The hybrid life

Published:  December 10, 2010
The hybrid life

Getting to know Liz Danzico was like finding a professional doppelganger, albeit one far more accomplished than I. As we went through rounds of asking each other what we do, we both realised what a slippery proposition that is for those working across multiple, overlapping areas – such as writing, interaction design, teaching and more. It was a pleasure to discover another hybrid.

Danzico describes herself as ‘part designer, part educator, part editor’. As a user experience and information architecture consultant, she has worked with clients such as Rosenfeld Media and Daylife. With Happy Cog Studios she also worked on recent major releases for WordPress and thousands of bloggers have benefited from her smarts. Listing the rest of her activities could fill this article in no time, but some of them include being chair of the Interaction Design MFA program at New York’s School of Visual Arts, a columnist for Interactions magazine, and sitting on the editorial and advisory boards for two publishers. “Hybrid is a good term for [what I do],” she says. “It implies that there’s no segmentation between the roles, and the distinct strands are more unified. With rare exceptions, the hybrid life requires me to take what I’m doing from one strand and apply it to another. If I’m meeting with students about X, I let X apply to the Y of my next meeting, even though that’s a prestigious client presentation. And then I allow Y to be the material I write about for Z, when the Z deadline for the magazine arises the next day. The hybrid life is a truly integrated one, where the strengths are often in the connections among the strands rather in the strands themselves. The in-between parts become connected, and therefore, everything becomes more interesting.”

Bobulate. Jason Santa Maria (designer) Liz Danzico (writing).

Bobulate. Jason Santa Maria (designer) Liz Danzico (writing).

The attraction and the danger of this transference is that so much is interesting that there simply aren’t the hours in the day to pack it all in. The question I often ask myself about this hybrid life we lead is whether I am really just avoiding committing to one area. “I wondered this for a long time,” Danzico says. “My process has been: do things I’m excited about doing, then decide what to do next. This simple approach has revealed interesting work, career paths, people, and nuances that I couldn’t have planned for. The hybrid is a result, to an extent, of not having a plan. The disadvantage is that I don’t have a five-year plan. The great advantage is that I don’t have a five-year plan.”

Paraphrasing photographer Susan Sontag’s notion of ‘appropriating the thing being photographed’, Danzico says this approach is more than just flitting between areas. “I think it’s the switching between that provides the context,” Danzico explains. “When I’m in the mode itself, I’m appropriating that role – be it educator, designer, researcher, adviser, consultant. In the time in between, I’m forced to synthesise. It’s a bit uncomfortable really. There is no title for what I am, but I’m carrying all this incredibly fascinating information from one role to another, and processing it, thinking about how to apply it to the next mode of my work/life.

“Whether it’s a being a designer and having empathy for an audience; whether it’s an educator and understanding the full career path of a student and the effect and value of a curriculum; whether it’s a researcher, a consultant, a writer, an observer, the list goes on and on. I do what I do because it requires me to be fully immersed in it,” she adds. Liz Danzico (Information architect, user research) Elizabeth Hare (Information architect) Dan Mall (Art Director/Designer) Heather Shaw (Designer) Jason Santa Maria (Designer) Liz Danzico (Information architect, user research) Elizabeth Hare (Information architect) Dan Mall (Art Director/Designer) Heather Shaw (Designer) Jason Santa Maria (Designer)

Danzico’s work has employed all of her hybrid skills, empathy and sense of cooperation. The work she did for WordPress involved user research and information architecture as well as several hands-on rounds of testing and iterations for one of the largest and broadest base of users she has ever worked with. “It proved an interesting challenge. It was hard to strike the right balance of how much of the process to make public, and how much to keep private – how much of the audience to talk with, and how much intuition to follow. In the end, the rapid prototyping of the design yielded the highest degree of success, and the team has been publicly publishing results with great accomplishment since.”

More recently, Danzico worked on the Charter for Compassion project with the TED team and the studio, WORKSHOP. “The Charter for Compassion was Karen Armstrong’s 2008 TED Prize Wish, and the website a cooperative effort to restore compassionate thinking action to the centre of life. It challenged us to understand not only our shared and disparate definitions of compassion, but also how to approach the sentiment from a content, interaction, and visual design point of view. How could we make compassion accessible? How could we inspire behaviour change?”

The keystone to Danzico’s hybrid life, however, is writing. Her blog has a large following as well as her professional journalism. “Without writing, I’m pretty certain all would be chaos. Writing is to my creative process what information architecture is to visual design. It orders my thoughts. It structures my thinking. Without writing, or the intent to communicate through text – be it through Twitter, email, an instant message, a text, it doesn’t matter – thoughts are incoherent. I believe that the act of writing collates thoughts for your creative mind.” Liz Danzico (Information architect) Jason Santa Maria (Designer) Erin Kissane (Content strategy) Liz Danzico (Information architect) Jason Santa Maria (Designer) Erin Kissane (Content strategy) Liz Danzico (Information architect, User Research) Jason Santa Maria (Designer) Liz Danzico (Information architect, User Research) Jason Santa Maria (Designer)

Danzico says she is happy to call herself a designer these days, but still less than comfortable about it. The lack of tangible or visible output irked her for a long time. ”The output of what I do comes in the shape of maps, charts, findings, reports, and other times, just conversations and sessions that lead to insights and more conversations,” she says. “It was when I understood a deeper design history, not just design as we define it today, but design of the Arts & Crafts Movement, and what came of the second Industrial Revolution, that things changed. How Henry Dreyfuss came to design from creating theatre sets and his insights on designing for audiences. How Henry Petroski can see the history of Velcro as he takes a walk in the woods. How Frank Lloyd Wright sees farming as an integral part of his apprentices’ understanding of how to design prairie architecture. These histories and many others helped me feel happier calling myself a designer of the things I do, however varied, however intangible. In the end, we’re designing for people.”

From Desktop magazine.

All images copyright Liz Danzico.

Thumbnail image available here.

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  1. Pingback: Visual Arts Briefs » Blog Archive » In The Press: Liz Danzico in Desktop Mag

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