Things are nothing, but everything is something.

I've been thinking of this piece for a long time. It has been stewing in my brain for nearly a year now. I hope I can do these thoughts justice in this post. I think that perhaps it will end up being a further rumination of what's been going on in my head rather than a concrete or full set of ideas. I hope that if you're reading this that you can bare with me if I'm at all contradictory.

Some unfortunate events happened in my life a couple months ago and now I find myself thinking a lot about the whats in life lately. What did I do? What went wrong? What went right? What matters? What doesn't matter? What is life comprised of? These are all very hard questions to answer and share openly when studying them with your own experiences and biases in mind. My generic answer to this last question at least is the relationships we share with objects, places, people, and ideas. That is just the start of it all though.

Asking yourself what is a very easy question to answer though. All you need to do is open your eyes and start pointing out things that you are familiar with—things that are part of you daily rituals and things that bring you comfort. These things are nothing more than the materials they are comprised of unless you have tied some life experience to them. This means that you had to have some sort of emotional reaction to an interaction with any of them. So the important question I have been thinking of prior to all of this truly isn't about the importance of what, but rather a question of how did this become important to me and why is it important?

What? No. How and why?

When you ask yourself "what?" you are truly asking yourself a bunch of questions that we lump into the meaning of what. Where, how, why and when are the common ones that get misplaced. So if one were to truly take a moment to think to themselves about this I'd bet the train of thought would start to think of the specific things that happened in a place, how they happened, why they happened, and when they happened. What bares far too much responsibility in my opinion. It's kind of like the last person to climb to the top of a human pyramid. Everyone blames that person if the pyramid collapses as they're climbing up, but in reality the person on the bottom that is fatigued is the one that should bare the blame. That person took the weight of everyone on top for much longer than the last person to climb to the tippy top. Side note, I mean no disrespect to that bottom person. I'm just saying that they, whether fatigued or unwilling to keep on, is the reason the pyramid started to collapse. So much respect to all bottom pyramid people, you are literally the base that we build on.

The point I'm trying to make here that there are always two sides to everything that make up a complete story. These two parts are constantly intertwined; they depend on each other for the advancement for their own progression while simultaneously giving back to that other part. I've come to call these two parts/processes atmosphere and intellect. I'll get into why the order of that phrase doesn't matter after I explain them, but maybe try to make your own opinion by the end of the post?


I think I'm starting with atmosphere because it's a bit easier to comprehend than intellect in the way that I am discussing them. By atmosphere I mean the feelings and intuitions one receives from a thing based on a combination of it's physical aesthetic and it's inherent culturally implied meanings. That's confusing, eh? I promise it will at least make a little bit more sense after we discuss both. So atmosphere is really a space for interaction and emotion to occur, with certain specific cues scattered throughout the occupied space. Every atmosphere has its own set of rules specific to its inhabitants and anything else that may occupy it. Atmosphere alone cannot contribute anything new. However, it can bring about feelings of nostalgia and reminiscence from its occupants. The only way this can happen is if anything within the atmosphere is recognized as the familiar. I'm trying to beat around the bush on purpose right now. But think about the connections between atmosphere and intellect as I'm explaining it.


Intellect is essentially the process of creating a plan. A plan to evoke a certain response to a thing. This plan is the most important to any experience, but to say it is more important than anything else is silly. Everything is simultaneously the most important thing in its moment, but the next moment something else is the most important thing as that last thing slowly fades from the mind. What I'm trying to say here is that the sequence of planned obsolescence of an idea or action is necessary in order to recognize what is going on, how it's happening, and why it's occurring the way it is. But here's the kicker, no one can plan for the entirety of anything because there is a motivating factor in every interaction that you just can't plan for—memory. People's memories are tied into every single new experience we have. You just cannot plan anything to be full proof. I know, it's a lot of back and forth thinking, a lot of contradiction. But that is only when examined by itself, for atmosphere cannot exist without intellect, and intellect cannot exist without an atmosphere.

String Thing

Imagine you have two super long strands of yarn. One strand represents atmosphere, and the other represents intellect. They are the same color, same thickness, alike in every discernible way. Your objective with these two strands of yarn is to create a ball of yarn. Seems easy enough, right? Just start rolling those bad boys up, getting them all tangled together. They start to wind in and out of each other, looping and creating some sort of crazy cacophony of stringy goodness. But wait! Now that you've made a kick ass yarn ball from scratch I need you to tell me at any given point in the ball which thread represents atmosphere and which represents intellect.

If you are the type of person who would stare at that ball and ponder if there is any possible way of doing this, I feel sorry for you. It's a trick and a waste of time; there's no way of telling without unwinding it all and starting over. But even then, how do you know which is which? They are identical, remember? Not only is there no way of telling, but it doesn't matter. What matters is that you took these two parts and you created something whole and meaningful out of them. Before you started you may have found yourself feeling the string, observing it's colors and if you're really weird maybe even smelling it. But at the same time I'd bet you were thinking how can I roll these sons of bitches up the craziest and most ball making way? There was a plan to make something, and the materials to make them with. The motivation was the objective.

The Point

Things happen and you must make the best with what you are given. You can look at this provocation through whatever lens you want, but for the next couple of sentences I'm putting my young designer hat back on. As someone who works on a lot of digital and interactive projects, it has been my experience in observing and critiquing work on many showcase blogs that the atmosphere and intellectual processes of creating something are a lot of the times less integrated than our super duper ball of yarn. A lot of the times they look phenomenal, but make absolutely no sense. Other times they are super easy to use, but because a lack of atmospheric hierarchy, they aren't memorable. This is something I try to be constantly aware of when I am working on a project. I try to be involved in every aspect of the act of creating as possible. That means making intellectual and atmospheric decisions simultaneously. I want to make flow charts while simultaneously mocking things up in Photoshop & Illustrator, and at the same time coding that all into a working prototype.

Sure, you can decide a button looks a certain way, but without thinking of it in the bigger picture—having a plan for what happens on :hover and is there a transition after you use it is silly. You are looking at it just as a button. You need to have a plan for that button. It's part in whatever story you are telling is far more important than simply being a flat rectangle with some text on it. You have to think about why you're giving something a certain look while simultaneously letting that look contribute to the overall plan. I like the idea of user experience designers and visual designers being great at their own things, but truly that could be a recipe for disaster if they cannot communicate well. By my definition one is the intellect and one is the atmosphere. That's why I like the meaning behind the title interaction designer. I think people who think of all aspects of something all at once are the best type of people. They are empathetic, intelligent, and able to execute ideas in the most thorough way.

I'd like to switch my hat back to the 24 year old person that is dealing with life's hardest problems to explain how atmosphere and intellect relate to all facets of life, but that would just be depressing. Instead I challenge you to take my opinions here and try and see how and why atmosphere and intellect are working together in your life to tell a story. Stories should be memorable not because of just one monumental moment. They should be memorable because of the importance of everything that lead up to that monumental moment. The best stories to me are the ones you think are over, but then something small happens that starts a bigger, better, and more exciting chain of events.

Someday I will actually explore this concept of atmospheric and intellectual processes in more depth. Not now though. My brain can't handle that right now.