The Synthesist

This post is in response to something Dave Seah wrote over on his blog. Dave’s post is a deeply personal middle of the night meditation on identity. I’ll do a terrible job of paraphrasing it here:

Who am I? I know I’m not an Artist or Designer (capital indicates archetypical roles). Sure, I can make pretty pictures when called for. What I’m good at is making sense of complex inputs and outputting simpler, human digestable stories and images.

Dave discovers that his underlying internal motivation is to understand the why of things. He calls himself an Investigative Designer. He closes by saying that “I feel like I’m getting a little closer to establishing what it is that I do, even though I’m not really that much closer to figuring out how to describe it in real world terms.”

Dave’s post was the missing piece in a puzzle that’s been dancing around my head. I think I have some vocabulary that may help Dave with his description.

I’d like to present the concept of a Synthesist, and illustrate how a Synthesist works, the vital role the Synthesist plays in evolving humanity, and the duties and responsibilities that come with this calling.

Merriam-Webster defines synthesis as

a : the composition or combination of parts or elements so as to form a whole
b : the production of a substance by the union of chemical elements, groups, or simpler compounds or by the degradation of a complex compound
c : the combining of often diverse conceptions into a coherent whole; also : the complex so formed

A Synthesist is a person who embodies these characteristics. He (I’m going to use the male pronoun for simplicity) takes disparate bits of information and weaves them to create something new. His role is to streamline and to simplify; to remove the cruft and clutter so that the end product is easily absorbable by the target human group.

The Synthesist’s role is to be a translator. He should be well versed in multiple communication standards so that he can receive the broadest possible range of inputs so that his output reflects a broad spectrum of human experience. He makes it possible for an outsider to connect with ever more fracturing cultures. He can talk the language of the Client and the Audience. He bridges multiple cultures (here I’m referring to culture in a broad sense, ie the culture of web designers, or the culture of particle physicists, or the culture of indy rock) and is able to see the links between them (even if he doesn’t consciously know it).

The Synthesist often acts at pre-conscious levels. He collects stimuli and data, constantly picking up waves of culture and society. This becomes the resource from which he creates his work. He feels when something is done just right. He knows without necessarily knowing how he knows. People in creative roles are well suited to this, as we’re often trained to work with our unconscious minds via techniques like brainstorming, priming, going with our gut, following our instincts, etc.

Synthesists are generally not the people doing cutting edge work. A Synthesist needs to be a generalist in order to fulfill his role. He needs to have a 50,000 foot view of culture. He can be immersed in various aspects of it – he needs to be in order to function. But his specialty is the bigger picture, not the nuts and bolts.

This has caused me no end of personal suffering. I’ve always longed to be the best at something. I’m quite good at a lot of different things, but I’ve lacked the genetic talent to be the best. Until I recently realized my role as a Synthesist. From a practical day to day standpoint, I have no idea what this means at this point.

Ultimately, a Synthesist’s job is to just be. He’s to follow his interest until he’s called on to act. That calling can be external (a client, an opportunity) or internal (a sudden need to do something). He’s to hone his abilities to input culture and learn how to read his own mind for cues from his unconscious brain – to make the unconscious conscious.

Being a Synthesist isn’t a paying job. Not directly. Synthesists tend to find themselves at the crossroads of cultures. They are designers, architects, writers, artists, journalists, bloggers… The Synthesist is an extremely important role at this point in our history. He’s the 97th monkey. He is a bellwether. His role in society is to act as a gateway to change. He is a signpost and a map maker.

And with that, I think I’ll get back to work!

5 thoughts on “The Synthesist”

  1. Hey Peter! That’s very close to what I’m thinking also. Some other terms I’ve heard are “creative generalist” and “experience design”…these all play into it. But none of them feel quite right. You might also find Barbara Sher’s writing on “Scanners” interesting as well.

    There’s something you said that really resonated: the desire to be the BEST at something. I think the unspoken assumption here is that this is something demonstrable or tangible. The whole “printable ceo” thing I did was in recognition that the world largely operates on “if I see it, I can do something about it”. For people like (I suspect) us, we’re also very interested in the unseen connections between things, relationships, connections, and so forth. As a friend of mine once described it, the space between things is often just as interesting, if not more, than the things themselves. This is not a common world view.

    Our curse may be that we like BOTH way too much, but are tied into the values of the majority opinion: things you can show matter most. Insight and synthesis are just stepping stones to getting something tangible done in real-world terms, but our identity lies in the “pre-tangible” phase of architectural idea-generation. If that makes sense.

    We need to form a club :-)

  2. Okay, guys, time to lighten this up. Where’s Malcolm Gladwell when you need him? This sounds like a fourth type of personality: Mavens, Connectors, Salesmen and Synthesists.

    Peter, it’s funny that you noticed Dave’s post – I was struck by it also. Dave: it caught my eye because I was completely sympathetic to you being thrust (once again) into the seat of sys admin. I laughed because the same thing recently happened to me. A client that I love working for, that I was working with simply to counsel and direct towards standards compliance with their sites, had a huge need for new servers, etc. and I kind of unwittingly got sucked into the vortex! And for some bizarre reason – like you – I began enjoying it. Next thing I know, I’m installing Security Certificates and using words like “kernel”.

    Now, the reason that I’m posting this here rather than at your place is simply this: Dr. Flaschner has identified my condition: I’m a Synthesist!

    I don’t think it’s curable – and I wouldn’t want it any other way. Keep stirrin’ it up, boys – great reads on both sites.

    I’ve got to get back to work. cPanel needs an upgrade.

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