XXX.1 January - February 2023
Page: 14
Digital Citation

You, Things, and the Space Between

Daria Loi

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I was and I continue to be available in response [1].

What bodies of knowledge are created or experienced in the interstitial spaces between one's life sphere and one's career journey? As HCI practitioners, do we simply design things, or does that act of making also shape us? What stands at the end of one's making—the designed artifact or a redesigned self?

Recently I found myself asking these questions more often than before, revisiting visceral moments in my life's trajectory that show how my craft, as well as the context in which I was operating, have shaped me. Reflecting on my career, I realized how my craft has evolved thanks to my choices and how my understanding of the world (and my ways of operating in it) shifted thanks to my craft. Life feeds and shifts one's craft, and one's craft feeds and shifts one's life—a fascinating example of interrelatedness that we all experience daily.

As an Italian who migrated to Australia in the late 1990s and then to the U.S. in the mid-2000s, it is hard to imagine that those life changes did not affect the practitioner in me as much as the migrant. I doubt that my understanding of design and of my craft would be the same if I had decided to stay in my home country. Similarly, as a woman who has operated for the past 20 years in male-dominated workspaces, it is hard to imagine that what I gleaned over time as a practitioner was solely focused on human-computer interaction—and equally hard to imagine that my own craft and sense of self were not influenced in return.

Designers and researchers have ongoing opportunities to create relationships and participate with the focus of their design and research endeavors, and frequently do so in visceral, personal, life-changing ways—challenging the world and themselves in return. Each time we embark on a new project, we immerse ourselves in it. This is often an intimate, physical, and emotional act, which results in two designed outcomes: a designed thing and a redesigned self. However, our engagement with the new project never occurs in a vacuum, as context plays a key role, heavily affecting both the resulting thing and self.

The designer/researcher, the designed thing, and the context in which that relationship is established influence one another in exciting ways, and each is in turn transformed. The same type of interrelatedness appears to exist when we look at things in more abstract ways, for instance, focusing on worker, work, and workplace. In this case, the worker (designer/researcher) engages in their work (design/research) within a given workplace (context); they create relationships and participate with their work in frequently visceral, personal, life-changing ways, challenging both the world (work and context) and themselves.

Each time we start and then complete a project, we bring to the table far more than our disciplinary body of knowledge. What enables us to complete a project goes beyond design or research competency, as we bring to the forefront a body of knowledge that has to do with how to work, collaborate, explain, be present, resist, agree, dissent, progress, and grow in a given context. This is a body of knowledge that evolves over time and that is created each time the worker engages in the work in a new context. It is a unique body of knowledge that represents the transformation a practitioner experiences through their career.

What stands at the end of one's making—the designed artifact or a redesigned self?

To offer a practical example and shift our discussion back to my initial question (What bodies of knowledge are created or experienced in the interstitial spaces between one's life sphere and one's career journey?), I'd like to focus on a role that senior practitioners often play: the mentor.

Not dissimilar from what many of my colleagues shared with me, my conversations with mentees are typically more focused on how to work in a given context and less on what quality HCI or design looks like. While good design, quality HCI, and a vast array of hard skills can be described and studied, soft skills are often context-dependent and learned over time.

Like parents and educators, mentors share with their mentees best practices, written tips, and anecdotes of their own transformations, and provide examples on how to overcome issues or latch onto opportunities. However, mentors also know that mentees will ultimately need to experience issues and opportunities directly—learned over time is indeed code for experienced directly. That direct experience is the by-product of one's engagement with the work in a given context—it's what happens when one is transformed by and through the work.


Engaging with the work is rarely immune from failures, frustrations, and falls, yet those failures, frustrations, and falls are often key ingredients enabling one's transformation and one's ability to grow, to move forward, and to feel capable of tackling new challenges. As mentioned earlier, context is key. So what happens when the context surrounding one's failures, frustrations, and falls does not enable one to be transformed through them and to reflect on what that means, at a self and a craft level?

One of the many by-products of the Covid-19 pandemic is the often-referenced Great Resignation, defined by the voluntary workforce quit rate being 25 percent higher than pre-pandemic levels; and the share of workers planning on leaving their jobs at 40 percent [2]. In the U.S. alone, "there were 11.3 million open jobs at the end of May—up substantially from 9.3 million open jobs in April 2021" [2]. This discontent affected workforces globally, with more than 60 percent of workers expressing a desire to leave their current jobs in India and 49 percent of the Singaporean workforce expressing the same intent [2].

