We never really grow up, we only learn how to act in public.

– Bryan White


Featured artist: Brad Cuzen

Dense Discovery
Dense Discovery

Welcome to Issue 126!

View/share online

The guy who last week said that he rarely reads and shares design-related pieces has two more design-related pieces to share with you this week. I added them to the Food for Thought section below, but I want to highlight and comment on some snippets of one of them here.

Danah Abdulla’s recent essay entitled Against Performative Positivity really hit the nail on the head for me. The always-critical, Weltschmerz-laden German sceptic in me felt somewhat vindicated by her embrace of pessimism as a fundamental character trait of good designers:

“Optimism in design is not always constructive. In fact, it hinders the politicization of designers. If design is going to contribute to tools that can change the world positively, it must begin to embrace pessimism. ...

Optimism forces people to blame themselves for their own failures and misery; to never look at the structures of power that contribute to this. You just didn’t try hard enough, and you weren’t good enough. This has depoliticized the world. This self-congratulatory culture will get nowhere without establishing a strong culture of criticism.

To engage with the world around us and to become design dissenters, we must think about being a living example of our politics and incorporate it into our identity as designers.”

Danah makes an eloquent, powerful argument for design as a political weapon. She calls on designers to move away from simply creating more “instruments of control” and start imagining “alternative forms of political and economic organising”. For that to happen, designers need to become stronger critics driven by a profound scepticism towards to status quo.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘pessimism’ as “a tendency to see the worst aspect of things”. I wonder: what would big tech platforms look like today if their designers had, from the beginning, spent more time trying to understand and then prevent the worst aspects of their creations? – Kai


Become a Friend of DD →

With a modest yearly contribution you help keep Dense Discovery going and ensure that it remains accessible for everyone.


Dense Discovery is a weekly newsletter at the intersection of tech, design, sustainability, and culture read by over 39,000 subscribers. Do you have a product or service to promote? Sponsor an issue or book a classified.


Pro Printing for Creatives SPONSOR


ProDPI →

High-quality prints, wall art, and albums

We believe your work deserves more than a simple square on social media, so we’re making it easier than ever to take your digital work and print it on a wide variety of surfaces.


Apps & Sites

Super.so →

Notion-based websites

This is smart. I didn’t know Notion allows this much flexibility: “Turn your Notion pages into fast, functional websites with custom domains, fonts, analytics, and more.” And fast it sure is!

Penpot →

Open-source prototyping

A browser-based design and prototyping tool that’s entirely open source and free to use for everyone. I can’t emphasise enough how much freely available software like this helps creators in less affluent parts of the world.

Facet →

Content-aware image editing

If it works as advertised, this looks like a big deal for people who edit a lot of photos: Facet picks up what’s in your photos and allows you to easily crop, edit and replace parts of it on the fly.

I Miss My Bar →

Bar ambience at home

A creative by-product of the pandemic: I Miss My Bar lets you simulate the atmosphere of your favourite beverage joint. You can even tailor the volume of the different audio components.


Worthy Five: Jessie Li


Five recommendations by writer and New Yorker newsletter editor Jessie Li

A video worth watching:

Arthur Jafa’s Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death is one of the most striking works I have ever seen – celebratory and disquieting and devastating all at once. It’s only seven minutes long. Just go watch it.

A book worth reading:

Aetherial Worlds by Tatyana Tolstaya. In a collection of odd and glimmering short stories, Tolstaya writes about ordinary lives with precise and sometimes wrenching prose. Within the quotidian are hidden worlds, just within our reach, if only we open our eyes to really see. My favourite of these stories is five pages long, titled ‘Father’.

A word worth knowing:

‘Glossolalia’ means to speak in tongues, to speak in a language unknown to the speaker. The writer Jenny Zhang has used it to describe learning to speak English in an America where nobody understood her Chinese. That feeling of being in between languages is something that I’m sure many humans have felt, and it was amazing to discover a word that so perfectly captures that.

An activity worth doing:

Embroidery. I take comfort in this miniscule world of stitches, threads, and needles; in turning a loop of string into a flower or letter or symbol; in transforming the mundane into something beautiful.

