10.14.21
Lee Moreau + Natasha Jen | Audio

The Futures Archive S1E1: The Passport


Who is the human in human centered design? On the inaugural episode of our new podcast, The Futures Archive, designer Lee Moreau and this episode’s guest host, Natasha Jen discuss the emotionally complex design of the passport.

With additional insights this week from Ellen Lupton, Kipum Lee, and Craig Robertson.

Lee asked Natasha about her reflections on how designers should be thinking about their work:
You begin to realize that our beliefs and our design methodologies might have been really flawed to begin with. And I think that as designers, we need to actually be humble enough to raise that question. We're the champions for the future, for a better future. But yet at the same time, I want to be humble enough to ask myself the question: Has my way of designing, has my way of responding to design problems been flawed? And my answer to that is actually, yes.
Lee Moreau is President of Other Tomorrows, a design and innovation consultancy based in Boston, and a Lecturer in MIT’s D Minor program.

Natasha Jen is a designer, a thinker, a maker, an educator, and a partner at Pentagram.

Kipum Lee is an innovation and design leader and an editor of Design Issues, a journal published by MIT Press.

Ellen Lupton is a graphic designer, curator, writer, critic, educator, and Senior Curator of Contemporary Design at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

Craig Roberton is a professor of Communication Studies at Northeastern and the author of The Passport in America: The History of a Document.


Sign up for our newsletter to keep up with each episode.

If you enjoyed this conversation between Lee and Natasha, you might want to listen to Lee or Natasha on The Design of Business | The Business of Design Podcast.

Kathleen Fu created the illustrations for each episode.

A big thanks to this season’s sponsor, Automattic.

And to our education partner, Adobe.



Transcript

Lee Moreau
Welcome to the Futures Archive, a show about human centered design, where this season— we'll take an object, look for the human at the center, and keep asking questions. I'm Lee Moreau

Natasha Jen
and I'm Natasha Jen

Lee Moreau
On each episode. We're going to start with an object. Today that object is the passport. We'll look at the history of that object from our perspective as designers who've done work in human centered design— not just how it looks and feels, but also the relationship between that object and the people it was designed for...

Natasha Jen
...And with other humans too.

Lee Moreau
The Futures Archive is brought to you by the design team at Automattic. Later on, we'll hear from Allan Cole, a designer on the special projects team. The Features Archive's education partner, this season, is Adobe.

Hi, Natasha.

Natasha Jen
Hi Lee. Good to see you.

Lee Moreau
Good to see you too. Thanks for being with us. For those of you who don't know. Natasha Jen is a partner at Pentagram. She's a graphic designer, and we worked together for a few years at 2x4— it feels like a million years ago, but I'm so thrilled that you're here with us.

Natasha Jen
I'm so glad to be here Lee.

Lee Moreau
I have a couple of my passports here, and I'll just...

Natasha Jen
Oh, wow.

Lee Moreau
So this is my my very first passport, which was from.

Natasha Jen
Wow.

Lee Moreau
Which was from 1990.

Natasha Jen
Lee the teenager!

Lee Moreau
I know it's it's crazy, but I love this idea that I have my first passport and I have probably three or four since. But the fact that you keep your old passport— what does that mean? It's not an art object, really, but it's certainly a design object and it's a representational totem, of some sort.

Natasha Jen
Interesting. Yeah, it's definitely a representation totem. You know, those stamps actually have clear associations to the travel. You know, so the the booklet itself becomes, you know, a memory box. Yeah.

Lee Moreau
So tell me, you know, where where is your passport, the physical object right now? Do you know where it is?

Natasha Jen
I actually know where it is, but I didn't know where it was for pretty much the entirety of 2020, you know, starting from March. So I used to travel quite a bit. The typical page count for for a U.S. passport is 28 pages, and I added 52 pages and that almost got full. OK, so so I travel a lot. But in March 2020, the lockdown began. So travel was no longer possible. So I never looked at my passport ever again until this June, where I had to prepare for potential travel. OK, so that's when I started digging out my passport, and when I found my passport, I realized that my passport expired last year, you know, and then to get a passport renewal would take at least three to six months, which meant that I was not going to be able to get my passport renewed for the possible travel in July. So that story is still pretty much distilled the challenges you know, of the pandemic, right? And the passport became this object that used to be an object that was important. So but now, you know, in the age of the pandemic is rendered completely useless.

