Sarah Olick: Thank you so much for doing this!
Katrin Suetterlin: Thank you for being patient!
I really wanted to talk to you because there was something you said in your interview with Larry Swanson10 that I feel comes the closest to what I’m trying to get at with my thesis.
Larry will love that!
It has been really hard to find references that are kind of very similar to what I’m trying to say. You quoted
someone from your Typeform survey who said, “not having some nuances of language, especially implications
that aren’t metaphors and idioms" as something that really bothers neurodivergent people when in the workplace and in life in general, and I find that that really bothers me when looking at art and design because people are
like, “Oh, well, this means this,” and I’m like, “does it?” So that’s kind of what I’m trying to get at with my thesis.
I’m talking about my perception of meaning in art and design as a neurodivergent person. So I was wondering
if you could elaborate on that.

Well, first of all, I quoted someone else, and if you are okay with that, I could peek into my notes back in the day, and I can look whether the person has given me permission to reach out to them in turn for this because I would love to refer them to you so you could also have their perspective on this. I can give you an insight that is rather I would say, a multi-dimensional approach.
First of all, I was a child in a little village in the Black Forest where everyone went to a certain church. Maybe Americans and Canadians can relate to that with all the new born churches over there, where everything was all trying to be different, but still pretty purist, in a way, and I was brought up atheist, so I didn’t know what a lot of the terms meant that this school kids used around me. So that was my first being also an outcast experience, because that was what not only other children used to cast me away, but also the adults, their parents, not only their parents, but the elders of the village. It sounds like it’s from a fairy tale, but it wasn’t so and what they used to mark you as different. And that’s something that language does.
When I also talked to Larry, I thought about other podcasts. I’ve referred to The Minimalists11 podcast. Where there’s one person that wrote a book about cults was a guest, and she does this great podcast, Sounds Like a Cult.12 She is not always referring to the language, but language is the key to most cults, Scientology is an example. My feed is filled with that in recent days, because I’ve looked something up about people that escaped Scientology, and what they are going through, and when they speak to the host, I’ll get back to my original point when they speak to the host, they have to explain a plethora of terms that only Scientology people know that only people that worked for Scientology inside the organization also know. And that goes to show how secluded everything can be with just using other terms and speaking in a language that will other the other people, and if you want to be part of the cool gang, then you gotta drink the kool-aid, so to speak, and also have their lingo, so that is one thing.
When I grew up I also grew up as a child experiencing some kind of dialect which is close to, for example, what people in Switzerland and in Austria speak. So it’s a language family where there is a dialect. It’s not Bavarian, but it’s close to that, and if you have touch points with those other dialects, you can understand them. But if nobody has this touchpoint they don’t understand you. So there goes through the next stage, so to speak, where you can, in German, still exclude people, while, hahaha, laughing at the inside joke.
So this is what it all boils down to, down to being insiders and outsiders. People want to belong, people want to belong to something or someone, or want to feel included in a product, a service, whatever, whoever is trying to address them, and those nuances. And, as you said, perfectly so, and I hope in five years, ten years we don’t have those conversations anymore.
I used to sometimes deliberately exclude people, because, for example, being a gym rat now you have the lingo of the bulking, and then people are mentioning an acronym, an acronym for something that might mean something in your discipline that is completely different. And that’s also some way of thinking the others will know this, and if they don’t, they better Google it, or something. Because when, for example, when we were learning English in school, we are not brought up by the Urban Dictionary, you can look up in in on the internet that came later in the 2000s and 2010s where you have to search what rappers meant what pop star said in an interview because you don’t get it. It’s not in the usual dictionary, and you’re like, well, I’m not the person that grew up with that, so I don’t know what they mean, and it all boils down to this: where’s my group?
And I think the moment that you are referring to was how that is, when you question the other person, “is it?" is the moment when someone, and I don’t want to say that people do deliberately mean something bad or harmful, but I mean that in this case, they are not thinking really a lot about being empathetic, or nice, or inclusive towards other people, because there is this great saying, when you want people to feel uncomfortable about their sexism racism or other -isms, ask them, how they meant that and then they will try and and scramble to explain, and then you ask again, and then it will slowly crumble to pieces, which is basically not funny anymore. And then they realize it wasn’t funny to you, in the first place, either.
So when you ask, “is it?" The problem is that the blanket statement that this other person also, for out, for example, ours is something where you also sometimes say nobody can like or dislike an image without necessarily explaining why it’s well done, or why it’s objectively a good painting, did they put the strokes in the same direction. So the sunlight is bouncing off of your things that you drew. Or is it in all other places? Well, then, it might be a fantastic picture, and not a realistic one. So it’s still a good picture by technique.
For example, with language. I think everything that we have in products or in digital interfaces is commercial. Done through words, and the minute you try to be, and I’m deliberately using try, try to be funny. Try to be cheeky and try to be different, because you think you are cooler than maybe other people for finance insurance. Other products that are in spaces where it’s complex. This happens easily, and for things that are more, I would say, approachable to the normal person. And I’m meaning normal, as all of us that are not experts. For example, a mailing list, or something like that is all. Your audience will be anybody, and maybe nobody or everybody. If you’re lucky. So basically here it gets a little bit more tricky. They are thinking longer about what they want to say, because the in-crowd is basically everyone. And so they need to have a universal approach, but that also is sometimes, and that’s what I think in my design frame, practice. I try to tell people because I can tell you. If I come with the neurodivergence argument, kind of not getting the buy-in. I’m hoping for, which is harsh and which is sad for me, and also something that is hard to swallow.
But it is something that comes with the terrain of still being a stigma over here in Europe, very much more than
it is in Anglophone regions of the world where research has been done more efficiently, extensively, and for
longer than, for example, here in Germany, even though we are farther advanced, for example, than France, because France kind of doesn’t want to, and that’s also language issue, by the way. France doesn’t want to dive
into the English research, but also thinks that ADHD is something for small boys, and Autism is also reserved to
boys and everything like that. So, coming back to the original thought is, you need to make an example that they can relate to.

