It’s Not About Digital

Why, when business executives discuss innovation, are they still inclined to invoke “digital“?

It began in a simpler time. We once obsessed about depleting the Amazon rain forest. Now we fret for the growth of the Amazon marketplace. In two decades our attention jumped from buzzsaws to Bezos. Our attention span truncated from books to tweets.

With few exceptions, our world now stands transformed, from purely analog to thoroughly digital. Our news, our shops, our chats, even many of our “face-to-face” meetings now pass as bits through a circuit as often as material through space.

&orbital weave

So wouldn’t you expect by now that we could stop speaking “digital” as  a foreign tongue? Why isn’t it part of our vernacular?

We live in two worlds.

Since before you were born (in all likelihood), prognosticators have urged business to “go digital”. And they have. First they streamlined and digitized processes, records, communications and internal operations. From the first corporate mainframe installation at GE in the 1950s, digital meant counting the guts of the business better, faster, cheaper. A dirty analog world cleaned up with digital hygiene.


A second world emerged with a new generation, those internet-age babies who were “born digital”. These are the native children of immigrants. To them, digital is the language of old people. They lost the mother tongue in favor of their adopted homeland. Their fun and games, learning, commerce, social lives, even first love—they all transact through a glass window.

digital toddlers.jpg

This generation grew to build firms like Amazon and Alibaba, digital from birth. They upend analog templates that legacy competitors struggle to maintain.

A funny thing happened on the way home from digital…

At the best design programs around the world, such as the Interaction Design masters at Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts, students and faculty make no distinction between analog and digital. In fact, if anything, the migration path has reversed. Students learn to push through the glass window to understand the lives and hopes and frustrated dreams of their analog users.

We live in the flesh. We move as matter. We see, hear and feel in waves. To design for two dimensions we study in three.

#mader SVA 2017

SVA IXD Class of 2017

Faculty member Criswell Lappin instructs IXD students in game theory, introducing it with a riotous round-robin grudge match of rock-paper-scissors. Students craft tangible games, to apply principles of intent, competition, rules, boundaries and consequences. They bounce quarters, stick notes on their heads, extract gelatinous globules from vessels with chopsticks in their teeth.

They laugh, they observe, they feel and they learn. Their user observations, field studies, sketches, and wall-mounted insights all translate a messy world to a clean screen. From analog to digital and back again.

In the weeks ahead I will begin to share some of the masterful work of our IXD student teams. We have had the rare privilege to learn from their innocent explorations at the intersection of old and new, analog and digital. Today and forever more, we all live in both worlds, and it is one.


Their lesson comes down to this. Attend to the bits. But learn from the waves. 

Make better.

Image credits:
  1. Rainforest from
  2. Pencil sketch orbitals curves from
  3. GE 225 System from
  4. Tablet toddlers from
  5. SVA Class from
  6. Oscillation from



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