The New Liberal Arts

I like the idea of The Liberal Arts. I sometimes say that I studied Computer Science but accidentally ended up with a liberal arts education. Design is supposed to be a new liberal art, too.

The great blog Snarkmarket released a book 8 year ago called “The New Liberal Arts“. It’s kind of like a speculative course book for a fictional university. You can get it as a free PDF or .prc file (which Kindles can read).

I read it the other day. It’s short. Here are some parts I liked.

Attention Economics, by Andrew Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald says that in the new world of scarce attention we’ll need some new skills:

  • multitasking (doing more than one thing at once)
  • ambient consumption (figuring out how to cope with the stream)
  • focus (how to stop multitasking)
  • stillness (how to stop consuming from the firehose and turn it all off)

If you follow any of the social media discussion on task management and mindfulness, you’ll see these broader concepts sneaking in.

Food, by Gavin Craig and Theresa Mlinarcik

Food is a great lens through which to view the world, according to Craig and Milnarcik, because:

Food is intrinsically connected to nature, ecology, politics, pop culture, family values, and economics.

It’s hard to disagree. I think this might be why design students (in my experience), often end up doing projects about food.

Micropolitics, by Matt Thompson

Micropolitics explores the idea that:

So much of the texture of everyday life is hashed out in obscure municipal backchannels, by small groups of engaged citizens getting together on weekday evenings. The buildings you see every day, the restaurants you dine at, the closing time of your neighborhood bar, the bus routes to and from your home—these things are the way they are because of a complex system of professional networks and planning meetings that few have the know-how to navigate.

You can also see this idea of small, kind of hidden, aspects of everyday life having outsized influence in in books like Dan Hill’s Dark Matter and Trojan Horses.

Photography, by Tim Carmody

I am a very bad photographer, but I’m fascinated by it. Carmody says that photography is basically the way that we write the world today. Snap (and Facebook) think of themselves as camera companies which is partly right and a good enough reason to think harder about what photography means.

If I went back to uni, I’d study photography, I think.

Translation, by Rachel Leow

This is fascinating:

Every student would declare at least two languages: their native tongue and one or more languages of their choosing, however firm or tenuous their grasp of them. Seminar groups would consist of students who declared the same two languages, so that discussions could take place in two mutually intelligible languages, at varying levels of ability. These are the groups they’d work in, communicating in online forums and discussion groups, live chat, and video conferences.

 

Moving past design as a service

Julie Zhou’s post looking back on what she learned in 2016 was widely shared in my social media designery bubble. I thought this was a good insight:

you will always be treated as a service if you assume your role is to wait around for others to come to you with some specific problem to solve. The path to getting out of being a service is to have an opinion about which problems are worth solving and convincing other people of that.

This was good too:

Being a designer is like having a superpower that allows you to show other people the future.

With great power comes great responsibility, of course.

Bad strategy and good strategy

Richard Rumelt1 on bad strategy:

By the early 2000s, the juxtaposition of vision-led leadership and strategy work had produced a template-style system of strategic planning. (Type “vision mission strategy” into a search engine and you’ll find thousands of examples of this kind of template for sale and in use.) The template looks like this:

The Vision. Fill in your vision of what the school/business/nation will be like in the future. Currently popular visions are to be the best or the leading or the best known.

The Mission. Fill in a high-sounding, politically correct statement of the purpose of the school/business/nation. Innovation, human progress, and sustainable solutions are popular elements of a mission statement.

The Values. Fill in a statement that describes the company’s values. Make sure they are noncontroversial. Key words include “integrity,” “respect,” and “excellence.”

The Strategies. Fill in some aspirations/goals but call them strategies. For example, “to invest in a portfolio of performance businesses that create value for our shareholders and growth for our customers.”

He says a good strategy has three parts:

1. A diagnosis: an explanation of the nature of the challenge. A good diagnosis simplifies the often overwhelming complexity of reality by identifying certain aspects of the situation as being the critical ones.

2. A guiding policy: an overall approach chosen to cope with or overcome the obstacles identified in the diagnosis.

3. Coherent actions: steps that are coordinated with one another to support the accomplishment of the guiding policy.

If you’re at the mercy of bad strategy, I recommend this shortish article in McKinsey Quarterly or Rumelt’s book Good Strategy/Bad Strategy.


  1. Rumelt is a “guru” according to The Economist. 

That damned faster horse

If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said, “a faster horse”. — Henry Ford

There’s no evidence that he said it. Quote Investigator has an excellent post sorting out who said similar thingsThe Henry Ford Museum disavows it.

If you pay attention to the quote, “Ford” is saying that he didn’t ask his customers what they wanted, because he made an assumption about what they’d say. That doesn’t seem clever. That seems arrogant.

Buried in the quote is the idea that Ford had customers before he had a product. Customers are people who’ve bought a product. People who are potential customers are simply “the market”.

Before the Model T, there wasn’t a market for an inexpensive car because there was no such thing as an inexpensive car. The Model T initially sold for $825 when the cheapest other contemporary cars sold for between $2000 and $3000. Even at $825, a lot of people couldn’t afford a car. Ford payed his employees double the going rate so they could afford to buy the product they produced.

That is, “Ford” couldn’t have asked his customers what they wanted, because he invented them.

(This was originally posted on an old blog of mine.)