I come from a perspective of people that maybe are older or very much younger than the person you are having in mind, because I once got told, our product is for successful CEOs, founders, and business owners. Yeah, they won’t be disabled. Say what again? I don’t condone anything Elon Musk does, but what I can say is that he has at least self-proclaimed to be on the Autism spectrum. So you don’t want him as a customer? Of course it was a dude that said this to me. Of course they want him as a customer, and then I said, Well, surprise, they might not even have the day of the time, the time of the day to get used to your product, or even read anything you want from them, because you didn’t make it easy enough for them to relate, and with Elon Musk, it’s much more about his time than maybe about how his brain is functioning, but also apart from gender and intersectionality of all of that, the nuances that they, most of the time, in terms of digital products, do have somehow also derived from, and Jared Spool is one of the great people that gives seminars and webinars and podcasts and he’s a great resource about how the technical writer became the UX writer became the UX designer somehow as well, because they had all the manuals and everything needed to be explained.
When the interfaces became more intuitive, they left out the explanations, and what they were left with, and that’s maybe something powerful that I got through to some of the people I talked to, they were left with the words that they knew, and I mean a personal choice, not writing like the dictionary or academia. It’ss totally different as an experience from a startup scene. It’s totally different from maybe something that has to do with a certain activity.
For example, runners, around the world. My dad is an ultra marathoner, retired ultra marathon runner, and he can go to a park run, all across the world. It always means that same thing. The rules are simple. Anyone can join. We are running around in a park. We are having fun. We’re greeting, we are friendly, everyone says their name, or something like that. So human interaction, where you also belong to a group. And that’s it. But the minute you look something up about barefoot shoes, or those and this treadmills, or whatever you wanna have as equipment, you lose the broad mass, and people try to feel special with an expert language.
When I read that quote about the nuances that are lost on us I remembered how many many times in school, yards, in university courtyards, in maybe even a seminar of depending on the topic at university, and also later in life in lunch breaks, in rooms wherever I was, I felt weird and different because I didn’t know the social rules. Trying to scan the room, how everyone is adhering to them. So I might learn by doing, and the other thing is, I was also quickly learning. And that’s also why I didn’t like marketing, there were too many buzzwords dominating our rooms. It was SEO, and then it was CRO, and I struggle with acronyms, even though I sometimes have to use them too, because I think sometimes they are huge words. I know. But why not spell it out for those that need them? I think the feeling of feeling stupid in the room with other people and feeling not belonging is one of the hurtful things that can happen to you as a young professional out there, and that’s why I hope and wish that people would spell out more instead of feeling superior to others while they don’t.
I’ve definitely felt that. I was in a museum two weeks ago, and there were two different exhibits that my class was looking at. One was these beautiful paintings, with very detailed descriptions which I could appreciate so much more than the next gallery, which was just kind of random objects placed in the room, so I could really appreciate these paintings, but I’m like, why is there a chair there? I don’t get it like, what’s the point?
Did it have a title?
It did, but it was not a very descriptive title. It was the name of the curator, and said
“selected works, from this curator."