Lee Moreau
I had a similar story about an expired passport. So actually, when we were working together, at 2x4 and I was flying to Serbia and I get to JFK and I realized that my passports expired. I'm about to board the plane, have the ticket and everything, and what I realized through this journey, I made it through JFK and Heathrow, this is post 9/11— and got to Serbia because I realized through the process the people checking the passports were different than the people who were issuing tickets. And I sort of gamed that system through all these different locations to ultimately get tickets issued. And every time I get caught, I just go to another security entrance and hope that they would miss it and then finally found my way in Serbia, which was completely absurd.

Natasha Jen
What an incredible story.

Lee Moreau
It's probably the most James Bond thing I've ever done, honestly. But that moment when you realize your passport expired, that's almost like you don't exist anymore, right?

Natasha Jen
Absolutely. It renders you invisible in some way, right? Because you know you, you used to be able to move freely across the borders, right? But now without that, you're completely immobile.

Lee Moreau
And so passport as a representational tool, right? It has so much meaning attached to it and what it connotes to people. You flash your passport at the border if you're lucky to cross borders. There's a power associated with that.

Natasha Jen
But then if you think about passport— passport, in essence, is binary, is divisive. I've been using the U.S. passport, you know, since I got it and you know, it's one of the most convenient passports in the world because it doesn't require a visa to go to most countries in the world. Whereas if you use a passport from Taiwan, you will have to go to the embassy of the country where you're traveling to get the visa, you know, issued and glued onto your passport in order to go to that country, right? So U.S. passport has that, you know, the global power, right, of the America, you know, the country, right. It divides people into natives and migrants, you know, and the passport becomes that aperture through which we think about these really important, you know, political and also social questions.

Lee Moreau
OK, so now we're going to hear from a few different people. Some historians designers who can help us make sense of the passport.

Craig Robertson
I started to become interested in the passport after traveling and being asked to present it at various borders around the world and starting to think about, well, why do we do this? How have we come to believe that this passport, this booklet with my photo is somehow going to be an accurate way to identify me?

Lee Moreau
Craig Robertson is an Associate Professor at Northeastern University and author of "The Passport in America". He told us that there were passports in America before the 19th century, but they didn't look or act anything like today's passports.

Craig Robertson
It's a large piece of paper 12 inches by 18 inches. It begins as a leader of introduction, or it comes out of a tradition of a sort of letter or request for protection.

Lee Moreau
And that made sense, but then came World War One, and everything got a lot more complicated.

Craig Robertson
Suddenly, governments are interested in which specific individuals are entering and leaving countries, so they sort of reinvent the passport to develop the passport into the form that we think of today. And then in 1926, as a result of conferences organized by the League of Nations, the passport takes on the form of a booklet.

Lee Moreau
So it sounds like turning the passport into a booklet was just a way to make it easier to carry. But along the way, it took on so much more meaning about the person and also about the places that it interacts with.

Natasha Jen
Yeah, and they are sort of an extension of you, if not a different version of you. That's actually more important than you, the real person, right? You know, in those contexts, because ultimately it's it's a piece of paper with, you know, typography and information you know about you on it, but actually in a way replaces you, you know,

Lee Moreau
When you think about it, it's terrifying that that there is a moment in your life where a paper document is actually more important than you are.

Craig Robertson
A document like a passport is what I refer to as a technology of verification. It's no longer this passport that is issued to request protection when you travel, so it's no longer the benevolent state, the benevolent government. Now it's a government that's out to surveil.

Julian Payne
It's not your passport.

Lee Moreau
That's Julian Payne of Authentication Solutions, which used to be one of the world's biggest producers of passports, talking at an event in 2017,

Julian Payne
It's the governments and they choose to issue it to you. You apply for a passport. It's not like going to Amazon and deciding you want to buy whatever you're buying, but you apply and the government of whatever country you belong to decides whether you are allowed it.

