spiral—a fractal spiral that never ends, and the closer you get to the point where everything aligns, the more you discover, the more you realize you have to zoom in again and keep on building it. This is true for anything that can be designed. Anything can be iterated endlessly to make it better and better."
With a head designer fond of wandering down such Borgesian labyrinths, it might seem surprising that Flipboard meets launch dates at all. But the product is wildly successful; since launching its user-curated magazine feature last spring, more than 3 million such magazines have been created. The company has inspired a loyal following of readers who enjoy the way the elegant app reformats content from the Web to give it more of the appeal of a traditional print magazine.
And at the end of the day, Weskamp loves the work he does. Like the monks at their mandalas, Weskamp finds his daily Sisyphean task not inherently tragic but merely the way of the world. "One must imagine Sisyphus happy," wrote Albert Camus, and Weskamp is one happy Sisyphus.
"I actually enjoy this so much," says Weskamp. It’s true, nothing lasts. But no matter. "That’s the nature of the design work we do."
[Image: Flickr user Johan Larsson]