A piece of advice worth passing on:

Always be kind to old people. My high school calculus teacher taught me that. I doubt he remembers me, nor do I remember calculus, but I do remember that.




Sustainable Web Design →

For a more carbon-efficient web

Tom Greenwood, whose studio Wholegrain is a ‘green’ trailblazer in the digital agency world, has written the missing manual for energy-efficient websites. Like all titles by A Book Apart, Sustainable Web Design can be read within a day, going just broad enough to highlight what’s at stake, why we should care, and what we can do about it. A practical and informative guide that inspires a much-needed conversation about sustainability in a power-hungry industry that takes energy for granted. (Disclosure: I was provided a free review copy.)


The Serendipity Mindset →

How to cultivate ‘good luck’

If you enjoyed last week’s recommended article on ‘how to be lucky’, here’s the same author’s book: “Serendipity isn’t about luck in the sense of simple randomness. It’s about seeing links that others don’t, combining these observations in unexpected and strategic ways, and learning how to detect the moments when apparently random or unconnected ideas merge to form new opportunities.”


Overheard on Twitter

I feel like career advice from white folks should start with “As a white person, this is what worked for me.” BIPOC folks follow the usual advice. It doesn’t always work for us. We end up thinking that we are doing something wrong and not because companies treat us differently.



Food For Thought

Camera Obscura: Beyond the lens of user-centered design →


This piece provides a sensible, current overview of the limits of user-centred design. If you work in web development or design, add this to your reading list! “By privileging ease-of-use above all else, we have at times obscured friction to the detriment of users. We’ve over-optimized, creating experiences that are addictive, irresponsible, and at times, too easy to use. In addition, friction often doesn’t get removed from an experience, but instead is shifted on to other parts of the system.”

Against Performative Positivity  →


As a fantastic, critical supplement to the piece above, design educator Danah Abdulla reminds us that design needs to be much bolder and more activist in nature, with a genuinely critical, often pessimistic counterview to what’s currently on offer: “Designers, I would argue, are afraid to embrace dissent because it disrupts the positivity bubble. I would describe designers as the very embodiment of the motivational posters in bad typefaces that we constantly critique. We are performing optimism. ”

Brené Brown on Empathy →


Three minutes well worth your time: “In this beautifully animated RSA Short, Dr Brené Brown reminds us that we can only create a genuine empathic connection if we are brave enough to really get in touch with our own fragilities.”

The colonisation of space →


One of the few podcasts I listen to semi-regularly has a short segment on the colonisation privatisation of space. We often look at space companies (or their CEOs) with intrigue and admiration, yet their ambitions are driven not by altruism or science but by profit. The (often concealed) collaborations with military and other government institutions should give us reason for critical enquriy, not dewy-eyed admiration.


Aesthetically Pleasing

❏ ❏

Here are the winners of the Underwater Photographer of the Year awards. As someone who’s scared of open water, scuba diving shots that show a real sense of scale and depth of the underwater world always give me the heebie-jeebies.

❏ ❏

Russian artist Timur Zagirov uses coloured wooden blocks to create ‘pixelated’ reproductions of famous art pieces.

❏ ❏

I really like the use of overlaying lines and dots in this brand design for Guatemala’s national museum for modern art.

❏ ❏

Cosi Times is “a surprisingly workable, uppercase display font – crafted and kerned without a precise system, making it human, genuine and imperfect”.



Made in collaboration with UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, the Greater Good Toolkit is a stunning box set of 30 science-based practices for a meaningful life.

Remake. Don’t get stuck building a back-end. Release a fully-functional web app with just HTML & CSS.

If you’re looking for a survey tool to collect data of any kind, check out BlockSurvey. It is a privacy-first alternative to Typeform, Survey Monkey, and Google Forms.

Podcast Review: a free newsletter bringing you the week’s 5 best podcast episodes every Wednesday. Enjoyed by 5,000+ subscribers, including staff from NPR and The New Yorker.

Classifieds are paid ads that support DD and are seen by our 39,000 subscribers each week.

Book yours →


The Week in a GIF


Reply or tweet at DD with your favourite GIF and it might get featured here in a future issue.