Lee Moreau
So what Julian Payne really sets up here is this notion that the passport is structural and it exists within structures and the power of those structures is that it change people's behaviors. Here's Craig Robertson:

Craig Robertson
The argument that the passport creates an identity that didn't previously exist— I started to really think about that when I came across these newspaper articles from the 1920s. It was this Associated Press story that The New York Times reprinted in 1923, and it recounts the story of this Danish gentleman who travels to Germany when he enters Germany, and he's sporting a very spectacular mustache that he's very proud of. But while he's there, he discovers his mustache is not the height of fashion in Hamburg in 1923, he shaves it off, and the German border officials won't let him leave because the smooth, clean shaven Danish gentleman does not look like this heavily mustached gentlemen in the photograph. And so the story the article tells is that this Danish guy then chooses to stay in Germany and grow his mustache again back so he will look like his passport photograph, and be able to leave.

Lee Moreau
So, Natasha, what do you think of that story? It's an interesting problem when your face doesn't exactly match the person that you want it to be or that you need it to be in that moment.

Natasha Jen
Yeah. And it also raises the question around the sufficiency of photos, right? Because you know, a photo is still the only way for a border official to identify whether you is you. I find that method completely insufficient nowadays, yeah, because you know, people change.

Lee Moreau
Yeah, and so much emphasis on the accuracy of the photo. And I've seen enough photos that alter the way people look in camera, right. Depending on what lens you're using, and the way it's framed. There can be bias built into how those processes are are done. And of course, you know, among other things, you're an expert in Photoshop and you know how easy it is to make alterations.

Natasha Jen
And you know, that's a very cultural thing. For example, here in the USA, your passport photos don't get retouched wherever the photos are taken, whereas in Taiwan, they would do pretty high skill retouching on the photos so that. You actually look a lot more beautiful, but you still look like you.

Lee Moreau
You look like a better you in the passport photo.

Natasha Jen
I mean, you still look like you, but you just look, you know, just a little better with better skin, you know.

Lee Moreau
And is a government agency doing that?

Natasha Jen
No just like local shops. Yeah. Photo— photo stores, pharmacies. And that's not a cultural thing here in the USA. Yeah, but in Taiwan, it's very common.

Lee Moreau
 If only Photoshop had existed back in the 1920s, it would have really helped this Danish guy that Craig Robertson was talking about.

Craig Robertson
Do you reach this point where someone can no longer resemble themselves, right in the eyes of the government. It's not just the Danish gentleman. It's the border officials who want a completely accurate representation, or relationship I should say, between photograph and person.

Lee Moreau
This is a total mess and it's been going on since we invented the passport, and we've all experienced this on some level. This feeling of trying to verify, prove who we are to officials that don't know us. It's inherently dehumanizing. We have to use the system, but it's not designed for us. So how would it look different if it was designed for us?

Ellen Lupton
Human centered design considers the needs and wants of users first and foremost.

Lee Moreau
Ellen Lupton is a designer, and she's also a senior curator at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City.

Ellen Lupton
And I use that word user exclusively to include not just, you know, a consumer. So the users might also be a community that's impacted by a product that they don't necessarily own.

Lee Moreau
So I think this is the beginning of the definition of human centered design. It's really the human centered part focusing on the users whose lives will be impacted by the eventual outcomes of your work. But I think we can dig into that a little bit more closely. You know, kind of working definition of human centered design that I have is that it's a creative process that ultimately begins with an understanding of the people whose problems that you're trying to solve. Right? The focus here is a little bit different. What's your take on that, Natasha?

Natasha Jen
I think that I'm more interested in thinking about the 2.0 definition to human centered design after the pandemic. And we used to think about human centered design, OK, as design approaches and solutions centered around people who are ultimately going to use it as Ellen, you know, elegantly stated. But now, looking at the consequence of human centered design, the picture is really not that pretty from an environmental point of view, right? So I would rather think about human centered design as a lens through which we look at the needs of not just humans, but that planetary needs as well. So this pandemic really highlights the insufficiency of our current and past systems. Yeah, because, you know, like we said, people are sorted and filtered back to their countries of citizenship, right? And passport is an emblematic of that situation. And then we're also conditioned and impacted by the local officials response to the crisis. For example, if you're locked down in Florida, your reality would be very different from someone who's locked down in Taiwan. So, you know, the human centered design idea, I think that if you look at it in 2021 actually feels very, you know, inadequate in so many ways.