I agree with Joanne Lipman that "the pandemic revealed just how much we hate our jobs" [3], yet I also agree with Shulagna Dasgupta [4] when she talks about the relationship between the Great Resignation and what she refers to as the Great Reflection. While stuck in our homes, many of us had the opportunity to do something that we previously had little time for: reflect. We had the chance to think about what we need, what we want, and what matters. As Dasgupta puts it, "These insights have changed our personal rhythms for the better and transformed the relationship we have with 'work.' We want to know the 'why' behind what we are doing and how it will help a higher purpose" [4].

I venture that the Great Reflection enabled new personal bodies of knowledge that in return triggered the Great Resignation—we revisited the interstitial space between life and work and came out transformed and determined to keep doing so. I propose that phenomena like the Great Resignation and the more recent quiet quitting—"the idea spreading virally on social media that millions of people are not going above and beyond at work and just meeting their job description" [5]—are two of many examples illustrating our innate need to be transformed when we engage with our craft and ourselves. If a transformation is not possible and enabled, we rightly question why we should deploy our craft in the first place. This becomes particularly crucial when things go sideways.

For example, to retain and attract talent within the Great Resignation context, traditional levers continue to be deployed by many employers. But the Covid-19 pandemic "has led more and more people to reevaluate what they want from a job—and from life—which is creating a large pool of active and potential workers who are shunning the traditionalist path" [2].

So, what happens when the context surrounding one's failures, frustrations, and falls does not enable one to be transformed through them and to reflect on what that means, at a self and a craft level? The answer for many seems to be to quit and look to apply their craft elsewhere. Some perhaps play a different, interrelated role, making it hard, if not impossible, for others to be transformed and for themselves to be transformed in return. As an example, a mentee recently shared how a company she used to work for could not understand why so many individuals in a specific age bracket kept quitting. Determined to solve the riddle, she interviewed colleagues in that bracket and quickly identified the root cause: That demographic wished to have a more flexible work schedule, yet the company kept using a rigid one. Senior executives listened to her findings and changed the policy to meet this need. The company fundamentally opted to transform itself, hence enabling all employees to do what they intended to do in the first place—give their best and be transformed in return—hence creating a healthy, reciprocal transformative loop, which contributed to their ultimate success.

My mentee was successful in convincing the company to shift its dated policies, yet I suspect that habit and lack of awareness were at the basis of the policies' ongoing usage, not ego, arrogance, and inability to become aware. The executives were open to being transformed and enabling transformation. I applaud their response.

Things are different when an individual, a leader, or an entire company is incapable of recognizing—or refuses to honor—the interrelatedness that exists between a worker (designer/researcher), the work (design/research), and the context around them. When an individual, a leader, or an entire company is incapable or refuses to be transformed and enable transformation, the process comes to a halt—and opportunities are lost.

Examples of missed opportunities that I have observed through the years include: valuable conversations cut short to stick with a meeting's agenda (quantity vs. quality); corporate values not leveraged as transformative starting points (preaching vs. practicing); hard yet crucial feedback not being considered (ignoring vs. listening); and failures not seen as key beginnings and opportunities (shaming vs. embracing).

Each time we engage in a project—designing a product, creating a team, embarking on a new career chapter—we are offered an opportunity to become a better version of ourselves. We are offered the opportunity to recognize that we are constantly evolving, transforming, being transformed—and that our transformations (or lack thereof) have a domino effect on what surrounds us.

As designers and researchers, the output of our making is never only a thing but also a transformed self. And those shifts always alter the balance, shape, and flavor of the surrounding context. A deeper look also shows us that the thing we designed is a reflection of our prior transformations—or as contemporary artist Robert Irwin (in [1]) puts it:

So when I go up and put two lines on the canvas, did I put them on?

Or was I simply reflecting this whole baggage that I'm carrying around?

back to top  References

1. Weschler, L. Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Things One Sees. Univ. of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA, 1982.

2. De Smet, A. et al. The Great Attrition is making hiring harder. Are you searching the right talent pools? McKinsey Quarterly. Jul. 13, 2022;

3. Lipman, J. The pandemic revealed how much we hate our jobs. Now we have a chance to reinvent work. Time. Jun. 1, 2021;

4. Dasgupta, S. The great reflection. Forbes. Apr. 26, 2022;

5. Harter, J. Is quiet quitting real? Gallup. Sep. 6, 2022;

back to top  Author

Daria Loi combines design strategy with experience research and innovation to enrich people's lives and humanize technology. She is vice president of UX and design at Fishtail, serves on the DemocracyLab board of directors, and is honorary professor at the University of Newcastle, Australia. [email protected]

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