Lessons according to salt

Dec 10, 2011

In the kitchen where I grew up in a non-popular town in Pennsylvania — the kitchen where my parents still live and cook and all important Danzico Family Conversations take place — there is a saltbox. It hangs just to the right of the stove, a handmade walnut wooden box, made for my grandmother by my grandfather, who himself was a furniture designer.

The saltbox itself as an object is unremarkable. Alone, it communicates nothing. Says nothing about its role. Its intention. Its history as a gift born out of a romance between my maternal grandparents. Says nothing of its possibilities. 

But add people, and it becomes a central iterative device. The license to change, to iterate, to test, to add, to make, to make over, to create (clearly, with food). It gives license and latitude to stray from what has been written (recipes) for those too shy to do. Therefore, it gives strength. It gives iterative powers to those not comfortable with version control. With its subtlety comes comfort in change.

One might say the saltbox, and access to it, is magic.

Iterative powers

For our family, particularly for kids too young to cook, the saltbox was a way to participate in iteration, a way to work together. “Add some salt, would you?” my mother would gesture casually to the pot, as if this weren’t the greatest power one could issue a seven-year-old girl. I now had a hand in influencing The Adult Table.

They, whoever they are, say you can think back to what you were doing and thinking when you were seven years old, and this often is foreshadowing for what you’ll be doing and thinking later in life.

At seven, I was pondering the importance of how the presence of this everyday object — and what’s more, my access to it — could bear influence over a family dinner. It was access to designing an experience.

Salt lessons

Today, I still think of salt as enormously instructive. Think about the classic white shaker on every restaurant table. Most of the time we look right past it or ignore the invisible flavor in the small packets stacked next to the pepper. But stop for a moment, and consider salt’s history and presence — how far it traveled, what form it originally started in, how many people were involved just to get it to your table. It gets more interesting. Salt has inspired wars, funded the Great Wall of China, it’s been considered divine, it’s the name of cities, it has been used as currency. Today, it has over 14,000 uses and is considered a luxury in some parts of the world, while Americans just consume about a teaspoon and a half a day.

So what follows are, ostensibly, lessons of a career according to salt:

1. Overlookedness.

You see, something so mundane as salt could easily be overlooked. But in fact if you look closely, stop long enough, you realize salt has magical properties — not just in its remarkable history, but in its propensity to give comfort in change, to create versioning, to allow for work, to give strength, to create experiences, to transform.

And the truth is, I almost overlooked my career. Three years ago, I co-founded and began chairing a graduate program in interaction design. I am a Design Educator. But I never planned it this way. In fact, I overlooked this possibility entirely. Yet in irony, for 15 years, I have been an educator, but until I founded a program, I overlooked education as a path. I saw the teaching I was doing as so much a part of me, so everyday, that I failed to recognize its magical properties: to create a place for iteration, to create experiences, to create the capability to transform.

2. Invisibility.

Salting is great because when it’s done right, it’s not really noticeable. Think of salt in cookies. Cookies are only odd when they don’t have enough salt or have way too much. We only notice the deficit or the excess, because when it’s just right, it disappears. It literally dissolves. Maybe that’s how change should work.

What separates a leader from a manager is the quality of an editor. The role of a good editor is not to be seen, in fact, but to make an author’s words come forward. A good editor dissolves into the background. It’s not unlike typography. Focus too much on the type, and you’ve lost the story. Whether as editor, director, or head of department, my role is not to be seen, but to create a space to make the stories of those I work with come forward.

3. Sidekickedness.

On its own, salt is intolerable. And so might be change. They’re both meant to be sidekicks that enable and transform, but sidekicks only. “Change is the spice of life,” not the meal itself.

For me, education was a sidekick. It didn’t just show up in 2009 when I founded the program. But it was at that time, I realized I had been an educator sidekick for 15 years. My first job out of undergrad was a teacher. I left full-time teaching to go to graduate school, where I taught on the side. I moved to New York to be an information designer, and began teaching on the side. Education has always been the sidekick.

4. The loop.

Saltboxes allow for iteration in small steps. The feedback loop then is super tight, and that’s why one can trust a seven-year-old to contribute without ruining dinner. It’s straightforward, no instructions needed, but powerful because one can taste the effects of their contribution. Small effort, low risk, big reward.

While I was doing education on the side, I iterated through some UX roles. I started out with information design, moved to information architecture, management, product management, directing teams, working in house, for non profits. Each move felt like a small, super-tight feedback loop where I was rounding out an iteration of something I’d previously done.

5. More salt.

What that simple box taught us growing up was that there would always be guidelines. So do what feels right. What tastes right. At the current time. In the current conditions. For the current audience. Add more salt.

If I could give one piece of advice, it would be to find a saltbox. It may be in your attic, your storage space, your parents’ house, the place so familiar you haven’t looked or haven’t looked closely. What’s been there all along? What was there when you were seven, and what’s in it for you today? What just feels right? Because in that is the drive to do something you care just enough about to make change.

And when you find that, don’t let go.

This post taken in part from a talk given for Women in Design. Thanks to them for an invitation to write and to Frank for contributing words, and for being such a close editor.




Work

  • W.W.Norton & Company
  • Eye Magazine
  • Theme Magazine
  • Maryland Institute of College Art

About Liz

Danzico is part designer, part teacher, part editor. As an independent consultant, she traces the roots of her craft back to her parents. According to Liz, "Growing up at least a little information architect gave me an organizational advantage over my friends." More