Lee Moreau
Yeah, no. It's definitely time for a rethink. And you've been really outspoken on design thinking, I think as a as a creative practice, and I welcome your thoughts on that more broadly. But as these things are converging, we need to find ways to problem, entice them, break them down and make them more relevant for the context that we're living in.

Lee Moreau
The Futures Archive is brought to you by the design team at Automattic, which is building a new web and a new workplace all around the world.

Allan Cole
My name is Allan Cole. I'm a designer on the special projects team at Automattic. I'm a long time New Yorker currently living in the Washington, D.C., area.

Lee Moreau
Allan started working at Automattic five years ago.

Allan Cole
I've been doing websites for friends and fellow musicians at the time, and I got to a point where I was at a kind of a crossroads where I either needed to step back, become more of like a business owner, and hire people to kind of take over and do the work that I'd like to do myself. Or I could shift the relationship that I had with WordPress and how I contribute to it. And that's where Automattic came in. As I was researching the company, I was kind of finding the things that I liked about working for myself in the company. Meaning, you know, when you working for yourself, you can set your own hours and you can kind of work on a variety of projects and clients. So at Automattic I am a designer on the special projects team and I work on designing, producing, consulting, and developing websites. And so an example of that is that I designed the 2019 default theme for WordPress. And I don't think before that day that it got released, anything that I've touched had reached that many people.

Lee Moreau
For Allan, joining Automattic meant a new and better way of working.

Allan Cole
Automattic is the company you want to work for, that you didn't know you wanted to work for

Lee Moreau
Designing a better web. Join us at Automattic dot com slash design. That's auto- m- a- double t- i- c dot com slash design.

Lee Moreau
So let's take this back to the passport, and to Julian Payne, whose company designed passports

Julian Payne
Like any design house, we think about the end user a lot

Lee Moreau
And who is that end user?

Julian Payne
Becuase we're all passport users, most of us, I would hope, and we like to think what it is for us, isn't it? It's my passport. Wrong. The people we design it for are the border agents. A border agent check hundreds of times a day a passport, and he or she are looking for key security features that mean that you can have ingress or egress to a country.

Lee Moreau
And so an object, after all, is somewhat defined by the relationship of who uses it and what they're trying to do with it.

Kip Lee
The TSA, whether they intended it or not, is a place where human emotions unfold.

Lee Moreau
Kip Lee is the managing director of innovation and design for University Hospitals Ventures. During his graduate studies, he was given an assignment to observe a space and redesign it for better flow. Kip, and two other members of his small team went to Pittsburgh Airport. They found a little cafe, sat down, and they just observed.

Kip Lee
00:18:17] We saw, you know a couple— elderly couple saying goodbye to maybe it was their son and their daughter-in-law, saying goodbye, hugging and then the younger couple going through the TSA. And then they got to the other side and I was with I was just watching the a— the elderly couple. The lady went to the side, was crying. The man had brought her some, some tissues. It was, it was also that after experience, right. How do you design for that? Is there anything we can do as designers to help that?

Lee Moreau
What I love about this story is Kip and his colleagues. They just sat there and paid attention and they were paying attention to themselves as designers. They're not the people they're designing for. They're paying attention to other people.

Kip Lee
We're pointing out something that we all feel and know and reframing that experience from a transactional one to an experiential one.

Lee Moreau
So, Natasha, this is where I think we need design the most, right?

Natasha Jen
Wow, I I actually never thought about parting and the, you know, the emotions from parting at the— at the airport. There's no space design for that because, you know, if you were to design a space where some sort of I don't know, you know, architectural or physical condition to address that, you need to think about the circulation, the flow right, a number of people, right. How do you begin to actually measure that, right? And how long are we going to all cry here, right? How do you determine— you can't determine that. And it will make no sense to actually dictate that in that context, right? You got to let people just be themselves right. It's very, very hard to design for that condition, but that is a condition that should be addressed.

