The other day I was having a beer with a couple of friends, and we’d been discussing the finer points of shaving, razors, and trimming for a good fifteen minutes, when it occurred to me to worry that my friends might take my interest for mindless small talk, the kind of thing you chat about when you don’t want to have a real discussion.
The truth is, I’m fascinated by all the little details about how people live. Partly, it’s simple self-interest. If my friend has a less annoying shaving experience than me, I want to know so I can copy it—I hate shaving. But more than that, it’s genuine, bonafide curiosity. There are a million little things that are part of my daily life that are so habitual that I rarely stop to reflect on how my particular ritual came about and whether they might be better if I did them a different way.
That’s part of the reason for my deep interest in domestic history. You don’t have to travel very far back into the past for small changes in technology and culture to render the daily business of living pretty alien to modern eyes. Just imagine waking up early to stoke a coal fire to heat the water for your morning cuppa, or exchanging regular pleasantries with the milkman as he made his delivery. Little differences but a whole different world.
You get a taste of this when you travel. Things like noticing all the shops close in the afternoon for an hour while workers take a siesta or having to switch on the water heater an hour before taking a shower nudge us out of the well worn tire ruts of habituation and remind us that world is far more interesting and varied than we tend to notice. And to me these experiences are worth every bit as much as seeing the sights with their swarms of tourists.
This same fascination is integral to my approach to design, both as a teacher and as a practitioner. We tend to think of the geniuses of design as those who are able to take unexpected creative leaps and reframe the familiar into something unexpected. But that reframing starts with looking at what already exists, even the smallest details, and questioning why they are the way they are and how they might be different. This applies to everything, from process (“What’s your approach to choosing colors?”) to composition (“What are the all the possible ways paragraphs can be differentiated?”). In fact, I’d say that these questions are the work of design.
In his influential book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell posits that it is love of—and time dedicated to—a subject that makes one an expert. The implication is that you spend that time exploring every facet, every nook and cranny, of that subject until you know it as well as it can be known. In other words, curiosity about minutia is the valuable trait.
So while I hope my friends think of me as a curious person instead of as an incessant small talker, I don’t think I’ll ever put a check on my questions about all the little things. I want to know.