Exactly. And this is something that I see all the time, because even if you give it a title, I mean, I know that in Berlin, or in Hamburg we have those famous, is it, Beuys? He has a Fat Chair, or something, and it needs to be enclosed in twice the glass, because otherwise it would run out. And this is very straightforward, but most of art is not right. So, maybe in in romanticism they still said, two lovers walking down in the park, or something, but the more the track record of art became longer, and it is a little bit comparative to how our digital products and interfaces have evolved, the more it became uncool to just say this is a chair, or a chair for lost souls, or whatever, and then it would be maybe not even here to you and me, what a lost soul is. What’s the soul, and why are they lost? So it’s always so much room for interpretation. If they want an interpretation. That’s fine, that’s why it’s art, and that’s why art has this elusive, a little bit elitism surrounding it.
And that’s also why I think sometimes and I can share the story as well. It’s not necessarily due to my neurodivergence, at least it’s more about my perfectionism and maybe my rejection, sensitivity dysphoria that
I have. So it might be familiar with this feeling that you are so afraid of rejection that you may only try once, and then never again at maybe playing soccer with other kids because they were mean to you and you will never
try again, because it hurts so much. My best friend growing up, she was great at drawing and painting, and she became a graphic designer down the line, and I stopped. And I loved painting, and drawing, and doodling, but, I kind of, in seventh grade, sixth grade when we have those formative years. I kind of thought that if I wasn’t great
at it, what’s the point? And I sometimes struggle to this day. Because I think, okay, here’s a new notebook. Now,
I’m drawing something in it. And then what? What am I going to do, put them all over my walls, or what am I
going to do with it? 

The nuances, and I think this is all about inclusivity and the universal aspect of design, and that we also, I think, the person who sent in that quote did a very neutral approach where they didn’t say that it’s by design that people are excluded, but I can tell you from that podcast with the cult person or with a person writing about cults this way, it’s a better way. And sometimes it is done by design. It’s not an accident, and I guarantee you, the curator could have delivered the explanations as well.

The aforementioned chair at ICA Boston.