Lee Moreau
I mean, on the other side, there are other scenarios like you could be you could have flown somewhere to be with your boyfriend and you. You break up on the weekend, right? And you, you go to the airport together and you want that person to leave so quickly and you're grateful that they walk through the gates. So like, everybody's in a different situation at that moment, there are so many different scenarios, and in my mind, none of them have been accounted for with the design of these systems, right? It's fundamentally not thought through from a human perspective. So we do have a long way to go here.

Natasha Jen
I actually, I'm empathetic to TSA agents, you know, I mean, think about it. The sheer volume of travelers that they need to handle is tremendous. It's a very difficult job and we tend to see them as, you know, enemies, right? And again, that condition is very interesting because this passport again creates that binary relationship. I'm the traveler. I'm sort of the victim here, right? I'm passing through really crowded, you know, airport waiting for hours, and then I have to pass through a really unhappy TSA agent, right? And they're unhappy. Therefore, they're not nice to me. It creates this sort of, you know, enemy and victim kind of relationship, which is actually no different from the migrant versus native binary division, which is no different from the sort of legal, illegal kind of simplistic division. And you realize that our systems, you know, from the larger geopolitical systems down to, you know, our sort of day to day experiences are largely designed with that binary ideology in mind.

Lee Moreau
That's brilliant.

Natasha Jen
Yeah, well, you know, human centered design. I'm just, you know, unpacking this very literally, you know humans at the center and design whatever that is, should be really rooted in human needs, right, people's needs. So here we're looking at a kind of concentric circle where the people— us, right, now people call them consumers audience, there are all these terms— users, for example, you know, which is really not that great. That is actually really at the heart of this center. That's sort of how I interpret and understand human centered. And I have to say
all design be it good or bad, is human centered design, right. It is. So there's this level of quality, right? And there's this level of, you know, efficiency, right. Is a design considered enough that it actually responds to all people's needs in a given context? Is a design, you know, well crafted so that it performs beautifully, it performs efficiently, so on and so forth. So that's always the ultimate goal for a designer, you know, and for me, as a communication designer, as a graphic designer, I want to actually be able to bring out the best work that compels that enables actions that triggers, you know, emotions that communicates or broadcasts ideas. That's what I want to do. So human centered design really kind of begs for a kind of new and different definition, you know, for the future. And also for now.

Lee Moreau
I think as we kind of move forward, we can talk about maybe frame a conversation about what human centered design is. And so kind of working understanding we might throw out there is that human centered design is a creative process that begins by intimately understanding the people whose problems that we're hoping to solve. But I think, as you've reflected, there's so much more to be done.

Natasha Jen
And you begin to realize that, wow, you know, our our beliefs and our- our design methodologies, you know, might have been really flawed to begin with. And I think that as designers, we need to actually be humble enough to actually raise that question. And I know that, you know, we're the champion for the future, for a better future. But yet at the same time, I want to be humble enough to to ask myself that question, you know, has my way of designing, has my way of responding to design problems been flawed? And my answer to that is actually, yes.

Lee Moreau
That will be a central topic of this podcast, right? Can we start to craft a different definition of what human centered design can be for the future? And in some sense, I think it definitely needs to be questioned and interrogated. What I don't want to do is throw the baby out with the bathwater because I think we've done a lot of good things along the way. But as we look forward, what— what is the, maybe we can tease out some elements of what what might be integrated in human centered design of the future world? What are some of the things to bring into to that conversation?

Natasha Jen
We need to work with scientists and experts in this area to really help us figure out how we can actually bring data to light. OK, and I know that, yeah, scientists have data, but data right now is not being designed and presented in such a comprehensive in a kind of easy, accessible way.

Lee Moreau
So you just mentioned something I'm going to paraphrase, but the data isn't designed. That's really compelling. I've heard people talk about this notion of a human centered data, you know, so that it's an interpretable but being able to have us as consumers, as human beings, as citizens to be able to act on that information, we're far from that it would seem.

Natasha Jen
Far from that. Yeah, because you know, we we're looking at data right now. I think generally through a very limited and narrow aperture, that is— what is a benefit to us for the most part, right? But you know, there is also benefits to the environment, yes or no, right? And to what degree, right? These things, I think that these layers now really need to be understood and looked at and studied and designed as a coherent whole so that we're no longer kind of, first of all, isolating ourselves as humans that we're actually above all but rather looking at us as one piece in the total system. Yeah, that I think is is actually, you know, a new way to to to look at design.

