Late last year, I wrote an article defining the term “user experience” (UX) while also suggesting modern UX professionals model themselves after Leonardo da Vinci — the archetypal Renaissance man. The latter point came near the end of the post and left me wanting to explore more deeply how old Leo might operate as a user experience designer in the year 2014.
Frankly — technological advancements aside — I don’t think he would function all that differently now than he did nearly 600 years ago. But I didn’t want to speculate or put words in his mouth, so I sent him a time machine and let him acclimate himself to 2014 (he was almost a pretty decent house guest). Then I conducted this interview with the Renaissance man himself.
MT: Mr. da Vinci, thanks for meeting with me.
LdV: No problem, but please … call me Leo.
MT: Okay, Leo. Your reputation precedes you so we need no introduction. As you know, we’re about six centuries ahead of the Renaissance, and we’ve made many advancements in design, science, technology, and art. We’ve developed a new discipline of design called user experience. What’s your understanding of this field?
LdV: Well, I’ve read all the latest books, and I’ve made friends with some brilliant UX designers. My understanding is that it deals with taking a human-centered approach to solving design problems, and effectively enriching the human experience with products, systems, and services. Truly, a wonderful approach!
MT: I agree! Do you think you could have benefited from such an approach during the Renaissance?
LdV: Yes, but there would have been limited opportunities. It was definitely a different time. There wasn’t much industry. Literacy was only attainable by fortunate nobles and artisans. Access to resources and information was also limited. However, I did make an effort to take human-centered approaches in my own projects.
MT: How so?
LdV: An example is when I wanted to represent a deeper understanding of the human body in my paintings — a more thorough representation than the one offered by my contemporaries or predecessors. Which bones and tissue give it form? How does it work? There weren’t exactly textbooks on the subject — and, of course, no Internet — so I had to steal and dissect human cadavers to get the answers I needed. This is a sensitive issue even today. But, it was about discovery.
I also used this knowledge when considering how to make my inventions conform to the physical human condition. Look at these excerpts, below, from one of my notebooks. In an exploration of how a human being might take flight, I had to consider how my flying machine might conform to the human body; and how a person might make practical use of such an invention.
MT: Wow, your sketches are great. People around the world have studied them. What advice would you give to UX pros who can’t sketch like this?
LdV: Sketching is so important and everyone can do it. It doesn’t take an artist to crudely visualize ideas. And like anything else, you only get better with practice. UX designers would especially seem to benefit from sketching their ideas because they’re dealing with inherently visual artifacts. And when it comes to resources, sketching has the lowest overhead. Pencil to paper (or marker to whiteboard) is the easiest way to visualize your ideas — no fancy software or equipment required.
MT: Complementary to your sketches, you’ve also compiled quite the collection of manuscripts about everything from art to engineering. How come?
LdV: For several reasons. Firstly, for posterity. Humanity progresses because it builds on the knowledge of its predecessors. Secondly, it’s prudent to document your discoveries and knowledge — no matter how small or insignificant you consider your own ideas, you never know if or when they might inspire you or others. Lastly, writing can be a form of teaching. And there’s evidence that suggests that when you teach, you also learn. So write as many — I believe they are called blog posts? Yes, write as many blog posts as you can about your professional thoughts and learnings. Teach others, and you will teach yourself.
“The acquisition of any knowledge whatever is always useful to the intellect, because it will be able to banish the useless things and retain those that are good. For nothing can be loved or hated unless it is first known.” -Leonardo da Vinci
MT: You mentioned discovery being a key part of your process. Can you elaborate?
LdV: Well, I mentioned my visceral approach (i.e.dissecting cadavers) to better understand and portray the human body — an extreme, but good-intentioned example. As one designing for human experience, I feel like I would need to understand everything about the experience — the user, their environment, and the underlying technology driving their tools.
If I were going to design the dashboard of one of these automobiles I’ve seen everywhere, I would absolutely want to know everything about what’s happening under the hood and in the driver’s seat. How does the engine work? How is it the car operated? What features and functions are important to the driver? Which technologies are being used to extract data from various components — and how do they work? To me, understanding the intricacies of a complex machine like a car helps the bigger-experience picture emerge — and would effectively give me more user experience design fuel. (Pun intended — we had those during the Renaissance, too.).
“…suddenly there awakened in me two emotions, fear and desire: fear of the dark, threatening cavern, and desire to see whether there might be any marvelous thing in it.”
-Leonardo da Vinci
MT: Did you draw inspiration from any of your contemporaries? What would you tell today’s UX designers about this?
LdV: I tried to spend time outside the typical orbits. I was inspired by Leon Batista Alberti — sometimes called the “original Renaissance man.” I often associated with intellectual philosophers like Marsilio Ficino. Mathematician, Piero de Braccio Martelli, was an on-and-off roommate of mine. I would advise UX designers to surround themselves with brilliant, like-minded people with varied interests and specialties. Collaborate with them and ask lots of questions. You’ll find that this enhances your understanding of people and the world — ideally, making you more effective at user experience.
MT: You were kind of scattered across a lot of disciplines…art, engineering, botany, architecture. Experts believe that may have contributed to your many unfinished projects and unsubstantiated inventions. What do you say to them?
LdV: My mentor, Verrocchio, taught me “an artist could design anything.” This notion, coupled with my passion for technology and knowledge, led me to explore many disciplines. In this wondrous Information Age you’re in, it will be tough to be inventive without understanding several disciplines. Since I’ve been in town, I’ve had the opportunity to watch Mathieu Turpault speak at TEDxPhiladelphia. My biggest takeaway from his talk is that technology convergence is forcing design disciplines to overlap. This, in itself, is reason enough to diversify your skill sets.
MT: Who do you think should be practicing user experience in these modern times?
LdV: Ideally, anyone who’s in the profession of creating products to be used by others. Which, these days, overlaps many disciplines. However, it seems to me that it really ought to be someone who can effectively rally all the disciplines and champion user-centered methodologies. To me, this is someone who has a solid understanding of how other disciplines work, understands technology and design, and can get their hands dirty with both.
MT: What advice would you give them?
LdV: Explore, discover, experiment, create. Be process driven, but only at a high level so you can adjust your approach to problem solving. Learn as many new techniques as you can. If your only tool is a hammer, you’ll consider every problem to be a nail.
MT: Any other final comments?
LdV: Yes. I know I’m romanticized as a genius and a Renaissance man. I recognize my contributions and accomplishments, but I regret my many unfinished projects, such as “The Adoration of the Magi” (a painting) for the monastery of the San Donato a Scopeto; or never having tested my flying machine concept. I never even completed my very first painting commission, an altarpiece for the Chapel of San Bernardo in Palazzo Vecchio. Experiment and learn all you can in this life, but try to focus and always finish what you start.
Finally, if you’re ever a houseguest, avoid taking apart all of your host’s appliances to see how they work. Apparently, this is frowned upon.
“I say to you that Leonardo was equal to the greatest. His limitation was that he had so elevated a genius that was never satisfied with what was done.” – Pietro Aretino, Florentine satirist
Abraham, Anna. Leonardo da Vinci. 2014. New Word City.
Suh, Anna H. Leonardo’s Notebooks. Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers.
Jakorewa, Albina. Engineering and Inventions: Leonardo da Vinci E-Project. 2012. Anker eBooks.