It’s the same for me when I go to Munich, and I go see some paintings and they explain it in maybe more than just one language that’s nice, too, right? Not everyone wants to have an audio tour with their own language in their ear, because it takes a little bit away from what a museum experience normally is. People go “shhhh" and “quiet." You have to listen to Arabic, English, whatever, because there’s only German on the plate.
I totally agree, and I love the museum example, because, I think, and that’s the same with products, by the way, and with design, It’s a stakeholder decision most of the time. It’s not a user decision. It was not your decision whether you wanted explanations or not. If we would have that, we could have museum rooms around the world where you can flap it over and then read the explanation, or you can go just to see and perceive, and then to the next one without explanations. If you prefer, but in the curated experience, and I can tell you why I know this. I dabbled my feet in museum experience design. When I was finishing up my master’s, I was thinking, Okay, literature will not bring me that far. What can I do? That’s more, something exciting, something people can touch or see was museums, because there are some museums in Berlin that really are spectacular and people have thought long and hard about it. But there’s some museums where you get drained, and exhausted, and heavy-hearted out of the room, and you’re like well. “That was depressing. Now let’s maybe, go for lunch or something," and the problem was, you need a whole other academic path to that. It’s really a university thing over here, at least.
Back to my original thesis is: there’s always the curator. Then there is the painter, if they are still alive, then there is the person owning the museum or whatever, and then there are people who could have done surveys and type forms, and whatever, QR codes, whatever they want to know what people care about, and it’s rare that they do something that many people will appreciate. For example, I was in a museum, where they painted the walls a burgundy red in one room, and the forest green in the next room. The paintings with the gilded frames. They looked so pretty on it. Other people might have not cared, but I don’t think that anyone said well, “that’s ugly, I want my museum to have white walls. What’s going on here?" So that was a choice. That also enhanced whatever they did there, and my friend was totally excited, because they were very high walls. And she was like, “Wow, that’s so beautiful." And again we perceive the world very much differently. But on this subjectively we could agree on. So I think, in design, which is interior design, museum design, it’s everything with buildings, with sound, with automotive is a big one. Is your car making any noise? So people, I’m not getting run over by it because you didn’t look or something. Or is your car making noise on the inside? Even if it doesn’t? Or is the car door making noise because you expect it to? But it has gotten so soft that you think, “Wow! That’s not very quality like." So to sum this up, because I did not prepare anything for this. But I think the track record is always informing what is happening today. And it sounds very logical. But now that I think of it, most of the time it’s not.
There is this great talk by Steven Wakabayashi. He is speaking about how we have made design and language, and everything in it so complex that we are not stepping out again to the first step. But we are going back deeper and deeper, and we are not returning to the once simpler approach. So that is also more about simple language, and in every language that does mean something different, right? So it’s something where you also have to be putting your ego on a shelf and waiting for others to tell you whether you did the right thing. And again the curator, the stakeholder, the designer, of the CEO. They all have an opinion, and at the end of the day sometimes, and that’s why the more I work in this field, the less I judge other UX writing examples, because you never know what was going on behind closed doors, and who had a say in this going out like that? And this might be a UX writer or UX designer, or a content designer, weeping over this but they are the ones that basically worked on this as well. So that is really a hard choice we all have to make, and I think one of the great things that you and me can give to the world is an experience from the inside as well as the outside, because I think stepping out of a comfort zone and to ask “is it?" is the first step in sometimes not getting likes not being liked, and when we go back to the schoolyard, but also stepping into a zone where it’s getting uncomfortable to reach something that is not as comforting and comfortable to the person that used the language in the first place, right, and it also has to do with all the intersections that I told you. Race and gender, and maybe also ableism, and also stepping into neurodivergence and not neurotypical. The “us vs. them" thing makes people uncomfortable as well, and I have made the observation that the majority doesn’t like to hear from the minority as much, because then they see what they are not really good at, because they might already know that.
I definitely agree.
Yes. When I was 20 I was a dreamer, and I hoped to change that world and save all the animals and stuff like that. But then, and I’m not bitter. I’m just becoming more pragmatic about some of the choices, because we cannot fight all the fights in all the rooms, but we can definitely try to speak in a language that most people, at least, realize that this is a thing, and if you cannot get them with that, at least in capitalism. You will just argue that it makes them more money when they reach more people. It’s like that. I would love it if it was different. I wanted to work at an NGO, but guess what? NGOs also run on money, and most of the time you are not getting any, and the people at the top are. But this is too much of a philosophical ideology, ideological distinction. But this is also coming back to the nuances, and also what a child raised on dialect, and also what I didn’t get to is, later on in life, when I perfected my High German, and I was speaking German so everyone could understand. I returned to my university town to finish up some papers and worked in a drug store chain, and the boss wanted me to speak in my dialect. She could hear that I had one, and I said, I’m not gonna do that because it’s not my first language, so to speak. It’s one of my languages that I speak with my family. And then she said that I’m phony and fake, and that I’m just pretending, because basically, where I come from is not good enough or something like that. I was very hurt. I was crying at the paper shredder later that day, and I was. That was one of my first experiences where I thought, oh, dialect and speaking in a way that maybe most of the people in this diverse university town wouldn’t have understood me can be something where people think I’m thinking better of myself. And that’s something that I always try to approach with an open mind. For example, right now I’m working in insurance. I don’t know a lot about insurance, and I also try to keep it that way, because my audience doesn’t, so it’s better to approach it with a fresh set of eyes, in this case.
Thank you so much for doing this. You had some really great insights,
and I’m really excited to look more into them. Thank you so much.
That’s so cool. Yeah, you’re welcome. I will look up the person because I have an Excel sheet or something, exported from the type form survey, because sometimes I let the people answer. If that’s alright with you, because I think add perspectives, because we all have such a different way of looking at things right and I I’m thankful and hopeful that my ramblings are helping, and I will tell Larry that it was a stroke of luck that you found me.
Thank you so much. Really glad I got to talk to you!
Yeah, I hope it won’t be the last time, Sarah, I wish you a wonderful day today!
I hope so too. Thank you so much!
10. Swanson
11. Fields Millburn & Nicodemus 
12. Montell &  Medina-Maté

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