Lee Moreau
So one piece of the total system—that actually takes us back to passport, right? The passport is in a given moment, potentially our one piece in the total system. In fact, it might be us in that total system. But as we look to the future, passports are going to be reframed, right? What's the world that we're going to need to design a passport for? What are some of the constraints will need to be thinking about? And how might the notion of a passport actually fit into that world?

Natasha Jen
Well, you know, we're still in the kind of antiquated world when it comes to the actual design of the passport, meaning as an object. It is a booklet, has multiple pages, is a very classical kind of form as an object. We're still in that mode. But ultimately, this object, which is a small booklet, is a representation of us, right. So it's a kind of extension of us, right. With essential data, right, so if you're thinking through this— me and this object, but the two actually is actually one, it raises a question, right? Do we really with a current technology and where the technology is going, do we really need this object in the future to actually represent us? That that question actually raises a lot more questions because you have to talk about technology, you have to talk about human biology, you have to talk about security, safety, privacy and all these really essential questions that we're actually all struggling with on a day to day basis.

Lee Moreau
What are some other things that you might do to alter the passport? How do you feel about altering the passport?

Natasha Jen
I'm curious about the the very idea of altering the passport. I do agree that its object-ness probably will need to be rethought really radically, not just in terms of its shape and size and form, it's the very nature of the object itself that I think needs to be rethought because given that, you know, our biometric data is being more and more digitized. Yeah. And then, you know, there's always some version of our biometric data that is actually stored in the cloud, whether we like it or not, that's just a reality, right? Why, why do we still need this object that is called a passport that would allow us to go through borders? Why can't we, the people actually be the passport itself as well? So you're no longer kind of looking at human and object, and this object is the thing that would take me to go through a border, but is rather me the human being itself. And the biometric data is already in the system, right. You have to go through again, some sort of scanning, some sort of Q&A, but you no longer actually need this object.

Lee Moreau
All right. So now we're going to change gears a little bit. Every episode of The Futures Archive will end with a prompt, a sort of design exercise for you as the listener to keep working on the object that we've been talking about and all the ideas that we've been discussing on the show. You'll be able to share your ideas and see what other listeners are thinking about, and I'll explain, where are you going to do that in a little bit. But first, what I'd like you to do is think about this. What else might you add to the passport? And how are those things that kind of information changed the way people identify themselves? How would you change the way that you identify yourself and how would they change the interaction that you would have with the people who monitor borders? How would you like those interactions to be different? What else might the passport be? You can read the full prompt on our Instagram, our handle is Design Observer. And don't worry, we're not asking for your personal information— just the sense of what else might be there. To share your passport ideas, post them on your account with the hashtag #thefuturesarchive. We'll share some of our favorites from our Instagram account, so don't forget to use the hashtag The Futures Archive—that's all one word.

Lee Moreau
The Futures Archive is a podcast from Design Observer to keep up with the show. Go to TFA dot Design Observer dot com. This was our first episode of a truly incredible season we have lined up for you, so please be sure to subscribe on Apple Podcasts, on Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts to never miss an episode. Natasha, thank you so much for being with us today. If listeners are curious to know more about you or find more information, where should they go?

Natasha Jen
Follow me on social— Njenworks, N-J-E-N-W-O-R-K-S. Come to Pentagram's website, look at our work, look at my work. Yeah!

Lee Moreau
The Futures Archive's education partners is Adobe. For each episode, you can find supporting materials, including further reading, lesson plans and all kinds of activities suitable for college level learners. For more about Adobe's educational initiatives, follow them at EDEX dot Adobe dot com. And this season of the Futures Archive is brought to you by Automattic. Thanks again to Craig Robertson, Ellen Lupton, Kipum Lee, and Harriet Atkinson for talking to The Futures Archive. You can find more about them and my co-host, the amazing Natasha Jen in our show notes, as well as links to our archival audio and other interesting stuff. Our associate producer is Adina Karp. Owen Agnew edits the show. Blake Eskin of Noun and Verb Rodeo helped to develop the show. Thanks, as always, to Design Observer founder Jessica Helfand and to Design Observer's executive producer, Betsy Vardell.


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