As he walked across campus one day the web designer happened upon Laozi. Thinking himself clever, the web designer asked Laozi what he considered to be a challenging question. “Master, who is the library website for?” The web designer knew that the academic library website had many different users – students, faculty, librarians, alumni, community members, and staff. He thought his question would stump old Laozi.
Laozi gestured to the sky, “The library website is for the birds.”Affronted, the web designer said, “How rude. I worked very hard on the library website. How can you say that it is worthless?”
“You misunderstand my meaning. I am not speaking of your library website. I mean that library websites exist for birds.” explained Laozi.
“Oh, I understand.” replied the web designer, even though he didn’t.
“Do you?” Laozi smiled as he looked the web designer in the eye.
Reluctantly, the web designer admitted “Actually. No, not really. Can you help me understand?”
Laozi asked the web designer to consider bird feeders, “For whom are bird feeders designed?”
The web designer threw his hands in the air “Birds, but what does this have to do with websites?”
Laozi answered, “Birds eat the seed from the feeder. But so does the squirrel. Is the bird feeder for the squirrel?”
The web designer shrugged his shoulders, “No, it is a BIRD feeder? But I like the squirrel, so I don’t mind if it eats the seed sometimes too”
“Would you add features to the feeder that make it easier for the squirrel to use?” Laozi asked. “Would you design a bird feeder for the squirrel?”
“No, as I said, it’s a BIRD feeder. If the squirrel happens to eat some of the bird seed I’m O.K. with that, but I won’t design it with features just for the squirrel. If the squirrel dominates the feeder, the birds will no longer come.”
Laozi asked “Now, do you understand?” The web designer looked confused, so Laozi continued, “Do some bird feeder designs help both the birds and the squirrel?”
“Sure, anything that makes it easy to get to the seed will help both the birds and the squirrel?” The web designer thought this much was obvious.
Laozi shook his head, “Some ways of delivering the seed are more suited for birds and some are more suited for the squirrel.”
“I guess you’re right”, admitted the web designer, “For instance a small opening will make it difficult for the squirrel to get at the seed, but small birds will still fit inside.”
“Won’t that frustrate the squirrel?” asked Laozi
“Maybe, but the squirrel will find a way.” The web designer thought he was beginning to understand. “The squirrel is a very resourceful creature. It saves food all over the place, buried under the ground, hidden in trees. The squirrel will not go hungry.”
“Are birds not resourceful creatures as well?” asked Laozi
“Sure, birds can find food in other places too,” explained the web designer, “but a bird feeder is really for the pleasure of its owner. The bird feeder owner wants to watch the birds, perhaps study them. If the birds find food somewhere else, the owner of the bird feeder will not have the pleasure of watching the birds.”
“So if birds can find food in other places,” Laozi smiled as he asked again, “For whom are bird feeders designed?”
“Ah, I understand.” said the web designer, “Bird feeders are actually designed for the owner of the feeder, the home owner. But I thought you said library websites are for the birds? I thought the bird feeder was a metaphor for the library website and that birds were students. Now it seems like you are telling me that library websites are for the bird feeder owner.”
“What type of library website do you want?” Laozi asked, ” Do you want one for the birds or one for the bird feeder owner?
“Aren’t they the same thing?” the web designer was confused again.
“Let’s ask this student. ” Laozi stopped a passerby, “Excuse me, can we ask you a question?”
Though the web designer couldn’t understand what a student could possibly know about web design that he didn’t already, he asked anyway, “What does a bird feeder look like that is designed for birds, not for the bird feeder owner?”
The student thought for moment. “I’d say that it looks like nature. You know trees with berries, flowers with nectar, and plants which attract insects that birds like to eat.”
The web designer was stunned. He hadn’t been thinking of the simplicity of nature. He was focused on the complexity of designing a bird feeder made by man. “Thank you,” Laozi nodded as the student walked on.
“Now do you understand?” asked Laozi. “The best bird feeder for birds is that which is designed by nature. Man-made designs will always be inferior because the design will be an abstraction of nature. It will suit the bird feeder owner, not the birds.”“So if I want to feed birds, I should plant a tree instead of building a bird feeder.” The web designer felt clever again. “But what if I want to feed the birds things that are not easily found in nature?”
“Perhaps you should not put your own needs before those of the birds,” admonished Laozi, “But if you insist on designing your own feeder, it must be in harmony with nature. Design your bird feeder so that it is similar to how birds finds food naturally in the wild.”
The web designer was beginning to understand. He had more questions, but knew that Tao is unknowable – impossible to be defined. So he thanked Laozi for his time and left, mindful about the natural way of things.
What do you understand the story to be about? Does nature always trump design? Can design be natural? What philosophical approach guides your library web design?